Nerve Classics

How Does It Feel?

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The American adult has at his disposal a nearly infinite number of alternate realities: baseball fantasy camp, poker fantasy camp, space camp (yes, it’s for grown-ups too) — the ostensible appeal being a Choose-Your-Own-Adventurish taste of a more glamorous life that you passed up.

Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp is a five-day, $8,500 traveling program that enlists musicians from bygone bands like Bad Company, Kiss and Winger to transform amateur would-be musicians into pretend rock stars. Campers audition to determine their skill level — all are welcome, “no musical experience necessary.” After being divided up into bands, each with its own rock-star counselor, the campers rehearse for four days before the week culminates in a “Battle of the Bands” at the casino-like Times Square nightclub B.B. King.

Until about a year ago, I was a singer, keyboardist and bassist in a band called the Isotoners. We played for big crowds at the tip-top of the bottom tier of New York venues. We got good write-ups in various alt-weeklies and magazines, including this one. But by 2005, my bandmates and I had deadlocked in a clichéd ego war that drove our band to a dramatic and ludicrous end. In our final days, the mood was so acrimonious that we were dividing our set lists for each show to equally reflect each band member’s songwriting, just to avoid confrontation. Only a week after playing a College Music Journal showcase — with potential for national exposure — it was all over. I no longer think of rock and roll as the stuff of fantasy.

So when I was invited to Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp — not as a seasoned performer, but as a reporter — I arrived with a cynical notion of the rock experience. I hadn’t anticipated that spending time practicing and performing in the bubble of fantasy, without power struggles or bad blood, would remind me that playing rock and roll in a band is a dream for many people, some of whom would be my bandmates for the next five days.

Day One: Making the Band

I arrived at the Gibson Showroom in Hell’s Kitchen for registration at 12:30 p.m. sharp, but rock and roll, in atypical fashion, appeared to be running early. Gibson is located on the bottom two floors of the old Hit Factory, the recording studios where thirty years ago Stevie Wonder recorded Songs in the Key of Life and three years ago Missy Elliot recorded “Pass That Dutch.” On the floors above, a condominium conversion is underway. Outside, directly above the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp banner welcoming the new campers, was a larger sign offering passers-by a chance to “live in the house that rock built.”

I picked up an itinerary and a badge. The itinerary said we’d be auditioning for the celebrity counselors (“Don’t be nervous! This is fun!”) who’d divide us into bands. Later, there would be a welcome party where they’d announce the band rosters. The badge had my photo on it, with the words ROCK STAR printed above it in capital letters.

Just then, a guy introduced himself to me. It was Howard Gordon, forty-seven, a real-estate attorney and developer from Teaneck, New Jersey, eleven years married, father of two, and unless his badge was lying, a ROCK STAR, just like me. The two of us enjoyed an awkward silence. Uh boy, I thought, if we’re going to suspend disbelief, we’ve got our work cut out for us. Kara, one of the six perky, young “tour managers” — the one who most resembled Jessica Simpson — handed me a card with a number on it that indicated when I’d be auditioning to the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer.”

As I mingled, I discovered that not everyone at rock camp was a corporate serf pining for his virile past. One of the youngest campers, a twenty-year-old student from Chicago named Dominic, was dressed entirely in black save for the flame-job on his Converse hi-tops and the white Cramps logo on his T-shirt. He liked to play classic rock on his duct-taped hollow-body guitar “old style, like George Thorogood,” one of his heroes and a rock camp “guest star.” Dominic had sold the engine of his old Chevy Blazer to pay for camp, figuring that if he wanted to, he could “always build another one.”

And there was thirty-three-year-old Tim Olsen from Queens, who’d won his ticket to rock camp on a classic-rock radio contest. He’d given up professional opera singing for the more stable life of an insurance accountant. When he said the word “accountant,” Tim made a Gene Simmons-tongued rock face and gave me the horned hand.

It soon became clear that many campers were actually talented. It also became clear that if I never hear Cream’s “Crossroads” again, it will be too soon. The last campers auditioned to Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” and drummer Max Weinberg, of Springsteen and Conan O’Brien fame, took the stage to give props to the youngest camper, sixteen-year-old drummer George Schmitz from Kansas City, who nailed every lick of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.”
George, a quiet, straight-A kid, has played drums since he was twelve. He’s in three bands back home, one of which had recently been signed to a small indie label. George’s dad, John, told me that he and his wife were not looking forward to telling their son that he wasn’t allowed to go on tour.

“Fortunately, we didn’t have to,” John said — George’s band broke up before the ink dried on the record deal. As consolation, George’s parents sent him to rock camp instead. At the last-minute suggestion of his wife, John, a guitar player with a band of his own, decided to join him and make it a bonding experience.

We broke for dinner, after which it was time to announce the audition results. As each rocker/counselor came to the mike to announce his band’s line-up, his career was highlighted via pre-recorded audio. Eventually, a soft-spoken man with long hair and long limbs trotted up to the mike and called out his band roster. “Ben Lerman on bass,” he said. It was Mark Slaughter, whose eponymous band’s two-year stretch of MTV glory stirred only vague memories.

Counselors took to the stage to jam, and say what you want about Kip Winger studying ballet back in the day, the man can wail out a mean “Purple Haze” while holding down a wicked bass line.

Day Two: Meeting the Band

I was taking my first sips of coffee when I initially heard Bob talk. It was 9:30 a.m. on Monday, and my band was meeting for the first time. We were in Gibson studio #6, temporarily renamed the Iron Maiden studio. Bob was a simple man: jeans and T-shirt, long hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, losing just a little up front. Because he was painfully shy, Bob had “never gone in for performing much,” and his guitar-playing experience was limited to the privacy of his garage at his home in the small blue-collar town of Keyser, West Virginia. He rarely displayed a hint of emotion; one of my bandmates would later fondly describe Bob as “a cigar-store Indian.”

Bob’s son-in-law had sent him to rock camp, a gift for his upcoming fiftieth birthday, even though normally, Bob said, “I don’t take vacations.” But every once in a while, Bob allows himself one day off from his collision-repair shop in Keyser, and gets on his bike and rides. Last year, he took a whole week off and rode to the Mississippi Delta. “I wanted to see the crossroads,” he explained, a nearly imperceptible grin creeping into his wooden expression as he described the birthplace of the blues.
“You rock where your roots are,” our celebrity counselor Mark Slaughter told us, and then listened patiently to us blather about our musical preferences and performance backgrounds. Our line-up: Mark, Bob, Larry and Tim (the opera singer) on guitars, Bill on keyboards, me on bass and Howie from Teaneck on drums. We plugged in, and Slaughter directed us to jam.

Bill, our thirty-nine-year-old keyboardist and angel-voiced aviation-parts dealer from New Jersey, quickly demonstrated his skills as a bandleader. Bill had been in bands all his life. He took a serious go at music at some point, but then got tied up in his family’s business and had a family of his own. His wife sent him to rock camp as Father’s Day gift. Bill set the mood on the organ, and everybody put what they had on the table, contributing to a competent blues progression.

Larry quickly emerged as a star. A media negotiator and hotshot guitarist from Tribeca, he started playing at fifteen and never looked back. He’s in a band called Men With Big Hips, made up entirely of media-industry players. This was his second time at rock camp. “There’s nothing I’d rather do for five days,” he later told me.

Slaughter was sussing us out. He had just played a set for a few thousand people in Milwaukee two days before, but today, he treated us like lifelong bandmates. “A lot of the guys are all about winning,” Mark said to us, referring to the upcoming Battle of the Bands, “but let’s just have some fun with it.” We set to work on writing our original song.

“Anyone who’s got a riff, just lay it down and we’ll build on it,” Mark said. I jumped in to show off a bass line I had never done anything with, and just as quickly face-planted in a sea of humiliation. It had been a while. But somewhere across the room, somebody picked up the slack. Larry played a funky guitar riff, and gradually everybody joined in. Suddenly, a room full of middle-aged white guys was sounding like a real funk band.

By 1 p.m., we had written our song’s chord progression and melody, and settled on a band name: SBABACO, an acronym for “Stop Being A Bitch And Come On.” This is what happens in a room full of middle-aged white guys having fun.

Day Three: Practice, practice, practice

Turns out Mark Slaughter is one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. He’s a talented musician, willing and able to pick up any instrument to fill out a band’s sound. He lives in Nashville with his beautiful wife Rebecca and their two kids. In addition to touring, he was in the studio last year, producing a record for the band Stereo Fuse. He recently started a new career in voiceover work, and when he speaks, he occasionally lapses into Cartman, Jerry Lewis or Sammy Davis, Jr. When I asked him if people think he’s a has-been, Slaughter was as gracious as could be.

“You become known, and people know you for that one thing,” he said. “Then they want you to be that one thing forever.” This was Mark’s second time as a counselor at rock camp, and I asked him if other musicians thought working at the camp was cheesy. “The guys who come here [as counselors] are humbled guys. They all work and do really great stuff. We’re here because we want to do this. This is as much fun for me as it is for you guys.”

He acknowledged that there are people who would disparage rock camp, but dismissed that point of view as useless. “It doesn’t matter if something is good or bad. It’s all how you look at it. I come here and have a good time. A fantasy to me is playing with people I’ve never played with.”

SBABACO’S arsenal had four members trading leads and harmonies, including Tim, the opera singer. The poets of SBABACO joined forces to put the finishing touches on the second verse of “You’re My Woman.”

Fire and ice never mix so good
You burn up my soul like no other could
Don’t throw me a lifeline when I’m going down
Your love is an ocean, and I wanna drown

That night, I attended a late-night “master class” led by frontman/bassist Kip Winger. He set up a simple test: Play along with the metronome and see if you can keep the exact tempo. Winger sort of destroyed me. As I played on what I thought was the beat, he’d yell “Late! . . . Late! . . . Early! . . . Late!” like a drill sergeant. I felt like a breathless, blindfolded child, spun around and thrust at a paper donkey. Winger did, however, give me some good advice to remedy the situation: practice, practice, practice. Thanks, Kip!

This was how it went with pretty much all the guys in Winger’s master class, and it was all guys, with the exception of one woman. I’m not sure why rock camp leans so heavily male. There were only eight women total at camp; most of them were singers and none were in my band. Maybe it’s that masculine, Almost Famous idea that men are rewarded for stage presence with off-stage female adulation.

And though many of these guys were genuinely talented musicians, in Winger’s class, the one female guitar player, a hesitant curly-haired woman in glasses and blue jeans, outshone us all. She had never played bass, and was reluctant to get up there for the beat test. Kip told her she shouldn’t worry, that women generally have an easier time feeling the beat. Sure enough, she ended up playing better than any of us. Kip didn’t even need to yell “Late!” or “Early!” as she quickly slid into perfect sync with the drummer.

She had nailed it, and rather than feeling resentful at being outplayed by the lone girl in the class, we found that it was thrilling to see anyone succeed. There was no swagger, no fear of emasculation. I was beginning to realize that fantasy camp circumvented the type of pissing match that had sent the Isotoners to an early grave.

Day 4: The Original Song Contest

George Thorogood interrupted band practice for a little meet-n-greet — a daily occurrence at rock camp, where famous musicians drop in for quick autographs and photo-ops. Over the course of the week, we met the likes of Joe Satriani, Dr. John, Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), Levon Helm (the Band) and Jon Anderson (Yes). My SBABACO bandmates almost tittered when Thorogood entered the room; I was less enamored with the celebrity handshakes, but I still got my picture taken with George.

SBABACO broke for the day to meet up at the Original Song Contest, recorded live in “the fishbowl” at the Sirius Satellite Radio studios near Rockefeller Center. We drew number twelve out of twelve in the performance-order lottery, making us the last band of the night. Slaughter warned us to “hold off on beer o’clock.”

Campers and press packed into the Sirius lobby, plus two judges: a dude from a music publishing company, and Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad. The two of them sat in the front row of seats facing the glass box, waiting expectantly. Throughout the week, people who had been watching SBABACO rehearse told us we were a head above the other bands.

It felt thrilling to have people pulling for us, but it wasn’t as if we had a reputation on the line. I wanted us to do well, of course, but for different reasons than I used to want Isotoners performances to go well. Here today, there were no club owners or rock critics to impress — only ourselves. We were a band without a history or a future, playing in a five-day vacuum with our breakup scheduled and imminent. It was strangely liberating.

One at a time, bands entered the glass studio to perform. The show dragged a little until Beauty and the Beasts, a band of mostly older guys led by Skunk Baxter of the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, played their song, “Don’t Treat Me Like That.” With an octave-jumping, sing-along hook and a tight performance, Beauty and the Beasts, as Tyra Banks might say, brought it. It looked like they had the contest all wrapped up.

Our turn. The chatter on the other side of the soundproof glass disappeared as we moved into the fishbowl. I stood beside the drum cage and plugged in my Mustang bass. Behind the glass, the people seemed like they were in another universe: fully animated bodies, lips flapping, making no sound at all.

Bill struck a bright, strong chord on the organ and slid down and around. Mark shrieked, “SBABACO!” My hips felt the groove. I instinctively slapped the Mustang and slid down the neck to bang out the funk.

So many times you’ve walked out on me
Slammed the door, and I set you free
Now I’m wandering around, a dog without a bone
Walking in circles until you come home

On the other side of thick glass, our audience erupted in silent cheers. As we took it to the chorus, I could see the fists pumping and hips shaking.

We ended the song on five full-band hits and: out. Someone opened the studio door, and the crowd’s cheers came flooding in. Then everyone hushed as Mark Farner began to announce the winners. Third and second place went to other bands. Then: “The winner is — you all guessed it — SBABACO!”

The band exploded with glee. Except, of course, for Bob. “That was pretty cool,” he said, the corners of his mouth barely edging north.

Day 5: Battle of the Bands

Glory and triumph behind us, SBABACO was confident going into battle on the final night of rock camp. Again, we drew the final slot in the performance lottery, which meant we would be closing the show at B.B. King that night in front of a capacity crowd.
After rehearsal, I realized I’d left my notebook at the studio, so I went back to get it. I found Bob outside smoking a cigarette. I asked him if he was excited about the show, and that’s when he told me that he wasn’t going to show up.

I was shocked.

“I’ve had enough,” he said simply.

“Is anything wrong?” I asked.

For the first time since I’d met him, Bob smiled.

“I’m just ready to get home. New York City isn’t really for me.” A taxi roared by doing fifty, driver leaning on the horn.

“But we need you,” I pleaded. “You’re part of the band!”

“I’ve had a fantastic time,” Bob said, poker-faced, “but I don’t go in for performing much.” He was intractable. To me, a born performer, his rejection of our impending public glory was incomprehensible. But I’m a poseur. Unlike Bob, I was getting out of Rock Camp exactly what my psyche desires: an audience, a band and an official badge printed, ROCK STAR.

But then, for the first time since I’d met him, Bob smiled. An actual toothy grin. With his characteristic silence, he stuck out his hand. We shook, and I went on my way.

Bob had been so quiet all week that most of SBABACO hardly noticed his absence. But Larry later told me that amid the hubbub of rehearsals and songwriting, he’d made a real connection with Bob. In fact, Bob was the one who came up with the initial riff for “You’re My Woman,” the song that won us the contest at Sirius. “I just played off of his lick,” Larry said.

That night, B.B. King was packed. Our biggest competition, Beauty and the Beasts, drove the crowd wild. One of the Beasts was a bald dude in his sixties suited up in a Catholic-school uniform, shorts and a blazer, complete with a School of Rock badge on the lapel. Mark gathered SBABACO together moments before we took the stage. We were ready, and on Mark’s cue, we stepped up and plugged in.

The audience was packed against the stage, and the lights were hot. My friends in the front row yelled, “Ben! Ben! Ben!” But halfway through Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years,” tragedy struck: half the band broke too early. A consummate pro, Mark vamped convincingly, covering it as best as anyone could, and the audience mostly forgot all about the flub. We closed with “You’re My Woman,” joined on stage by the CBS Orchestra’s horn section. The crowd went nuts, more than I’d seen all night. But the damage was done.

As they began to announce the results, I suddenly realized how much I wanted us to win. We’d worked hard on our set, and the pride I felt in our songs and in our band surprised me. But Beauty and the Beasts played a tight set — they had a beautiful electric-fiddle player as their frontwoman, and the hotshot kid-drummer/guitarist-father combo from Kansas City. Narrowly edged out, SBABACO took second place in the Battle of the Bands. Each band received a “gold record” as a parting gift. I was disappointed, and there was some buzz from around the club that we were robbed, that since we’d won the Original Song Contest they didn’t want to give us first place here too.

It was a bit of a shock to find myself caring. I’d entered rock camp thinking it would be a burlesque version of the band experience, just a campy anecdote to laugh about with my “real musician” friends. But by the time it was over, I’d realized that maybe what was wrong with the Isotoners was that the fantasy of playing in a band is exactly what we’d lost sight of during the course of our rise. Personally, I’d become so inured to constant bickering that by the time we were finished, I was wallowing in our failures while barely even registering our triumphs. Perhaps a little fantasy is exactly what every troubled band needs, with the din of any internal conflicts drowned out by the music itself.

This article originally appeared in Nerve’s Personal Essays.