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MUSIC: Ventura County | ROCKTALK

Never Far Astray

Ex-Cats' bass player Lee Rocker brings his brand of roots rock to Ventura.

July 16, 1998|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Much like NBA dreams, MTV dreams generally remain just that. But in 1980, three youngsters from Long Island played their kind of music and the dream came true.

The band was Stray Cats, a trio that not only reinvented rockabilly music for a new generation, but also sold 7 million records before breaking up in 1984.

One-third of the Cats, bass player Lee Rocker, will bring his brand of roots rock to the Ventura Theatre on Friday night. After the Cats, Rocker was a member of Phantom, Rocker & Slick, followed by another roots-rock band, Big Blue. These days, Rocker has a new album, "No Cats," on his own label, which he discussed during a phone interview from his Orange County home.

"Everything's going great and I've played more dates than I have since I was in the Stray Cats," said Rocker. "On this one, I think I'm more back to my roots. The last two Big Blue albums were more blues-oriented, but now I feel I've been full circle. I got to use a lot of different people and, basically, I could pick and choose them. It's more of a solo record."

At 35, Rocker, the "ambassador for the devil's music" (according to his bio), has the time and the money for reflection. When the Stray Cats hit it big, Rocker was only 17.

"I had a lot of fun, I must say, but it took me about 10 years to get my head into perspective. We went from being a bar band in New York that moved to England in the summer of 1980. We didn't know a soul and ended up sleeping in chairs in Hyde Park in the daytime. Then three months later we had a hit record and we were hanging out with the Rolling Stones. It was a wild trip that has kept on rolling."

Brian Setzer, Slim Jim Phantom and Rocker kept Cats' music pretty basic: guitar, drums and stand-up bass. That's it--no frills, no massive productions and no convoy of semis. Rocker, who sees rockabilly music as the first punk rock, hasn't turned his back on his roots.

"I still do a couple of Stray Cats songs when the spirit moves me, but it's not like they're part of the act. I'm very proud of what we did. Things were so different in the early '80s. Everything was huge sound, big explosions and huge stage shows. We were the enemy of all that. We just played sweaty rock 'n' roll."

Originally, Mick Jagger was going to produce the first Stray Cats album, but the group ended up with Dave Edmunds, a legendary British guitarist and producer who knows more about American roots rock than most Americans.

Because of the Cats' success, Rocker has had the chance to play with his idols, including the late rockabilly legend Carl Perkins. Not bad for a skinny kid who started as a cello player but now plays an instrument bigger than he is.

"I grew up playing the cello, then I gravitated toward the slow end. I used to play electric bass, but I couldn't get the bass sound I wanted, so I switched to stand-up bass. We always had some big, beat-up car to haul the thing."

Rocker's major concern these days is that rockabilly music seems inextricably tied to the '50s. "We play American rock 'n' roll; it's rockabilly, but it's not '50s music. People think of rockabilly as 'Happy Days' and 'Rock Around the Clock.' Still, I think the scene is definitely happening--it's jumpin', especially the swing thing. The best thing is the hour and a half I get to spend on stage."

*

Briefly Noted: Laurie Z is a Santa Barbaran who went to San Marcos High School, then moved to Los Angeles to get into the music biz. It worked. She has recorded three albums of New Age music and will play two gigs in her hometown. Saturday afternoon Laurie Z will be at Borders; Sunday night she plays with a five-piece band at SOhO.

The successful Sings Like Hell series continues with performances by Iris DeMent and Kieran Kane on Saturday night at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara.

Phish, one of the great touring bands of the '90s, plays Monday at 7 p.m. Will it play old stuff, new stuff or other people's stuff? Who knows? But therein lies the attraction of the Vermont quartet: unpredictability and unsurpassed musicianship. The gig will be at Ventura Raceway, at the county fairgrounds.

BE THERE

Lee Rocker, Loud Hounds, Blazin' Haley at Ventura Theatre, 26 Chestnut St. Friday, 8 p.m. Tickets, $12. (805) 653-0721.

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