Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Mike Femenella: “I just would like recognition for being good at something rather than just average."
The first thing Dino DeLuke does when I ask him about his heavy metal/alter-native hard rock band Sledd — after making sure that I know the band is in the studio recording a CD and is about to become famous — is to show me crinkled black-and-white photographs of Gene Krupa, the great jazz drummer, playing on what looks like a high school auditorium stage. Then Buddy Rich. Then his own father, Pete DeLuke Sr., playing sax on what looks like the same school stage with Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz greats whose names I recognize, if not their faces.
Pete DeLuke: “We were just animals, we couldn’t behave ourselves.”
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
His father played with Benny Goodman until 1963, Dino says, then quit performing life to have children and become musical director of the Hastings-on-the-Hudson school system. But he always had a jazz quartet that played in New York City at the Waldorf-Astoria (1979-1984) and the Rainbow Room (1977-1980).
In 1991 Nemesis won the San Diego Music Awards’ Nightclub Band of the Year.
Dino puts on his father’s recent CD, Mixed Bag, very tasteful variations on the Paganini Caprice in D, swung as if Benny, known for his classical aspirations, had swung it. “My old man and Stan Getz were really tight. And Mel Lewis. My old man and Mel Lewis swapped houses.”
Pete, Cary. Mike, Doug, Dino
He shows me the photos on the wall of his living room, pictures of him — long dark-brown hair, dark circles under his eyes, the beefy shoulders of his profession — with jimmy Page, an autographed photo of Kenny Loggins, photos of him with people he identifies as Carmine Appice (who played with Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, Ozzy Osbourne) and Carmine’s brother Vinny (Black Sabbath, et al).
Sledd. They tried Sled Dog, then Sled, then Mike added another d to make it a little more unusual.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Next to them, a publicity shot with a giant of a man embroidered with tattoos: Tom “Hammer” Longnecker, tattoo artist, sometime actor in horror movies, and a Hell’s Angel. He did Dino’s tattoo, which is remarkable. Most tattoos tend to fill in and get muddy, but this looks light and graceful yet detailed, almost a Leonardo sketch. “You can see the Yamaha fucking wingnuts on the cymbals, man. This is my drum set” (later I notice that in Sledd’s publicity photo, Dino is standing half-sideways, looking at the camera over his left shoulder — the one with the tattoo.)
Woody Barber: “The intro sounds killer now. Your double is perfect.”
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
That tattoo is almost touching; it could have been a skull with a spitting snake emerging from an eye socket, some image from the familiar demonology of tattoos, but instead Dino chose something personal, his own drum set, and not the world’s largest or most sophisticated drum set, but his own. I found myself thinking of the way he talked about his father.
The last photo is the biggest: the forecourt of a bar called the Mad House (formerly the Trojan Horse), now Etta’s Place, near the corner of University and College Avenue in the College Area. Thirty Harley-Davidsons are parked out front The marquee in the background includes the name Nemesis — the heavy metal/hard rock cover band out of which Sledd has emerged.
“That’s the party we threw for Hammer when he came out of jail. I raised money for donations for his legal fund.” Nemesis also played at the annual Hell’s Angels party back at the end of March 1997, Dino says. “One of the guys in the band thought he saw Peter Fonda there.”
Sledd consists of Dino and his brother Pete, who plays keyboards; Doug Johnston, the bass player, Mike Femenella, the lead guitarist; and Cary Rothman, the singer. Dino ticks the players off on his fingers. Pete’s working for a downtown criminal attorney. “They give him the cases nobody else can handle. Last month he was employee of the month. He has a degree in criminal justice from John jay College in New York and two years of law school.
“My guitar player, he’s like Steve Vai, Frank Zappa’s [former] lead guitarist. He can read flyshit on toilet paper. He’s special project manager for Phoenix Enterprises. He builds displays for Vons and Home Depot stores. He’s a master carpenter.”
“My singer is a stockbroker. Two years ago he was pumping gas at Union 76. He couldn’t get arrested. My cousin got him a job, trained him, now he’s making eight or nine grand a month.
“My bass player is the head of San Diego Zoo costume character department.” In other words, he’s in charge of costumed animals for special events.” Dino Is a sales rep for a paper company.
The phone rings. “What’s up, bitch?” It’s Mike, asking about golf. Dino, Mike, and Cary play whenever they can. “What can I say?” Dino shrugs. “I grew up as a middle-class kid. I’m accustomed to playing golf three times a week.”
Dino remembers seeing Dave Brubeck and his four sons coming to play at his dad’s school. A different light comes into his eyes when he talks of his dad or the musicians his dad knew and played with or this Brubeck moment — the father-and-sons combination, playing together, sounding good together. It’s a bright light but just a little less brash; it’s almost as if Dino can relax and glow with the memory rather than generating the wattage himself.
Defending the faith
Terry Bales, former lead singer of the San Diego metal band Circus of Tears and co-owner of the San Diego Recording Studio on Chesapeake Street in Kearny Mesa, is strongly built, though no longer as slim he might have been, and his long dark hair is bleached on top. He gives me a Circus of Tears T-shirt (black, of course, the clown’s face laughing maniacally) and jokes that it’s a kickback. He’s an enthusiastic man and talks with broad grins and gestures, reminding me of the clown on the T-shirt. He worked in studios in LA., he says, “until my ulcer pains got a little crazy,” and then came back to San Diego. Now he speaks as a historian of heavy metal, a defender of the faith.
I had always thought of heavy metal as a bonehead genre enacting the unsocialized fantasies of teenage boys—power chords, leather, the cartoon images of large-breasted warrior women in chains — and a threat to public health and safety; a dozen years ago, when I was still a music reviewer, I saw Twisted Sister and White Lion, who were so loud the noise pressed my contact lenses against my eyeballs. Terry is at pains to set me straight.
“Right after punk rock in the 70s came what they called the invasion of heavy metal, and it mostly came from Europe. The inception was probably Black Sabbath (in the early 70s). What heavy metal tends to have is an aggressive stance on life in general, and that can be aggressive in a positive way or aggressive in a negative way. It tends to be loud. It tends to be fast. Some bands are less fast, but it’s almost always loud! It’s a hard-core energy. A lot of the heavy metal bands were punk bands, so it’s got a lot of elements of punk rock in it, especially Circus of Tears where part of the band came from a punk rock group. The one thing that sets [heavy metal] apart [musically] is technical proficiency — whether it’s voice, drums guitar, or bass. Many times it’ll have a more classical edge, because technicality plays a large part in it.
“It’s all the same enduring qualities of music and musicians hack to Bach or Beethoven. Many times these people were outsiders trying to make points that weren’t really in vogue at the time.
“Heavy metal in the ’80s became like glam rock — makeup, big hair, a lot of stupid stuff. That’s not what it ever was. I mean, heavy metal’s been around since Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne. It’s never gone away. It’s just never been mainstream, so sometimes the media points out the mainstream things like Poison as heavy metal. It’s never been the case.
“The [’90s] grunge movement was a movement of people that lived in Seattle. If you’ve ever lived in Seattle, it rains all the time, so you tend to wear Pendleton jackets, stay at home, drink beer, and do bongs. So the bands look that way — like someone who stays in a lot, whose hair doesn’t necessarily get washed all the time. The band members show up in their Pendletons because it’s friggin’ cold in Seattle, especially in the winter—I happen to have lived there — so a lot of people stay in. This is San Diego. People are out. It’s sunny. Every day you might walk down to the 7-Eleven, whatever. So the grunge scene was born out of those closet band players.... But everything gets stale after a while. It’s cyclical.”
Terry talks about the heavy metal music world as if it were a family.
“We’re opening for Exodus, and then we’re opening for Flotsam and Jetsam, and what’s interesting is the bass player from Metallica is with Flotsam and jetsam, and Kirk Hammett, the guitar player from Metallica, is with Exodus. The guitar player from Megadeth was in Metallica. So it’s been kind of a core group in heavy metal for a long time, and to us that's what heavy metal is. It’s got a bad rap because it became a plastic, high-heeled, lipstick kind of thing, so we don’t have anything to do with that. The days of spandex are long gone and have been gone for years.”
The heavy rock bands in San Diego, in Terry’s eyes, form their own fraternity. “Cage, Slcdd, Trip the Planet, Violent Mood Swings, Circus of Tears — we’ve all become real good friends. When you have four, five, six groups then you have 30, 35 people happening. When it comes to distributing fliers, we all work together, we get the fliers out, we get tickets sold...” In particular he’s talking about Rock Carnival ’97, a show staged in July by Chainsaw Records at 4th and B. The poster advertised not only the bands but
Mr. and Ms. Rock San Diego Bikini Qmtests
Video Games Unlimited
Old Town Wild West Leather Shop
“The special-effects guy did a really good job on a very limited budget. There was, like, a 12-foot-around giant twisted clown head in the middle, with 3000 white lights that came up into a canopy — 4th and B’s a real big club—so there’s this canopy and this spinning clown’s head. The special-effects guy does a lot of Halloween stuff for Budweiser displays, so we had a lot of, like, Pirates of the Caribbean. One bar we renamed Dragon’s Lair Bar had a big eight-foot dragon that had glowing-red eyes and puffing smoke, and then inside there was a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, the scene where the skeleton’s sitting on the treasure chest full of treasure and stuff. Rock Carnival almost turned into a Halloween during the summer, actually. We had hair stylists and other people in there and tattoo artists and stuff; it changed the ambiance into, like, have fun! That’s the other thing that grunge did, it took out the creativity. You can’t paint in colors of grey and brown very often! So we brought back some of the bright colors.
“People were milling around, having their hair done; we had Motoworld down there; I guess they had about five motorcycles. We had psychics, they were doing crystal ball readings. There was voodoo dolls for sale. It just went off!
“An important part of it was the band consignment booth. Only five bands on the roster, but we had 20 bands bringing their T-shirts, hats, CDs, cassettes — it did great! A lot of members from other bands around town came, guys from Psychotic Waltz, Wretched Excess, different people trying to get that community thing going on, because that’s the way you move forward in the music business. It’s a networking thing.
“With Rock Carnival ’97, what we were trying to do — and we achieved it...we had a thousand people there, there was no national headliner, just local rock bands—is bring back the fun attitude, where people came and they dressed the way they wanted to, they had fun. Here in San Diego, the club scene’s become dull! There’s a couple of people standing off to the side, there’s not much happening. So Rock Carnival ’97 was just that—a carnival to bring back some of the fun. It doesn’t matter what kind of music, let’s have the fun back.
“San Diego’s a college town, so there’s a big alternative scene, but when you go to the alternative clubs and see some of the bands that the media’s in love with, you find that there’s all of 12 people in the club on a Friday or Saturday night, and they’re not really havin’ a great time! That’s what this scene’s all about: let’s go out, get a little bit wild, and have a great time.
“We’ve gotten away from the overproduced stuff, back to punk rock, trying to bring back that energy, and now it’s coming round to heavy metal, because people get bored with the three- to four-chord situation. They think, ‘Wow. There could be more.’ Not that heavy metal ever goes away. It just kind of goes underground. And now it’s coming back up in this town.”
What about the stereotype of the heavy metal rocker as being, well, a little older and less streamlined? A lot of the big-name heavy rock bands are older, Terry says, because it takes 10 to 15 years to get anything happening in the music business.
But, he says, metal is making a comeback among younger kids.
“My lead guitar player is 16,” says Terry. “His name’s Anthony McGuinness. We can’t get him into bars! When we play, he has to come on the stage, set up his stuff, go out back — and it really pisses him off — and he has to go down and get some beers from a liquor store or something and sit out in the car. My bass player’s 18, my drummer...they all went to high school together, the Performing Arts High School in, like, I think it’s right near National City. But my guitar player is 16, and he really flails.
“The music thing’s going to do what it’s going to do. It’s a monster unto itself.
It’s a snowball rolling downhill. There’s just no stopping it.”
Dinner with Sledd
Tiffani, Dino’s fiancee, opens the door and smiles when I show up for dinner. Inside, their four-year-old son, Keanu, is pedaling around on a big-wheel bike. Dino is wearing a red T-shirt with DAGO MOB written on a red background. Ibe Dago Mob, or the Red and White Dagos (Dago=San Diego), is the local Hell’s Angels chapter. (Dino points out that he has friends in “the club,” as he calls the Hell’s Angels, but he is not an actual patch-wearing member.)
Pete arrives, looking very much the young West Coast businessman: goatee, long black hair pulkd back in a ponytail, pok) shirt. He is more controlled than his brother but in his own way just as animated.
Tiffani has made us spaghetti and meatballs. She looks like the perfect California blonde, except that she grew up in Hawaii. She came from a wealthy family and plays golf well enough to beat the guys, though not all of them admit it. Tiffani, who met Dino in a bar in Reno, also sports a tattoo: a large-canvas work-in-progress on her back. I see only a part of it, which looks like the turrets and gables of a Gothic castle. She scoops up Keanu and makes a discreet exit to let Dino do his band-spokesman thing.
We open a bottle of Italian red wine and sit down to eat and talk.
Dino and Pete grew up in the Bronx. During their high school years they moved to Hast-ings-on-Hudson, 18 miles north of New York City, next to Yonkers.
“It was my father’s 50th birthday party,” Dino begins. “Mel Lewis was there. Buddy was there, Stan Getz was there, a guy called Johnny Morse was there who used to play piano with Buddy. I had a studio set up in the basement — i was 14 at the time; I was really getting into playing music. Mel gave me this Gnetsch set of drums because he couldn’t take it into the city, he had nowhere to put it. So I kept these drums, and these guys were all messing around on my father’s birthday.”
Between the ages of 12 and 14, Dino boxed at Gleason’s Gym in New York, right by Madison Square Garden. “I could pound. I won a Golden Gloves championship when I was 13.”
At 14 he gave up boxing; the family moved out of the city. Pete Sr. took a job as music director and swapped houses with Mel Lewis, who moved into the DeLukes’ apartment in the city.
“It started with knowing Gene Krupa around 71, 72. He was real sick with leukemia. My mom would cook for him: she brought down this soup to Yonkers General Hospital, and that’s why I got inspired on the drum thing.”
Almost immediately, Dino got picked up by a bunch of older kids who already had their own band. “There’s my brother at 14 years old playing in bars!” Pete says without a trace of jealousy. “They’d make him sit on the stage or leave the club on the breaks between sets.” By the age of 15, Dino says, he’d played in front of crowds of more than 500. “These guys were all 18 and 19, this chick sang just like Janis Joplin, the guitar player played just like Hendrix....”
Pete, 14 months older, had studied trumpet with Bernie Privin, the lead trumpet player on The Jackie Gleason Show, but Pete was more interested in a career in professional soccer, a sport at which, he says, he excelled. But when he went off to SUNY New Paltz, Pete took up piano and in early ’82 joined a new wave pop group called Scratch and Sniff, played coffeehouses and clubs, and opened for the Psychedelic Furs in front of7000 people.
Dino, meanwhile, studied with Henry Adler, Paul Price of the Manhattan School of Music, and Clinton DeGannon. Then he auditioned for music school. “Wherever I wanted to go to, I could have gone. And you know what? I didn’t give a shit. I took it for granted.” He spent three years at Juilliard before leaving. He’s evasive on the subject, but he ultimately graduated from Hunter College with a degree in music, which he regards as essentially useless: all it qualifies you to do is teach music, he says vehemently, and his father’s example taught him that a music teacher’s salary is hard to live on.
Dino and Pete were still following their father when he retired to San Diego in 1985, an event that proved you can take the kid out of the Bronx, but you can’t take the Bronx out of the kid. Billy Buhrkuhl, one of the managers at 4th and B and former manager of the Bacchanal from ’86 to ’91, told me two cocky New York boys arrived ten years ago and demanded.
“Who’s the best cover band in town?” Everyone said, “FlywriL" The new kids said, “We’re going to put them out of business.” And two years later, Billy said, Nemesis was outdrawing Flyweil. Classic guitarsiinger stuff.
The Bad Boys
Nemesis was formed in 1987 and lasted eight and a half years in the hectic fantasy world of live bar music, playing 1500 gigs in 10 to 15 cities. This is history by consensus, not by documentation: over the next two hours, recollections gel and become statements, and when they make the transformation into print, they will achieve the status of fact.
“Nobody knew who we were,” Pete says. “We started at Rio’s on West Point Loma Boulevard on Thursday nights playing for 50 bucks. That wasn’t for a guy, that was for the band. Sunday nights we played down at Me Dick’s [now Winston’s) in O.B.” Half the time they played in jam sessions rather than as a featured (and paid) act, turning up in the early-’70s look of jeans and vests (“Our hair was in the process of transition,” Pete said without irony) and playing classic rock — Doors, Zeppelin, the Black Crowes, Santana.
Right on cue, Doug Johnston strolls in like a true veteran, just as we’re getting to the time when he joined the band. Longhaired, goateed, just a little soft around the middle, Doug is amiable, bright, easygoing, well-read, and well-traveled: his father was a geologist working for an oil company, and the job took the family to Saudi Arabia and England, where Doug went to American schools. That was a strange scene, he says. Kids at the school would get BMWs for their birthdays; one kid got sent to camp one summer — PLO camp. “ ‘It was great!’ he said. He got to shoot AK-47s and all kinds of shit.” Doug’s tattoo is personal: it’s the Johnston clan colors from traditional Scottish heraldry.
Doug’s been playing with the DeLukes for the better part of 11 years, joining shortly after Nemesis was formed, when the band couldn’t keep a bass player. He’d been playing electric guitar with a band called Vamp and supported himselfbv doing facilities maintenance, “You know, jack-of-all-trades crap. I gave that up after about two years. I didn’t need it. We were making enough money with the band.”
“At one point we were making $700, $800 a week," Dino says.
“San Diego had an A and a B circuit at that time,” Doug says. “Unfortunately, all that’s left is the B circuit.”
When Doug joined, the guys were playing the B-circuit clubs, clubs with 500 seats or fewer Bullfrogs, Dream Street, Time Machine, Wincotes, Pounders, the Trojan Horse. “Dream Street (formerly on Bacon] was like Little Saigon,” Doug says. “They had about 30 waitresses, all Vietnamese, wearing satin pantsuits. The manager would pull his .38 on rowdies. There was a murder down at Bullfrogs in Ocean Beach one of the first weeks I played in the band,” Doug recalls. “A guy got stabbed to death in front of the club, right in front of the doorman.”
Dino and Pete admit the band got involved in more than a few fights during their gigs.
“We were a pretty rough band. We developed a reputation in those days as being bad boys,” Pete says, “because of the crowd we attracted.”
Doug’s shaking his head. “You know, in 11 years I missed every fucking fight? Every time I’d be there playing, concentrating and groovin’, and I’d look up and it’d be all over. Everyone’d be either off the stage or just watching or something.”
After the Del Mar Fair Fiasco
The band was kicked upwards into the stratosphere of local music by what they call the Del Mar Fair fiasco in 1990. They’d already recruited Kevin Michael, a popular guitarist around San Diego, and were looking to showcase their stuff at this prestigious event, when their singer, for reasons of his own, showed up an hour and a half late.
“We had a four-hour time slot from 4:00 in the afternoon to do whatever we wanted to do,” Dino says, “but by the time we got up onstage it was, like, 5:30.” A parting of the ways ensued, and Nemesis recruited Paul McClendon as their new singer. Paul had been around the scene for some time and already had a substantial following, so his presence added to Nemesis both onstage and in their ability to get decent booking.
“(Paul’s) band had played the A circuit,” Doug explains, “when we were still on the top of the B circuit, bottom of the A circuit.” Two weekends later, they went down to Park Place, a rock club in El Cajon where they’d only played Sundays and Mondays. “We walked in there,” Pete said, “and the first weekend we played a Friday and Saturday. You couldn’t breathe in that place.”
“The Reader ad's in there,” Dino points through to the living room. “I’ve got it framed, right on my wall of fame. ‘The New Nemesis, featuring Paul McClendon.’ ”
Now Dino and Pete are overlapping, filling in sentences, drowning each other out. “One weekend is all it took...local celebrities...we fought it out for the next three or four years with the other two bands...always a friendly rivalry with HvwnL.great guys...two bands that had a lot of musical ability...both showcasing in L.A. at the time...they were a quality act~Pat McM ichael did a great job with that band for 15 years....”
Cary Rothman arrives, sits down, and accepts a beer. He has long brown hair and a quick grin. He’s shorter than he looks onstage, but that’s almost a rule for rock musicians: Doug says a couple of well-known guitarists play three-quarter-sized guitars to make themselves look taller on stage. From a historical point of view, Cary provides a useful outsider’s perspective, having grown up in San Diego County and watched Nemesis both as an audience member and as a musician in other bands.
“San Diego is divided into two,” he says authoritatively, “the beach area in the west and East County. On the west you'd have all your original acts, but you wouldn’t see more than 100 to 150 people at a gig. If they drove 20 miles east they could count on something happenin' — and three times the crowd. They could count on 150 chicks and you could, 'Hey! What’s goin' on?
“Of the nine cover venues . in East County, Nemesis got most if not all the following that went to Park Place and the Navajo (Inn]. On Friday night we’d always say, 'Let's go see Nemesis.’ ”
“We were playing the hardest stuff," Doug adds. “We had the best-looking chicks. We had a big (female] following. We called it the Swallowing Following.”
“We were the most musically talented,” continues Pete, who is no more afflicted with false modesty than his brother. “We had the best look....”
Paul’s arrival pushed Nemesis toward heavy metal: Spandex and big hair were on the way. “We went from a straight-rock format to a harder-type format,” Dino puts in. “Long hair, tattoos...”
“I had dyed black hair, I was skinny, pale,” Doug says. “I was Mr. Fashion. I had the full L.A. glam fashion thing going on. I even started singing, like, Megadeth,” he raises his eyebrows as if astonished at the recollection.
Dino snorts indignantly. “We were hairspray kings, we weren’t women.”
“Even when we did the heavy- metal and the hard rock," Doug says, “we always retained some of the classic rock stuff, and we always did blues."
Well, I suggest, that was true of, say, Zeppelin too. These are the magic words. Everyone leans forward, and there's a general explosion of Zeppelinphilia.
“We were huge Zeppelin fans, like 800,000 other rock ’n’ roil bands,” Doug says. “Cary was influenced by Rush.”
“Well, Rush rules, still,” says Cary.
“ They suck,” Doug says, provoking him.
Dinner is over and Cary needs a cigarette, so we go outside to the porch, clear Keanu’s toys away, and sit around the table in the gathering darkness. Tiffani brings out slices of chocolate cake, which win good reviews. “Killer cake. Tiff,” Doug says. Then the guys are eager to get back to the story.
“Paul was the singer,” Doug says wistfully, "Kevin Michael was the guitarist — those were the salad days of Nemesis.”
Whether it was Spandex or hair or talent or the times, Nemesis began to get a taste for what every teenage boy dreams of — sex, booze, rock ’n’ roll, and popularity.
In a hall-of-mirrors trick of the ear, a band called Warrant, signed to CBS, heard Nemesis and thought they were hearing themselves.
“We were in Reno in 1992,” Dino says, “playing one of (Warrant’s] songs, and these guys walked in and thought their singer was jammin’ with us! 'They were trippin’! They were, like, whoah! So they took us back to their concert that night at the Lawlor Event Center. Next thing you know, my singer’s wife is at the Starlight Bowl (in San Diego) to see Warrant, sold-out 12,000 seats, and she hears our tape coming through the P.A. system. Our original music. And she was, like, my husband’s tape! Where’d these guys get that?” Brian Howe from Bad Company jammed with Nemesis onstage; they opened for Asphalt Ballet, Great White, Steel Hearts, Foghat, Rick Derringer, Candlebox, Badlands, and more names than I can take down in a hurry.
In 1991 Nemesis won the San Diego Music Awards’ Nightclub Band of the Year (a category that has since been dropped). “The year after we won the music awards,” Doug says, “we were invited to the party (as the retiring champs], and John Entwistle [of the Who] and Jeff Baxter, the guitar player from Steely Dan, were there as guest hosts, and I went up to John Entwistle, who besides John Paul Jones as a bass player was my biggest influence, and I said [voice quavering], ‘Ah, excuse me, Mr. Entwistle, you’re one of my biggest influences. I learned everything from you,’ and he was, like, (in a drab, understated English Spinal Tap rock-star accent], ‘Well, I hope you didn’t learn too much, or you’d have been kicked out of the band.’ At least I got a great smartass remark out of him. But as Cary said, for Entwistle I was probably just another kid.”
In 1992, Jimmy Page — Led Zep himself — came to watch them two nights in a row at Del Mar Station in Reno. “We didn’t know it at the time,” Doug says, “but what was to become the Coverdale/Page album was being worked out up at Lake Tahoe at David Coverdale’s house. We’re playing down the road 40 minutes away in Reno. We were playing Reno three or four weeks a year for a couple of weeks at a time. And Jimmy Page came in on a Friday and a Saturday night and — this guy is, like, my god. I started playing mandolin because of Jimmy Page, acoustic guitar, electric — you know. So he came in and signed our instruments.”
“I don’t usually get starstruck...” Pete breaks in, unable to restrain himself.
“...I was so nervous,” Doug goes on, hardly hearing tHe interruption, the moment once again vivid.
“I just ran over,” Pete says, “and shook his hand and said, ‘Jimmy, it’ssuchanhonorapriv-ilegeandpleasure_’ They invited him to jam with them, but he sald that he’d “done something to his hand” and couldn’t. When they got up onstage, Doug, who often gets stage fright anyway, was shaking so hard he didn’t think he could play. They tell me Page sent record people down to San Diego to see the band. There was a rumor that a major label was going to sign them, but in the end, nothing came of it.
Nemesis also took part (briefly) in the annual battle of the bands, Rock Wars, in 1991. They won the preliminary round but were disqualified before the finals began. “Paul came in and said, ‘Hey, San Diego, how the fuck ya doin’?’ ” Doug says. Bzzzz! Disqualified. Before we even played our first note!” Everyone chuckles.
At the time, Nemesis was chartering buses and taking as many as 100 people from El Cajon’s Park Place to their shows at FM Station in LA. — a club whose owner bore the memorable name of Filthy McNasty. The bus trips were pretty wild; they tell me somewhere there’s a videotape of couples getting it on in the bus, a friend of Doug’s once fell out of the bus in North Hollywood under the impression that he was still in the parking lot of Park Place.
Things were especially wild in Reno, where Nemesis started playing the Del Mar Station in 1989, first two or three times a year, then every few months.
“We used to party our asses off,” Doug said. “We’d play until 4:00 in the morning at one club, then go next door to Shea’s Tavern and drink until 8:00 in the morning, and then walk up the street to the Time Out and start drinking from 8:00 till midnight, and then go to bed and start the whole thing over the next day. That was a good gig. Six nights in a row, one day off, six more nights, and then drive home.”
“We’d be bangingchicks,” says another band member, who now wishes not to be identified, “throw-in’ them out on the street like....”
Doug raises his eyebrows in mock surprise: “I’m shocked. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Dino: “These guys’d throw them out of the band house. They wouldn’t even let them stay overnight. There’d be chicks upstairs, six or seven of them sleepin’ on the couches. These guys’d [inaudible word] them and throw ’em upstairs. Get out.... Next!”
“Kevin had a thing for sadomasochism,” Pete says, “and he was whipping these girls, shackling them to the shower bars. Then whenever his wife was coming out to Reno, he would buy a can of black spray paint and go around the graffitied band house spraying out every reference to himself!”
Doug: “One guy duct-tapcd this chick to...”
Pete: “That had nothing to do with the band! That had noth ing to do with the band!"
“TJ, one of my good buddies at the time,” Doug says, “was the guitar player before Mike [Femenella]."
While staying at the band house in Reno, Doug went on, “TJ would take a shower — this was in summer—and then drop his towel and walk out onto the [front ] porch, you know, naked, right across from the club, seven or eight o’clock. People’d be going into the club. This guy was wacky. TJ was the best. One funny motherfucker. Great sense of humor.”
In 1993 Tommy “Soup” Campbell, the band’s singer at the time, got the band kicked out of a hotel in Yuma, Arizona, when he went on a drinking tirade. The manager said, “You guys think you’re Van Halen, but you’re not.”
“We were just animals,” Pete says reflectively. “We were children, and we couldn’t behave ourselves.”
“When we were up in Reno,” Doug says, “we’d leave presents for the next band, because virtually every week there’d be a band from San Diego going up there. We would leave, like, chicken carcasses under the covers; we’d leave messages on the walls, graffiti.”
Mind you, living on the road was not all wine and roses. “It got nasty, that band house,” Doug goes on. “In the middle of winter, all the fuses were blowing out in this place, you’re freezing your ass off, there’s gaps in the doors like this....” He holds up thumb and index finger an inch apart. “David [a friend of Dino’s from Reno] brought in space heaters to help out, but they blew all the fuses, so at 6:00 in the morning you’re freezing your dick off trying to change those big old fuses, and when the heater worked, it would dry you out so bad you couldn’t sing. It got to the point where we always stayed at friends’ houses up there, it was so bad.”
One of the first times they drove out to Reno, Dino had a monster migraine. They were traveling through a heavy snowstorm in a motorhome with a trailer. Dino was throwing up, the whole interior reeked of vomit, and throughout the eight-hour ordeal, he refused to go to a hospital. Another time, in 1994, while driving back to San Diego in Dino’s puce-yellow Ford Ranger van, the clutch and rear differential went out before they reached Carson City. A woman driving past let them use her car phone, and their Reno friend David sent a truck to tow them, but the winch broke. They spent six days working on the Ford back at David’s house, but just as they were about to leave for San Diego, their light technician dumped his truck into a ravine nearby, and they had to get him towed out. By the time they left, Doug says, “we could see the storm coming over the Donner Pass. You skirt Tahoe the whole way to 395 south, and from then it was snow all the way to the northern Mojave Desert. We were the only vehicle on the highway apart from the plows; no chains, 20 miles an hour for hours and hours and hours....” Nemesis made two tapes and sold over a thousand copies. The first was called simply Nemesis. “The second,” Doug says, “was called Band House Brandy after the chick Kevin would tie up and whip in Reno. She was so proud we named it after her.” “We were all celebrities,” Pete says. “When we’d go places we’d be recognized. People would say, ‘Hey, where are you guys playing this weekend? Where are you playing tonight?’ Weeknights we were drawing 250 to 450 people at Park Place, and on the weekends, if you got to the club at 8:30, there was a line going around the block. We played Reno New Year’s Eve two years in a row and sold the place out. After a while we didn’t hope for it, we just expected it.” What kinds of people came to see them?
Everyone answers at once. “We would get the real classy secretary-type girls — God, we were after them.. .basically a lot of blue collar...a lot of longhaired rockers GQ types.. .tweakers. . .bikers... drunks—I’m sure a lot of people made a lot of drug money at our gigs.”
Tweakers? The band members give me a sketch of the San Diego drug scene. The drug of choice is crystal meth—speed — Dino says, though there’s also a fair amount of heroin around. A tweaker is a speed freak, someone so wired he’s twitching all over, such as the guy who came down to the band house the morning after one performance still shaking, saying, “Man, I was tweakin’ so hard last night,” and everyone cracked up and rolled on the floor because he was still out of control. The band has had drug troubles of its own: two guitarists and a singer were thrown out for substance abuse.
I remind myself I disapprove of such behavior, such attitudes toward women — but I’d be lying if I pretended at 17 those weren’t my dreams too, those dark and dirty fantasies of power and freedom; if I pretended that I’d never longed for the same power, playing that single chord, that one quick chop with the wrist and BAM! Everywhere heads turning, just like revving a bike with a single flip of the wrist, just like shooting a gun. That’ll get their attention.
But then the picture spins 180 degrees — or through 25 years — and now I’m on the other side looking back, and I wonder how I must look from Sledd’s position, as I tell a willing audience about the crazy things I did in my teens and early 20s. At best it must look incongruous, these wild stories from this tame-looking guy. And what do I want them to say, anyway? Wow! You're cool! You’re one of us! You’re young! I can scarcely believe the stories myself, even as I tell them. It all seems distant, even irrelevant.
Something else ties these strings together, this apparent contrast between the wild stories and these regular guys sitting around reminiscing, sipping at a beer or two in this suburban living room. That connection has something to do with performance. To be a performing musician — to be any kind of a good musician — you have to be able to make a strange, imaginative excursion that takes you beyond the normal back-and-forth commuting of your mind’s life. You have to be able to be out of your skin, whether the ecstasy is Segovia playing classical guitar in the Alhambra with one knee up and eyes closed or Pete playing keyboards with his head back, eyes closed, mouth hanging open, a trademark expression somewhere between a man caught mid-orgasm and a dying fish. If you can’t do that, you’ll never have any spark — as a musician or a live performer, you’ll never be more than the mail carrier humming as he sorts the letters. Music, yes; magic, no. “We are the music-makers,” says I Doug, quoting Willy Wonka, “and we are the dreamers of the dreams.”
Taking No Prisoners
Everything changed when the Seattle/alternative scene hit in the early ’90s. Metal suddenly seemed dated, the stripped-down grunge look was in, and a new audience wanted to hear original music rather than covers. When Nemesis did a record label showcase in LA., Dino says, the record people there said, “If you want to make it, you’ve got to get rid of that singer.”
Paul was replaced by Eric Golbach. “Eric had a distinctive_.ah...attitude,” Doug says, “a very cool, superior attitude. He didn’t take any prisoners. If he saw people standing out there with their arms folded, he would just go for their throats. He’d say, ‘What, you too cool to clap?’ He was very aggressive, a great singer. A lot of people hated him. We loved him. His attitude really fell in well with our arrogant attitude.”
They started playing some Nirvana and Guns ’n’ Roses, and the pitying continued (“All the cops in La Mesa knew us. They’d pull us over and say, ‘Hey, Doug, what’s going on?’ ”), but Nemesis was losing their following. What crowd there was for cover bands began to shift back toward Flyweil. More importantly, in 1994, ’95, doors began to close. Alternative was getting big, but it didn’t support much of a live audience; it was more a listen-at-home crowd, an MTV audience. On top of it all, the new DUI laws lowered the permissible blood-alcohol content and upped penalties; later, cigarette machines were outlawed in most bars.
Jose Murphy’s in P.B. closed. JJ’s Hot Rock in Imperial Beach, where they had a steady gig, closed. The loss of Park Place in El Cajon was a big blow. “Park Place was the East County spot to be on a Saturday night,” Cary says. “You could count on something consistently happening with a lot of volume and a lot of intensity and as many as 500-plus, especially for a Nemesis and Flyweil gig on a Saturday night.” Other rooms began cutting nights, then cutting pay. Bands were breaking up all around them.
When the A circuit died, they played the B circuit and for anyone who would pay. They slumped from five to seven nights a week, going from as much as $150 per night per guy, down to two nights a week, $200 a guy a week. Doug survived by signing on with two temp agencies— painting, installing air conditioners, doing any handyman work that came along. Dino was the only guy who had kept his job all along; it was not only a good job but flexible. Pete, trying to manage the band, “went down with the ship,” spending a lot of time on the phone every day, negotiating contracts, suing someone in Vegas who canceled them six days before the gig and refused to pay, even though the contract stipulated 45 days’ notice, doing the “Gentlemen, this is my last phone call. I’ll see you in court” line (the club finally backed down and settled for $2800).
In the latter part of 1995, the singer and guitarist both left, Cary and Mike joined within a day, and the band that would subsequently be called Sledd was born.
“I’d heard [Cary] sing a few times,” Pete says, “and I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, this guy’s got a great fucking voice. I can’t believe how good this guy is.’ ”
Cary had been playing originals for 15 years, doing over 1000 gigs, and had played with some good musicians, but he had a drug problem, as they say in the NFL, and his career had been strongly influenced by, of all things, the Northridgc earthquake, which made him decide to leave Rux Moniker, the band he was playing with in Hollywood, and come back to San Diego to play with Eric Edwards in what he calls a “bipolar band.”
“That’s pretty funny,” Doug cuts in. “That’s a great phrase, Cary. Right on.”
“(Edwards] was a good guy, a good musician, but every time the guy would have a new girlfriend, we would be on standby.”
Cary did covers, too — blues, even Michael Jackson (“I had a high voice; I could do girl material”). He’d been in the band 1770 with Brett Ellis when 300 people were coming to see them at Rio’s (“Brett’s a guy we always admired,” says Doug) and recorded a live album, but none of these projects went anywhere —a phrase that sums up the majority of everyone’s musical experience since the beginning of music. Cary had always sung his own songs, but he knew he wouldn’t mind passing up originals to get the crowd Nemesis could draw. With no manager, doing originals, “you’ve got to basically pay to play. You’ve got to do all the promotion, and then you’ll be lucky if they give you a percentage of the door. Most of the time they wouldn’t.”
Cary and Mike grew up together in Lemon Grove (“I’ve known Mike for 15 years. We used to hang out together, ride bikes. Street punks. No big deal”). When they were 15 they jammed out on Mike’s patio. As soon as Cary heard that Mike was joining Nemesis to develop an originals band, he was in.
Meeting Mike will have to wait, as he’s working tonight, but it’s clear that everyone thinks of him as a major player.
“Mike’s not a schooled-fucking-Joe-fucking-blow-fucking Berklee School of Music cat,” Dino says, “This guy’s a street jack. He’s a monster.”
At some point, the “Nemesis originals project” became Sledd, although the paint on the name still feels a little sticky. Pete and Doug regard it as a name-in-progress. They wanted something short, Pete says vaguely, they tried Sled Dog, then Sled, then Mike added another d to make it a little more unusual.
The hardest part of becoming an originals band, Doug says, and I believe him, was coming up with the name.
They had been playing original material for some time, but they took the plunge and played their last show as Nemesis (more or less) in Reno on New Year’s Eve 1995. They first played as Sledd on St. Patrick’s Day 1996, and Sledd has now played 35 to 40 shows.
They began wearing ordinary street clothes again, experimenting with alternative-type sounds, even techno sounds, trying to find their own style and voice. “Dino’s left-hand snare rolls made all the difference to the sound,” Cary steps in, sounding like a music critic from an urban newspaper. “The off-snare kick actually gives it that alternative beat. Then I came in and started using my voice — almost in a kind of Transylvanian tone, like a vampire rather than a high, intense screech deal....”
Doug rolls his eyes.
“...and I decided to cut our three- and four-part cover harmonies down to a two-part harmony,” Pete adds.
“I think right now we’re still in the midst of trying to shake the Nemesis past,” Doug says.
Nemesis is, in fact, your nemesis, I say, the interviewer as clever asshole. It’s a sign of what good manners they have— and how little they conform to the angry-Satanic metal image— that they actually agree with me.
“We want people to have good memories, lasting memories of that project, but we re like the ghost of Nemesis right now,” Pete says. “We’ve got people saying,” — he goes on in a whiny voice — “ ‘I don’t like Sledd! I like Nemesis!’ And I’ll say to them, ‘Why do you like Nemesis and why don’t you like Sledd?’ ‘Because we knew the songs you played in Nemesis.’ ‘But wouldn’t you like to know the songs that we play in Sledd?’ We’re never going to get anywhere unless we derive our true identity.”
The problem there, of course, is that they are most practiced at the chameleon art of camouflage, at losing their own identity in that of other musicians.
Pete: “What made us effective is that when we would cover another band—when we were doing an Ozzy Osbourne song, we were Ozzy Osbourne. When we were doing a Queensryche song, we were Queensryche."
Dino: “Everybody—front the singer matching the phrasing to the keyboard plater matching the sound of the keyboards to the drummer playing the same beat to the bass player playing the same bass line — we executed. That’s one of the reasons we were so popular. Our material went over because it was so lifelike.”
Sledd is an identity-in-progress, and if the guys have a sense of who and what Sledd is, it’s not easy to articulate.
Pete, without breaking for breath: “One of the things about Sledd that we’d like to bring back to rock ’n’ roll is the fact that we have our own sound, we have our own identity, we might be a bit avant-girde, we might not appeal to everybody — we’re not trying to appeal to everybody — but we feel we can change music in its evolution, and we’d like to be the band that brings it into the new millennium with that new sound, and we feel that we can by combining all different types of influences and creating a whole new sound...”
“Like a new genre,” says Dino, filling in the way a musician who’s heard the soloist falter knows where to take over.
Pete has his breath back. “We could (beat] 90,95 percent of the bands out there. You put us on the same stage—and I’m talking about major signed acts on major labels—and we could run any of them into the ground. Not only are we all individually gifted and talented and we all have the ability as players...”
“..but we all play as a team,” says Dino.
For Pete and Dino, the stakes are especially high: it must be hard for them not to measure themselves against their father.
“People have said to me and my brother over the years how gifted and talented we are,” Pete says. “Well, yeah, I mean, we are gifted, we are talented, but you know what? The egg got split in half. We both got half the musical ability and musical talent of what my father has. He’s got a master’s degree and a Ph.D in music from Columbia; he performed with the best; he’s toured and played in almost every country in the world.”
It gets worse: Pete has found himself sitting around with his father while his father’s jazz buddies put rock music down. “His whole opinion and the jazz cats he performs with — the real high-society-high-level-high-influential, really accomplished, polished musicians—view rock musicians as inferior,” he admits, but the DeLuke drive is never far away, and he rallies. “But they could never knock our success. The jazz cat, you put a chart in front of him, and he’ll sight-read it, but you know what? The rock cat — his sight-reading’s in his mind. His charts are memorized. There's no music stand in front of us. There’s no sight reading going on."
Plenty of jazz musicians play without charts. The sad truth is that Pete and Dino are a victim of genres. A jazz quartet can play someone else’s songs with swing and variations and be called brilliant and original. A rock band that plays someone else’s songs is a cover band.
The Family Album
First Pete has to leave, then Cary. We move back inside, where Dino has been dying to show his Nemesis and Sledd videos — the family album, the vacation snapshots. Doug points out TJ and Paul an Nemesis look like the trademark s of Kiss. They mast be fairly recent videos, because there’s no sign of the heavy metal/glam rock look; the band has a very early-70s style, like the Allman Brothers, perhaps, or even the Eagles.
Dino: “This is a great version of Nemesis. All originals.” Doug.“I can’t even remember these songs.”
“If you can't remember the songs,” I suggest, “that means...” “...they sucked,” says Dino. Actually, I was going to suggest that the whole was somehow not the sum of the parts.
“Absolutely," says Doug. “See, TJ would write these songs. It was the best version of our cover band, though This band could do anything."
“Amazingly talented," Dino says.
Doug talks about the importance of a song having a recognizable structure; how hard it is when you abandon a simple recognized structure such as blues to then create that recognizable structure; how when you hear what he calls “a radio band, a band that’s made it,” you hear an instantly recognizable structure And it’s not just a matter of structure. Cary’s voice is powerful and unusual, and he’s a compelling presence
Everyone in the audience knows the words, or at least a few crucial words and the general shape, rhythm, and tenor of the song, and in any case they are there for the familiar, for the triggering of an expected reflex.
With originals, the relationship is different. The band has to create verbal and musical structures that are familiar yet different. I fie whole package has to work — and if anyone knew what that meant, there would be no such thing as failure in the music business. But original music, like publishing, like TV and film, misses more hits.
Okay money, an easy life—they may not have the chicks and the bikers flocking after them, but it’s still music, right? Or maybe it’s just a business by then. Mick Jagger, great songwriter and arch-cynic, was once asked why the Rolling Stones had stayed together for all these years when every other band of their generation had broken up. “Money,” said the Mick, Michael Jagger, Inc, who once studied at the London School of Economics.
Wild, Wild Life
If they look pretty ordinary on screen, it’s partly because of the videographer, who at best is distant and static and at worst has a habit of wandering away from the stage and shooting at the floor.
I’d forgotten for more than a decade, a kind of parable, I suppose. Back in 1984, when I was a music writer in Vermont, a local heavy metal band sent me a press release and an invitation to a club where they were throwing a release party for their video. My then-wife Gail, who had fantasies about bikes and leather and in her own way was something of a rocker, asked if she could come along.
The party was as forced as any staged event full of strangers around a large video screen. Ihe video, when it was finally screened amid great fanfare, featured a leopard.
Word had already gotten around that the leopard (which was supposed to be at the party but was nowhere to be seen) was a trained animal from Albany, New York—so trained, in fact, that if you looked at the video carefully you could see that instead of spitting and snarling at the camera or the band (in their black leather and leopard-skin spandex), the leopard lay there looking regal and rather bored. Eventually the guitarist got to prodding it with his guitar and it bared its teeth. The camera rushed to close-up.
The video was pronounced to be wicked decent and other 1984 Vermont adjectives of approval, but the band was almost secondary: everyone wanted to meet the leopard. The leopard’s plane was late, it transpired. We had more drinks.
Finally the animal strode in—thinking who-knows- what in this dark club with a disco ball in the middle — and by chance went straight over to Gail. She hung in there, gamely doing the good-kitty stuff and making nervous jokes while its handler recited in bored tough-guy tones that this was an X-year-old female that had been trained for y years, no danger, etc.
Suddenly, the leopard — still thinking who-knows-what in the middle of this video party — stood up on its hind legs and put its front paws on Gail’s shoulders. Everyone, especially the band, froze. The leopard looked calmly over Gail’s head as if she were a piece of landscape in this Naugahyde jungle, a scenic overlook. Gail, trapped in her chair, tried to suppress panic. The handler, saying, “She’s just a bit excited,” tried to coax the cat down. The band gibbered, reduced to extras in this unrehearsed three-minute drama.
The leopard didn’t seem excited to me. She ignored all the fuss and stared around, swishing her four-foot tail. At one point the tail touched my shoulder and nearly knocked me off my chair. It was as thick and strong as a man’s arm.
Abruptly, the cat decided to step down and allowed herself to be led away. Gail and I left soon afterwards. The party seemed to have gone a bit flat.
Canyon of Envy
Dino throws in another video: New Year’s Eve ’95, Pete being an utter wild man, mouth hanging open, hammering away. Playing covers, they now look very tight, their parts meshing, the melody lines clear. Big crowd in New Year’s Eve party hats. At some parties, they say as if they can hardly believe it themselves, they’d have to be escorted to the stage by security.
Doug spots someone he knew, the drummer from another band. "That’s------he says, suddenly struck by a somber thought. “He’s dead, man.” A few weeks back, the guy hanged himself.
Now Dino is spilling the old Nemesis publicity photos on the coffee table. Doug is beautiful, almost feminine; at the time, men were toying with beauty in a way that now seems unthinkable, the only exception being singer Paul McClendon, who looks eerily like Alice Cooper. I asked if the band had even done the biting-the-heads-off-live-chickens-onstage bit, and they grin and shake their heads.
Dino is 32, Doug 33, Pete 34, M ike 29, Cary 31. How have they all survived so long — 15 years and more—in the music biz? Most people go into rock music because they think it beats working, and they never recover from that seductive but horribly false premise. “We told ourselves a long time ago,” Doug says, “that if it ever became work, we didn’t want to do it. Well, it became work, and we still wanted to do it.”
They may not spend quite as much energy as they used to, but it’s more focused, they say, more productive. Dino gives his inspirational drive-to-succeed speech. Cary speaks about hearing a Rush song for the first time and becoming one of those people who can’t imagine doing anything except music—the you’ve got-to-be-hungry theory. Above all, there was the sense of progress. “We’ve always seemed to move ahead, find better contacts, even if in infinitesimal increments,” Doug says. “I would have quit years ago if we’d just sat there and stagnated. We always had the original thing at heart, and it’s always gotten better.”
Sledd are in a curious position, midway between nothing and something. Looking back, especially to the heyday of Nemesis, they know objectively that they were in some sense rock' stars, yet at the same time the novelty of all that has faded. Just as their fans look up to them in what the band guys see as misplaced awe, they have exactly the same open-mouthed reverence for their own rock-star heroes.
“The kids who work for me at the zoo,” Doug says, “they’re, ‘My God! You’re doing this?’ They might be into punk, they might be into reggae or whatever, they might be gangbangers. And it’s, like, ‘I hate to burst your bubble here, guys, but it’s no big deal.’ People are, like, ‘You’re doing this, you’re doing that,’ and I’m, like, ‘No biggie. We’ve been doing this for 11 fucking years.’ ”
Ditto: “Like, we’re doing this Slaughter and LA. Guns concert. And we’re used to it.”
So what is the difference between Sledd and Jimmy Page?
“He’s got scads of money, whereas I don’t!” Doug laughs. “But the difference — phew, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a question of how you handle fame. I think we’re pretty well-balanced people. We’ve been through it all — especially if we get the big number now, if we hit the big fame now. We’ve been through so much shit.”
How will they know when they’ve made it? What will they have made, in fact?
Doug quotes Victor Hugo: “Popularity is the very crumbs of greatness.” Meaning, I take it, that just being popular as Nemesis doesn’t amount to much. But then he thinks again. One of his great uncles or his grandfathers, according to family lore, tried to make a career of music but gave it up. “I’ve done better than him," Doug says. 'Hie rewards, for him, seem very simple. “We had a hell of a lot of fun. It was like Disneyland for a long time. I met a ton of people, and I actually made some good friends out of it."
Dino dreams of the platinum album, picking his own tour. “If you’ve got the money, you can give up your day job and write the music you want to write.” The right percentage points and cut of the album, adds Doug. “But I don’t think we’re in it so much for the money as to be successful,” says Dino, back to his theme, his inspirational speech, “and then to put the next album out and have that one be successful.”
When I ask Mike the same question later, his hopes are normal, even modest. “I just would like recognition for being good at something rather than just average. Plus the financial considerations: I lived in apartments when I grew up. We never had nothing. It would be nice to leave something for my family and my children above that norm. And then music’s like art: after you . die, you hope to leave something, a recording that people would appreciate for a long time; leaving a mark instead of just going to work every day. You die and everyone mourns your death, but that’s it — there’s nothing to look at again.”
Do they imagine they’ll still be playing music with their kids in 10 or 15 years’ time, whatever happens to their live career? They look blank for a moment; perhaps that idea’s too far away. “Sure, I guess,” Doug says. “Unless I’m offered some ambassadorship to some country.”
In their minds, they’re still on the wrong side of the divide, the canyon of envy: no matter how cocky Dino and Pete are, no matter how many tickets the band sells, they’re still over here with the unknowns while on the far side, the other guys, who in many respects are just like them, are lying in beach chairs sipping drinks under umbrellas printed with Van Halen or Alice in Chains—like movie stars’ names on the backs of canvas chairs. It must be impossible in this business to be centered, to do a Sinead O’Connor and not want what you have not got; the canyon floor is littered with the corpses of those who tried the leap on their bikes and failed and those who made it across but fell back, crashed and burned. (Some close to their hearts, John Bonham and Keith Moon, are dead. One alumnus of Nemesis is in sad shape because of drugs.) Their failure is no more a deterrent than a cancer statistic to a smoker. Everyone’s in training for the jump. Just don’t distract them.
One last video. It’s a girl's birthday, her friend and she go up to the stage, and her friend tells Cary, who says something back to her. Maybe they’re going to play “Happy Birthday,” I think, or the Beatles’ “Birthday." But I’m naive. A rail runs across the front of the stage, and the birthday girl leans forward over it until she’s resting on her stomach, then flips her short dress up to moon the audience, flashing the electric-blue isosceles triangle of her underwear. Onstage, Dino and Doug can barely stand up from laughing and laugh again now, they probably think she’s wasted or stupid, but driving home I find myself wondering about her and asking myself, who was exploiting whom? Wasn’t she just getting in on the act? What was she doing, exactly, that the band or the go-go dancers at 4th and B weren’t? Apart from being paid, of course.
One More Hand
The following evening at 6:30, Cary is singing in the studio, headphones on his ears, a cigarette in one hand. In the control room, Mike Femenella is listening intently, Dino is enthusing about this and that, and Woody Barber — stocky, his gray hair buz-zeut — is punching buttons and rolling two-inch tape back and forth with speed and fluency. “I need one more hand,” he says laconically, “and then I could drink beer while I do this.”
The San Diego Recording Studio is no hole-in-the-wall operation. It’s clean and orderly, in fact, for a studio owned by a guy whose primary interest is in heavy metal and whose label is called Chainsaw Records.
Woody started out playing in local bands at the age of 11 and now at 35 has been doing engineering and recording for 17 years. Four years ago he started his own label; now he has 23 local bands signed and his own Web site.
“I’m trying to revive the whole metal scene in San Diego,” he says. He sees San Diego bands as having settled for “a really half-assed style,’’which has been greeted with enthusiasm by a younger crowd; he’s catering for a slightly older, more discriminating group of CD and tape buyers who want a professional-sounding product.
His modus operandi, he explains, is to record CDs or tapes, get them to the European underground metal magazines (with names such as Metalhammer, Metal Forces, and Pit) to generate some press, get the recordings to his distributors in Germany and the Netherlands (where heavy metal is bigger news than in the U.S.), and then try to set up tours. The San Diego band Psychotic Waltz, who are good friends with the Sledd bunch, was recently in Europe for a month: Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Germany (mind you, that doesn’t necessarily translate as well as it might: “Around here,” Doug says, “they can’t get their shoes shined”). Psychotic Waltz isn’t signed to Chainsaw, but Woody did the engineering. With Sledd, however, he is not only engineering their CD but paying for most of the studio time, doing their bookings, and acting as sound engineer at some of their gigs. This is an unusually hands-on partnership; he clearly sees some future with this band. “The melody and the harmony of their music is really cool. Not alternative, not metal, but heavy."
Woody has in mind a Southwestern U.S. tour, then Japan or Europe, probably Japan. The Europeans, Woody says, are more into a straight-ahead thrash-metal style; Sledd fits more into a Japanese market, which embraces more diversity in its heavy rock music.
For now they’re doing premixes; they hope the CD will be ready by early March.
“Hey, tough guy!” Cary calls Woody. Actually, he calls everyone that. His voice comes from somewhere deeper, it’s the voice of a man 40 pounds heavier, opening out of his vocal chords and mushrooming into audio space. The/re working on a song called “It’s a I Je.” Cary wrote the lyrics, which deal with hypocrisy in high places:
- You said you’d die for your country
- Coming straight from the Oval Room
- Oh, it’s a lie...
Woody’s doubling the vocals — that is, recording the same thing twice to make the sound beefier—phrase by phrase, then adding the harmonies and doubling those. Each successful take adds five seconds to the song. Woody rolls the tape back, feeds Cary what’s already been recorded, and then at the instant Cary draws breath to add the new phrase. Woody punches the record button and the new phrase goes in.
It's an odd process, recording. One of the most interesting films ever made (or one of the dullest) was Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil. Godard cuts back and forth between footage of the Rolling Stones in a studio (taking “Sympathy for the Devil” from its first skeletal idea through interminable small changes to the recording that appeared on Beggar's Banquet) and shots of unidentified student-type revolutionaries wandering around a city, carrying out minor acts of civil disobedience, like spray-painting slogans on walls. Every little bit adds up, Godard seems to be saying, but in the process he manages to deglamorize both revolution and rock ’n’ roll to the point where no sane member of the audience would ever want to be a Trotskyite or a musician.
Woody thinks of Cary’s voice as being the band’s big selling point, as sounding much like Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. “Plus he’s got great stage presence. They're just a total pro unit. At Carnival ’97 the other bands were nervous watching them. They were going, ‘Wow, that’s a total pro unit.’ ”
While Mike is around, Woody seems content to punch buttons and play engineer while Mike is the ears, listening, unsmiling, for a fractionally late entry, a slight flutter. If Woody is directing sound, Mike is directing taste.
“The intro sounds killer now. Your double is perfect,” Woody says.
To be good, a guitarist, like a violinist, needs to be an obsessive, and this aspect of production, going over and over every single phrase listening for the slightest flaw, is also obsessive. But in addition to his concentration, Mike has sharp ears (unlike Dino or even Woody) and can articulate what is wrong or what needs to be done differently. Every musician needs something to do when it’s time to leave the wild road trips to younger players, and it strikes me that Mike is on a geometrical learning curve toward being a producer, though that goal seems a long way away. “I’ve got so many things going on in my life, I can’t even go in there and focus,” he says in his slow drawl. “I’m working 50 hours a week, and I have a family. I’m capable of doing it, but I can’t put in the effort.”
All this roll-punch-sing-rollback-listen-comment stuff goes on for over an hour, and then people have to split. To give them an idea what the/ve got so far, Woody adds in the ten guitar tracks, the two keyboard tracks, the basses, and the drums. They sound, well, like a real band.
Yet success isn’t always simply a matter of expensive time in a good studio and the elaborate packaging of sounds. That night I notice in the June ’97 copy of Wired that Jyoti Mishra (a.k.a. White Town) mailed out five copies of an EP he’d recorded in his bedroom using an Atari, free software, and an old multitrack. Without any promotion, his song “Your Woman” was picked up by BBC Radio, and four weeks later the unknown 30-year-old had signed with EM I and entered the UK charts at number one.
What Dino calls “our studio in El Cajon” turns out to be a jumbo garage, perhaps 9-by-25 feet, in one of those storage-rental places: a hundred bucks or so a month, built-in security, parking six feet away, and no neighbors to bother. It’s a brilliant solution to the need for cheap rehearsal space, but it has another, nonfiscal cost: in that space, surrounded by Sheetrock dividers and cement floor, the music is deafening. The drum kit alone sends shock waves through the bones of the skull; when Cary plugs in his mike, leads and feedback screech out of the speakers, and everyone winces in agony. Otherwise, the guys only notice the volume when they step outside—“Jesus Christ, man, that’s loud!” In the middle of it all, they act as if they’re in a chamber orchestra.
No sign of Pete, who is out serving a subpoena. Doug and I, discussing archaeology (his father’s hobby: the family went to sites all over the world), go around the comer to a supermarket in search of earplugs. Doug has tinnitus, for which he’s now taking an herbal remedy to improve the blood flow to the area. He’s amazed the whole band doesn’t have ear trouble. We discuss loudness in rock music. I bring up Grand Funk Railroad, who were supposed to send people home with bleeding ears. He talks about a notorious Who concert that was so loud the entire audience suffered hearing damage. The Southern rock band Molly Hatchet once asked 4th and B’s Buhrkuhl to provide 132 decibels; Buhrkuhl told me he delivered. Decibels rise geometrically: every 10 db increase represents a doubling in volume: 132 db is louder than a jet on takeoff. “That’s stupid,” Doug says. “Plus it messes up your sound guy.” Doug is a connoisseur of earplugs. As we roam the store, he can’t find his favorite brand but points out the ones the gun clubs use. He settles on a brand that comes with a carrying case he can slip in his pocket and take onstage. He offers me a couple, which I accept. Then I realize the journalistic predicament of not wanting to go deaf but wanting to hear what the band says between numbers. I settle on the absurd solution of sticking an earplug in my left ear and turning that one toward the band while they’re playing, then the right ear when they stop playing and start talking. I look like a nodding-dog toy on the dashboard.
They warm up by improvising, Mike, Dino and Doug falling in together as if this is something they’d rehearsed for months. Dino and Doug sound at times like John Bonham and John Paul Jones. Cary sings with a cigarette or a bottle of mineral water in one hand, addressing an imaginary audience beyond the wall two or three feet in front of his face.
Mike is offering Cary advice again. “You can make more melodic shifts. You could try a Dorian minor there.” Mike is practicing scales, for heaven’s sake, sitting on a backless office chair with one caster bent so it wobbles slightly.
If Mike isn’t the best lead guitarist in San Diego, he’ll do until the other guy shows up. He’s been playing since he was 5. At 7, he played in church in front of a couple of hundred people. At the age of 14, in 1981, he took up electric guitar after hearing Ozzy Osbourne's guitarist Randy Rhoads. “His sound, his sense of melody and fire. His passion. When I heard his solos, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I was obsessed with him for a long time, and I guess Jimmy Page, too, as far as songwriting, if not playing lead.”
The word “obsessed” is well chosen. “I was doing a lot of drugs, I was heavily into speed. I played 20 hours straight. I’d play until the skin was falling off my fingers. From when I was 15 until when I was 19, I’d play six hours a day, minimum. I went into rehab the night before my 19th birthday, got involved with NA. I fell in love for the first time and kind of neglected the guitar. I can’t have played more than three hours a week for the next two years, from when I was 19 until I was 20 and a half.
“Then we broke up and I was all tore up, and I got even more obsessed. I was a closet case.” He moved to New York and started playing open jams in bars with his stepfather, who played guitar and blues harp, and his stepfather’s cousin, who also played guitar. He slaved over what was known as “neoclassical fusion” or “shredding" —a kind of jazz Paganini, playing rock-fusion-style music with the speed and cleanness of the classically trained musician (Vinny Moore, Joe Satriani, Yngwie Malmsteen), shredding the beat into as many tiny notes as possible. The audience consisted mostly of fellow musicians, an intensely competitive scene. “Everyone was watching to see— how fast and clean can you play?” After a year he got sick of the crowds and of living in New York City. In 1989, at 21, he was back in San Diego, working construction again. On the radio, shredding was going full bore, but only a couple of San Diego guitarists—he names Brett Ellis and Steve Cox — could pull it off, especially onstage. (A surprising number of technically skilled guitarists suffer from stage fright: it must come from spending all those years alone in a dark room, playing their spatulate fingers off.) He hooked up with a band called Stallion for a year, then played, recorded, and got airplay with Rise or Fall, who were closer to fusion than blues-based hard rock (“intricate melodic-type metal, Queensryche meets Extreme meets Mr. Big,” he says, struggling to find a description).
Around 1993 he quit music altogether and worked as a project manager for Phoenix Enterprises. After two years he was wooed by Nemesis to play in their as-yet-unnamed originals band-to-be. “We jammed. It was fun. I enjoyed it, and we ended up writing a song the second time we played, so I guess we clicked.
“Now I don’t even practice or play by myself. Ever. I’m either playing at a gig or not playing. I didn’t even touch a guitar for, like, two weeks before [Rock Carnival ’97]. I just went down there and played. I don’t have time to practice. I’m working 40,50 hours a week—lately it’s been more like 50 — and I’m working 2 hours away. I’ve been up at Mammoth, and I’m out of town for a week. We do all the Home Depots in seven states out here.”
Mike is easily bored musically, a perfectionist. If the band plays the same gig twice, he’s likely to hate the second show. “I’m not happy with anything that’s on tape. What they’re happy with, I don’t like. It’s still good, I just have higher expectations.”
In his own quiet way, he is as ambitious as Dino and Pete, though it’s a different kind of ambition. He can hear sounds that he can’t yet record, given the budget, and it frustrates him. “These guys that go out and record for Atlantic Records use up half a million dollars. Jimmy Page, he had his own recording studio; he probably used 50 different guitar sounds. On our CD so far I’m using maybe 6 different guitar sounds.”
Dino, Mike, and Doug are wearing Seattle shorts — knee-length jeans. Cary leaps and does a 180 spin. Someone starts practicing drums in another storage locker nearby. Dino is scornful. “I was playing like that when I was six fucking years old.”
Grenade Head Arrives
“Hey, Keith Emerson’s here! Crankenstein’s here! Hey, grenade head!” Pete turns up at last, looking more the stockbroker than Cary: gold-rimmed glasses, striped shirt and tie, long hair pulled back tight, the tail tucked inside his collar.
As soon as he starts playing, the businessman face is gone and the mouth-open-in-orgasm/dead-fish face is back. Before Mike has to go, they run through four more songs. Every song has at least two or three changes of pace, and within each passage the rhythm section is constantly mixing it up, more like fusion with a metal vocal style. Dino never plays the same pattern twice, and I find myself thinking of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, going full circle. I wonder what the headbangers will make of this.
Now some good news: Charmaine, the manager of the storage units, drops by and mentions that the guy who’s been stealing equipment from an extra storage area has been arrested. They know the guy, he’d been trying to cozy up to them at gigs. Sledd was never actually robbed, but it’s a musician’s nightmare: almost nobody has instrument insurance.
When it’s time to pack up, the band gather around me, asking if I think they’ll make it. I tell them I haven’t a clue. I have no idea what audiences want these days.
“Ain’t that the truth,” Doug says. “Nobody’s got a clue.”
Besides, I say, my track record in predicting success has never been good. When I first heard the Beatles in 1964, I couldn’t stand them.
“Me, too, man,” says Pete.
“In 1964 you were one fucking year old!” yells Dino.
“What can I say?” Pete grins. “I had good taste early.”
“Hey,” Dino says, forgetting for a moment where he is. “You can’t call us just a garage band now, can you?”
Beyond All That
Writing about music, Elvis Costello said, is like dancing about architecture — not so much stupid as
just completely on the wrong bus. For all of Dino’s talk about the keys to success, Cary’s Transylvanian thing, the metal/rock/techno/industrial labeling, for all of the superstructure of showmanship and glamour, Sledd’s future will depend on something far more simple and ruthless.
It finally hit me that what Jimmy Page — and perhaps Robert Plant — had that set them apart was something that can barely be described or understood, let alone practiced for years on the road: the ability to put a simple, powerful verbal phrase with a simple, powerful musical phrase so they add up to a musical statement of such immediate shape and impact that once they’re combined, they slam and fuse. From then on, it’s impossible to think of the phrase “com-mun-i-ca-tion breakdown” and hear a different melody, or to hear different words for those notes.
All the musicianship and execution and stage experience in the world is no substitute for that strange talent. It may come after an apprenticeship playing standards, as it did for the Stones and even the Beatles, but it may turn up in some scruffy, no-account Jewish kid from Where-the-fuck, Minnesota, who can barely sing, strum three chords, or suck a harmonica. All you can say is that when it happens, people will immediately look up, their attention caught by that primitive under-the-conscious-attention reflex that gives it the shadowy freeway to our musical unconscious, where it will bug us all day, no matter how trite we think the melody, no matter how puerile the lyrics. Whatever else you may think of “Stairway to Heaven,” it has the one paramount quality of great art: it’s unforgettable.
Who knows if Sledd will ever make it playing originals? Up to a point, they don’t have to: plenty of bands play originals under one name and make an income playing standards at weddings and cruises under another. It’s a tricky path, though. The musicians who last the longest are those who never see themselves as anything but lifers, playing hotels and bar mitzvahs into their 70s. Those who allow themselves the vanity of hoping to be something better seem to give up sooner, feeling failure and rejection in even a halfway successful gig.
On the way back to San Diego in Dino’s car, I find myself wondering if the wild days are behind them and whether it’ll be any different now if they tour Germany or Japan.
Dino thinks about this. “It’s different when you’re playing one city, moving on, playing another city. If you play a bunch of gigs in one place, you get to feeling like you own that city, man. Then you get really wild.” Like Reno? “Yeah. There was a time when we owned Reno. Now we’ve matured. We’re professionals. The music’s the thing that matters. We’re beyond all that crap."