By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
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By Amanda Savage
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Do you like to rock?
Do you want to rock?
Then let's rock!
You can laugh if you want, but concepts don't come much more Zen than that. Rock 'n' roll, even in its most unbearable, screaming caveman form, doesn't die, and anyone -- anyone! -- can find salvation in it.
Guitarist Dan Wexler sure has.
Wexler is a war-weary veteran of Phoenix metal who has resurfaced as an axe man for Thieves in the Temple, a new head-banging foursome managed by longtime Valley promoter and local Clear Channel agent Danny Zelisko. TITT, as drummer Jimmy D's kit oh-so-subtly refers to the band (ain't hard, consequently, to picture what these guys look like), has come on strong of late. KUPD-FM is playing a sludgy cover of "Hey Joe" and the rollicking "Pray for Me" in heavy rotation. The band threw its release party for the album Thick as Thieves earlier this month for 100 or so unironic black-leather and Iron Maiden tee shirt-wearing faithfuls at Nita's Hideaway. And it was a featured act this past weekend at the inaugural Tempe Music Festival which, in its infancy, was saddled with scores of metal cover bands -- and the B-52's.
Oh, and TITT opened for KISS in Las Vegas last Sunday.
So far, the success is a lather of redemption for Wexler, who says he certainly needed it.
"I'm thrilled to be a part of this band. This opportunity fell into my lap," says the engaging and jumpy 39-year-old, who sat on the floor and fondled an unlit hand-rolled cigarette as he spoke backstage at Nita's. "[Before now,] anytime I thought I had my head up my ass, I pulled out."
Native folk may remember Wexler's former band Icon, which emerged from the small clubs of Phoenix two decades ago, sometimes playing six days a week, to release four studio albums, two of which were released by Capitol Records.
"They stuck out more," says Franco Gagliano, former owner of the Mason Jar in Central Phoenix and arguably the excess-loving metal face of Phoenix. "They had great music. They had this lead singer, Steve Clifford, as soon as the guy gets on stage, every chick melted. For each guy, there were four or five girls. They had the personality."
What Icon didn't have, however, was luck. Just when it looked like the Spandex-loving outfit might break through into the fabulous Ratt/Dokken set, Clifford found Jesus, according to Zelisko, and quit on the spot. After several years of regrouping, the band once again found itself close to metal glory. But stage fright, says Zelisko, wrecked a replacement lead singer. That spelled doomed for Icon.
Wexler moved on to co-write songs and play guitar for Valley comrade Alice Cooper, including 1994's anthemic "Lost in America." Then, familial duty called. Wexler's father died in 1997. Dan spent the next four years caring for his mother, severely stricken with Alzheimer's disease. Her death left Wexler lost, depressed and unsure of where to turn next; no music and no family equaled no clue.
It was right at that point when Michael Nitro, bassist and frontman for local cover act the Michael Nitro Band, called Wexler to tell him about this new band he had formed with two Spokane, Washington, exports, and to see if he might be interested in re-embracing his instrument. That's how this whole back to the metal future ride started.
"I've always wanted to be in a band with Dan," says the burly Nitro, who, as it turns out, quit the band a few days later over "creative differences."
"Life was kind of beating him up a little bit."
Zelisko, for his part, says he had no active interest in managing a band , especially not with his added promotional duties of recent years. But the group's demo, he says, blew him away. Songs from the demo appear on Thick as Thieves - "Demos are the things you do with your tape recorder in the dressing room," Wexler explains."If it sucked, I couldn't have made it work," the charismatic Zelisko says. "If I didn't like them, I wouldn't have gotten involved. I'm a firm believer in taking a chance."
Zelisko, a staple of the Phoenix music business since 1974, was asked if he's pulling any power strings to get a nearly unheard of band on the radar screen with his Clear Channel connections. "Keep in mind that for more than 20 years I was accused of that on my own," he responds. He insists he's had very little to do with TITT's leaps and bounds. It ain't his fault that people with power like the band, which takes classic metal yelling and splices it with the iron-heavy riffs of modern "nu-metal." It also doesn't hurt that there's a built-in metal audience of about 6,000 people who still adore metal; Zelisko says he promoted two Dokken/Scorpions shows only months apart in the past year and saw an increase of just 40 tickets from one to the next.
Gagliano thinks the balls-to-the-wall crowd might actually be closer to 16,000. "They put too many bands together on bills, and they charge too much money. Give the kids a chance," he says. "Everybody jumps in when the fruit is already mature. The old rock bands . . . they used to play four sets a night."