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Phat Cat

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

Inside the CD, things get even weirder. There's one particular image of Rocker, playing his bass in, of course, a leopard-print vest with his shoulder-length, jet-black hair greased back, standing in a ring -- er, excuse me -- a semi-circle of fire. (!) It's plainly evident the man and his bass can safely travel to and fro, inside and outside the "C" of fire, so why give the impression of James-Deanesque daredeviltry? Here's Lee Rocker, in the ring of fire. Here's Lee Rocker, out of it. Lee Rocker in it. Lee Rocker out of it. Lee in. Lee out. In. Out. In. Out. In...

"Well, it's all part of that lifestyle, really," says Rocker. "Part of that is the clothes, the car, the rebellion. There's all that tie in there."

Rocker was born Leon Drucker, son of the New York Philharmonic first clarinetist, Stanley Drucker. As a youngster growing up in New York City, Rocker learned the cello. By the time he was a teenager, listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had interrupted his classical instruction to the point of his playing rock and roll in local pool halls. A far cry from the Met.

He met Setzer, a high school dropout, in one of those places, and both joined up with "Slim" Jim Phantom to form the Tom Cats. This was in 1979. By the time the '80s rolled around, the band, now known as the Stray Cats, was hitting the U.S. shores in follow-up to a largely successful stint in England on Arista/UK Records. MTV was in its nascency and ready for something as unique, countercool and stylishly attractive as the Cats and their pompadoured blond frontman, slicked-back drummer standing over only a snare drum and cymbal and a 17-year-old walking the dog on an upright. That the trio actually created some original-sounding, technically honest rockabilly-pop only helped.

Two platinum records, 1982's Built for Speed and 1983's Rant 'N Rave with the Stray Cats, both on EMI America, and a turn of the decade later, and the band was beyond camp. Which means it wasn't even considered cool for all its uncoolness. Setzer went and formed his Orchestra, which he's been working with for almost ten years -- pre-Big-Bad-Voodoo-Daddy-Cherry-Poppin'-Daddies -- and Rocker formed his own band called Big Blue, which put out what would be considered straight-ahead rock: amped-up guitars, gratuitous hooks and radio-ready melodies. Needless to say, this wasn't where Rocker's heart was. The band folded after two records.

Rocker returned to rockabilly full-throttle in the mid 1990s at around the time folk music and Americana were bursting onto the pop scene via MTV Unplugged specials. He played with Perkins on some soundtracks and on the giant's last record, the cooly titled Go Cat Go. After the death of Rocker's mentor and friend in January 1998, Rocker followed the natural artistic path that lead him to record on his own. No Cats was the rockabillyin' result.

"It's just what works for me," says Rocker, of the rockabilly sound. "I don't know how it comes out of me, but it's just, whenever I heard, you know, the Beatles or Perkins and Chuck Berry songs -- for some reason -- it just hit me and took me away with it. Then I really got into it and learned more about it and discovered a lot of eclectic artists. And that's what we do, [the music's] got a '56 Memphis thread running through it, but it's definitely new stuff. We're not a museum act."

And it's this perception of rockabilly as only old-time music that really pisses Rocker off. Since people (read: fans) don't perceive heavy metal as '70s music or jazz as '30s music, Rocker asks, why do people perceive rockabilly as '50s rock?

Part of the answer is technology. While the tenor saxophone hasn't changed much since 1930, the guitar has changed -- a lot -- since 1950. And since this instrument is the core of any or most rock and roll music, for an artist to depend on a kinder, gentler, older version of it is to invite knee-jerk comparisons to yesteryear.

"Well, then my goal is to take this thing, this ''50s music' and do it now," Rocker says, his voice always calm and amiable. "I want to break new ground, like Perkins and Scotty Moore did back then. When they did it, it was the punk rock of the day. It was something nobody was doing back in '56."

And which nobody is doing today. Though such rockabilly acts as the Reverend Horton Heat and The Amazing Crowns and psychobilly outfits such as the Cramps, who make a hillbilly and blues music from hell, have all experienced some -- albeit brief -- mainstream success, they've developed only cult followings. No neorockabilly bands have cracked the Top 40 or have broken into heavy rotation on commercial radio or MTV. Rocker wants to change all that.

Though he might not admit to it, Rocker makes music that's radio-friendly, hummable and even danceable. Fans at his shows, according to Rocker, have been hopping and swinging through the aisles. His shows aren't poodle-skirt-crazy marathon dances, but they last almost two hours. He and his band will play material from Rocker's previous works and throw in a classic rock-and-roll-rockabilly cover song or two, as it's the honorable and natural thing to do.

Lee Rocker performs Friday, March 5, at the Ale House, 2425 W. Alabama. Call (713)521-2333 for tickets, $10. Over-21 show.

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