(8) vixen, "edge of a broken heart"
(5) white lion, "wait"
and plays on in the elite 8
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Then vote. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/22.
chelsea biondolillo on vixen's "edge of a broken heart"
A brief history (in words and pictures) of my rise toward and escape from high school, and Vixen’s rise and fall from fame—both of which happened between 1987-1991.
A couple of weeks into the 1986 school year, my parents moved from Portland to Oregon City, a mostly blue collar suburb about ten miles away. My city friends warned me about the “preppies” out in the sticks, how they popped their collars, teased their mullets, and listened to hair metal. Though I joked along, I took mental notes about what it would take to fit in out there.
My eighth-grade school picture demonstrates how far I’d managed to not come in a year. It’s not that I was opposed to big hair or shoulder pads—I had the Thompson Twins on endless repeat that year—it’s that I just didn’t know how to do it. My hair drooped lankly by second period no matter what I did. I hated collars and pastels.
The women of Vixen however, were at least publicly not sweating such details. As lead guitarist of the band, Jan Kuehnemund told Aamer Haseem of VH1’s short-lived reality TV show, Bands Reunited, in 2004 of the band’s look, there was “not really a whole lot of planning, on the clothing. What we were wearing was stuff we liked. We were just girls doing our hair, doing our makeup.”
In the earliest publicity pictures of the band-as-we-know-them, they look like they have done it all themselves. Their acid wash and leather fringe look like off-the-rack from Miller’s Outpost or Contempo Casuals. Their hair looks more frayed than styled. They are the kind of glamorous in this photo that the girls who lived next door to me aspired to, which is to say, an LA-by-way-of-the-sticks kind.
Though the kernel of the band formed in St. Paul, MN, the lineup that would become known as “classic” moved to California in the mid-80s to join the rock scene immortalized in ’87 by Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years.
VIXEN “classic” lineup:
Janet Gardner—lead vocals, rhythm guitar
Jan Kuehnemund—lead guitar, background vocals
Share Pedersen—bass, background vocals
Roxy Petrucci—drums, background vocals
When I look at the earliest pictures of Vixen, I see flyover country’s idea of Hollywood metal. This is also what I see in many of the faces from my high school yearbooks.
I picture Linda, an Oregon City girl whose bangs were teased so tall she had to hunch forward to fit in the passenger seat of her mom’s Corolla.
I picture pre-teen Tonya Harding hand-sewing her skate costumes—she would have gone to the high school just one depressed suburb over from mine, if she hadn’t dropped out—using fabric from the Mill End store we all shopped at.
There’s a brief scene in Decline, when Spheeris asks a baby-faced Janet Gardner if she has a back-up plan, in case Vixen doesn’t make it, and Janet says, smiling big, “No such thing. No back up.”
One girl I knew in the 9th grade wasn’t allowed to use hairspray, because her Jehovah’s Witness mother thought it Satanic. But every couple of weeks or so, when this girl got on the school bus, she’d brandish a pink can of contraband Aquanet and announce to everyone that it was time to do her hair. A mob would form as she aspirated glue around and around her head. Hands would reach in to scrunch and push clumps from tip to root. Brushes and combs were contributed to the cause. Then the crowd would part and she’d be laughing and patting at her giant sunburst of a mess of hair, which she’d later have to rip and yank flat before the bus dropped her back off at home. I remember the long hiss from the can, and the sound of all her ends splitting in the afternoon. It didn’t seem like fun, during or after.
That same year, I was old enough to start “running around downtown” with one of my old friends. I gave up trying to fit in with the subdivision kids, and switched to black lipstick (absolutely verboten in my school picture) and the flatter hair I saw downtown. More Calamity Jane, less Lizzy Borden. More Kim Gordon, less Lita Ford.
Vixen, meanwhile was not only into that suburbs-hit-it-big vibe, they were leading the charge. In 1988, they were signed to EMI, and released their first album, Vixen. “Edge of a Broken Heart,” with its big open notes and head-banging 4/4 time, combined with boilerplate lost-love lyrics, was the first single. And that was no mistake: “Edge” was written by Richard Marx (music) and Fee Waybill of The Tubes (lyrics) at the request of their shared label. The album credits on Vixen include four producers, four lead engineers, and fifteen writers in addition to Jan and Janet.
“Edge” made it to number 26 on Billboard’s Hot 100 that year, but it couldn’t hold the spot. While Marx is on the year-end list, with “Hold on to the Nights,” Vixen is not.
Despite it being their biggest year as a band, it still wasn’t easy.
At best, they were ladies first, rockers second. In a flashback clip on Bands Reunited, Jan tells an interviewer, “People would come up to us, and they’d tell us that halfway through the show, they forgot they were listening to a female band. They were just having a good time.”
At worst, they were a gimmick to sell records. Toward the end of the reunion show, Share Pedersen (now Ross) reminisces with her bandmates about how “…at the beginning of every tour, the guys in the other band? and the crew?—remember? At the side of the curtain, to see if we actually played our instruments!” The women all nod.
I like to think, based on the promo picture of the band for “Cryin’,” the second single released that year, they, like me, have heard a bit of goth’s clarion call. They were surely in the process of refining and defining their “look”—Jan’s ‘fox’ striped clip-in hair piece has made its appearance, while Roxy Petrucci has traded her acid-wash bustier for leather. Janet’s hair is less wingy at the temples and Share’s has more height, which suggests a stylist on board.
The weekend before I started high school, I was “missing” for a couple of days. It is worth noting that no one knew this until after I’d come back home. I did not run away. I was not lost. But, I’d been loose downtown with a very bad influence, and once my mom figured out what we’d done, I was grounded for a year. What I see in this picture is a desperate attempt to play the part of someone following the rules. I am wearing colors other than black and I have even tried to pouf up my bangs again, and again, I have failed.
I have always hated this picture.
The women of Vixen, meanwhile, have been touring hard in their picture. They spent 1989 supporting their singles and opening for huge names like Ozzy and The Scorpions all over the world. In August, they played with Bon Jovi, Europe, and Skid Row to a crowd of 66,000 metalheads in the UK. And just a couple of months later, they were back in the studio, but this time, without Marx or Waybill’s writing help.
In another 80s flashback clip, Share says, “the writing is so much easier now, because we trust each other,” but sitting with Haseem in 2004, she admitted that the opposite was true. In 1989, she says Jan and Roxy were trying to find songwriters who could whip up another hit while she and Janet felt, “…let’s keep the writing in the band. No outside writers at all. We don’t need it. Why are we doing it? That’s bullshit.”
By my junior year (no longer grounded), I’d collected around me a host of poor but well-read friends, and we aspired, even if vaguely, to getting the fuck out. In this year’s school picture, I see that bluster and resolve. I’d made a pact with a couple other girls not to smile for the camera. I was proudly wearing a second-hand men’s jacket. This is the year I’d saved up enough for my first pair of Doc Martens.
I was so sure I’d go to art school after graduation that I’d stubbornly refused to sign up for math classes, even though my guidance counselor said I’d need three years of math to get into any “regular” college as a fallback plan. I am clearly saying No such thing—no backup, here.
Vixen, too, were forging ahead, despite rumblings of dissatisfaction from the ranks. The bullshit that Share and Janet had called out in ’89 carried on into 1990. They’d managed to limit their sophomore release, Rev it Up, to one producer, but they couldn’t stop the flood of fill-in writers. Pedersen and Gardner are the sole writers credited on only four of the album’s eleven tracks. The other seven songs are written in part by other people, at least a dinner party’s worth, including members of lesser-known glam metal acts like Keel and Autograph, and writers who’d pinch hit for Eric Clapton, Heart, Elton John, and Whitney Houston.
I know this year was tough on the band personally, but they look the most comfortable in their leather, lace, and big hair, here. That October, they played their new single on the Arsenio Hall Show, giving them a chance to reach a wider audience. Even still, in an interview for his book Flashbacks to Happiness: Eighties Music Revisited (2005), Share told Randolph Michaels “people thought we were lip-synching. They didn’t think it was really us singing!”
My friends and I were headed toward the post-glam grunge aesthetic waving our working-class roots as a stubborn standard, while Vixen were all-in on Southern California’s sheer sleeves, pale pink against shiny black, and brocade-for-days party scene. Somehow, even after years of teasing and curling irons and hairspray, their hair looks better. In this picture, they look a little like they think glam can last forever.
My senior pictures were taken by my grandmother in her front yard, which is now, over a year after her death, my yard. We tacked up a piece of paisley fabric from Mill End and I got myself all goth-glammed out, and she snapped away. I was headed to art school in the fall, as I’d predicted, and I was working hard to carve out some aesthetic for myself that felt true and safe. While crashing hard into Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails, I was also listening to a lot of Mazzy Star and Smashing Pumpkins. What I was not even considering listening to, was hair metal.
And it turns out I wasn’t alone. Share told VH1 that the band broke up in ‘91 because Jan was too nice, too swayed by the opinions of others, but also “it just seemed like the whole era was over anyway, and it was just time to call it a day.” To hear the band retell it, they broke up over the suggestion of a second (or replacement) guitarist, but the tension had been high for months. They weren’t alone, either. Many of the bands in Spheeris’s film didn’t make it out of the early nineties. (Though many saw an inexplicable resurgence in 2001, according to their Wikipedia pages.)
Reliving the 80s in the mid-aughts
When I found a YouTube copy of the 2004 VH1’s Bands Reunited Vixen show, I watched with a mix of discomfort and fascination. I hate seeing people thrown together in awkward situations designed for maximum drama. Which is what seemed to be going on as Haseem surprises the bandmates one by one. We see Jan express disbelief that the others will go for it from behind what looks like her office-job desk. We see Janet, who says she’s a stay-at-home mom going through dental hygienist training, bite her lip and say, “I haven’t been singing at all.” Roxy, ever the badass, is of course into it, but says that she’s been “playing [drums] with myself a lot lately.” While Share, ambushed as she knits with friends at a yarn store, and looking every bit the diy-punk-“Stitch n Bitcher” so popular in the early aughts, seems most to have moved on creatively. She’s got other music projects going on, and needs a lot of peer pressure from the other knitters to say yes.
Except, further research found the band had been together in various incarnations for years—all except Share. Janet, who said her “life had gone in a completely different direction” since the breakup, who “only sings for my son these days,” who seemed the most nervous about performing, the most wigged out by the possibility of having to face Jan after all those years—had been playing with Roxy in a version of the band since 1997, even recording an album in 1998. And Jan, for all her quiet anger at getting kicked out, had been playing guitar with Janet and Roxy since 2001. I know that no one believes that reality TV is real, but... For all their early struggle to be taken seriously as musicians, to be seen as authentic rockers, it seemed the phoniest of theatrics.
In 2004, I too went to an 80s party, held not by a TV show, but by a coworker at my newly acquired corporate desk job. I remember aspiring to a John-Hughes-Molly-Ringwald look (not pictured: a wide-shouldered petal pink brocade long suit jacket, which I rented for the occasion), but a certain Vixenesque glam influence is undeniable. I’d also like the record to show that I kept those curls up all night. Turns out there’s no magic to it, it just takes a fucking TON of hairspray.
The women of Vixen would try to spin the reunited line up into a steady thing, but it fell apart quickly. Jan, using the name and three new musicians, released some music in 2005, and then tried again in 2013 to get the original members back together. Share, Roxy and Janet all agree that they’d signed on, but the announcement was delayed by Jan’s sudden cancer diagnosis. She died just a few months later. The three remaining members reunited, as promised, and with a new guitarist they are still touring today. They’ve got 12 dates this year, including three in Europe and one with Lita Ford.
Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of two prose chapbooks: Ologies and #Lovesong (Etchings Press, UIndy). Her essays have appeared widely online and in print, and have been collected in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016, Waveform: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women, and How We Speak To One Another: an Essay Daily Reader. She has an MFA in creative writing and environmental studies, and is a regulatory analyst by day and an online adjunct by night. She lives outside Portland, Oregon on a couple of acres in the shadow of Mt. Hood and blogs irregularly at roamingcowgirl.com .
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.