'Like a Rolling Stone' an Ode to Tribute Bands

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Author Steven Kurutz knows what it takes to be a rock star who acts like a much bigger rock star. Kurutz discusses his new book, Like a Rolling Stone, which takes readers backstage, onstage and on the road with Sticky Fingers, a Rolling Stones tribute band.

NEAL CONAN, host:

There are few among us who never sang into an imaginary microphone along with Mick Jagger, played air guitar to a Jerry Garcia solo, or thought, just for a minute or two, about what it must be like to live the life of a rock star. A few of us, a very few, made the dream come alive.

A few more live a kind of ersatz existence, playing Keith or Mike or Paul or John or Ringo as a member of a tribute band, Strawberry Fields or Motley Cruel or Almost Queen or the Dixie Chicklets, to name just a few. Writer Steven Kurutz spent a year following a Rolling Stones' tribute band called Sticky Fingers, and he joins us in just a moment.

If you have questions about why people would spend decades on the road pretending to be a rock star, if you've played in a tribute band, if you are a fan or a groupie, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org, and you can tell us your story on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Steven Kurutz joins us from our bureau in New York. His book is titled "Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band." And thanks very much for coming in.

Mr. STEVEN KURUTZ (Author, "Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band"): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I was astonished to discover that there are different categories of bands who play other bands' tunes. There is the tribute band. There is the cover band. And a clone band. Please explain.

Mr. KURUTZ: Well, a cover band is a band that plays a wide variety of other people's music. A tribute band is sort of a very highly specialized version of a cover band. They dedicate themselves to one particular group and try to emulate them.

Most try to emulate them as closely as possible in look and sound. And a clone band is, sort of, a derisive term that some tribute performers use if they focus just on the music or they don't try to mimic it note-for-note. They look down on others who do mimic note-for-note.

CONAN: A very strange counting chorus indeed! And a very strange life. The idea of spending, well, an adult life - though that's kind of an odd word to use - playing Mick Jagger, it's just a little strange.

Mr. KURUTZ: It's very strange. And you know, it's psychologically complex and complicated for a lot of these performers. The main guys in the book, the two main Mick Jaggers, basically have done this for a living, to one degree or another, for the last 20 years. Sometimes - one guy, the last 30 years.

So in some senses they're - people are treating them like they're Mick Jagger. They're being flown around the world. But they're not Mick Jagger. They're not a rock star. They have - they sort of go back to their small house just like everyone else.

CONAN: And take out the garbage and live the life. Then on the other hand, whether they are playing a VFW hall or a big concert somewhere, people refer to them as "Mick" or "Keith."

Mr. KURUTZ: They do. And sometimes, let's say a woman is attracted to Steven Tyler, she's probably never going to meet Steven Tyler or spend an evening with Steven Tyler, but she may spend an evening with the Steven Tyler in Rocks, the Aerosmith tribute band.

CONAN: And there are a lot of different tribute bands for a lot of different groups. We're talking about one in particular you traveled with, Sticky Fingers. And they are a tribute band by those definitions we went by earlier?

Mr. KURUTZ: They are a tribute band. And the other, well, the other band in the book calls them a clone band. But I sort of don't buy into that terminology. Yes, they are a tribute band.

CONAN: That was a rival Rolling Stones tribute band.

Mr. KURUTZ: Right, exactly. There's a lot of - there's a sort of a spirited rivalry between these bands sometimes.

CONAN: And, you know, you think these groups are going to sound terrible. Well, we're going to play you a cut of Sticky Fingers doing an old Rolling Stones' version of an older Chuck Berry tune.

(Soundbite of song "Carol")

Mr. GLEN CARROLL: (Singing) Oh, Carol, don't let him steal your heart away. I'm gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day.

Climb into my machine so we can cruise on out, I know a swingin' little joint where we can jump and shout,

CONAN: Glen Carroll, there as Mick, the leader of Sticky Fingers, not bad, but then, a cover of a cover...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KURUTZ: Right, right. It's very mad-dog.

CONAN: How many layers are we getting here?

Mr. KURUTZ: It's very mad-dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And the Keith in that band, a guy named Kevin Gleeson, who everyone describes as the "Keith-iest Keith" they've ever seen.

Mr. KURUTZ: Yes. He was - he is the Keith-iest Keith. He was a real character. I think in the year that I spent with the band, I saw him out of his Keith wardrobe maybe once. I would meet him, pick him up for road trips, and I would meet him at three in the morning on a street corner in Manhattan and he'd already be dressed up like Keith Richards.

CONAN: There is also another aspect of this. There are real, actual rock 'n' roll star acts which, for one reason or another, have lost a lead singer or some of their performers and go around and are essentially tribute bands to themselves.

Mr. KURUTZ: Yeah, I mean, that's one of the points I make, is that, you know, sometimes tribute bands are treated like second-class citizens in the music world. But if you look at a lot of classic rock bands, you know, a band like Queen toured a couple years ago even though Freddy Mercury died, you know, in the early '90s.

Even the Stones themselves, when you go to a Rolling Stones show, you really know what's going to happen before you even go. You know what songs they're going to play. You know how Mick Jagger's going to move, how Keith Richards is going to move. So in a sense, you know, they've become tributes to themselves.

CONAN: And in a way, you followed them, the Sticky Fingers, on a tour. They were sort of going along with an actual Rolling Stones tour from city to city, sort of opening, in an odd way.

Mr. KURUTZ: Yeah...

CONAN: For the Rolling Stones.

Mr. KURUTZ: I sort of describe it like they were more trailing behind a shark. What would happen? I mean, when the Stones go on tour, for Sticky Fingers it's like winning the lottery because there's going to be all this interest in the Rolling Stones. And so the Rolling Stones will play the Enormodome and Sticky Fingers will play the pre-concert bash at Dixie's Tavern.

You know, that's sort of - so they did kind of trail. And then the other band, the Blushing Brides, they decided to sort of take a hiatus. America wasn't big enough for both the Stones and the Blushing Brides, so they took a two or three-month break until the Stones passed through their area.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. We're stalking - talking with Steven Kurutz about his book, "Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band." And Tim is on the line, Tim calling us from Minneapolis.

TIM (Caller): Yeah, hello. I've been in a Beatles tribute band locally in Minneapolis for about a year and a half, and it's just a lot of fun on a local basis.

CONAN: And who do you play in the Beatles band?

TIM: Ah, George Harrison!

(Soundbite of laughter)

TIM: This is George talking.

Mr. KURUTZ: And do you dress up?

TIM: Dress up?

Mr. KURUTZ: Yes, in a costume?

TIM: Yes, we do the suits. We have wigs and heels as well and do the accents. It's a lot of fun.

CONAN: And do you do early Beatles or, sort of, "Sgt. Pepper" Beatles?

TIM: It's all the way through, really. Starts from 1964 and goes all the way through '70. It's a pretty traditional Beatle tribute. You know, we do three different eras: the early, sort of middle-psychodelia, and then into "Sgt. Pepper's" and "Abbey Road."

CONAN: And have you had any identity crises?

(Soundbite of laughter)

TIM: None whatsoever. And we do it on weekends. We all have day jobs.

CONAN: And you have a good time at it?

TIM: Fantastic time.

CONAN: All right, Tim. Thanks very much for the call.

TIM: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Tim may have escaped this but there is a disease you write about called "tributitis."

Mr. KURUTZ: Yes, tributitis is sort of like - it's the tribute-musician version of a method actor who takes his role too seriously. And it does occasionally happen, where, you know, people - you know, people are responding to these guys like they're George Harrison or like they're Mick Jagger, and sometimes your ego can, sort of, inflate.

In my case, and the guys I followed really, you know - even though they dressed up and they did this, they were pretty grounded, although Glen, the Mick Jagger in Sticky Fingers, would occasionally unconsciously slip into a British accent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KURUTZ: It would just sort of come out every once in awhile.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and this is Jed, Jed with us from Raleigh, North Carolina.

JED (Caller): Hey, how's it going?

CONAN: All right.

JED: I just wanted to say that a couple years ago, my fiancee and I actually met at a Beatles' tribute band here in Raleigh. They were from the Czech Republic. And it was pretty interesting because a year later, I asked her to marry me and now we are getting married in a month and we're actually - we were planning on having that exact Beatles' tribute band but we're actually having another Beatles' tribute band at our wedding.

And so we spent the last two years kind of reliving the Beatles through this kind of, you know, other tribute bands and talking to different tribute bands about the Beatles and watching documentaries about them because we actually met at a Beatles' tribute band. And so it's now, like, kind of reconditioning the Beatles for a new generation, in a way.

CONAN: And...

Mr. KURUTZ: I'm sorry. May I say something about that?

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

Mr. KURUTZ: Well, I think that's one of the great things about tribute bands, is - look what he's saying. You know, they met at a Beatles' tribute band show and they want to have a Beatles' tribute band play at their wedding. The Beatles or, you know, I mean, the Beatles can't play his wedding because they're broken up, but the Rolling Stones are not going to come and play at your wedding.

However, you can have Sticky Fingers or the Blushing Brides or some other band. So it's really about access and, sort of, enjoying the music and relating to it in an intimate way and in a way that you just couldn't with the real rock stars.

CONAN: And as you point out...

JED: Can I say one more comment?

CONAN: Go ahead.

JED: Oh, yeah. And actually, here in Raleigh, we had a - the bar that we actually met at, it was a music venue called King's Barcade(ph). It's actually defunct now. It used to have - every year, they would have a weekend full called "The Great Cover-Up" and all it would be was local bands that, for that weekend, they would dress up and play sets of other bands.

Which is pretty interesting, it became, like, a big festival here, like "The Great Cover-Up," like "Justin Timberlake Night" or there would be five different bands that - five different covers. But it was the rockers you always saw playing different music of their bands that influenced them which was pretty interesting, as well.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Jed.

JED: Thank you, guys.

CONAN: Bye-bye. In fact, on your travels, you find something called the "Fake Fest" in Atlantic City. And indeed, the Sticky Fingers get invited to Rotterdam. They fly to Europe to play in a tribute-band festival there.

Mr. KURUTZ: They did, and they played for 11,000 people in an arena and Bruce Springsteen played the same arena the next night. So you get a sense of - now, that's a one-in-a-million, I mean, most the gigs that I went, you know, with Sticky Fingers were at frat houses or bars. But you know, these tribute bands can play in massive venues.

CONAN: We're talking with Steven Kurutz about his new book, "Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's hear another clip of the Sticky Fingers' version of the Rolling Stones. You'll probably recognize this one called "Miss You."

(Soundbite of song "Miss You")

Mr. CARROLL: (Singing) I've been holding out so long. I've been sleeping all alone. Lord, I miss you.

I've been hanging on the phone. I've been sleeping all alone. Want to kiss you.

Oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh. Oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh. Oooh oooh oooh

CONAN: Again, not bad!

Mr. KURUTZ: Yeah. I sort of feel like I'm back in that frat house...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KURUTZ: In Virginia seeing Sticky Fingers again.

CONAN: Glen Carroll, the lead singer. Well, that must have been from the first set, because generally by the time the second set opened, he was slurring his words a little bit.

Mr. KURUTZ: That did happen a few times. You know, there was definitely some partying and some rock 'n' roll behavior. And when you saw Sticky Fingers, it was always going to be entertaining. You just didn't know in which way.

CONAN: Here's an email question from Daniel in Louisville, Kentucky. "When it gets to the point where you actually make a real living doing this, do you have to pay royalties to the actual band?"

Mr. KURUTZ: Ah, you don't have to pay royalties as long as - this is my understanding, is that you don't have to pay royalties as long as you don't record the music. You know, when they - when a band plays at a bar, or a town festival or whatever, the bar works those things out with ASCAP or BMI or other publishing companies. So no, I mean, there's a singer in a Led Zeppelin tribute who makes six figures and Led Zeppelin doesn't see any of that money.

CONAN: Let's go to Kent, Kent with us from St. Louis, Missouri.

KENT (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

KENT: Hey, you know, I'm a long-time Deadhead, and of course, I miss Jerry very much. But I've really enjoyed the experience of going to hear Dark Star Orchestra, which is an awesome Grateful Dead tribute band. And it's not - for me, it was not just about hearing the music. It was also about that sense of community that comes with a good Dead show.

There was everything from the food and colors and the people hanging out and it was just - more so than just the music, it was also about the experience of the community and I really got that sense from a great tribute band, and I really enjoyed that.

CONAN: Now, Steven Kurutz, you write about this in your book, and say, in fact, that Dark Star Orchestra has, in fact, revived that Deadhead culture.

Mr. KURUTZ: Absolutely. I mean, first of all, in regards to Dark Star Orchestra, I sort of call them the "apotheosis" of the tribute concept. They really - they recreate exact Dead shows. So you'll see, you know, 12/10/74 San Francisco, when you go see Dark Star Orchestra. And the thing is that, after Jerry Garcia died, that Deadhead culture, it was as if it was laying dormant.

And Dark Star Orchestra absolutely has revived it, and I saw them in New Jersey. And there were some young people that were - you could tell they were too young to have ever seen the Dead, but there were many people who were just sort of happy to be back in circulation and hearing Dead music again. And they play - the band is exceptional. I mean, they're really talented musicians.

CONAN: One last call, this from Dale in Redding, California.

DALE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

DALE: Hi. Last weekend, I was over in a little town, Casper Beach, just north of San Francisco, and we saw a girl tribute band to Led Zeppelin called "Zepperella," and they...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DALE: I've seen Led Zeppelin twice, you know, back in the '70s, and these young ladies were perhaps even better than Led Zeppelin. And I thought it was just fabulous.

Mr. KURUTZ: Well, there is a whole sort of burgeoning subculture. There's AC/DShe, which is an all-female AC/DC, and there's Lez Zeppelin which plays in New York. In Zeppelin's case, I can understand why, because to hit those high notes, I imagine a woman could probably hit those high notes even better than Robert Plant did.

CONAN: And certainly better than he does now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KURUTZ: Right, exactly.

CONAN: Dale, thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call.

DALE: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Steven Kurutz, thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. KURUTZ: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Steven Kurutz joined us from our bureau in New York. His book is "Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band." And going out, we're going to hear, well, two versions of "Brown Sugar," one by Sticky Fingers, one by a group called the Rolling Stones. Compare and contrast. I'm Neal Conan and this is NPR News.

And apparently we're having a - there we go!

(Soundbite of song "Brown Sugar")

STICKY FINGERS BAND: (Singing) Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields. Sold in a market down in New Orleans. Scarred old slaver know he's doin' all right. You should've heard him just around midnight.

Brown sugar, how come you taste so good...

(Soundbite of song "Brown Sugar")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Ah brown sugar, how come you taste so good? Brown sugar, just like a young girl should, a-huh.

Drums beating, cold English blood runs hot. Lady of the house wondrin' where it's gonna stop. House boy knows that he's doin' all right. You should a heard him just around midnight.

Brown sugar...

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Excerpt: 'Like a Rolling Stone'

Like a Rolling Stone Book Cover

When Glen Carroll travels for work, he takes a pair of black stage pants, a studded belt, and a few shirts, usually in splashy colors like bright red or banana yellow. If he wants to make a more noticeable impression, he might take something flashier, like a cape fashioned from an American flag and a British flag tied together, or a T-shirt imprinted with the Greek omega symbol and paired with a silk scarf, or white football pants with blue knee pads and Capezio dance shoes — an outfit very similar, as it happens, to the one Mick Jagger wore on the Rolling Stones' 1981 tour. For Glen, verisimilitude in dress is part of the job. As the singer of Sticky Fingers, which bills itself as "the leading international Rolling Stones tribute show," he is a kind of rock star proxy, a substitute Mick. And considering that the Rolling Stones tour only once every few years, and that Sticky Fingers has toured every year for the past eighteen years, it's likely that he has sung "Start Me Up," and "Brown Sugar," and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" more times than Mick Jagger himself.

Glen is slim and snake-hipped, with heavy-lidded eyes and a prominent, almost coltish mouth. At forty-seven, he resembles a slightly younger Mick Jagger — the Jagger of, say, Steel Wheels — and wears his brown hair in the same style: short in front, longer and feathery on the sides. Offstage, he favors blue jeans, a blazer, and scuffed loafers, or a T-shirt and motorcycle boots. At all times, he wears a gold Rolex "President" watch. In person, he has a sociable nature and a roguish charm and comes across like the kind of guy you might encounter late at night in a barroom, jive-talking one of the waitresses. As a bandleader, however, he is mercurial and governs by mood. He once threatened to fire the rhythm guitarist because his hair had grown beyond appropriate Ron Wood length. On the other hand, when he's having a good time, and particularly when he's been drinking, he will climb behind the drum kit, to the frustration of more authentic-minded band members. "Who ever heard of Mick Jagger playing the drums?" the drummer once remarked, exasperated. Glen is equally contradictory in appraising his own talents, swinging between modesty and extreme boastfulness. "I know what it's like to walk in Mick's shoes — with lift supports, mind you," he once told me. He has also told me, "If you want me to go out and front a band, I'll do it as good as maybe ten other guys in the world can do it."

In fact, Sticky Fingers has had considerable success. The band, which is based in the New York — New Jersey area, travels all over the country, performing at rock clubs, bars, biker rallies, birthdays and weddings, casinos, corporate events, and colleges, being especially popular at fraternity houses in the South, where Sticky Fingers has become a fixture of Greek life, as indelible as keg stands and hazing. A few years ago, Sticky Fingers flew to Rotterdam, Netherlands, to appear at a "tribute fest" in the Ahoy arena and performed along with other tribute bands in front of eleven thousand people. Bruce Springsteen played the same venue the following night. Most engagements, however, are less glamorous. Tribute bands occupy the lower rungs of the show-business ladder, somewhere between lounge bands and wedding singers, and even a successful act like Sticky Fingers leads a schizophrenic existence. I spent a year hanging out with the band members, and for every Ahoy arena, there were a dozen times when they drove hundreds of miles to play at a tiny bar or frat house, spent the night in a cheap motel or none at all, and returned home with neither wealth nor glory. Such experiences never dampened their enthusiasm to go back out and play again.

For most people, tribute bands are a hobby, a chance to assume the role of the musical heroes of their youth. But Glen is the rare tribute performer who has turned being someone else into a full-time endeavor, and in conversation he gives the impression he's spent the past decade sharing a tour bus with the Marshall Tucker Band. He speaks in the animated, slangy palaver of an FM disc jockey and uses words like gig and backline. Describing a former drummer, he says, "Tightest pocket I've ever heard — cat could play reggae like only the natives can." He carries himself like an old-hand rock star, too; when I visited him at home, he drove me around in a Mercedes convertible while drinking a vodka-cranberry from a rocks glass. From habit, he occasionally slipped into a British accent. It's difficult not to experience confusion between his dual lives: in his role as Mick Jagger, he has signed autographs, posed for pictures, been flown around the world, attracted beautiful women, appeared in magazines and on television. Returning home he is met with obscurity. As he likes to say, "Here's this average guy who pays his cable bill and takes out the trash like everyone else, but he gets to experience some of what it's like to be a rock star." When he says this, I often smile to myself; average guy does not come to mind when I think of Glen.

I first met Glen Carroll a few years ago, when a magazine I was working for at the time was planning a music issue and I suggested an article about tribute bands. Tribute bands might seem a lightweight subject, but on closer examination they reveal semi-serious things about our culture: our celebrity worship, the baby boomer nostalgia that pervades modern entertainment, the seeming exhaustion of new ideas in art, film, fashion, music. In fact, the essential notion of a tribute band — that is, something directly inspired by what has gone before—extends beyond music to the entire culture. Stephen Colbert is, in a way, a tribute band to Bill O'Reilly. Quentin Tarantino is a tribute band to 1970s blaxploitation and B movies. You could think of Dita Von Teese as a tribute band to the fifties sex symbol Bettie Page. Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Psycho is unquestionably a tribute band to the Alfred Hitchcock original. Karaoke is based on the same premise as a tribute band, as is the popular video game Guitar Hero, in which players replicate, note for note, famous guitar solos.

Tribute bands are indicative of the desire for easy fame without accomplishment because their lure is this: by putting on a black wig and a top hat, you can become Slash from Guns N' Roses, a guitar god. Most tribute performers either dreamed of being rock stars but ended up working more mundane jobs instead or they actually pursued a career in music that didn't work out. Maybe they were talented, but not talented enough. Or maybe they formed a roots-rock band and wrote earnest songs about the heartland and, in search of a record deal, moved to Hollywood in 1985, right around the time the record companies were signing the flashy hair-metal bands. Playing in a tribute band offers a second chance to experience stardom, however refracted. It is basically wish fulfillment — the rock and roll equivalent of those fantasy baseball camps where grown men suit up and take the field and bat balls around, something I've always found a little melancholy, but sort of endearing, too. Something else I find appealing about tribute bands is that they are unabashed believers in rock and roll, at a time when the form appears to have hit a dry spell. Record sales have declined for the past decade. Legendary rock clubs like CBGB have closed. Video games, the Internet, and cable TV all compete with music for primacy in the teenage head. And technology and changing times are eliminating many of the tribal rites surrounding rock and roll. I once listened to a fairly famous drummer who had grown up on Long Island in the seventies talk fondly of camping on line to buy concert tickets to see The Who. Halfway through the conversation, I realized Ticketmaster.com had made that custom completely irrelevant. In the same way, the iPod is making irrelevant the full-length album, the album cover, the ritual of studying liner notes, the midnight record store sale, and, eventually, the record store itself. New rituals will develop, of course. But at a tribute show, classic rock culture reigns in all its high-decibel glory. I think of tribute bands as being like those historical reenactors, dressing up and reliving a golden age of rock and roll — a time before the commercial dominance of pop and hip-hop, before DJs replaced live bands, before radio and record company conglomeration, before things like guitar solos and groupies and rock operas became ironic. A great number of tribute musicians belong to this time; they grew up in the seventies and eighties reading Circus and Creem and hanging posters of Jimmy Page and Randy Rhoads on their bedroom wall, and they saw bands like KISS and Black Sabbath in concert long before the reunion tours. Although I am a decade younger, I feel I belong to this time, too. I mostly listen to seventies rock bands like Mott the Hoople and Thin Lizzy and the Faces. I watch a lot of VH1 Classic. I've had long and involved conversations about the guitar tones on Robin Trower's Bridge of Sighs album. Also, I don't own an iPod, or a CD player, or a tape deck, but listen instead to LPs, which puts me four technologies behind the times. Basically, I'm an analog kind of guy. In this way, I share with tribute musicians a longing for the rock music of an earlier time and a sense of displacement in the modern music scene.

Excerpted from Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of A Tribute Band by Steven Kurutz, by permission of Broadway Books.

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