Lee Rocker: Road Tested, American Made
AAJ: That progression does make sense, but here's something that does not make sense: Why do three teenagers who form a band around the idea of playing roots rock and roll move to London in 1980?
LR: Well...it all worked out well...but it wasn't a matter of brains or a plan, I've got to tell you that. I was 17. The other guys in the band were 18 and 19. We were a pretty successful New York band playing the joints of the dayCBGBs and Max's Kansas City, all those places out in the suburbsand when June of 1980 hit, the summertime, we just wanted to do something different and saved up some gig money and flew to London to see what would happen. And we never came back. Had a record deal very quickly, after a couple of monthsI think within six months there was a record outand it just went. It was a fantastic, fantastic experience, a fantastic life. But it definitely wasn't planned out.
AAJ: For those who weren't paying attention, or perhaps were not around, how would you describe the pop music scene of 1980? And what do you think the Stray Cats tapped in to, that made your music so popular?
LR: I think that, you know, it was a mixed time, and I've got to say that the London music scene was starting to heat up. There was great stuff starting in the early '80s with The Clash and hopefully us in the Cats and The Pretenders and a couple of other bands.
I think the US scene was really bad and that was part of the reason why we left. There was a lot of overproduced synthesized kind of...it was the end of disco, the rock bands had become synthesized and these giant production acts kind of stuff and...
The Stray Cats, it's real music. It's real instruments. It's no machines and it's about passion and energy and playing well. That's the one thing that we always really tried to donot tried, but werewas to be musicians. I think there were a lot of bands out there that really weren't musicians.
AAJ: A lot of punks seemed almost proud of the fact that they weren't musicians, that they couldn't play.
LR: And the thing I like about punk rock is the energy and the passion, but they can't play. When you start to deal with stuff more in terms of roots or Americana or rockabilly, you've got to be able to play. But it's got that same intensity.
AAJ: Your No Cats solo record (Solid Discs, 1998) features, as guests, Leon Russell and guitarist Elliott Easton. One can sort of connect rockabilly music to Russell's, but how does the lead guitarist for The Cars end up on a rockabilly record?
LR: I've been lucky to work with a lot of great players. You know, it's a small world out there in a way. Leon, I had met...I was doing some shows, I know Willie Nelson over the years, and Willie was doing some West Coast dates that were Willie Nelson and Leon Russell. I wound up being on the bill at a couple of those gigs. I've always been a huge fan of Leon's, had never met him before. Went down to the sound check and started talking to him. He's got this great left hand on the piano and he was playing some stuff at sound check and I said, "Wait a second, could you do me a favor? Play what you're doing with that left hand for a second. I wanted to see where he was putting the bass thing, it was kind of New Orleans-feel stuff. I grabbed my bass and we started to mess around and we became friends. So he played on that record and we wrote a song together, "Screaming Hunger . He's a great guy.
AAJ: And Elliott Easton?
LR: Believe it or not, I know him since I'm a kid, and we grew up in the same hometown. Yeah, he lived about three or four blocks away from me.
AAJ: Your album Lee Rocker Live (J-Bird, 1999) features a great medley that runs together songs by some real "roots rock legends: "Big Boy Crudup, Bill Monroe and Jerry Reed.
LR: Ah, Jerry Reed, "Eastbound and Down.
AAJ: What does the music of those artists, and others like them, mean to you?
LR: It was really fun and it kind of evolved over a little bit of time, you know? "That's All Right and "Blue Moon of Kentucky are songs that I've done on and off since I started, from Elvis doing them on the Sun Sessions. I played some of those songs with Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana, with Carl Perkins, it's just part of the vocabulary in a way.
And Jerry Reed, I always have loved his guitar playing and just his whole vibe. He's a maniac, it's hysterical. He's a monstrous player. It has that great harmony solo from "Eastbound and Down, and we just kind of threw that thing in the middle. We've messed around with putting Jerry Reed in the middle of a few things: Once in a while, though we haven't recorded it, but live we'll do "Mystery Train and then about halfway through we just kind of slip into "Guitar Man. It's perfect.
AAJ: There's a Carl Perkins song on the new record ("Say When ). Was it an obvious choice to you, or did you work a couple out and then decide on this one, or...?
LR: I worked a lot with Carl before he passed away, we did a lot of different things together. He was a great friend and a hero and obviously very "ground zero with rock and roll. And a great songwriter, a great guitarist, and I had done a Carl song on a couple of albums in a row.
This song was one that I had never heard before and I don't think was ever released. I found it, I was on tour in Europe, picked up a giant box set that I think Bear Family had put out on Carl Perkins. So I'm on the road a lot and throwin' in these CDs and I come across this track, I think it was two or three different takes of it. I'd never heard it. I don't think it was ever released, at least in the States. I don't think it was released anywhere, from the history of it. It's a '60s song, "Say When.
I wanted to do it, I loved the feel so we kinda messed around with it, we do some dual guitar stuff again, played around with it and really made it our own, with a tip of the hat to where it came from.