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The Second Annual Hot-Rod-O-Rama Puts The Spotlight On Hot Cars, Fast Women And Hip-Shakin' American Roots Music.
By Ron Bally, May 20 1999
THE STRAY CATS, the delicious cheesecake imagery of '50s pin-up icon Bettie Page and the wacky custom hot-rod subculture of cartoonist/car designer Big Daddy Roth (and his skuzzball sidekick Rat Fink) all subconsciously contributed to my decision to get my first tattoo back in 1983--a good 10 years before every frat boy knucklehead and patchouli-perfumed hippie chick ruined everything rebellious, intimidating and juvenile delinquent about permanently marking one's skin, let me add. It also opened my eyes to the fascinating world of the high-octane '50s rockabilly music created by Elvis, Charlie Feathers, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins and Eddie Cochran, back before any of the three Stray Cats were even born.
So take note: all those tattooed, rockabilly-hungry hellions planning to attend the second annual Hot Rod-O-Rama at the Rialto Theatre this Saturday night won't be standing around making MTV-endorsed fashion statements...or babbling incoherently about the pros and cons of the Big Band swing rhythms of Brian Setzer versus the primal Ubangi stomp of the Stray Cats. They'll turn out in droves to dance to eight hot bands, to slobber over and admire the best tattoo and pin-up girl contests, and gaze slack-jawed at two blocks of gleaming chrome as dozens of vintage automobiles and motorcycles bask in their restored glory along Congress Street. These classy custom rods would surely make Big Daddy Roth beam with pride.
Hot Rod-O-Rama is an honest celebration of Americana roots music and '50s kustom kulture. More than 1,000 frenzied enthusiasts attended last year's inaugural show, proving the crossover appeal of rockabilly is here for the long haul.
Featured bands include ex-Stray Cats bassist Lee Rocker, swing masters Steve Lucky and the Rhumba Bums, hardcore hepcats Hi-Fi and the Roadburners, Russell Scott and his Red Hots, Al Foul and the Shakes, the Rattled Roosters, the Ramblers, and the garage-heavy Link Wray scorch of James Dead.
"Back in 1988 in L.A., the rockabilly thing was just so raw," Rialto co-owner Jeb Schoonover recalls fondly. "When you would go to a big show at the Blue Café in Hollywood or the Palomino Club, where the Blasters, Big Sandy, Paladins or Billy Bacon were playing, everybody was showing up in hot rods. There were no festivals yet. It just felt so real and honest. Everyone coming there had their hair greased back, and everybody was swinging and jitterbugging long before this swing thing was around. It opened my eyes to this whole fascinating sub-culture."
Schoonover believes the first American rockabilly festival probably began with the Greaser's Ball in San Francisco in 1993. "It was basically a rockabilly, roots-rock festival held indoors," he says. Large outdoor festivals in England and Europe have been occurring regularly since the early '80s when psychobilly (a faster, more outrageous hybrid of rockabilly and punk) exploded on the British punk scene. Recently, festivals like The Hootenanny in Los Angeles and Viva Las Vegas (held in Sin City last year) have showcased original '50s rockabilly talents as well as introduced today's crop of brash neo-rockabilly exponents. Schoonover took his inspiration from these festivals, imported the Hootenanny's hot-rod competition, and subsequently added the pin-up girl and tattoo contests. But his intention, he says simply, "was to be able to turn on the Tucson audience to lots of great roots-rock bands."
Organizing such a lofty event, which includes both indoor and outdoor stages, is no small feat. "We've been going to the hot-rod shops and contacting car clubs to try to register as many cars in advance as possible. This year we have a lot more interest from the car clubs and motorcycle people," says Schoonover.
Hot rodding is a culture, with rites and customs passed on from generation to generation. Hot rodding has always carried strong overtones of counterculture, similar to the taboos once associated with tattooing and rockabilly. Back in its '50s-'60s heyday, those who couldn't afford sporty new cars stripped down family-style roadsters, souped up the engines and painted menacing flames on the body. Attaining the highest velocity and a sinister appearance were prerequisites for drag racing down a quarter-mile dirt track.
Schoonover's applied the same talent scouting to the human exhibitions: "We've gone to the (local tattoo) artists and asked them to have five people each to represent their work," he says. "The people you're going to see representing artists in the contest are serious tattoo people." Prizes will be awarded to contest winners, and everyone who participates in the various events will be admitted to the festival free of charge.
The big question is whether rockabilly will overtake swing as the next big musical phenomenon to infiltrate mainstream America. Will Lee Rocker be doing a Gap commercial anytime soon? Schoonover sighs, pauses and then answers without mincing words. "You know, rockabilly actually had its little day in the sun. The Stray Cats brought rockabilly to the forefront, and it never really caught on.
"The dancing is what propelled swing music," he continues. "It allowed anybody to participate, and there were a lot of guys who liked the aspect of being able to go to bars and ask girls to dance, and couples who enjoyed doing something together."
So rockabilly has some inherent shortcomings as cross-generation dance sensation; but it's still a palatable form of Americana roots. Rockabilly is a brash, backwoods melding of country-and-western, blues and rock-and-roll. The basis for rockabilly revolves around a slapping upright bass, reverb-drenched lead guitar, and the lascivious yelps, stutters and hiccups associated with vocals focused primarily on chicks, cars and blue suede shoes.
"From booking Billy Bacon over the years--for festivals, weddings and special events--I can say rockabilly does cut through the different generations. The older folks remember Buddy Holly and Bill Haley and the Comets," Schoonover defends. "And the kids like it because of the energy. I think it's certainly reasonable to expect that a rockabilly-styled act like Mike Ness could score a hit, get play on MTV, and gain more acceptance (for rockabilly) than it has right now." (Ness fronts roots-based punk rockers Social Distortion, and recently released a Johnny Cash-inspired solo album.)
In recent years, mainstream America's pervasive infatuation with '50s culture has been almost mind-boggling. From recent feature films like Pleasantville and Blast From The Past, we've once again embraced the safe, innocent and homogenized outlook we imbibed from the comforting cathode glow of TV's Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver.
"I think '50s culture is just another option for people," offers Schoonover. "I think it's real--real in the sense that when you listen to the music, it's timeless. (The 1950s represent) a simpler, more wholesome and somewhat tougher way of life...a time when America was stronger."
Which isn't to say that patriotism or even nostalgia are its driving forces. "Rockabilly is the essence of cool," he continues. "There's an overall vibe that says things were cooler back then." In Schoonover's example, it's the difference between James Dean and Brad Pitt. "Who do you want to be associated with?" he quips. "I just think things were more stylish in the '50s, and they were done better."
Take the classic image of glamour perpetuated by naughty-girl-next-door Bettie Page, which today is bigger than ever. You'll find stylized versions of her sultry, hard-bodied poses and blunt-cut bangs everywhere you look. Her distinctly sexy demeanor has been copied and emulated by supermodels 40 years after Page herself went into seclusion. "There is no modern equivalent," Schoonover concurs. "The Farrah Fawcett craze (circa 1977) maybe, but that doesn't even come close. And there's certainly no equivalent in the '90s."
No trend is for everyone, and rockabilly is unlikely to be any exception. But it's a highly combustible, intensely American form of hip-shaking rock-and-roll--and one that will give swing aficionados a workout.
"I don't expect Tucson to suddenly become a huge rockabilly town," Schoonover admits. "But it's just (as) good to say, 'Hey, this is a true American subculture that deserves to be recognized.' So come out and see what it's all about."
The second annual Hot-Rod-O-Rama revs up at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 22, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Featured performers include Lee Rocker, Russell Scott, Al Foul and James Dead. Tickets are $5 in advance, available at the Congress Street Store, Hear's Music, Guitars Etc. and Zip's University. Cost at the door is $7. For information on this and upcoming shows, call 740-0126.