When I first met my wife she was a teenage prima ballerina and classically trained pianist—a preacher’s daughter with a genius IQ. I was a self-taught blues/rock guitarist who looked like Slash, if Slash bagged groceries and DJ’d part-time at the roller rink.
Understandably, I wasn’t too sure. I thought she might be uptight or simply out of my league.
She invited me over to her house shortly after we had met—long before we had kissed or even went on that first real date—and I sat on the floor of her living room while she changed from her leotard to a t-shirt and jeans. She didn’t have a TV or even much furniture but there was a small boombox and a shoebox full of CDs. You can learn a little something about a person by going through their music case.
Classical. All classical. Mozart, Beethoven. Prokofiev.
“Proko…what?” I called into the other room.
“Prokofiev,” she said. “That’s my favorite.”
I tossed it back in and kept digging. And there it was: Winger. The one with “Seventeen” and “Madalaine”, “Headed for a Heartbreak”. Back when songs were hooky and fun with no grandiose agenda other than having a good time. Sometimes you don’t want serious message songs telling you how screwed-up and sad and difficult life can be. Sometimes you just need to have fun.
“Winger!” I shouted.
She stuck her head around the door frame, looking in. “Winger,” she nodded. “That’s my favorite too.”
We climbed the Luna Fire Tower that night, ten stories high, looking over black forest, the lights of town far, far away. I brought my guitar along and played the best “Moonlight Sonata” I could fake.
“Love that,” she said.
So I slid straight from Beethoven into the opening riff of “Seventeen”.
“Oh yes,” she said, sliding near.
The moon was shimmering off her alabaster skin and her pale blue eyes were like a fire. That first long kiss was still a ways off. But it was closer, coming soon.
“I love Winger,” she said.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Me too.”
What part of Nashville do you live in?
Back off Hillsboro. By the Bluebird Café?
We used to live over that way. Close to Radnor Lake.
Radnor is beautiful, man. We walk our dog there all the time.
When I first met my teenage wife she was a renowned ballet dancer and classical pianist. She had a case full of Mozart, Beethoven– and the first Winger CD.
That’s my true audience, actually, right there!
I can’t speak as articulately as she could about those things but talk to me about classical music and ballet.
I’m a classical musician in heavy metal disguise. Self-taught though. I really didn’t start learning to properly compose classical until I was about thirty-five. I wasn’t the Poindexter kid by any stretch. I got busted for smoking weed at age eleven, listening to Van Halen.
Perfect. So how did ballet figure in?
My brother and I studied this form of martial arts called Kajukenbo so I was already pretty limber. I had a girlfriend who wanted to take ballet but none of her friends wanted to do it so I said, “what the hell, I will….” I was always up for trying something new. I knew David Lee Roth had studied ballet so I thought, hey, if it’s good enough for Dave, it’s good enough for me.
Yeah, that’s true. It’s one of those misunderstood art forms. It’s extremely difficult to do but I really enjoyed it and excelled pretty quickly. My girlfriend quit because she wasn’t very good at it and I kept going and danced with a company in Colorado from the time I was seventeen until about twenty then I moved to New York. The music thing was dead in Denver so I had to get out. I wanted to do the rock thing and the theater was a way to enhance my stage performance. As it’s turned out, a lot of my market is in ballet now. I did a piece called Ghosts which was with the San Francisco Ballet.
It’s been a big success.
It’s a fluke how well it’s done. Usually modern composers do a ballet and everyone forgets about that one piece they’ve done. Ghosts is on its sixth season now. Lincoln Opera House, Hong Kong, London, Dallas. Paris in July. It’s bizarre.
Something you want to continue with?
I’ve written another one but haven’t been able to get a bite on choreography yet. I’ve had some symphonic performances. Ravel, Debussy, Tchaikovsky – they all had pieces for the ballet world and in some cases were primarily ballet composers. Classical composition, to me, compliments the rock thing. I don’t recommend it though, it’s really grueling work. It’s not something to take on just for fun.
I wanted to get your comment on this quote: Winger is perhaps the most misunderstood band of the 80s.
We made it at the tail end of an era where it was mostly glam bands that were more about the “sex, drugs and rock & roll” – and I had my fair share of that – but we come from a muso background. Rod is from the Dixie Dregs, Reb was more of a fusion guitar player and I was coming from Alice Cooper Band. When we first got together it was more complex, heavy on the arrangements and then we superimposed pop melodies over that. I always wanted to be like Yes meets KISS. A super-muso band presented with pop/rock over-the-top mentality.
Yes meets KISS. That’s kinda awesome.
Yeah, but we got lumped in with bands like Poison and Warrant and… please, don’t take this wrong – I’m not one of those guys who says one is better than the other – it’s just totally different. I saw Tesla and Bon Jovi coming up, opening for Alice Cooper and I thought, I can do this. I don’t say that arrogantly or disrespectfully but I knew this kick-ass guitar player back in New York named Reb Beach and I’m gonna write some songs and see about getting signed. We adopted the look right off MTV, seeing bands like Def Leppard and Whitesnake. I didn’t get it. I didn’t know what it meant to have a cool logo to sell t-shirts. I’m sorry to say I was not thinking forward at all. I was completely clueless, dude.
What were you thinking?
We were musicians so I was like, “Check this out! ‘Headed for a Heartbreak’ is in Lydian (mode) or “Without The Night”modulates a half-step up in the solo and then lands in the fifth of the original key, so I can go back from five to one and it’ll sound like I’m modulating AGAIN but it will be in the original key!” I mean, that’s still the way I think. I know I was quite the poser but I was always uncomfortable in front of the camera unless I was just out of ballet class. I guess I had some moves no one else did though. I was the Peter Pan of Rock, baby…
I interviewed Alan Hunter last year and he told me that consistently, the nicest, more professional, down-to-earth people MTV worked with were the metal guys.
It’s absolutely true. There wasn’t an asshole in the bunch. Well, maybe a couple. There was one guy who was really popular who was a complete asshole….
No, man…. (laughs) I’ve never met Lars. But I did see this one guy a few years later after the scene had died down and he was the nicest guy you could imagine. But really, everybody was really cool and we supported each other.
Give me a favorite memory from the glory days.
First night opening with Alice Cooper in Detroit, seventeen thousand fans, live on MTV. I was a waiter three months before. Bang – there it was. It was hard to take in.
Okay, one from Winger…
The first record came out and did nothing for six months. Nothing. The record company was ready to cut us. We kept pushing to get gigs and finally talked the label into letting us do a video. You had to audition to do a video back then. A video was 250K for the low end. So we were in this little rehearsal room in Hoboken, New Jersey, playing for the execs and they gave us the video and we got on MTV. Rod knew a guy in the MTV mailroom who was a big Dixie Dregs and he ushered our video to Tom Hunter who was head of programming at MTV back then. Tom was from Denver, I’m from Denver. So it was a serendipitous thing. “Madelaine” hit and got on the top ten, then “Seventeen” came out and they just hammered that shit and that’s how the record broke.
People forget how huge Winger was at the time. First two records platinum, MTV 24/7.
I just got a kick out of meeting my heroes, the guys who shaped the way I think about music. Getting to play with Mark Farner from Grand Funk, Roger Daltrey. Alan Parsons. I just did a charity gig in West Palm Beach with Barry Gibb. Man, I had to sing in front of Barry Gibb…. I’m still a guy who listens to a record and if it’s really good I feel insecure and think about how much I suck. I love what I do but I’m not in a fog about where Winger sits in music history.
I heard you recently made peace with Mike Judge and put some water under the bridge.
Totally true. When they did the Beavis & Butthead remake I found Mike and told him I wanted to clear the air. I never tried to sue MTV or Mike, I never had a problem with the cartoon. I mean, it was David and Goliath, really. There was nothing you could do but take it like a man. It certainly didn’t help us, I’ll tell you that. But it was a funny show and Mike’s a funny guy.
Winger was a band that was popular for some of the wrong reasons, man. So we ended up on the show. I don’t believe there was any malicious intent. We exchanged some emails; Mike is a very nice guy, no hard feelings. I was hoping maybe he’d give me a voice-over role in the new cartoon though.
That would be a cool twist.
Yeah! Not sure what happened with it. I signed off on some things so maybe some day?
About ten years after B&B you made the Karma record which I thought was great, just really solid rock & roll.
We did Winger IV just before that which was really progressive and complex. I thought that was the only place to go and was really into music theory. It didn’t go over with the 80s fans so after that we just wanted to rock. Reb’s always wanted to be Van Halen so we just rocked out and did Karma.
The new record comes in where Karma left off. We enjoy working together – it’s not like we have to go out and play for the money even though we hate each other. Nothing like that, man. Reb and I have a lot of fun and we’re still inspired so why not? I feel like it’s got some really great Winger moments. I have a lot of shitty ideas but I try to self-edit and get the job done.
Are you touring the record?
We’re booked to the end of the year, doing a lot of shows. It’s a different era these days. Most of it is Weekend Warrior stuff unless you’re on a big tour. We’re not going out on a bus and coming back in a year like we used to.