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.
Playing DanceManiax during the Saturday arcade blowout. "He thinks young," says Roxor Games' Jason Asbahr.
James Magahern
Playing DanceManiax during the Saturday arcade blowout. "He thinks young," says Roxor Games' Jason Asbahr.

"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.

"It's essentially a mouse," he says, graciously dumbing down the complex workings of the technology, which takes 35 pages of details and schematics to explain in the document accompanying his U.S. patent, finally issued in November. "It's controlling the music programmed into the computer, but doing it in a way that's a lot more fun than pressing buttons."

Cueing up a recent Beyoncé hit on the laptop, Riopelle begins remixing the rhythm, vocal, bass and keyboard tracks by simply waving his hands through the visible beams, slapping away the star's vocals to launch into an organ solo, which he manipulates by karate-chopping the top beam, then tossing in a bit of scratching by whirling a hand through the beam at the bottom.

"The big plan is, you can go buy, say, Madonna's latest album, and when you get home and put it in your computer, not only can you listen to it, but you can play along with it, remix it. You can take the vocal out and sing it yourself. There'll be so many things you can do with a new album."

And with Beams, apparently. Lately, Riopelle's been approaching everyone from toymakers to major record producers with the gadgetry, and currently has partners developing the technology for uses ranging from a rehabilitative device (an early prototype was installed at the Phoenix Children's Hospital) to a musical instrument and professional DJ tool. "The hip-hop guys go nuts over it," he says.

But the community that's so far latched onto the device the most is the game developers.

"We immediately 'got' it," says Asbahr, who confirms Roxor's working with Riopelle to adapt his technology to both an arcade and a PS2 game set to appear sometime in 2006. "We were like, 'Wow, this is awesome!'"

Asbahr knows enough about coding to understand the nuts and bolts of how HumanBeams works. Still, even he admits there's a certain magic to Riopelle's invention that's hard to compute.

"What really happens, when you sit down in front of it . . . I don't know," Asbahr says. "Something just clicks in your brain. It's a really satisfying thing to do, to start playing with that soundscape."

Riopelle, who's never had formal training in either science or engineering, says the magic behind HumanBeams is owed to its being conceived by a musician, not a geek -- although he's since been able to hire enough geeks to bring his ideas to life.

"The big trick was, how do you make this feel like an instrument -- as opposed to just being a robotic device?" Riopelle says. "That took a long time to perfect. But musicians love it. And that would have never happened if it was just a bunch of loops programmed by engineers. You've got to be able to play it with feeling. That's what musicians understand."


Until his invention began taking off, Riopelle had always avoided living in Phoenix, even though the city kept calling him back. The hot town may have chosen him as its personal rock star, but the Detroit-born Riopelle continued to live in L.A. until 1990, and then chose to live his "kinda retirement" in Kona, Hawaii.

"I never lived here," he says, reclining on the sofa of the house he's been leasing for only the past four years -- mostly as an office for HumanBeams, which he runs along with his son, Paul. "People always thought I did. But I just came here a lot, because this is where my biggest fan base was."

The Valley's love affair with Riopelle began in 1974, when the late William Edward Compton, then program director at a young KDKB, circled eight tracks on the back cover of Riopelle's first ABC release, Saving Grace, and labeled it "Eight Ways to Improve Your Life," urging the station's DJs to put each of the songs into heavy rotation.

"All of a sudden, I went from a $300 opening act to a $15,000 headliner -- overnight," Riopelle says. When Compton died in a car accident three years later, Riopelle lost his most influential supporter. "If Bill hadn't died, I'm sure enormous things would have come from his appreciation of what I was trying to do."

Though he'd never go on to attract a nationwide audience as fervent as his Phoenix supporters, the exclusivity they felt with him only deepened the connection -- and allowed him to pull in concert grosses in the neighborhood of a hundred grand a year, he says, just playing around Arizona.

"There's a bonding between Riopelle and his audience that's immediately evident at his shows," says Zelisko, who'll be inducting Riopelle into the Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame this New Year's Eve at the Celebrity. "And a lot of the depth of that relationship comes from the fact that everybody knows it's kind of a private thing. It's between them and this city and him."

That bonding came in handy when Riopelle opted to make HumanBeams his business, and finally decided -- after a lifetime of playing hard-to-get -- that his name would carry a lot more clout if he set up headquarters in the city that knew him best.

"That's one of the reasons I run the business here," says Riopelle, who, along with his wife of 31 years, Naomi, still shuttles between his home in Kona and the leased McCormick Ranch digs. "All of the jobbers and manufacturers we work with, as soon as they hear the name, they go, 'Oh yeah, Jerry Riopelle. "Walking on Water," right?' You'd be surprised how many doors that opens."

When they're not doing business with him, Riopelle's Valley fans still get to hear favorite tracks like "Blues on My Table," "Easy Driver" and "Naomi's Song" on Radio Free Phoenix, the Internet streaming audio outlet run by local radio vet Andy Olson that, Olson insists, still gets plenty of Riopelle requests.

Recording a career retrospective at Olson's home studio one recent Friday, set to air as a pre-concert special on New Year's Eve, Riopelle tells an anecdote leading into his 1977 song "So Young" (sample lyric: "I'll make everything matter, and I'll believe that everything lasts"), which many fans consider his most anthemic work.

"'So Young' I wrote on my 31st birthday, ostensibly as a present to myself," he says. "Because I felt so old, and I thought I had seen pretty much everything. Which sounds so stupid today!"

Riopelle admits it can sometimes sound stupid singing "I'm so young!" today, at age 64.

But those who've been working with Riopelle lately -- even whippersnappers exactly half his age, like Jason Asbahr -- attest the song still suits him.

"Jerry's been around the block," Asbahr says. "But it's almost like it doesn't matter what age he is. He's got this sort of childlike wonder with the world. And that's what he brings to his invention.

"He thinks young," Asbahr adds. "That's the important thing."

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