By Jeff Moses
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The members of Rocket to Russia are playing a gig in a week, and they just met a few minutes ago. It's not the kind of timetable most bands follow, but Rocket to Russia is not like most bands.
The one-off local supergroup of sorts has gathered on a Wednesday night at Scream Park, a sprawling haunted-house complex at the intersection of McDowell and the 101 to talk about their love for the Ramones. It's the unifying force that's brought together a lineup that includes former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman, ex-Butthole Surfer bassist Jeff Pinkus, and a couple of underground fixtures on the Valley scene: Wardog guitarist Tom Gattis and Jasper Q Pussyfart drummer Steve Klatz.
The band was put together by their mutual friend John Calleo, who spent 15 years as a roadie for a slew of arena-level rock acts (ZZ Top, Styx, Stevie Ray Vaughan), including Megadeth, and is now the production manager for Scream Park. Last month, while recuperating from a stroke he suffered in July, Calleo got a call from his old pal Friedman. The guitarist said he was looking to put together a one-night Ramones tribute band, and wondered if Calleo could help. Although Friedman has lived in the Valley for seven years, he's spent the bulk of that time on the road with Megadeth, and hasn't gotten to know many local musicians. And as he says, "John knows everyone."
Calleo called Pinkus -- who'd been in town since May studying at the Conservatory of Recording Sciences in Tempe -- and Klatz, a local punk drummer with the best possible credentials for a Ramones tribute band: He was born and raised in Queens, hung out at Rockaway Beach as a kid, saw the Ramones in their prime at CBGB, and even rehearsed a few times with Dee Dee Ramone during his ill-considered early '90s rap phase.
As for Friedman and Gattis, they'd known each other since 1978, when they were both Ramones-worshiping, mid-teenage lobotomies in Laurel, Maryland.
"That's how we first met, because we were both into the Ramones," Friedman says. "We both knew the albums before we met. And it was the only thing that we knew how to jam together. And it made us decide to play.
"We played in our first band together, called Deuce, and we played a bunch of Ramones songs, but we really got into playing originals, at a young age, maybe 14 or 15. We had a full set of full-on, heavy, original rock music. We took it about as far as you could, being from Maryland and being little kids."
For Friedman, the April death of Joey Ramone spurred him to reimburse his favorite band some of the inspirational debt he owed them. He came up with the concept of duplicating the 1977 New Year's Eve Ramones show that formed the basis of the import live album It's Alive, since, as he puts it, "You can't improve on an actual Ramones set list."
"The whole idea," Friedman adds, "is that since the Ramones will obviously never be able to play live again, there's a lot of people, myself included, who think it'd be a lot of fun to hear anybody play a whole set of cool Ramones songs. It's strictly a one-off, strictly just for fun. You get some good musicians who understand the Ramones, get together and play.
"I wouldn't be surprised if more people don't start doing this. There are a lot of tribute bands doing perfect versions of KISS or some other band, and I'm not even looking into that sort of thing."
Part of the cartoonish glory of the Ramones was that you could be thrilled by their buzz-saw power and still enjoy poking fun at their remedial virtuosity and monosyllabic verbal skills. Confronted with the responsibility of replicating Dee Dee's bass lines, Pinkus says, in his wry Texas drawl, "All I have to do is hit one string." But when reminded that he must also shout "one-two-three-four" before every song, he feigns concern.
"It's really tough because I'm not a math kind of guy. Sometimes I forget what comes after two, so if you hear a little stutter, you know. And I can't do it in cowboy boots, so I've got some shoes coming. It'll be the first time, other than skydiving, that I wear something other than cowboy boots."
Friedman sarcastically advises him, "Never, ever count in at the same tempo you're gonna play at." They all laugh.
Even if they haven't actually played a song together yet, Rocket to Russia already shows signs of a definite personal chemistry. Friedman, a thin, youthful-looking guy with black wavy hair, gives off little hint of his decade as a heavy-metal guitar hero. He actually looks more like a refugee from a literate, artsy, post-punk band. Gattis is muscle-bound and earnest, a speed-metal true believer. Klatz is the no-nonsense, blue-collar New Yorker turned Phoenician. And Pinkus is the wild card, the goateed champion of "Texas super boogie," who can't resist taking the piss out of everything.
While Gattis says the Ramones' music "goes to the soul of who we are, right to the gut, it's the foundation we're built on," Pinkus can't resist a dash of irreverence.