Learning to Rock ‘n Roll
The first thing you need to know about my stint at Rock ‘n Roll Fantasy Camp is this: I can’t sing. I’m the alto who didn’t make the choir, who tripped up on the harmony parts at church, and who tried out for the big high school musical and was cast . . . as a dancer. In the back.
Here is another thing you need to know: You can count the number of rock concerts I have attended on one hand. Truth: I have never even played air guitar. So spending five days in Los Angeles with 105 men and women who want nothing more than to play alongside Roger Daltrey from the Who and the members of Cheap Trick is not exactly my fantasy. At my fantasy camp, we would learn how to wear gardenias in our hair and sing jazz standards in smoky nightclubs.
So you might ask, what am I doing one night in tall black boots, singing backup for Daltrey in front of a screaming crowd at the House of Blues in Los Angeles? Having the time of my life, that’s what.
On the first day, I meet Karen Yadvish Beeson while waiting for the bus that will take us from our hotel to camp headquarters: SIR studios on Sunset Boulevard. Beeson is a 42-year-old molecular biologist from Virginia. The team at her lab has contributed to the sequencing of the human genome, but still, she’s scared stiff by the first camp hurdle: tryouts.
We have to perform in front of the 12 rock professionals — Doug Fieger, who wrote "My Sharona," and Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad, to name a couple — who will be coaching us and choosing who they want in their bands. Everyone, no matter how little talent they have, will end up in a group. Over the next few days, we will train for a battle-of-the-bands.
Beeson pulls a tiny flask of Jack Daniel’s from her jacket and says, "This is my breakfast."
She hates to perform in front of people — she doesn’t even like to talk in front of them — but she’s here because her favorite band, Cheap Trick, was billed as part of the camp. To boost her confidence, she’s got her Rick Nielsen signature guitar and a black-and-white checkerboard case, patterned after the one played by the band’s lead guitarist, and she’s brought her husband, Mark, a graphic designer who plays in his own band. "I’m her roadie," he jokes.
The first to audition is Mark Province, 47, a stockbroker from Oklahoma who tells us that he hasn’t been onstage since he was nine and lost a talent contest to a dwarf who sang "He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands." Province launches into a heated rendition of "Born to Be Wild." Everyone goes crazy.
I look over at the table of counselors. Mark Slaughter, of the eponymous metal band, is pumping his fist in the air. Jack Blades, camp director, is swinging a microphone stand over the cheering crowd. It’s barely past 10:30 AM.
The camp’s founder, David Fishof, told me it would be like this. A former sports agent turned entertainment producer, he has been pulling these programs together since 1997. When I spoke to him prior to signing up, he told me that the experience changes people’s lives. I rolled my eyes at the time. Now I’m beginning to wonder.
Are You Experienced?
As the day rolls on and people clamber to the stage, you can see them leaving the safe confines of whatever identity they have at home — attorney, doctor, rabbi, corrections officer — and heading into much more vulnerable territory.
Tina Beattie, 48, is an international investment banker based in London, and camp is a recreational stop on a business trip that will take her to 12 cities in 12 countries. We quickly bond over our shared anxiety — and numerous trips to the loo.
As a child growing up in Tasmania, her voice was so good that a talent agent showed up at her high school musical. But Beattie, the first in her family to attend college, launched herself into the world of finance instead. These days, she sings only in the shower.
She wants to do a ballad, but all we’ve heard today are standards from the rock canon: "Purple Haze," "Wild Thing," "Jumpin’ Jack Flash." I still vote for the ballad. If she does that, maybe I won’t sound so stupid singing "Makin’ Whoopee," a 1928 chestnut made popular again by Michelle Pfeiffer when she sang it draped over a piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys. (The only other song I know all the lyrics to is the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies.)
The majority of campers are men, but more women are showing up. Karen Adams-Dimery, 46, an artist and mother from Atlanta, is back for her second camp. "I’m just a middle-aged chick in crisis mode," she tells me. "Rock ‘n’ roll is part of my life."
I look up and Beattie is onstage. When she opens her mouth to pull off a sultry rendition of "Oh! Darling" by the Beatles, the hair on my arms stands up. This slender woman has a throaty voice that sounds like she sang on the soundtrack for The Commitments.
"When you told me you didn’t need me anymore," she sings with a slight growl, "well you know I nearly broke down and died."
We’re on our feet, whooping and hollering for more. Beattie’s brought down the house.
A few hours later, I get onstage and squint at the coaches. "This will be a little change of pace," I promise them. I shut my eyes and try to forget that I’m wearing a sweater set and bifocals. Instead, I’m Sophie Tucker, the red-hot mama of vaudeville who sang that life begins at 40.
Another bride, another June,
Another sunny honeymoon.
Another season, another reason
For makin’ whoopee.
Maybe the coaches have heard one too many versions of "Sister Christian," because when I’m done, some of them are standing, laughing and clapping. Even better, I can see my new girlfriends. Beattie is on her feet, Beeson and her husband are waving, and my sister chick in crisis, Adams-Dimery, is taping me with a video camera.
Sophie Tucker was right. But life is also pretty good at 46.
In The Name Of Rock ‘N’ Roll
I’m a bad, bad woman, and I am singing to the man who done me wrong, our faces inches apart as guitars wail behind us.
Good morning, bandmates!
I’m normally working on my second cup of tea at this hour. Today, I’m singing to a 50-year-old nurse named Ken Cayea, who lives with his family outside Woodstock, New York. He’s just one of the 10 men standing with me in front of our band counselor, Kip Winger, who decides a blues workout for our first rehearsal will help us get acquainted.
Winger, 45, got his start playing bass for Alice Cooper and then led his own band, Winger, to a string of MTV hits. He has less than four days to get us in shape to perform with Daltrey at the House of Blues. And we have to name our band.
"You always think it’s easy to come up with a name," Winger tells us, "until you have to do it."
As we throw out suggestions — Jinx, Train Wreck, Back of the Bus — Winger starts telling a story about being on the road. Let’s just say it involved a concert in front of 9,000 drunken fans and one guy who decided to send a greeting of expectorant toward Winger. He is describing what the glob of phlegm looked like when I hold up my hand. "Don’t," I beg. "I have this trigger gag reflex." The guys look at one another and grin.
I have just named the band: Gag Reflex.
That night, I check in with Beattie, who tells me that she has turned off her cell phone. "I have seven messages," she says, "and I haven’t answered them." Although she is keeping in touch with her three daughters, who think it’s "awesome" that Mom is at camp. "I always tell them, ‘Everyone should have an unfulfilled dream,’ " she says. "Mine is to be a singer."
How Do You Get To The House Of Blues?
Winger stands in front of us in jeans, a T-shirt and an old denim jacket. "Being in a band is all about telepathy," he says. "Even more than the music."
I look around and realize that I don’t even know everyone’s name. The room is pinging with sound: the sharp squawks of electric guitars, some mellow notes from a keyboard and the beats and brushes from a set of drums. How am I supposed to communicate telepathically with men who seem more interested in communing with their instruments?
Winger says we should be able to go through a song and know exactly what the other person is doing without looking. We should hear the notes in our head before a single instrument is played. As he talks, he bounces a large rubber ball.
"When the ball hits the ground — that’s when you begin," he says, holding it aloft.
The ball hits the floor and five guitars, a bass, two drum sets and one keyboard launch into the opening chords of the Who’s "The Kids Are Alright."
"Not quite there," Winger says.
Bounce. Music. Again.
Bounce. Music. Again.
The ball disappears. So does our reticence. Gradually, personalities emerge.
I dub Steve Kaminer, 39, our alpha guitarist. He was five when he strapped on a guitar and announced that he was going to be a rock star; now he’s a real estate broker.
Martin Guy Haines, 60, jokes that he sounds like he only had one hour of guitar experience before camp. A divorced divorce attorney, he is recovering from double knee replacement surgery, and camp is his reward. He gets more than he bargained for when Winger decides that, as well as playing guitar, Haines should sing lead.
Cayea and I back up Haines on harmony. When we are moved to another studio, a seedy, second-story room with a roof deck, the three of us stand with our backs to the Hollywood sign. We practice over and over, mostly because I’m finding it difficult to hit and hold my notes, which wobble away from me like marbles on a floor.
Hap Pomerantz, 49, is our keyboardist and a friend of Kaminer’s. He plays in a band back home in Florida, and you can tell from his comments that he tends to forget who is in charge. One night, he offers to show me a video his wife took of the previous day’s rehearsal; he’d be glad to give me some pointers.
A look of horror crosses my face, and I explain my new personal theory of rock ‘n’ roll performance: suspended disbelief. I’m singing only because I think I can. If you show me what I really look and sound like, I’ll never sing again.
As he walks away, I reflect on the fact that if we were in an office setting, I would have torn his face off. Instead, my usual defensiveness is replaced with amusement, because we all just want to make good music. We even change our name to Vulcan Mind Squeeze for the moment of silence that occurs when we gather our thoughts before bursting into sound on the same note, at the same time.
I think that’s called telepathy.
So You Wanna Be A Star?
The first day of rehearsals, Mickey Hart, the drummer for the Grateful Dead, drops by. The next day, it’s Neal Schon, the guitarist from Journey. But it’s on our last day of rehearsals that we hit celebrity jackpot. Lisa Loeb walks in, followed by Tommy Shaw from Styx. I find myself dancing and singing two feet from Daltrey. Finally, all four members of Cheap Trick arrive, and we do another rendition of Paul McCartney’s "Live and Let Die."
Kaminer starts the song and then hands it off to me.
But if this ever-changing world
In which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
But when it’s time for the next line, I hold the mic out and look Cheap Trick singer Robin Zander in the eye. "C’mon, big fella," I think. Zander obliges and sings, "Say live and let die!"
There’s a wall of guitar sound as Kaminer leaps into the air. I grab the microphone back from Zander.
Say live and let die!
The horns blare, we move to the song’s reggae bridge and the studio pulses with music. Before I know it, the song is over. On his way out, Zander tells us, "You guys are great!"
Don’t tell me I can’t sing.
Once, I Was In This Band . . .
Everyone leaves the studio but Bill McDonald, 54, another one of our guitarists. In Vancouver, he’s a maxillofacial surgeon who spends his days repairing jaws. We are quietly packing up when he turns to me and says, "I’m happy."
I know what he means. The experience of doing nothing for four days but make music is transformative. At some point, our group coalesced into an actual band, and I now feel a gushing affection for these men. I used to think of rock ‘n’ roll as an exclusive boys’ club — as obnoxious as a men’s-only golf course and as silly as a tree house with a "no girlz allowed" sign. That world still exists, but I haven’t seen it here.
I don’t want to go home.
That night, the House of Blues is sold out. Daltrey is warming up the crowd, a mix of rock fans and relatives of campers, letting them know that things will be a little loose. "If we rehearse, then it becomes too much like a show," he says. "This is not a real show. It’s a fucking fantasy!"
The night unspools like a film: Imagine a high school talent contest staged by Fellini. A stockbroker plays hot harmonica. Zander gets down on one knee to sing "I Want You to Want Me" to a female camper. I get bruises on my knees when I slide across the floor for the finish of "The Kids Are Alright." When I go to the bar, I see Joaquin Phoenix and a man who looks just like Prince. Then I realize it is Prince.
A few weeks later, I’m on the phone with Beattie, and we are bonding. Real life, we agree, pales in comparison with those music-filled days. But so many fantasies came true — Karen Yadvish Beeson played guitar with Rick Nielsen, Karen Adams-Dimery sang with her idol, and Beattie proved that she could still sing.
And me? I realized a fantasy I didn’t even know I had.
Originally published in MORE magazine, July/August 2007.