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Hair Metal Arrives at the Smithsonian

Nova Rex gear headed for the Smithsonian
Nova Rex gear headed for the Smithsonian

Hair metal band Nova Rex landed on the Sunset Strip at the height of the cock rock craze but, despite the requisite feminine duds and sexual conquests, didn't achieve wide fame. Their lead singer Kenny Wilkerson moved back to his native Indiana in 1991, and eventually bought some tanning salons in Florida.

But two decades later the group is back, aware of nostalgia for the period and quite willing to mock their Aqua Net ways. In fact, this fall, their outfits will be on display at the Smithsonian -- no seriously -- and the group has a documentary called Nova Rex: Ain't Easy Being Cheesy. Ahead of their show Saturday at the Whisky A Go-Go -- as part of Hollywood Cruefest, to benefit the Skylar Neil Foundation for cancer research -- we talked with Wilkerson, now 46, about his the group's heyday, and whether or not he's still living the dream.

See also: Top 20 Hair Metal Albums of All Time

Nova Rex now
Nova Rex now

Where are you based?

Outside of Orlando, but the rest of Nova Rex is in L.A., Huntington Beach.

Did you ever imagine that hair metal would be something that would be part of the Smithsonian?

No. I sent them our DVD, but they didn't know what to do with it because it was contemporary. I said, "I've got leather chaps, a bunch of stuff I can't wear anymore." They acquired a zoot suit, some other stuff, and it's part of an exhibit [also spotlighting other eras] called "Flamboyant Youth." It will be on display in October.

What kind of work do you mainly do now?

I own three tanning salons. I've been doing it 17 years. I needed a day job, and it's hot babes, whatever. I first got into it back in L.A. Across the street from the "Rockin'" Ralphs on Sunset there was a tanning salon, called Sunset Tan, and I worked there during the day.

Where were your haunts when you were in L.A.?

The Strip. I was in L.A. from '87 to '91, and the first half I lived in Hollywood, and the second half in Marina Del Rey. Gazzari's was the biggest, by far, as far as the clubs. And the Rainbow, the Whisky. Our main thing was staying busy, trying to get signed, like everyone else. It was hard to get those gigs.

Any popular misconceptions about that era?

No. No, it was totally like that. The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II, it was just like that. I was boning chicks in the hallway, the elevator, behind the bar. It was excess everything. I was a baby at the time, 19 years old.

Did you think you'd won the lottery?

My mom still has letters I used to write to her in Indiana, "Oh my god, I'm making it big!" I signed with a [big deal] management company. I wasn't there a month and ASCAP picked me up in a limo, and I was sitting behind Stevie Wonder in an ASCAP meeting. Even though I barely had gas money to drive my car to the show.

Wilkerson in 1988
Wilkerson in 1988

Was there ever the feeling among anyone involved that wearing makeup wasn't the most masculine thing to be doing?

People ask me that. The thing is, we were just copying the trend. That was our military outfit for rock and roll. I have a tagline in the documentary -- "Rock and roll is not pretty, that's why it wears lipstick." We wore women's clothes, Aqua Net, we didn't wear lipstick. You just got clothes from your girlfriend. My dad's an old country boy, from Indiana, he saw how much ass I was getting, he was totally cool with it.

Do you agree with the idea that, as flamboyant as the performers were, there was still something very conservative about the values of the music, in its lyrics?

I don't know if it was conservative, I think it was just party rock.

Why do you think the girls liked the look?

I say this in the doc too: I make a joke that all women have bisexual tendencies. Long haired dudes got laid, man, they still do! Everyone wants to be a rockstar. We talk about going into a small town, playing the biggest venue; you meet a girl at the cosmetics counter at the mall. She meets up with you because she can't have that experience every night. Then she goes back to her construction worker boyfriend.

Are you married?

I've been married for 11 years, I have a stepdaughter and a son who's 11 years old. I'm screwed up, but I'm domesticated.

With the documentary, are you guys hoping for a sort of Anvil style revival?

That's what they compare it to. The doc is Anvil meets Spinal Tap meets hair metal. I had a lot of VHS footage from back in the day. The documentary is doing well; the Documentary Channel picked it up.

Do you think there's been a more bizarre era of rock than hair metal, or do you think it's all equally bizarre?

All equally bizarre in different ways. Like David Bowie -- how crazy was that! Those guys wore makeup. Look at Gary Glitter. We didn't invent it. We just looked more like chicks.

Do you agree with the traditional narrative that Nirvana and grunge killed hair metal, or do you think it's more complicated than that?

No, Nirvana did, 100 percent. I went back to Indiana in 1991. We picked up a Budweiser sponsorship, went crazy, but after Nirvana [came out] we ran out of venues to play. Half the bands in L.A. trying to get signed took off for Seattle. Managers would say, 'Don't wash your hair, put on an army jacket, put on some boots, and come back and see us in six months.' Venues I used to play started to charge me admission. I was like, 'I'm done.'

Glam rock, hair metal or cock rock, which term do you prefer?

I say hair metal, I owned up to it. Cock rock is good, by the way. I think arena rock. I don't want to say glam metal. Not really glam; that's more like David Bowie.

What do you say to haters who insist that hair metal is not really metal?

I don't really know, you're the first person who's really asked me that. When you think metal, I think old Metallica. Hair metal was like a 10 year span, from '85 to almost '95, and it's classic rock now. Classic rock to me was Led Zeppelin, and now it's Motley Crue. Nickleback's style, to me, is like hair metal. They're definitely arena rock. I know people hate on them a lot, but they still sell millions of albums. As far as hair metal's whole over-the-top thing, that's country! I think country is the new glam rock. It's all big hook-y choruses, guitar-driven. The guys have their studded hats.

See also: Top 20 Hair Metal Albums of All Time

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