Years from now, when Orange County fans of the Cadillac Tramps look back on the band's legacy, they'll remember loud guitars and a rumbling rhythm section that created chaos in the pit and bent genres to their will. They'll remember late nights and wild shows that defined the Golden Era of the Orange County music scene in the early '90s. They'll remember the highlights that earned them a shot at the big time, and the lowlights that nearly tore them apart. But most importantly, they'll remember Mike "Gabby" Gaborno, the frontman who laughed in the face of death.
To this day, Gaborno's devilish belly laugh on the song "Hoodoo Guru," the album opener on 1993's Tombstone Radio, reminds us that this band will always be tougher than anything that's tried to take them down. As long as OC's ultimate punk rock vato is busy banging his head, telling dirty jokes and making people laugh on stage, nothing could ever touch him—not heartbreak, not drug addiction, not even liver cancer. His battle with the Big C comes on the heels of a tough recovery from a heart attack, a stroke, diabetes, as well as liver and renal failure. Several years ago, doctors told him he was lucky to be alive.
"Looking back at it now and I’m like 'how lucky I am to even make it to 51?'" Gaborno says. "I look at it and say wow I don’t think the average cat would’ve made it through that."
Tomorrow night, the Tramps are playing at Alex's Bar in honor of Gaborno's 51st birthday. It's an important one, not only for him, but for the fans and friends who can attest to the healing power of music that's allowed the frontman to fight for his life for so many years. This week, he announced via Facebook that his cancer has spread to his stomach. Ironically, it's the gut that Gaborno always makes a point to clutch with both hands on stage (especially back when he was a lot heftier) as he lets out that loud laugh. The news struck a huge blow to the punk scene that'll still be raw when the band performs at Alex's, which was also the site of Gaborno's 50th birthday roast last year.
"It'll be filled with lots of hugs, lots of hellos and lots of goodbyes," Gaborno says of this week's Alex's Bar show. "I really didn’t think I’d make it past 51 so this is a milestone, man. I just got to celebrate my son’s birthday, I’m amazed that he’s gonna be able to celebrate one with me."
Since his diagnosis, Gaborno says he's pledged to continue living in the moment, just as he always has, with family, friends and fans of his music helping him through it.
"It’s such an amazing support system and how lucky I am to grow up where I’ve grown up and had this scene backing me up," he says.
Earlier this year, the story of the Tramps was translated into documentary. Cadillac Tramps: Life on the Edge, directed by Jamie Sims Coakley (wife of Tramps guitarist Brian Coakley) retraced the band's journey through the decades, including their shambolic beginnings in the late '80s as drug-addled teens and early 20 somethings who found salvation in each other while in rehab. Gaborno, along with guitarists Coakley and Johnny "Twobags" Wickersham, bassist Warren Renfro and drummer Jamie Reidling started recording songs together in the early '90s about the pitfalls of life and tales from the streets where they came of age. Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine anyone would care. It turns out a lot of people did.
Their mix of punk, swamp blues and sleazy rock-n-roll inspired by bands like Thelonious Monster produced five albums, countless national tours and a loyal fan base at home in Southern California. To this day, OC's diehard love for the Tramps' unique sound is still strong, symbolic of our local underground scene that's always championed diversity in its music, giving the finger to county's suburban, cookie-cutter stereotype.
"It was great with the Cadillac Tramps," Gaborno says. "Even though we all come from the same scene, when we come together, we were like “why don’t we try what we like at the moment?” Orange County is a very open minded scene, it may have changed a little bit over the years, but it’s still a little bit of everything."
In the years since he entered the music scene, Gaborno's made immeasurable contributions through his other bands—from punk rock jesters Manic Hispanic to the X Members and his blues band Santos Y Sinners. His boundless energy is the life force of every project he's ever touched. It's even more amazing considering his blue collar, working class background. When we called him earlier this week, he mentioned that despite the dire stage of his cancer, he still goes to work a construction job as a concrete inspector, taking days off when his health doesn't permit him to get out of bed.
"I’m taking time off as I need it," he says. "There’s been a lot of cases where I’ve said 'sorry I can’t work,' and everyone’s been totally cool about it."
Aside from performing, Gaborno says the two main things keeping him going are his faith in God and the love he has for his six year-old son. Though he was one of the last guys who would consider praying to God in his hard-partying 20s, Gaborno says his religion is now a calming force at this stage in his life that's allowed him to learn to be thankful for everything he's got. The high he used to get from drugs and partying is eclipsed by the joy of watching his son play in Little League games on Saturday afternoons.
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"I’m that ridiculous dad climbing the backstop and coaches are telling him to shut up," he says. "I’m absolutely in love with my son. I’m so blessed and so lucky. Even to hang out and celebrate with my friends this Thursday—what a blessing. Who could ask for more?"
In the face of death, Gaborno's laughter is now about more than just brash bravado. It's about understanding that true greatness in life comes from playing each show like it's the last one you've got to give. Even though it won't make it any easier for us when Gaborno is gone, hopefully those who love and respect him are thankful to have him now, living in the moment, as tough and funny and iconic as he ever was.
"Hey man, don’t lose your faith and keep your dukes up," he says in the last moments of the interview. "Who knows, with that combination of strength, maybe I make 52, maybe I make 53. It’s really not up to me."
Cadillac Tramps perform with Joyride and One Hit Wonder on October 6 at Alex's Bar. For tickets and full details, click here.