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Rockabilly retrorocket Colin Winski has spent most of his life in a love-hate relationship with the ghost of Elvis. Blessed--or cursed--with a physical resemblance striking enough to trigger an Elvis sighting, Winski has spent 15 years alternately promoting and defending himself against comparisons to the King.
Looking like Elvis has allowed Winski to indulge his need to perform. At the slightest provocation, Winski will spontaneously burst into a corny but convincing replica of the hip-swiveling, knee-dipping, hands-over-the-head frenzy that convinced parents that Presley was demonic.
"When I tell people my husband's a rockabilly performer, they always come back with, 'He's an Elvis impersonator?'" says Nina Winski.
Make no mistake, Winski's much more than an Elvis impersonator. He's a charter member of what he calls "the secret fraternity of rockabilly."
Even in today's grunge, hip-hop, acid-jazz music world, rockabilly renegades like Winski are a breed unto themselves. They're rockers whose bodies live in the present but whose heads and hearts are still hanging around Sun Studios in Memphis in 1956, listening to a truck driver change popular music forever.
Rockabilly cats wear vintage clothes, eat in diners and hunt down long-lost 45s by long-forgotten performers. You can recognize rockabilly devotees by their antigrunge wardrobe. Shades and black-leather motorcycle jackets are required. Instead of Doc Martens, they wear pointy-toed hepcat scoots. And the height and curvaceousness of the pompadour--rockabilly's most recognizable symbol--determines the music's social pecking order. The higher the do, the more you're respected.
Most of all, rockabilly wigglers like Winski are zealous keepers of rock n' roll's original flame; its raw and rebellious form, when the edges of its ingredients--gospel, country and blues--were still audible to the naked ear.
"Rockabilly came out of pain and blues and country, and it was real," Winski says with a rabid look in his eye. "I hate the term 'oldies.' To me, it's vital. It's sexual. It's really alive. I feel it."
For the first time in many years, Winski is beginning to feel dem old cosmic rockabilly blues again. A recording artist at age 16, an opener for the Clash and Tom Petty at 22, and finally a fugitive from the mid-Eighties rockabilly revival that made household names of Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats, Winski has been out of music since moving to the Valley eight years ago. That is, until now.
Last week, England's Fury Records (no relation to the Harlem-based R&B label) released Helldorado, Winski's first album in more than a decade. Backed by a band of some of the Valley's best roots-blues musicians, including drummer Brian Fahey (the Paladins, Rocket 88s), standup bassist Bruce Hamblin (Cowbillys) and guitarist Pat Moore, Winski yelps, hiccups and stutters his way through a straightahead rockabilly set that includes five Winski originals as well as rockabilly standards like "Rockin' My Life Away" and the ever-moody "Sleepwalk." Several megawatts less frantic than Winski's 1980 classic solo album, Rock Therapy, this disc still shows that Winski hasn't lost his fire.
Now that he has a new album to support, Winski is about to return to his first love: performing. During his heyday, he was known to steal the show with his hip-swiveling, Elvisian antics. This week a reenergized Winski will let it fly at a CD-release party at the Rhythm Room. Winski was first bitten by the rockabilly bug at the unlikeliest of locations: grandma's house.
"I was there at my grandmother's house and there was a film festival on," he begins. "They showed Lovin' You [Elvis' second movie, best known for the song "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear"] twice a day; that's when I became one of the Elvis people. I've seen that movie over 200 times now, at least. Sometimes it just breaks my heart." Fascinated by Elvis, Winski, like millions of other fledgling greasers, decided that if Elvis could do it, so could he.
"I learned a lot of my performance stuff in bedrooms. By myself. Gee, that sounds nice, doesn't it? No, I mean, I'd be in my room with records on, dancing, moving. Working up a show in my head. I was always thinking about the performance." Born in Hollywood, Winski was raised in California's answer to the Twilight Zone--Venice--but graduated from Chatsworth High School, located deep in the suburban wilds of the San Fernando Valley.
Winski's infatuation with Elvis led him to other rockabilly artists like Gene Vincent and Roy Orbison. He also began listening to hillbilly country singers like Lefty Frizzell and what he calls "swinging, tough-rockin' gospel."
In 1970, when he was 13, Winski met a rockabilly fanatic named Ronnie Weiser at an Elvis concert. Weiser became Winski's mentor, turning him on to new records, introducing him to collectors and stars alike and eventually recording Winski's first records. Out of his house in Van Nuys, Weiser ran a rockabilly magazine called Rollin' Rock. He spewed slander at rockers who didn't wear Levis or Lee Riders (because they weren't rock n' roll jeans") and made up names like "Crosby, Shit and Trash" and "Rod Screwart" for those who betrayed the true spirit of rock n' roll. Weiser, a Jew, also covered his magazine in Stars of David and wrote militantly pro-Israel editorials. For the wide-eyed Winski, it was a crash course in trash n' twang.