Sex, Drugs, and Kenny Rogers
About halfway through 1984, I found myself in an exam room with my pants around my ankles, while a young female doctor inspected my nether region with a tiny flashlight. She told me in a calm and non-judgmental tone that if I was to lead a promiscuous lifestyle that I would need to practice safe sex. All I wanted to know is if it was curable and would I live. It didn’t help that I had been prone to death anxiety and hypochondria since 7th grade. Just to get the nerve to go to the clinic was like asking an acrophobic to climb a rock face. Looking back, I wonder how someone with such fixations could become so flagrantly irresponsible. Most of it could be attributed, no doubt, to amateur drinking. Everybody knows, (and at the risk of being a rock and roll cliché) the instant karma for a drunken Lothario is the STI. After Jeff moved to Santa Rosa the parties got bigger and the excessive behavior within the band seemed like a competition. We didn’t drink heavily every day, or every weekend, but frequent enough to stay reputable in the party arena. We’d show up to a kegger with a 5th of Jack Daniels. Beer? That’s for beginners, a mere appetizer. By then, I’d been drinking (un)professionally for at least 6 months, and I was pretty lousy at it. I would recommend at least 5 years of training before pulling the boiler-maker stunt. If you’re a light weight on an elementary level, it helps to pace yourself, and maybe eat a little something prior. I did neither, which resulted in spending many a morning after with my face in a toilet. Then Jeff would call that afternoon and say, “Dude! Do you remember leaving with that girl last night?”. The paranoia would then set in, and for days after sluttin’ around I’d be in the bathroom giving myself a thorough inspection, worried that I might’ve caught something. It was almost like I was expecting it to happen.
I had also tried cocaine around this time, which takes me back to the wee hours of a predawn morning. I was wide awake and wired, finishing off discarded beers while everyone was crashed out. When I took a swig of someone’s tobacco juice I decided I had better call it a day. Remembering nights like that is no less brow raising than the last time I thought about it. It’s like Bill Murray in Scrooged when the taxi driver takes him on that tour of his sordid past and Murray’s character is going “wow, I did that.” Yeah, I did that, a lot. But those morning after self-examinations should’ve been less of my nether region and more of a head to toe come-to-Jesus introspective soul search. I was becoming a mess.
I’m trying to understand the psychology of a boy, and the terrible decisions he made. The boy who was obsessed with emulating his childhood heroes and whose ideology was derived from rock magazines and fire and brimstone sermons. The boy whose wonderful, loving parents hardly told him so, but instead taught him more about God’s love. The boy who was raised to do the right thing. The paranoid tee-tot-lar. I want to remember why his moral compass started spinning out of control. But the more time that passes, the stranger that raging 19-year-old becomes. If I’ve learned anything in writing this, it’s of the lies I told myself, and others. Stupid little lies. Like, I used to say I had perfect vision, and even bragged about it, when my eyes were really messed up. From age 12 I began having visual migraines, spots and floaters. I saw stars, perpetually shooting across my vision (I’m seeing them now). I never told anyone and secretly worried I might have a brain tumor or go blind. Eventually I began ignoring it. I got really good at blocking stuff out. For the longest time I used to say that 1984 was one of the best years of my young life. But now, when I think of that summer, regretful events come to the fore while the good times move in the background like extras in a street scene. Back when I could recount that year with a play by play clarity, I obviously only wanted to remember the fun times, (and there were plenty of those) but all the ugly scenes were either embellished to my liking or put in the blind spot of my screwed up vision. I do know that living in domesticity with Leza, and the expectations people had of me, was flipping my psyche and turning me into a rogue. It was a weight of emotion that I’d never experienced before, and I reacted in a cross and selfish way. Playing in a band with a lame work ethic didn’t help either. I thought once Jeff moved to Santa Rosa things would get to rolling again, but his creative output and input was worse than before. The seeds of frustration, laziness, and lack of motivation that had been planted in Rohnert Park were growing into a problem. Uwe was working 60 hours a week so our rehearsals were as infrequent as they had ever been. Did I even think about packing up and moving on? No. I filed my complaints, let it ride and stayed loyal to the cause. My problem was, I just couldn’t be happy with working a regular job, living, and playing the occasional gig. Home life was antithetical to rock and roll. I’d fly straight for a little while then go off course. I needed to prove that I could act and do as I pleased, which didn’t bode well with the other occupants of the house. Sometimes I would take off with the boys and not come home. I’d wake up in a strange place on the other side of town and have to call Leza to come pick me up. Other times I’d get dropped off at the end of Fisher Road thinking up a lie that would set things straight, when my looks and smell told a different story. I wish I could say that I cared about the consequences; that I walked sheepishly down the driveway and promised myself to be a decent person. I didn’t. For now, I was as good as I was going to be.
It was around this time that my dad took an interest in the band. I had sent him the 3 song demo we recorded at Harbor Sound in Sausalito. He called several times to tell me how much he liked the song “Brand New Lover.” One day I was talking to him on the phone and was surprised that he had been trying to pitch us to the record labels down in LA.
“I called all those record places out there.” He said.
“Really, did you have any luck?”
“They was all nice and everything, but they ain’t gonna let you talk to anybody important. I asked them how to get your music to ‘em, and they said you have to know somebody who works there. It’s like Fort Knox out yonder.”
“What do you think we need to do?”
“You need to mail ‘em your all’s music anyway. You never know. Somebody’s gotta hear that ‘Brand New Lover.’ All it takes is one hit song, Kevin.”
It wasn’t really that good a song. The guitar riff and the arrangement was cool but the lyrics were cheesy and the rhymes predictable.
I found a brand new lover
You brought love back to my heart
I was lonely for so long girl
Now my life has a brand new start
It kind of had a country rock vibe, like the Eagles. The complete opposite of the heavy music that was happening in the area. Granted, we weren’t anything like Exodus or Metallica, but if we had played “Brand New Lover” at a metal show, we would’ve been beaten with our own guitars and our car set on fire. Dad said we needed to “write more songs like that one.” He was sure it was a hit. I think because of it’s “country-ness,” it struck a chord in the adults. Sharon and Bert liked it, and Kevin from Heaven called it “my song.” He’d get drunk and do his Texas flat foot dancing and say that’s “My Song! My song!” He’d want us to rewind the tape over and over. “Hey, play MY song again!” It was cool that they liked it, but at the same time, I was skeptical. The adults aren’t supposed to like the music kids like. I wanted to play and write songs that they hated.
Dad offered to pay for us to go back in the studio to record. I was on the fence about his involvement, and found it odd that he was suddenly a song expert. He never showed any interest in my music back home. The only thing he ever said about my guitar playing was, “you’re going to tear that thing up if you don’t stop banging on it like that.” He liked the clean sounds of Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore, and thought the distorted sound I was getting was from me whacking the strings really hard. Whereas some of his views on music were antiquated, other times they were futuristic. He had a weird sci-fi logic about modern recordings. He confused the slick sounds of multi-tracking techniques with fake computer generated instruments.
“Back in the 50’s,” He’d say … “they set up 1 microphone and everybody played into it. Now days, if you want a violin, or a horn, you just push a button and there it is.”
Oddly enough, his wild opinion would become fact – 30 years later you can push a button to get an instrument — but in 1977 I was bewildered by his ramblings. These were the crazy things I had to consider if we were going to be working with my dad. All I knew is that if we wanted to record again, this was our chance. That, if the band couldn’t come up with $125 to rent a practice space, we’d never raise the money for studio time. So I reluctantly accepted Dad’s offer, and his advice. He said the first thing we need to do is copyright our music. He got the forms from the Library of Congress and mailed them to me to fill out. I failed to disclose the fact that “Brand New Lover” wasn’t even our song. It was one of the songs that I stole from the band I was in back in Tennessee. At this point, we’d been playing it for so long that Jeff and I had claimed it as our own. I didn’t think twice when we put it on the first demo tape. I justified it by telling myself that if we ever get a record deal I would come clean and call the guys who actually wrote it. But now, I was taking a step over the line and into the arena of out and out song thievery. Registering music in the Library of Congress was a big deal. This was my chance to do the right thing. When I filled out the copyright forms, under authors I wrote mine and Jeff names. It was a done deal.
My dad called all the studios in the bay area looking for someone we could collaborate with. He had struck up a dialogue with a recording engineer named, Dana Chappelle who worked out of a studio called Different Fur in San Francisco. After some telephone correspondence, Dana drove up to Santa Rosa with some mics and a little 2-track recorder to demo our songs. He was a friendly 30-year-old with a pageboy haircut. It was so bizarre to hear this virtual stranger mention my dad’s name in a house 3000 miles from home. We set up in Leza’s den and recorded almost every song we had. Even though Dana didn’t work at a record label, he was acting like an A&R guy, except one who didn’t focus on songs. He was a sounds man. We talked about drum and guitar tones and records we liked. Dana was nuts about the latest Brian Adams record and wanted to capture a similar sound. I didn’t think of us as a pop band but I was open to anything (well, I acted like I was anyway. Working with Dana I’d prove just how inflexible I could be). When he asked what kind of guitar tones I liked, I played him Van Halen’s “Mean Street” and said, “I want my guitar to sound like that.” After a long day of recording, Dana offered up some music biz advice, and explained why some bands are a success and others aren’t. He said we should practice everyday and save money by tossing loose change into a coffee can; said we needed an 8×10 black and white photo and press kit to send to record labels; said we should take frequent trips to LA to network and play gigs. I felt overwhelmed by the list. We could hardly get a practice together. Towards the end of the session we were drinking beer and passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels, getting kind of rowdy. We were letting him know that we were a party band. Dana noticed the importance we placed on the bottle and tried to explain the difference between real and illusion in the world of Rock and Roll.
“You know the drinking and drug thing is more myth than fact. The important thing is the music.”
“Not with us.” Jeff said, laughing.
“It’s okay to have that image. But behind what’s presented to the public is a hard working band. That whole get-up that David Lee Roth does is a gimmick. It’s not whiskey he’s drinking on stage … it’s tea.”
I was literally shocked to hear him say that. I didn’t believe it for a second. Complete blasphemy!
“Nah man, we ain’t faking anything. It’s not an act, it’s who we are.” I said, with all the fervor of an uninformed dork. (And I’m pretty sure I’d stolen that line from Diamond Dave himself).
We sent the songs we demoed to Dad. None of the them really struck him as good as “Brand New Lover” had. He thought the only one with potential was a song called “Nowhere” that Mike and I had written. It was a power ballad, and, although we didn’t know it then, a direct rip off melodically of “I Was Only Joking” by Rod Stewart. It was your standard Bic lighter above the head swaying in a crowd song. The verses were mellow and the choruses were heavy, topped off with my guitar solo that was inspired by the movie soundtrack to “Ice Castles” starring Robbie Benson. The words went something like:
I walked to the meadow, but you’re not there
Where did you go, you’re nowhere
Talked to all your friends
They don’t know where you been
Where did you go, you’re nowhere.
Where did you go, when will you be home
I can’t stand being alone
Just come on home from nowhere
For years I thought that “Nowhere” was chintzy, and Mikes lyrics unimaginative. But as it swirls in my head, I think it was probably one of our strongest songs. And while typing this, I’ve realized after 35 years the ambiguity of Mike’s lyrics. They weren’t really written about a girl; they were most likely about his father, Joe, with whom he had minimal visitation rights. Joe, who was a little bear of a man, lived in Calistoga. I remember making the 30-mile drive over the windy mountain range into Napa Valley with Mike and Tim for a visit one Saturday afternoon. Joe’s apartment overlooked main street where we strolled down to an outdoor café and ate deli sandwiches topped with sprouts and avocado. Later we marveled at Old Faithful as it blew off steam high above the palm trees against a bright blue sky. But the thing I remember most about that day is that Joe had an acoustic guitar (a Martin, I think) and he asked me if I could finger pick like John Prine. I said no, and that I’ve never heard of John Prine. There was a record album on the floor leaning against the stereo console. Pictured was the songsmith sitting on a bail of hay with his guitar behind him. I don’t recall if we listened to it or not. I was no doubt too stubborn to expand my musical horizons anyway, but, that was the first time I’d heard of, or seen the man whom I’d come to adore precisely 10 years later at the age of 29.
Different Fur studio was on 19th street in the mission district of San Francisco. We freaked out when we saw the size of the recording console. Artists like Van Morrison, Earth Wind and Fire and Devo had recorded there, so the intimidation factor was pretty high. My memory of that session is that we were giddy with excitement, slightly ill-prepared, and naïve as hell. I was like the party police that night, monitoring everybody’s beer consumption. I didn’t want to squander any studio time on my dad’s dime, which is exactly what happened the first hour when Uwe decided to change all of his drum heads. It took forever. We sat up my amp in a hallway and used 3 microphones spaced out from close to far. Dana said it was a technique used on Randy Rhoads’ guitar on the Ozzy records. I was totally on board with that. Uwe was set up on a drum riser and Jeff sang along in a vocal booth. Being the son of the money guy I wielded as much power as I could and made my demands. I insisted on using the Van Halen studio playbook and recording live without re-doing any guitar or bass tracks. I didn’t want to wear headphones (like Eddie), and I wanted to stand out in the main room with Mike and Uwe so we could have eye contact. To my dismay, Dana wouldn’t let me leave the hallway door open to hear myself — because my guitar sound would bleed into the drum mics — so I ended up wearing the headphones. My unwillingness to go with the flow went even further when I refused to track two separate rhythm and lead guitars to get a fuller sound. And when Dana suggested I use a different guitar to add variety to one of the songs, I said no way. I also pushed to get each song recorded by the 2nd or 3rd take as to capture spontaneity and feel, which was impossible because Mike couldn’t make it through the first song. He appeared nervous and distracted. I could tell he was amped up on something. I started making accusatory remarks and shooting him dirty looks. All the while, Dana was having trouble getting his Brian Adams drum sound and began obsessing with the snare. After each take he’d ask Uwe to tighten it up. It was kind of reminiscent of SNL’s “more cowbell” skit, except it was, “I’m going to need that snare drum a little tighter.”
We recorded 4 songs, including one called “Little 69” that we thought was our catchiest song. The subject matter, as one might expect from the smutty title, was straight up sex objectification. Rated X with a pop rock vibe. This was years before the hair metal bands like Motley Crue were singing “Girls, Girls, Girls” and Warrant did “Cherry Pie.” We didn’t think twice about the title or lyrics being offensive, and wouldn’t have care what anyone thought anyway. There was worry that my dad might be opposed to the song since he was paying for the studio time, but when we sent him the demo he somehow missed its pornographic message. He caught it later.
After multiple takes we eventually got something satisfactory on tape. Mike overcame his struggles and laid down some good bass tracks. Later we’d find out that his bass was “out of phase” (whatever that meant) and needed to be re-done, which never happened. We ran out of time, and ended up having to track Jeff’s vocals at another studio. I was dumb to think we could waltz in there and knock ‘em out like the pros, like Van Halen. It was a long night, and a lot of work and the process and outcome was nothing like I had imagined. On the ride home I felt beat up and disillusioned.
While all this was going down, dad wanted to play a bigger role and offered to manage and back the band financially, solely on the merit of “Brand New Lover,” which I got tired of hearing about. It was old to us and wasn’t worth all the attention. Plus, it was written by some hometown boys who most likely didn’t even play in a band anymore. We wanted to push “Little 69” and thought that that was the direction our style of rock was headed (and it was if you lived in LA where the hair metal scene was sprouting). The thought of my Dad dictating the songs we played and recorded gave me serious reservations. Even more concerning is that he wanted us to sign a contract! I knew dad didn’t know the first thing about the music business, but he was a big cigar smoking salesman; he could talk to people, and I was glad he wanted to help. Another upside was that Dana had connections in the City and we liked working with him. I also thought it was a way to get the band refocused and working hard again. So I talked to the guys individually and convinced them to do the deal. Dad had a defense lawyer back home (instead of a music lawyer) draw up the contract. He mailed us a copy to read and sign whenever we were ready. I told the guys not to worry about the details that my dad would never screw us. The contract was about 20 pages of tiny print. I had never read 20 pages of anything and wasn’t about to start. Without hesitation, along with Jeff and Mike, I signed the dotted line. (I don’t think they read it either). Uwe was the hold-out. He read and researched every line in the thing with heavy skepticism. After weeks of scrutinizing he finally came around and delivered the signed copy to Leza’s house.
A few days later we met with Dana for dinner in San Raphael. He wanted to introduce us to a girl friend of his who was somehow in the music biz, a publicist or something. Dad had sent Dana a copy of the contract too, I guess to get his opinion … which we got.
“I read the contract Charles sent. I hope you guys didn’t sign it.” Dana said.
“We did. Why?” Jeff answered
“He’s taking 40 percent of everything, your publishing included! For ten years! You’ve gotta get out of it, or ask him to rewrite it.”
“I think Charles is just trying to protect us. I don’t see him screwing us.” Jeff said.
“He’s already screwed you! No record label is going to negotiate a bogus contract like that.”
We finished recording Jeff’s vocals at The Banquet Studios in Santa Rosa, and mixed it at Prairie Sun in Cotati. My dad called me after he received the studio bill from Dana. He was highly pissed off about the cost. It was $3000.
“You can’t tell me that sounds like a 3000-dollar tape. It sounds more like a 300-dollar job. I can’t believe I fell for that.”
“I think we just need to mix it again.” I said
“No, we ain’t doing that. It’s already twice as much as he said it’d be. He flat out lied to me, Kevin.”
$3000 was certainly a lot of money in 1984, but I don’t think Dana intentionally tried to gouge my dad. He just didn’t seem like a guy who would do that. He was a sweet, down to earth person who genuinely wanted to help us. Dad was unshakeable, and maintained that he was ripped off “big time.” He refused to move on with Dana involved. The recording was pretty bare bones, with one guitar, bass, drums and the lead vocal. We didn’t add background vocals, percussion, handclaps, or anything to spice it up. I felt like it was mostly my fault. My obsession with the stripped-down, no overdubs approach, and my refusal to listen, proved that dad was right; it did sound like a 300-dollar demo. But I hated to see Dana go. We were at a crucial point where we could have used his guiding voice. It would’ve been great if he was a song guy, an aspiring producer, instead of a fledgling engineer. We desperately needed someone to listen to our songs, tell us what worked and didn’t … help with the writing and arranging process. Teach us all the different song structures. I think Dana could’ve eventually steered us in the right direction … but would we have listened? Probably not. Without Dana in the picture, I felt trepidation moving forward. He was the closest thing to a mentor the band would ever have.
Because my dad was a businessman and very fugal about his money, getting ripped off right out of the gate would make him shy away from finding another west coast collaborator. He began focusing on more of a cost-efficient endeavor, like getting other artists to cover our songs. After he cut relations with Dana, he flew out to visit and meet with the band. It was his first time in an airplane and I thought it sweet that he’d conquer his fear to come see me. Mike and I drove down to San Jose to pick him up from the airport. On the drive back to Santa Rosa, Dad got down to business and began talking about pitching our songs.
“I can hear Kenny Rogers singing that “Nowhere,” song, and maybe The Oak Ridge Boys doing “Brand New Lover.”
I felt a streak of panic, and thought, is this really the kind of songs we’re writing? We’re supposed to be a rock band! I didn’t want to be radio friendly. I wanted to be subversive, dangerous … bad boys. A band that your parents feared. A band who wrote songs with misogynistic lyrics like “Lil’ 69”! Mike (being the positive one), said something like, “wow Charles, I think that’s an awesome idea.” As they discussed the possibility, I looked out the window wondering what the hell have I gotten myself into. Just a year earlier I couldn’t get far enough away from Tennessee and my family. Now I was in a musical partnership with my Dad. I had invited him into my world, my rock and roll sanctum, and I’m riding down the 101 with him and talking about things like how to penetrate the Kenny Rogers camp.
Summer was winding down and I had been trying to get the courage up to tell Leza how I felt. I kept putting it off until one day a sense of urgency hit me and I couldn’t let another minute pass without clearing my conscience and explaining my complicated heart. Things were quiet around the house that evening. We’d finished dinner and Sharon and Kevin from Heaven were watching “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” in the kitchen. I asked Leza if we could go outside and talk for a few minutes. I hadn’t a clue as to what I was going to say, or how it would come out. It was near dark and the sun was just a sliver of red in the Pacific casting a purple dusk over the valley. I was leaning on the back of her red ’67 Mustang when I burst into tears and told her that I wasn’t in love with her and that I’m sorry for everything. I heaved and convulsed like a little kid does when all the feelings are coming up and you try to breathe in simultaneously, sputtering and backfiring like an old car with bad sparkplugs. She put her arms around me and told me that it’s okay, that she understood. When she let go and leaned on the car beside me, it felt like a hundred pounds had been lifted from my chest. We stood in silence, broken up with my lingering sniffles, and watched the last of the evening commuters crawl up the Sonoma Highway. A cars headlights came bopping up and down the long and wholly drive. It was Bert returning from Safeway. He got out of his 2-40 Z with a 12-pack of Coors under his arm and a brown bag full of his work week’s lunches. He was a predictable man, doing his Sunday night routine. He walked by, smiled at us and said, “hey.” We said “hey” back. Then followed him in, and started over.