“Play one more song!” Curtis is red in the face, shouting himself hoarse. “You rock! It huuuurts!” Standing to Curtis’ left in the front row, his pal Brian raises a meaty fist in solidarity, and the band — a tight, bloozy four-piece from Oklahoma City called 36 Inches — launches into its showstopper, “Hound Dog Gonna Eat That Pussy.” Curtis and Brian convulse with gratitude. Someone in the crowd yells, “Cocaine!” It is 9:45 in the morning.
Thirty hours into the inaugural Rocklahoma festival, the fact that a hundred or so people would battle hangovers and common sense to come watch ’80s-style cock rock in rural Oklahoma at a time when they could be home watching cartoons somehow isn’t that shocking. Given the enormity of the event — four days, 100,000 tickets sold, 38 bands — and the genuine devotion these fans and artists feel to a musical genre long since relegated to dinosaur status, it’s surprising more people haven’t stirred from their campsites yet. Many of the bands here this weekend have been temporarily rescued from dormancy or the state-fair/exurban-nightclub circuit. And as they gather en masse for the first time in nearly two decades (and perhaps ever on this scale) for a bona fide big-ticket event, there’s a palpable buzz of excitement backstage as well.
The lineup is a pupu platter of mid-’80s commercial hard rock — hair metal was once a term of derision, but has now been adopted by those it was intended to insult, sorta like queer — ranging from the clean-cut Slaughter to the grimier Faster Pussycat. (Only Queensrÿche, a last-minute replacement for W.A.S.P., dip their steel-toes into prog waters.) For every Poison and Twisted Sister, there are a half-dozen Bang Tangos and BulletBoys — bands that never quite hit big but are here to reaffirm their place in the lineage, or to see old friends, or to pick up a paycheck, or to feel like a rock star for the first time in a long time.
Kurt Cobain never happened. AIDS never happened. Political correctness never happened. Rehab never happened. The years 1991 to 2006 were all just some crazy dream, and the pop landscape is still dominated by chiseled glam-thugs with dubious spelling habits, delivering loud, trashy odes to sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, roughly in that order. In this muddy field a few miles outside Pryor (a town that even one of its own citizens tells us is best known for its meth), it’s hard to argue against the possibility of a rupture in the space-time continuum. We have traveled here from in a mechanically suspect 35-foot Thor Residency RV that, like nearly all the bands we’re here to see, was built for sheer enjoyment and is maybe 15 years past its prime.
“I been wasted since yestuhday,” John says, convincingly. It’s only Friday morning, but he and Adam, two 19-year-olds from Long Island, can’t walk 12 feet through the festival grounds without someone taking their picture. They both wear impossibly tight black jeans with bandolier belts and handcuffs; Adam wears a Ratt bandanna around his long, straight hair, while John sports a meticulously layered poodle cut. Adam had a little trouble going through airport security because he doesn’t have a key for the padlock hanging around his neck, and the pair wouldn’t have even known about Rocklahoma if not for a stroke of good luck.
“I was busted for a DUI,” Adam says, “and I was wearing my Hanoi Rocks shirt. The cop axed me if I knew about this big show in Oklahoma.” He did not; Adam collected his best friend John and his older brother Joe, as well as every penny they could scrape together, to come out here. “Best arrest evuh.”
They never expected they’d stand out in the crowd at a metal show by looking precisely like kids who’d be in the crowd at a metal show, but they’re dealing with the attention nicely, trading photo ops for flashes of tit. If this music is showing signs of coming back into acceptance (if not quite into vogue), the accompanying fashion is lagging way behind, with most other fans here adopting the less era-specific uniform of baggy shorts and painful-looking sunburn. By Saturday, the guys will be on the front page of the local paper, the poster children for the event. Gawkers ask if they’re in a band, and of course they are: White Lightning.
I ask John if he thinks power ballads are for wusses. “No way,” he says as three sundress-clad girls from Wisconsin stop by and kiss both guys on the cheek. “You can’t just have fast songs all the time. And the words are fuckin’ deep. The best for romance and shit like that is, obviously, ‘Love of a Lifetime,’ by Firehouse.” So, does White Lightning have a ballad yet?
“Sorta,” he says bashfully. “I started writing one. But I want it to be perfect.”
The letters R-A-T-T are spelled out on the kitchen counter in black gaffer’s tape. The fridge isn’t working, so three and a half cases of piping hot beer are piled uselessly next to the sink while the “Just Chillin’?” Styrofoam cooler leaks melted ice all over the carpet. Our breakfast consists of salami and cheddar cheese, hacked to pieces with blunt scissors. We have already listened to “Kickstart My Heart” four times this morning.
Thanks to relentless rain earlier in the week, even the most unforgiving sun can’t keep the campgrounds and festival site from being fetid and swampy. Trucks and buses (called “Jolly Trollies”) help transport people to the stage, while a makeshift general store, the Party Pantry, sells ice, beer, and other necessities. There are showers adjacent as well, but hygiene seems to be a lost cause, so I resign myself to never seeing the inside of one while I’m here.
In the backstage common area, cartoonishly top-heavy stripper types wearing nanoskirts and stilettos teeter precariously on the gravel and mud. The only refuge from the heat is the well-stocked beer tent, lorded over most hours by Iggie Pistolero and Lee J Pistolero of the Gypsy Pistoleros. Not only are they the only British band on the bill, they are the only Spanglish-singing flamenco-glam-metal band on the bill, and they are, as they will endeavor to prove over the next three nights, the drunkest humans on the bill. Iggie looks like a cross between David Johansen, Steven Tyler, and a piece of beef jerky, while Lee has jet black hair, perpetually bloodshot eyes, and a tattoo of the Pistoleros logo on his chest. It is entirely possible that neither man even packed a shirt for this first trip to the U.S. with the band. Rounding out the lineup are a bassist and drummer half their age.
“We’ve been noticing a lot of mother-daughter groupie teams lately,” Iggie says, then gestures to his younger bandmates. “We give them the mothers, and Lee and I take the daughters.” The rhythm section shrugs: What can you do? Iggie says his hand is cramping from flashing devil horns.
I was half expecting it to be tense backstage, with old rivals staring each other down for the first time in decades over troughs of pulled pork, grudges still festering. “Nah,” says a smiling Tracii Guns, 41, original guitarist for Sunset Strip staples L.A. Guns (and, for that matter, Guns N’ Roses). “Back in the ’80s, the only real rivalry was when we’d all watch MTV and go, ‘God, that guy looks like a fag.’ Although there is one guy who’s coming who used to manage a lot of bands, and he’s absolutely not allowed near anybody.”
An early Friday afternoon set in 100-degree heat may not be most bands’ idea of a reward. But Dirty Penny, from the unlikely glam-metal breeding ground of Santa Cruz, California, aren’t complaining. They won this slot in a online competition, and they’re doing their best to divert the crowd’s attention away from the merch booths. Their names are Binge, Jonny, Spanky, and Tyno, and they write songs called “Hot & Heavy” and “Sleeze Disease (Acoustic).” And if their gloriously stoopid party anthems weren’t reminiscent enough of them, these guys — all aged 24 or 25 — look exactly like Mötley Crüe circa 1985, had Mötley Crüe’s most voraciously abused substance been wheatgrass.
Originally a Poison cover band called — wait for it — Antidote, they were forced to change their name earlier this year by a Dutch band also called Antidote. But Dirty Penny’s better, anyway; it’s slang for a girl’s asshole. “We were into old-school punk, like the Misfits, when we first got into music, then got into glam as a fuck-you to our hometown,” bassist Tyno says backstage later in the day. The sun is mercifully starting to dip, and some of his bandmates are hotboxing in a van with Swedish metal upstarts (and signees to Bam Margera’s label, Filthy Note) Vains of Jenna. “But punk’s got a lot of rules, and that’s not very punk. Rock’n’roll doesn’t have any rules — everybody can do drugs or not do drugs or dress however they want.”
Now that their debut album, Take It Sleezy, is finished, they will probably move to Los Angeles and hope that their hunch about the rise of a new glam-metal scene pans out. “A lot of people are tired of the screamo/I’m-not-okay thing,” Tyno says. “It’s like, everyone’s not okay, you know? Forget about it. Have fun. That’s what you do with music — you forget about your shit.”
“Who remembers 1983?!”
The crowd lets out an appreciative roar, but Quiet Riot’s Kevin DuBrow isn’t convinced.
“You’re all a bunch of fucking liars,” he says, working the Friday night stage like someone who’s been doing this for, say, 30 years. “I don’t even remember 1983. If it was 1983, this place would be called Cokelahoma!” Now, that’s stage banter, and the fans, most of whom appear to be New Year’s Eve-drunk, hoot approvingly. Slightly less successful is drummer Frankie Banali, the band’s only other holdover from the Metal Health heyday, who baits the crowd with: “Rocklahoma! How the fuck are you?” After a response approximating, “Fine, thanks for asking,” Banali scolds, “I fuck louder than that!” I then spend far too long puzzling over whether it’s a good thing to fuck louder than 35,000 shitfaced metal fans. I feel like maybe it’s not.
DuBrow’s point, however, is salient. This music is synonymous with a certain libertine spirit that seems almost quaint now; this was a time when Ratt’s and Twisted Sister’s ham-fisted double entendres and bethonged cover models scared Congress into deeming them scourges of society and corrupters of our nation’s youth. Those old enough to remember that heedlessness — contrived though it may have been — cherish it, while those too young idealize it.
“You’ve gotta give it up for the ’80s,” Tracii Guns tells me. “It was a fun, fun time, and right now, especially in the U.S., it’s not a fun time.”
And this is hardly an American phenomenon. A crew of ten twentysomething guys have come from Melbourne, Australia, just for Rocklahoma. “I always said, if Ratt reunited, I’d go anywhere in the world to see them,” says cowboy-hatted Jules. After Rocklahoma, they’re going to Chicago to see Britny Fox, which is patently different from going to see Britny Fox while in Chicago.
Later that night, as newly reinstated lead singer Stephen Pearcy introduces the members of Ratt before closing with “Round and Round,” a few things come to mind. One, when did bassist Juan Croucier leave Ratt? Two, how the fuck did I remember that Juan Croucier was the bassist in Ratt? And three, will fists fly if current Ratt guitarist John Corabi bumps into Saturday headliner Vince Neil, the man he replaced in Mötley Crüe in 1992? (“Nah,” Neil assures me the next day. “We’re good friends. We all share.”)
If there’s any question who the big swinging dicks are at this festival, it’s answered once Poison’s four tour buses roll backstage, complete with police escort. If this motorcade is meant as a middle finger to the bands who considered them lesser lights back in the day, it’s perhaps an earned one — Poison have toured almost constantly over the past 21 years, maintaining their fan base as record sales plunged and their peers disappeared altogether. “We’re the Grateful Dead of hard rock,” lead singer Bret Michaels boasts to me after the festival.
If only the Dead had thought to utilize as much pyro as Poison. Every arena-rock trapping is thrown into the mix during their show: C.C. DeVille’s mini-set of solos. Drum wankery on a hydraulic rig that pushes Rikki Rockett’s kit 18 inches higher and six feet forward from its original perch. Multiple costume changes. Flash pots. There’s also a return to what the Pennsylvania-bred Michaels calls his “Southern-rock roots”: a cover of the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See.” Uniformed Marines and National Guardsmen are herded onstage to sway their hands during “Something to Believe In,” but it’s Poison’s other ballad that gives pause: During “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” the crowd, maybe 40,000 strong, waves lighters. Not cell phones. Lighters.
By 4 A.M., we’re back in the campground watching an ad hoc jam session outside an RV near our own. Someone yells, “Play some Nugent!” and the guitarist complies with a shambling “Cat Scratch Fever.” A crazy-eyed rawker from Ohio named James demands Black Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave,” and he barks every word, stomping and flailing intensely. And then they play it again. Del and Robert, two of the Marines brought onstage during Poison’s set, pull up in a golf cart — they’ve spent the past three hours partying on Michaels’ bus and Robert is now “looking for a girl to serve her country.” The pickings are slim. He will rotate back to Iraq soon and can’t wait, but I don’t want to talk about the war. Not here and not now, anyway. With dawn approaching over the sovereign state of Rocklahoma, I just nod politely, in time with the drums.
By the end of the weekend, I may well be a member of L.A. Guns. No fewer than 31 people, Axl Rose among them, can claim to have been one since 1983, and there are two bands currently touring under that name. The one that’s playing Rocklahoma was called simply the Tracii Guns Band until a couple months ago, and features original vocalist Paul Black (1985–87), while the other features Phil Lewis, who fronted the band during its brief commercial heyday (“The Ballad of Jayne” — you’d know it if you heard it). Further complicating matters is the fact that the Tracii Guns version of L.A. Guns now features Faster Pussycat’s Chad Stewart on drums, and there have been two iterations of Faster Pussycat battling overuse of the name. The one playing Rocklahoma features original vocalist Taime Downe but not founding guitarist Brent Muscat, who announced he had cancer and then attempted, unsuccessfully, to form his own version last year without…Hey, where’d you go? In Faster Pussycat’s trailer after their set — cut short, sadly, before “Bathroom Wall” and “You’re So Vain,” due to one member’s compromised faculties — an agitated Downe slurs his way through a very long rant about the betrayal and legal hassles surrounding Muscat’s failed coup.
Way more entertaining is the casual, catty back-and-forth that results when you get a bunch of grizzled metal vets in the same place at the same time. Throughout the weekend, we hear dissertations on the following topics: the tenuous sobriety of deposed Guns N’ Roses drummer Steven Adler, to cameo during Bang Tango’s set (“How much drugs do you need to do to get kicked out of a band full of drug addicts?” asks Downe); the apocryphal coke-blown-up-Stevie Nicks’-ass story (“I had a girl do that to me once,” confesses Stewart, “just to see if she would”); David Lee Roth’s notorious, fabled blowjob closet at the Rainbow Bar & Grill (now retired); and the current state of hair plugs in hair metal (Don Dokken’s are awful, Kevin DuBrow’s make him look “like he has a Pekingese on his head,” and Great White’s Jack Russell’s are impressive).
Skid Row and Warrant both have newish lead singers replacing Sebastian Bach and Jani Lane, respectively. And it is no coincidence that these two, Johnny Solinger and Jamie St. James, look exactly like their predecessors from half a football field away. (Though he’s not performing, Lane wanders backstage on Sunday afternoon, posing for photos with cigarettes stuck up his nose and…well, no one seems quite sure what he’s doing there.) Warrant bores — the new guy can’t touch the high notes in “Cherry Pie” — but Skid Rowmake converts out of John and Adam. “Some people didn’t even know that wasn’t Sebastian Bach,” John says. “They don’t care. They’re still hearing the same music.” Meanwhile, Adam is distressed — someone just walked in on him puking in a port-a-potty. I offer him a stick of gum and a fresh beer.
Adam’s brother Joe is up front, waiting to watch Dokken with a girl from Dallas who just flashed us, and we hook the three guys up with backstage passes. Joe would rather stay and finish the work he’s started here, a safe distance from his sloppy brother. Adam holds the extra VIP sticker in his hand. A half a millimeter thick, it can’t fit in his back pocket. “Hang on,” the girl says to us. “I just showed you my tits and you’re bringing thembackstage?”
Vince Neil is underwhelming; even though he looks better than he has in a decade, he’s avoiding an all-Crüe set by padding it. This results in two Zeppelin covers, “Rock and Roll” and “Whole Lotta Love,” both of which fall flat. “Kickstart My Heart,” however, does not, and even though it’s the 18th time I’ve heard the song in the past two days, it feels like only the third. James from Ohio, front and center, goes off.
We decamp to Faster Pussycat’s trailer for refreshments, then to a party that Dirty Penny is playing in a tent deep within the VIP campground. After their set, the band scramble to clear their gear and man the merch table. The PA system starts playing a Poison mix tape, and the place goes apeshit: kids on benches and tables, pumping fists and shouting along. Lee from the Gypsy Pistoleros yells the words to “Fallen Angel.” At what point did the guys who wrote “Unskinny Bop” turn into the fucking Beatles?
As the sun comes up, we take a joyride in a golf cart that may not, technically speaking, be ours to joyride. Maybe Congress was right: Heavy metal does corrupt the nation’s youth.
I’m not just saying this because they’re sweet guys, quick with a war story and generous with their sundry party supplies: L.A. Guns put on the best rock show of any type I’ve seen in a long time. Not entertaining in an ironic way, not entertaining relative to the other bands here, but entertaining as in, This is what rock bands are supposed to do. The hour-plus set is an exercise in brand reestablishment as the vaguely cadaverous, heretofore withdrawn Paul Black leads the midday crowd through chants of the band’s — and his own — name. Then he leaps into the crowd. Twice.
Inviting fans to come onstage during a song may be hokey, but it’s thrilling when the Stooges and Arcade Fire do it, and it’s thrilling when L.A. Guns do it for “The Ballad of Jayne.” When a lead guitarist and a bassist, instruments slung low, legs far apart, rest their heads on one another’s shoulders, it’s a classic cock-rock pose. But when the bassist is the guitarist’s 24-year-old son, well, it’s more poignant a moment than any song called “Sex Action” has a right to provide. Black, who’s been dwelling on the outer fringes of the L.A. hard-rock scene since there was an L.A. hard-rock scene, has a thankful, almost beatific expression on his face when he steps behind the amps for a breather. By the time they close with “Never Enough,” the band is spent. Black tosses his hoop earrings into the crowd, and Tracii summons a photographer to snap the sweat-drenched band’s “wet shot.” Which, apparently, is an actual term.
The band doesn’t have long to savor the triumph. The aforementioned manager who is “not allowed near anybody” is, in fact, in the trailer directly next to L.A. Guns’. Not five minutes after finishing what had to be one of the most gratifying shows of a very long career, Tracii Guns is in a shoving match with this guy in a goatee and a Hawaiian shirt, who threatens to file assault charges and pull his band from the lineup. A roadie tells the manager to “stop being such a fucking pussy.”
“That motherfucker owes me money,” Tracii says.
“This is like a 20-year high-school reunion. But with drugs.” Perhaps no one has better perspective on all of this than the man who might be its biggest punch line.
“You’re gonna ask about Beavis and Butt-head, aren’t you?” Kip Winger says when I meet him. Despite the fact that he’s a classically trained musician who played bass with Alice Cooper, he will forever be known as the feathered-haired, high-cheekboned face of everything cheesy about hair metal. Explains longtime lead guitarist Reb Beach (also a current member of Whitesnake and Night Ranger): “We had a character devoted to us that they hung by his underwear in almost every episode.”
At 46, Winger looks like he still has a chance of fitting into the spandex pants from the “Seventeen” video and makes no apologies for his image. “The record took off, and then it was like, ‘What do we wear?’?” he says. “So we turn on MTV and decide to dress up like Whitesnake. When you’re a kid, you want to dress up like that, you want to lose yourself in fantasyland.”
And 20 years later, he’s scoring for symphonies, but that can’t compare with the old rush. “When you go onstage and people are screaming, there is nothing that will match the adrenaline of a metal show,” he says. “This is what it was every single night.”
After Twisted Sister’s Sunday night set, Rocklahoma closes, as all good music festivals should, with an oil wrestling competition. Most Rocklahomans have fled until next year — tickets are already available. Adam and John wind up drinking with Dirty Penny, helping to lube up the gladiatresses. It’s also the 25th birthday of Dirty Penny drummer Spanky Savage, and he seems to be having an okay time. (“Y&T walked in on me having sex with some girl,” he says of the San Francisco hard-rock vets.) But he doesn’t think Rocklahoma is merely an okay time. He’s seeing the start of something big, something he can be a part of. He opens his arms wide.
“This is history.”