"So it's the old Spirit?" That's Jake E. Lee's reply when I tell him Brick by Brick was once the Spirit Club of old. "When they told me we'd be playing in San Diego," he says by phone from his home in Las Vegas, "the name of the place didn't ring a bell. But the Spirit? I played there a bunch of times in the ’70s. 1978 was when I turned 21. Then I moved to L.A. in 1980." How long has he lived in Vegas? "Ten years now."
Los Angeles was a fortuitous move for the 23-year-old hard-rock guitarist from Imperial Beach, whose previous experience included Teaser, popular enough to become the house band at Straita Head Sound in La Mesa, and Child, a long-defunct San Diego hard-rock band that has been emanating rumblings for the past year that sound more or less like a reunion may be forthcoming. For one, singer Rick Reed's Child contributions are slated for re-release on an indie Orange County label next year. "He was such a great singer," Lee says. He still is, I say. "I'd LOVE to hear those guys again," Lee says. "Man, I wanna hear them play Backstabber."
Lee's trajectory from the hard rock clubs in San Diego led to the same in L.A. His first break came from Ronnie Jame's Dio's wife. She managed a club band called Rough Cutt and hired Lee to take over lead guitar. Then, Ronnie hired him away to do same in a band he was starting called Dio; another San Diegan, Craig Goldy, replaced him in Rough Cutt/Dio. Meanwhile, Ozzy Osbourne's miracle guitarist, a diminutive man named Randy Rhoads died suddenly. Jake E. Lee was invited to audition for a slot that rock critics said no man could ever fill. But that he did, and, he did it for the next five years.
"Our first gig was in Europe, I think. We opened for a band called Whitesnake. Opened," he says, putting some weight on the word. "I'm thinking we're the opening act? Am I working for the wrong Ozzy or something?" Osbourne had not yet achieved the solo fame that Bark at the Moon (Lee and bassist Bob Daisley wrote the music and most of the lyrics; Oz took all the credit) would bring in the states and on the rest of the Planet Earth, for that matter.
"The first guy I met that day was Jon Lord. He was, like, the keyboard player for Deep Purple. And he looked at me, and all he said was this — save your money." Did he? Lee chuckles a little. "No."
Now, after a silence of close to two decades, Jake E. Lee is back on the road, beginning in December for a limited tour with the big hair-ish Red Dragon Cartel. "I really hadn't made any plans on doing that. I'm pretty happy in my retirement. I had a good career going (no, he does not work as a mechanic as some have insisted) and when my name became less of a household word, I just bowed out gracefully."
It was a cameo appearance, with guitar, in a Beggars and Thieves video that sparked some comeback interest. "Ron [Mancuso] showed me all the response when they posted the video on YouTube. He said, 'Look, a lot of people want to know if you're gonna do anything again.' I said, 'Maybe. I don't know.'" Even though Lee was off the big stage he still wrote music. "I had years of stuff stored on my computer, everything from licks to entire songs. Ron and I started writing together to see how it'd go, and we finished a tune." They decided to record it. "I said, 'Who is gonna sing?'"
Robin Zander from Cheap Trick was the answer.
"And [Cheap Trick's] Tom Petersson played bass."
At some point, Lee and Mancuso figured out that they were in the process of making an entire album, not just recording a single for the hell of it. "We tried to get Brian Ferry and David Bowie to sing some of the songs, but we couldn't track them down. So I said that we'd need to get an actual singer if we were ever going to play shows." Playing shows, Lee says, is his favorite thing to do. But the days of big arena ham surely must have been hard to back down from, I say.
"Everything changed. The first Badlands [a short-lived band Lee formed after Ozzy] record budget was a quarter million dollars," he says, "and we went over that! Now, that kind of money sounds ludicrous. Things really changed around 1990."
1991, to be exact: that was the year that saw both Pearl Jam and Nirvana release chart-busting CDs. The era of big hair rock was officially over. Even Van Halen had trouble finding work for a while; David Lee Roth is said to have gotten trained as a paramedic in New York. Ozzy got a reality TV show, and Lee went back into his hobby of muscle cars, an affection that dates back to childhood in Imperial Beach.
"I'm 56 now. When I was 12, that was the glory time for muscle cars. To be able to buy some later in life was cool." Agreed: he tells me about his '67 Corvette with a 427 stuffed under the hood. I tell him about my '64 Fairlane with a stock 429 power plant. "You still have that?" No, I say. I sold it, a decision I have regretted for about 30 years. "I buy little Matchbox toy replicas of all the cars I've ever had and sold," he says. "It kind of takes the sting out of having sold them. But not always."
Any long range plans for the Red Dragon Cartel or guitar shredding in general? No, he says. "Believe it or not, I've never wanted to be in the spotlight." He almost says this in an apologetic tone, as if it might offend someone. "I don't know how it's going to go in America. The vast majority of people aren't into musicians over 40, especially if they haven't been around for 15 years."