The Pretenders 

Satisfying our jones for nostaglia and their need to kick out the jams, tribute bands mimic the monsters of rock.

Authenticity can be a bitch. In order to recreate the look of Shout at the Devil-era Motley Crue, the members of the tribute band Looks That Kill took album covers to a local leather shop. The studded, multicolored costumes were custom-made at $1,000 a pop.

The band scoured record conventions for concert footage, but most of the videos for sale were filmed after the Crue left the makeup and satanic symbols in the mid-'80s curiosity pile. There were other challenges. Fans would expect pyrotechnics. The guitars had to look right. Singer Tommy Lewis's between-song patter needed to mimic Vince Neil's. If Mick Mars spat blood during his guitar solos, so would Dana Scott Caputa.

And the whiskey. One of the pre-sober Crue onstage routines involved the copious consumption of Jack Daniel's. Pat Michael, who portrays Nikki Sixx, has to chug the booze as if it were shooting out of a garden hose. One show, appreciative audience members kept sending rounds of shots up to the stage. Would the Crue turn up its nose at free sour mash? Not bloody likely.

"We could barely get through the second set," says Caputa, who has a hard enough time prowling the stage in ankle-buckling boots. Now, a wiser Looks That Kill sips from a bottle of Jack filled with iced tea.

Any decent tribute act is meticulous about sounding like the original. For look-alike bands, like Looks That Kill, the challenge is double. A friend of the band sent a photo of Looks That Kill to CrYe drummer Tommy Lee. The band was worried about his reaction. Would he say they looked like dumpy whores? Would he sic a pack of copyright lawyers on them? "Great likeness," Lee wrote in a return e-mail, "but Mick never smiles." Caputa hasn't grinned since.

They don't pepper concert stages and barrooms as they did in the 1980s, but tribute bands can command an audience as long as classic-rock stations keep "Whole Lotta Love" and "Brown Sugar" in relentless rotation. Groups with an arsenal of radio regulars and/or a signature look bordering on caricature--the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Kiss--are especially ripe for homage. But even niche bands like Devo have tributes (San Francisco's Mongoloid).

The musicians in tribute bands are usually young pups eager to pretend to be their heroes or aging rockers reluctant to leave the spotlight. What they offer is nostalgia on the cheap. Sure, the Stones are still around, but a tribute band offers the experience in an intimate setting for the price of a Sprite at Gund Arena. And you don't have to sit through any songs from Bridges to Babylon or be reminded Mick Jagger is a grandpa.

A cigarette in one hand, a bottle of Budweiser in the other, Bill Pettijohn dangles from the microphone stand. Knees perpetually flexed, he looks unwilling--or unable--to stand erect. The crowd for Moonlight Drive at Peabody's DownUnder is small because of a snowstorm. Pettijohn doesn't let the thin room bother him. Despite his advancing age, he's a fairly convincing Morrison in white shirt, black leather pants, and chunky belt buckle. "When I was a kid," he says later, "one of my wishes was to sound like Morrison, even before my voice changed."

Pettijohn first channeled Jim Morrison Thanksgiving Eve 1980. At Tommy's, a club on the West Side, he hopped onstage with the Bowlers and performed "Light My Fire." The crowd lapped it up. Pettijohn thought, "Oh my God, I should put a band together." Moonlight Drive will celebrate its eighteenth anniversary in March.

The Doors may be the perfect band to tribute. The band sold more records in 1980--nine years after Morrison died--than it did in any previous year. Classic rock radio, the Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive, and Oliver Stone's film have kept the Doors' legend fluid. Morrison's death has prohibited most (though not all) attempts by the surviving members from mounting a reunion. What's left is the myth--and guys like Bill Pettijohn.

"If we weren't the first, we were one of the first tribute bands ever," he says. Pettijohn considers himself both a rocker and an actor, an appropriate combination to seance with the Lizard King. Pettijohn also fronts Beggars Banquet, a Stones tribute. The difference between performing Jim and Jagger? "With Morrison, I can drink a lot more. With Mick, I've got to be more on the ball, because there's a lot more going on."

Mojo Risin is another local Doors tribute. Its Jim is a substantially younger (he's 22) Jay Zirkle, who replaced another singer on 24 hours' notice. A gig at Chief's Tavern was the first time he ever sang into a microphone. "I just fell into the part," Zirkle says. "It was almost like deja vu. It really didn't take much to get into it." Zirkle doesn't think he's playing a role as much as serving as a conduit. "It's odd, actually. I actually feel like I slip into an old glove, something that fits. I don't think of it as me or him. I don't get up there and think, Would Jim do this? I just get up there and it feels right ... I think I'm almost a messenger, getting the word out, if you will."

Chris J. Fry, the singer of the Ozzy Osbourne/Black Sabbath tribute Oz-mosis, was "pretty much a nobody" bass player in the Erie, Pennsylvania metal scene. He knew he could sing like Ozzy, so he ditched his original band and put together an Osbourne tribute. After taking a few voice lessons and finding the right decorative goat heads, he had an act. "A lot of my friends come out and can't believe it's me," he says.

Once musicians decide to go tribute, they develop an almost pathological quest for reality. Oz-mosis's live show has pyro, fog machines, and an eight-foot cross speckled with broken mirrors. Fry uses an effects pedal on his vocals to capture the production swerves of Ozzy's recorded material. "Everything's more true to the album than what you'd expect," he says.

Oz-mosis isn't getting rich doing this. Few tribute bands are. But with an eye for detail and a love for the original's work, tributes can find gratification that most original bands experience only in their best rock-star dreams. Fry says he might drink but two beers during an Oz-mosis show, because "the rest of my intoxication comes from the audience. And getting paid."

A self-described "rock and roll juggler," Eroc Sosinski plays in two tribute bands, Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd) and Sugar Magnolia (the Grateful Dead). He also handles the bass work for Michael Stanley and does acoustic gigs. It's the best way he knows to keep working as a musician, though he still has a day job. "The days of the full-time rock and roll bands are few and far between in the '90s."

Both Wish You Were Here and Sugar Magnolia draw well. A recent Wish show at the Odeon was packed with Floyd fans, including two dudes who grabbed each other by the shoulder and mouthed the lyrics at particular intense moments.

Sosinski says other musicians don't give him a hard time about playing in a tribute band. He thinks most wouldn't turn down the opportunity, if it were presented in the right way. "Everybody loves that you're playing the Odeon," he says, "but tribute and cover bands do carry a certain stigma."

Tribute bands tend not to be sheepish about making money off someone else's songs and image. (They don't pay royalties.) The precision of their playing and the respect for the music are frequently cited defenses. "Nobody asks the Cleveland Orchestra why they play Beethoven's Fifth," says John Kastelic, guitarist for the Yes tribute Envision. And tribs don't think they're siphoning away crowds from struggling original acts. Says Sosinski of most of his paying customers: "If we weren't there, they'd just be drinking in a bar, playing the jukebox. Or they'd just stay at home."

Zirkle says he was a little squeamish at first about exploiting the Morrison mystique, and he struggles with some fans' expectations: They may not want to see Morrison the poet but a dangerous, unpredictable rebel. "You can't get around the fact that everyone wants to get inebriated with a Jim Morrison figure," he says.

But he takes satisfaction in the band's well-turned covers of the Doors' more obscure material, and fans have told him they sought out Doors records after watching and hearing Mojo Risin perform. "We're creating business for the Doors," he says. "We're creating fans for the Doors."

Rock music's loftier pretensions of the 1970s are being celebrated this night at Akron's Highland Theatre. Most ticketbuyers are in their thirties and forties. A lot of couples. Blue jeans and black jackets. The air is thick with exasperation at what rock music has become in the '90s.

A drummer's broken foot forced Trilogy, an Emerson, Lake & Palmer trib, to cancel. It was probably for the best; even if the show hadn't started an hour late, sitting through four art-rock acts seems more punishment than entertainment.

Afterimage, a Rush tribute, takes the stage first. The crowd shows its appreciation of Afterimage's Xeroxes of "Limelight," "Spirit of the Radio," and "Working Man" with heartfelt applause and flicked Bics. Afterimage isn't really a Rush tribute--just three dudes in their thirties who slapped together a set for the night. "We're all married," says drummer Mike Koehler. "We just get together every Friday and goof around and drink beer." Koehler cares so little for visual Rush authenticity he's wearing a Beatles T-shirt.

Megabands like the Doors and the Stones may spawn the greatest number of tribute bands, but prog rock has its loyalists. Matt Riddle put together Envision a year and a half ago to celebrate Yes's cloud-scraping ambitions of the early '70s. Ingeniously, he tabbed his wife Melissa to replicate Jon Anderson's soaring vocals. The Highland audience marvels at Envision's ability to play finger-benders like "Roundabout" and "I've Seen All Good People." The band takes the responsibilities of being a Yes trib seriously. Alex MacDonald thumps a white Rickenbacker bass, just like Chris Squire did. Riddle bought a mini Moog synthesizer years ago, and "I literally kept it in the closet, waiting for this band." Envision doesn't make much of an effort to look like Yes, but then Bill Bruford would be difficult to pick out of a police lineup.

An obvious question for the members of Envision is why? Didn't everyone have their fill of the real Yes? They don't think so; hyper-craftsmanship never goes out of style. "Eventually, people are going to want substance: 'Yeah, that stimulates me intellectually,'" Riddle says.

Envision hopes to add originals. The band rejects the suggestion that by tributing Yes first, it's cheating, skipping the empty-club, hissing-crowd phase. "The Yes thing is kind of a door-opener," Riddle says. "If we were really going to open doors, we'd be a Beatles tribute band."

Fayrewether closes the night with its mix of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and Jethro Tull covers and originals. For twenty-four years, Paul Fayrewether has straddled the line between tribute act and original artist. He saw theatrical costumes--some borrowed, some of his creation--and cover songs as a passport into the clubs that resisted bands that played original music. The shrewd blend allowed him to play music full-time in the '80s.

Near the end of the band's run, Fayrewether was playing more originals than covers. Fans often had to ask which song was his and which was written by someone else. The band broke up in the early '90s, and Fayrewether has recessed into regular-guy life, working on his music in his spare time. He doesn't believe his reliance on other artists' songs and fashions eclipsed his songwriting. "I'll tell you what: The stalwart fans that came out from the beginning really wanted to hear those songs," he says of his original material. Then why didn't it lead to something greater? "We were always so close. I'm not really sure. Maybe we just didn't have that pop hit."

If tribute bands had a governing body, the bylaws would likely forbid any act from slipping original material into its set. When he performs with his Genesis trib Seconds Out, Robbie Cooper often sneaks in his similar-sounding material. The practice--luring crowds into venues like the Odeon with the promise of Genesis, then performing something else--seems shady. "If the audience didn't like it, I wouldn't be doing it," the Utica, New York resident says.

Cooper is a veteran of the tribute scene, playing with Over the Garden Wall, another Genesis knockoff, before Seconds Out. At 34, he dreams of dropping the shtick once and for all. Cooper says the Genesis tribute hasn't stifled his career, but his catalog of original music is pretty thin for a fifteen-year veteran musician (one EP, one CD, another on the way). "I can't do Genesis the rest of my life."

Not every tribute act is anxious to move on to more imaginative pastures. The rock hero life, even at this shrunken, mutated level, is a tough one to leave. As Bill Pettijohn says: "As long as I can stay trim, fit into my leathers, and sing like Morrison, I'll keep doing it.

More by David W. Martin


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