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.
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.
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"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.