Phat Cat

Ex-Stray Cat Lee Rocker brings rockabilly into the '90s

When Lee Rocker wants to, say, hit a local California juke joint, he hops in his 1959 Ford Skyliner, a 19-foot-long, red street machine with white trim he picked up five years ago in Garland, Texas. When Lee Rocker wants to get dressed for a gig or even for a cruise to the convenience store, he'll usually grab and put on a leopard-print number or something, anything, with flames on it. And when Lee Rocker wants to write a rock and roll song, he'll pick up one of his four upright basses, maybe the one manufactured by Kay (which hasn't "manufactured" a bass in almost 40 years), and begin slapping/popping/ punching it like he's been doing these past 18 years, most recognizably as bassist for the Stray Cats.

So when Rocker, now a solo act, wants to cut one of his lo-fi tunes -- equal parts solid instrumentation and Brillcreem, like the kind that made the Cats so successful in the '80s -- he comes off as undeniably sincere and modern. He's no nostalgia act. And while acceptance of this rockabilly sound could soon trigger a fad, it's what Rocker's been doing and has continued to do. Through power-pop. Through glam-metal. Through rap. Through grunge. And now through old-time fads such as swing, which just happens to be headed by his former Cat bandmate, Brian Setzer, and his Orchestra.

For those who think the 34-year-old Rocker is delusional or lost in time a la Buck Rogers, there's his 1998 debut, aptly titled No Cats, on Upright Records, an independent label Rocker started at the time of the release. There are 13 songs on the CD, and all could be considered rockabilly, but not in the voyeuristic, retro sense. The structures of the songs are similar to those performed in the early '50s by the great grandfathers of rockabilly, Carl Perkins, Johnny Burnette and, of course, the King, but they're just a tweak different. To understand how Rocker's songs stand alongside but apart from those of his forebears, you must first understand the essence of rockabilly as it was discovered in 1953 by Sam Phillips at his Sun label studios in Memphis, Tennessee.

When a teen named Elvis Presley walked into Sun studios to cut two records, which anybody could do off the street for a $4 charge, and was heard singing by Phillips's secretary, the legend began. "That's All Right Mama" would be Presley's first single and, obviously, his first step toward the myth that is Presley today. What set rock and roll apart from the blues of the day and modern jazz was its hard, sexy and certainly rebellious nature, all packaged in a hip-swivelin', lip-quiverin' Tupelo, Mississippi, white boy. While the music still carries with it an aura of nonconformity, especially in such offshoots as heavy metal, folk pop and alternative rock, its Presley-era composition of subtle R&B drum beats, almost nonexistent bass lines and gently picked, nondistorted, countrified guitar riffs -- popularized by Presley's guitarist Scotty Moore and Merle Travis -- is now the stuff of pipe-puffin', black-socks-and-plaid-shorts-wearin', suburbia-livin' white daddy-o's.

Rocker's music isn't that passe. Though most songs are, in fact, built on steady rhythm patterns and soft guitar work, they change intensity more frequently than maybe Perkins's standards would. They also, on the whole, involve more complicated fretwork and interplay within the band which, for a current tour that brings Rocker into Houston this week, comprises Jimmy Sage on drums and Adrian Demain and Brothy Dale on guitar.

Rocker handles lead vocals on all songs, and his voice, though entirely one-dimensional, occasionally stretches high with tinges of tremolo. His playing, even for being the frontman, is rather subdued. No Charles Mingus stuff here. The drumming is deliberately stoic, but the guitar work -- as performed on the record by Demain, Mike Eldred and guest Elliot Easton of the Cars -- is fabulous. On "Miracle in Memphis," Eldred mixes short chord slides with that vintage Moore-Travis picking technique that highlights notes one at a time. They chime in and out at low and high registers in precise rhythm with the toe-tapping beat. Cool ain't a cool enough word to describe it.

The themes of Rocker's songs may resemble those of old-time rockabilly, but once in a while, as on "Shaky Town," Rocker, who writes most of the material, taps into contemporary consciousness when he sings the line, "Did you think it would come to this? / Did someone twist your arm? / You climb the mountain now you can't climb down / waitin' out the storm." That, along with Rocker's cover of the Blondie hit "One Way or Another," indicates a small progression from rockabilly songs about cars and babes to rockabilly songs about cars and babes and modern woe vis-à-vis drug use. This means much since Rocker is the rockabilly-pop standard-bearer of the '00s.

But before getting to Rocker's music, you have to get past the CD art. The cover, while obviously a takeoff on record covers of 50 years ago, is a pisser. Across the top of the plastic square that houses the disc are the words "LEE ROCKER" in red, with the words "No Cats," also in red, below the LEE part. To the right side of "No Cats," and in front of what looks like a vacant tractor-trailer chassis, stands Rocker, legs spread, dipping his blond Kay upright as he would a dance-hall dame, with his right hand -- his picking hand -- coming down on it in a blur. If it weren't for the decidedly serious expression on his face, reminiscent of a tough high school football player's best program-book pose, the image would probably be a little easier to swallow. As it is, however, nothing is cornier.

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