As I fought to stave off heatstroke and remain lucid, the rock star stood in front of me, perfectly composed. He wore boots, stylish jeans, a black military-inspired shirt and a pair of aviator sunglasses. His hair was perfectly coiffed, and he didn’t seem at all bothered by the sweltering conditions. He was best known for being a vocalist and bass player, not a guitarist, but I wanted to get his take on the guitar hero phenomenon.
My vision blurred and I struggled to stand straight as the canvas tent seemed to whirl around me. We were in the closed end, and absolutely not one molecule of air was moving. I felt clammy and a chill ran across the back of my neck. The heat index was 120 degrees. Passing out would be humiliating, but it wouldn’t be the first time medics had been called to help some barbecued soul that day.
I asked a question, and the sweat that flowed down my face flew off my lips, hitting him. He didn’t seem to notice — or he pretended not to.
“You just do it because you can’t not do it,” Kip Winger calmly said as he explained why musicians stick with their craft in spite of dwindling audiences and reduced record sales. “You feel tortured by not doing it. Plain and simple, man,” he said.
Winger knew about torture. After performing with Alice Cooper in the mid-'80s, he launched his own eponymous group, scored two platinum records and had a few massively successful singles. But a running joke on the Beavis and Butt-Head television show, along with an appearance in Playgirl, reduced the band to such a punch line that denim-clad rockers in muscle cars joined forces with intellectual music critics in Greenwich Village to criticize Winger. I always kind of liked the band and enjoyed the infectious riff of their biggest single, "Seventeen." Since the '80s, Winger has focused on what his Web site calls “music without limits.” His orchestral works have been performed by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, and the San Francisco Ballet has featured his music.
Desperate for some air, I dashed out of the tent when we were finished, hoping I could make it to the pathetically air-conditioned VIP food area before I collapsed. Winger stood motionless like a lizard, waiting for the next hapless journalist to stumble in while I tripped on an iron stake that held down the tent’s guylines.
The VIP section was only slightly cooler than out in the sun. In the corners of the massive tent, portable air-conditioner units wheezed out currents that felt like warm bathwater. Industrial-sized box fans were stationed in front of the air conditioners in an attempt to disperse the air. Sunburned concertgoers sank into sagging plastic chairs in front of the fans, screaming to chat with each other over the noise, their hair blowing in the breeze. This VIP area cost a couple hundred extra bucks, but it wasn’t a swanky respite for high rollers. With so many deflated, sweaty folks scattered around, it looked more like a hastily thrown-together FEMA setup for catastrophe refugees.
Frantically trying to lower my body temperature, I dipped a blue bandanna I had been using to clean my camera into an ice bucket and wrapped it around my neck. Then I collapsed into a folding metal chair and put my head on the table as I felt that falling sensation that comes before you pass out.
As I lost consciousness for a second, all I could think of was that I had spit on Winger, the guy who had a hit single in 1988 proclaiming his lust for a seventeen-year-old girl — and that I hoped I would recover in time to interview a guy who rocked a completely serious and straight-faced tune called “To Hell with the Devil.”
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Rocklahoma was a music festival dedicated, largely, to glam metal bands of the '80s. Located in Pryor, Okla., about fifty miles east of Tulsa, the inaugural event in 2007 welcomed a reported 100,000 fans who poured in to a remote field. Internet reports were full of naked chicks in the campgrounds, reunited '80s legends performing songs that hadn't been heard for decades, and leather-clad rockers drinking with sweaty fans — an altogether unholy congregation devoted to metal.
So my expectations were high for the festival, and I was eager to spend a Friday and Saturday at the show. But I was unprepared for the pure, unadulterated fucking heat of the Oklahoma — sorry, Rocklahoma — weekend.
I grew up in a Kentucky farmhouse with no air-conditioning. My Mississippi apartment in college had only a weak window unit that constantly froze up. I spent one summer rolling out pink insulation in new-home construction and another one trudging behind a foul-smelling tractor throwing 75-pound hay bales onto a wagon. I lived in Hawaii for two years, and I had spent hours on the beach and had hiked the Na Pali Coast. Still, I’ve never encountered the hellish level of torture that greeted me in rural Oklahoma.
My skin tingled like it was getting sunburned — even in the shade — from the ambient air temperature alone. Stick your arm into the oven to retrieve a pair of baked potatoes that have been cooking away at 450 degrees for three hours. That’s what it felt like.
The grass crunched under my feet as I dashed into the shade of the Holiday Inn Express portico. Other fans streamed in and out of the hotel as the facility’s sound system played Judas Priest’s 1986 single “Turbo Lover” instead of the usual lobby Muzak. Based on people’s cleanliness, you could tell if they were returning from the concert grounds or just departing for the day.
I looked over my shoulder, and a sunburned dude with a mullet and a tattoo of the cover to KISS’s "Rock and Roll Over" album on his shoulder staggered through the lobby toting a filthy cooler covered in Pabst stickers.
“Stay cool out there, bud,” he said. After a quick shower and a change, I felt infinitely better than I had when I passed out in the VIP tent and when I spit on Kip Winger, but now I was nervous about my upcoming interviews that weekend. I had one confirmed chat and another I hoped to score.
“It’s a hall pass for life,” Winger had told me. “It’s like ‘get out of jail free’ for life. You’re good. Everyone is looking for an escape, and the guitar hero is an escape.”
Over the years, that had certainly been true for me. Imaginary concert halls formed my equivalent of a guided meditation cave, the walls ringing with guitar chords and amplifier feedback. Tyler Durden’s power animal might have been a nut job named Marla, but mine was an image of leather-clad rockers clutching customized instruments. In high school, I donned headphones and retreated into the music whenever I was stressed about my nervousness around girls. I cranked the volume knob as far as it would go and imagined myself in Ratt, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, or other bands, confidently gazing down at legions of groupies while ripping a solo.
More recently, I found myself laying in bed each night listening to music and visualizing myself confidently strumming a cool Charvel or Jackson axe in front of massive amplifiers to escape frighteningly escalating fertility treatments and my ever-present concerns about going all-in.
“I just don’t see what the difference is,” my wife Lara argued.
“There’s a helluva distance between ‘Trying’ with a capital t and ‘trying’ with a little t,” I said.
Lara was a determined PhD from Johns Hopkins with a burgeoning career as a public health researcher. She was a consummate planner, so it wasn’t a surprise when she expressed concern over the amount of time it was taking us to have children. She suggested seeing a fertility specialist, but I balked at what seemed — to me — to be a huge step.
“Once you get doctors involved, there’s all this pressure,” I said. “It consumes your life. I’m not ready for that. Plus, I’ve heard it’s obscenely expensive. Let’s just keep ‘not preventing’ instead of ‘Trying’ with a capital t.”
“Your concerts and guitar trips are also expensive,” she said. “You don’t have a problem with that.” I didn’t have a response, and so I managed to change the subject. I grabbed my iPod and promptly lost myself in Steve Vai’s instrumental tune “Whispering a Prayer.” Intellectually, I knew that musicians had just as many problems as so-called normal people. But in the sphere of my imagination, sheltered from the outside world by noise-canceling headphones, periodically replaced by the fantasy guitar hero identity I crafted for myself, everything seemed flawless and untroubled.
I had escaped the office and the discussions about children, cashed in some vacation time, and now found myself baking in an empty field in Oklahoma. And that’s how I ended up sitting across from a pious guitar god who signs autographs with the tagline “J.C. rocks!” and his wife, who founded an organization called Hookers for Jesus.
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Inside the lobby of the Hard Rock Hotel in Tulsa, it looked like Headbangers Ball had invaded an old lady’s beauty parlor. Elderly women in pantsuits and orthopedic shoes shuffled around while mascaraed rockers with chunky wallet chains and biker boots strode by.
A heavyset woman approached a slender, long-haired dude slumped on a chair across from me and asked, “Are you the Night Ranger? I’m supposed to pick him up.”
The two main guys from Anvil walked through the lobby. The Canadian band had recently achieved some level of renown after a touching and poignant documentary showed how they refused to give up the rock even after decades of failure. Steve “Lipps” Kudlow, the lead singer and guitar player, got clocked by an older lady pushing a luggage rack with a funeral arrangement on it. Autograph’s 1985 tune “Turn Up the Radio” played on the house sound system as slot machine chimes punctuated the beat and a few geezers with VFW hats yelled at their pals.
My interview subject was Oz Fox, guitarist for the Christian metal band Stryper and the guy who had given me a single music lesson in Pasadena. He sat down on the couch and clearly didn’t remember me. Next to him on the couch was his new wife, an attractive woman named Annie Lobert. The couple had received a lot of media attention when they broadcast their wedding ceremony on the Internet. Their unusual — and opposing — backstories made for intriguing media reports.
Born Richard Martinez, the young boy’s parents had split up, so his musical exposure was divided. Mom was into pop, rock and country, while Dad grooved to jazz and urban music. One of the young Martinez’s earliest musical loves was Buck Owens and His Buckeroos. The band had a 1966 record called Open Up Your Heart that featured chicken pickin’ performed by the early rock and country legend James Burton, and it transfixed Martinez for hours on end. An aunt purchased a small-scale acoustic guitar for the boy, and older uncles introduced him to Cream and Jimi Hendrix. His musical interest ultimately moved to Santana, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, KISS, and UFO. By the time he was seventeen or eighteen, Martinez was leveraging his Sabbath obsession by mimicking Ozzy Osbourne’s distinctive voice. The young man from Southern California proved so adept with that famously drug-damaged British vocal styling that his friends began calling him “Oz.” Although he might be able to impersonate the Prince of Darkness vocally, the guitar was ever present.
“I wouldn’t go out anywhere,” Fox said. “I would sit in my room and practice and go over riffs and stuff, and I would do that until three or four in the morning. Then, I would fall asleep with my guitar on my lap and I’d wake up and it would be like noon. I’d be like, ‘Oh man, I gotta get to school!’ And school was already half over. So I would make it to vocal jazz ensemble class, where I used to sing in a choir. And then I didn’t want to go to the last period, so I would split. Take off, go home, and get back on my guitar.”
The budding musician established an early musical goal when his clock radio went off one day and the DJ introduced Van Halen’s supercharged version of the Kinks classic “You Really Got Me.”
“I went down and bought the album that day and sat there listening to Ed [Van Halen] playing everything, just going, ‘Wow!’” Fox said. “So that was one of my goals, just to learn as many Van Halen songs note for note as possible. So I got through ‘Runnin’ with the Devil,’ which was easy compared to all the other ones. I went through a handful of songs and just learned them all note for note. That’s when I used to go jam with my friends, and Robert and Michael Sweet were amazed by that — that I had Van Halen down.”
Those friendly jam sessions with Robert and Michael Sweet led to a band called Roxx Regime. The friends eventually re-christened the group Stryper. The band’s stage presence and branding came from the Bible verse Isaiah 53:5. It states, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: The chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his stripes we are healed.” Using that line as inspiration, the band assumed a bumblebee motif and deconstructed their name to say it stood for “Salvation Through Redemption Yielding Peace, Encouragement, and Righteousness.” The new unit hit the studio and started releasing Christian-themed metal records with their 1984 debut "The Yellow and Black Attack!"
While every other band of the era distributed pussy passes to hotties in the crowd, Stryper handed out Bibles to the audience during their shows. Their biggest hit was a syrupy power ballad entitled “Honestly,” but their records and live shows were surprisingly heavy, with speedy guitar licks traded off by Michael Sweet and Oz Fox. During the '80s, Fox had a cumulus cloud of black hair, teased and bouffanted to the ceiling. But now he wore his curly locks more closely trimmed and sported a narrow soul patch running from his bottom lip to his chin.
Annie Lobert sat next to him. She had been a prostitute for sixteen years in Hawaii, Minneapolis, and Las Vegas. After leaving the sex industry, Lobert founded Hookers for Jesus, a faith-based organization that focuses on helping people “escape and recover from the harmful effects of human sex trafficking and prostitution.” The organization was leading a transitional home for women being rescued from human sex trafficking called the Destiny Center. Published reports said Lobert now walked the streets of Las Vegas handing out Bibles and administering to prostitutes. She was petite, with shoulder-length hair dyed blonde on top and black underneath. During my chat with Fox, she occasionally nodded in agreement with his references to passion and dedication and rewards.
“I still play in bars for twenty people that I get sixty-five to seventy-five bucks a night to play because it’s my passion,” Fox said. “I just love doing it. It’s what I like to do, and I feel good doing it, and I feel like I’m accomplishing something by doing that. Whether it’s ten people in a bar or twenty thousand people at a concert, it really makes no difference to me because I’m playing.”
Fox still devotes significant amounts of time to practicing, sitting down each day with an established regimen of exercises and techniques to polish. And he maintains his usual repertoire of leads and licks for whenever they might be useful.
“I have a handful of licks I really like,” he said. “I’ve got some mixolydian stuff that I do. I do my own whammy-descending mixolydian thing. I’ve got a couple of pentatonics that I do that are just kind of similar. I would use them all the time, familiar licks that I just whip out because I know how to do them really fast. But, what I’m doing is just striving to get to the next level of playing every time.”
That striving aspect, the desire to get better, to improve, and to learn new things was a hallmark of the guitar hero. Even though the crowds might expect to hear the same classic tunes over and over again, the musicians by themselves never seemed to stop pushing.
“You get a certain amount of dignity from being a great player,” he said. “And if you can pull something off that’s really amazing and you practice it hard enough, then people start going, ‘Wow, dude! That’s amazing.’ There’s something that comes from that. You get a self-gratification.”
I tried to think of a time — any time — in my life when I’ve done anything amazing. I was a decent student but never the valedictorian. I played a fair bit of sports but didn’t get any MVP trophies or mash letters from college coaches. During a study date turned grope session in college, I think a brunette coed breathlessly said I was amazing as she stood up, leaned against the desk, and pulled my head under her sundress. But realistically speaking, it was probably her boredom with Reformation Drama that led to the exclamation more than any spine-tingling performance on my part. Like mine, most lives are filled with a sort of mundane, unremarkable level of skill and success. Yet, guitar heroes get on stage every night and do things the audience can only dream of. While the rest of us waver and debate and hesitate, these guys pour everything into their instruments with no reservations — a lack of reserve that I needed to learn.
Excerpted from "Power Chord: One Man's Ear-Splitting Quest to Find His Guitar Heroes" (It Books) by Thomas Scott McKenzie. Published with permission of It Books.