Last week marked the 30th anniversary of my Vinnie Vincent Invasion audition. And since I’m on my annual “writer’s retreat” at the moment, firmly in the headspace of writing, I figured I would do a little stream-of-consciousness riffing about that whole crazy, magical, and dare I say, “destined,” audition experience.
Tuesday, October 1st, 1985, SIR Studios on Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood. There are so many things I remember – with great detail and clarity – about that day, and even about the months leading up to it. Frankly, it’s hard to believe three full decades have since trickled through the hourglass.
Motels, Vans and Cover Bands
As a matter of context, consider where I was at the time, what I was up to, and how unlikely it was for me to even get a shot at the gig. I had spent most of that year on the road with a band called “Diamond Romeo,” zig-zagging all over the South and Midwest, playing club shows almost every night for $150 a week. Band and crew toured around in an oversized van and a huge truck packed with gear. We played nearly four hours a night on hot, smoky stages, and I slept on the floor of a motel room I shared with three other band guys, living off of peanut butter sandwiches and soup that I heated up on a hot plate. It was a pretty strenuous gig. I was playing full-out through sets of all hard rock covers, and my nightly drum solo was always well over 10 minutes (as it provided our singer with a well-needed mid-set break). But, my chops were up, up, up, and I felt like I was playing better than ever.
Although the band was perpetually on the road, I would soon realize that there wasn’t much room for advancement beyond the cover circuit we were on. And I noticed that a few of our fellow club circuit bands had been routing themselves all the way west to LA, where the real shit was going down. I knew the west coast was my destiny, but I had no clue how to get there or what to do once I did, since I figured I would be going out there as a drummer for hire.
So… I decided to reach out to a few of my colleagues who had actually been there and see if I could get a clue. First call – Joey C. Jones, front man for a band called Sweet Savage; one of the top-drawing bands on the circuit. I had heard that Sweet Savage had just been in LA recording an EP with this bassist, producer guy named Dana Strum, who was also connected to guitarist Vinnie Vincent. I was also aware that Vinnie – who had left Kiss a year or two prior – was putting a new band together and had everyone dialed in but the drummer. Man… that was it! That would be the perfect gig for me. But how in the fuck does this 22-year old kid from Houston get a shot at that? Certainly Vinnie would have a line of LA guys ready to pounce, wouldn’t he?
Nonetheless, Joey was super cool. He told me the ins-and-outs of the LA scene and gave me a few phone numbers… including Dana Strum’s. So a bit later that afternoon, with my heart beating in my throat, I called Dana’s number and got his answering machine. I wound up leaving a bold and rambling message, which, in retrospect, must’ve sounded pretty ridiculous. But it was just ridiculous enough to get his attention,
I found out later that Vinnie and Dana were actually grabbing lunch together at the Hamburger Hamlet next to the Chrysalis Records building off of Sunset at the exact time Dana went to the restaurant payphone to check his messages. Clearly amused by my rather confident pleadings, he went back to the table and had this now infamous exchange with Vinnie:
“Hey, I just found our new drummer,” Dana said jokingly. ” He just left me a message. Some kid named Bobby Rock from Texas. Says he’s ready to drive out here and audition.”
“Fuck ’em,” said Vinnie.
“No, no… I think we should give him a shot. I mean, how fucking funny would it be to have this kid drive all the way here just to bomb out at an audition, and then have to drive all the way back home?”
“True,” said Vinnie. And they both had a good chuckle.
A day or two later, Dana did return the call, and I further made my case for an audition. By the end of the conversation, he basically said, “Okay, we’ll give you a shot. I’ll be back in touch when we lock down an audition time.” I thanked him profusely and told him to let me know when to drive out to LA. I had already decided that I wanted to use my own drums for the audition, so flying there wasn’t going to be an option.
Hurry Up and Wait
I wish I could say the audition was immediately forthcoming… but it wasn’t. It was at least six agonizing weeks later, after various delays, and it felt like six months. I was basically in limbo, off the road and living back with my parents at the house I grew up in, with no money, and no other choice but to wait around for the phone to ring.
When the call finally came – at around 1:00 AM central time, with my mom answering the call out of a deep sleep! – I was handed the phone and Dana told me that the first round of the process would involve 10-minute screening auditions, where each guy comes in and plays by himself, for the band guys, but minus any jamming with the band. If you passed that step, then you go to step two and actually get to play with the band. So basically, I would be driving 1500 miles on fumes, with no guarantee of anything beyond those initial 10 minutes. Plus, to even get to LA, I had to borrow money from my parents and sister for food and gas.
I hugged my parents and left early on a Sunday morning. It was just me and my chocolate brown ’79 Ford Econoline van, packed with a road-worn set of chrome Pearls. I would take the good ol’ I-10 all the way across the country.
I remember pulling into a rest area somewhere near the Texas/New Mexico border late that night, walking back from the pisser – fall chill in the air, and that desert black sky with its explosion of stars – then climbing into the back of the van, pulling a pillow out of one my bass drums, grabbing a blanket, then clearing just enough room to stretch out on the floor between the various road cases.
That whole scene is still vivid in my mind: I was trying to fall asleep, anxious about the audition, and a little paranoid about my current surroundings. I remember the constant surging of headlights though the rear window of the van, casting moving shapes of shadow and light all around me; cars, trucks, and earth-rumbling 18-wheelers coming and going all night; crunchy gravel footsteps outside the van’s sliding side door, fading into concrete shuffles; and the recurring chorus of muffled voices, near and far. It was hard to sleep, even though I was deep-fried and delirious from a long day of driving.
But then, there was this other feeling that would elbow out all that anxiety… a deep sense of knowing, in the pit of my gut. Even though I may have been sleeping with my drums, in the back of a beat-up van in a glorified parking lot, and living on borrowed money, I just had a feeling. And at the risk of overdramatizing the moment here, I distinctly remember finally dozing off that night, wrapped in a weathered green blanket, feeling a sense of blissful isolation from my immediate surroundings… immersed in a sense of deep connectedness to some inevitable destiny on the west coast that I was on an absolute collision course to hit. I can’t fully explain it, and I didn’t know it at the time, but as it would turn out, that audition would be one of the truly most destined moments I had ever experienced.
Approaching the Moment
As I got back on the road in the AM and the miles were clicking by, this feeling of exhilaration grew. I mean, I was still super nervous about the audition… let me be clear about that. But this other empowered feeling kept drifting in and taking over. In fact, I remember filling up my van with gas along the way and some guy – assuming I was a musician by my appearance – asked who I played for.
“Vinnie Vincent,” I said.
“The guy from Kiss?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Cool!” he said.
I smiled to myself as I climbed back in the van a few moments later. Damn! Already telling motherfuckers you’ve got the gig? Man… you better deliver some serious shit tomorrow, fool!
One other fortuitous thing happened en route that’s worth mentioning: Somewhere in Arizona later that morning, I saw two Mexican guys in their twenties, stranded on the side of the road, in the middle of nowheresville. I pulled over to help. They spoke very broken English, but somehow conveyed that they were trying to get to the next exit, some 30 miles away. I said I would take them. They both jumped in the back of the van, even though the passenger seat would’ve been available for one of them, and I had a split second of thinking this might not have been a good idea. But then… that feeling was there. Destiny. I was supposed to bail these guys out. And in helping them reach their destined location that day, I somehow would karmically ensure that I would reach my (more metaphorical) destined location in LA the next day. Granted, I’m sure I was caught up in all kinds of mental and spiritual grandiosity-of-the-moment kind of shit… but it all seemed to feed the fire.
I had arranged to crash at my boy Tim Young’s apartment in LA. He was my old college roommate and a great friend, and he also offered to go to the audition as my drum tech and help me get the kit set up. The evening of my arrival, we drove the short distance from his place – near the corner of La Brea and Melrose – to the audition site at SIR. We just wanted to stake it out and know where we were going to be headed the next afternoon. It was quite a feat to get any sleep on his couch that night. I was amped up from fear and excitement.
Destiny: VVI – The Audition
We pulled up to SIR the next afternoon and saw all the makings of a typical cattle call audition. There was a herd of long-haired rock drummers, all standing in a line next to their stacked drum kits, waiting to go in, set up, and do their best for this token “screening” audition. When it was my turn, Tim Young walked in first holding a stack of toms, and they all looked a little perplexed. “This fucking waiter-looking guy is Bobby Rock from Texas?” But there was immediate relief when I walked in behind him, and they saw he was just my “lowly” tech!
So I met the guys and we had a little small talk. There he was: Vinnie Vincent. Rock star at large, long black hair, eyeliner kickin’, and tight pants tucked inside leather boots. I also met singer Robert Fleischman and, of course, Dana Strum, my “point person.” Everyone was cordial, but reserved. I got the impression that they had been there awhile and had probably already had enough drumming madness for one day.
Once I get seated behind the kit and ready to go, the three of them took a seat on a couch that was set up about 15 or 20 feet in front of the drums, directly in my line of fire. Vinnie said something like, “Just play a basic rock groove like you would if we were jamming in an arena some place.”
So I kicked into a simple AC/DC-type beat, making sure I was hitting hard and it was groovin’. I remember the drums sounded full and ambient in the room, and although I had been fairly nervous just before go-time, I immediately felt at home there, so the shit was flowing pretty good.
They all seemed receptive to what I was playing… heads lightly bobbing, looks of interest and perhaps even pleasant surprise. So I started mixing it up a bit, throwing in a little funky syncopation, and letting a few more adventurous multi-tom and double-bass riffs fly. This definitely caught their attention as smiles broke across their faces, and I noticed a few head-nodding glances toward each other.
At this point, ten minutes had come and gone, and we were now stepping into a bizarre, almost drum clinic-like atmosphere, where I started throwing all kinds of crazy shit at them. Now they were really lit up… well, mainly Vinnie and Robert. I think Dana appreciated the musicianship but, ever the pragmatic one, was probably questioning the relevance of a lot of this kind of playing beyond a nightly drum solo.
But it was too late. We were now 20-plus minutes into it, and I was breaking out the serious Latin-influenced 4-way independence stuff… which was even less common three decades ago. They seemed to go nuts over this.
30 minutes and counting.
I was on a proverbial roll. I felt like I could play anything. They even started playing a little “stump the drummer,” requesting that I play certain tricky things… mainly for their amusement, it seemed.
“I noticed you can play those fast 32nd-note rolls going down the toms from high to low,” Robert said. “But can you go in the opposite direction, from low to high?”
Ever the Billy Cobham fanatic, of course I could. So I did… fast and hard. (This type of up-and-down the toms riffing would actually wind up on the record at the end of a crazy tune called “Twisted.”) They all just shook their heads and laughed.
Then Vinnie requested a variation of something that required a fair bit of ambidexterity. Fortunately, it was the kind of thing I practiced for hours and hours in a Berklee College of Music practice room several years prior, so I could do it, and I did… exaggerating the shit, making it even more polyrhythmic. Again… smiles, raised eyebrows, head-shaking. It was like I was a machine. (But really, I suppose I was just lucky that I could oblige every request!)
40 minutes and counting.
Finally, Vinnie asked me to finish up with a drum solo. I remember thinking (but obviously not saying), Holmes, what the fuck do you think I’ve been doing the past 40 minutes? But I realized he was just curious to hear what my trip might look like in the context of a more traditional solo spot. So I launched into a final four or five-minute solo with the most bombastic ending I could manage, and they all stood up and applauded. It was quite a moment.
Afterward, the vibe was all positive, and we chatted for a few. I remember Vinnie being surprised about my age, and very complimentary about my playing. Dana was basically, “Great job. We’ll be calling you tomorrow.” Robert was a bit more forthright about my status, as he saw it. I’ll never forget what he said:
“Unless someone walks in here with three arms, you’ve got the gig!”
Another thing I recall is when they opened the studio door to continue with the auditions, all but one of the other guys had split. (My friend Tim said that as the audition dragged on and the playing got crazier, guys started packing up their gear and bailing.) And as I was talking to Robert and the final guy walked in – looking like he was on his way to a top 40 gig at the Holiday Inn – I couldn’t help but think he wasn’t going to be a good fit here. Nor did Robert.
“Stick around,” Robert said in a slightly hushed tone. “This shouldn’t take long.”
Ironically, for as much pinpoint detail as I remember about so much of this entire experience, I don’t actually recall the moment I was told I officially got the gig. I’m pretty sure it was either later that night or possibly the next day. But I do remember that there was no question about it. I was buzzing with elation and adrenaline all the way back to the apartment. It felt like I had just been hired on the spot, but they needed to go through the formality of discussing it among themselves, telling their manager, etc. But man…even all these years later, it’s hard to fully express the absolute exhilaration I felt from landing this gig. It was a sweet vindication from all the struggle, disillusionment, and uncertainty I had experienced in the biz up to that point.
Meet the Brass
Once I was locked in, it was decided that we would start recording the debut album in December, and that I would head back to Houston in the interim. But first, they wanted me to tag along to a meeting with the Chrysalis Records brass. No big agenda, as I recall, just an “appearance” at the label with the official line-up intact, now that I had been brought into the fold. Vinnie had been signed for awhile, but it was time to show the suits that the Vinnie Vincent Invasion was a real life entity, ready to shake up the scene.
A day or so later, I met Vinnie, Dana, and Robert over at Victoria Station in Universal City, then we all drove over to Chrysalis Records together. Back then, you dressed up for virtually every occasion, so we were looking like a rock band as we all peacocked our way through the reception area and into the office of Ron Fair, an up-and-coming Chrysalis exec. (Yes, that Ron Fair; the A&R man, producer, and songwriter who would go on to a huge career with Christina Aguilera, the Black Eyed Peas, and a host of others. Strange that he would be the first real industry player I would meet.)
Ten minutes into the meeting, Ron said, “Chris Wright is in today. Maybe you guys should say hello.” He then picked up the phone, talked to a secretary, then said, “Yes, he’ll see you now.” And just like that, we were stepping into the office of the man who discovered Jethro Tull and co-founded Chrysalis Records nearly 20 years prior.
He stood from behind his desk as we each stepped up for a handshake. ‘…and this is our drummer, Bobby Rock.”
“Hello, Bobby… nice to meet you,” he said in his distinguished English accent as we shook hands.
Then we all took our seats in front of his desk and had a casual powwow about the upcoming record and the year ahead, partnering up with Chrysalis for “global domination.” Vinnie did most of the talking. I just sat there quietly, trying to look as cool and unaffected as possible… like this was no big thing. But what I was really thinking was, What the fuck? Just a few days ago, I was sleeping with my drums in the back of my van, trying to stay warm at some ghetto fucking rest area, hoping my funds would hold out until I got to LA. Today, I’m hanging out with teased hair and eyeliner in a real record company meeting, at an office address off of Sunset Blvd. that I used to see on the back of my Jethro Tull and UFO albums, sitting across from one of the most powerful execs in the biz. This is fucking insane!
And these are the extremes we live with in this crazy biz. It truly can go one way or the other, overnight.
After the meeting, we all went next door and had dinner at the very same Hamburger Hamlet where Dana had first picked up my voice message some six or eight weeks before. We had gone full circle, you might say. But at this point, I still had not heard any music… not even the demo that got Vinnie signed. So before heading out of town the next day, I connected with Dana and he gave me a cassette of some of the stuff I was to learn for the record. Wow. Those early demos were spectacular. I heard “Boyz Are Gonna Rock,” Shoot You Full Of Love,” and “No Substitute,” back to back, just as Chrysalis first heard ’em, and just like they would eventually appear on the album. The shit was slammin’, and now I was even more fired up. This thing is going to be huge, I thought, as I cranked up the tape in my van and cruised back onto the ol’ I-10, headed east to Houston.
Indeed, we did have a pretty good run. The record would come out roughly nine months after we started it, and the band would hit the road with Alice Cooper, and then Iron Maiden, on two separate tours. The record would eventually be marketed as “the fastest-selling debut in the history of Chrysalis Records” and we would shoot a video, do a bunch of press, make a lot of noise, and enjoy a healthy buzz in the industry. However, Robert Fleischman would not remain in the band. Once the recording was done and we did the initial album cover photo shoot, things didn’t work out with Robert (business stuff between him, Vinnie, Vinnie’s manager, perhaps the label… I never knew exactly what). So Mark Slaughter was hired in late summer of ’86 to step in and take over front man duties.
As for the making of the first VVI record starting in December of ’85, that would turn out to be one of the most agonizing experiences of my entire career. But that, my friends, is a whole other story…