It’s like a dream come true. What better backdrop for indulging your most insane celebrity fantasies than Las Vegas? The concept: play on stage with your rock ’n’ roll heroes, party with bona fide musical legends, then head to the oasis that is Palm Springs to taste the life of ol’ Blue Eyes and Blue Suede Shoes. This is the trip I’d give my right arm for. But then if I did, I wouldn’t be able to play guitar.
The deal is a simple. At ROCK ‘N’ ROLL FANTASY CAMP, you get thrown into a band of musical novices. Under the tutelage of your band counsellor – a former member of a successful rock group – you learn songs, put together a set list and become a real band. Along the way, you jam with various rock legends, culminating in a live show at the House Of Blues. You’ll take to the stage with rock stars, to screams of adulation from your fans. What could possibly go wrong?
Vegas by day is an ageing actress without any make-up on. It’s a city that makes no sense in daylight, to tell the truth it doesn’t make much sense sober either. But at night, lipsticked and kohl- eyed with neon, through the warming haze of two martinis, she’s a beauty, and very much a temptress.
Sadly on this trip, I won’t get to see much of Vegas – by day or night, I’ll be too busy rehearsing. It’s a nerve-wracking experience, arriving at the sprawling, multi-room Rock Camp rehearsal studios, tucked away in a Vegas business park. The median age is somewhere in the late forties to early fifties, and the haircuts and faded tattoos bear testament to a hard-rock adolescence. There are about eighty people attending the camp, but I’ll spend most of the time with my band.
Connie quickly emerges as the bandleader. He’s brought the rest of the group together, his buddies Chris and John – both also on guitar – Jack on drums, me on bass guitar. Given their age, the music we’ll be playing hits them all right in the nostalgia solar plexus, that rose-tinted musical sweet spot that conjures up the joy of youth, the way Britpop does for me.On vocals, our secret weapon. Our ringer, Paul Sinclair – the only professional musician in our group. Paul fronts ‘Get The Led Out’, the best Led Zeppelin tribute act in America.
Then there’s our camp counsellor, Elliot Easton. Elliot was the lead guitarist in The Cars, vanguards of the new-wave scene. He’s both warm and amusingly curmudgeonly. His catchphrase, commonly deployed when someone is waxing lyrical, is ‘Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.’
That night the Rock Camp counsellors put on a show for us, sounding incredible despite the fact that it was literally thrown together hours ago. Of course they do, these guys are the real thing. Alongside Elliot, there’s Spike Edney from Queen and Tony Franklin from The Firm. Because of all this we don’t get much practice in on day one, so it takes us til day two to realise that we’re utterly and completely screwed.
Our drummer is bad. He can’t keep time, which is all drummers are really required to do. Jack will start out okay – we’ll be crashing through some rock standard and he’ll just about hold it together – but then he’ll try to insert a flashy drum roll and get instantly turned around, leaving the band jarringly behind the beat. Gone are the more ambitious numbers, we have to keep things safe so as not to lose face in front of our idols. ‘Whole Lotta Love’, a song tailor-made for Paul’s incredible vocal pyrotechnics, has a rhythmically complicated section in the middle, and must be jettisoned in favour of simpler tunes. But even those tunes, ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and ‘Walkin’ The Dog’, constantly teeter on the precipice of chaos.
Our ultimate test as a band will be Saturday night’s House Of Blues gig, but we have several mini-trials to conquer first – namely, the celebrity jam sessions. Each day, during rehearsals, a rock star arrives, and each band plays one song with them on the main stage – a wet dream for many of my band-mates. One of these stars is Steve Vai. He’s a superhuman, a titan, and someone I listened to obsessively as a teenager learning to play.
We mount the stage and, after a couple of cringeworthy false starts (laughed off amicably by Steve, “you guys are just like my band”), we launch into a slightly too-fast version of Led Zepellin’s ‘Immigrant Song.’ Steve is mind-boggling up close. We’ve all seen good, but there’s just something ‘other’ about the best in the world. His is a level of mastery achieved through innate talent and endless, obsessive, hours of practice.
But it’s the wrong song. A simple, repetitive riff that doesn’t lend itself to extended guitar histrionics, and the overall experience is like asking Da Vinci to paint you a smiley face.
Day three. Our first proper gig at the House Of Blues is tomorrow, and things are getting really tense in our band. As we’re crashing through another abortive attempt at practice, who other than Joe Vitale casually wanders into the room. Joe has drummed with The Eagles and Crosby Stills and Nash, he’s the real deal and a lovely man – an avuncular character with a shock of curly grey hair and an infectious perma-grin.
Coyly, Paul suggests Joe jump on the drums for a minute, just to give the song a run through. Joe shrugs and sets himself up behind the drums while Jack stands huffily aside, arms folded. Elliot kicks off with that huge, momentous, iconic guitar riff, I join in on bass, and we commence what will become my own personal Rock ’n’ Roll moment of the week. Because, all at once, we are finally a band.
Paul gives it everything, ooh-ing and wailing and gyrating, morphing seamlessly into his onstage persona. The bass drum is a thumping, rock-solid heartbeat and we’re instantly nodding our heads, beaming at each other. Other bands are actually wandering in from their own rehearsal rooms now, their guitars slung behind their backs, sensing something special is happening.
Saturday looms, the day of our first gig. But first, our final guest performer – and for my band mates this is the big one – Joe Perry, lead guitarist in Aerosmith. ‘Aersosmith are the sole reason I pursued a career in music,’ whispers an awed Paul in the corridor as we wait to meet his idol. Joe greets us warmly. Wirily handsome with cheekbones you could abseil from, kitted out in full rock-god regalia. The song is ‘Walkin’ The Dog’, which we’ve played so many times now I want to take the dog out back and shoot it. Thankfully though, we sound good. Joe seems to really enjoy himself, throwing shapes and wringing ear-spitting, bluesy squeals from his low-slung guitar. We leave the stage truly elated, it’s a minor triumph, and sets us up for tonight.
But alas, the first night is a complete disaster. The House Of Blues, a rock-themed bar and restaurant, set in the middle of the vast and infamous Mandalay Bay casino, is packed with punters. Clearly nervous, we set off too fast into ‘Immigrant Song’ yet again, Paul sounding like he’s on helium in an effort to match the inconsiderate pace Jack has set. When we come off stage to slaps on the back and kindhearted comments from our Rock Camp friends, we can’t help but feel deflated.
Tensions are starting to fray a little and there’s a sense that Jack is, as my band mate John puts it, is ‘Here to rub shoulders with celebrities rather than play music.’
I get spectacularly drunk that night with some of the Rock Camp staff, wake up with a truly apocalyptic hangover and arrive late for our last day of practice. When I finally arrive I find out about the miracle of miracles.
Joe Perry’s flight out of Vegas had been cancelled. And, like a night in shining armour, our drummer Jack just so happened to have his private jet at McClaren Airport (oh yeah, I completely forgot to mention that Jack is a billionaire). So just then, our now-former drummer was kicking back on a one-to-one with Joe, sipping champagne on his way to Vermont.
We get a replacement drummer, one of the Rock Camp staff, and he’s just awesome. Suddenly, we can have fun, no cringing, no over-compensating, just pure, unadulterated, Rock ’n’ Roll fun. We quickly throw together a bluesy Aersomith number called ‘Reefer Headed Woman’ to open with on the night. But, of course, we finish with what we started, ‘Whole Lotta Love’.
And for five minutes up there on stage, lights glaring, we are finally, truly, rock stars. Everything gels – Chris and John are banging their heads and grinning like madmen, Elliot’s guitar wails like a banshee on the solo, to cheers from the audience, the drums are chest-burstingly huge and Paul channels the spirits of Rock for a pitch-perfect vocal performance. The crowd go ballistic and, all at once, my dream comes true.
The after-party is a complete blur, lots of scenes missing, like watching a scratched DVD – every Rock ’n’ Roll story has to end like this. We’re crowded round a piano singing ‘Tiny Dancer’ with members of Queen, Guns N Roses and The Eagles. I’m sharing wine and gushing like a fanboy to Spike Edney about an obscure Manic Street Preachers track he played keyboard on in 1989. I can no longer tell who’s a rock star and who’s a camper, because for one night only, there was no difference.
Zack is now a member of the ROCK ‘N’ ROLL FANTASY CAMP Hall of Fame. The experience, and other regular programmes of its kind, offers punters a chance to jam with big name rock-stars.
He was a guest of MGM’s sprawling Mandalay Bay.