Monday, January 4, 2016 – I have avoided this moment for a while now, years actually. Anyone who really knows me, knows how much I love music, especially drums. Playing drums is something I was more or less born to do, or at least one of the things… My other personal manifestations/vocations materialized out of the necessity to survive in life when at various times my drumming ability left me.
And believe it or not the following is the short version of my musical odyssey. Why abbreviate you say? Well, we all know that most people online usually don’t like to READ, unless it’s something that contains insults, controversy, or lurid sexual tales (no comment). So I left out the parts about me getting my ass handed to me in a high school drum battle, and when one of my bands partied with, and were then threatened by Phil Spector in his mansion in LA, or when I was at the top of the LA musical food chain, on the radio, etc., when I met Buddy Rich, how I excelled in the martial arts fight world, started doing movies and TV shows, and so much more.
But let’s go back to the beginning – I started playing drums in 1969 in Salinas, California when I was half way through high school. I was on my way to becoming your typical stoner/loser at the time. But I was inspired by rhythm, especially two memorable drum solos – Ron Bushy‘s marching band inspired opus in the song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (Iron Butterfly), and Ginger Baker‘s towering, technical rhythmic masterpiece “Toad” on Cream‘s “Wheels of Fire” album. I actually heard both or those songs back-to-back one Sunday night on my shitty little transistor radio – you know, the kind with one dial for on/off/volume, and one dial for tuning in stations (AM only, there was no FM radio back then) – while I was in my room supposedly doing my homework. At the point when both pieces concluded, I sat there stunned…at the age of 16 I suddenly saw my life’s path in my mind, I HAD to get a drumset. And I did…which is another long story about bad grades suddenly becoming good.
Once I got my hands on the sticks, I got good quick and within a few years rose to the top of Salinas’s limited music scene. After one of my early hotshot bands (Convulsion) broke up, I was discouraged and moved back to the town of my birth, Santa Cruz, California. I got a job as a bellboy at the Holiday Inn (special thanks to my step-father George Vomvolakis) and started to pull my life back together. Soon I started playing in a few local bands. But I wanted to play hard rock and Santa Cruz was mostly hippy music and fairly mellow country rock. So when my former Convulsion bandmate Mark Etienne (R.I.P.) called and invited me to come down to Los Angeles and jam, I jumped at the opportunity. He and I were on the same page musically. We both wanted to be in a band like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Deep Purple, Queen, Cream, Black Sabbath, etc. And after that one jam, I immediately went back to SC, packed my bags and moved to LA. It was 1975.
Mark, bassist Tim Richardson and I formed the group “Orange”. But we needed a singer. We were in luck because another Salinas transplant, Patrick Mata (Kommunity FK, Sativa Luv Box), was now in LA and available. Pat wasn’t just any singer, he was an absolute virtuoso and a cutting edge performer, a cross between Ian Gillian, Steve Perry, Mick Jagger and Johnny Rotten, with a strong sense of outrageousness. Orange got close, playing all the best clubs in town: The Whisky A Go Go, The Starwood, The KROQ Cabaret, catching the eye of super producers Ken Scott (David Bowie, Supertramp, Jeff Beck, Kansas) and Roy Thomas Baker (The Rolling Stones, Santana, The Who), and opening for Van Halen and Ray Manzarek (The Doors). But, as would happen so often in rock and roll, just when things were getting good…we broke up.
After I came and went in a very talented band named Pod out of Long Beach, which was half prog/half new wave, with a touch of glam(?), I found a new group when browsing in The Recycler classified newspaper that was based in Arcadia. The band was called SNOW and featured Carlos Cavazo on guitar, Tony Cavazo on bass and Doug Ellison on lead vocals. I will never forget the magic being immediate when we first jammed together in that barn-like garage on California street. I dropped everything and moved from the infamous Canterbury apartments where I had been living, which was in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Hollywood, into the house in Arcadia with the band. It was 1978.
SNOW had a plan and we gained a huge following, eventually selling out the Starwood, The Whisky and headlining the Pasadena and Santa Monica Civic Auditoriums. But we couldn’t get signed to a record deal to save our lives. The labels were only interested in punk or new wave acts at that time. So we released our own record, a 5 song vinyl EP, which got some airplay on KROQ (thank you Chuck Randall & Jed “The Fish”) and KLOS. But eventually, after pounding the scene for 3 years, SNOW ran out of steam. Tony and I joined together with gifted singer/songwriter Gar Robertson in Dangerface, while Carlos joined Quiet Riot, who roared to the top of the charts.
Because of Carlos’s success with QR, we potentially had opportunities. He had mentioned that he wanted us to open for them on tour. But…I got a nasty case of tendonitis in my right wrist and arm, right as Dangerface were about to record our own independent record. I started seeing doctors and the bills piled up. I eventually ran out of money and had to get my hair cut and get a job. It appeared my music days were over. It was 1983.
To my astonishment I was able to return to playing drums again a few years later. But overcoming the heartbreak of being forced to stop drumming while all my musical cohorts were ‘making it’, had caused me to focus on a new love, acting, which I was just starting to make a little headway with. I decided to stay with acting and not pursue drumming. I’m not going to lie, I was afraid, thinking that if I had returned to drumming and my tendonitis were to return, I would have truly suffered mentally and emotionally.
But I continued to play drums intermittently over the years, recording a single with The Butchers (Tom Bolema), a record with The Sacred Cowboys, which included actor W. Earl Brown and Academy Award nominated director Peter Spirer, and an album with JT Curtis‘s band 7th Sun called “From The Beginning” (iTunes). I also did gigs with Joe Blow, Marcus Singletary and most recently with Bryan Senatore. Then…SNOW planned a reunion gig at The Key Club on Sunset, which was the old Gazaarri’s nightclub, where the who’s who of ANYBODY had played or gotten their start (Van Halen, Motley Crue, Tina Turner, Gun ‘N Roses, etc.)! I was SO excited. Doug was displaced now in Florida, so we used hotshot vocalist Andrew Freeman as our frontman, who at the time was playing with Tony (Cavazo) in Hurricane.
So we started to practice. And then shortly into our rehearsals at Nightingale Studios…my left wrist and arm started to give me problems. What…The…Fuck! It got worse and worse. Unlike my previous time with tendonitis in 1983, I had some money because of the success I had enjoyed as a fight commentator (Showtime Networks, UFC “Undisputed 3” Video Game, Pride Fighting Championships, etc.). So I started seeing doctors and specialists. It got worse. I was fearful of being onstage and playing like shit, etc. But…the gig miraculously was a success. It was December 2011.
My wrist, arm, thumb, whatever continued to deteriorate when I would try to play. I saw orthopedic doctors including some of the best at the world famous Kerlan-Jobe clinic (Lakers, Dodgers, Kings, Ducks, etc.). I saw acupuncturists, chiropractors. I had injections, including even (don’t laugh) botox (yeah, I’ve got the youngest looking left arm in town/don’t hate). I even saw a couple of different shrinks. I spent a lot of money. So, I can truly say with an open heart…I TRIED EVERYTHING to cure this bullshit. And sadly, none of it worked. And the ridiculous thing was I could still punch and do martial arts at a fairly accomplished level. But throwing a punch and manipulating a drumstick are two entirely different moves.
“But what about Rick Allen, the drummer for Def Leppard? He lost his arm and was able to come back?” And if I was a millionaire in a band with international hit records I’d be able to figure something out too. But I’m not. And honestly, it would have actually been easier if my arm had been ripped off too, rather than trying/hoping/praying/working for years to bring it back to life with some kind of miracle.
And I would still try to practice drums – 146 days in 2015. Yep, I kept track. I was going to go down swinging. I had to alter the way I held the stick. I tried wearing gloves. I bought a Dynabee. But it just wasn’t happening. It hurt when I played. I’d have to warm up for at least 30-60 minutes to play half way decent. And even then faster tempo songs saw me lose muscle control and the stick would fly out of my hand. One time a guy on live asked me how my arm was doing, when I’d play again? I sent him a video clip from the horror movie “Evil Dead 2” where lead actor Bruce Campbell’s arm becomes possessed and starts attacking and punching him, and he eventually has to cut it off with a chainsaw.
So on Friday, January 1st, 2016, after I tried to play and could only stand it for less than 20 minutes, I just snapped and came face-to-face with the realization…it was over. It would no longer be healthy for me to invest my time, energy, lust, desire, heart and/or soul into the thing I thought I was put on the planet to do, play drums. Was I sad? Not really.There were no tears. That had already happened, plenty of times. If anything, I was angry. But the anger passed instantly as I knew I had to end this chapter of my life…before it ended me. Moments after that resignation I was actually relieved, because I was finally free. The gloves were off. I could now invest my life, my entire being, into something that I knew in my heart of hearts I could be a success at.
So now, I can say with a smile on my face, and the rallying of my entire spirit, that…I am an actor, and I’m ready to go. Watch me now (and yes, that’s me playing drums on the video clip ‘soundtrack’)…
Thanks for reading this. It wasn’t too long, was it? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! And don’t worry, there’s plenty more where that came from… 😉