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Photo by Jeanne RiceThis could be any band showing up for afternoon practice at a warehouse-turned-studio off one of Costa Mesa's seedier alleys. It could be any band getting out of their cars and squinting through the sunlight and stumbling toward the door, looking in need of fewer drinks and more sleep. Once they start playing, it could be any band going through their songs in a cramped practice room, jumping around, starting and stopping and smiling sheepishly when they mess up. If you were to go by their smiles, jubilant and childlike, and ignore the creases that have begun setting in and the weariness about their eyes, you'd think it was a band of highly talented 15-year-olds excited to be playing together and to have a whole future stretching out before them.
But this is not that band. It was, but it's not anymore, because one of the members, Tony Scalzo, went on to become a famous rock star, and the other three did not.
Scalzo, a resident of Austin, Texas, is staying in LA at the moment to record the next Fastball record, a follow-up to 1998's All the Pain Money Can Buy, which sold approximately 1.2 million copies and featured a few beautifully poppy, hummable, somewhat wistful rock & roll tunes, among them "The Way," which was played about a zillion times on the radio and MTV.
While in town, he's playing a few shows with his pre-Fastball band, the Goods. Hence the practice session.
"I feel a little bit weird," he admits. "But it's gotten to the point where I've come around enough over the past couple of years. I haven't estranged myself and then suddenly come back all famous."
But still, how can it not be strange to come back and hang out with the people who ran in the same race you've won?
The Goods are a poppy, rock- and punk-influenced incarnation of seminal Costa Mesa band Electric Coolaide, with bassist/singer Nick Sjobeck (who plays in Dodge Dart), drummer Jamie Reidling (who used to play in Dodge Dart but now plays in Midnite Rapture) and, from time to time, guitarist Nate Shaw from the Women. In the early '90s, when things were looking good for the Goods—they'd been recording demos for Warner Bros.—Reidling and Scalzo were wined, dined, hoodwinked and offered the chance to move to Austin to back up and record with a musician named Beaver Nelson.
By all accounts it was a horrible move, and Reidling was back within a year. But Scalzo fell in love with the woman who would become his wife, stayed in Austin, and started Fastball.
And what looms, inescapable and unsaid—as the four old friends sit in an alley outside the Costa Mesa studio where they're running through old material, cowering in the shade offered by a parked semi—is that had Scalzo not skipped town, it might have been the Goods up there on the charts where Fastball hangs out.
"I thought I'd found the opportunity to play music for money, and that's what I was going for," says Scalzo, trying to explain—to the world and his old band mates—what happened.
"He wanted to play tunes for money. We just played because we loved playing rock," Shaw says playfully.
When asked whether it was hard to uproot themselves and their respective families (Reidling had a wife and son; Scalzo had a girlfriend and daughter), Sjobeck jumps in before either can answer: "Yeah, I think they pondered that for about five minutes," he says, smiling but looking down.
It's all in good humor, this friendly ribbing—let bygones be bygones, and it's all water under the bridge at the end of the day, anyway, and hey, who are we to judge—but you suspect there were hurt feelings, especially on Sjobeck's part. He's the only one of this otherwise rumpled, creased, tired-looking and befuddled lot who has arrived freshly gelled and pulled together. He's also the one who always called the press, booked shows, initiated this and that, and, perhaps, wanted it so bad he could taste it.
But still, no one begrudges Scalzo his success. "No matter where he was planted, he would bloom. He's hands-down one of the best people I've ever played with," says Shaw.
"He could pick up any instrument that he's never seen and within an hour have an insane song written on it. He's just that way. He's just really, really good at music. Every aspect of it," adds Sjobeck.
Scalzo began playing piano at age 6. "I had an affinity for music," he says. "I guess I sang a lot, and my parents thought I might have an aptitude. After a while, I started resenting the whole idea that you have to practice and all your friends laugh at you when you're in there practicing while they're playing softball."
Scratch the surface of anyone famous and there's always a tangle of demons pushing him or her to succeed. Perhaps the castigation of his peers, coupled with the eventual disappointment of parents and music teachers who felt he was squandering his talent by playing rock instead of classical music, is in the tangle somewhere. "I don't know if it's literally an 'I'll show you' sort of thing," he says. "I doubt it. But it definitely added to having a drive to excel."