The passage from heavy rocking Starship guitarist to mellow New Age healer-with-an-instrument hasn't been easy for Craig Chaquico.
"It's kinda like being Timmy in Lassie," Chaquico says. "Everybody knows who that guy was, but what's he doing today?"
After almost 20 years with one of the leading bands in rock, Chaquico had 13 gold and platinum albums, a Golden Globe award, a handful of Grammy and Oscar nominations and, it seemed, nowhere to go musically. The Starship was all but defunct and management had plans to cash in on the name.
"When I left the Starship there was a plan at one point to keep the name going and have me and one of the singers stay in the band and just hire a bunch of L.A. guys to do the records," Chaquico says. "We'd overdub our parts, and hire a bunch of different guys to tour. We'd play on the tour, and call the whole thing Starship.
"I thought, well, that has a certain job security, but as an artist, it's like totally copping out."
Instead, Chaquico disembarked completely from the Starship and launched himself into a whole new career in New Age music -- all acoustic, sans vocals and considerably more mellow than the Starship. It was a risky move at best, and certainly unexpected from an ex-metal freak.
It was also unmarketable. Label after label passed on his new demo tapes.
"If I'd stayed in the band just 'cause it was a safe, easy way out, they would've heard that in the music and not responded to it," says Chaquico. "Instead I opted to do something I believed in, even though it was taking a chance. And what happened was there was that rejection and scary leap of faith.
"A lot of people assume, well, you came out of a big group, and it should be easy. But, man, I still got rejection letters."
Advising him to listen to other New Age artists to get a feel for the market, label reps told him he was too jazzy, too rock or too mellow for today's audience. Always too different to be signed. After years of being at the top of his craft, the rejection took its toll.
"Every now and then I would say, 'Man, maybe I should just open a health food store and settle down."
Finally, Chaquico's demo came to the attention of Higher Octave, which had been the number one independent New Age label for several years. Higher Octave found the guitarist's new expressions to its liking. Since joining the label, Chaquico has released two CDs in two years (Acoustic Highway and Acoustic Planet) and is once again being nominated for awards (four Bay Area Music Awards and a Grammy).
"I wouldn't have appreciated any of it as much if we hadn't gone through that little dark period," he says. "The biggest reward for me, still, is when somebody comes up to me after a show and says my music touched them. But all that other stuff really looks good in print, too."
Along with award nominations, Chaquico is winning larger and larger audiences for his stage shows, which include a healthy percentage of old Starship fans. Some of them may have been surprised at his new direction, but Chaquico says his New Age stylings aren't that far removed from his rock roots.
"I know, they're thinking 'Craig finally lost it.' But I listened to Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and I think I heard a lot of what I consider New Age music in there," he says. "Some of my favorite things they would do were when they would go completely instrumental, no vocals and just go off on these musical adventures. Like 'Third Stone from the Sun,' that music invited the listeners to go on a trip. Those elements that I heard in their music are what, to me, New Age music is."
In fact, Chaquico says he's finding that many people who grew up listening to rock and roll are turning to the softer stuff as they slide into middle age. In New Age music, they're discovering "certain elements" that they heard in rock but can't find in grunge or rap, he says.
That includes a dyed-in-the-wool rocker such as Van Halen's Sammy Hagar. "Whenever I really jones for electric guitar I go and I sit in with him," Chaquico says. "Even he tells me, 'I just went to Hawaii. I only took four CDs, and one of them was yours.'"
One of the strongest tunes on Acoustic Planet is a song Chaquico wrote more than two decades ago. Using only the E string, "Center of Courage" shows off Chaquico's quick finger work. It also underscores his newfound interest in music therapy.
"When I was 12 years old, I woke up in a hospital with two broken arms, a broken thumb, a broken wrist and a leg that was broken in three places," he recalls. "I was hit by a drunk driver. The first thing I asked for was my acoustic guitar.
"Even though I could only reach the E string on the guitar, because of how my cast was, I wrote a song on it, which is 'Center of Courage.' It's all written on the E string and because my doctor's name was Elizabeth, who encouraged me to keep playing all through my recovery, I named it 'E-lizabeth Song' as a subtitle."
It's those "healing characteristics" of music that Chaquico is exploring these days. He's worked with the National Association of Music Therapy to bring his music to hospitalized patients, while his guitar company, Washburn Guitars and Remo Drums, allows him to bring instruments into each hospital he visits and leave them for the ward. It has, he says, provided him with an opportunity to complete a circle that began with his own accident years ago.
"There was a guy in Minneapolis, who had also been hit by a drunk driver," Chaquico says."He was paralyzed, but the first letter he wrote after he regained control of his arms and hands was to me saying that my music really helped him. Over the years, I've stayed in touch with him and now he's in a wheelchair, with an apartment and a van. So he's made all this amazing recovery and he says lots of that had to do with my music."
Chaquico's music is going to some other unusual places. "Just One World," also from Acoustic Planet, was launched into orbit on a satellite as part of the NASA Space Ark project.
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"To have my music go into space, on a satellite that will be in orbit for millions of years, was a real thrill," he says. "It also reminded me of when I was a kid playing electric guitar around the house, my dad would always say, 'Can you play far, far away?' I thought there was a song called 'Far, Far Away,' but what he meant was can you play far, far away from me with that loud electric guitar.
"It was a thrill to finally have that thing go into orbit last summer and get my telescope set up, find the satellite, have my dad come over for dinner and say, 'Hey, dad, see that star up there? Is that far enough away for you?'"
Chaquico recalls that the Voyager probe that went into space before the Ark had a Chuck Berry tune on it, "so I'm thinking someday aliens will send a message down to Earth saying, 'Hey, we really like this Craig Chaquico, but send more Chuck Berry!'"
Craig Chaquico appears with Richard Elliott, Warren Hill and Peter White for "An Evening of Guitars and Saxophones" at 8 and 10:30 p.m., Thursday, March 30 at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $29.50 and $37.50. Call 869-8427 for info.