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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.
"Freaks started coming out of the woodwork," Winski says. "A scene started to develop. Record collectors started coming around. Most of them geeks. Flat-out geeks. But we all talked the secret lingo of rockabilly," Winski says, cupping his hand over his mouth. "We were the secret fraternity of rockabilly."
One Fifties idol that both Weiser and Winski respected was Texan Ray Campi. At this time, standup bassist Campi had been out of music for years, and copies of his long-out-of-print singles like "Caterpillar" and "Scrumptious Baby" were selling for as much as $250. Weiser and Winski were startled by the chance discovery that Campi was teaching school in L.A. and lived two blocks from Weiser. The duo promptly paid him a visit, and their enthusiasm rekindled Campi's interest in music and he agreed to record a single for Weiser's new label, Rollin' Rock Records.
The recording session in Weiser's living room went so well that Campi decided to form a band called the Rockabilly Rebels. The 15-year-old Winski became one of the band's two hip-shakin' guitar players. The other was Billy Zoom, who later found fame in the Blasters.
It was this band that backed Winski on his first record. Again cut in Weiser's living room to give it the raw, authentic feel they all felt was necessary for "real" rockabilly, Winski's debut was an EP whose lead track was an old tune called "Squeaky Shoes." To get the squeaking noise that forms the song's distinctive background, Weiser rubbed the arms of Gene Vincent's leather jacket, which he left to his greatest fan, Ronnie Weiser, when he died.
The Rockabilly Rebels received their baptism of fire in Austin, Texas. Living in a house owned by Campi's father, the band stayed in Austin long enough to play the Fillmore West of Texas musical history, the Armadillo World Headquarters, and to film a segment of PBS' Austin City Limits. The band also found time to do a cameo (as musicians) in a rockabilly porno film, Teenage Cruisers.
Winski cut two albums with Campi, Born to Rock in 1977 and Wildcat Shakeout in 1979. The second album was on Radar Records, a spin-off of Elvis Costello's Stiff Records. By that time, however, egos had begun to tear the band apart. When Campi nixed an offer from Radar to allow Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe to produce the band's next album, Winski and the new guitarist, Jerry Sikorski, quit the band.
"Man, we thought, Nick Lowe producing! We can't lose," Winski says. "It was a stupid move to turn it down. Look what happened next. Along come the Stray Cats, Dave Edmunds snaps them up and bang! They're stars."
Winski and Sikorski formed their own band, the Rebels, which quickly landed opening slots on a Tom Petty tour and for a series of Clash dates on the West Coast. The brief history of the Rebels is unremarkable except for one night in Vancouver, British Columbia. "The night after the Clash tour ended, our agency called and asked if we wanted to make some money cause Judas Priest needed an opening act. We were arrogant and stupid, so of course we said 'Yes,'" Winski says. "We came out dressed like hillbillies. People were booing. But there were a few friendly faces in the front who were boogieing and getting off on the fact that this was a bizarre opening act. "The Clash was in the wings watching. I didn't like the crowd's mean reactions, so at the end of our set, I was yelling, 'Fuck you.' Mick Jones came out and put his arm around me and walked me offstage. It was kind of like, 'You'd better get off before they kill you.'"
That year, Takoma Records called Winski and uttered the words he wanted to hear: solo album. When Sikorski didn't like the idea, he and Winski split. Winski then rounded up a group of studio musicians led by Ventures guitarist Jerry Magee and cut the high-water mark of his career, Rock Therapy. Prized by rockabilly collectors for its wild energy and classic, snarling cover art, the album sold well in Europe and Japan, but died a quick death here at home.
Rock Therapy was also undercut by the Stray Cats, who first appeared on the British charts in 1980. As buzz about the Cats built, Winski and other rockabilly players found more work. But it soon became apparent that no one except the cartoonish Stray Cats would realize any serious cash from this minirevival. At the same time, L.A.'s New Wave scene--with bands like X, the Blasters and Los Lobos--was gaining momentum. Although Winski tried to cash in by penning some X-ish songs, his heart wasn't in it. When the rockabilly craze was pronounced dead in the mid-Eighties, Winski felt lost.
"In Campi's band, someone always took care of the business, the bookings, took care of everything. I was thrust into a role of trying to do all that and I was totally unprepared. It got depresssing. "For me, L.A. became drugs, depression and self-hate. By 85 I couldn't even face going out to a gig. I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to do Rock Therapy anymore. I didn't want to get up there and be Mister Wiggle anymore. I felt like everybody in L.A. had seen what I do and I wasn't growing. So I escaped."
That's when Colin and Nina Winski moved in with her parents in Phoenix.
"This marriage has survived some hard-ass times," Winski says of their 16-year-old union. Part of the reason it's endured is that like Colin, Nina is also a rockabilly persona. A collector of vintage clothes and memorabilia, Nina recently learned that she's contracted lupus.
For the first couple of years in the Valley, Winski didn't play or even go out to hear music. His first job here was digging ditches. From there he moved up to become a security guard at the Biltmore, a job he held until two weeks ago. Although he spent much of his time at the historic hotel, "walking the halls and dreaming of past glories," he kept at it because it kept the rent man satisfied.
"Man, I remember what it was like in L.A. with no money. People banging on the door, 'So you're mister rockabilly. Fuck you, where's the rent?'"
But despite his rent-a-cop uniform and seemingly normal existence, Winski's rockabilly fires never flickered out. Slowly but surely, Winski began working his way back. First, he went to see a couple of local bands. After the set, he'd hang around the bandstand and try to talk to the players.
"I had kind of an L.A. mentality, which means that within five minutes, you've already given someone all your credits. In the real world, that's considered pushy," Winski says. "Maybe I came on too strong. Or too desperate."
Local players began letting him sit in, and slowly he won their confidence. That led to rehearsals, which in turn led to his new CD.
Winski's goals are simple. Play local gigs, sell out this CD and gain his performing confidence back. So far, he's enjoying his comeback. He doesn't even mind the frequent questions about Elvis. You can see he's glad someone is asking again.
"Anybody that moves is considered an Elvis guy," Winski says with a wave of his hand. "What I learned from Elvis, though, was raw feeling. That's what I responded to.
"Every performer is the sum of his influences. You take a little black here, a little red here, a little orange here, a little burnt sienna over here," Winski says, dabbing his finger on a mock paint palette, "mix em up and, yeah, people will recognize those shades. But if you do it right, they'll also see that you have your own color.