This Cat Never Strayed

20 years later, Lee Rocker is still rockabillys biggest fan

Photo by Myles RobinsonI am sitting across from Lee Rocker at a Mexican café east of San Diego, absorbing the totality of his appearance, along with several other swivel-necked patrons who seem to be trying to determine whether this diminutive peacock of a fellow is merely a renowned eccentric or something scarier, some genetically engineered morph between Sal Mineo and Milla Jovovich. As bassist with the Stray Cats, Rocker was a member of one of the world's foremost rock & roll groups of the '80s. Since then, the Laguna Beach resident's life has become decidedly less complicated. He has become his father—married, suburban, middle-aged, a working musician—but he still looks like the Cats—the idiosyncratic, retro-glam fashion sensibility.

As Rocker sips his iced tea and nibbles at his chicken mole, strikingly pale-blue puppy-dog eyes seem actually to twinkle like twin opals, real purty-like. His hair is piled high atop his head into a severe helmet of a pompadour, which is dyed so black it's blue and is lacquered into what could be employed as a formidable weapon. Adorning his still adolescent-wiry frame is a black-and-red sweater with a skull and crossbones on the front and the legend "ROCKER" on the back. He wears leopard-skin creepers that could shine as pedal beacons for low-lying insect and mammal life. His appearance would surely make John Waters swoon.

Yet Rocker's look is almost completely incongruous to his manner. You'll never meet a more polite fellow; affable but perhaps a bit on the shy side; as humble and soft-spoken as his appearance is howling and preposterous. Stray Cats drummer, childhood chum and fellow fashion felon Slim Jim Phantom characterizes Rocker as "a very logical, pragmatic person. I think the best way to describe him would be as solid. He tends to look at the black and white of things. He looks at things very practically. And he's a very helpful guy—he'll come and fix your flat tire at four in the morning. He's also a family-conscious guy who loves his kids and his wife very much and was very close to his parents and sister."

So it's more than weird that this nice Jewish boy from middle-class, suburban New York also serves as unofficial Goodwill Ambassador and Cheerleader General for rockabilly music, the primal, ferocious rock & roll born of poor, rural, Southern white trash who could never afford a grand feast of chicken mole and iced tea, not to mention a custom-made sweater with their name embroidered on the back.

Now, I've met, interviewed, jammed or hung with many of the major rockabilly musicians on the planet. I've dined on tacos with Dickie "Be-Bop" Harrell. I've been star-struck as a schoolgirl during recording sessions with Merrill Moore and Billy Zoom. I have endeavored to jam with Billy Lee Riley and Hot Rod Lincoln while so obnoxicated I could barely stand upright. I have hunted lustily for 78s with Deke Dickerson, a real good-lookin' fella if ever there was one. I have inhaled pernicious substances with and been partied under the table by the Blasters. Jerry Lee Lewis once signed my album "Fuck You" and stole my comb.

Yet none of these esteemed, iconic greasers ever demonstrated a more deep, sincere and abiding love of rockabilly music than Lee Rocker, who breathes and eats the stuff much as a soapbox preacher is consumed by Jesus. This Cat never strayed.

Rocker has a brand-new CD out called Bulletproof that is such a grand achievement, one could consider it the revelatory statement of his entire career. The album is a raw masterpiece that's at least the equal of, perhaps better than, any music made by the Cats. Here, Rocker has finally come into his own with songs like the jazzy and urbane "Blue Suede Nights," the insanely hiccuping title track and a honky-tonk take on the Beatles' "I'll Cry Instead" that surely has Charlie Rich shedding a tear in his beer somewhere up in the stars. There's a keen pop sensibility at work that never dilutes the essential snarl and sinew of the rockabilly music he so loves. The man is a hale and committed vocalist and an aggressive marvel of an upright bassist. The two guitarists he currently employs in his band—Brophy Dale and Tara Novick—peel off licks as impressive as anything in the Stray Cats' Brian Setzer's daunting arsenal.

Bulletproof"I definitely feel like Bulletproof is the best work I've ever done," Rocker concurs. "I think I've hit a point where it all comes a lot easier than it has in the past. I spent a lot of time working on this record, but I have an amazing band now. It gels in ways I haven't had happen since the Stray Cats. And most of all, I'm just more comfortable with everything now: singing and writing and playing. Maybe it has something to do with hitting 40—I don't know. But for the first time, I really feel like I'm comfortable in my own skin."* * *Rocker was born Leon Drucker in 1961 in Massapequa, Long Island, 30 miles outside New York City, a long, long way from the rockabilly mecca of Memphis. "It was one of the first suburbs ever built. Right after Levittown. Real suburbia," he says. "The joke was you went there to get your matzo ball pizza. It was all Italians and Jews."His parents, Stanley and Naomi Drucker, were—and remain—world-renowned classical clarinetists rather than hip-gyrating hayseeds. At 19, Stanley became the youngest musician ever hired by the New York Philharmonic. Currently in his 55th season with the orchestra, he is now also its longest-tenured member, with three Grammy nominations under his belt. Naomi, meanwhile, teaches music at prestigious Hofstra University when not performing. Both parents continue to play approximately 200 concerts per year.Unlike many kids growing up in the '60s, Rocker wasn't subjected to the "TURN THAT SHIT DOWN!" rock & roll repulsion espoused by so many parents of the day. Even though they were classically trained, the Druckers listened to all genres of music, respected them and encouraged their beloved li'l Leon to do the same."Classical music was their focus, of course, but they listened to everything," recalls Rocker. "My grandfather is a jazz saxophone player. There was Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly and that kind of stuff on at times. There were new American composers—my parents had a close relationship with Leonard Bernstein, so Bernstein was always around, and there was Gershwin. The rock & roll came from the radio and the stuff I brought into the house, but they didn't object to it." Leon, however, had some resolute objections of his own when Stan and Naomi started foisting their vocation on sonny boy. Forced to begin taking cello lessons at age eight, the future Mr. Rocker was something less than pleased."I hated it at first," he says, laughing. "I definitely tried to avoid it. I'd run down the block, and they'd have to come and get me, you know? It became the single discipline I had when I was growing up. You had to study some kind of music; you had to take lessons; you had to play an instrument. But gradually, I started to like it—a little at a time, and then more and more."Your parents are always a big influence on you whatever you do, and mine happen to be amazing musicians. They've always been supportive, and I had a different outlook than a lot of rock musicians because of them. A lot of rock musicians will go into this thinking, 'Jeez, how can I sell a lot of records and become famous?' But I think from growing up in a family of working musicians, I saw it and continue to see it as a lifetime thing that you do. That's helped keep me balanced."Among Lee Drucker's grade-school friends were classmate Jimmy McDonnell—later to adopt the handle Slim Jim Phantom—and Brian Setzer, a guitar-pickin' kid a couple of years their senior. That this trio of suburban, middle-class Yankees would go on to almost single-handedly revive a genre of rural rockin' that had been completely moribund for 20 years seems highly unlikely, but that's exactly what happened.Initially, the trio jammed together on southern rock tunes by the likes of the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band, bands that were all the rage. As they dug for the roots of the music, they discovered classic bluesmen such as Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. Finally, in their search for the pure genesis of rock & roll, they chanced upon rockabilly."We started going into the city, into the Village, to record stores like Bleeker Bob's, digging deeper, finding where everything came from, and that's basically how we discovered rockabilly," Rocker recalls. "I guess the first record I came across that really made an impression was Carl Perkins' first Sun Sessions records. That really had an impact, like, 'Whoa, what is this stuff?' It just slammed me, this old, forgotten music that you hear where the spark for everything that happened later came from. It was the original punk. 'Blue Suede Shoes' wasn't some cartoon thing; it was the voice of change and revolution."The revolution was more than merely musical. Rockabilly was the sound of white hillbilly and black jump blues merging together, a bold miscegenation that was considered so pernicious and subversive in the institutionally Jim Crow '50s that its performers took their life into their hands whenever they stormed a stage in some backwater juke joint, toothless Ezras all a-twitter, lusting to stage a blanket party for the negro-lovin queers. Early rock & roll shows were among the first public events to be desegregated in the South; often spontaneously so, in the midst of out-and-out rock & roll riots in which the local black kids mixed freely with the white kids in impetuous, giddy outbursts of social liberation."The whole essence of rockabilly was taking black music and grafting it onto white music," Rocker notes. "It was a rebellion against segregation and racial hatred. Elvis was a white guy singing like a black guy, and that broke down a lot of barriers. A lot of those old Sun records had black and white musicians playing together on them. White teenagers started listening to radio stations that were playing exclusively black music." Once Setzer, Rocker and Phantom became the Stray Cats in 1979, what they did, in essence, was connect the dots from rockabilly to punk rock, entwining rock & roll's first revolution with its latest. Employing the traditional slapping upright bass, twangy guitar lines and heavy snare backbeat of 'billy but adding decidedly contemporary volume, attitude and audacity to the mix, the Cats started headlining at such New York City punk palaces as CBGBs and Max's Kansas City. The reaction to the Stray Cats was initially much the same as what Elvis encountered in the '50s: crazed reception from the young hipsters; outright fear and derision from the squares. "I knew right away that the band seriously worked and connected with people," Rocker says. "The audiences were seriously losing their shit at these shows. There'd be, like, 200 people outside in the parking lot who couldn't even get into the club. Inside, there's screaming and stage diving, fistfights breaking out—all for a local band with no record out. We were three guys wearing pink suits with our hair all piled up, and people went nuts. Then we'd go back to Long Island after a gig, and people would be going, like, 'Look at the fuckin' faggots!' Oh, yeah, that happened all the time. It still happens to me if I go back there now. That's Long Island. That's where Joey Buttafuoco comes from, you know?"Feeling that British audiences—long known for their continentally polite embrace of unusual and underground artists—might be less crimson about the neck, the Stray Cats moved to London in the summer of 1980, where they became an immediate sensation. Very early on, the Rolling Stones started coming out to see the band, which drove the British press into a Stray Cats frenzy and the record labels into a bidding war. Four months after arriving in the U.K., the group's first single for Arista, "Runaway Boys," went to No. 3 on the British charts. By December, they were also charting in the top 10 with "Rock This Town" and "Stray Cat Strut."Rocker was but a tender, 17-year-old boychild at the time he moved to England, but he had the full blessing of his amazingly progressive parents. "We were supportive, absolutely," Stanley Drucker says. "We told him he was only six or seven hours away from home, and if he ever needed us to, we'd send him a ticket. We knew that music is a full-time situation, and you have to really apply yourself. You really have to start young and never let up. You can't do it part-time; you really have to live it. Lee lived it. He's incredibly hard-working."Hard-working even onstage, where Rocker developed into one of rock & roll's premium showmen. His entertainingly lewd antics with an upright bass—standing atop it, rolling around on the floor with it, riding it like a lovestruck cowboy, humping it like a rat terrier vibrating on a fat woman's calf—are right up there with Chuck Berry's duck walk, James Brown's knee drops and Michael Jackson's moonwalking in the Greatest All-Time Stage Moves sweepstakes. Perhaps there has never been a rock & roll bass player more fun to watch in concert than Lee Rocker.After a pair of hit LPs in Europe, the Stray Cats' first American album, Built for Speed, was released by EMI in 1982, yielding domestic hit singles and heavy MTV rotation. For 26 weeks that year, Built for Speed occupied the No. 2 spot on the Billboard charts, denied top honors only by Michael Jackson's Thriller album, perhaps the cultural landmark of the decade. "There was a five-year period that went by in a flash, but there are certain things that I'll definitely never forget," Rocker says. "One was being one of the headline acts at the US Festival [in 1983]. Just the fucking hugeness of the thing."Was the very hugeness and vulgarity of the event anathema to the punk ethic of the time?"It didn't go against my ethic is all I can tell you," Rocker says and chuckles. "We were a rock & roll band, not a punk band. If you're a punk and you're singing songs about communism, it's really hard to justify flying into a six-figure payday by helicopter, you know? But I didn't suffer from that. I wanted to be successful. I could never find a reason not to be successful."Sheer exhaustion drove the band to call it a day late in '84. "We were seriously burned-out," Rocker says. "We spent four solid years on the road, and a lot of that time when we went off the road, we were living together in the same apartment. It got to the point where it was hard to take."There have been several Stray Cats reunions over the years, but none have lasted long nor produced anything resembling the commercial success of their initial run. Rocker and Setzer—who went on to a flourishing solo career playing neo-swing with his Brian Setzer Orchestra—are estranged, the result of a VH1 Behind the Music segment Rocker feels was skewed to belittle the Cats while pumping up Setzer's personal place in the history books."I think there was a real effort by him and his manager [Dave Kaplan] to make it look like he was the Stray Cats," fumes Rocker, about as pissed-off as you'll ever see so emotionally reserved a fellow. "That stuff is a tool to sell records, and it's a real rewriting of what took place. Look, Brian's a major talent; his guitar playing is amazing, and you can't take that away from him. But the Behind the Music thing was something that really annoyed me. They definitely had an agenda. I haven't had much contact with Brian since then."The fact is the Stray Cats were very much a group effort, and without the contributions of Rocker and Phantom—a swinging, jackhammer rhythm section with a signature sound, among rock & roll's all-time best—the band would not have been the same mighty machine. While Phantom—who currently tours as a solo artist and drums with side bands 13 Cats and Colonel Parker—didn't want to discuss the Rocker/Setzer feud, he was quick to defend his friends' talents. "There's no way we could have made those Stray Cats records without Lee," he says. "Lee's an incredible musician who has his own sound. He certainly turned a whole new generation of kids onto the bass and that style. As a musician, I really don't know of anyone better. He was constantly practicing and trying to better himself. And he doesn't just play bass; he also plays piano and is a better guitarist than 99 percent of the guys out there on the circuit, too. He's very skilled in theory and harmony and counterpoint—a real musician, that's Lee."The Real Musician has based his solo career out of Laguna since 1991, after living in London, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City. Why? "Because it's not LA," he says. "I lived in LA for a lot of years, and I got to a point where I'd just had it with California. What I didn't know at that point was that it was LA I'd had it with, not California. I discovered Orange County, and it's a fantastic place with a great music scene. And it's a suburb, which brings me full circle in a way. I grew up in a suburb, and I'm happier here. I moved to OC when I was 29; 29 is really young, but at that point, I guess I felt like I'd done just about everything, and in a way I had: I'd been on tour for more than 10 years, sold millions of records, done TV shows and magazine covers. . . . And now, I guess in a way, I've become my old man. I got married, started a family, moved out to the suburbs and became a working musician."Rocker pauses on the notion of becoming his own father, his journey from selling out arenas to playing clubs as a workingman. A look of revelation comes over his face, and he chuckles gently to himself, as if acknowledging that becoming his father is not such a bad thing, not at all. He pokes absent-mindedly at his chicken mole and continues the thought trajectory."I'm lucky because I don't think in pop music terms," he says. "Nothing would make me happier than if Bulletproof became this huge, hit album, but it still makes me feel good inside to be out there playing this music even if nothing ever happened but it made a few other people feel good, too. Rockabilly is like blues or jazz or classical music—you can be like Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore; you can do this till you drop. I mean shit, who's gonna want to go out and see Britney Spears when she's 60 years old? But on the other hand, who doesn't wanna go out there and see Aretha Franklin at the same age?" makes it apparent that the '90s were prologue—an interesting, momentum-building period for Rocker. His blues/rock/'billy combo, Lee Rocker's Big Blue, was a musically interesting, perfectly solid band, but it lacked spark and charisma. Rocker was still getting his stage legs as a front man and seemed unsure of himself at times. Back to solo billing by mid-decade, Rocker's 1998 No Cats CD was a step in the right direction—a more focused return to pure rockabilly than Big Blue's sound, but one that lacked the hellfire confidence, manic energy and raging testosterone that hallmarks Bulletproof.
 
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