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Like a Rolling Stone

Fantasy camp brings in-their-dreams rockers together with pros.

November 13, 2002|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

The first time promoter David Fishof organized the Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp, Jay Leno suggested you could get a better return on your five thousand bucks by checking into the Betty Ford Center, where you'd be certain to meet a higher caliber of rock star.

On Sunday, the second time Fishof held the event, he bumped up against another taunting celebrity: Homer Simpson. In the season premiere of "The Simpsons," which aired on the camp's opening night, Homer attended a rock 'n' roll fantasy camp at which fans were drawn to every manner of rock vanity, right down to the ethos of stuffing your pants to attract groupies.

The programming coincidence underscored the way many people sneer at the idea of blowing the family vacation budget on Dad's midlife crisis. But a funny thing happens when you walk into a cavernous rehearsal studio in Hollywood where Fishof's 2002 camp has attracted 70 ax-slinging and drum-pounding true believers from Delaware to Ohio to Florida: Homer Simpson's not here.

Jim Mitchell is.

Mitchell, who works in insurance, is one of those guys who loves to play -- with bands, in church, any time. His instrument is the electric bass, and he plays it with a precise zest. "Music is where I live," he says without a hint of pretense. "I have to do it." You can consider him Exhibit A in the case for why the Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp has a certain goofy nobility that transcends "The Simpsons."

On TV Sunday, Marge Simpson drove Homer to camp after he embarrassed her with another self-destructive bender rooted in his failure to realize his youthful dreams (rock star or Playboy photographer). In the real world, Mitchell's wife, Rose, conned him into driving from their Mount Washington home to the Hyatt hotel in West Hollywood, telling him they were going to a wine-tasting dinner.

Once inside the hotel, Rose sprung it on him: Jim was going to be a camper as a 47th birthday present. One floor up from the front desk, Fishof's resident pros -- mostly sidemen who've played with everybody from Joe Walsh to Billy Joel -- were conducting auditions to check each participant's skill level.

Two hours later, Mitchell was going eye to eye with Joel's drummer, Liberty DeVitto, in a five-minute jazz improvisation. Four hours after that he was playing with other pros at a party set up at a pricey guitar shop. The next afternoon he was inside SIR studios on Sunset Boulevard, thrown together with half a dozen other amateurs, singing "Mustang Sally" as his new mates began getting ready for the camp's climax: a performance at the House of Blues Thursday night, in which every camper will get time onstage.

In six other rooms of the rehearsal studio, knots of campers were reveling in the same pressure under the tutelage of pros like Mark Farner, ex-lead singer and guitarist of Grand Funk Railroad; singer-saxophonist Mark Rivera, a longtime member of Joel's band; organist-guitarist Bobby Mayo, who toured with Peter Frampton; guitarist Derek St. Holmes, who played with Ted Nugent; and bassist Jack Blades, who fronted Night Ranger.

A sudden celebrity

"Idon't think I've taken a full breath since I've been here," said Mitchell, whose prowess (and the camp's short supply of bass players) made him a quick celebrity.

In Homer's fantasy camp, guitarist Brian Setzer demonstrated the key art of setting your guitar afire, while Mick Jagger reminded campers to routinely proclaim tonight's audience "the wildest ever." In the real-world fantasy camp, there was little time for dilettantism. People were simply dying to play.

In that sense, the Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp felt like its model, the major league baseball fantasy camp, where aging fans play ball with their aging heroes. The difference is that time is kinder to musicians' muscles (Fishof's camp counselors effortlessly sound like the world's greatest wedding band during nightly jam sessions). Though a couple campers showed up with zero chops, most walked in with the ability (if not the nerve) to stand up and play. When Farner demonstrated the sustained "power G" chord, they could do it.

Farner, 54, whose fame came half a lifetime ago, says he takes pleasure now in connecting with people he knows are nervous just being in the same room, letting them know "I'm just as fragile as they are." They tend to be people like Bill Perry, a 39-year-old Chatsworth Web site designer who played guitar on and off most of his adult life and aspires only "to play in a crappy little blues band that plays in stinky little bars on Tuesday night." Or Mike Darpino, 42, a government bond broker from New York City who plays a muscular lead guitar. ("I've done a lot worse things with my money.... I could do this every year. I don't want to eat now. I just wanna play.") Or Lynn Mullings, 34, of Jupiter, Fla., the mother of a 1-year-old and lover of '80s music who sent herself here as "my little reminder that I'm a real person and not just somebody's mommy."

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