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The Decline of Western Civilization Part III: The Tribute Years

It all started out as a joke. Not the tribute bands themselves, but my idea to do a story on them. I was on the way with my friend Steve to see Bob Dylan (there is a Dylan tribute, by the way), and mentioned that I was thinking of writing about a Smiths tribute band called Louder Than Bombs. Steve’s friend Marie said, ”That‘s funny, my next-door neighbor, Clint, is the lead singer in that band!“

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Up at Impact House, they call those kinds of coincidences ”God shots.“ So I roped Steve into taking me to see (and hear) Louder Than Bombs at an awful little joint called the Joint. Clint is an actor and worked with Brad Pitt on the upcoming film The Mexican. Marie said that Clint said that Brad said he’d be at this show. And of course he wasn‘t. But lots of Clint’s other friends were, and by the end of the brief set, the tiny place was packed.

The performance wasn‘t half bad (not to be confused with half good). I was disappointed they hadn’t played ”How Soon Is Now,“ but Clint did eyeball me and warble menacingly in a Morrissey accent, ”Sweetness, I was only joking when I saidBy rights you should be bludgeoned in your bed“ during ”Big Mouth Strikes Again.“

I left feeling maybe definitely there was a story here, a hunch confirmed the next morning when I couldn‘t stop singing in my own proxy of Mazza’s nasal fake-o profundo, ”There‘s more to life than books, you knowBut not much more.“

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In order to fit Louder Than Bombs into the Big Picture, however, I felt compelled to go see a few of the major tribute bands in the area. Steve had seen enough, but another friend, John, wanted to check out the scene, and he was perfect for the job, because he’s as big a snob as I am and our tastes are completely opposite: He spent his high school years shooting dope and playing punk rock; I spent mine smoking dope and listening to Pink Floyd.

Speak of the devil, the first band we saw was Which One‘s Pink?, the (post-Syd) Floyd droids, who were part of a triple tribute bill at Scruffy O’Shea‘s, the Marina del Rey venue specializing in this sort of thing. I was antsy about going, because in 1980 I’d actually seen Pink Floyd perform The Wall at the Sports Arena, so the prospect of standing through the set of some tribute band fronted by a young, watered-down Roger Waters manque who was probably still wearing short pants in 1980 was a bummer. Whereas John and his friend Chip could laugh at the whole thing -- in particular an aged, fangless beach hippie in the crowd they affectionately dubbed ”Tooth Boy,“ who spent the next hour or so acting out every lyric and playing every air instrument -- there was no one (e.g., hip, humbled prog-rockers in the audience) and no thing (e.g., hip, humorous prog-rockers onstage) for me to laugh with.

Indeed, when the elderly keyboardist asked if anybody‘d seen the recent Roger Waters concerts, most of the audience hurrahed. And I thought, What the hey? Why are they here at Which One’s Pink? if they just went to Roger Waters? As someone who prides himself on being a thinking man‘s Floyd fan, having long defended them against jaded hipster naysayers, here I was flabbergasted by the group’s own faded square yeasayers. Didn‘t these poor devils notice, upon leaving Scruffy O’Shea‘s, that at the door was a stack of cards imprinted with the halfhearted plea ”Original Bands Wanted“?

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Nevertheless, I kept seeing tribute bands and experienced a representative cross section of the top copycats in town, namely: Sticky Fingers (a tribute to the Stones), Led Zepagain (a tribute to you should know who), Space Oddity (starring David Brighton as David Bowie) and the Atomic Punks (named for a song from the debut Van Halen LP). Herewith my first (and hopefully last) impressions . . .

STICKY FINGERS Pluses: Drummer hesitates over high-hat like Charlie, bassist holds bass upright like Bill, guitarist crouches like Keef. Minuses: Lead guitarist big-deals it unlike Mick Taylor, singer ”Dick Swagger“ wears white Capezios with knickers too much like Mick Jagger circa 1981.

LED ZEPAGAIN Pluses: Drummer solos barehanded during ”Moby Dick,“ guitarist employs theramin during ”Whole Lotta Love.“ Minuses: Belly dancer (emphasis on belly) shimmies during ”Kashmir,“ bassist wears white pleather loafers a la Chevy Chase in Vacation.

SPACE ODDITY Pluses: Brighton often changes costume (from Ziggy to Thin White Duke to yellow Serious Moonlight Tour suit), Mick Ronsonesque guitarist used to be in Jellyfish. Minuses: keyboard presets, BrightonBowie walking down Sunset after show, still in yellow suit.

 

ATOMIC PUNKS Pluses: Lead singer Ralph saying ”fuck you“ to musicians and writers in house, then playing decent acoustic guitar in ”Ice Cream Man.“ Minuses: ”Eruption“ neither note-for-note nor cutting to ”You Really Got Me,“ lead singer Ralph saying ”fuck you“ to musicians and writers in house.

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Let me make one thing perfectly clear: At no time did I enjoy myself whatsoever. It was fun(ny) to see John squirm during Space Oddity, as he’s a big Bowie fan. And it was a relief to see Japanese tourists bolt the House of Blues when Brighton ill-advisedly launched (or rather lurched) into ”Dancing in the Street“ (had Dick Swagger been there to duet, perhaps it might have been different).

To be fair, ”Dance the Night Away“ by Atomic Punks was okay, if not exactly a KO, and there was one moment at the end of their show that gave pause. Ralph went into the audience with his cordless mike to interact. Suddenly our eyes met, and before I could look away he gave me a couple of playful love taps, as if to say, ”Come on, dude -- don‘t be a dick!“ I was smitten. Excitedly, I asked John, ”Did you see that?“ But he doubted it had even happened. Steve missed it, too. And Marie was dancing, enjoying herself (common female reaction, see conclusion).

The point is: My only desire in going to all these shows was to be like anyone else. To get it. Not agonize over it, read into it, complain about it. But to love it and leave it. My episode with Ralph almost did that for me. Of course, almost only counts in . . .

So I began to panic, primarily because I thought I should see other acts. But unfortunately, there are more tribute bands than you can shake a shtick at. There’s Gabba Gabba Heys (Ramones); Ratt ‘n’ Roll, who played House of Blues the same month as Ratt; and allegedly a Bad Company knock-off fronted by a midget lead singer. Last August, a full-page ad in the Weekly trumpeted some Neil Diamond impersonator. In Maine, there‘s the all-girl Eagles tribute troupe, the Sheagles; somewhere out there is a gal named Shania Twin. And would you believe Nudist Priest?

Quite simply, I was overwhelmed and needed a shortcut. Thank God for John Dorsey and Andrew Stephan.

Dorsey and Stephan are 28-year-old Texans who are to tribute culture what fellow Lone Star statesmen Beavis and Butt-head are to uh-huh-huh. That is, they are the masterminds behind a project called MockStars. MockStars is the name of their Web site (mockstars.com) and their Marty DeBergi--ish mockumentary about tribute bands around the world and elsewhere, including Europe, Australia (land of tribute bands, apparently) and Japan (home of stupendous Queen impersonators Kween).

Dorsey, an assistant to video director Mark Romanek, and Stephan, who cut his teeth with Harold Ramis, are both charmingly gung-ho. For two years, they’ve invested lots of their time and lots of their buddy Tom Troy‘s money into shooting over 50 hours of film. Now all they need are the green light and greenbacks to go abroad and film such spectaculars as the Bootleg Beatles at Royal Albert Hall in London this December.

In the meantime, Dorsey and Stephan are shopping around their sample reel featuring a pseudo-Altamont performance by Sticky Fingers at a biker rally in Laughlin, Nevada. Hip as they may be, however, the two filmmakers take their tributes seriously.

Tribute acts, once the province of Jimi Hendrix clones like Randy Hansen, have, according to Dorsey and Stephan, gone bad and nationwide, for lots of reasons: the state of contemporary music (though there is already a Backstreet Boys tribute), the impossibility of sitting in the first 10 rows at, say, a real Stones show, the Vegasization veg factor (”Why go to New York,“ Dorsey wonders, ”when you can go to Vegas, where New York is air-conditioned?“), plus normal, everyday, no-end-in-sight, neurotic nostalgia.

Not to mention the awful truth. ”It is,“ Dorsey says, ”like spending money on someone else’s credit card.“

Understandably -- given his immersion in the project -- Dorsey emphasizes that MockStars is ”celebrating these people.“ And yet, by any standard, he‘s gone native. ”If they’re great at what they‘re doing, then that’s great. If they‘re horrible at what they’re doing, then that‘s great too.“

I don’t know, maybe Dorsey and I are separated by the gap between Generations X and Y. After all, I saw Zeppelin and don‘t need to see Zepagain. And maybe he, for example, never saw Van Halen. Wrong! Not only has Dorsey seen them, with David Lee Roth, but on that glorious evening, ”the Jackson Victory Tour was playing across town, and Eddie was flown via helicopter from Reunion Arena to Texas Stadium to play the solo for ’Beat It.‘“

 

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The MockStars sample reel includes the analyses of Jill Stein, executive director of the (apparently not ironically named) LeRoy Neiman Center for the Study of American Society and Culture at UCLA.

According to Stein, tribute bands hark back to primitive society. ”There’ve always been medicine men who take on the essence of their gods by having certain rituals,“ she notes, ”and that‘s exactly what these musicians are doing.“

Stein also sees tribute bands as integral to not just Anthro 101 but Intro to Western Civ. ”The great masters in painting had students who reproduced the same art over and over, and many students’ works also hang in museums.“ As a result, Stein opines, ”just like we‘re still doing Shakespeare’s plays, there will be re-creations of famous concerts 100 years from now.“

Even so, Stein concedes, ”Probably tribute audiences are not very discriminating. I don‘t want to call this low culture . . .“

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Amusing as Stein’s intellectualizations were to me, what I needed was a personal epiphany.

Sure enough, I saw Louder Than Bombs a second time, at Spaceland no less, and found them fun bordering on good. They played ”How Soon Is Now“ this time, albeit without the dive-bomber leads, and the renditions were crisp enough to remind me how great the Smiths were -- and make me wonder what made Louder Than Bombs tick . . .

”We were driving in Topanga Canyon,“ Clint recalls, ”listening to the Smiths, and I was like, I‘d love to get a cover band together.“

But he only jokingly contemplated going through with it. ”Then I was like, fuck it!“ he says. ”So I booked that gig at the Joint without us even having a practice yet.“

Like professor Stein, Clint cites Shakespeare and the great masters as precedents, adding the old saw ”Good poets borrow, great poets steal“ for good measure. ”Just because one band writes songs, why can’t another band play those songs?“

Good question.

Then again, why can‘t a band play its own songs? Clint’s way ahead of me. ”We‘re not a tribute band per se. I’m not dressing as Morrissey, hell no! I want to turn Louder Than Bombs into the Bombs, and people aren‘t going to notice. After the shows, people came up to me and said, ’I really like your songs!‘ And I said, [beat] ’Thank you!‘“

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Won over as I momentarily was by Clint and the Bombs, they won’t, if everything goes as planned, be a tribute band forever -- while most if not all of their colleagues will be.

So what‘s up with that?

It’s one thing to learn from the masters -- Hunter Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby just to feel how a great work unfolds -- but it‘s quite another to earn from them. That is, it’d be difficult to fault the Stones for wanting a taste of Sticky Fingers‘ gate receipts. But I’m not just talking legally, I‘m talking morally.

In other words, is it right?

No, tribute bands are wrong. And we’re all guilty: guys (for taking rock too seriously), dolls (for not taking it seriously enough), real bands (Metallica think it‘s cool to have Alcoholica tour with them) and their fans (mossback supporters prefer Alcoholica to Metallica because Metallica have ”sold out“).

I wouldn’t be so fuddy-duddy if it weren‘t becoming such an epidemic. And Led Zepagain are the least of my worries. What about the Black Crowes? All they are is a de facto Led Zeppelin tribute act, with a bloated Jimmy Page along for the ride. And without Bonzo’s drum sound, or John Paul‘s arrangements, not to mention Plant’s vocal -- aw hell, I can‘t believe I’m even deigning to discuss this shit.

Because when the levee breaks -- what with the irony epidemic having trickled down from Chevy Chase on ”Weekend Update“ to Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football, and the preposterous popularity of pro wrestling and porno having simultaneously become ho-hum and here to stay -- don‘t be surprised if tribute bands eventually go Top 10. (Especially now that bands like Louder Than Bombs -- Clint dates one of Mick Fleetwood’s daughters, the drummer directed that movie about cheerleaders, Bring It On -- may be a portent of further highbrow slumming to come.)

 

But who am I to say that what‘s at stake here is nothing less than the Future of Art? As I wrote this, Rage Against the Machine were doing just that at the Democratic Convention. The kids were wilding, the pigs firing rubber (tribute?) bullets. And I worried that I was wasting my time writing about music (and not more important issues). I couldn’t help hearing Dick Swagger in the back of my mind, singing, ”I knowIt‘s only mock & roll, but I like it!“

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