Vinnie Vincent, part one

funny, music, pictures, sad, true, Yakima 2 Comments »

If you’ve spent any significant amount of time around this blog, you know that occasionally I get too busy to write, but then I rebound with a huge entry, often about either musicology or childhood.  This entry manages to include both, which means—naturally—that it will be a very long entry.  Don’t let that deter you, though; you also know by now that I would never steer you wrong or share things with you that I didn’t think were important or interesting enough to share.

I recently started reading Chuck Klosterman’s book Fargo Rock City, about heavy metal from the 1980’s, to which time has not been kind. He takes the position that while it may look a little strange from the outside, particularly with almost thirty years of hindsight, those who loved that music—including Chuck and myself—feel that it did a lot for us back then, but that it hasn’t received the respect that it deserves. The book is also autobiographical, about a disaffected kid growing up in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, who connected deeply with a style of music that offered glimpses of a strange new world and a completely different lifestyle. I can definitely relate.

Klosterman’s obsessive knowledge of the bands has made me nostalgic for that music, and I’ve gone back recently and reconnected with some of the stuff I used to love. My personal favorites were Kiss, Dokken, Ratt, Triumph, Dio, and Ozzy Osbourne. I should admit that some of them have held up better over time than others have. The first cassette I bought was Shout at the Devil by Mötley Crüe (umlauts intentional) in 1983, and the last was All Systems Go by Vinnie Vincent in 1989. Much has been written about Mötley Crüe, but precious little has been written about Vinnie Vincent, whose story is extremely interesting, even if (and possibly especially if) you know absolutely nothing about either him or heavy metal.

Vinnie became an instant celebrity when he replaced Kiss’s original and longtime lead guitarist, but I think a little bit of context is in order. Kiss was in trouble in 1982. They had sold millions of records throughout the 1970’s, but times—as well as musical tastes—were changing. Kiss had also jumped the shark with a couple of strange (pronounced “crappy”) albums in a row; a disco one and their famous flop Music From “The Elder,” which is a bizarre cross between Pete Townshend, David Bowie, and a Broadway musical. It was seriously weird, and their fans didn’t know what to do with it, but they DID know not to buy it.  The band needed to find their way back, and in doing so, a couple of painful changes were necessary.

The original drummer, Peter Criss, was the first to go. He had been suffering from the excesses of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle for quite some time, and was injured in a car crash which left him out of commission for a while. The band had to postpone or cancel much of their subsequent tour, and Peter’s drinking and drug use had become a problem, so he was fired on May 18, 1980. I had to look up that date, but you can understand why I might have overlooked that tidbit in the news of the day, because I was too busy paying attention to Mount St. Helens, which erupted early that morning and buried Yakima (the town in which I grew up, and the nearest big town in the path of the eruption) under an inch or two of ash. So we had bigger things to deal with than some drummer being fired in New York City.

But I digress.

Next to be handed his walking papers was the original guitarist, Ace Frehley. He, like Peter Criss, had spent many years drinking heavily, even going so far as to bring cases of Dom Perignon champagne with him when he was on tour.  He was constantly drunk onstage and in interviews, and the other band members had had enough. Ace, like the public, was also frustrated with the musical direction the band had taken, and was tired of always being outvoted by the band’s leaders, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons.

The firing of Ace Frehley was undoubtedly a great opportunity for any guitarist.  Kiss knew they had to deliver the goods as they finished their next record, Creatures of the Night, and they spent months auditioning players. Ace was pictured on the cover of Creatures, but he only played on a couple of the songs. Rick Derringer (you may know him from this song) supposedly played on one, as well as the guitarist from Mister Mister (you may know them from this song), but Paul and Gene wanted someone who could write songs as well, and they gave the nod to Vincent Cusano, who had been a studio guitarist and songwriter kicking around the New York scene of the 1970’s.  Gene Simmons rechristened him Vinnie Vincent, and his place in rock history was secured.  He’s third from left in this picture:

Vinnie landed one of the biggest gigs in rock and roll. The album was the strongest Kiss had created in quite a few years (it remains my favorite of their albums), and it even spawned a couple of hits on the then-fledgling MTV.  The band was back on top, with a great new drummer and a fiery lead guitarist. But Vinnie was a tough sell for the fans. Replacing an original band member is no easy task, and Vinnie never felt like a ‘true’ member of Kiss.  Even his stage persona, the Ankh Warrior, didn’t quite rise to the mythological status of Gene’s Demon or Paul’s Star Child, and Vinnie seemed a bit amorphous or strange compared to them.

His playing, however, was stellar, and he also brought tremendous songwriting skills to the band. After the success of the Creatures album and tour, the band decided it was time for another big change, and decided to appear without their makeup for the first time. The album Lick It Up was a huge and instant success, thanks in no small part to Vinnie’s contributions.  The band went on an extensive world tour and prepared for their next steps. Vinnie’s on the left in this picture:

But by this time—1984—the cracks were beginning to show. Vinnie didn’t fit in with the other guys, and they weren’t getting along very well. He also didn’t feel that he was being fairly compensated for his songwriting. The royalties for some of their biggest hits of the time went to Gene and Paul, who kept Vinnie and drummer Eric Carr on salary as ‘for hire’ sidemen, rather than full-fledged band members. This rubbed Vinnie the wrong way, because he felt he had contributed much more than the somewhat low status of a sideman would take into account.  It was decided that he should leave the band. He sued Kiss for royalties, but was unsuccessful.

Still very much in the limelight, he took some time to write more songs and put together his own band, called the Vinnie Vincent Invasion, the intent of which was to be bigger-than-life in every way.  I couldn’t wait to hear it. I eagerly awaited its arrival in the record store, and bought it before I’d ever heard a note of it. I’d been reading in the magazines like Circus and Hit Parader that he used a gigantic number of amps on stage, he dressed more flashily, and could shred like nobody else. The drummer played crazy fills, and the singer sang higher than anyone else. It was completely over the top.  Here’s their biggest hit song, “Boyz Are Gonna Rock.”

I’m not gonna lie; this song is dumb.  I thought so when the fifteen-year-old version of me first bought the tape, and I still think so today.  The first time I saw the video, I probably thought—in my addled teenage way—something eloquent like, “What the fuck was that?” They all looked ridiculously feminine, even in comparison to the other bands at the time, which is serious competition indeed.  To wit:

Cinderella. . .

. . .and Vinnie Vincent Invasion:

See what I mean?  He and the band just seemed like used-up gay prostitutes compared to other bands, which didn’t match the aggressiveness of the music. People didn’t know what to make of Vinnie.  He did have some great songs on that first album, but it didn’t sell particularly well, and the over-the-top nature of his guitar playing left a bit to be desired. Even on a slow, bluesy song, he tried to cram as many notes as possible into the guitar solo, with hilarious results.

Great riff, great song, horrendous guitar solo.  Even as a kid, when I was learning to play the guitar, I felt like if he could just settle down for thirty seconds and play tastefully—the way he did in Kiss—he’d really be onto something.

He seemed to have read my mind with his second and final album, All Systems Go. The songs were better, the sound quality of the album was better, and he played much more tastefully.  One of the songs, Love Kills, was written for one of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and he had a couple of other hits from the album as well.  My favorite song of his, “That Time of Year,” is on this album.

But if Vinnie was a hard sell for metal fans, he was an even more difficult one for the general public, whose metal tastes could only allow enough room for the likes of Def Leppard.  People couldn’t really get past his strange looks and over-the-top style. Add all that to the fact that by 1990, metal was on its way out.  Nirvana would put the final nail in its coffin in less than a year, and Vinnie and his compatriots would be relegated to the bargain bins of the record stores.

Like I said before, time has not been kind to 80’s metal, and Vinnie has become one of the de facto elder statesmen of the genre.  But his story is far from over, and it gets super weird, so this seems like a good place for a cliffhanger.

To be continued. . .

eight seconds

blogging, funny, true, Yakima 1 Comment »

When I was in sixth grade, one of the crazes in that myopic little world was for everyone in the class to have a small stuffed Garfield doll.  Guys had them, girls had them, everybody had them.  We didn’t play with them, per se, the thing was just to have one in your desk.  Incidentally, my mom told me a few months ago that with the release of the new Garfield movie, the little stuffed dolls were becoming a craze with kids again, thirty years later.   I never saw THAT one coming.

A more universal craze of the time was the Rubik’s Cube, a maddening brain teaser of a toy that took the country, and indeed the world, by storm when it was released in 1980.  You know, one of these:

I was hooked on it too, and even bought a book on how to solve it.  You start by solving one side, then another, and it all sort of comes into place that way.  The book was full of these arcane strings of formulas with acronyms like, “F L U2 R2”, which stand for Front, Left, Upper 2, Right 2, etc.  Some people just gave in and pulled their cubes apart in order to ‘solve’ them, and some people pulled the stickers off and moved them into place, which I think would be a prohibitive amount of work, and it would make the stickers look crappy once they were back on.  But I digress.

I learned to solve the Cube in record speed.  When they would have national competitions on TV, like this one, from the show That’s Incredible. . .

. . .I would always beat them ‘by a large margin’, as my brother used to say.  I wondered how they got to be on TV and everything, when it took them an eternity—like forty-five seconds!—to solve it.  My hat’s off to you if you sat through that entire piece of crap video, by the way.  The episode of the show is staggeringly boring, and the video ends before we even get to find out who wins the contest.  What a letdown!

The world record for solving the Cube was seven seconds, and I could only whittle my time down to around eight.  When I was in New Hampshire visiting my grandparents, one of their neighbors, upon meeting the eleven-year-old me, handed over his scrambled Rubik’s Cube and said, “If you can solve this, you’re a better man than I am.”  Little did he know what he was in for.  I whipped it around and handed it back to him a few seconds later, completely solved.  He gave me a stunned look, and was actually a bit angry and petulant about the whole thing—although he tried to hide it—which I found hilarious.  I got the feeling he didn’t particularly care for kids, and he wanted to give me something to keep me occupied and out of the way of the adults.  I had my secret skill, however, which foiled his little plan.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was telling a friend about this story on the phone today and afterwards said, “This is probably a blog story.”

“It’s totally a blog story,” he replied.  “You should call it ‘Eight Seconds.’  You can start it like this.”  He lowered his voice in imitation of a melodramatic TV announcer.  “Eight seconds.  That’s not the length of time I can stay on a bull, or the amount of time before I have an orgasm, that’s how long it took me to solve the Rubik’s Cube.”

We both laughed, and then he had to get off the phone and return to work, as did I.  I liked his suggestion for the name, but I obviously took some liberty with (i.e., completely disregarded) his other suggestions.

In the interest of even more disclosure (is that possible, after proclaiming the last disclosure ‘full’?), unlike my skill at playing Ms. Pac-Man, which hasn’t ever really dwindled over the intervening decades, my ability to solve the Cube has completely evaporated.  Sad, I know, but it’s the kind of skill you have to use, or else you lose.  I might still have my old Cube in a box somewhere at one of my parents’ houses.  Amazing how little of that childhood stuff actually survived, and also amazing are the things we adults WISH had survived.  My brother and I do still have a bunch of our original Star Wars action figures, and my little Yoda one is the mascot for my recording projects, to remind me and the people working with me, “Do, or do not; there is no ‘try.’ “  More than anything, I wish I had my collection of toy cars.  I have a couple of them, but most of them got given away, or lost, or given to Goodwill, or just. . .vanished.  I also wish I had my collection of cassettes from childhood through high school.  My brother and I made tons of cassettes in which we acted out skits, or made up songs, or just recorded ourselves talking and playing with our friends, being our dorky selves.  Those are my favorites.  I still have a couple of them, but we made tons, and they don’t seem to have survived.  The ones that have survived are worthy of their own separate blog entries.

By way of the television industry calls a ‘teaser,’ I’ll tell you that my favorite of the tapes, which has been safely stored away from almost thirty years until I recently copied it onto my computer and digitized the audio, is entitled, “One in a Million,” and it’s quite possibly the best thing ever.  If my brother will agree to it, I’ll write the story out and post the audio on here.  If he doesn’t, then I’ll have to just tell the story minus the audio, which will still be entertaining.

There is more to come.

the cloths of heaven

funny, music, Yakima No Comments »

When I was in high school, one of my friends had a reputation for being a prankster. Sometimes I found myself guilty by association, and sometimes I was an actual accomplice. He went through a phase during which he liked to find pictures of nude or scantily clad women and post them in friends’ lockers or Pee-Chee folders, so that when the person would open the folder, he’d have a little surprise waiting for him.

He actually got in a bit of trouble when he did that to a girl in our choir. The girl had red hair, you see, and so did the girl in the picture, and the picture was exceptionally lewd, so the girl reported my friend to the teacher. By way of a reprimand, the teacher famously told him, “Now, I like to look at a Playboy every now and then—“, which still makes us laugh, even all these years later. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, my friend thinks that was a cruel thing to have done to the girl, and if he could do things differently, he would. He also has daughters now, and that tends to make people grow up real quick, as well as to make them much more sympathetic to the tribulations that girls often experience in school.

Back then, however, the picture prank was something he did somewhat regularly. Once, he went to the library and found a National Geographic magazine with a story about Tahiti, which was full of half-naked women, so he pulled out a page and kept it for his own nefarious purposes. We sat next to each other in choir class, which meant that we shared a music folder. On that fateful day, when we sang the song “The Cloths of Heaven,” I opened the music and found the picture of a half-naked Tahitian woman. Ha ha. Then, when we finished the song, we put the music and the picture back into the folder, never to be looked at again, since the two of us learned and memorized music faster than most people. I only mention that fact because it’s apropos to the story. We had the song memorized from that day on, so we didn’t use the music anymore.

Three or four months later, our choir drove to a college an hour or so away, in order to participate in a somewhat prestigious regional music festival. I don’t remember much about the trip, to be quite honest with you (it’s been almost twenty-five years now), but I do remember that we did well enough during the afternoon performance to qualify for the finals later that evening, and one of the songs we performed was “The Cloths of Heaven.” At some point between the afternoon show and the finals, a couple of people came up to my friend and me, saying, “That wasn’t funny, you guys,” or, “Not cool.” We were mystified, and had no idea what they were referring to.

That night at the finals, it was our choir’s turn to take the stage. We filed onto the risers in our robes and awaited the announcer, who walked out a moment later. “Interesting story about this next choir,” the announcer told the audience of several hundred. He explained to them that the judges got quite a shock when they opened the music for “The Cloths of Heaven” and found a picture of a half-naked Tahitian woman inside. Our choir director was unaware that this had happened, but he had no doubt about who was to blame for this disgrace. He glared furiously at the two of us as we realized what had happened and tried unsuccessfully to suppress our giggles. Our surprised choirmates turned to each other, saying, “Who did that?” and others turned to us and asked, “Was it you guys?” as the entire audience erupted into laughter.

Our director was really angry, and after our performance he pulled my friend and me aside into a rehearsal room. He was convinced that we had done it on purpose, to prank the festival. We had to explain to him that no, this was just a private thing, and that we hadn’t used the music for months. We’d long since forgotten about the Tahitian. Out of the seventy numbered music folders our choir used, each one of which contained one or two copies of “The Cloths of Heaven” (our folder had two, one for each of us), the teacher’s aide had unluckily grabbed OUR numbered folder, and THAT copy, to turn in to the judges. I don’t think the director believed us at first, but eventually he had to admit that the circumstances were pretty funny, and we got off with a Well, Don’t Do It Again.

Oh, and our choir won the competition, by the way, so there you go. Apparently, sex sells.

homemade Pac-Man

funny, pictures, true, Yakima No Comments »

In the early 1980’s, the longest-lasting and most revolutionary new product was not the Rubik’s Cube, the tiny stuffed Garfield doll, or even MTV—it was the personal computer that would go on to change the world.  A closely related product that was also created around that time was the video arcade game. Home video games, like the Atari 2600, or even the quaintly archaic Pong, had existed for a number of years by then, but video arcades were a new and exciting phenomenon. Pinball was for old people; video games were for us kids.

The grocery stores near our house both had a couple games each, but the nearest serious video game parlors were Pizza World (which at the time of this entry is the current location of El Portón, an excellent Mexican restaurant) and Nob Hill Lanes, a bowling alley with a smaller but more unusual lineup of games, including a 2-player Ms. Pac-Man console, which was—and still remains—my all-time favorite video game.

I loved Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man so much that I bought the ‘strategy guide’ books about how to beat the games.  I even carried my little red portable cassette recorder to the arcade with me and recorded myself playing the games.  I took the tapes home and listened to them in headphones, imagining how the game play went, and trying to re-enact it in my little mind’s eye.

One day, we got a new refrigerator, and it came in a gigantic cardboard box. When it stood on end, it was the size of a video game, which gave me and my brother a brilliant idea: LET’S MAKE OUR OWN PAC-MAN MACHINE.  That’ll be great, we thought. Now, all our friends in the neighborhood won’t have to go to Pizza World or Nob Hill Lanes to play, they can just come to our front yard. And we’d be rolling in money!  Yakima wasn’t anything like Silicon Valley (either then OR now, quite frankly) and besides, I was ten and my brother was six, but at least we had imagination and determination.

The contraption we made is one of the things I really wish we taken at least one picture of.  It was absolutely ingenious, but surprisingly difficult to describe.  Follow me closely.  Here’s the type of original Pac-Man machine we were trying to emulate.

We stood the refrigerator box vertically, and then drew a Pac-Man maze screen in magic marker on the top half of the box. I think my brother drew the side panels, and we collaborated on the name plate that said, “PAC-MAN” on it. Directly underneath the ‘screen’, we placed a smaller cardboard apple box, which was for the joystick and coin slot. We cut a slot for people to insert quarters, and we sculpted a heap of clay into a joystick and plopped a golf ball on top of it.  Voila!

So now it looked good, but it didn’t do anything yet; we had to figure out how to bring it to life. We knew that one of us would have to be inside the box, but we struggled to come up with a workable solution. I think it was Mom who had the idea of using a box knife to cut a rectangular ‘track’ hole along a section of the maze we had drawn, and then we could stick a magic marker through the hole and tape a cardboard Pac-Man to the end of it to move him through the maze.  So that’s what we did.  The Pac-Man kept falling off the end of the pen, though, so it took a while to figure out how much electrical tape to stick him on with.  For the machine’s sound, I had all those cassettes I’d been making for weeks, so I put some batteries in the cassette player and brought it in the box with me.

We were ready to go.  We ran up and down the street, yelling, “Pac-Man!  Play Pac-Man!”  We cajoled everyone to give it a try, and somehow they all went along with it.  When someone put in a quarter, I would press the Play button on my tape recorder and the introductory song would play, followed by the sound of game play.  The person would grab the golf ball joystick and move it around as best they could, and I would move the marker with the Pac-Man on the end of it through the maze route, randomly.  Some people actually played this thing multiple times, but most realized right away that they weren’t actually able to control the Pac-Man at all, and that they’d spent the same amount as if they’d played the real game.  I think the box lasted only a few days, until the novelty wore off, both for us and for our friends.  But, like I said, I would dearly love to see a picture of that bizarre homemade contraption.

Since we’re on the subject of Pac-Man, once when my brother and I were at an arcade playing the game, a slightly younger kid we didn’t know (or maybe we did; I don’t quite remember) came up and said, very quickly and dramatically, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was this maze?  And there was all your favorite food and you just couldn’t resist?  And then you CHASE it?  And then when you get there, you EAT it?  That’d be awesome.“  My brother and I stifled our laughter and kinda said, “Sure, yeah. . .awesome—” and turned back to our game.

Portland has a ‘vintage’ arcade down in Old Town, and every once in a while, I like nothing better than to plunk a couple of quarters down and spend an hour or so in an attempt to get the new high score on Ms. Pac-Man, and occasionally I even get it.  You’ll know if I do, by the way, since I like to use the pseudonym Mr. T, so if you see ‘MRT’ on the high score list, that might very well be me.  Be all that as it may, I was very glad when that arcade opened, because that meant that all those skills I’d honed as a kid weren’t going to lie dormant anymore.  I would hate to think I wasted all that time on frivolous endeavors.  I can rest assured, though, because there’s still something to be said for hand-eye coordination, and running through a maze with your favorite food that you just can’t resist.

There’s also something to be said for the old video games from the ‘golden age’ of the early to mid-1980’s.  Despite their simplicity, they were captivating in a way that more modern games absolutely are not.  If you  haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing them, I urge you to arm yourself with a handful of quarters (most of these games, if they’re still around, still only cost a quarter to play, amazingly) and give some of them a try.  I know you’ll be glad you did.

finally, a bolus

funny, true, Yakima No Comments »

When I was a kid, even well into my teens, I didn’t like very many foods.  These days, I eat and enjoy pretty much anything from any part of the world, but it wasn’t always so.  Peas and cole slaw were my two least favorites.  The first grade school I went to had notoriously nasty peas.  I don’t know what they did to them, but I’ve never tasted anything like them either before or since.  It was a Catholic school (despite the fact that my family wasn’t Catholic; that’ll be a story for another day), and one of the nuns would stand over you and force you to finish everything on your plate.  It was nightmarish.

Ironically, the same school had one dish that was a hit with everyone, and we always looked forward to it when it came up on the menu.  It was called Hamburger Gravy Over Rice, and I’ve never seen that anywhere else either.  I somehow talked my mom into making it at home once, but it wasn’t the same.

I’ve grown to like peas, particularly the ones in the pods, but cole slaw still remains elusive to me.  The other day, my friend made some that was delicious, and that reminded me of a story that has become famous in our family.  Not long after Mom and Dad split up, when I was about ten, Dad took Brother and me to ColonelChicken for dinner.  We sat in the ‘terrarium’ room, with the fountain and leafy plants.  I ate my chicken and mashed potatoes, and even my biscuit, but I left the dreaded cup of cole slaw untouched on the table.  ColonelChicken’s was the worst.  Dad told me that we weren’t going to leave until I ate the entire thing.  I balked, and he got angry, so I picked at it and ate it as slowly as possible, washing it down with water as I did so.

The minutes ticked away, and Dad was getting irritated.  “Come on!” he yelled.  “You could eat that whole thing in one bite!”

“No I can’t,” I said, “I’ll gag.”

Do it,” he said sternly, wrinkling his forehead in the way that signified genuine anger.  “All in one bite.”

“Okay, but I’m gonna spit it out.  It’s so gross!”

“I don’t care.  Eat it.  Now!”

“Okay, but don’t be surprised by what happens.”

I dipped my spork into the cup until I had the entire contents resting on it.  I held my breath and slowly moved the spork to my mouth.  I had to breathe, eventually, and as soon as the smell hit my nostrils, I had to fight back my gag reflex.  Dad was still giving me The Look, so I had no choice but to ease the spork into my mouth.  It was the worst bite of anything that I’d ever tasted.  I chewed a little bit, but I could feel my gag reflex about to happen.  I reached for the water glass, but it was too late.  My body rebelled, and the disgusting bolus (I love the word ‘bolus’, and finally have the opportunity to use it!) exploded from my mouth all over the table and floor.  Dad was furious, and he grabbed a bunch of napkins and cleaned it all up.

“See?  I told you that would happen,” I said, unable to stop myself from laughing.  Dad couldn’t even look at me, he was so mad.  I sat in the chair and laughed as he mopped the floor.

That was the last time I ate the cole slaw at ColonelChicken, and quite possibly the last time Dad ever forced me to eat anything.  I guess he learned, albeit the hard way, that my warnings had merit.

These days, the tables have turned.  I got my mom to eat sushi for the first time two years ago, which is funny because she actually lived in Japan for a couple of years before I was born, but never tried sushi because she was afraid of it.  I told her that was hilarious.  “It’s good enough for them; good enough for you.”  She said that on the air force base, food would sit around for a while, sometimes, and if I’d ever smelled some of the things that were in storage, I’d be afraid of sushi too.  Fair enough.

As a bookend for this story, here is the secret recipe for the cole slaw in question.  I will pass, thank you very much, but please report back to me if you actually make it and enjoy it.