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Behind the Curtain: Rock Roundtable

Written by: Steve Rosen

Veteran rock journalist Steve Rosen details his ambitious Rock Roundtable, a group interview with five key guitarists of the hard rock realm in this month’s Behind the Curtain…

Now it is virtually commonplace to see multiple guitar players from different bands being interviewed together in various magazines and on online sites. You can pick up an issue of a guitar mag and see a coterie of metal shredders philosophizing, jiving, gibing and acting as pundits on the state of the electric guitar. In another periodical, a classic rock legend will be teamed with some modern gunslinger postulating on different styles. In yet other publications and digital sites, there will be assembled the deadliest 7-string players on the planet or maybe some hard rocker paired alongside a jingly-jangly rhythm pop strummer.

You can find those stories everywhere now but back in the early and mid-‘80s you rarely saw them. I’m not sure why. Maybe nobody thought anybody would want to read an interview where guitar players from different backgrounds—or even different bands—were answering the same questions. Or maybe it’s just that nobody ever tried bringing together more than one guitar player for an interview. Who knows?

L to R: Dave Meniketti, Pat Thrall, Jeff Watson, Steve Rosen, Vivian Campbell, Brad Gills

L to R: Dave Meniketti, Pat Thrall, Jeff Watson, Steve Rosen, Vivian Campbell, Brad Gillis (Photo: Glen La Ferman)

All I know is I had an idea for a story back in the early ‘80s. I thought it would be so cool and unique to reach out to guitar players from various bands and interview all of them at the same time. Instead of just sitting down with one musician, I wanted to gather together a bunch of players, sit them down in a room and toss questions at them as a community. A tribe. A gathering of guitar greats all seated around a roundtable bouncing ideas off one another, debating with one another and just generally having a lot of fun—hopefully—  answering the questions being posed to them.

I’m not saying this type of interview had never been done before but I’m pretty sure when my story appeared in the January 1984 issue of Guitar World under the banner “Heavy Metal Roundtable: The Young Turks Re-Define Heavy Metal,” it was one of the very first times this type of multi-interviewee piece had ever been published. I know I can’t ever remember seeing one.

So, when I asked Guitar World if they’d be interested in the story and they jumped all over it, my blood was pumping. I had just started communicating with GW in late 1983 and in fact this January ‘84 issue would not only contain the roundtable story but would also feature my first cover story for them [an interview with Edward Van Halen, the first of three I’d ultimately write]. The whole issue was given over to heavy metal and my rock-in-the round story was going to be one of the main stories.

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Now that I had the go ahead from the magazine, my first thought was, “Where the hell do I start?” The logistics, timing and coordination of an interview of this sort—one that included multiple interviewees from disparate bands—was going to take a lot of planning and pre-production. As it turned out, the whole process would take more than two months. It was like staging a battle that would include warriors and soldiers from different parts of the world. Troops had to be moved into place. Bases needed to be set up. Maps had to be drawn. I started thinking about what I had taken on and was wondering if I was up to the task. I had to figure out who was in town and available. I had to find a location—some place central with easy access—to hold the event. Musicians like to eat and drink so I knew I’d have to bring in food, beer and drugs. Just kidding about the drugs. But there would have to be booze there. Lastly and most importantly, I needed to find a gang of guitar players who wanted to participate.

The initial phone calls probably went out to record companies and managers to see who was on tour and who was in town. Guitar World had it in their head that it would be cool to build the roundtable discussion around Gary Moore. The Northern Irish guitarist was already a legend by this time due to his extraordinary work with Skid Row [the original Skid Row and not the ‘80s version fronted by Sebastian Bach who incidentally took the band’s name from Moore’s group] and having him as the centerpiece would have been amazing. GW reached out to him and he was enthusiastically onboard but about two weeks into the process, he found out that a scheduled U.S. television appearance and several concert dates had been cancelled and he wouldn’t be making the trip over from his native Ireland.

[Note: I ultimately interviewed Gary Moore for the Heavy Metal Rock Roundtable follow-up issue, which appeared in Guitar World’s March 1984 issue].

With Moore crossed off the list, I now had to jump back to square one. But before I even began trying to find people to participate, I had to figure out how many musicians I wanted to be involved. From the outset, I knew that if only two or three guitar players were sitting around the table, this would be far from ideal. With only a couple or three participants, there wouldn’t have been enough interaction amongst them to generate any really insightful comments or observations or at least that’s what I thought. Four guitar heroes all in the same room at the same time would have worked but I felt that five people partaking in this unique discussion would maximize the potential for something truly groundbreaking. I settled on five individuals—a quintet—and set about tracking them down.

Admittedly, I was discouraged when Gary Moore was eliminated. His presence would have totally legitimized the project—there wasn’t a guitarist around who didn’t love and idolize Moore and given the chance to sit and talk guitar with him in the same room would have been a no-brainer—and brought about a real sense of gravitas. I made more phone calls and though virtually every guitarist contacted wanted to be part of this, conflicting schedules prevented their presence.

At a point in time when I was really feeling low, Grover Jackson reached out like a cheerleader from the sidelines. Grover was a friend and recognized the potential of this type of new interview and wanted to support my vision. More than that, he was a master guitar builder who had built instruments for a plethora of talented players and was in contact with many of them. He suggested Brad Gillis and Jeff Watson—the tandem guitar team from Night Ranger—as two possible participants. They were in town recording their second album titled Midnight Madness at a Hollywood recording studio called Image Recording Studios. The Night Ranger guitar players were not only the first musicians to get involved but they also offered Image as a place to conduct the conference.

Gary Moore and Rosen.

Gary Moore and Rosen. Photo: Glen La Ferman

I then reached out to Dave Meniketti. Y&T had just released In Rock We Trust, the band’s sixth album. By this point in their career, the Oakland, CA-based hard rock band had built a faithful and ever-growing following and were receiving a lot of attention from the new release. Dave was a monster guitarist who had inhaled every lick he could find from Jimi Hendrix and Leslie West and I knew he would add a particularly West Coast element to the conversation. He wanted to come along but his manager wanted to know who else was involved. I hemmed and hawed and mentioned Brad Gillis and Jeff Watson and maybe threw out a few other possible names—none of whom had guaranteed an appearance—to sway the decision but I couldn’t close the deal. Meniketti was going to have to fly down from San Francisco and management wanted the final roster before they ponied up airfare.

I really wanted a representative sampling of musicians in attendance and had the idea that inviting along an English or European player might provide a more international perspective. A year earlier, Irish guitarist Viv Campbell had joined Ronnie James Dio’s band and played some classic metal riffs on the singer’s debut album, Holy Diver. Dio had recently left Black Sabbath and there was a lot of focus on him and his new project and consequently Viv fell under the spotlight as well. Of all those in attendance that day, he would prove to be the most confrontational and controversial in terms of his ideas and words and would act as a lightning rod for those around him.

After Viv committed to the Rock Roundtable, I called Meniketti’s management back and told them I now had Viv Campbell as well as the Night Ranger guys lined up. Management said yes. A quartet was in place and as I mentioned earlier, this configuration would have worked but I was still hooked on the idea of five musicians participating. A call was made to Pat Thrall, a stunning and inventive guitar player and a veteran of the heavy metal wars with his work with Pat Travers [he wrote the classic hit “Snortin’ Whiskey”] as well as his own Automatic Man band. Enthralled by the idea, Pat signed on.

With all five participants in place, I now had to find a suitable day to hold the event. A date was finally locked in. I coordinated with Image Recording Studios and arrived early to set the stage. The studio manager told me I could set up in one of the cavernous storage rooms.  I had beer and pizza brought in and then I set up my gear and waited. I kept thinking about that old ‘60s poster, which read, “Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came.” As I sat there alone in the studio looking at the cables and microphones, a terrible shudder crept down my spine. I thought, “If nobody shows up, I am doomed.” But the feeling passed immediately when Pat Thrall walked through the door. I grinned like an imbecile and shook his hand and thanked him for coming. He turned out to be the real diplomat in the group and offered a lot of different and insightful opinions, which really sparked intelligent conversation.

Brad Gillis arrived next and was followed shortly thereafter by his partner Jeff Watson. Dave Meniketti showed up a few minutes later and greeted everybody. Viv Campbell was the last to arrive. Everybody exchanged hellos and shook hands. Beers were opened. It was an extraordinary scene that unfolded. I watched the five guitarists interact with each other as they traded stories and anecdotes and what struck me was the fact that all of these musicians belonged to a very elite club with incredibly limited membership. Not only were they all tremendously beautiful guitar players but they had all achieved success in a business that typically ate up people and spit them out. To that end, there was a degree of camaraderie and ease they felt with one another. They felt comfortable with each other. They all went to the same church. If you weren’t part of that rare fraternity—the gifted guitar player who made good—you wouldn’t have been embraced in this fashion. That was a truly wonderful interaction to witness.

Five chairs had been set in a semi-circle [my idea]. Each guitarist sat down and settled in. I was nervous as hell. It was difficult maintaining eye contact and emotional connection with one interviewee and as I sat there looking from face to face, I realized how difficult this was going to be. I held my breath and gazed down at my notes and tossed out the first question. I hoped for the best and in the intervening silence, I thought my heart would jump out of my throat.  Nobody said anything and nothing happened. Each guitarist was a little reluctant to jump in and everybody was waiting for somebody else to respond. But slowly as I fired off more questions, the energy picked up and momentum was created. One response triggered another. They all wanted to talk and began facing off with each other and fueled the discussion as if I wasn’t even there. This was exactly what I wanted to happen and when it did, I knew that all the planning and strategizing was paying off.

I was proud. I had worked furiously hard to make this happen. As the conversation grew to a close, I directed everybody over to a table with pizza, chips and beer. They all munched away and I could tell everybody had dug the conversation. I just knew. After finishing lunch, all five guys grabbed me, found a role of tape and wrapped me in it [see photo]. It was if they were saying, “Yes, you did good. But you’ve said enough so shut up!”

They were right. I didn’t utter a word for the next three days. I didn’t have to.

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