Cave Creek Dahl

Rock 'n' roll torchbearer Jeff Dahl talks about getting clean, D.I.Y., and being big in Japan

The desert surrounding Jeff Dahl's Cave Creek home is lush, made fragrant and green from recent monsoon thrashings. His neighbors on the next acre, the ones who run a Christian day-care center, have a sprawling ranch with many horses. A guy from Dokken lives just up the road. And there is enough wildlife to sustain, at least in theory, the idea that he's still in the middle of a desert no man's land, despite the fact that ghastly, beige-toned stucco houses are marching at him -- one insanely zoned acre at a time -- from the general direction of Phoenix. But it has always been like that for Dahl. The rock 'n' roll he champions -- like the tranquil desert that encompasses his ranch-style house -- never has any guarantees, never any security, and barely a promise of survival.

But, strangely, Dahl has done better than many of his punk/glitter/rock 'n' roll peers. Stiv Bators is dead. So are Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan. The Stooges' Ron Asheton lives at his mom's house. And here is Jeff Dahl, midway through his 40s -- and hardly anybody's household name -- yet he manages a decent living from power chords, attitude and the spirit of D.I.Y. How?

Dahl does sold-out tours of Europe, Japan and Southern California. He has a semi-thriving worldwide mail-order business called Daulhaus, in which he sells not only his own records and merchandise, but that of other similar-minded trash-rock enthusiasts. His business offers limited-edition tee shirts of old glam and punk heroes like the Runaways, Alice Cooper and the Flamin' Groovies. "I do get a lot of overseas orders because I do take my mail order very seriously," he explains. "People know that if they order something from me, that I am going to put it in the mail within 24 hours."

He's also started his own magazine, an internationally distributed and acclaimed publication called Sonic Iguana, which exists solely to extol the virtues of what Dahl considers "real rock 'n' roll" -- past and present. "I wanted to pick a magazine and read about the bands that I care about," he says.

Everything about Jeff Dahl is a kind of oxymoron. He was born in Germany and was raised an Army brat in the decidedly un-rock 'n' roll atmosphere of Hawaii. He's been married for 25 years to Sylvia, his high school sweetheart -- a woman with whom Dahl lovingly shares his Silverhead and Mott the Hoople albums on the same shelves as her Kansas records. He spent four years in the Army and was stationed primarily at the Pentagon heliport in Washington, D.C., doing time as -- of all things -- an air traffic controller.

These days, he remains an early riser. In front of his house sits a black SUV. In the back, between barrel cacti and paloverde trees, there is a barbecue grill made of stone. On the side of the house, next to a statuesque saguaro, is a basketball hoop. "The first time I went to shoot baskets," he says, offering up a rare smile, "I had a brand-new basketball. I made one shot, missed, and the ball hit that cactus and blew up. I had to go buy a brand-new ball."

In 1976, literally one week after picking up the guitar, Dahl recorded his first-ever composition; a punk-sounding ditty called "Rock 'n' Roll Critic." In early '78, Washington, D.C.'s Doodley Squat label put out the song as a seven-inch, a timely single that made its way into the hands of many punk-rock-starved European kids. The record was pivotal in paving the way for Dahl's international popularity (currently, the song can be found only on bootlegs).

Cut to '79, and Dahl is L.A.-based, fronting Vox Pop with then-future/current members of the Germs, 45 Grave, Dream Syndicate and Nervous Gender. Phoenix refugees Paul Cutler and Don Bolles were also band members. Darby Crash, the long-dead Germs' shouter, said at the time that they were the worst band he'd ever seen.

In 1980, Dahl became part of über-legendary punk drunks/rock critic combo the Angry Samoans, a band for which former Guns n' Roses guitarist Slash has gone on record claiming a fondness.

Though the Angry Samoans were a testament to L.A.'s underground sound of the time, it wasn't the most ideal scene for Dahl. "People hated us," he says, smiling. "There was no legendary status; we were hated. We couldn't play anywhere at the time.

"But I remember we got a letter from two kids in Seattle in 1981," he goes on. "I remember we were drunk off our asses, and we wrote a letter back to them on toilet paper saying, 'Send us nude photos of your mom.' Then I was at an Ian Hunter show in 1990, and a guy who was then playing bass in Concrete Blonde came up to me and said, 'Hey, you're from the Angry Samoans. When I was a kid, me and my pal Duff were learning how to play bass and we wrote, and you wrote us back on toilet paper asking for nude photos of our moms -- you were a total dick!' The other kid was Duff McKagen from you know who."

In the early '80s, Dahl formed and fronted the pioneering speed-metal get-up Powertrip, in hopes of morphing The Stooges and Motörhead. The spirited quartet quickly assembled a Hollywood following and shared the bill with other ripening metal hippogriffs like Metallica and Slayer. The band toured the U.S., played up and down the West Coast and did many, many drugs.

"I was drinking more than anything, and doing a lot of speed. The other three original members of the band all died after the band broke up."

In his short stint as Powertrip's Iggyesque front man, Dahl blew out his knee, shattered his tailbone, busted his hand, bit off a chunk of his tongue and fried his liver. Before Powertrip succumbed to a drug-and-booze-muddled self-destruction, a single on Mystic Records and an album on Public saw the light of day.

Following a dire doctor's report that confirmed Dahl's liver was limping along at 15 percent capacity, he bailed on Powertrip, music and drugs. Two years later, he resurfaced totally sober. He landed a record deal on indie upstart Triple X. He formed the Jeff Dahl Group and, in 1987, recorded Vomit Wet Kiss. The Jeff Dahl Group splintered, and for his first "true" solo record, I Kill Me, Dahl secured the help of former Dead Boy Cheetah Chrome, the Angry Samoans and the Lazy Cowgirls to snag a decidedly Detroit-punk sound. During this time, Dahl replaced drugs and booze with one of his first loves: running.

Next came competitions in marathons and Iron Man-style triathlons. Not bad for a glitter punk with a ravaged liver. It was the Fountain Mountain Triathlon that brought Dahl to Phoenix. And Dahl is still spot-on sober and continues to run cross-country events (noncompetitively). "With the running, I had to do something to ease my mind," he says as if a marathon is but a skip in the park. "If I was still getting fucked up, I would be accomplishing about a 10th of what I am doing now," he assures. "You've got to take care of the business end of things to a certain extent."

In Cave Creek, Dahl has assembled a sort of D.I.Y. empire. His tours across Europe and the Americas find him coming home in the black. His mail-order business generates a steady income. His records sell well enough to ensure his pockets will always jingle with a bit of change. And in Japan -- where a Jeff Dahl best-of has been released, in addition to countless singles -- legions of kids go berserk for Dahl's tunes and Johnny Thunders-inspired persona.

With his irreverent and oftentimes witty Sonic Iguana magazine, Dahl does direct-mail orders to stores himself, and he also has a distributor that sends out the magazine internationally. It's imported to Japan, Australia, Israel, South Africa, Malaysia, Tahiti and all over Europe. "We just got some letters from Thailand. This guy was like, 'Yeah, Stooges, Dead Boys, MC5.' And this is like Thailand! And these letters come with these huge long names, absolutely unpronounceable. I get letters and e-mails like that every single day."

By sticking to his D.I.Y. principles, Dahl isn't exactly becoming a man of wealth. "I have had offers for bigger distribution and people interested in upping the circulation. But I wanna keep it at this level. This underground is like a real word-of-mouth thing, too. The thing I like about it is that it is not at all casual music fans. It is people to whom music still means something. And sometimes they are 18-year-old kids, and sometimes they are 50-year-old guys. Or couples. I got a letter from a couple in their 50s living in Kenosha, Wisconsin, all excited that I am coming out there on tour and saying, 'Finally someone is playing the kind of music that we like to hear.'

"I'm not getting rich, and I've got no rich parents to cover expenses for me. So I can't go out there and tour unless it's gonna cover expenses as well as make it worth my while. You know, going to Japan, that's a very lucrative kind of situation. Going over there, having all expenses taken care of and being treated really, really well, just doing two shows in Tokyo and then coming back with several thousand dollars in your pocket. Europe is not like that; Europe is a lot more like the States. Everybody makes money off of you in Europe but you."

Dahl says the financial gains aren't the only differences he's noted during his Asian sojourns. "In Japan, when you play the song, they go berserk. When you stop, they are completely quiet and they stand there very respectful, just grinning, waiting for the next tune to start. And they'll bring you presents to let you know you're actually appreciated."

According to Triple X, Dahl is its most productive and active artist. Of his records, the scattershot glam smack of 1994's Leather Frankenstein, 1996's French Cough Syrup and his new release, All Trashed Up, rank as his best. They are composites of his strengths; Dahl mining an Eddie Cochran meets Iggy meets Dictators meets Dolls mother lode with a big old heart on his sleeve.

In his Devil Tree Ranch recording studio, Dahl sits cross-legged, strumming a Les Paul copy, his sharp face showing little more than his usual, characteristically stoic expression. The studio itself is a converted guest house that sits 30 yards off the main house. The decor is an agreeable concoction of gray-blue industrial carpet, tapestries, rugs and giant posters of Iggy Pop, Johnny Thunders, Hanoi Rocks and his own European tour placards. A stack of old Creem magazines sits within reach of the mixing board.

Just a few months ago, Triple X released his 12th full-length solo record, all of which was recorded here, with Dahl, as usual, playing nearly all the instruments himself.

He's talking about how his voice sounds on record -- though an appealing, bratty sounding thing, Dahl still can't stand the sound of it. "That is just how it comes out. I mean, if I could do that switching gears thing like Bowie, where he went from this great rock 'n' roll voice to this bad Sinatra thing, I would probably do it. But I can't. I mean, I am just too limited. It's the only voice I got. And I hate the sound of it.

"[Small Faces singer] Steve Marriott had this huge voice, and still it was mixed in the pocket. That's how I like it, down in the pocket. And those Silverhead records, the voice was big but still down. I love guitars. I mean, there is nothing like a big, loud guitar right in your face. I mean, you can't beat that."

Buoyed up on exuberant waves of power chords, with its life-in-renunciation themes, Dahl's latest holds steadfast the scope of his loyalty to true rock 'n' roll. As a punk/glam/metal torchbearer, Dahl reminds us just how much the terms "musically innovative" and "fun" have become mutually exclusive over the past years. Using a patented trio of roaring but perfectly placed chords, and a scampish, sincere attitude, Dahl says that for him it's all just one big Fun House, no matter how much the city is closing in.

Jeff Dahl is scheduled to perform on Saturday, August 28, at the Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with the Chicken Hawks, Sonic Thrills, and the Peeps. Showtime is 8:30 p.m.

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