April 1999. The Galaxy Concert Theatre. The Cadillac Tramps were back, and for fans of the once-and-future greatest band ever to emerge from Orange County, it was a scene of triumph, of victory over self, of final resolution in an opera of low tragedy, high comedy and gunfights. For nearly 15 years, the band had gone back and forth between Next Big Thing to come out of the Orange County music scene and Ex-Big Thing. Their career arc was as jagged as an electrocardiogram—and periodically as heartbreaking. The Cadillac Tramps have influenced local bands from No Doubt to Throwrag. They have produced four albums, from their self-titled debut in 1987 to last year's live collection.
But the band had been unable to escape local-legend status, mostly because of its own demons. Demon drugs.
Now here they were at the Galaxy, back from disasters too countless to enumerate, as great as ever—nay, greater!—officially reunited after a four-year breakup, and everything falling into place.
And then, within weeks, tubby, tattooed lead singer Michael "Gabby" Gaborno, the band's indisputable and unpredictable driving force, was popped again. For drugs.
Gabby was sentenced to 90 days, served 45, "but was using in jail," says Brian Coakley, the Tramps' guitarist, who is sober now after his own struggles with alcohol and drugs. "Gabby tested positive on the day he was released. A warrant for his arrest had him back in jail, sentenced to an additional six months, of which he served 90 days."
Coakley, who was managing the band during its truncated comeback, was assigned the unpleasant task of calling clubs and rescheduling gigs, doing a little fast talking to get around the real problem. "We used the party line," he explains. "We wouldn't talk about Gabby's drug problems, only off the record. But when you blow off a show, [club bookers] are pissed-off. Especially after I've told them, 'We want this much money, we want an extra ad in OC Weekly, we want this, we want that.' And then to have to go back and say, 'Sorry, Gabby got arrested.'"
"One time, we were supposed to play the Roxy," Gabby recalls. "I was already an hour or two late because I was in a gunfight over heroin—when what I really love to do was waiting for me: a sold-out crowd at the Roxy, practically rioting because I didn't show up. I got shot in the back."
July 2001. The band is back again, its members simultaneously out of jail and, presumably, off drugs. The key to this clean-and-sober status is Gabby. He was released in February, and the Cadillac Tramps are again revving up for their latest run at the success they might have had back in the 1980s. They're scheduled to play this year's Hootenanny. Of course, there was that time in the late 1990s when the band was booked to play alongside an all-star lineup at the Hootenanny—and never showed. Gabby insists they'll be there this time.
"When I'm onstage, I can be myself and not give a shit about what anyone thinks," he says. "When I walk off, I pretty much hide. It's always been that way."
It's become the story of his life—and his band's. And it's a measure of their popularity that a band that has burned more bridges than the Serbian military can still talk to music bookers—and that its members can talk amongst themselves.
The other members of the Cadillac Tramps—bassist Warren Renfro, drummer Steven "Spanky" Barrios and guitarist Mike "Maddog" Combs—have watched Gabby put his drugs over their future as a band again and again and again. During a jailhouse conversation with Gabby last winter, Renfro laid out his ultimatum: he had just received a good job offer, and his wife had just had their third child. "But if [Gabby] is willing to help himself," says Renfro, "I will stick by his side."
Gabby says he's willing, but he knows everybody has heard that many times before.
"Friends come up to me, and they hug me," he says, "but I still feel like I'm so bad that maybe I don't deserve it."
Coakley, however, thinks he hears something different in Gabby's promises this time.
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"I can hear a different person talking," he says. "I can hear the Gabby that was clean—the Gabby who is the nicest guy in the world and has the biggest heart. He never was a bad guy."
But the Cadillac Tramps will remain a band one day at a time.
"I think Gabby has the best chance he's ever had," says Coakley. "But there's this element of danger that creeps in when he's using. It's hard to describe."
Cadillac Tramps perform at Hootenanny 2001 at Hidden Valley Ranch, behind Verizon Wireless Amphitheater and Wild Rivers Water Park, Irvine, (714) 740-2000 or (949) 263-4552. Sat., 11 a.m. $40-$100. All ages.