The first thing I hear at the Tesla reunion concert is Warrant's "Cherry Pie." My foot hits the floor, the song kicks in. It's like stepping on a butt-rock land mine.
The song is playing on the house system at an Oklahoma City club near the airport. It appears to be fashioned out of rough-hewn lumber and corrugated tin. Though I'm not certain, I'm almost completely sure there is chicken wire somewhere in the room. And there are probably 11 separate, fully functional bars -- not counting between at least three free-standing beer vendors. You can get any kind of beer you want, as long as you want Bud or Bud Light.
There are two levels, and both are densely packed with people. Ecstatic people. Tesla's fans vibrate with anticipation. They have mourned the band's breakup for five years now. From their point of view, Tesla was one of the last great bands of the late '80s, and their departure drastically cut the number of guitar solos played by working American bands.
I agreed with them. Back in the early '90s, I would tell you that Tesla was a band that rocked. When bands could sell more records by blow-drying first and rocking second, Tesla rocked first. But Tesla wasn't so good at the other parts of being rock stars. The drummer is a roofer. He roofs. The lead singer was a truck driver. They have marketable skills. Rock stars don't have marketable skills; that's why they're rock stars.
So Tesla consists of five people who are not rock stars, but who nonetheless rock efficiently and effectively. As a band, they have a lot more in common with their fans than rock stars would care to admit. The band never tried to disguise this, but perhaps they should have; there's very little money in that kind of attitude.
For that matter, there's not much payoff in being a Tesla fan these days, either. After 10 years, five albums and countless tours, only these true believers remained. I'd given up years ago, selling almost all the Tesla records I'd owned. I moved on to something new.
But here, these last hopeful few, the ones who wore out their copy of "Time's Makin Changes" and put together fan sites on the Web, still carried torches for Tesla those five dark years. And now, almost out of nowhere, their patience and their faith are actually being rewarded. They are pumped.
There's no excuse for not talking to these fans, other than the nagging feeling I have that one of them might just beat my ass for lookin' at him funny. But I swallow my fear to hear a few of their stories.
Brandon is 25, wears a cap and is already in line when I pull into the parking lot a full three hours before doors open. I approach him first. I ask him about reunion tours. Are there any he wants to see? No, he says. Has he seen any recently? No. His arms are crossed and he does not smile. He speaks distractedly, looking from the nearby interstate to the doors and back.
Inside I encounter Sondra and Terry, a couple in their late 30s. He is lean and tall, wears a feed cap and tells me only his name. She is bright and friendly and very forthcoming. They bought their tickets two months in advance and drove 80 miles to be here. "Tesla's not like any other band that came out back then," she says, snapping her gum.
Mike is 28, amiable in a black T-shirt and ponytail, and of the fans I've spoken to thus far, he is by a mile the least intimidating, Sondra notwithstanding. Since Tesla broke up, he tells me, he's found other bands he likes, but not many, and the new ones aren't getting played on the radio. Tesla is in a class above its late-'80s cohorts, he says, beyond comparison with the likes of, say, Warrant, or Poison. "Skid Row's the same way," he says. "To put them into that 'hair band' kind of category is ... uneducated, if you will." I will.
At least a third of the fans wear Tesla T-shirts bought at earlier shows. J.T. is one such fan, late-30ish and wearing a T-shirt from the band's last tour. A self-described karaoke host, he spent an entire summer several years ago trying in vain to see Tesla during the Texas leg of that year's tour. Guests at his karaoke night, he tells me, love it when he plays Tesla between singers, "and Whitesnake, AC/DC ... real rock bands. After them, it was all either metal or ... whaddyacallit ..."
"Yeah, that bullshit."
That bullshit, of course, was the revolution that Nirvana wrought, a movement -- or glitch -- populated by rock groups that took a lot of pretense out of the hair bands parading across MTV. Never mind that Telsa never hung on to many pretensions. They were, after all, a band whose biggest hit was "Signs," a cover of a song by a little-known '70s group called the Five Man Electrical Band. Still, Tesla was lumped in with their MTV compatriots, and like the rest of them, they were covered with flannel and forgotten. Almost.
After several brief interviews, I realize I've reached a consensus: We're all happy to be here tonight. Let's celebrate with a $2 longneck.
In the meantime, I notice the number of mullets. I have lived in Oklahoma, a mullet-intensive state if ever there was one, for a quarter of a century now. In that time I have never, ever, ever seen as many mullets as I did while wading through Tesla's fans. I'm clocking about one sighting every 45 seconds, mullets of all ages, sexes and protestant denominations; mullets of every shape, size and color; dry mullets, drippy mullets, boxy mullets, mullets you don't realize are mullets until the guy wearing it whips off his "Bong Loaders' Local 420" hat and turns into a woman who could goddamn well have been my grandmother and had what I can only describe as an Aqua Net Mullet.
Surveying the mullets before me, the welders and the pipe fitters and the truck drivers, their girlfriends and their girlfirends' friends, I flash back to a photo of me and my family when I was about 15 years old. I'm in the back, taller than my mom, dad and sister. I'm wearing fluorescent orange shorts and a purple and green Hawaiian shirt. And there's my hair.
My hair was exactly like the hair at this concert. These good people are wearing my mullet: business in the front, party in the back.
I can kind of laugh at the haircut now, but the bare truth of it is that I feel safer around these people than I ever have or ever will in a room full of guys in khakis and polo shirts. These people never gave up. When the lights came up and the arena emptied, they didn't file out. They waited patiently for an encore five years later.
Me? I cut my hair.
At long last, the opening act takes the stage, and I'll be damned if it isn't some fledgling butt-rock band. I'm baffled. Why on earth -- how on earth -- would anybody actually start a butt-rock band in the year 2001? Somebody did, though, and they are tearing up the stage like George Bush senior was still in office. The lead singer wears orange leather pants. As their 40 minutes of minor acclaim draws to a close, I marvel at the coelacanth-like evolutionary stubbornness of the rock animal, the dedication to the art and act of rocking necessary to scrape up the needed manpower to start and maintain this kind of band in this day and age. Even in Oklahoma.
After the opening band's set, the crowd rushes to all 43 bars and beer stands. Fans are buying two and three Buds at a time. Mullets stand on end. Fans buzz in and out of bathrooms. While I'm in there, the drunk guy at the urinal next to me slurs along with the piped-in music: "DUR-ee DEES, DONE DIRT CHEAP!!!"
I'm standing near the stage, already exhausted and thinking of the two-hour drive home after the show. Suddenly, three things happen: Everyone in the room screams; I am trampled in a crush toward the front of the room; and Troy Lucketta ticks off four furious beats before the entire band kicks the door in with the first four chords of "Comin' Atcha Live," a song undoubtedly written specifically as a set opener. The room thrums like railroad tracks, and fists pump, and fans scream, scream, scream, and with the words "I'm a mean machine/I'm the kind you don't wanna meet," Jeff Keith, one of the greatest (and probably the most underrated) rock singers of all time, lets us know what we're in for.
He sounds incredible. The band sounds incredible. The rhythm section, drummer Lucketta and bassist Brian Wheat, are thumping the asses of the assembled throng, while guitarists Tommy Skeoch and Frank Hannon are blazing up one wall and down the other -- harmonized guitar solos, if you can believe that -- playing in a way I'd thought lost forever, a sort of 33-played-on-45 white-boy-blues I now remember these two excelling at. I had never imagined a Tesla show being this good, the band being this tight, this alive and well and generally kick-ass. The only time I would've bothered imagining in the first place was back when I was buying their albums, the first time they got popular. Ten years later, the band sounds better than ever. Who knew?
As "Comin' Atcha" finishes up, and the fans somehow manage to scream louder than before, Jeff Keith does himself one better with a rawk-out staple, an honest-to-Pete rock star yowl of the name of the town where tonight's gig takes place: "Thank you very much Oklahoma Cit-eeeeeeeEEAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!!"
At this point I realize that for all practical purposes, I've actually been transported inside my copy of the band's most successful album, 1992's live "Five Man Acoustical Jam," the only Tesla CD I kept a copy of after late-teen embarrassment set in and I sold nearly all of my butt-rock collection. (On that album, right after Track 1, "Comin' Atcha Live," we hear from Keith, "Thank you very much Philadelphi-aaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!")
It also occurs to me that this is something everyone should get to do at least once. More than eight years after, I'm spending an evening inside one of my favorite albums from high school.
It's as if I'm actually in "Five Man Acoustical Jam," and not just in the album, but in my '74 Dodge Dart. I'm a big, dumpy 16-year-old with a mullet and a trench coat, banging heads with my two reject friends on a Saturday night, driving around after not going on dates with girls, and still singing along:
"Love will find a way."
Not to this car it won't. But that doesn't matter a goddamn bit, 'cause all the love we need is right here in the car, and yeah it sure sucks we can't get dates, but who gives a shit? We've got a car full of rock 'n' roll -- honest-to-god rock, not the kind they crank out in freezing offices inside glass towers somewhere in L.A., but the kind you can only get out of working your ass off, crashing on friends' couches, rehearsing in shitty garages and playing empty clubs for half the door. Stuff we've never done, us three losers in the rusty Dart in Nowhere, USA. But all of that is stuff that we three sophomores from suburbia will never have to do, because these guys on the stereo have done it for us, and we're riding it down a four-lane waste of fast food restaurants with big parking lots, headed nowhere at all and having a hell of a time.
Here at the concert, Tesla is blasting in front of me, and I don't care if I'm being nostalgic. Because I'm here, and it's a uniquely rejuvenating experience.
I'm thinking about how I sold my entire butt rock collection in embarrassment, trying to pretend like I was never so uncool. I bought Charlie Parker records and tried to pretend that I'd always had great musical taste. In reality, of course, I was actually just a 16-year-old moron with a different Van Halen T-shirt for all five days of the week.
When I got rid of Tesla, Hagar-era Van Halen, Skid Row and Guns N' Roses I was practicing a ritual everyone goes through eventually, one that takes as many shapes as there are people trying to reinvent themselves after their adolesence is supposedly over, wiping from history the loser they once were. Besides, there was Pearl Jam to listen to! Nirvana! I sold my copy of "Nevermind" in 1995. I sold my copies of both of Guns N' Roses' "Use Your Illusion" albums in 1993. I miss "Use Your Illusion" more. Ditto the entire Skid Row collection. Ditto Tesla's "Mechanical Resonance," "Great Radio Controversy" and "Psychotic Supper."
The rest of the night in Oklahoma City, the rest of the show, went exactly like that first song. The fans screamed, and the fans sang, and most notably when "Signs" started up, I sang right along with them.
Remember this, I kept telling myself, always remember this one thing: No matter how far you think you've come, you will always be, in some very important way, the same person you were when you were 16 years old. And that is nothing, nothing to be ashamed of.