Cretin Hopping

Veteran roadie John Calleo brings together four rock veterans for the one-off Ramones tribute Rocket to Russia

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."

We're a happy family? Rocket to Russia bonds at a haunted-house complex.
We're a happy family? Rocket to Russia bonds at a haunted-house complex.

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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.

"Someone said what I need to do is get a pipe and some bifocals and a music stand," he says of the Rocket to Russia gig. "And have the bass way up high so I can read Ramones sheet music off the stand. That's punk rock. That's like the Meat Puppets playing country music for a Black Flag crowd."

Pinkus left the Butthole Surfers in 1994, after nearly a decade with the demented Austin noise-punk quartet, because he was frustrated by the piecemeal approach that their music was taking.

"We weren't writing songs together anymore," he says. "[Drummer] King [Coffey] would start coming up with drum loops and he'd give them to [guitarist] Paul [Leary] and he'd work on it, and give it to [singer] Gibby [Haynes]. I love those guys dearly, but I need to rock. I gots to have it."

Friedman's departure from Megadeth early last year was similarly about those pesky "musical differences," because he wanted to break away from metal and start making upbeat dance-pop music. He's currently working on a project called Red Dye #2, and writing music for ABC Sports.

Pinkus, who's spent the last five months living in a van while he learns the fundamentals of studio engineering, sardonically suggests that his time in Phoenix was all for Friedman's benefit.

"Actually, I came here to teach Marty how to play guitar," he says. "He wanted some tips. I was like, 'Look, I only play bass, but I'll show you what I know.' He was playing a little too fast, so I suggested Ramones might slow things down a little bit for him. And he seemed to take to it pretty well."

Pinkus' first Ramones show, at the Agora Ballroom in Atlanta, had the feel of magic in the air, not least because it was also attended by First Daughter Amy Carter.

"I remember Dee Dee handed a pick down to this hot chick who was in front of us; he was flirting away," Pinkus says. "My friend grabbed this chick's hand, and bashed it on the stage until she let the pick go.

"The thing about the Ramones is, when you're a kid and you don't really know how to play too well, they're inspirational to everybody. Anybody can play it."

Years after the Agora show, Pinkus, by now a Butthole Surfer, recalls bumping into a thoroughly inebriated Joey Ramone at New York's Cat Club. He says Joey, in vintage Rock 'n' Roll High Schoolform, kept mispronouncing Gibby Haynes' name. "He was talking to this guy who was backstage who was also fucked up, and none of us could understand anything they were saying, but they could both understand everything they were saying."

For Friedman, the Rocket to Russia show is a way of acknowledging the sacrifices da bruddahs made, spending two decades on the road, in cramped quarters, having to literally inhale the stench of each other's perspiration.

"I have a lot of respect for those guys," Friedman says. "They weren't in Leer jets; they were in a van doing 280 gigs a year, in close proximity to each other for years. I can't even imagine how terrible it was. Who were they doing it for? The fans. It has to take a lot out of you."

After a few minutes kibitzing with his new -- albeit temporary -- bandmates, Friedman admiringly says, "Everybody's wacked. We would have so been in the same band in junior high.

But Pinkus admits to at least one qualm about jamming with Friedman.

"I got this note saying somebody representing Marty Feldman wanted to talk to me," Pinkus teases about his invitation to join the band. "So I was kinda disappointed, but I'm over it."

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