By Michael Metzger
WHAT CAN A poor boy do, 'cept to sing for a rock and roll band?" When Mick Jagger snarled out that question in 1968 in the great outlaw anthem "Street Fighting Man," he was trying to wrestle social and political quandaries involving anti-war and civil rights protests into an understandable form of chaos. If he and Keith Richards were to rewrite the song today, a more pertinent question might be, "How can a poor boy possibly afford to be in a rock and roll band?"
Sure, that question isn't nearly as incendiary or poetic as the original query, but for today's generation of musicians it's definitely the more difficult of the two to answer.
"My work or my job has always been secondary. Playing music is what I've always wanted to do since I was 13 and in the KISS Army," Gene Ruley, lead guitarist of The Drakes--and an assistant manager of a record store--says quietly and without a trace of doubt. He sits in a circle with the other members of his band--all of them with knowing smiles blossoming on their faces. "It's still the only thing that I think I'm good at. I feel like I can do this."
"When you're really young you want to be President, a football player maybe, or a rock star," lead singer and rhythm guitarist Tom Stauffer says. "It's one of those few remaining things from childhood that still has a candle burning, that still could be alive. Everything else you've given up and put by the wayside."
A cold-hearted career counselor might take the five members of the band by their shoulders and shake them like Axl Rose's hair. Shake them until the dream died. Remind them of all the money they've spent and opportunities that fell away in order to play music. Perhaps plead with them to take up Sally Struthers' offer to learn about hotel/motel management.
It wouldn't do any good. They've all been around long enough to learn how to live in the reality of the music world.
What you see on MTV or read about in Rolling Stone, People or Spin magazines is nothing more than the glittery facade of music--as thin and tearable as a pounded sheet of gold and just as hard to buy on the money the average musician makes from the average gigs or "day job."
Stauffer is a café cook; drummer Chris Martin sells electrical supplies; bassist Jeff Kazanow is a recording engineer; violinist Brett Klay is a chemist (every rock and roll band should have their own chemist).
They don't take part in the cultural custom of identifying oneself by job title or income level. They're musicians--they make time to practice (when conflicting job schedules allow) on top of their 40 hours or more of work each week. They dive willingly into debt to buy expensive equipment--guitars, microphones, amps, drums, drumsticks, guitar strings, effects pedals, connecting cables for instruments and much more. They steal from their own paychecks to do so--checks often already too small or spent covering everyday costs of living.
"I've been doing it for years and I can't really afford to, but I do it anyway. And I make bad business decisions all the time," Ruley admits with a blush, as laughter erupts from his bandmates. "I'm selling stuff for a third of what I paid for it, to get something else that costs twice as much as that. I'm just crazy that way."
Even though everyone laughs, it's a laugh of camaraderie, not derision or disbelief. They all share his obsession/addiction/compulsion for the instruments they make music with, and even more, the music they create with the implements and tools they buy.
"Even if we weren't in a band, it would still be there," Stauffer says of the consuming love of music. "We'd be playing at home or listening to music really intently or we would be going out to see bands."
The members of The Drakes have had to pare their rock and roll dreams of youth down to a size accommodating the real world.
"I've stripped a lot of my preconceptions, the romantic visions of my teens and 20s--I've stripped down my fantasies a lot," the 30-year-old Ruley says. "Now it's mainly the music, because it was the music that first really drew me to this. I'm not expecting much from the other part of it. The music is still the thing that affects me the most."
"We have to be satisfied with keeping it going and keeping everyone together," the 36-year-old Stauffer says. "We're not like 16, 17 or 18 and just out of high school and winging it. We don't expect everything anymore. We just do what we can. Sometimes we only have two or three people who can make it to practice."
A practice session with a couple of band members missing might appear to be an exercise in futility, but actually The Drakes have been able to turn the liability into a creative springboard.
"We get different songs and different arrangements out of that," says Stauffer, the band's lyricist. "We can work with it. If Brett and me and Gene (who composes the music for the group) and Chris are there and Jeff can't make it, then that kind of song will come out. It's whatever works."
It's becoming increasingly obvious to the ever-expanding crowds at Drakes shows that whatever works is working better and better for this three-year-old band. There is an undeniable momentum propelling them further into the upper echelon of Tucson bands.
"I always felt we were good and we just kept plugging away at it," Ruley says. "I always knew that someday we would get some level of acceptance. Some nights you just have that vibe and it's been happening a lot lately."
It's definitely happening on their upcoming eponymous CD release on Epiphany Records, too. They twist and expand the traditional power-pop formula with Ruley's intricate, shadowy chord progressions exploding into frontline, controlled rock and roll strikes augmenting Stauffer's evocative lyrics and stinging voice. Kazanow and Martin are two radar screens locked onto each others' rhythms while Klay adds succulent fills on his violin.
The multi-dimensional moods can stop you like a lost deer in bright pop headlights, drag a slow rolling river of dark emotions for your heart or just make you feel like dancing.
Ruley, Stauffer, Kazanow, Klay and Martin don't expect the album to put them on the peak of Billboard's charts or make their faces appear on your television screen. They say they hope to use the disc to build fan bases in the Southwest--north to Denver, east to Austin and maybe west to San Diego. After that, who knows? Perhaps a major label will discover their distinctive pop sound and make them full-time working musicians.
If that doesn't happen, don't imagine that these guys will wilt or wane. They're in it for the things that don't show up on ledger sheets; for those moments when a simple chord mutates, through talent and work, into a song and when a person or a crowd gets into that song and becomes part of it. They're in it for life.
| © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth