Guitar Hero

Tucson-raised Robby Lochner always managed to earn a living with his guitar. Then his discipline inspired new life in a suicidal nostalgia act.

The Whisky a Go Go is a shell of its former self. What was once, alongside the neighboring Rainbow and Roxy, the manic epicenter of the musical social scene on the Sunset Strip, is now a pay-to-play haven operating on past glories and the merch sales associated with that. Tourists come, because they've read about the Doors, Led Zep and Bowie hanging out with Cynthia Plaster Caster and Pamela Des Barres in the late '60s and '70s, or later punk shows by The Germs and X, or hair metal later still. Locals come because a friend's band is performing, or maybe for a dose of nostalgia when one of those veteran bands makes a Whisky return. But nobody in LA thinks that it's a cool "hip" place anymore. You might get your picture taken by the sign outside, but you won't hang.

Jack Russell of bluesy '80s hair band Great White is playing tonight. Nowadays, there are two versions of the band on the circuit—"Great White," which includes everyone but the singer, and "Jack Russell's Great White," which is the more official one. The guitarist in the latter band is eastside Tucson legend Robby Lochner, and that's what brings us to the Whisky.

That Russell is playing the Whisky is entirely appropriate. On first sight, the singer appears broken. His face is drawn, and tired and sad. It's been 13 years since the Rhode Island fire at The Station nightclub, that one caused by faulty pyrotechnics at a Great White gig, which resulted in the death of 100 people, and injuries to 230 more. It was the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history. Russell is still haunted. It ruined his life. For a long time he drank to ease the pain, resulting in at least one coma. His excesses have taken their toll, and they are visible on his body, and he appears fragile and tenuous. He's a walking cautionary tale. The man once sold millions of records. But that was a long time ago, when MTV was music's gatekeeper and The Gipper occupied the White House.

Russell is 55 and says Lochner is a couple years younger, although the guitarist doesn't reveal his age. But the visual differences between the two are staggering. Lochner has everything together. He moves like a teenager in a garage band, plays with freedom usually associated with naive youth, a picture of health. Hair perfect. He rarely drinks, never smokes or does drugs, and eats extremely carefully. And for the past half-decade, he's been Russell's caretaker. While Russell is responsible for his own mistakes and triumphs, Lochner has helped him get his career back on track.

This is all very apparent at the Whisky, a show the band sees as a tremendous success. While he sort of hobbles around the stage, Russell's voice is as good as ever, if not better, more storied, and he hits every high note, which is saying a lot. Lochner's the band's musical director. Stage left is all his, a luxury not afforded to any other band member, and he owns it, pulling every classic guitar-hero move and pose, and excelling during a classical-style finger-tapping solo. The venue is jam-packed, as it is when '80s hair bands like Ratt and LA Guns return to the room.

That's Lochner's story. This isn't the tragic tale of a coulda-shoulda guitarist from a hugely popular local band who years ago packed his bags, went to LA, and ended up on the reunion trail with some '80s hair-metal revival, playing to half-empty rooms. Rather, Lochner has found himself in a band long haunted by a tragedy of immeasurable proportion, yet is holding on—due to Lochner's steadfast determination—to a level of name-recognition and a cult fanbase built on past glories. He's allowed the freedom to create, direct and all but control. This is a man who found his feet in a place where the ground seems decidedly uneven. And like he has since his days at Sahuaro High School, he continues to earn his living with the guitar, which is no mean feat.

It's two weeks after the Whisky show and we're sitting in Lochner's home studio. His Orange County home is very suburban and sedate. He shares it with his wife, Jessica, a kindergarten teacher, and their two children. The couple have been together for 11 years and in this house for 10. It's his sanctuary, where he works and plays. Today he's barefoot and chill; a picture of So-Cal cool. He's surrounded by a lot of equipment and, tellingly, little memorabilia. The room is a reflection of the man's work ethic; he's more interested in what he can do going forward than looking back.

It's all a long way away from his Arizona beginnings. He describes his Tucson childhood as "hot, but cool." By the time he was attending Sahuaro High School on the "classic rock" east side of town, he was already playing music. In those days, kegger parties out in the desert ruled the nights. Boston and Journey and Van Halen albums in every bedroom. Roc Lochner, the band Lochner had with his brother Charlie, rose out of that scene. You didn't really play clubs in the late '70s and early '80s, but Roc Lochner were already legends, especially to kids on Tucson's east side, because they played original songs.

"High school was like a party," Lochner says. "If somebody was having a party, we'd ask if they needed a band, and set our stuff up. We'd play in their house, or we used to play really big desert parties. It wasn't like we were making any money—we just wanted to play in front of people. It was a different animal than sitting in your room playing, or even sitting with your band playing in the practice room."

Bass player Rick Travis was three years ahead of Lochner at school, but he started hearing about this young guitarist who had something going on, as friends starting passing around cassette tapes of Lochner's playing. The pair wound up trading ideas. When Roc Lochner lost a bass player, Travis stepped in.

"They called me up and I asked if they were writing," Travis says. "That was all I cared about—that they weren't just covering songs. I was spending my time in the studio, and they were just starting to. I said, 'Let me hear your demos.' That's really where it started."

As high school went on, Robby Lochner was part of the traditional "freaks" subset of students, opposite "the jocks," and Roc Lochner played more and more. Still, despite the obvious and natural attraction to partying and chicks for a high school kid in a band, by all accounts Lochner kept it clean, preferring to focus his attention on his music.

"It's funny to see that some of the guys who made it big were partying hard all the way through the whole thing," Lochner says. "I would see it everywhere, but at some point people started getting that I wasn't doing it and they started hiding it. I've lost friends who have died from a heroin overdose." He pauses, adds, "I'm not qualified to stop somebody from doing anything."

Partying or no, Roc Lochner had, by 1984, developed a sizeable Tucson following, and Travis had settled into the band. Travis remembers band singer Ken Triphan telling him they were expecting 500 to 700 people at the shows they'd booked. The bassist was skeptical.

"I thought nobody in Tucson draws that many people," Travis says. "I learned the material quickly, and two weeks later we did a show and there were almost 4,000 people there. That's a huge number in Tucson. That was my first show, and we took off from there, full-steam ahead. I realized that we needed to make the leap into the Hollywood scene and that's what we started doing, playing the Troubadour and places like that."

Roc Lochner drew huge crowds mostly on word of mouth. There was no internet, no social media, and the band had zero newspaper support. Roc Lochner didn't get press in Tucson. Hard rock never got press. They were never considered cool. But they were out-drawing any local band, at least 10 to one, playing out-of-the-way shows promoted by flyers. Mostly kids from the east side.

The band traveled to Los Angeles often to play shows, to get noticed, meet the right people. You had to in those days; there was no other way out of Tucson. It was a total crapshoot.

"We were meeting phonies," Lochner says of the cliché sleazy types who glommed onto young bands. "There are people who are not really legit."

After two albums (1989's self-titled debut and '89's Seventh House), Lochner realized that the band would have to relocate to Hollywood to achieve anything. The rest of the band wasn't ready.

"The only way we could really do it was move out here. It's a scary thing to do—to move from Tucson."

Roc Lochner's time was coming to an end. The band members developed different priorities, family ties, jobs. Lochner says it wasn't practical or responsible for the rest of the guys to just pack up and leave for California, but he had to.

It's unspoken; Travis hints that he and the rest of Roc Lochner weren't at all pleased when Robby left for LA, even if they knew it was an inevitable move. Travis clearly suspected that Robby would struggle to succeed in California. Still, they remain friends to this day.

"We knew that somehow, someway, he would be extracted out there," Travis says. "I was concerned that he would fall in with a million other guitarists. We felt it best to stay hunkered down in our studio, self-contained, self-managed and controlled, our costs were all in line. It made no sense to leave for Los Angeles. The timing wasn't right for us. After many years of working together, 12 or 13 years, that's what unfortunately led to him going that way and we all had to move in different directions."

In 1993, Lochner packed up his 1976 Ford Torino station wagon and left town. Folks in small town Tucson were expecting him to come back with his tail between his legs before too long. But Lochner was determined.

There were really no other options in life for Lochner, except the guitar, the song. He became a kind of rock 'n' roll gunner and song writer for hire. They don't exist anymore.

Though he struggled (and continues to struggle) with what he perceives to be the very LA attitude of, "I don't wanna know you if you aren't somebody," within a year of arriving he was working with Judas Priest singer Rob Halford in his first post-Priest project called Fight, and did the War of Words tour. Working with one of the biggest names in metal, Lochner felt vindicated.

"It helped me a lot, obviously," Lochner says. "I think a lot of people [in Tucson] were shocked and shut their mouths for a moment until that was over. Even after that period, it was still tough getting to know people. A lot of people were standoffish. Like, 'who are you and what have you done?' For me, I personally can't stand that. Either you're cool with me or you're not. There are a core of people, guys that I really like that I ended up working with after the Fight thing."

Lochner toured but didn't record with Fight because, he says, he wanted to have more control over a band, something that The Metal God clearly wouldn't allow. So Lochner's next project was called Treason, a hard rock outfit that found him working with Michael Jackson and Phil Collins engineer Max Marino. But the sound was dated, and the band fell apart. Next came Radio Flyer, which, in 1996, morphed into Gillian's Crush. Perhaps unusually for Lochner, this group had a pop-punk sound and the guitarist thought for sure it was a winner, but hope is food for disappointment.

"That band got a lot of attention," he says. "We were very close to having a record contract. We were right on the cutting edge. We sounded a lot like Blink 182 right around the same time as them. Ultimately, the demise of the band was the producer locked us up into a restrictive contract. We were stupid, we should have known better. It ended up not good for anybody because the band broke up. They got zero percent of zero, and so did we."

Jaded, Lochner relocated himself out of LA-proper to Orange County, buying a house with his wife Jessica. He started teaching guitar and soon had close to 100 students a week. He was busy and he was earning money, no small feat for a musician in California. He wrote and recorded a pair of solo albums over the years but he always missed the creative side and the camaraderie that comes with being in a band. He did session work with Cherie Currie (The Runaways), and Eddie Money, but he really needed to continue to write songs. Enter Dig Jelly.

"The band was really cool, but it was one of those things that you either really liked, or really didn't," Lochner says. "We had a female vocalist from Japan, Rayko. The three musicians were all from Tucson, which was interesting. Rain Balen on bass—he was working at Sticks N Strings in Tucson and I used to teach there years ago. The drummer was Joey Felix—I knew Joey from years and years ago, the Roc Lochner days, and he moved out to LA years before I did. I was trying to change how they were doing the writing, because the girl was doing it all and I wanted to get everybody involved. The music was getting better and better. It was heavy at times. She would scream ... I have a full album of stuff that's been sitting there waiting for me to finish."

Lochner says Dig Jelly, who toured with bands like The Lovemakers and Veruca Salt, hasn't officially split up. It's had to take a backseat because Lochner busied himself with Jack Russell and Great White, a band burdened by a piece of wretched history.

The Rhode Island fire took a huge toll on Jack Russell's health, both mentally and physically, and the singer suffers as a direct result.

"It was so traumatic that he would just be crying," Lochner says, "He got himself in the position where I think he was trying to kill himself with drugs and alcohol because of what happened. He's doing better now. I don't see [the crying] as much, but every once in a while he'll be quiet and I'll know why. Time doesn't heal the wound but it dulls it."

Russell appears to be in the early stages of a long road to recovery, and Lochner is helping him each step of the way. But that visual doesn't help the cause when trying to promote a band as something fresh, capable of good, new music. Lochner faces the challenge head-on, and in a way, reminds Russell often that like all sharks, Great White must continue to move forward in order to survive.

Russell says Lochner's always on his butt now, but he's good with it. If Russell sparks up a cigarette, Lochner will give him shit. It may sound a little judgmental, or parent-like, but that's the kind of friend Russell admits he needs now, and Lochner leads by example.

Lochner has taken it upon himself to help Russell out as much as the singer will allow, encouraging him with his sobriety, and trying to keep him eating healthily. It's not easy, and when Russell drank himself into a five-day coma a year ago, Lochner wasn't sure there was any coming back.

"The thing is, I don't think I'm doing a very good job," Lochner says. "He's not drinking now, which is great. He wasn't smoking when we first started up, then he started smoking. Then he slipped off the wagon and started drinking. Then it got so bad, he was out for five days, in the hospital. I would go down there and visit him. He just celebrated one year of sobriety."

Lochner's being modest, because Russell's making impressive strides, at least mentally.

"He's really healthy," Russell says. "He takes good care of himself. No refined sugars. He's really dedicated, and I wish I had his willpower. He'd rather be in the studio playing his guitar, or actually he'd rather be on stage."

When it comes to Great White guitarists, original men Mark Kendall and Michael Lardie—guys influenced by solid rock 'n' roll bands like The Faces, Aerosmith and Mott the Hoople—held the songs up well. Russell says Lochner's one of the best he's worked with, calling him a true prodigy. Others said the same of Lochner when he was a kid at Sahuaro High.

"He's a different sort of person than I am," Russell says. "I'm very extroverted, very emotional, I show my feelings, I hug all my friends, and kiss them on the cheek. I think if you wanted to kiss Robby on the cheek, he'd pass out. He's very kindhearted, easy to talk to. He's one of those guys—you meet him and there are things about him you want to emulate. He's a great role model, great husband, great dad ... and a great musician. And our taste in music may vary, but when it comes to what we're writing together, we both strike the same chord."

"The guy's so musical," Russell adds. "I don't play an instrument, but I still write music. I've got to hum it, and it's hard to get a point across sometimes. You can't really hum a chord. You have to have a guitar player who can read through the lines and try to understand what I'm saying, and he does that really well. He'll expand on it, but the way he expands on it is so orchestral, but yet still heavy."

Lochner was one of the last guys to join the current lineup of Jack Russell's Great White, and Russell trusts him implicitly. So Lochner handles the bulk of the writing, producing, tour management, and even some of the lyrics. He's striking a precarious balance between a band over which he maintains some level of creative control, and the nostalgia-act that is Great White.

"I kept telling him that we need to write together," Lochner says. "Finally he started writing with me, and it just became magical really quickly. His head turned around and he said, 'Oh my God, this is really good.' I was never worried. I knew it was just a question of us getting comfortable. His vocals are just sounding way better. I'm getting much better performances out of him. Now he comes in and completely relies on me. It's great because it's so easy now. At first he wasn't really listening to me. Now, he completely trusts me with lyrics. He said that he doesn't let anybody help him with his lyrics. Now, he's got to run all his lyrics by me."

Yet playing in Great White means trotting out the old MTV and rock-radio hits, like "Rock Me," "Save Your Love," and that million-selling cover of Ian Hunter's "Once Bitten Twice Shy." People fill clubs and theaters to hear those songs. When asked about that, Lochner shrugs. He doesn't love those songs, but he doesn't dislike them either. It's simply a part of the gig. But he'd be damned not to have a good time.

"I wouldn't sit around and listen [to those songs]," Lochner says. "But when I'm playing, I absolutely want to have fun. Even if I don't like a song, I'm gonna have fun. Especially if I'm out on the road, because I'm away from my family. The tough part is the traveling. It's so hard sometimes, not getting any sleep. I'm determined—when I get on stage, I'm having fun."

February will see the release of a new studio album, He Saw It Coming, which will either be a new Great White record or the debut from Jack Russell's Great White, depending on how you look at it. It's coming out on Frontiers Records, home to '80s bands like Tyketto, Hardline and the Pretty Maids. Lochner and Russell are proud of it. Lochner says it could be Russell's best effort thus far.

"The writing is definitely elevated," he says. "There's more depth. This stuff is eclectic. It sounds like 1960s and '70s meets the modern world. The retro stuff doesn't sound '80s at all. You'll hear Cream, '70s Aerosmith, and Rolling Stones."

Still, the guitarist knows, at least initially, the band, which is doing good tour business, can only play a couple of new songs at concerts when fans come to hear the old faves. This is a brave new world and records don't sell anymore. Even with everything at their fingertips, potential new fans, and loyal oldsters, won't necessarily be drawn to download or stream the new songs. Lochner, however, keeps the faith.

"I know people say that nobody sells records, but ask Adele," Lochner says. "Records do sell, but there's a bigger gap. There's no middle class anymore. How do you break through that? You promote, hope you get traction."

That's all they can do. The other Great White is entering the studio in '17 to record a new album too, which confuses things. Lochner can't worry about that.

"I don't really think about them," he says. "I just focus on what we do. Every once in a while we hear something from them, but I don't like to give them any attention. I just don't care. They have issues and I understand they have a history, but I'm just focused on what we do. I just want to move forward."

Both Russell and Lochner know they're stuck with certain expectations inherent in an established brand, the good and the bad, but there's somewhat of a built-in audience for new music. Lochner isn't embarrassed to play with Great White the nostalgic act, but admits he wasn't the biggest fan before he joined five years ago.

Lochner lives in a lovely part of California, and works regularly, paying his bills through music, performing songs he's had a big hand in creating, and they're heard by large numbers of people. Really, the dude gets to live what's left of a version of the American Dream.

New Jack Russell's Great White single:

Comments (10)

Add a comment

Add a Comment