"Have you ever seen us?" says perennial vampire Dave Navarro, who's the only male that arouses me.
Me: "No, but I wanna ..."
Navarro cuts me off with searing confidence: "Oh, we should definitely hook you up."
Navarro is a guitar hero for Gen-Xers; an incubus who's journeyed from the L.A. metal scene of the '80s with Jane's Addiction to MTV's reality era in the 2000s. He also introduced L.A. to the coffin as a coffee table, so when he invites you to see him play, you say, "Mm-hm, yes," and then quietly find some Victorian-era leather to cover all your exposed arteries.
OK, to be fair, Navarro just wants me to review his "fun times" cover band, Royal Machines, on a night (New Year's Eve) that reminds me of why I'm such a misanthrope. So we're not friends, and I probably won't ever get to see his cuckoo clock collection. Realizing this could be it for us, I channel my inner Kurt Loder and go for the million-dollar question: "I've seen a lot about you and the Illuminati. What do you think about all that stuff?"
"I don't usually comment on it," he says over the phone, probably flipping back his silky-smooth bangs while staring at a cubist portrait of himself by Marilyn Manson. "I would hate to dispel anything that makes me appear more mysterious," he adds with a laugh, and then tries to explains his point, which I can't decipher because my cellphone provider is an Amish guy with a spinning wheel.
Useless fact: Dave Navarro once made one of our reporters cry.
New Year's Eve always reminds me of Ronald Reagan emasculating President Jimmy Carter during a debate in 1980. "There you go again," said Reagan, verbally spanking our 39th president, who tended to repeat himself a lot. Which is exactly how I feel about the yearly imaginary reset button that is New Year's Eve. So here we go again: another Dec. 31 full of Great Gatsby parties highlighted by fatuous amounts of fireworks and a giant ball slowly screwing a shiny pole in Times Square. 5-4-3-2 — pop! Champagne squirts on the faces of smiling idiots who get down to Walk the Moon's "Shut Up and Dance" as they try to lock lips through frightening amounts of confetti, which on any other night would constitute an act of terror by a supervillain called the Confetti Master.
Confetti Master, by the way, is an actual position on NYE in Times Square, which isn't held by hosting polymath Ryan Seacrest — or by Mark McGrath, Royal Machines' hair-metal historian and the only reason Americans are subconsciously attracted to Guy Fieri. Once again, I flip through my Kurt Loder handbook and pull out an MTV News–esque inquiry for the ages:
"Smash Mouth, Third Eye Blind or Uncle Kracker?"
McGrath takes a second. "Third Eye Blind. If you don't have that first Third Eye Blind record, you're just not a fan of music."
"There’s no prejudice in Royal Machines," says McGrath. "We’ve had Tiffany" — he emphasizes this — "the pop singer, TIFFANY" — he does this again — "perform with members of the Sex Pistols." (Which is sort of true. Tiffany actually performed with Camp Freddy, an earlier all-star jam band that also featured McGrath, Morrison and Navarro but that, for legal reasons, has nothing to do with Royal Machines.)
Billy Morrison, the Machines' musical director, learned how to play guitar by listening to the Pistols' debut. "Before that album, I had been messing around on the guitar. And then Never Mind the Bollocks came out, and I realized you didn't have to be Genesis to have a career and have something to say."
Tiffany fronting the Pistols is ridiculous, which is sort of the point of Royal Machines — to recapture the fuck-your-expectations spirit of the Sunset Strip via rock & roll karaoke by genuine rock stars. Royal Machines' spirited irreverence is a reaction to the reality that the world is a fucked-up place. They are Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" coming on during a buzz at the Rainbow Bar. They are scoundrels, reprobates, romantics, ex-junkies and vampires, fueled by the same sort of greasy rebellion that gave us Elvis in '57, the Doors in '67, the Sex Pistols n '77, Guns N' Roses in '87 and, this Thursday, at the El Rey, a foolhardy celebration of rock with special guests like (maybe) Juliette Lewis or (seriously maybe) Slash.
"'Paradise City' from Guns N' Roses will always get a venue to go crazy," says Morrison, who says this without realizing that "Paradise City" is the reason I collect quarters, drink beer, dance, whatever. "We're also not encumbered by genre. It just has to have guitars in it, you know?"
Morrison, whose thick Londoner accent makes references to female genitalia sound refined, is the Machines' unofficial ringleader. "My hopes for this band is that we continue. As long as it's fun, we'll continue to do what we're doing."
Morrison's signature Les Paul looks like the one played by Steve Jones, one of Morrison's idols growing up, along with Billy Idol, whom he saw at the age of 13 as the punk singer fronting Generation X — or for whom he now plays rhythm guitar. "Billy is an old-school punk," says Morrison. "All for one, and one for all, and nothing has changed."
Besides Navarro, Morrison and McGrath, Royal Machines' core group consists of Chris Chaney (bassist, Jane's Addiction), Donovan Leitch (actor and yes, the Donovan's son) and Josh Freese (rock's best session drummer) — which makes Royal Machines a supergroup, albeit a supergroup that plays unpretentious covers by everyone from Oasis to Stone Temple Pilots (Scott Weiland occasionally sang with the Machines guys in Camp Freddy). Think of Royal Machines as a night of karaoke with rock legends; Guitar Hero or Rock Band characters in photorealistic 3-D.
Navarro says he's never played Guitar Hero, or sang karaoke: "I've never been interested in pretending to do what I do." Naturally, I decide to turn these basic facts into a conversation about sex: "It's like porn for you, right? Why pretend to do what you can just as easily ..." I go into something oddly sexual and Navarro laughs. "Yeah, to me that would be like the porn of music," he says.
Opinion: Dave Navarro and Prince would break TMZ's "Good Genes or Good Docs?" poll. They are supernatural creatures — immortals who've fed on mouth-watering O negative from the veins of Carmen Electra. [Note: The actual blood type of Carmen Electra has not been verified by this reporter.]
McGrath, who loves the sun and is not at all vampirelike, does do karaoke, which isn't surprising for a guy who's been in a band called Shrinky Dinx and has no problem being Royal Machines' most self-effacing star. "I’m the midlevel guy, before you get into the real superstars. I’m the happiest bridge in the world," he laughs.
McGrath's humility as a "midlevel guy" belies the fact that he's the most well-spoken and caffeinated rocker since David Lee Roth. When I ask him what his favorite hair-metal band is, McGrath lights up like the Micro Machines guy describing a midget motorcade: “It's hard to lump Guns N' Roses into that category. They're the Rolling Stones, the Led Zeppelin, in retrospect; they're classic rock. Bands from that era that I love are L.A. Guns, Faster Pussycat. I love those bands. ... I wasn’t too far from getting a Pretty Boy Floyd record for Christmas. I was just a hair-metal fanatic, and I still am.”
Useless fact: Mark McGrath was voted "Sexiest Rocker" by People magazine in 1998. Axl Rose was the sexiest rocker of 1988.
McGrath says the sexiest rocker alive today is Dave Navarro. "If you stare in his eyes long enough, you're gonna fall in love, man or woman. I've seen it happen."
If you're wondering what the set list New Year's Eve will be (because I am), or who all the special guest stars will be, well, you'll have to buy a ticket to find out.
"We don't really know. This is not a well-thought-out military planned operation. I truthfully don't know," says Morrison, whose paintings actually do look like well-thought-out military operations.
Like a good soldier, I'll be at the El Rey live-Tweeting every song and guest appearance, and if you show up with a party blower, I will remind you that you're at a rock & roll show — not some banquet hall in the Valley. This is a night to celebrate the ghosts of legends like Scott Weiland, brought back to life by singers like (maybe) Slipknot's Corey Taylor
"Part of the whole point of Royal Machines is to recapture the fun of playing 'God Save the Queen' with Steve Jones, or a Velvet Underground song with Lou Reed," says Morrison. "We get to have the same feeling we had when we were 12 years old learning how to play the guitar."
When I ask Morrison who the one person is on his dream list of guest stars, he gives a surprising answer — which is the very essence of a Royal Machines gig: "Madonna."
At least I think he said that. My New Year's resolution: Get a landline.
Royal Machines play the El Rey this New Year's Eve. Tickets available via axs.com.
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