In June 1980, 19-year-old James McDonnell (known as Slim Jim Phantom) boarded a plane from New York City to London with his childhood friends and bandmates Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker. In less than a year, they went from being homeless, hungry, and living in punk rock squats to the toast of the London music scene.
The Stray Cats developed a signature sound and style that swept across the world, released multiplatinum albums, and were embraced and befriended by classic rock acts like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, as well as original punk heroes such as the Sex Pistols, the Damned, and the Clash, and rock-and-roll originators Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. After ten years of marriage to actress Britt Ekland, Slim Jim moved down the hill to Sunset Strip, where his son was raised and he owned the world-famous rock-and-roll bar Cat Club while continuing to play with a host of well-known musicians.
Slim Jim, a veteran of the London and LA music scenes, recounts in his memoir not just the Stray Cats' rise but a different type of life spent in the upper echelon of rock-and-roll stardom.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
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A Stray Cat Struts
My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel
By Slim Jim Phantom
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 James McDonnell
All rights reserved.
Early Moments of Clarity and the Luck of the Draw
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be the guy in the band. I never gave anything else much of a thought. I didn't have that Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment; it was something I just knew early on in my life. It was more of a slow burn. I liked music on the radio, and anytime a band played on television, I watched with awe and curiosity. The musicians seemed to be mythic figures. It seemed like a different world. The only thing I knew about it was that I wanted in.
I loved the whole idea of living an alternative lifestyle and traveling with a gang of guys doing something that was fun and exclusive. The Boy Scouts seemed square and regimented. I knew about baseball but couldn't be good enough to get past Little League. I still follow the game closely today. Even during the crazy years, with only the USA papers three days old in a European airport, I always knew what was going on with the Yankees.
I played trumpet in the school band but was always attracted to the drums. I played the drums on the side and took basic lessons at the local Massapequa music store. Brian took lessons there, too. The guitar, piano, and saxophone seemed too unreal to me. I couldn't imagine possibly being good enough on them to be a professional. I could relate to the drums; I thought I could do it. I was pretty good at drumming naturally, and I just kept at it. I hung around with a few of the guys who played in my class. Someone had a guitar, someone had a keyboard, and everyone had a garage or a basement. There were a lot of pretty good musicians in our town. I was very serious about it and was always the guy hustling up the jam sessions, school dances, or backyard parties. I liked the feeling of being onstage and also the way it enabled me to be alone in a crowd. I straddled a few fences with all the different types in school. The guy in the rock-and-roll band can get away with being a bit of a book reader and a baseball fan, as long as you can rock out at the keg party and keep everyone entertained. It was a way to fit in without having to give too much of yourself away and without engaging too much. It allowed me to be involved and still slightly detached at the same time. I really dug being part of a team, and as the drummer I could steer in a friendly way.
I've always had a love affair with the drums. I'd save up to get Modern Drummer magazine, cut out pictures of drummers, and pin them on the wall behind my bed next to pictures of my favorite ballplayers. I'd send away for the free catalogs from Zildjian cymbals, Gretsch drums, and Vic Firth sticks. I thought the old jazz cats were supercool. The English guys were even more exotic and didn't seem like real people. I'd study the different ways drummers set up their kits. The fact that forty years later I'm in those catalogs and speak to and have been endorsed by Fred Gretsch, Armand Zildjian, and Vic Firth still turns me on. All drummers will tell you this. Having your cymbal setup in the Zildjian catalog is just as important as getting your picture in the paper. More than any other type of musician, drummers are just happy to be here. Without a good drummer, no band of any kind can progress.
I started out with a practice pad and a pair of sticks, then graduated to a used kit, and finally, after I proved to be serious, a real drum set. I saved money from birthdays and lawn-mowing jobs and raised a couple of hundred dollars. In a very positive memory, I went with my father to Forty-eighth Street in New York City and came home with a four-piece black-chrome Slingerland kit with all applicable hardware.
I began taking lessons from a jazz legend who lived a few towns over. Mousey Alexander had played with Benny Goodman, Red Norvo, Billie Holiday, and Clark Terry, among others. I took the Long Island Rail Road a few stops and walked the rest of the way to Mousey's house, where he had a little studio with two drum kits set up in his basement. He was a real cool cat. He had a goatee, wore white shoes, and spoke in jazz lingo. Mousey was the real deal. He had toured with these jazz greats all over the world in the 1950s and 1960s. He told me of a tour he did with Benny Goodman in the Far East. The idea of touring Japan and Hong Kong with a band was beyond my comprehension, but I knew I wanted to do it more than anything. He stressed rudiments and syncopation, and he really helped me get comfortable with swinging on the drum kit. My natural feel, which I call rocking swing, really came out under Mousey's instruction. In Mousey, I found an actual person who did these things I thought were just dreams and wishes. He proved it was possible. If I had a chance to travel the world playing music — and, when I got old, settle down and teach the drums — that sounded like a good life.
There were quite a few rock guys in our school and neighboring towns who could play faster and harder than I could. None of them had any fashion sense or a dream to travel off Long Island. I've always felt that there are a few aspects to the type of musician I wanted to be. You had to have a look as well as a musical style. I always felt I had a certain style to my playing, and I worked on it. I also liked to dress in some style that combined a rock look with some vintage piece of clothing like a hat or old sweater. I'd look in the back of one of my father's or uncle's closets for something they didn't wear anymore and mix it with jeans and a T-shirt. I'd continue to take the train into the city and hang out at Manny's or Pro Percussion on Forty-fifth Street, taking three hours to buy a pair of sticks. I'd test cymbals and compare the different sounds with the different sizes. I'd roll the sticks on the countertop to make sure they were straight. The cats working in the store were always cool with me. They sensed I was serious, and I did always buy something, even if it was just a pair of sticks. I thought it would be a great job to work at a place where you talk about drums all day and have sticks in your back pocket. I once saw Louie Bellson hanging out in Pro Percussion. I thought then and still do that being a respected drummer is the best possible job in the world. If you can squeeze out a living at it, more power to you. I took little neighborhood jobs like gardening and dog walking to save up to replace a cheap cymbal with a Zildjian every so often. All the while, I was taking lessons and practicing along to any records I had or could borrow. There was a Hank Williams record around the house, a Burt Bacharach, the first Beatles, and a Roger Miller album. Later I would save up, stash a little pocket money from aunts and uncles, and use Christmases and birthdays to get a few records I wanted. I had to turn up the headphones as loud as they went to hear the record over the sound of the drums. There was an hour a day where everyone in the house and the neighbors knew I'd be practicing. I went to any drum clinics I heard about. The guys at the newly opened Long Island Drum Center were all right. I briefly met Joe Morello, who played the immortal drum part on "Take Five" with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and saw him do a clinic after he had already gone blind, his Seeing Eye dog sitting in front of his drum kit, never moving a muscle. I met future friend Carmine Appice at one of his clinics there. Carmine was supercool to an unknown, questioning young drummer and took me for a slice of pizza. Years later, we would remeet, and I remembered every detail and sincerely thanked him. Later still, I did an instructional drum video for his production company. These little incidents were big events for me as a young drummer with dreams of making a life out of the drums. Anytime I could meet living proof of the possibility, it fueled the fire. Most important, I lugged my drums around and jammed with as many other people as I could.
I met Leon Drucker in the fourth grade. He was in my class, and even at an early age, the serious rock-and-roll guys find each other. In our personalities, it's the classic case of "he's the bass player and I'm the drummer." Even as a kid, he was always more pragmatic and less impulsive than I was. He always thought about things a few extra seconds longer than I did. This could be good and bad. We spent hours in his parents' garage practicing as a rhythm section. He would play boom, and I would play bop. He was on the one beat and the three beat, and I played the snare on the two beat and the four beat. We were very tight as a unit and as friends. By the time fate weighed in, we were ready as a rhythm section. We wrote songs together and really worked at it. We played with a few of the older guys around town at backyard keg parties, and we would sneak through the back doors of a few bars to do the gigs. We were always willing and into playing. I learned a lot of songs during that time and learned all the different grooves and beats for the various types of blues songs. It's training I still remember and use. By the end of high school, we had already formed a band, and we hustled up and played dozens of shows. In the year following school, we had secured a couple of residencies around Long Island and had written two solid sets of original songs. We augmented our songs with blues covers and were really starting to get good at it. We spent a lot of time together and knew each other very well musically and personally.
Lee was my first true pal. I'll use this phrase a number of times about a few people. I don't use this term loosely. It perfectly describes what I feel and believe about a few choice people I've known in my life. Some of them just happen to be well known. They are the people I've met in my life. In a nutshell, a true pal is someone who I'd do anything in the world for, and without my expecting it, I know would do the same for me. If any of them call at 4:00 A.M., I answer the phone. I'll listen to anything they want to talk about. I don't have to speak with them every day, but I do stay in touch with everyone I mention in this way. If you can count ten true pals in your life, you've had a success. Any adventure or life-changing event in my life between the ages of fifteen and forty somehow involved Lee.
Brian Setzer is two years older than Lee and me. Now it means nothing, but when you're fourteen and the other guy is sixteen, it's a big deal. I always thought Brian was a cool guy. He was the first one I knew that had an earring and wore snakeskin boots. He had a Bowie record and could really play the guitar. He was well known in our school as the best guitar player but was also known for not sticking with anyone. He knew what he wanted and always had the dream to be a professional musician. Lee and I were in the same class and friends with Brian's brother, who was an excellent drummer. We've all known each other since grade school. Brian and his brother had a band, and Lee and I had our band. We were the guys who were always looking for something musically different.
This was 1979, and through the right research and quest for cool, we found rockabilly music and instantly fell in love with the sound and style. I started out finding out about rockabilly through some of the older English bands. The Beatles and Stones both covered classics by Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly. The Who had covered Eddie Cochran. A cousin of mine had a copy of Blind Faith, and I heard Buddy again on their version of "Well, All Right." These types of records were easier to find than the originals. I didn't know anyone who didn't think these songs were just more album cuts by those huge bands. No one at FM rock stations pointed out that all the English groups had strong American roots and worshiped our original rock-and-roll stars. As much as we loved these 1970s rockers, they didn't invent the blues. At a certain age, all musicians should want to get to the roots of the music they like. This was our time. WCBS 101.1 was the New York oldies station that played doo-wop and big hits from the 1950s, and I found myself tuning in a bit more. I was also listening to WRVR 105.5, a jazz station, and I'd try to see any of the original cats whenever they played at the Village Gate in the city or Sonny's Place on Long Island. These guys were so good and their chops were so far beyond what I thought I could do that it helped me stay on the path, to look out for a type of sound and look that I could make my own. I'd also go into the city to see any type of new-wave band. There was virtually no place for anything like that on Long Island. Punk rock had kind of already come and gone. Even new-wave, skinny-tie, slightly left-field stuff was discouraged and ridiculed. Blondie, with one of my fave drummers, Clem Burke, had broken through, but the look had not. Elliot Easton from the Cars is a Massapequa native, had gone to our school, and moved to Boston after he graduated. He came to see us at Arthur's Bar, and there was a little talk of him producing a demo. He's still a good buddy and was another shred of proof that someone from our neighborhood could get out of town, make a record, and go on tour.
The jukebox at Max's Kansas City had some things I wasn't aware of. It had the Ramones, Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps "Be-Bop-a-Lula" and "Race with the Devil," and Elvis Presley's first few singles on Sun Records. I was ready to be exposed to this stuff. When I heard "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and saw some pictures of Elvis in his heyday as "the Hillbilly Cat," the world stopped spinning for a split second, and I knew what to do.
A couple of days later, I went to an alternative hair salon on St. Mark's Place, cut off all my hair, and had it greased and sprayed into a pompadour style. The wisecracking, downtown hipster girl doing my hair told me, "It's about time." She was right. I walked across the street to Cheap Jacks and bought some baggy, pleated, gray sharkskin pants, pointy black shoes, and a black bowling shirt. I left the clothes I came in wearing on the floor of the changing room. I walked up to Penn Station, took the train home, and just turned back up at home and acted like nothing happened. There were, of course, the stares and disbelief from family and neighbors. Brian had adopted the rockabilly look a few months before and was playing by himself with a rhythm box in a few small bars. I started turning up, and we became a two-man gang.
I encouraged Lee to get a double bass, and I started to experiment with different ways of setting up the drums. There were pictures of Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps where Dickie Harrell was standing up behind the drums. We thought this was supercool and unique. I took it one step further and moved the drums to the front of the stage and used only the basic pieces I needed to play rockabilly. Since then, I've seen pictures and heard about a few other people playing the drums standing up. At the time we formed the Cats, I didn't know about of any of them besides Dickie Harrell. He would later tell that he only did it in photos. No one had ever moved the drums to the front of the stage and stood in a line with the rest of the band. I think I may have been the first guy to stand on top of them, too. We played a lot of gigs, and that gave me time to develop the stand-up style. We always encouraged each other to push it further and experiment with the showmanship onstage. Years later, in front of a bunch of name drummers, Tony Williams, maybe the best drummer ever, said that this change was my original contribution to the world of drums.
We wanted to create a situation where we could play the music and look the part. We started to do a fun band called Brian and the Tomcats in a few bars in and around Massapequa. The established rock clubs on Long Island would not book us. It was too weird. It was still the 1970s on Long Island, and dinosaur rock and Southern-tinged, long-haired boogie was still the rage. We weren't even punk rock. It was weirder even still. Three young kids with high hair and pink jackets, baggy pants, and two-tone shoes were not the norm. We learned and played Elvis, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Ricky Nelson, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins covers. Each of us was in our other "serious" band that we hoped to get record deals with. We got together to play rockabilly cover songs for fun on nights we weren't rehearsing or playing with our other bands. The Cats had an instant chemistry, and it came across to the audience. The interaction onstage was good right away. There was an understanding of not getting in the way of the other guy. Everybody had the moves and knew when to pull them out. We really loved this music and felt comfortable with each other. We were still very young but had all had a good amount of experience doing gigs. We seemed to instinctively know how to pose for a photograph and really looked like we belonged together. Every great band has distinct personalities and slightly different looks but presents a united front to the outside world. Not every band translates into a bobblehead doll; I think the Cats always did. The three of us are certainly different people, and there have always been rubs, especially in later times, between the other two. Everyone has grown up a little, but each guy, me included, is basically the same person he was when we started this thing. It was a little fate and good luck that we had the pieces we needed right there in our school and that we met up under all the right circumstances. The history of rock and roll is full of these chance bits of kismet. I'm still grateful for the accident of where I grew up and who I grew up with. The luck of the draw was with us. Right away, there was a feeling that it would be us against the world. After a few months, the handwriting was on the wall. The Tomcats, our fun band, was the one everybody was coming to see, and we were packing out these little bars on Long Island in a scene we had created on our own. We started to do the Cats full-time.
Excerpted from A Stray Cat Struts by Slim Jim Phantom. Copyright © 2016 James McDonnell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Early Moments of Clarity and the Luck of the Draw,
2. Escape from New York,
3. A Little Time with the Rolling Stones,
4. LA to Tokyo,
5. I Married a Bond Girl,
6. Our Day: The U.S. Festival,
7. The Killer,
9. Where's Me Pepper Suit?,
11. A Few Stories with Keith,
12. Don't Worry About It, Son,
14. A Quick Flight with John Lee Hooker,
15. Live from the Sunset Strip,
16. The Candy Man,
17. Life with Harry,
18. Come with Me, Kid,
19. Do It for Johnny,
20. Whatever I Can Do to Help,
21. A New Chapter,
22. The Boys in the Band,
23. Full Circle,
A Drummer's Dream,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you enjoy the Stray Cats this book is for you. Well written and great interesting honest stories from one of the best underrated drummers of our generation.