Rehab V: D’oh! A gimmick addiction!

In which our hero is unable to leave well enough alone

I think I made the mistake of falling in love with a gimmick. Oh, she was irresistible. She sneaked up on me. And she was worth the fling. But I got greedy. I used her over and over and over, and in the end I think it cheapened me.

Just like it probably cheapened that paragraph.

Rehab V: D'oh! A gimmick addiction!

Rehab V: D'oh! A gimmick addiction!

The story in question was a feature about a “rock ‘n’ roll fantasy” camp. It was a story that, simply told through its environs, would have been impossible to screw up. But a funny thing happened to me, and I’m sharing it because I’m still uncertain I made the right choice.

This was another “feature on deadline” experience: The camp ran Sunday through Thursday, but my editor (correctly, I think) wanted the story to run while the camp was still in process, giving it some sense of immediacy. My original idea–to cover all four days and write it as a longer narrative piece–was probably better suited for a magazine. Anyway, the story couldn’t run Thursday, because that day’s entertainment section is reserved primarily for event listings, not longer stories. So the story would have to run Wednesday, which meant I would have to file it by noon Tuesday, which meant I would have Sunday and Monday to report.

My crucible occurred on Saturday night, when I saw a commercial for Sunday night’s “Simpsons” episode, which happens to be: Homer goes to a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy camp. I knew this was a coincidence because the cartoon is produced many months in advance. But it was an irresistible coincidence, and one most of the participants at the fantasy camp knew about.

But obviously that’s not the story. The story is the dreams and wasted money of the 70 people paying $5,000 bucks for four days and nights with musicians most of us have not heard of.

And yet…

I couldn’t see the episode because I was busy reporting on the camp. The next day, Monday, I called “The Simpsons” producers, who confirmed the theme was a coincidence-and asked if I’d like a tape of the show. Sure, I said, send it over to the L.A. hotel where the camp was being held. It came during the day, but I didn’t watch it until Monday evening, when I was trying to organize the sequence of the piece, knowing I’d have to wake up Tuesday and write the sucker in a few hours.

It was brilliant–especially after being at the same kind of real-life camp. I was laughing my guts out, and I decided to integrate several of the show’s bits inside my story. I’d been impressed with the devotion and lack of pretentiousness of most of the campers; essentially, I was going to say, the people at this camp are smarter and more devoted to music and more worthy of respect than Homer Simpson.

Read the story and ask yourself this question–the one I’m still asking: Did the story REALLY need this device to work? Or, does it overload the story by creating the following problem: We already have ONE subculture to define here–the camp itself. It’s something the average reader has probably never thought of, and the kinds of people who come to it need some defining, too. On top of this, the story throws a SECOND subculture at the reader–an animated show that, while long-running and extremely popular, is still outside the average person’s awareness. There just aren’t that many tens of millions of “Simpsons” freaks (even if I think there should be, and even if my editor on this story had watched the Sunday night episode and was squarely in my corner).

Couldn’t I have just used Homer in the lead and left the gimmick alone? Did I have to employ the show as a contrast device all the way through? Couldn’t I have found a better way to explain what this event WAS, rather than simply using a low-common-denominator trick of saying what the show was NOT?

You don’t have to answer the question, but you might want to think about it. Because one of these days, at the other end of the bar, you’ll see that cute lil’ gimmick waving, and you’ll have to decide whether–and how often–to indulge.

One last technical observation: I made two decisions that helped me a lot. First, I told the organizers I wanted to organize some campers BEFORE the camp, by telephone, which helped me gauge the nature of the participants and also gave me a relationship with eight or ten campers as soon as I shook their hands in L.A. Second, I started keeping a log on one sheet of paper of every camper I talked to-name, hometown, caliber of talent, instrument. This was crucial because I probably interviewed 25 or 30 of the 70 campers, and having that cheat sheet was invaluable Monday night when I sat down to figure out the sequence and the characters I wanted to use. This was all done out of fear-that fear of knowing I had to wake up the next morning and nail the story, that there’d be no time for a rewrite.

Here goes:

LIKE A ROLLING STONE
By Bob Baker
November 13, 2002

The first time promoter David Fishof organized the Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, Jay Leno suggested you could get a better return on your five thousand bucks by checking into the Betty Ford Center, where you’d be certain to meet a higher caliber of rock star.

ENTER THE SIMPSONS

On Sunday, the second time Fishof held the event, he bumped up against another taunting celebrity: Homer Simpson. In the season premiere of “The Simpsons,” which aired on the camp’s opening night, Homer attended a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy camp at which fans were drawn to every manner of rock vanity, right down to the ethos of stuffing your pants to attract groupies.

The programming coincidence underscored the way many people sneer at the idea of blowing the family vacation budget on Dad’s midlife crisis. But a funny thing happens when you walk into a cavernous rehearsal studio in Hollywood where Fishof’s 2002 camp has attracted 70 ax-slinging and drum-pounding true believers from Delaware to Ohio to Florida: Homer Simpson’s not here.

Jim Mitchell is.

I GOT LUCKY WITH THE FIRST CHARACTER I DECIDED TO USE, JIM MITCHELL. HE WAS PERFECTLY EMBLEMATIC OF THE BETTER NATURE OF THE CAMP, AND THE WAY HE WOUND UP IN CAMP WAS A GIFT FROM GOD. JIM WOULD HAVE BEEN MY FIRST CHARACTER EVEN IF I HADN’T USED THE SIMPSONS GIMMICK.

Mitchell, who works in insurance, is one of those guys who loves to play — with bands, in church, any time. His instrument is the electric bass, and he plays it with a precise zest. “Music is where I live,” he says without a hint of pretense. “I have to do it.” You can consider him Exhibit A in the case for why the Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp has a certain goofy nobility that transcends “The Simpsons.”

On TV Sunday, Marge Simpson drove Homer to camp after he embarrassed her with another self-destructive bender rooted in his failure to realize his youthful dreams (rock star or Playboy photographer). In the real world, Mitchell’s wife, Rose, conned him into driving from their Mount Washington home to the Hyatt hotel in West Hollywood, telling him they were going to a wine-tasting dinner.

WE KEEP FOLLOWING MITCHELL

Once inside the hotel, Rose sprung it on him: Jim was going to be a camper as a 47th birthday present. One floor up from the front desk, Fishof’s resident pros — mostly sidemen who’ve played with everybody from Joe Walsh to Billy Joel — were conducting auditions to check each participant’s skill level.

Two hours later, Mitchell was going eye to eye with Joel’s drummer, Liberty DeVitto, in a five-minute jazz improvisation. Four hours after that he was playing with other pros at a party set up at a pricey guitar shop. The next afternoon he was inside SIR studios on Sunset Boulevard, thrown together with half a dozen other amateurs, singing “Mustang Sally” as his new mates began getting ready for the camp’s climax: a performance at the House of Blues Thursday night, in which every camper will get time onstage.

WE BRANCH OUT FROM MITCHELL TO THE MACROCOSM

In six other rooms of the rehearsal studio, knots of campers were reveling in the same pressure under the tutelage of pros like Mark Farner, ex-lead singer and guitarist of Grand Funk Railroad; singer-saxophonist Mark Rivera, a longtime member of Joel’s band; organist-guitarist Bobby Mayo, who toured with Peter Frampton; guitarist Derek St. Holmes, who played with Ted Nugent; and bassist Jack Blades, who fronted Night Ranger.

“I don’t think I’ve taken a full breath since I’ve been here,” said Mitchell, whose prowess (and the camp’s short supply of bass players) made him a quick celebrity.

BACK TO THE GIMMICK

In Homer’s fantasy camp, guitarist Brian Setzer demonstrated the key art of setting your guitar afire, while Mick Jagger reminded campers to routinely proclaim tonight’s audience “the wildest ever.” In the real-world fantasy camp, there was little time for dilettantism. People were simply dying to play.

LEFT TO MY OWN DEVICES THE NEXT GRAF WOULD HAVE BEEN ABOUT SEVEN GRAFS ABOUT THE MANY WAYS THE CAMPERS EVINCED THEIR LOVE AND THE MANY WAYS THE PROS AT THE CAMP WERE GOD-LIKE. BUT THE STORY HAD TO COME IN AT 1,600 WORDS SO I SQUEEZED:

In that sense, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp felt like its model, the major league baseball fantasy camp, where aging fans play ball with their aging heroes. The difference is that time is kinder to musicians’ muscles (Fishof’s camp counselors effortlessly sound like the world’s greatest wedding band during nightly jam sessions). Though a couple campers showed up with zero chops, most walked in with the ability (if not the nerve) to stand up and play. When Farner demonstrated the sustained “power G” chord, they could do it.

ONE GRAF ON RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE PROS AND CAMPERS, WHICH ALLOWS US TO MEET THESE PEOPLE. I WOULD HAVE BEEN HAPPY WITH ANOTHER 500 WORDS ON THIS, TOO.

Farner, 54, whose fame came half a lifetime ago, says he takes pleasure now in connecting with people he knows are nervous just being in the same room, letting them know “I’m just as fragile as they are.” They tend to be people like Bill Perry, a 39-year-old Chatsworth Web site designer who played guitar on and off most of his adult life and aspires only “to play in a crappy little blues band that plays in stinky little bars on Tuesday night.” Or Mike Darpino, 42, a government bond broker from New York City who plays a muscular lead guitar. (“I’ve done a lot worse things with my money…. I could do this every year. I don’t want to eat now. I just wanna play.”) Or Lynn Mullings, 34, of Jupiter, Fla., the mother of a 1-year-old and lover of ’80s music who sent herself here as “my little reminder that I’m a real person and not just somebody’s mommy.”

A GRAF ON HOW THE CAMP WORKS

The basic drill here involves breaking up into seven bands (suffering from an oversupply of guitarists and drummers), rehearsing up to six hours a day on three songs (two cover versions, one original) that will make up the House of Blues show. Fender, one of the camp’s corporate sponsors, has stacked Stratocasters like doughnuts for the campers who didn’t bring their own guitars. In between rehearsals, Fishof has hired B-level rock celebs like George Thorogood and Dave Davies to visit with war stories, tips and the inevitable jams.

Most campers are in their 30s or 40s, with a smattering of those in their 50s and a pair of 17-year-olds, including a rosy-cheeked guitar whiz named Ed Hill, who won the trip in a Chicago radio talent contest.

When Hill cut loose with a series of Jimi Hendrix-like riffs during Sunday’s auditions, Russell Jeffries, the chief executive of a Virginia high-tech company who was taking his first vacation in eight years, feigned exasperation at somebody so good so young. “I’ve got socks older than that kid!”

THE REKINDLING WAS AN IMPORTANT FACET IN THE LIVES OF MANY OF THE CAMPERS, AND IT PERMITTED ME TO EXPAND A LITTLE MORE ON THE IMPORTANCE OF MUSIC IN THEIR LIVES. THIS WAS THE KIND OF GRAF I PUT IN FOR THE BENEFIT OF PEOPLE WHO DON’T PLAY INSTRUMENTS WHO [I FLATTERED MYSELF BY THINKING] WERE STILL READING THE STORY.

Jeffries, 45, who collected the pros’ autographs on a newly bought white Fender, shared with many campers a reborn love of the instrument: Many of them had been in bands when they were younger, started careers, ran out of time and then began rekindling the hobby, sometimes finding new collaborators with the same history.

“Once I plug the guitar in, the rest of the world fades away,” Jeffries said. “There could be arterial bleeding. If the amps are on, I don’t care.”

Paul Jonke, 38-year-old tax assessor in Putnam County, N.Y., said he wound up here once his guitar became a therapy tool. He broke up with his fiancee after an argument about the size of her wedding ring (“she wanted four carats”) and spent the money on the fantasy camp.

Another camper, Fred Ricart, a Florida car dealer with a love of collecting vintage guitars, prides himself on a showroom where salesmen are free to carry their axes.

GIMMICK TIME AGAIN

In “The Simpsons” fantasy camp, Homer and his gang trashed Tom Petty’s serious lecture on songwriting, caring only about lyrics involving sex and booze. In the real camp, Poison’s Bret Michaels and ex-Kinks guitarist Davies were afforded rapt silence as they described the mechanics of turning heartache into song.

Michaels, whose music is more popularly associated with debauchery, described having his heart broken by a cheating stripper after finishing a disappointing gig, then sitting in a coin laundry with the cheap acoustic guitar of his childhood and composing “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” Davies went him one better, retelling a 30-year estrangement from a teen love that filtered into more than a dozen of his songs.

ONE OBLIGATORY GRAF ON WHERE THE CAMP CAME FROM.

Fishof organized the first fantasy camp in Florida in 1997, intending it to be an annual event. But then he began promoting Ringo Starr’s annual “All-Star” tour and the camp withered. When Starr took 2002 off, Fishof decided to try it again at $4,950 per head. “I lost a ton of money the first time,” he said. “I’d do better with a tall men’s shop in Tokyo.”

TIME TO SAY GOODBYE. WE TROT THE GIMMICK OUT ONE MORE TIME. I’D SEEN A SCENE LATE ON MY LAST NIGHT OF CAMP THAT MADE ME SMILE, AND I FIGURED THE READER MIGHT, TOO:

Homer Simpson is allowed only to be a roadie for the Rolling Stones in his fantasy camp. By contrast, late in Monday night’s camp jam session, Scott Seville, who plays with a band in North Carolina, was onstage singing a torrid version of Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band,” accompanied on guitar by Mark Farner, who congratulated him with a high-five.

Later, Terry Dobson of Vero Beach, Fla., climbed onstage with his video camera during a grinding rendition of ZZ Top’s “La Grange” to sing a verse. Bassist Blades slid over and took the camera from Dobson, then handed it to bandleader Rivera, who shot a couple seconds of Dobson, then turned the camera toward the audience of campers, gesturing for them to applaud wildly as Dobson kept singing.

This being a fantasy camp, they did exactly that.