So Young

Thanks to a bright invention, Valley favorite Jerry Riopelle is finally on the verge of becoming cool

It's rare to find anybody over 20 inside the noisy arcade castle at Mesa's Golfland during the Saturday morning $8 Video Game Blowout. Never mind anybody over 60.

That's why the gray-haired dude on the Guitar Freaks V machine sticks out like a sore joystick-jamming thumb.

Eyes squinted Clint Eastwood-like, behind rimless bifocals, he studies the frantic anime graphics on the console's screen while striking the pick lever on the simulated guitar controller he's strapped over his untucked burgundy dress shirt. Pressing the red, green and blue buttons that substitute for frets, he keeps pace with a wild Japanese ska tune, hitting enough of the notes at the right time to impress the two 15-year-old boys who've stopped to watch him play.

As a recording artist, Jerry Riopelle admits he was "always behind the curve on the latest trends. All of a sudden now, it looks like I'm ahead of one."
Peter Scanlon
As a recording artist, Jerry Riopelle admits he was "always behind the curve on the latest trends. All of a sudden now, it looks like I'm ahead of one."
Riopelle tries out Beatmania IIDX at Mesa's Golfland arcade. "You've got to be able to play it with feeling," he says.
Peter Scanlon
Riopelle tries out Beatmania IIDX at Mesa's Golfland arcade. "You've got to be able to play it with feeling," he says.

"Wow!" one of them says, after the screen flashes the word "CLEARED" and the score on the Groove Gauge reflects even a Wailing Bonus. "You passed the stage."

If anyone over at least 35 were in the arcade this morning -- and if they had lived in Phoenix through enough of the '70s -- they might recognize the old dude behind the toy guitar as Jerry Riopelle, the rock star only Phoenix understood.

Largely ignored by the rest of the world, Riopelle was one of the most-played artists on Phoenix rock radio during the '70s and has retained a loyal following of baby boomers here, thanks largely to a series of New Year's Eve concerts at the Celebrity Theatre that have become legendary gatherings of his fans, who rival the Deadheads or Jimmy Buffett's Parrotheads in terms of stubborn devotion.

"He's played and sold out the Celebrity more times than any other performer in the history of the building," says Evening Star promoter Danny Zelisko, who booked Riopelle into his first New Year's Eve headliner there in 1975 and has remained a close friend. "That's pretty phenomenal, when you think of all the artists who've played there."

This New Year's Eve, after a five-year semi-retirement, Riopelle will once again take the stage at the Celebrity for what will mark the 30th anniversary since that first gig -- and possibly, he says, his farewell New Year's show.

But on this Saturday morning in late November, he's not thinking about what he'll play at that era-ending event. Instead, he's hanging at the arcade, testing out the competition for the interactive music-based game being built around the invention he's been quietly working on for the past 11 years: a device that allows anybody to make music by breaking laser beams in the air.

"I want to try out the other music-related games," he says, waving his hands over the sensor pads in DanceManiax 2nd Mix, "so that the next time I have a meeting with Jason and John from Roxor, I'll know what they're talking about."

Among the über game geeks who haunt the Valley's top arcade, just hearing Riopelle mention the names of the head honchos from Roxor Games, the upstart Austin-based company whose arcade and PS2 dance game In the Groove has managed to steal considerable thunder from genre dominator Dance Dance Revolution, elicits bows of respect.

"You've met Jason Asbahr?" says one teen gamer, rolling the name over with the type of awed adoration typically reserved for rock stars.

Not only that, Riopelle says, he's met with guys from Microsoft's Xbox team, a head engineer at Apple, and some folks at Sony in charge of engineering the next PlayStation -- all of whom have expressed interest in utilizing the technology behind his invention.

"Whoa!" say the chorus of gamers.

While most '70s rockers are settling into a kind of Mike Love retirement plan of sporadic casino gigs and bitter royalties lawsuits, Riopelle is onto an unlikely second act as a cutting-edge video game developer and interactive music visionary.

After four decades in the music business, a career he began working studio gigs with the iconic Phil Spector, Jerry Riopelle is finally cool.

"It's weird," he says, stepping outside the arcade for a break from the noise. "You're talking to a guy who, as a recording artist, was always behind the curve on the latest trends. All of a sudden now, it looks like I'm ahead of one.

"I just wish I was younger," he adds, in a quiet voice aged in eons of raspy rock 'n' roll singing. "I don't know if I'll have time to enjoy this money."


He calls it HumanBeams -- probably the only thing about Riopelle's invention that Roxor's Jason Asbahr doesn't think is totally cool.

"HumanBeams is a good name for the technology," says Asbahr, who's 32. "I don't know if it's a good name for the game. It's not really hip, you know, in the way that kids these days like things to be."

Everything else about Riopelle's invention, though, most definitely is.

"Well, first of all, it's got these cool laser beams shooting out of it," Asbahr says, practically giggling. "You know, all these bright red lights. When you watch somebody play it, you're like, 'Wow, that's pretty cool. They're making this neat kind of music by breaking the laser beams.'"

Even Riopelle himself assumes an ultra-cool aura when demonstrating the Beams. Stepping into the living room of his leased home in Scottsdale's McCormick Ranch area, which also serves as his business office, Riopelle takes a seat behind the sleek-looking device -- two simple U-shaped pieces of translucent blue acrylic, tied by one USB cable to a laptop computer -- and switches it on, immediately producing two sets of three electromagnetic beams, like a space-age stringed instrument.

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