ROCK AWAY THE CLOCK
It's a typical, quiet Sun City street. Obsessively neat, almost-sterile brick homes. Plaster-cast-cherub and Greek-goddess fountains. White walls.
Suddenly, the rumble of tortured electric guitars and the monotone wail of a Wendy O. Williams-style voice break the unnatural serenity of Del Webb's desert-in-bloom dream come true. Can there really be punk-rock in Sun City?
"We call it `metal pause' or `antacid rock,'" says Gavin Wieser, the leader and, at 48, youngest member of the band One Foot in the Grave, Sun City's first and last contribution to the Valley's postpunk scene. An experienced musician who now lives in Glendale and also performs with the band Homemade Jam, Wieser plays keyboards and sings back-up vocals for the Sun City group. Fronted by vocalist Jo Dina (age 51, she prefers just her first name), the band also includes drummer Gene Costa and guitarist Danny Walters, both 74 years old.
What possesses these otherwise mild-mannered folk? What has convinced them to follow in Sid Vicious' footsteps? And more important, what do the neighbors think?
"I don't give a shit," says Gene Costa, whose Sun City living room also serves as the band's practice room. "They turn down their hearing aids at eight o'clock anyway."
After three years of rehearsing, Wieser and One Foot in the Grave are ready to play in front of people. The group's confidence was shored up by the stir its demo tape caused a few weeks ago at a record producers' showcase in Los Angeles. One Foot's first shy step into the grimy depths of thrash 'n' grind will be at the Arizona All-State Jam on Saturday at Phoenix's hip, downtown Silver Dollar Club.
Hearing One Foot on tape and live will not convince anyone the band will be the Ramones anytime soon. But the members are open-minded, and they have a firm grasp of the essentials of what makes punk-rock the bruising, aggressive form it is. Costa has the rapid-fire drumming down, Jo Dina's reckless vocals are impassioned, if out of tune, and Danny Walters has relearned how to play the guitar.
"Jo Dina and Gavin put an ad in the paper and found Gene. Gene found me and I found that there was a distortion button on my amp," says Walters, looking out over his glasses with a sly grin.
Arguably the most musically distinguished member of the band, Chicagoan Walters spent twenty years as Lawrence Welk's arranger. When he left Welk in 1959, he moved on to work with jazz trios and dance bands. These days, the guitar player who grew up admiring Barney Kessel laughs at his own Eddie Van Halen jokes. "Everything I've tried in rock 'n' roll shows some signs of sense," says Walters, laughing. "It's like the conversation I had recently in L.A. I met this man who said he hated Chicago. Being a native, I asked how long he was there. He said two hours. My generation doesn't even know rock 'n' roll and they hate it."
Seeing the band live in its leather jackets and suitably punkish scowls is the kind of jarring experience that makes you blink. But like Walters, drummer Gene Costa, another musician who grew up in the big-band era, says that discovering rock 'n' roll has been an eye opener.
"Drummers in big bands are very restricted. Straight times. No room to experiment," he says. "But I feel rock 'n' roll gives a drummer complete freedom. And it's a hell of a lot more fun."
Most of the energy behind the band radiates from Jo Dina. An escaped housewife with a 33-year-old ex-boyfriend, Jo Dina bounces around in front of the band, holding the microphone flush against her lips and scream-singing in a Philadelphia-accented howl. She never sang a note before One Foot in the Grave. "I'm the kind of person, who, if people tell me I can't, I usually end up doing it. I listened to a bunch of those punk-rock records and I realized that I could do that. I mean, I love Joe Cocker, but his voice sounds like a garbage can and he looks like one, too. I sing in my own style."
Although Wieser writes most of the band's music--its only cover to date is a trashy version of the Ramones' "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker"--it's Jo Dina's lyrics that give the band's sound its bite. Sporting titles like "Aches, Pains, Capital Gains," "Couch Potato," and "Menopause" (the band's biggest hit-in-waiting), Jo Dina's songs come out of her own experience. Co-written with her son Joey Scazzola and his pal Ron Morey, "Menopause" has a chorus that goes, "Say hello to life's frustration/Say goodbye to my menstruation/I never had an education like/Menopause, menopause, menopause." The second verse opens with, "Hit my son during my hot flash/For pointing out my new mustache/The house is a wreck and I don't care/I just sit around in men's underwear." For some unknown reason, men's underwear is a prevalent theme in all of Jo Dina's lyrical ventures.
In the past few months, the band has gotten serious and put together a demo tape containing "Menopause" and six other tunes. A new guitarist has been added to flesh out the sound for the Silver Dollar gig. He's Jim Elam, who at 27 is nearly a toddler in this outfit.
The band has even had a little local airplay, courtesy of deejay Mary McCann of KUKQ-AM. What was once a Mohawk-and-black-leather lark has become serious. A promoter in L.A. talks about the band opening for national acts like Dread Zeppelin. The band, however, is keeping its expectations down.
"I didn't think it was real viable until I went to L.A.," says Gavin Wieser. "I was blown away that so many people got so excited about us. The shelf life of what we're doing may not be too long, but it's fun right now." But if the band becomes a success and begins to play nightclubs and think about making records, are septuagenarians Walters and Costa ready for a life of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll?
"Well, I don't know about all that," says Danny Walters. "My wife won't even allow me out to play after 8:30 at night."
One Foot in the Grave will perform at Silver Dollar Club as part of the Arizona All-State Jam on Saturday, June 8. Showtime is 1 p.m.
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