What Would Journey Do?

With its semi-homeless frontman, the Breakfast Club cheers up Cleveland one power ballad at a time.

’80s tribute bands Journey Cleveland bar scene hot groupies Slammin’ Gladys
The Hi-Fi Concert Club should be prime real estate for music lovers. Its soft, rosy lighting hides baggy eyes and other burdens of nocturnal life. The stage is stripped of distractions and painted an angry black. And the dressing room feels haunted by after-parties past -- cluttered with antique couches and empty liquor bottles, adorned by an old Donnas poster and an autographed photo of a '70s porn star.

In the parking lot, young metalheads -- pierced and painted, but also earnest and sweet -- linger near a dusty minivan. They come inside and meekly ask to borrow pen and paper from the bartender, so they can write out their set list.

At 9 p.m. they take the stage, shredding into dark but passable metal, original music they probably slaved over between homework and shifts at Dairy Queen.

But the audience of one, at this club on Detroit Avenue in Lakewood, is not here for the music. He's here to explain the success of his own band.

Dave Brooks is the lead singer of a group most rock critics wouldn't bother to critique. Rarely has he had a real job or his own place, and he's survived for months without a car or phone. He's admittedly miserable at relationships. And he's obviously not comfortable with getting old: He tans, shaves his chest, bleaches his hair, and routinely lies about his age. He never wears sleeves, but always wears sunglasses. They hide the crowfeet nipping at his emerald eyes.

Yet in a couple of hours, Brooks will look into a crowd of euphoric partyers, women dancing and men playing air guitar, and the whole damn place singing along. He will do this at a bar with a fraction of the Hi-Fi's cachet -- a converted bowling alley called Put-in-Bay Lakewood, which features a wooden boat and beer bongs fashioned from pink plastic flamingos. And he will do this by imitating some of music's all-time-favorite punching bags -- Bon Jovi, Journey, even the Outfield.

Yes, the Outfield.

Brooks has, in many respects, achieved the lowest possible rank in the hierarchy of music artistry: frontman for an '80s cover band.

But when he finishes singing tonight, he'll step outside and let the compliments rain. Awesome, man, they'll beam. Fuckin' awesome. Suddenly, it will feel just like 1992, that God-sent year when he cut a record, toured with Warrant, and -- according to witnesses -- had sex with half of Los Angeles.

Awesome, man. Fuckin' awesome.

But for now, he pulls on a Corona and listens to the metal reverberate through the empty Hi-Fi. For a moment, he considers how this happened: how he failed at rock stardom playing '80s music in the '80s, only to find success two decades later.

"I don't get it," he hollers over the shrieking guitar. "I don't understand why people love this '80s shit so much."

An hour or so later, up Detroit Avenue, instruments sit idle on the Put-in-Bay Lakewood stage. Only the name on the drum kit foretells what's coming: the Breakfast Club.

It's only 10 p.m. Lakewood is just beginning its nightly transformation from unassuming suburb to Post-College Bartown, U.S.A., where the beer is cheap and the measure of a man lies in the number of empty shot glasses before him.

In split-levels from Avon to Mayfield, young women are setting the night's agenda. They're dousing themselves in assorted scents and having a hell of a time choosing between halter tops. And they are texting, searching for the perfect night -- the place with the cutest boys and the best dance floor and the most songs to which they know the words.

This is crucial: They must know the words. It is Friday. No surprises on Fridays.

The guys? Yes, they're coming out too. But they don't set the agenda. They know that they'll eventually climb into polos and flip-flops, and trudge out to Lakewood. They know they'll shoot Jäger and watch girls dance and hope against hope that someone will have sex with them tonight. But they also know how the night will likely end: in the Taco Bell drive-through, contemplating the relative merits of soft taco versus crunchy.

Truth be told, they would prefer to stay right where they are, playing Madden or Texas Hold 'Em or Who Can Get Drunkest Fastest. Truth be told, they would prefer that the women skip the bar and just come over to have sex. This would save everyone a lot of trouble.

But the world is a cruel place for horny young men, so:

Off to Put-in-Bay. At least it has TVs.

At the bar, the guys silently calculate the male-female ratio. It's not good. They consider leaving to find a bar with more women, if one exists. But then some older-looking guys take the stage. A handsome, long-haired man slings a guitar over his shoulder; rumor is, he used to play in Warrant. A guy in ass-hugging lace-up jeans lifts a drumstick in the air. And a bleached-blond dude -- with no sleeves and pants so tight you can definitely see his bulge -- grabs the mic.

He sings: "Hey, hey, hey, hey."

And that's all they need. By the next familiar line -- "Oooooooooho" -- eyes diverted by ESPN are now trained to the stage. And by the chorus -- "Don't you . . . forget about me" -- guys are nodding their heads, even singing along. The women line the bar near the stage, arms raised as if they're on a roller coaster, belting every word.

The opening set builds from there, like a ripple miles off coast that eventually turns a bodyboarder on his head. It rolls gently through "Hurts So Good" and "Just What I Needed," and rises swiftly with "Just Like Heaven." That gets the women dancing. Men inch closer to watch, shrugging and looking at each other: These guys aren't bad.

The wave breaks when Brooks lays into the Outfield: "Josie's on a vacation far away . . ." When the chorus crashes down, the band cuts out, and the crowd, which is growing, does the work for them: "I don't wanna lose your love tonight."

The first set is over. That long-haired guitarist from Warrant, Billy Morris, says into the mic, "Stick around, get drunk, and be somebody."

The crowd obeys.

Everyone is more or less drunk now. Promoters have been passing out free Bud Selects, and a pink-flamingo beer bong is making the rounds. Brooks has shotgunned three beers himself. Even the band's affable bassist, an ad salesman and father of three, who rushed here from his rec soccer game, has partaken of the glorious Flabongo.

Now it's one power ballad after another. None of that building-wave crap. It's Journey into AC/DC into Bon Jovi into Def Leppard into Mötley Crüe into more Bon Jovi. It's 15 women dancing onstage at once. It's guys picking up bar stools and using them to nail that solo from "Pour Some Sugar on Me."

It all ends with a crashing cymbal, the exclamation point on "Fight for Your Right." The crowd stumbles onto Detroit Avenue, hailing cabs and climbing into cars they shouldn't drive.

Brooks joins them on the street. He bums a cigarette and graciously accepts compliments. A drunk guy approaches. Shakes Brooks' hand. Asks the singer to take off his sunglasses, so he can look him in the eyes. Brooks obliges. It's the first time they've been off since he showered several hours ago -- presuming he doesn't wear them in the shower.

"Can I ask you a question?" Drunk Dude slurs.

"Sure," Brooks grins.

"Is it true that you're 51?" Drunk Dude asks.

"Do I look 51?"

"No, man!"

Drunk Dude walks away. He looks embarrassed.

Brooks smiles and says to himself, "Getting close."

Brooks has no shortage of friends, and those friends have no shortage of stories to tell. They can tell you about all the tequila he shot and drugs he did and strippers he screwed, about the places he slept and the nights he didn't. But what they can't tell you -- what they won't tell you -- is how old he is.

"He could be 45. He could be 60," says Brooks' former manager, Obi Steinman, who's privy to the secret, but not spilling. "I do know Dave wasn't born in a hospital. He was born on a pool table."

Actually, he was born in a hospital. But it wasn't long until his mother was taking him to pool halls in their hometown of Geneva, just inside the Pennsylvania border. He was only 14 when he played his first gig, in a nightclub called the Cove.

By the early '80s, Brooks was fronting Risqué, a cover band that played to 2,000 people at the Akron Agora. He moved to Los Angeles in 1989, got a job telemarketing, and shared a two-bedroom apartment with 13 people. That's when he met Steinman.

"I made the mistake of letting him come over to my place," Steinman says. "He didn't leave for about a year and half."

An aspiring talent manager, Steinman didn't have any clients; Brooks didn't have a job. They were a match made in Hollywood. They found some musicians and started playing clubs under that old name, Risqué. The band had a funkier sound than the cock rock that was popular -- Poison, Whitesnake, and the rest. But Brooks' Axl-esque braids, affinity for drugs and strippers, and ability to shriek passionately about these vices helped Risqué tap into the glam-metal scene.

Several labels were interested, but none more than Priority Records. Its existing clients --N.W.A. and Ice Cube, to name two -- had a slightly different sound. But the band signed anyway.

"Priority was really into it," Brooks remembers. "And they offered us a lot of fucking money. But they didn't know what they were doing."

The label wanted Risqué to change its name. After much debate, they went with Slammin' Gladys. "Slammin'" was an unfortunately popular verb/adjective at the time. Gladys -- well, that's Elvis' mom's name.

The band cut its first album in 1992. Warrant frontman Jani Lane, whom Brooks knew from Ohio, helped produce it. The band toured with Warrant, Southgang, and other rising metal acts. But record sales were sluggish, and Brooks' trademark showmanship struggled when his mom, back in Geneva, died of cancer.

"He withdrew by partying," recalls Gladys' drummer Steve DeBoard. "He didn't emotionally deal with it. He just partied harder. He could always outdrink anybody else in our band. After his mom died, he put it aside and partied harder."

The band fell apart, with blame falling everywhere -- on the label, on Brooks' partying, even on the band name. But Gladys' future was doomed from the beginning. All Brooks needed to do was listen to the music coming through the studio wall when he was working on the band's demo. While he was recording songs called "Push" and "Bad Attitude," a scrawny kid from Seattle was in the next studio over, recording "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Polly."

"Isn't that crazy?" Brooks says now. "We're recording our shitty demo, and Kurt Cobain's recording this classic record in the next studio."

That classic record, of course, almost instantly turned bands like Gladys into punch lines. "We were at the ass-end of it all," Brooks admits.

So he bounced between California and Ohio. In L.A., he picked up work as a singing waiter and tried his voice at softer, more introspective stuff inspired by Tori Amos. "It's almost like I pulled my head out of my fucking ass," he says, thinking back. But Thoughtful Dave Brooks had even less success. "I was really starving my balls off." He came back to Ohio, crashed with friends, and picked up work at an Akron studio.

Brooks was again heading back to L.A. in 2002 when he got the call. A Cleveland cover band needed a singer. The pay wasn't great -- $300 to $600 a week -- but it was steady, and it was fun.

Brooks had just had his third child -- a daughter, born to a fling who lived near Akron. The other two were born when Brooks was just a teenager, he says. He's never met them.

"I wanted to be around my daughter," he says. "And I wanted to sing."

"No band compares, ever," the woman is saying. "Ever ever ever ever."

This woman, a 28-year-old human resources manager named Tina, is sitting in a booth at McCarthy's Ale House in Lakewood, sipping a chocolate martini and waiting for the Breakfast Club. She says she's seen them approximately 200 times -- almost once a week since discovering them five years ago.

"Ever ever ever ever," she's still saying.

Tina tracks the band's schedule on MySpace and allows herself one show per weekend. This week she picked a Saturday gig at McCarthy's, where the shows are always packed.

The Breakfast Club was basically an accident. In the 1990s, Paul Holobinko -- a classically trained musician from Broadview Heights -- returned from New York after playing drums behind Chuck Berry, the Temptations, and other national acts. He got a job teaching music to schoolchildren, and domesticated himself: bought some khakis, a nice wristwatch, a minivan. But he kept playing. At a gig in the late '90s, his throw-together trio happened to mix in some '80s rock.

The crowd started chanting: "Eighties! Eighties!"

"The lightbulb went off," Holobinko recalls.

Disco controlled the cover-band scene then. Years of slit-your-wrists rock had created a market for bands willing to wear big collars and play the Bee Gees. A band called Disco Inferno was packing bars around town.

It occurred to Holobinko that the same properties -- happy music, ridiculous costumes -- composed the soundtrack of the '80s. He rallied some musicians and instructed them to go sleeveless. They would be called the Brat Pack. No, wait: the Breakfast Club.

"It couldn't miss," Holobinko says.

The band talked its way into some bars, but it was at McCarthy's that they really found their fans. The bar realized there was a perpetual batch of recent college grads -- up-and-coming drunks from such venerable party schools as Ohio State, Ohio University, and Miami -- that it wasn't reaching. So it built a stage and dance floor, with ample room for stumbling and making out with strangers.

The Breakfast Club was among the first to play that stage. Since then, hundreds of young women, mostly in their 20s, have stumbled into the band's -- and Brooks' -- intoxicating circle.

"He's strange, but I tell you what: He's got more women following him," says Linda Costanzo, who owns Scoundrels in Berea.

The band won over bar owners by bringing a young, hard-partying crowd to every show. "The Breakfast Club has loyal, loyal fans," Costanzo says. "Those kids come late, and that's good because they spend. It's amazing . . . They all dance. They all get involved with the band."

The Breakfast Club is now among Cleveland's highest-paid cover bands.

Its following includes plenty of men. Allen Tesch accidentally caught the band in North Olmsted and has been following it ever since. But Tesch knows that it's women who fuel the Breakfast Club's success. "As long as it gets the girls pumped up, that's all that matters."

Another young man, lingering near the stage at a recent show, summarizes the scene by pointing to a slim young woman gyrating on the dance floor. "Like that right there," he says. "It's happy rock. It gets them dancing. It loosens them up. That's what draws the guys."

Even when the man-to-woman ratio is a dreaded two-to-one, as it was at Put-in-Bay, the minority rules.

"'Jesse's Girl?' I wish I never had to play that song again," explains bassist Brian Dossa. "But the girls love that song. You take that song away, and half the girls don't show up. '867-5309?' I've been playing that song for eight years. I hated it eight years ago. But the girls love that song."

Gretchen Shirk, a speech therapist from Hudson, has seen the Breakfast Club around 75 times. Of course, she could still see many of the bands it imitates. Journey still tours, albeit without Steve Perry; so do Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe. But why pay $40 when she can hear them for free? Why wade through Bon Jovi's whole songbook when she can skip right to "Livin' on a Prayer?" Especially, she says, when the quality's the same.

"When you hear Brooks sing 'Separate Ways,' if you close your eyes, you can't tell that Journey's not on stage."

Brooks does have a powerful voice -- falsetto pipes that reach every corner of a bar. And he's a showman. In the '80s, he scraped together money for a wireless mic, so he could escape being tethered to the stage. The act was a hit -- especially the time he fell off the bar and into an open wine cellar.

Hands fluttering and hips swiveling, he now stays on the stage -- but never in one place. The band plays almost the same set every night, but every time Brooks raises his hand near his head, you honestly believe his solemn oath: "Any way you want it, that's the way you need it."

Of course, the Breakfast Club isn't the only Cleveland band making money off the '80s. They may not even be the most popular. The Spazmatics, who dress like nerds and play a more eclectic brand of pop, charge even more than the Breakfast Club. They're managed and marketed out of California by a sort of tribute-band chain store with outfits in several other cities.

"They're like the Wal-Mart of cover bands," Dossa hisses about his archrivals.

"I bet the Spazmatics can't drink tequila like us!" Morris hollered at a recent show.

The quip may have been shtick, but the Breakfast Club does bring to its shows a certain authenticity -- a sincere devotion to partying and sex, and a committed suppression of more serious notions. "It's all about excess," says Tesch. "That's what the '80s were all about."

Before almost every song, Brooks screams, to the crowd's delight, "This is a fuckin' love song!" Then he refines his definition of love, changing lyrics to match his own adolescent horniness. AC/DC keeps "the motor clean." Brooks keeps "the pussy clean." The Ramones "wanna be sedated." Brooks wants "to see you naked." Even bar names aren't immune to the frontman's wordplay: He refers to McCarthy's Ale House as "McCarthy's Tail House."

It's not the most sophisticated improvisation, but it apparently works. Superfan Tina says she's met many Breakfast Club regulars who have proudly announced they were sleeping with Brooks.

Still sipping her chocolate martini, Tina is careful to point out that she does not have sex with band members. "I have a career to protect," she says.

But she will admit that Brooks "smells hot."

"It's like a sex smell," she explains. "It makes my sex glands swell."

She believes Brooks is almost 40; it's pointed out that he may be closer to 50. "I still think he's hot," she says, then adds, "I hope he gets health insurance."

The bassist, Tina says, is also very hot. "I would totally jump his bones." But she soon learns that, unfortunately, Dossa is married, with three kids. "He probably has health insurance," she notes.

Brooks' voice suddenly fills McCarthy's: "Hey hey hey hey." By the time he starts pleading, "Don't you forget about me," Tina is already shaking hands and heading to the dance floor.

Dave Brooks walks into the Hi-Fi again, only this time, there are customers inside. Billy Morris, the bar's owner and Breakfast Club guitarist, recently launched a new Ladies' Eighties Night, a regular Thursday party devoted to two of his favorite things: women and '80s rock. This breezy night in May is the inaugural party.

Brooks is sleeveless and in sunglasses again, but this time he carries a brightly patterned duffel bag, where he keeps his accessories: body glitter, pomade, apricot lotion, highlight spray, and the bulge-accentuating pants he got at Hot Topic. He also carries this bag because he has no idea where he'll sleep tonight.

It's been like this for much of Brooks' life. He has an uncanny ability to fend off money. In Los Angeles, his days consisted of waking up late, going to rehearsal, working out for a couple hours, and going out to get wasted. He ate a lot of ramen noodles and frozen vegetables. He slept, for the most part, wherever he landed -- often in the beds of excessively young and beautiful women. Off nights would find him on couches or closet floors.

Little changed when he came back to Ohio. The Breakfast Club is his only job. During the week, he mostly stays with an old friend in Cuyahoga Falls, a woman he took home after a gig 25 years ago. On weekends, there's a bed waiting at the Lakewood apartment of another old friend. And there are other people -- mostly women, but old band guys too -- who will gladly open their doors to him.

"For a while there, he didn't have a car," Dossa says, sounding dumbfounded. "He would call me for a ride . . . I'd be like, 'Are you gonna need a ride home?' And he'd say, 'Nah, don't worry about it. I got it.'"

Over the last few weeks, he's slept at least at eight different places, often in the beds of women he's just met. "It's good to be the singer," he acknowledges.

Earlier this year, he was dating one of his superfans, an aspiring actress named Leah. She was 23 when she discovered the Breakfast Club last February. She started showing up every weekend, and before long she was dating Brooks. But she was "living with the rents" at the time, so they sort of "floated together," crashing at his friends' houses after shows.

"An adventure is a good way to describe it," Leah says. You can now find her at Ladies' Eighties Night, behind the bar -- unless she's on top of it. "I can't not dance when I hear 'Talk Dirty to Me,'" Leah says.

Brooks' lifestyle awes his friends.

"Half the time I think he wouldn't care if he got paid, as long as he got laid at the end of the night," Dossa says. "Sometimes I think, 'How can he not settle down and get a house and that sort of thing?' Other times I think, 'What a great life.'"

"If you don't have to have a day job, how fucking great is that?" friend Matt Cleary adds. "What else do you want out of life? Money's one thing, but having money is just our way to get chicks. We're all just animals who want to eat, sleep, and fuck. If you're not hungry and you're not tired, what else is there?"

Or as Gladys drummer Steve DeBoard puts it: "He's like David Lee Roth that never got famous."

Brooks is just as awed. He thought his career as a sex-and-booze rock star died with Slammin' Gladys. But it turns out, he was just waiting for the world's sorority girls to discover the pure, uncut joy of "Don't Stop Believin'."

But Brooks sometimes seems conflicted about the frolicking life he's carved out. He lugs around CDs he's recorded over the years, funky tracks with thoughtful lyrics that very few people have ever heard. He still slaves at music, writing at least a song per week and furiously recording originals with local musicians. Those endeavors cost him money and earn him nothing, save for the occasional self-inflicted case of goose bumps. "I don't think I worked hard enough," he says of his career. "I'm kind of lazy by nature. I didn't try hard enough. But I'm still trying."

He recently cut a new record with two local musicians. It's called Blood Moon.

"It's a really good record," he says. "And it might get picked up. You never know."

Brooks realizes his history with women is the sort of thing therapists dream of. After all (he finally admits), he's almost 48 years old.

"I just don't know what to do. When you get girls throwing pussy at you, it's hard to turn it down. I know that sounds like a pig thing to say, but . . . I don't have any malice. I never did."

Even the obvious joy his work brings people doesn't always please him. After the Put-in-Bay show, someone pointed out that his singing had just made a lot of people genuinely happy.

"So does McDonald's," he said dryly.

But Brooks, like his fans, is very easy to cheer up. All it takes is some Corona, some tequila, and a little Billy Idol.

The HiFi's inaugural Ladies' Eighties Night attracts just a modest crowd, but when Holobinko kick-pedals the show into motion, the dance floor floods. Young women sing into Bud Lights and grind their butts into boyfriends, who respond by shredding some air. Brooks jumps around like he's playing "Your Love" for the first time. "Can we get some Corona and Cuervo up here?" he pleads from the stage.

After the set, Brooks locks himself in the dressing room with a petite and gorgeous woman half his age. Later, he climbs into a slightly worn stretch limo idling on Detroit Avenue. His new companion, along with an old roadie friend and another young woman, join him. They pull away at 2:30 a.m., headed God knows where to do God knows what.

"It's ridiculous," Brooks said earlier in the night. "I know it's not 1985 or 1988. It just feels like it on Friday and Saturday nights in Lakewood."

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