Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp – Part 1

“Hello. My name is James Wood. It’s nice to meet you,” I said, extending my hand to the three other guys in the room. It was the first time I’d met Bobby, Tom and Rik. The three guys who would form a band with me to perform at The Lucky Strike and world-renowned Whisky A Go Go in Hollywood this weekend.

If my middle-aged brain remembers correctly, it was thirty years ago next month when I formed my very first band. This after many years of guitar lessons, months of starts and stops, and high school dreams fueled by teenage angst and worldwide musical domination.

Back then, bands like Night Ranger, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Whitesnake and Dio were on constant repeat on my boom box. And now, in just a few short days, not only would I be jamming with the guys in REO and Foreigner, but I’d also be taking the stage with Night Ranger to perform at one of music’s most famous venues in front of a massive crowd. The same stage that regularly housed legendary bands like The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, Van-Halen and countless others.

No pressure.

By the time I arrived at the camp’s studios at 1:30 p.m., our as of yet unnamed band was already behind the eight ball. We’d learned last week that we wouldn’t have a keyboard player (a pretty big deal if you had “Roll With The Changes,” “Keep on Loving You” or “Sister Christian” on your “let’s try” list), and our original counselor, Brian Tichy (Whitesnake, Foreigner) had to drop out of camp at the last minute due to illness.

But it wasn’t until I made my way through the registration line and into Studio D (which would be our home for the next four days), that reality really struck.

Inside the room, already jamming, were counselors Michael Staertow (guitarist for Lou Gramm), Chris Wyse (bassist for Ace Frehley, The Cult) and Steve Ferlazzo (keyboards for Avril Lavigne and now Richie Sambora and Orianthi).

Oh, man.

Before long, our new counselor, Craig Goldy (Dio, Giuffria) made his way into the studio to join them. I was fortunate that I had to wait a bit for my tech (yes, you get one of those here at camp) to set up my guitar. I used that time to subconsciously absorb these guys wailing.

After the open jam formalities had ended, everyone made their way off to begin rehearsal in their own studios. That’s when Rik, Bobby, Tom, Craig and I started talking about which songs we wanted to do.

Since the guys from REO Speedwagon would be coming to jam with us on Friday, we looked at our list of songs to do —and unanimously decided on this one:

After about four passes at the song — where I must say I held my own– it was time to break for camp introductions.

David Fishof (executive producer) welcomed campers to the event and then introduced the all-star array of counselors, which also included Rudy Sarzo (Quiet Riot, Whitesnake), Tony Frankin (The Firm, Blue Murder), Matt Starr (Mr. Big), Tanya O’Callaghan (Dee Snider, Ronnie Wood), Kane Roberts (Alice Cooper) and Monte Pittman (Madonna).

We then returned to our studio for some more rehearsal time, where Craig gave us some cool little solo ideas to use that would help bring the song to life. I’m thinking by now we’re around 85-90% of having a song nearly ready to go — and it was only Day One!

There were several master classes to choose from this night, and I decided to attend the one called “Stories From The Road”, where a group of counselors talked about their careers with some of the all-time greats.

l to r: Michael Staertow, Chris Wyse, Steve Ferlazzo, Rudy Sarzo, Tanya O’Callaghan

The final event of the evening was a welcome dinner followed by an open jam with the counselors. Song performances included everything from The Cars, Eddie Money and AC/DC to Aldo Nova, Ozzy, The Beatles and Loverboy.

As the van took us back to the hotel, I couldn’t help but think about that 15-year-old me sitting up in his bedroom practicing all of these songs. And I think that’s when the true impact of what was about to occur over these next few days finally began to sink in.

Not gonna lie. I thought about getting up on that stage on Sunday night and f#cking up. But you know what? I don’t care. I came all this way to learn from and jam with the best, and here I am.

The streets of Hollywood are where it all began. The music I grew up with. The music that made me want to pick up a guitar and play. The music I love.

And in just a short time, I’m going to claim a small piece of those streets for myself.

 

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Remembering High School- 30 Years Later

“How can it be thirty years?” I said as I was cleaning out the basement.

Looking into the gray, Stocker Brothers dairy milk crate, its frame still sturdy even after decades of sitting in dark silence, is actually what made me pose the question.

I had just spent the better part of the morning organizing the crawl space of my two-story colonial, a home I’ve been making mortgage payments on for as long as I can remember. During my tenure at this location, the basement had become a breeding ground for large, cardboard boxes of clothes, holiday items and various knick knacks, as well as six large boxes of comic books I’d collected as a kid along with my feeble attempts at Bob Ross paintings. The latter two categories being things I can’t seem to let go of — even after all of this time.

Time.

The thing inside the milk crate behind the wall of canvases is where I found it. There, along with the curious smell of old books and dust was a folded, paper program; kind of like something you’d get handed to you from an usher at a Sunday church service or a Broadway show as you entered the theater. It had obtained a dull, off-white color over the years but its red lettered appearance was still clearly visible:

Easton Area High School’s 131st Commencement: June 11, 1987 6:00 o’clock.

It can’t be, can it? Thirty years already? I mean, wasn’t it just yesterday that I was roaming the halls of high school? Dreaming about being the next Bon Jovi? Longing for Friday night visits to the mall so that I could get the new Def Leppard album, read the latest Gross Jokes book in Waldenbooks, drink gallons of Orange Julius and then try to impress the girls by beating the high score on Pac Man and Galaga?

I slowly ran my fingers through the pages of the slightly weathered program and saw all of the people who stood by me that day. “Did they know where they would wind up?” I thought. “Would they remember and realize it’s been thirty years?”

Me, June 11, 1987

I remember that commencement. I remember wearing my class ring on my right ring finger and sitting in my cap and gown on an uncomfortable metal chair waiting for my name to be called, peeved once again at the alphabetical order of things and the fact that my last name started with a “W”. I still remember congratulating and hugging every classmate I met, whether I knew them on a “friend” basis or not. I can still feel the leafy stem of the flower against my bare hand after I accepted my diploma, and the sense of urgency I had for the final notes of the Alma Mater to ring so that I could toss my tasseled, red cap high into the air. It was the end game. The “so long”. The final, “see-ya-later” salute to thirteen years of education.

Who am I kidding? When I look back now it didn’t really seem like goodbye. Instead, walking out of Kirby Field House that night was just like any other night. It would soon be the start of summer, camping at the lake, amusement park visits and graduation/backyard parties. Heck, I even had one at my house where me and my buddy (and fellow graduate), Nathan Brown, played our guitars and drums as entertainment. Before long, September would roll around again and we’d all be right back together again in class, right? Just like it had always been for thirteen years in a row.

No.

Several friends went off to college to follow their dream. Others enlisted in the military, started families or immediately entered the work force. As for me, my own dream of becoming a rock star officially began June 11, 1987.

But that’s a story for another time.

As I continued to page through the program, I tried to see how many classmates I could remember and was thankful to discover I could still put faces to the names of most. Then I thought of Nathan, who’s own name I didn’t see listed in the graduating class and yet had attended graduation and received his diploma along with the rest of us. Had it have been another time, I probably would have called him up to ask him why he wasn’t mentioned in the list of graduates, but he died in 2014.

A lot can happen in thirty years.

A Tribute To Gary Richrath

Photo by: Ross Marino
Gary Richrath (1949-2015) – Photo by: Ross Marino

I’d like to share with you my thoughts on the passing of guitarist, Gary Richrath….

When I took my first guitar lesson back in the spring of 1985, one of the things I told my guitar teacher was that I wanted to learn as many songs as I could from REO Speedwagon’s album, “Hi Infidelity”.

My teacher, a musical genius as well as an astute professor in the art of all things Hendrix, Zeppelin and Sabbath, took one look at my long blond hair and started scratching his head.

“Uhm, you mean you don’t want me to teach you how to play ‘Purple Haze,’ ‘Stairway To Heaven’ or ‘Paranoid’?” he asked.

“Nope.” I replied. “I want to learn how to play ‘Take It On The Run,’ ‘Keep On Loving You’ and ‘Shakin’ It Loose’.” I then presented him with my copy of the Hi-Infidelity album to prove my intentions were valid.

Little did my instructor know was that just prior to that first guitar lesson I saw REO Speedwagon perform in a college gymnasium on the south side of Bethlehem, PA. Getting to witness a guitarist at the top of his game was a spiritual awakening. It became one of the main reasons I decided to pick up the guitar and start playing.

And so for the next few weeks, in addition to learning chord basics and scales, my teacher and I dissected songs written by Kevin Cronin and Gary Richrath. Immersing ourselves in the sweet sound of a Les Paul guitar while studying every nuance of the power ballad.

Gary Richrath was an inspiration to me as a guitarist and writer. His tasty songs not only included “Take It On The Run,” and “Shakin’ It Loose” but a plethora of others the band still regularly includes in their set. “Golden Country,” “Like You Do,” “Only The Strong Survive,” “Son of A Poor Man” and of course, “Ridin’ The Storm Out”. A track the band closes their show out with each night and one that will now have extra meaning.

Although Gary left REO Speedwagon more than 25 years ago, he joined the band in 2013 for a surprise performance to help raise money for tornado victims in the Midwest.

This is how I choose to remember Gary Richrath. As an artist who used his time and talent to help others and in the process, left an invaluable mark on the music world as well as a teenage guitarist who first learned his songs thirty years ago.

Oh, and in case you don’t believe my story, I did keep all of my material from those early years of guitar lessons….

REO Lesson

Godspeed, Gary.

Stuck In The Eighties

Howard Jones
Howard Jones

Those who know me will tell you that I’m one of those people who’s stuck in the Eighties.

Admittedly, I do love my hair metal and wish that I could somehow get inside of a time machine and go back to those carefree days of youth. To be able to use the confidence and knowledge I’ve gained through years of being an adult to make up for the lost opportunities I missed because of my shyness and lack of social interaction.

Some days I’ll take a trip to the Palmer Park Mall and remember all of those Friday and Saturday nights thirty years ago. A time when the only thing that really mattered was the usual excursions to Orange Julius, the arcade, Waldenbooks and topping it off with a visit to Listening Booth to check out the new albums by by Night Ranger, The Hooters and Bon Jovi.

But I don’t think I’m “stuck” in the Eighties. It’s just that every once in a while you need to go back to those times if for no other reason than to remember who you were.

Last night I had the chance to do just that.

Singer/songwriter Howard Jones – who many of us MTV nuts will remember for his big hair, monster songs as well as a multitude of synthesizers, performed an acoustic show at a local theater in town. What I thought at first would just be a typical trip down memory lane instead turned out to be something much deeper.

When Howard came out, gone was the arsenal of keyboards, the colorful fashion and the big eighties hair. In it’s place was a simple keyboard, a microphone and small MAC laptop. For the next hour, Jones performed many of the songs that a teenaged me listened to. Songs that were the soundtrack of summer pool parties, trips up and down the “Strip” on Northampton Street and background music in the Palmer Park Mall.

But it also felt different. These stripped down, acoustic versions of “Life In One Day,” “What Is Love,” “Things Can Only Get Better” and “No One Is To Blame” took on a new meaning. Every nuance of every word resonated. It wasn’t just music. It was therapy.

For a moment, I was no longer the middle-aged man who worries about bills, health and his family’s future. Instead, I was the wide-eyed, shy boy hanging out at a record store in small town America.

And it was good.

 

‘Video Games: The Movie’ an entertaining look into the history of game industry

VideoNerds. Geeks. Game enthusiasts. Whatever it is you want to call them, there can be no denying the fact that today’s generation of high tech PC and console video game players are part of a multi-billion dollar industry that continues to grow by leaps and bounds every year.

Gone are the days of those annoying, little white blips and sounds on a PONG screen. Today’s video games are more like an alternate universe. A door into a world where larger than life characters take on near impossible challenges. Ones where the risk is often greater than the reward and a world where we (for the most part) are in complete control.

In celebration of this amazing entertainment medium that’s kept gamers aged six to sixty glued to their couch, Anchor Bay Entertainment and Amplify have just released the new feature length documentary, “Video Games: The Movie”.

Produced by Zach Braff (“Scrubs”) and narrated by Sean Astin (“The Lord Of The Rings” Trilogy), “Video Games: The Movie” takes a look back at the history of gaming culture through the use of in depth interviews with some of the industry’s most renowned enthusiasts – including Nolan Bushnell (founder of Atari), Warren Davis (Q*Bert), Doug Tennapel (“Earthworm Jim”) and Cliff Bleszinski (“Gears of War”) to name but a few.

In addition to conversation, the documentary also features a look into the history of the games and consoles. From the early days of PONG and the arcade dominance of the 1980’s to today’s state of the art virtual environments. There’s also a cool section on the future of the gaming industry as well as a look at the infamous “E.T.” debacle that nearly destroyed it.

“Video Games: The Movie” will certainly entertain those of us who’ve lost countless amounts of quarters at the local mall as well as those who’ve grown up with Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox consoles. But the real magic with this documentary is its ability to educate audiences on the history, development and dreams of those early pioneers. The ones who saw a future beyond a blip on the screen, and were brave enough to pursue it.

Video Games : The Movie is available now on DVD

A Reprobate Remembers Mr. Jankowich

JankowichI heard the news this morning that John Jankowich, a beloved teacher at Easton Area High School, passed away in Florida earlier this week at the age of 72.

As is typical for me whenever I receive news like this, my memory banks quickly took me back to where it all began. So come along with me for the ride….

***

When I was a bright-eyed, fresh-faced sophomore at Easton High School in 1984, one of the urban legends going around the hallowed halls was of a teacher who lived on the upper floors of the school and taught senior students the importance of mythological creatures like Zeus, Odin and Pegasus. To make things even more interesting, rumors swirled that this teacher also came to class dressed in full mythological garb. It was from that very moment I knew that “Mythology” had to be one of my 12 grade classes.

That was my first exposure to Mr. Jankowich and for the next two years all I heard about was how cool, how mean and how fun “Janks” was in his Mythology class and how I couldn’t wait to be one of his pupils.

Fast forward two years….

FullSizeRenderAt the time of my arrival to Mr. Jank’s Mythology class in 1986 I was heavily into role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. So in addition to it being a course on literature, Mythology was also kind of like a pep talk for me about a world I one day longed to live in.

Another thing I fondly recall about Jank’s class was that it was also the first time I heard the word “reprobate”. It was a term he gleefully used to often describe his students…

“SIT DOWN YOU REPROBATES!”

…. and a term that I myself would become (unbeknownst to him) that following Spring….

One of the benefits of being a Senior at Easton High School in 1987 was being able to go off campus for 5th period lunch every day. So long as you were doing well in class you were eligible to leave the premises with your homies for a ninety-minute visit to the local McDonalds, Burger King or Richard’s Drive-In. Yes, it was the ultimate perk for being a senior. Unless of course your grades weren’t quite up to par or you didn’t follow the rules of the school.

Mr. Jankowich had the wonderful opportunity of overseeing that 5th period. A ninety-minute “class” that ran through all three lunch periods and was held daily in the school’s auditorium. This class was intended to be used as a silent place of study but ironically became the final destination for school reprobates under the name, “restricted study hall” or “restricted” for short.

“SIT DOWN YOU REPROBATES!”

Bad grades, tardiness and other devious and malicious intent would always result in the removal of senior privileges and land you a spot in Jank’s “class” where silence was strictly enforced.

Does this look like a reprobate to you?
Does this student look like a reprobate to you?

But Jimmy Wood (who had refused to dress for swimming in gym class and had thus landed in restricted) had other intentions. Jimmy found himself stuck for a week in Jank’s class while his other classmates were out enjoying spring afternoons over a Big Mac, Whopper or Greasy Dick’s cheeseburger – and Jimmy didn’t like it.

So Jimmy the reprobate came up with a plan.

One day during restricted, Jimmy asked Mr. Jankowich if he could go to the gym. Jimmy told Jank that he wanted to get excuse passes made to allow him to  go make-up his swimming requirement during 5th period. Mr. Jankowich – now proud of Jimmy’s desire to do good, agreed and sent Jimmy on his way. But what Jank didn’t know was that Jimmy would have something more sinister in mind.

Jimmy kept his word though and went down to the gym and had Ms. David (the instructor) write him up several slips excusing him from restricted in order to make up gym class.

The next day at 5th period, Jimmy showed Mr. Jankowich the signed pass. Jank happily patted Jimmy on the head and excused him from restricted. But as Jimmy made his way down the hall to gym he realized that there was now nothing to stop him from simply leaving the school and joining his friends for lunch. I mean, he really was excused from restricted, right?  So for the next five days, Jimmy showed Jank the pass, received a pat on the head and then enjoyed the freedom from restricted until his full senior privileges were reinstated.

And he lived happily ever after….

***

Although I’m sure he would have gotten a giggle out of my mischievous deed now, I never saw Mr. Jankowich again after graduation. But I will never forget that spring, how much fun his class was or when he came to school dressed like he was going to a toga party.

John Jankowich’s obituary stated that he taught English, British Literature and Mythology for over 30 years and also taught English as a Second Language to immigrants in night school for 18 years. The four loves of his life were God, family, friends and education and he used those blessings to help others —-

—- including this reprobate.

RIP Mr. Jank.

 

‘Blisland’: Katrina Leskanich Brings New Album, Hits to Retro Futura Tour

Katrina Leskanich
Katrina Leskanich

Singer/songwriter and Grammy nominee Katrina Leskanich continues to ride the wave.

Shortly after signing a world-wide deal with Capitol Records in the 1980’s, Katrina And The Waves’ signature song, “Walking on Sunshine” became a breakthrough smash and a staple of the MTV movement. The success of the band’s debut would be followed up with whirlwind tours and other hits including ‘Do You Want Crying’, ‘Sun Street’, ‘Love Shine A Light’ and ‘That’s The Way’.

As the innocent, feel-good music of the 80’s transitioned into the grunge and alternative sound of the 90’s and beyond, Katrina kept busy by recording and performing at festivals and shows in the UK and all over Europe – never quite making it back to the U.S.

That is, until now.

For U.S. fans eager for the return of Katrina’s signature voice and songs, the wait is over! Katrina will be joining fellow 80’s alumni Howard Jones, Tom Bailey (Thompson Twins), Midge Ure (Ultravox) and China Crisis for this year’s Retro Futura – a tour that will take the artists all across North America, celebrating the music that defined a generation!

Coinciding with Katrina’s first U.S tour in nearly twenty-five years is the release of her brand new studio album – “Blisland” [release date: August 19th]. An inspired collection of infectious songs and tasty guitar work that also includes a live, “Borderline Blues” version of “Walking On Sunshine”.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Katrina about the upcoming Retro Futura Tour, “Blisland” and what made the 80s so great!

How did you get involved with the Retro Futura Tour project?

I had worked with Rick Shoor [Paradise Artists] back in the day when he worked with Frontier Booking International. When they were setting up the tour he remembered me and thought it was worth the call. I was all in. I intend to have loads of fun and catch up with a lot of people.

When was the last time you toured the U.S.?

The last time was probably somewhere around 1989. We had a little bit of success with a song called “That’s The Way” and went over to do some shows, but it wasn’t like it was a proper tour. Doing this tour is going to be a lot of fun.

What can fans expect from your set?

For sure, I’m going to play “Walking On Sunshine”. I’m also going to play two songs off of my brand new album, “Blisland” as well as a few other Katrina and The Waves songs. One of the songs I’ll be doing is my own version of our song “Going Down To Liverpool”. The reason the band got signed in the beginning was because The Bangles actually did a version of that song. I feel we have The Bangles to thank for initially getting us signed to Capitol Records. Mostly, I’m just going to bring my Fender Telecaster to rock out and have a good time!

What inspired your new album, “Blisland”?

I wasn’t expecting to make a record. It’s actually been ten years since I released a new studio album, but once I got invited on this tour I decided to go for it. It felt good to express myself and get some things out that had been bottled up. The album was very much influenced by a place in the world that I always tend to be attracted to – the southwest. In the southwest of England, there’s a place called Cornwall and it was there where I discovered a little village called Blisland. I thought that was such a great name, so I decided to pull over. They had a fantastic pub called The Blisland Inn and about four hours later [and four-pints] I made up my mind that I was going to make a record and call it “Blisland”.

It’s based on the genre of music that I had grown up listening to. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Mama Cass Elliot and bands like The Raspberries and Rare Earth. I even wrote a song with ZZ Top in mind [Texas Cloud]. There’s also a fun song with country influences [Farmer’s Song] that was inspired by my parents living out on a farm and not having a clue about anything that was going on in the world.

Let’s discuss a few other tracks from the new album:

Blisland.

As the song says, “Blisland” can be anywhere, as long as you have a heart. I’ve lived in about twenty-five different places in the world and ended up here in London. It’s a song about how anywhere can be home and a reflection of how the southwest makes me feel.

Sun Coming Upper.

I had a few bad years in my life and it was a bit of a nightmare time. It’s talking about loss and wondering when I was going to get a “high”. It was fun to think of the idea of the sun coming up as a kind of drug – a sun coming “upper”.

Every Step.

That’s an out and out love song. It’s about falling in love with somebody, taking every step with them and then looking back and remembering that every step with them was love. It’s as simple as that.

What can you tell me about your musical upbringing?

I was one of six children who grew up in a Catholic family and every Sunday we were trotted off to church, which usually involved a lot of singing. Whenever my parents would set us down for meals in the evening, they would have us sing holy songs before we ate. So there was always a lot of music in the home and my parents encouraged us to play lots of instruments. It grew from there. My parents eventually bought me a guitar and when I was in high school, I remember sitting around in a circle with friends singing Carole King, Carly Simon and Cat Stevens songs. I loved the idea of singing early on, and still do.

“Walking On Sunshine” is such an iconic song, but when you first heard it what did you think?

Originally, we felt it was something that was a bit uncharacteristic of the band. We had always thought of ourselves as being similar to bands like The Velvet Underground or The Ramones. So when Kim [Rew, songwriter/guitarist] came in with the song, it was something that was on the lighter side of our repertoire.

In the beginning, I remember whenever we played it; people would literally flee the dance floor [laughs]. It wasn’t until we sent out a demo of four songs to a bunch of DJs that everything started to change. We were thinking about going with the song “Do You Want Crying” as our first single but all of the DJ’s said “No, we want the song that starts out with the drums and the “OW!” [laughs]. Even our bass player (Vince de la Cruz) didn’t really care for the song but would often say to Kim, “You know that song, Walking On Sunshine? Well, I can’t get it out of my head!” We took that as a good sign. So we persevered with it, Capitol records stuck it out and the rest is history!”

What do you think made the 80s so great?

The music from the 80’s was very melodic and identifiable. It was so clean and very easy to listen to. When people come to these shows and see someone like Howard Jones play, it’ll be easy for them to feel the beat. The other thing about the 80’s is that it was a time when people were really able to express themselves eloquently through fashion and dress. It was also pre 9/11 and all of the other really scary stuff we have to live with now. The 80’s were such an innocent time.

What are you most looking to about Retro Futura?

I’m so happy to be back in America and being able to play some new material as well as a few of the old songs. I’m also excited to be a part of a tour with other musicians that I really love and respect. Our itinerary has us all over the place. We even a two-day drive from Chicago to LA. Make my day! I’m happy! It’s going to be the tour of a lifetime.

Katrina Leskanich Official Website: http://www.katrinasweb.com/

Retro Futura Tour Dates

Aug. 21: NYC – Best Buy Theater
Aug. 22: Philadelphia – The Keswick Theatre
Aug. 23: Brookhaven, NY – Pennysaver Amphitheater
Aug. 24: Boston, MA – Wilbur Theatre
Aug. 25: Cleveland, OH – Cleveland Performance Arts Center
Aug. 26: Toronto, ON – Koolhaus
Aug. 27: Chicago, IL – Ravinia Festival
Aug. 29: Los Angeles, CA – Greek Theatre
Aug. 30: Saratoga, CA – Mountain Winery *
Aug. 31: Lincoln, CA – Thunder Valley Resort & Casino **
Sept. 03: Tempe, AZ – The Marquee
Sept. 04: San Diego, CA – Humphreys Concerts By The Bay
Sept. 05: Las Vegas, NV – Mandalay Bay Beach
Sept. 06: Sandy, UT – Sandy Amphitheater
Sept. 08: Dallas, TX – Verizon Theatre @ Grand Prarie
Sept. 10: Orlando, FL – Hard Rock Live @ Universal CityWalk