Scott Mckenzie traveled the USA in search of his guitar heroes...and he found them. His talesare chronicled in the new book Power Chord. Read on to discover much about the author and why he had no choice but to meet the Gods of Guitar.
By Jeb Wright
Jeb: Scott, you and I seem to be more into music than the average person. I have been wondering this for years, so maybe you can help me…What the fuck is WRONG with us? WHY OH WHY are we the way we are and why can’t we be freaking normal?
Scott: Maybe our brains function differently. Or our ears! I like to think the insane lengths I went to with music provided a richer life, a more detailed soundtrack, if you will. I never understand people who say music is just background noise. Listening to music is a very active thing for me. I get lost in it as opposed to simply have something percolating in the background. But anyway, I hope that my musical insanity has paid off with a more detailed and rich life. That’s what I tell myself, at least.
Jeb: In all seriousness, when were you first struck with the rock and roll insanity? For me it was when I was 11, drinking beer at a party and listening to Double Live Gonzo by Ted Nugent. What’s your ‘first’?
Scott: It was also a double live record for me, KISS Alive II. That record established the template for what I thought music should sound like. From there, I went back and discovered the band’s first alive album. I played those records so much at such an early age, when I was just in third or fourth grade, I sometimes think it re-wired my brain. Medical research shows us that drug use or even fast food can re-wire the brain to function differently, I sometimes think music did something similar to my noggin.
Jeb: Did you used to scour the record stores, looking for new music and trying to find new bands? Did you ever buy an album just for the cover because you thought it looked cool?
Scott: One of my favorite record cover stories involves the 1980 KISS album Unmasked. I really did think there was going to be a poster or something inside that would show the guys without their makeup. I convinced my aunt, who I was visiting at the time, to buy the record for me and I ripped off the shrink-wrap in the parking lot only to discover there were no plain, pimply faces inside.
I also had a huge crush on the girl pictured on Ratt’s 1985 Invasion of Your Privacy record. I didn’t care anything about Tawny Kitaen on Out of the Cellar, but dude, those little lace ankle socks and the white underwear that girl wore on Invasion? That was good stuff for an adolescent boy.
Jeb: I was such a geek all of the people at Paul’s Records & Tapes knew me by sight when I was like 13 because the record store was like a daily pilgrimage to me. What about you?
Scott: I was a geek as well, although slightly different. I grew up in the country, the nearest record store was about 40 miles away and even that was a chain store. So I don’t have any High Fidelity kind of record store stories. But yeah, music was definitely a daily ritual. I listened to Ratt in the morning, getting ready for school, rocking out in my own air guitar concerts at 6:00am before the bus came. I devoured the liner notes to records and cassette tapes so I could list the names of all the engineers and mixers. I read articles and reviews relentlessly, frequently parroting terms that I didn’t even understand. I remember saying that I loved Van Halen’s 5150 but thought the brothers VH had “overproduced” the album because I read that comment in a review somewhere. My friend looked at me and asked, “What does that mean? Overproduced?” I couldn’t really answer but I doubt many thirteen-year-olds complained about things being overproduced. I was definitely a rock geek.
Jeb: For me, I loved the electric guitar. You focus more on the 1980’s where I am both a 70’s and 80’s fan, but the ‘70’s to me were more special.
Scott: There’s no doubt that the 70’s were the breeding ground of the archetype. It started in the 60’s, but it was the guys in the 70’s who really cemented the cultural icon of the “guitar hero.” I think everyone after that is sort of acting out a role that the 70’s guitarists defined. Just the famous images from that era that are burned into our mind of Jimmy Page with that Les Paul slung down so low or Eric Clapton with the sunglasses and bushy beard. That’s what everyone else is emulating.
When I started doing the research and interviews for Power Chord, I would have loved to sit down with Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, or someone like that. But those guys were like legends of another era. They just seemed too lofty, too impossible to reach.
Jeb: Tell me how the love of this music continued for you into adulthood and how it affected your life?
Scott: As I got older, I explored other musical genres. I like to learn about things, so my initial fascination with hard rock and heavy metal definitely expanded into other styles. I lived in Mississippi for seven years and got pretty heavy into the blues. So as I grew into an adult, I continued to be obsessive about music and learning about it, but with newer genres.
But no matter how much I loved those other forms of music, hard rock and heavy metal was always the bedrock. It was always something I returned to.
Music was, and remains to be, an escape for me. Whenever times are tough, I can lose myself in the music. As an adult, it’s been a great stress reliever and a retreat. Whatever our problems are in our day-to-day lives, music is always there for us.
Jeb: In the book, you basically go cross country and try to meet rock stars. For starters, what made you do that and isn’t that kind of, well, stalkerish? Did you ever worry that you were maybe becoming a tad, well, weird?
Scott: While I never constructed an altar of candles, photos, and locks of hair and I never snarled, “If I can’t have John 5, no one will have him!” I will admit that it did border on stalkerish at times. I’m an information junkie, the kind of person who simply has to look it up when someone casually asks, “What movie was that guy in?” So I do tend to go overboard with research. During the writing of Power Chord, when I found myself calling the County Clerk’s office looking for property records or trying to figure out which mechanic works on a guitar player’s car, then yeah, I knew I might be going a bit far.
Jeb: What made you do what you did? Why not just be an average fan? What was so compelling to have to meet the stars?
Scott: It initially started as a bit of a lark. But once I got going, I became determined to see it through. Meeting my guitar heroes, and learning more about the instrument myself, became something that I just refused to stop. As the hurdles and barriers got bigger, I just refused to give up.
Jeb: Are you in a financial position to do this? Or did it put a strain on your finances? When you were putting pen to paper did you ever think, “My wife is going to KILL me.”
Scott: The whole guitar hero journey was an astronomical financial strain. I was working two different day jobs, plus picking up the occasional writing assignment here and there, to fund my travels and activities. Luckily, I have the coolest wife in the world so she was always supportive and encouraging.
Jeb: Who was the first rock star you got to talk to? What was it like? How did you do and how did you feel after you talked?
Scott: The first musician I spoke to was Mark Kendall of Great White. He was very welcoming, very friendly. But it was rushed, I wasn’t really prepared, and I felt like I was very scattered in my interview questions. The first musician who I really got to spend some time with was Bruce Kulick, who was tremendously cool as we ran around town for a weekend.
Jeb: When did you know what you were doing was going to become a book?
Scott: Although I worked “normal” day jobs, my education was in creative writing and I was the co-author for an unusual sort of celebrity memoir with Bozo the Clown. So multiple times a day, I get random ideas for books. Most of those notions are pretty hairbrained and never go anywhere. But with Power Chord, I would say after I had met four or five musicians, it started to occur to me that this could really, concretely, become a book.
Jeb: Tell me how you got your book deal?
Scott: The book deal was tough. People don’t believe this now, because bookstore shelves are littered with memoirs from anyone with long hair and a Les Paul, but just a few years ago, editors and publishers claimed that metal fans don’t read. A board member of the American Booksellers Association once told me, “I don’t believe KISS fans could even find a bookstore, much less buy a book.” So originally, it was tough getting industry people to take Power Chord seriously.
The other challenge was that agents and editors seemed to want the book to be one of two things:
1) A “woe is them” look at how far the musicians have fallen and how bad they have it. There were lots of people asking for something like the Mickey Rourke movie The Wrestler. I love that film, but it’s not what I wanted to explore for this book.
2) An expose of drugs, sex, and sleaze.
Neither of which did I want to write. I wanted to pay homage to the determination of the guitar heroes. If someone played to 50,000 fans in 1982 and they’re playing to 500 fans in 2012, I look at that as a sign of dedication to the craft. I don’t see that as an opportunity to sneer, “They should just give it up.”
So it took a while, but luckily I found a super-supportive agent and a super-supportive editor who both got the vision and here we are, posting backstage photos and extras and stuff on the book’s Facebook fan page. It’s been a long journey, but a really special one.
Jeb: What rock star did you meet and almost wet your pants with excitement over?
Scott: No matter how professional I tried to be, no matter how detached and objective and Woodward and Bernstein I tried to come across, I still reverted to a giggling ten-year-old kid with all the musicians. There’s just something to standing there, a few feet away, watching someone play a solo you’ve heard a million times, that is magical. So I was nervous with almost all the musicians.
But Phil Collen of Def Leppard was uniquely agonizing. He himself was incredibly cool and generous with his time. He wasn’t the problem. I was.
I had gone to all these summer festivals dressed for comfort in sneakers, shorts, and T-shirts. I always saw professional photographers and journalists and they wore jeans and boots, with necklaces and rings, almost like the rockers on stage. They seemed to get so much more access than I did in my dirty tennis shoes. And when I watched one fashionably dressed shutterbug in the photo pit turn away from the musicians on stage, face the audience, and get five women to immediately remove their tops, it was quite impressive.
So when I went to interview Def Leppard, I thought, “I’m going to dress better and present myself more professionally.” I donned my best Los Angeles – Sunset Strip style attire with $150 jeans, some heavy boots, a long sleeve shirt, jewelry, and so forth.
It was literally 105 degrees and sweat just poured off me, dripping onto my notebook, plopping down onto my recorder. I was miserable. Phil Collen sauntered in, wearing – you guessed it – a tank top, shorts, and Converse sneakers. He was the epitome of cool, literally and figuratively, while I sat there melting. Every time I touched my notebook, I smeared the ink because my hands were sweating so much. I must have looked like Bruce Springsteen at the end of a three-hour set. It was humiliating.
Thankfully, Phil was polite enough to not draw any attention to my completely inappropriate and stupid wardrobe choices.
Jeb: Are you still in touch with any of the guys?
Scott: Stacey Blades from LA Guns is a good guy, a friend, and a great guitar player. His solo record Symphonic Slam was really interesting. I speak to Rudy Sarzo periodically; he’s just the nicest guy ever. And I do frequently exchange emails with various guitar players in the book or bump into them at concerts. It’s great when a childhood hero sees you backstage and says, “Hey man!”
Jeb: Deep down, to get philosophical for a moment, what did you learn by doing this? Was it worth it? And would you do it again?
Scott: Personally, this quest was something for me to complete. I had always abandoned things before, I had always avoided taking risks. So what I learned during this journey was to be more adventurous and to invest myself in something, completely and totally.
That personal change was spurred on my seeing how single-minded the guitar heroes were in their dedication to the instrument and the craft. The focus of these guys is unbelievable.
I took some of that single-minded determination they displayed and tried to implement it in my own life. And it brought me out of my shell, in many ways. I would absolutely, totally go through this journey again.
Jeb: You even signed up for the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp. And you don’t really even play that well. What was the best and worst part of that experience for you?
Scott: The best part of the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp was bonding with those four or five men in the band room. We were locked together for hours, in this tiny rehearsal room. And by the end of the day, my ears would just be ringing. But everyone was proud of what was being accomplished. I was never in any sort of garage band, so I can only compare it to the bond on a sports team, as you practice and struggle to get better. That camaraderie is intoxicating.
There really wasn’t a worst part of the Camp. If pressed, I would have to say the worst thing was my fear that I would somehow ruin everyone else’s fun. I didn’t want to be that guy on the basketball court who can’t throw a ball in the ocean but is determined to jack up a shot every time he touches the ball. My skill on the guitar was so non-existent, I didn’t want to reduce the enjoyment of my band mates, so that was stressful.
Jeb: Many people sign up time and time again for that experience. Will you go back? Why or why not?
Scott: I would certainly go back to the Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp. And you’re right, lots of people do it multiple times. A few of the guys in my band, Riot in the Temple, have done at least three RRFC events. At my camp, I believe it was almost 50% of the attendees overall were repeat customers. I haven’t encountered anyone who said they wouldn’t do it again, in a heartbeat.
Jeb: Who have you not met that you feel you still need to meet?
Scott: There are so many. The designation of “guitar hero” is one that can be eternally debated. “No way, that guy sucks! I can’t believe you chose him!” people always argue. So when I was writing Power Chord, I used a very loose and personal definition:
Did I ever, at any point in my life, even for a moment, imagine that I was that musician on stage, playing those solos?
So with that definition, there’s a list of countless guitar heroes I still need to meet. Of course, the true legends like Clapton and Page and those guys we discussed earlier. I’ve met Mick Mars of Motley Crue but haven’t interviewed him. He’s one that I kind of feel “got away.” And although he’s a controversial figure in the KISS story, I’d love to chat with Vinnie Vincent. He has such an amazing and unusual and misunderstood story, it would be great to get his version of things.
Jeb: Are there any generalities you can discuss that you noticed from the stars you met as well as the fantasy campers? Are there any glaring personality similarities?
Scott: Guitar heroes have a focus that fascinates me. For most of us, we work hard and we try. It’s not that we’re just aimless losers. But the truly great – whether a musician or an athlete or an actor or whatever – have a level of focus and determination that the rest of us don’t possess.
Frequently, I would ask the rockers about back up plans. “What would you have done if you didn’t make it?” I would say. They would just look at me weird. It was like they couldn’t even comprehend the question.
Ace Frehley told me that if he hadn’t joined KISS, he would have joined some other group and “been famous in another band,” he said. “I sincerely believe that.”
The other generality is that guitar heroes frequently reject the whole notion itself. While fans participate in polls and lists of who’s best, the musicians themselves often don’t entertain those competitions. Steve Vai, for example, is very committed to the belief that it’s all about a personal relationship with the instrument, almost in a vacuum, without comparing yourself to any other musician.
Jeb: I want one funny story from when you were on the road…just like rock stars have funny road tales I bet you have a few.
Scott: Backstage access today is very different than what you see depicted in Almost Famous. It’s much stricter, more tightly controlled. Just getting a pass isn’t enough because now there are all these levels and “zones” of where you can go and what you can do.
I was at a festival recently and didn’t have a backstage pass. A musician friend snuck me in. As long as I was in his direct vicinity, the security guards wouldn’t hassle me. We walked over to the B Stage to see the Japanese band Loudness. As we approached security, I figured I would just peel off and watch the show from the crowd.
“Tell ‘em you’re my biographer,” the rocker said as we breezed right through the B Stage security. “He’s with me,” he said to the guard.
Now remember, he’s got a pass hanging around his neck and I don’t. We climb the scaffolding beside the stage and all the roadies see me with him and don’t seem to care. We stand there talking with some of the local crew members and watching the band.
Suddenly, he walks out on stage!
I’m like, “I’m not going on the fucking stage.” It’s one thing to be backstage without credentials, they’ll just ask you to leave. But going on the stage itself, during the show? That’s like running onto the field during a football game. You’re liable to get an ass whupping and arrested.
So now I’m by myself. The show ends and the local crew members who had kind of accepted me rush off to start changing over for the next band. And my pal is lost in the shuffle.
The Loudness crew doesn’t speak English that well. So they’re trying to get their gear off stage and I’m in the way and they’re wondering what I’m doing there. I’m trying to get the hell out of there but it’s like being caught in the rapids of a rushing river, I’m being jostled back and forth, kind of trapped. The Loudness crew doesn’t appreciate me crashing and they start yelling for security. After all the crazy stuff in my guitar hero journey, I’m thinking, “I’m finally going to be arrested.”
The story kind of peters out because I finally manage to weave through the mass of humanity and gear and get out of there before the security guards reach me. I stepped through the security threshold and into the general audience and completed my escape.
Jeb: Last one: What will you do with this life experience? Are you a changed man? Did meeting your heroes change your outlook on the music?
Scott: I have to admit, for my entire life, I gave about 90% on everything. I was good, but not great. I always walked away at the crucial moment, I always avoided the ultimate risk. I worked hard and I did well. But I didn’t give 100%. Or, 110% as professional athletes like to say.
So completing the guitar hero journey documented in Power Chord was a way for me to take risks I would have never taken and really, truly “give it all.” It absolutely changed me. I’m more adventurous now, more confident, and more determined.@
The views of the comments below are not necessarily those of Classic Rock Revisited