Rock Stars at Fifty: The Lost Bobs
Cars lined the highway for a mile in each direction, while parking attendants with flashlights directed those still arriving. A crowd of more than 500 surrounded the stage gyrating wildly on the dance floor.
From my vantage behind the keyboard, I caught glimpses of ladies jockeying to be closer to the band. My eyes darted from fingers striking the piano chords for “Reelin in the Years” over to our drummer and bass player who smiled back at me.
We were “in our groove”. The singer nodded his head up and down while our lead guitarist ripped into another solo that brought even those in the farthest corner of the bar to their feet.
My mind flashed to the music channel’s “Inside the Music” dramas. Each band’s story was so predictable—a wonderful rise, drama, then the inevitable fall. I looked at each of my band mates, immersed in the visceral joy of creating music, and I wondered if we could avoid the
temptations and pitfalls of life as rock stars.
Would this glorious moment of electric harmony and crowd frenzy signal our peak? Or, would our story turn the way of all “Behind the Music” band movies: Fame, jealousy, greed, addictions, creative friction,the pressure to perform—would it tear us apart in the end?
Unlike the classic rock bands we adulated, we weren’t in our twenties when the “big moment” came. We started our
band as fifty year olds.
We are the Lost Bobs. And, this is our story.
You already know what happens to every rock band. Their destinies are sealed before they pick up the second hand Hofner bass.
Two guys meet on a double decker bus and show each other a few chords. They find the charismatic singer at the fete. They dump the average drummer for a great one. They master their instruments, play before the queen, then self-implode in a supernova of creative differences.
I too, met my band mates at the bus stop. Bob, the singer, and I rode to high school together.
You could say he was the “clever one”. A combination of John, Mick, Brian, Kurt, Elvis, all rattling around inside a very smart skull. His I.Q. outpaced the average by twenty points. On top of this, he had a photographic memory and rather than study, would scan textbook minutes before a test then turn in a perfect paper.
Of course, I was jealous of this extra-ordinary gift, but I also sensed that it encouraged dangerous shortcuts which would someday lead to a fall.
From the upbeat chime of “Reelin in the Years”, we kicked straight into “Soul Man”, with its bouncing horns then “Suffragette City”, with its stinging guitars.
Dancers flowed out onto dance floor, around three bars, across a parking lot and out along docks that stretched along a moonlit waterway.
We were approaching what we called “the frenzy point” in the gig: a time that occurred about mid-way through our second set, when the audience alcohol kicks in and the music hit its full charge.
Leggy dancers mimicked acts of love. Drunk and randy men stumbled into the melee in hopes of getting lucky. Sometimes the inebriated dominos stayed upright.
Jimbo, our bass player attributed this phenomenon to his super funky playing. I met Jim at a bus stop as well. We saw our kids off to middle school. He mentioned in passing he played the bass in college, so we got together once a month to jam.
In the band, he was our black soul guy even though he was quite white. He dug the Motown sound, the funkadelic 60’s, jazz; all the typical bass player stuff. Motown had James Jamerson. Jimi Hendrix had Noel Redding. Our “Jimbo” had the hair and rhythm of both.
His 500-watt Ampeg cabinet provoked spontaneous displays of libidinal energy. Tonight, the first ten rows or so of dancers in front of us were all women who at the moment were screaming the words to Jumping Jack Flash.
Suddenly, a spontaneous act of God or perhaps alcohol
Occurred: They lifted their tops in unison to each chorus
On the word, “FLASH!” Fun? Yes it was. Problematic?
Well, lets pause right here for a moment and return to
Our theme: the ever repeating plot of rock documentaries. Mick becomes enamored with his ability to pull birds and forgets his band. Axle shows up late for sound checks while Slash and the rest of the band simmers. Jimmy and Robert go on the road, entertain underage girls with hot candle wax. Eagles tie up their groupies. Innocent Beach Boys turn into skirt grabbing monsters. Yes, tonight, we were at a crossroads. All the temptations were present. The gravity of rock band temptation began its pull.
Our first gig didn’t start this way. We began as innocents. A month before my big 40th birthday party, I called Bob the singer and Jimbo the bass player, and suggested, “let’s learn a few songs from start to finish and play them at the party.”
We rehearsed in the garage, then stepped out in front of our forty best friends.
They politely applauded. They had to, it was my “big fortieth,” and they would have applauded if I had juggled tennis balls. Some of the ladies even danced, coaxed by my wife, who after 25 years was still my biggest fan.
We completed each song, note for note, yet somehow much was lacking. Great bands master dynamics. That is, the force in which they play builds to climaxes within each song. We had no climaxes. Neither did our audience.
After the big party. Rather than criticize our own average guitar playing and singing, we decided Vinnie the drummers drumming was our weakness. We talked it over(behind his back of course)and decided he was going back where he came from: Saturday guitar mass at the local Catholic church.
A band for just one gig, and already our “Behind the Scenes” story was unfolding. The rock and roll curse had grabbed hold of us. Vinnie joined Pete Best as jettisoned cargo. We played in front of an adoring audience and now we had the egos to match! Good enough to remember all the chords and words to “Stairway to Heaven” we planned
our step up entertainment business ladder.
Because this is a rock biopic, I must be brutally honest. We were brutally mediocre, and it would take eight more years of playing in the garage before our stars would ignite.
And, then they did. Fate and luck are the lynchpins of every rock story… Elvis meets the Colonel. Brian Epstein visits the Cavern Club.
And, so it was with the Lost Bobs. My wife returned from a tennis match, and announced a member of her foursome had a husband who played guitar— so she invited him over.
“Oh great, I moaned.”
Here I am, a member of a rock band who has played a successful patio party, and, now I have to spend an evening jamming with a likely novice. With one night of musical fame, my personality had changed—just as the story foretold that it must.
Paul, the now musical genius of the group, impatiently tries to teach George exactly how he wants the solo to be played. Brian, Mike, Carl and Dennis replace their best friend, David Marx, because his missed a few notes. Mick and Keith erase Brian Jones tracks from the album.
The tennis partner’s husband opened up his battered guitar case and deftly lifted out a vintage 59 Les Paul hand wired with special pick-ups.
Before my mouth could drop, he plugged in, dialed in a tone Jimmy Page himself would envy, and tore into the most amazing solo I had ever heard a guitarist play, live, on a record, in a movie, on TV… anywhere!
If Greg Allman, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen and Eric Clapton were in the room, they would lay down their axes to listen to Phil, who we instantly nicknamed “ The guitar god.”
My band mates response was equally euphoric. “Guitar Tone” is the fingerprint of guitarists. History’s best players can be identified by the unique tone they produce. The touch of a fingertip on a string, the attack angle of a pick, the deadening of strings by the heel of the picking hand, the precision in which a player overdrives the tubes in his amplifier, his personal recipe of treble, bass and mid tones.
Few guitarists in history “own a tone” that is instantly recognizable.
Here, was a guy whom God had given an amazing gift. He touched a string and layer upon layer of rich harmonics, rang forth from his amplifier cabinet. He should have been a prima donna. He could have been the Eric Clapton of Cream and walked away from us. He could have been a Don Henley and appointed himself music director.
He could have been a Joe Walsh, acting as wild and unpredictable as he was talented. But he wasn’t. He was a humble, regular guy—who went out of his way to compliment the rest of us when we were playing in key!
Overnight, our band practices became mini-concerts where the music just clicked, and neighbors began dropping in to hear “what sounded so good.” Bob the singer began showing up on time. Jimbo the bass player started smiling at how we now played with dynamics.
Musical Dynamics occur when each instrument is highlighted at the right moment in a song. Before Phil the guitar god, like all novice bands, we produced a full-volume wash of strumming and sustained playing. A battle of the bands within the band so to speak, with guitars, voices, keyboards and drums competing for space and attention.
Having a first-class musician among us inspired us like never before. I signed up for lessons and became fanatical about researching and duplicating guitar and keyboard parts I heard on a record. If Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones had a guitar strung in Open G with only five strings, for “Start Me Up”, then, for that song, I would string and play my guitar the same way.
If Pink Floyd used a particular mix of orchestra instruments to brighten a chorus, I would uncover the exact program among the 1,400 sound choices on my synthesizer. If a Steely Dan composition included sixth or ninth chord, we wouldn’t substitute a simpler major chord, dammit! Each of us began to listen to records like sound engineers. Each us dedicated ourselves to getting good.
We jelled. We made music upstairs in the little music room.
Someone, would pick the opening riff to Led Zeppelin’s “Dancin Days” or Lynyrd Skyryd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and we’d be off and running. Four hours of practice would seem like four minutes.
We were experiencing the pure joy of making music, and would break into high-fives after nailing a new song. Friends noticed we we’re getting “tight” as they say in the band biz. We were the Beatles back from Hamburg! We were the Stones hardened from playing the blues circuit! We were Led Zeppelin fresh from a stint at the Troubador!
We felt the excitement of accomplishment and knew deep down, at any moment, in our story, the George Martin character would walk in and say, “Boys, You’ve got your first number one!”
The crowd at the Tiki Bar was now chanting our name between numbers. No one would leave the dance floor. We were hurtling forward like a locomotive deep in the portion of our show, where we strung together danceable three–chord audience favorites.
“I Saw Her Standing There”, “ Suffragette City”, “Honky Tonk Women”, Takin’ Care of Business”,” Johnny B. Goode”. We were stretching out and having fun. Bass and drums locked together in backbeat. Guitars ringing bells. Amplified sound reverberating across acres of tables and beer set-ups.
Our effect on the crowd was legendary! Lyrics were being sung out loud by people standing on barstools. High School dances were being replayed in the minds and hearts of lonely housewives. We were legends! I was a legend… Indeed, a legend in my own mind!
An enebriated doe-eyed dancer reached out and put her hands around my waist. Yes! We had fans. Better than that, we had fan dancers! At the Tiki, there was no separation from stage to dance floor, so band and dancers became one!
One tangled mess of arms and guitar necks and falling mike stands is what we became. Women rushed in to dance closer to Phil the guitar god. Our wives looked on bemused. Let the old guys feel young again. They are harmless and tomorrow when they sleep this off, they will be mowing the lawn and washing the cars.
Bob the singer had a hands-on groupie tugging his arms as he taunted her with “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”.
More women rushed in to dance, and a PA speaker perched on a stand began to rock back and forth. The concert began to morph into a party/riot. During the last year, our gigs had a tendency to take on a life of their own. Like passengers on a runaway train, there was nothing we could do but ride it out.
Fights broke out among bar patrons, now jockeying for better views. Before us was a sea of whipping blonde hair and surgically enhanced bodies tumbling out of outrageous clothes. A seasoned band would ice the approaching storm with a nice slow ballad. We weren’t a seasoned band. Although, at this point I need to introduced the one seasoned rock star among us.
In the heady excitement of practicing with Phil the Guitar God, we decided we needed a world-class drummer. Joe the drummer was well known in our town. Thirty years prior, he toured Europe with the German band, The Scorpions. We approached him with awe and hoped for the best.
He did not speak much, but when he did, he dropped
Important clues to being a professional.
“When do you rehearse?” he asked.
We practice Sunday afternoons, I replied.
“No, practice is what you do before you rehearse.
“You practice on your own. You rehearse as a band. Then
only when you are ready, you perform a show!”
Perform a show?
Once again, luck and circumstance thrust us toward blue skies— Our future was wide open!
During our first rehearsal with Joe, we played our hearts out, then waited for his reaction. “You have a great set list. The musicianship is almost there. You need to drop a few songs that are beyond your capability. And, you need to to build a 40-song setlist.”
At the gig, we set up and sound check on time, and one of us is in charge of colleting the cash before we leave.
Paid? Cash money? To date we paid our neighbors in beer and wine to sit still while we wailed away!
The truth, we told Joe, was that we had only played the garage, the patio, and once the driveway (for a block party).
His face was unreadable. He adjusted his custom drum stool. He set down his sticks and began to stand. We mentally prepared ourselves for the sting of embarrassment– while he gracefully excused himself from the room and
our collective future.
Instead, he stroked his musician’s goatee, and turned toward us. “There is more raw talent in this room, than in all the working bands I play in every week.”
There is a moment in every musician’s life, and every band’s story, when a better musician or band salutes them in a way that no further hardship can ever erase.
This was ours. We couldn’t have been more honored if we just released St. Pepper last week, and Jimi Hendrix played it on stage in front of us. We couldn’t have been more excited than if we were Brian Wilson listening to the playback of Good Vibrations. We vowed to always take the seasoned advice of Joe the Drummer.
The gig was now out of control. The fifty pound speakers on their fragile stands would fall into the crowd at any moment. Joe the drummer motioned to get our attention.
Bob, the singer, was deeply involved crooning to his newest groupie.
Jimbo the bass player had his eyes closed and was rocking back and forward at the waist like Ray Charles. Phil the Guitar God was down on one knee, then duck walking and fingering licks like Chuck Berry. I was wind-milling my arms like the Who’s Pete
Joe the drummer tried to change the pace with a “double time finale beat” to signal the end of a song. But, we were lost in ourselves. We no longer just played for our bandmates or the love of music. We played for the groupies who were now just moments from having their way with us!
Bob the singer was morphing into a crazed Mick Jagger acting out “Sympathy for the Devil” as he played, tapping girls within reach like they were bongo drums.
In the past, however hard and fast our musical train was careening, we stayed alert to Joe’s changes in rhythm and volume. He signaled the choruses to come, pulled us up to speed if we dragged, or braked our pace when nerves made us play too fast.
Now, no eyes in the band turned to Joe even as he shouted. “ACT PROFESSIONALLY!”.
There is a horrific piece of film taken at the Monterey Rock Festival, where Mick sees the trouble with the Hell’s Angels, but he just keeps playing.
There is gut wrenching footage of Dave Grohl of Nirvana tossing a Bass guitar into the air during a concert, to find it lands on his head.
And there is time-stopping clips of Dennis Wilson wandering on stage in a drunken stupor, and being pushed away angrily by his former band mates and best friends.
This was our Lost Bob’s Monterey moment! It was time for our inevitable crash before rehabilitation.
To understand what happened next, you must know how we got our name. You already know Bob the singer—the “clever one.” If he was late, I called him the Lost Bob.
Now, I should introduce myself. My name is also Bob. If you asked the others to describe me, they would be accurate to call me “The pompous, yet demanding one”.
I was full of music, but more so, full of myself. And, in the recent months, in my enthusiasm to become a rock star, I began to act like a rock star. I demanded the singer use a lyric book. I insisted the venues we played sign a written contract that we would be paid in cash at midnight. I required they would have to put up tents to cover our equipment, and parking attendants with flashlights to make our stint seem like a real concert. I waved the pen in front of the bar owner and loftily announced our demands
For everything but purple M&M’s.
I had the art department at an ad agency create a collector’s item poster, and laminated backstage passes for our friends (as if they wanted one). And, finally, in the biggest act of ego gone wild, I went to a screen printer, picked out the skimpiest female shirt/top I could find and bought 400 of them with “I’m with the band” emblazoned across the breasts.
Who was out of control? Earlier, I walked out of our sound check in a huff. Bob the singer was “lost” again…Axle late for another show… like Anthony the Chili Pepper chilled out somewhere on the streets of L.A. Diana the Supreme, pulling a supreme power play.
The rest of us set up our equipment, the amps, the PA, the mikes without him…all while cursing his name.
Hoots, yells and applause greeted the final sonic blasts of U2’s “Vertigo.” Joe pleaded for us to slow it down, but the two Bob’s weren’t ready to let go of the spotlight. Fame was intoxicating. Girls wanted to dance! I opened the box of T-shirts and threw them to the women closest to the stage. Pandemonium broke out.
Old shirts flew off. New Lost Bob’s shirts flew on.
“Burnin Love” by Elvis! I yelled over the ruckus.”
All of the song titles we chose had overt sexual agendas: “Start Me Up”, “Shake It Up”, “Gimme Some Lovin”, etc.
“I …lost it”. Yelled back the other Bob.
You lost your song sheet or your just not prepared, like the last three rehearsals?
“Wing It!” I yelled back and ended the discussion by pounding out the opening riff.
Without the lyrics, Bob the singer was left with his microphone and his wits. I was punishing him in public for not putting together his songbook. I was the tyrant, self-appointed leader of the band. Beatle Paul of “Let It Be,” tossing his agenda down the throats of his singing band mates.
The drunken crowd would never know. For Bob the singer was so witty he could construct lyrics on demand. But the damage between friends was done.
The band played on loud and hard. Wives, friends and neighbors looked on in sad bemusement while I threw shirts to half naked women.
I had snapped. I had become Jim Morrison, Axle Rose and every other egomaniac who acted like a superstar.
I had just crossed a very big line and changed the dynamic of our band, and our forumula for success.
Before this moment, we had been friends first, band mates second. I had just changed that. We had always supported each other, and until now covered each other’s mistakes. I made lots of mistakes that the band covered. In fact, Phil the guitar god often “doubled” my piano solos to cover instances when my fifty-year-old mind skipped.
Singing and playing in front of each another takes courage. In practices, no matter how we sounded, we pumped each other up. That’s how we got better. That’s how we got where we were. That’s how we became the “famous in our own minds”, Lost Bobs.
We powered through our set list without looking back as the groupies whipped us with hair. “What I like About You”, “You Really Got Me” and “Dance Little Sister”.
I looked over the sea of bodies for the comfort of my wife’s approval, but she was gone. The applause led to two encores. The gig was a success. At exactly midnight, the bar owner counted out the money I had negotiated. I, in turn, handed each member his equal share. We unhooked our cables and dissembled the PA stand and hefted the gear into
The trunks of our cars for the drive home.
Our imagined groupies, who were in truth just our neighbors and friends, had melted away long before we finished.
We felt the highs of adulation. The lows of self-destruction. And the lower backache of carrying heavy gear in middle age. In short, we had stepped close to the brink, and succumbed to all of therock and rolls curses in the course of one Saturday evening.
Then next day I exclaimed to my wife. “This is the last gig! The magic is gone! What went wrong?” She looked up from making our children dinner and explained.
“You first played because you loved music. Your band mates were your best friends.
You friends and neighbors loved to see you having fun together, mistakes and all…because you were nice guys.
Now, you want to throw shirts to strange women so they will change on the dance floor in front of you. You want to be paid for having fun. You want musical perfection from yourself and friends who have full time jobs and families and can practice only few times a month.
Most of all, you forgot that your audience loves you, because you are the good Dads in the neighborhood, not the bad boys, the Beatles or the Stones.
As always, she was right. Who was the Lost Bob? I was the Lost Bob. My stint of rock rehabilitation would have to begin. In a few weeks, I would call my best friends, apologize, and we would once again make music in the garage for just the love of it. Our rock saga would be complete, and then , yes! Perhaps, a reunion tour!