THE feeling of dread was overwhelming as I rendezvoused with my band and noted the absence of our foremost member, drummer Chris Gailfoil. Stricken with stage-four liver cancer, Chris had been teetering on the brink of death for weeks, and seeing his seat uncharacteristically empty, I couldn't help but assume the worst.
It was a gut-wrenching scene, made all the more incredible because it occurred not at a hospital, but in a rehearsal room at the MGM Grand's Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The ad hoc group I met there -- christened "Roadside Prophets" by our considerate counselor, pop-metal man Mark Slaughter, in honor of one of Chris' old bands -- was preparing not for some recitation of last rites, you see, but for a recording session and live show that would conclude our fifth and final day at Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp.
Much more than a fantasy, if something less than the outlandish "Simpsons" episode that made it famous, this "camp" is exactly what the ads suggest -- a musical dream-come-true vacation in which participants are assigned to a group of their peers, offered instruction by veteran performers, given the opportunity to write and record a song, invited to attend various workshops, Q-and-As and late-night jams, and finally encouraged to perfect and perform a tune or two with some of the biggest names in rock history. It's also fantastically expensive, around $8,000 for the upcoming L.A. camp. (The 10th anniversary blowout I attended was $9,500.)
For a tiny but vehement minority, that Vegas camp was a ripoff -- an inadequately organized cavalcade of drive-by photo ops beset with cliquish egotists, sub-gourmet food and too-few open bars. For me and the overwhelming number of participants I interviewed, however, it was priceless -- the experience of a lifetime.
Not that it was perfect, of course.
Unprepared for Vince Neil's Day 2 visit to our rehearsal room, my group wasted its opportunity to play "Dr. Feelgood," or some other Motley Crue barnstormer, on handshakes and idle chatter. Thrown off by various miscommunications -- the greatest failing of the camp's otherwise helpful staff -- on Day 4, we failed to rehearse a Joe Walsh song, assuming the tardy Walsh was not going to play with us. Well, he did. And our last-minute solution -- to improvise the Eagles' "Take It Easy" -- was god-awful.
But then there was Day 3. Assigned to back up ailing Chris on drums -- after volunteering, in true Action Man style, to play anything -- I switched to my first instrument, guitar, to help guide my group through a song I knew well, "Pinball Wizard." Good move. With the band hitting all the right notes, the Who's infamously perfectionist singer Roger Daltrey returned the favor during his brief but intense visit to our studio, digging into the show-stopper with all the enthusiasm he would've brought to Wembley Stadium.
It was awesome. So awesome, in fact, that when Slash appeared a couple of hours later, I was relaxed enough to laugh when he forgot the intro to the song we'd prepared, "Sweet Child o' Mine." He said he hadn't performed it since leaving Guns N' Roses in 1996. But he got it together with some help from our guitarists and played his heart out.
Then there was the band's Day 4 jam with Cream's Jack Bruce, who handled bass and lead vocals on "Born Under a Bad Sign." We played it slow, smoky and thick, and Jack sang it with thousand-year-old soul. Like the rest, it was over in a flash, but man, it was ill.
With intergalactic stars like these -- and similarly big names, including the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson and Pink Floyd's Nick Mason looming on L.A.'s horizon -- the camp attracts a mix of the well-to-do, ambitious and just plain desperate, and my band, one of 12, sported the perfect microcosm: bassist Stephen Horn, a retired ad exec; guitarist Rich Seidel, an attorney who'd been playing six months; guitarist Sheldon Cohn, a mortgage broker for whom camp was becoming like an annual vacation; and two youths -- 14-year-old guitar prodigy Yayo Sanchez and 22-year-old aspiring country singer Amanda Marsh -- on whom their parents, hoping to kindle their careers, had lavished tickets.
And finally there was Chris, a 43-year-old lifelong drummer from Panama City, Fla., whose reaction to the suggestion that he should find a comfortable hospice in which to die was to pick up his drum sticks and go down swinging 'em. Thanks to a free ticket from rock camp chief executive David Fishof, that's what Chris did, all the way to the end of camp. He was a little late that last day but determined to participate in the recording session and final performance at the House of Blues.
Just 16 days after the emotional curtain call that followed, I got the news from his mother, Anne. He died peacefully, she told me, content in the knowledge he'd chased down his dreams and made them real. Not a bad way to go.
ROCK 'N' ROLL FANTASY CAMP
WHERE: Various venues, Hollywood
WHEN: Feb. 15-18
PRICE: $7,999 for campers, $599 for spouse package; less than $100 for a ticket to see the final show
For video and day-by-day camp reports, go to latimes.com/fantasycamp