(5) WHITE LION, "WAIT"
(4) great white, "once bitten twice shy"
and plays on in the sweet 16
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/17.
Brend Child Fur Dreadeth : kristine langley mahler on great white's "once bitten twice shy"
We didn’t start the fire.
We didn’t even get close. Great White is associated with one famous thing, and it’s not “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” because it’s not even their song. That’s Ian Hunter’s song, Ian Hunter who wrote it as he was leaving Mott the Hoople and Ian Hunter who released it as his first solo single and Ian Hunter who got to #14 on the UK Pop Charts with “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” in 1975. Ian Hunter didn’t chart again until 2007, when his single “When the World Was Round” debuted at #91 and fell off the next week:
It’s also Shaun Cassidy’s song, because Shaun Cassidy tried to reinvent himself too, catapulting out of teen-idol world in 1980 by covering raucous Ian Hunter’s groupie song “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” nightmaring his fanbase with every line Elvis-snarled-quavery and completely unconvincing:
It was no “Da Doo Ron Ron.” The album failed, and Shaun never released another.
But we know. Once bitten.
The history of Great White started inauspiciously, a guitarist (Mark Kendall) teaming up with a singer (Jack Russell) in 1978 and starting a band called “Highway,” then “Livewire,” then “Wires.” JR, like the terrier, got rowdy and got arrested in 1979 for shooting a maid in a failed robbery attempt.
The remnants of the band broke up and Mark Kendall pulled together a new one, hiring another lead singer because, well, JR wasn’t due out of the clink for eight years. But JR was released after eighteen months and demanded an audition for Kendall’s new band and Mark Kendall was bitten but not twice shy; Kendall & Co. kicked out their singer to bring back JR. Great White recorded a few albums, touring and opening for Whitesnake and Judas Priest.
Album #1: Great White
Album #2: Shot in the Dark
Album #3: Once Bitten…
It’s the ellipses that let us know JR was playing the long game. The album cover for #4, “…Twice Shy,” features the lower halves of two chicks with ankle bracelets, their private spots draped with red satin, a cartoonish shark fin cutting through the red “water,” uncomfortably recalling every woman’s fear of having her period and going for a swim:
“…Twice Shy,” to no one’s surprise, featured Great White’s lead single, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” reviving Ian Hunter’s UK Pop Chart #14-“hit” from fourteen years earlier, which is like someone today trying to cover Basement Jaxx’s 2004 “Good Luck.”
Great White amped it harder than Ian Hunter, harder than Shaun Cassidy, filming a typical hair metal music video to support a song whose lyrics are one long admonition about groupie girls:
- The girl in the song is destitute and starving, which has prevented her from comprehending “how a woman should feel.” She’s a “little girl” ostensibly begging outside the bus and the drummer (good old Audie Desbrow, in this iteration) is about to sexually assault her but don’t worry—JR stops Audie from making a statutory mistake.
- The band lets the girl stay on the bus but she’s freezing because their heater’s conveniently “broken” (come over here, baby, let me warm you up) and JR calls the girl a hooker, a hooker who’d witnessed her sister being gang-raped, but her sister was into it; her sister was “givin what she got.”
- The third verse is the worst verse: Groupie Girl’s been upgraded to a “woman” now, shooting up (“die in your sleep,” “blood on my amp”) and fellating JR’s best friend like the most depressing junkie story ever, but JR knows “mama’s little baby” is down for quickies. In some sad universe, someone’s supposed to have been once bitten, twice shy, though no one who’s been hurt here has avoided anything a second time.
- The twist at the end: JR can’t believe his little groupie he raised by hand has had another guy on the side this whole time—she gamed the damn system, posing on guy #2’s record while making JR think he was her only salvation.
The video pulls out every 80s-metal trope—a warehouse, a concert, motorcycles, a band comprised of hairsprayed long blonde lookalikes, guitar shred close-ups, black leather dusters, girls in bra tops getting to sing during the chorus—but the warehouse is virtually empty. There are five girls in the “audience.” It’s like a rehearsal, not a show, and as the song is waning and the girls are chanting, “My, my, my,” the band packs up, gets on the bus as a guy on a proto-Segway pulls into view and there are five guys left in the warehouse—guys who weren’t present during the show—like their girlfriends hopped into the bus and went along with the band and these boys got bitten pretty bad; these boys should have expected this.
The screen warns: “…coming soon to a beach near you…” but the whole show went down in a warehouse; there was nothing beachy about the band except their sharky nickname. How does a black leather duster hold up in the sand?
It’s confusing, but “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” is a party song. No one’s paying any attention to the desperate groupie’s wretched life; we’re all shivering with illicit excitement during the piano break after JR intervened and stopped Audie from “crossing her state line.” We’re all willfully misinterpreting the chorus like it’s our own narrow escape from being dragged down, thinking OOH YEAH, BABY: we’ve been bitten by nasty sexy sirens but we won’t be fooled again! Once bitten, twice shy! Who hasn’t been there?
She’s been there. We’re tricked into thinking it’s a song about JR evading the lock-and-hook of groupie girls, but it’s Groupie Girl’s who’s been bitten, Groupie Girl who should be twice shy but Groupie Girl who goes there, again, with another musician even though she knew better, because sometimes we’re forced into repeating bad decisions, hoping they’ll turn out differently the next time.
Great White got a 1989 Grammy nom for Best Hard Rock Performance, headlining tours with their cover single, releasing five more albums, but in 2000, co-founder Mark Kendall abandoned Great White. The drummer left, the bassist left, and JR was left with one guitarist. Within a year, JR announced he, too, was moving on, and Great White played one final show. But since JR struggled to fill clubs as a solo act, JR rebranded his new band “JR’s Great White,” and tapped Mark Kendall on the shoulder, asking Mark to play some dates with him, just a couple of shows for old times’ sake, buddy.
Like February 20, 2003, at The Station Nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island. The marquee outside the club says “Great White” but it’s only JR’s Great White, only promoters trying to shill something attracted audiences, once.
The opening guitar shred of “Desert Moon” rips as the tour manager sets off pyrotechnics, a metal-fucking-move, and JR doesn’t even get to exhort the audience to “shake this town” before the walls are on fire, the ceiling is on fire, the illegal soundproofing foam padding is on fire and the nightclub goes dark, black dark, metal-fucking-dark and carbon monoxide gas gets breathed in once, twice, three times before the audience stops scrambling towards the front door, falls to the floor, unconscious, suffocated. 462 people in the nightclub and 100 people die, another 200+ are burned, trampled, toxic, but they escape, alive.
There’s a documentary about the Station fire, called “The Guest List,” due out later this year. JR is on the left side of the promo poster, looking like he’s in the middle of explaining why people have the story all wrong; there is what must be a fire survivor on the right, one eye missing, nose misshapen, eyelashless and staring up at the viewer, lips pressed closed because he doesn’t need to say a goddamn thing; the story tells itself.
And then oddly, strangely, a tattooed arm dividing the two, rain falling from an Anjelica Huston-lookalike towards a fist holding an unidentifiable tool, then the gravestones in the snow, marked with the tread of footprints of those who’ve returned, again and again.
The filmmaker promises “No one who watches The Guest List will enter a concert venue again without first checking for the exits.”
The tour manager and the owners of the nightclub went to prison, JR paid out a million dollars to the survivors, and JR’s Great White resumed touring, shutting down in 2005 so JR could go to rehab.
But the cat came back, and JR resurrected the original Great White in 2006. JR swore he could never play “Desert Moon” again, but by 2009, Great White was including it on the set list.
Great White Version 2.0 played together for four years and even released another album, but in December 2011, JR left Great White for the second time to revive “JR’s Great White” and the rest of the band was like BRO, BRO, BRO: once bitten, twice shy. Great White made JR lease the name from them, and the rest of the original band reverted to being Great White vs. “JR’s Great White,” the two bands essentially competing for the same hair-metal-reunion-concert slots, playing the same hits.
We can see JR’s Great White at the Brainerd, MN International Raceway in June 2018. Or we can see Great White at the Coleman Veterans Memorial Park in Coleman, Michigan, about 45min northwest of Saginaw, over Memorial Day.
JR’s moved on, man. JR believes in reinvention, JR doesn’t let one mistake—it wasn’t even his mistake but “if it makes it easier for them to grieve the loss of somebody close to them, then my shoulders are big enough,"—damn his life, telling an interviewer this past September, “I hope that people can listen to my story and either not make the same mistakes, or realize that if they do that you can always turn yourself around. You can always say, 'You know what? This isn't the path I wanted to be on,' and you can change that path.”
But Mark Kendall is still scrabbling to escape the plague of JR’s Great White, swearing to TMZ in 2016 that it wasn’t Great White, it was JR’s Great White playing the night of the fire. Why can’t anyone tell the difference?
Maybe because we’ve been bitten. Maybe because we’re constitutionally incapable of being twice shy. Maybe because we’ve all been there and we all reject the vow we used to chant; we get bitten and we always go back for more, hoping that this time we’ll be able to adjust the story. We want to reinvent, we want to reframe, we want a do-over, we want to erase.
To talk about Great White is to talk about the fire; to talk about Great White is to talk about taking chances, again and again. Without their re-recording of “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” Great White might have sunk back into the ocean. Without the band allowing the groupie girl onto their bus, she might have never learned how a woman should feel.
But groupie girls grew up and groupie girls punched their victimizers all the way to the courtroom. We shoved in tampons and we dove back into the shark-infested water believing, like Dubya, we could twist the proverb: if you fool me once, shame on you, fool me…you can’t get fooled again.
A burnt child dreads the fire, but we strike the match anyway.
 An Olde-English maxim recorded in The Proverbs of Hendyng, 13th-century: A burnt child dreads the fire
Kristine Langley Mahler lives on the suburban prairie of Nebraska. She is completing a grant-funded project about immigration/inhabitation on native land, an erasure series on Seventeen's advice to teen girls, and a graduate degree in nonfiction. Her work has been recently published/is forthcoming in New Delta Review, Quarter After Eight, Barrelhouse, and CHEAP POP, where she shreds her memories to ribbons before reassembling them.
JAMES CHARLESWORTH ON WHITE LION'S "WAIT"
A coworker once told me about the time Vito Bratta called her on the telephone. 1989. Medford, Massachusetts. A sixteen-year-old girl walks home from her after-school job to find her sister calling to her from the front porch. Someone is on the phone. Who could it be? The sixteen-year-old girl has long forgotten the letter she sent off months ago, written in haste and dire longing after watching a certain music video on MTV, four minutes of plentiful closeups of the long-blonde-haired tight-leather-pants-wearing front man of a heretofore unknown rock band pleading into the camera for the object of his affection to Wait . . . Wait . . . The sixteen-year-old girl has not waited. These days, she’s more into Winger and Warrant. But her letter has not gone unread.
Vito Bratta. If the name means nothing to you, you’re not alone. If it does mean something, then you’re no doubt familiar with his band White Lion and their debut single, “Wait,” which roared onto the scene in early 1988 on the strength of its briefly ubiquitous video and climbed as high as number eight in the Billboard charts. Perhaps you were one of the two million people who bought a copy of White Lion’s second album with its punchy and punny title (Pride) and its all white cover featuring an implied lion face (oddly pristine imagery for a band of their ilk). Perhaps you recall those plentiful closeups of front man Mike Tramp—who was once told by Gene Simmons that he had the coolest name in rock ‘n’ roll. And maybe you can even summon a memory from the “Wait” video of a dour-eyed guitarist standing with his back against a pillar playing a twelve-string acoustic like some woebegone minstrel or busting out the electric when the song showed its true colors and set him free to wail.
Today, a mysterious hand injury suffered in 1997 makes it painful for Vito Bratta to move his fingers along a fretboard. In one of his rare recent interviews (he’s a bit of a recluse) he described the pain as “like touching a live wire.” Since 1994, he has appeared on stage with a guitar twice and, aside from legal proceedings, has barely spoken to his former front man and co-songwriter, Mike Tramp. But in 1989 he still played fourteen hours a day, would get back to the hotel after shows at four in the morning and play for two more hours. It’s no surprise that the first sound heard by the sixteen-year-old girl (as she picks up the phone in her parents’ house and stretches its cord into a private place beneath the staircase) is not a voice but a guitar. The sleek squeak of fingers on nickel-wound strings.
I picture him lying on his back on a bed in a hotel room, head tilted to one side to hold the phone against his shoulder, a stack of fan mail beside him. Maybe tonight White Lion is playing Madison Square Garden, opening for AC/DC on their Blow Up Your Video Tour. Maybe this no-name kid from Staten Island who happens to look a little bit like Eddie Van Halen has already been selected by both Guitar World and Guitar for the Practicing Musician as Best New Guitarist for 1988 and one of the Top 20 Guitarists of the Decade. And yet there’s something not quite rock-star-like about this scene, isn’t there? Shouldn’t he be throwing a television off a balcony into a swimming pool? Shouldn’t he be passing out in a bathroom with a hypodermic needle protruding from his forearm?
The phone call does not last long. As an adult, the sixteen-year-old girl will recall little of what was said. Only the sound of that acoustic guitar in the background. What was he playing? a prying coworker will ask her one day. And she’ll say: I don’t know. I don’t remember. What were their big songs again?
“Wait”—the second biggest hit of White Lion’s short-lived run of success behind only the percussion-less ballad “When the Children Cry”—was released in June of 1987, just over a month before Appetite for Destruction was unleashed upon an unsuspecting universe. This was the pinnacle of the brief reign of hair metal, the contentious culmination of twenty years of rock ‘n’ roll finding out how far it could go, what it could get away with, big hair and black leather and macho androgyny effectuated to their extremes, high-pitched vocals screamed by make-up wearing front men harmonizing (or sometimes not) with hotshot guitarists wailing a barrage of whammy bar dives and squealies and sixteenth notes in a constantly escalating struggle of sonic one-upmanship, aberrant behavior flaunted like an outrageous tattoo compelling each subsequent act to top the previous incarnation’s levels of debauchery or else.
Probably it was due to their placement amidst all this hyperbolic excess that White Lion (whose music and appearance constituted a relatively unassuming version of the stereotype) is less remembered today than some of their contemporaries. “Wait”—despite the semi-convincing visual stimuli of the music video—is not necessarily a song that one would say rocks. Oh, it possesses the requisite decibels and drama, but its pop sensibility and classic sense of melody can make comparisons to Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses and others who stoked the steam engine of hair metal’s runaway crazy train seem a bit off the rails.
Yet say what you must about the inherent late-eighties-ness of that video, the now-cliché scenes of the band playing in a slightly dreamlike warehouse space with wide windows and pillars, the overexposed black and white treatment and the intercut scenes with an ambivalent significant other executing a slow-motion run along a beach. Joke all you want about Mike Tramp’s pants and pelvic thrusts, or the bass player’s frilly bare-chest-revealing top, or the lyrics (whose rhyme-at-any-cost strategy results in stinkers like “cuz I / can show you lovin’ that you won’t deny”)—in spite of all of this, “Wait” still possesses the hook and drama of an instant hit. From its opening moments when Tramp first issues his desperate plea for abeyance, through the steady build from acoustic ballad to rapid rock hit, “Wait” exhibits an efficient precision and sense of itself, functions with a controlled dramatic structure of incremental complication. Eschewing the repetitive and predictable verse / chorus / verse / chorus / solo / chorus plan so commonplace to the pop charts, “Wait” instead builds mindfully toward its climax with a structure that looks like this: Intro / acoustic verse / interlude / electric verse / bridge / chorus / solo / bridge / chorus. It gives you what you want, but not right away; the melody accumulates slowly and has a way of sneaking up on you. The most memorable and catchy components (the “so if you go away . . .” bridge section leading up to the dramatic “hold out . . . hold out . . . hold out . . .” segue to the chorus) are not introduced until the one-and-a-half-minute mark, or nearly the halfway point. Likewise, the decision to repeat the chorus only twice is an effective bit of withholding, leaving the listener (accustomed to always getting at least three bites at the pleasing apple of any song’s chorus) wanting more.
Then again, a case could also be made that none of this would work if it weren’t for the centerpiece that holds it all together: the flame thrower of a guitar solo smack dab in the middle of it all. But we’ll get to the solo later.
For Vito Bratta’s thirteenth birthday, his parents—following some mysterious instinct—bought him a guitar. Vito had not asked for a guitar, but for the next almost two decades it became a permanent attachment. He was immediately obsessed with the instrument, driven to the sort of focused devotion then possible due to the absence of video games and the internet. Rather than buying a Mel-Bay chord chart for $1.99 at the music store, the teenaged Vito filled a pile of notebooks with diagrams of every possible fingering for every chord on guitar—something like 7,000 diagrams—and then went through playing each and crossing out the ones that “sounded like shit.” Heavily influenced by Judas Priest and Van Halen but also more obscure stuff like Angel, Vito’s skill and notoriety had slowly grown as he’d played school dances in his neighborhood on Staten Island, scored gigs with garage bands in clubs around New York City, his style beginning to distinguish itself as melodic, technically accomplished, and marked by such recently innovative hard rock techniques as sweep picking, squealies, whammy bar tricks, and of course the two-hand tapping style recently made popular by his idol, Eddie Van Halen. Still, despite his obvious talent, Vito seems to have had the introvert’s aloof reluctance to take the next step. It seems possible he may have remained little more than a local legend and virtuoso of his parents’ basement were it not for a night in November of 1982 when his band Dreamer was playing at L’Amour in Brooklyn. Before the show, Vito was warming up backstage with a perfect rendition of Van Halen’s “Eruption” when the singer for the opening band approached and introduced himself.
His real name was Mike Trempenau. He’d been born in Copenhagen, 1961, and was Vito’s complete opposite in every way. Opportunistic and ambitious, he’d gotten his musical start with a teeny-bopper band called Mabel, who’d finished sixteenth out of twenty at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1978 before morphing, over the next two years and through a series of events lost to history but amusing to imagine, into a hard rock band called Studs. Another apparent intervention by the metal gods had found Mike Trempenau at the airport in Copenhagen in 1981, tasked serendipitously by Studs’ record company with picking up none other than David Lee Roth, who was in town for a show and imparted upon Mike two bits of wisdom. You gotta move to the states. And you gotta find a new fuckin band name. On the flight across the Atlantic, the members of Studs put their heads together to come up with a new fuckin band name. What they came up with was Lion.
Tramp’s accent is a muddled aggregate. Part Dutch and part Queens, his intonations fluctuate arbitrarily, the way he once went from teenybopper to headbanger in a span of two years. That first summer in New York, he earned a paycheck working construction outdoors in the heat, a shirtless and sweaty twenty-one-year-old kid with blonde hair halfway down his back mixing concrete and shouting along to Def Leppard’s Pyromaniaon his boom box. His band got some decent gigs, lived the wild nightlife of rock ‘n’ rollers in the city, and yet it was clear by that night in November of 1982 when Lion opened up for Dreamer that all of its members save one were fully prepared to move back to Copenhagen and call it quits—all except for Mike Tramp. And though he learned pretty quickly that he and Vito had almost nothing in common, would grumble often in the decades to come about how he was the engine that made Vito move, about how he had to bribe Vito with gas money just to get him to schlep out to Mike’s place in Queens so they could rehearse—though he would submit endless complaints about the frustrations of working with a tremendously talented odd-ball like Bratta, the sound of that flawless rendition of “Eruption” echoing through the back rooms at L’Amour was the irresistible lure that made the opportunist in Mike Tramp say to himself: “That’s the guitarist I need.”
As solos of the era go, it’s relatively short.
Clocking in at just twenty-six seconds, Vito Bratta’s guitar solo for “Wait” is a condensed masterpiece. Yet for every nostalgic fan who rates Bratta as the greatest thing since Mozart, you run into some other regurgitator spouting off about him being just another of the dime-a-dozen wannabe shredders who worshipped pathetically at the altar of Eddie Van Halen. Paraphrasing a blogpost on destroyerofharmony.com, this is in the same realm of stupidity as proclaiming LeBron James to be a Michael Jordan imitator because they can both take it to the rack and dunk from the foul line. It’s completely true that Bratta borrowed unapologetically from Van Halen’s immense catalog of innovations. It’s also true that Bratta expanded upon them and took Eddie’s mostly showy style in more purposeful directions. While Van Halen and his army of disciples primarily used tapping to play whirlwind repeating triplets and deployed their vast arsenal of tricks amidst prolonged pyrotechnic displays that wrested control of songs and wouldn’t let go, Bratta mindfully integrates the same techniques into tightly composed movements that blow the doors off and then get out of the way. In just twenty-six compressed and cohesive seconds, Bratta’s solo for “Wait” implements nearly thirty half- and full-bends, approximately the same number of right-hand taps, and something like forty hammer-ons and pull-offs, meanwhile spanning all four octaves achievable on guitar before culminating in a blazing outro consisting of three complete measures of fully picked sixteenth notes.
Make no mistake, it’s a scorcher: enormously melodic and terrifyingly technical. But its greatest achievement is how well it serves the song, fits comfortably within the established dramatic structure to produce a climax that doesn’t get carried away with itself and allows for a graceful denouement. Thing is: it’s also a pain in the ass to play and recreate on a stage night after night, and drunk screaming dudes in Venom shirts aren’t always looking for technical complexity from live shows—both factors that Bratta had neglected to consider when composing but that became impossible to ignore after “Wait” made White Lion stars, after they’d been ushered by Atlantic Records across the world and back on the grueling tour for Pride, eighteen months spent crisscrossing the United States with interspersed dates in England, France, Germany, and Japan. They’d come a long way since Tramp had first lured Bratta out across the Verrazano Narrows and Belt Parkway with promises of glory and gas money, and touring with bands like Mötley Crüe and Skid Row—the unabashed miscreants of hair metal and the new darlings of Atlantic, respectively—led to an identity crisis, an indecisiveness regarding whether to go for a heavier sound that would translate to a stronger live show or to stick with the melodic but less testosterone-inciting tunes of which Pride is chock full. By the end of the tour, Tramp and Bratta were tired of it all, tired of questioning themselves and the direction of their band, tired of living up to the expectations of the genre. Or maybe they were just tired of each other. By this point they had separate dressing rooms; they only saw each other when they went on stage. During the days, Tramp liked to roam around the cities on Harleys and live the dream. Vito Bratta did what he always did. He played his guitar. When he got bored, he’d pick up the phone. He’d call up their fans and say hello.
There’s a comic but telling scene in White Lion’s 1991 fan video Escape from Brooklyn in which Vito Bratta gets mistaken for Eddie Van Halen. Bratta sits with his arms resting on the back of a backwards turned chair beneath a makeshift outdoor canopy, a smoking area set up outside a rehearsal space with a table fashioned from a giant wooden cable spool. A female voice from behind the camera begins to ask an interview question when Bratta’s eyes dart to his right. An autograph seeker enters the frame: well-kempt, short hair, a red tee shirt with sleeves tight against his biceps, a former high school football star type. Bratta is cordial but appears wary. He seems to glean some knowledge from a look in the man’s eyes. “I’m not Eddie Van Halen,” Bratta confesses. “You’re not?!” Still Bratta extends his hand. “I’m Vito. I play with White Lion.” “Oh yeah, you guys are good, too,” mutters the autograph seeker, and the interviewer can be heard collapsing into laughter. Bratta lowers and shakes his head, speaks one pronounced but good humored “Ha!”
“See,” he says to the camera, smirking, “this is what happens all the time. Getting mistaken for a rock star.”
Maybe that’s what happened to Vito Bratta. Maybe he got mistaken for a rock star rather than what he really was: something slightly more brooding and complicated, slightly more polished and practiced. In the two and a half decades that have passed since White Lion went their separate ways, Mike Tramp has stuck with it. He started a new band called Freak of Nature and released several solo albums. He tried to pull together a White Lion reunion tour with mixed results. Though he lives now in Australia (and sports an even more extravagant accent), he will occasionally fly to the States with an acoustic guitar and drive around in a rental car, playing anywhere for anyone with very little money and no crew. Vito Bratta, on the other hand, remains far from the public eye, has reverted to the person he was before he met Mike Tramp. It isn’t just the hand injury—which he himself has admitted is at least partially just an easy excuse. “I am asked about Vito literally almost every day,” hard rock historian Eddie Trunk recently stated on his radio show. “People can’t accept the fact, because he was so talented, that Vito has completely checked out of the music industry.
“There are some guys,” Trunk continued, “that are in this for life. Then there are other guys like Vito who say, you know what, I made my mark. I sold some records. I had a run of fame. I’m done. I’m fifty-something years old. I’m not getting in a van. I’m not going on stage at clubs at eleven o’clock at night on a Tuesday.”
Of course, as he lies on his back playing his guitar in that hotel room in 1989, the no-name kid who happens to look a little bit like Eddie Van Halen does not know that White Lion’s days of playing to packed houses and headlining festivals are already almost at an end. That within a year or two his brash blonde-haired front man will have to pretend he’s Sebastian Bach of Skid Row just to get past the receptionists at Atlantic. Nor does he know that it will be his name that people will continue to ask Eddie Trunk about even decades later—that the promise and paucity of his contribution followed by his sudden and complete vanishing will make him a sort of J.D. Salinger figure among fellow shredders and hard rock historians. That when Mike Tramp tries to pull together replacements to do those White Lion reunion tours, few guitarists will accept the offer out of respect for Bratta’s talent and skill.
“Vito never would have left Staten Island,” Mike Tramp once said, “if he hadn’t met a kid from Copenhagen with the energy of a rocket.” And that’s probably true. But Mike Tramp likely never would have gotten much closer to stardom than that shirtless kid mixing concrete in Harlem, or singing in some awful reincarnation of Studs, if he hadn’t heard a perfect rendition of “Eruption” one night at L’Amour in 1982.
In the hotel room, Bratta wedges the phone against his ear with one shoulder, an acoustic guitar resting in his lap. “I just wanted to thank you for buying our album,” he says at last to the sixteen-year-old girl. His voice is unassuming, his accent pure Staten Island—which is where he lives today, in the house where he grew up. “We really appreciate your support.”
James Charlesworth’s first concert was Bon Jovi and Skid Row at Point Stadium in Johnstown, PA, in a pouring rainstorm that turned the grass outfield of that shoddy ballyard to a vast pit of mud and rendered the makeshift sound system incapable of producing anything more recognizable than a blaring din of disharmonious sludge. Midway through Skid Row’s set, an irritable Sebastian Bach challenged a rent-a-cop to a fight after the show. James awoke groggy and dry-mouthed. Thinking it was all a dream, he turned on MTV News to discover that Skid Row’s show the following night had been postponed. That Sebastian Bach had checked himself out of a Johnstown-area hospital and would be fine. That the rent-a-cop had won the fight and it was all true. The rain and the mud and the hair metal: it was all true.
James’s first novel will be published January 2019.