Like a Rolling Stone
The Strange Life of a Tribute Band
Broadway Books: 216 pp., $23.95
FOR Glen Carroll, a typical workday involves taking the stage in white football pants, blue kneepads, dance shoes and a cape made from American and British flags. Carroll, a slim, shaggy-haired rogue in his late 40s, is the lead singer of Sticky Fingers, a New York/New Jersey-based band that bills itself as “the leading international Rolling Stones tribute show.” His performance is rather like seeing Mick Jagger circa the Stones’ 1981 Tattoo You U.S. tour, only Carroll likes to climb behind the drums for a drunken jam at the end of the night.
For decades, Sticky Fingers’ main competition on the East Coast music circuit has been the Blushing Brides, a Canadian Stones tribute band fronted by the powerfully built Maurice Raymond, who in his younger days was known for athletic performances that included swinging from nightclub chandeliers. Sticky Fingers strives for some degree of sonic and visual verisimilitude in their shows (Kevin Gleeson, the group’s Keith Richards, dons a homemade hairpiece hung with coins and small animal bones, approximating the rhythm guitarist’s current matted hairdo).
Blushing Brides musicians are openly disdainful of such “clone band” antics. Taking its musical cues from an infamously raw 1973 Stones concert bootleg recording known as “Bedspring Symphony,” the Canadian band prides itself on sounding tighter and tougher than the Stones -- a distinction lead singer Raymond often points out belligerently between songs, threatening to “body-slam” Jagger if he ever shows his weathered face at a Brides gig.
Welcome to the strange world of tribute bands, where musicians can attain a small degree of fame (and occasionally a decent living) by playing another artist’s songs note for note, night after night. Journalist Steven Kurutz dissects this phenomenon in “Like a Rolling Stone,” tracing it to the surprise success of the 1977 Broadway musical revue “Beatlemania.” It has since expanded (or, depending on your point of view, metastasized) to include imitators of nearly every major pop and rock act of the last four decades.
According to Kurutz, there are 26 Van Halen tribute bands playing around the world and probably as many Led Zeppelin acts -- not surprising, since both bands (until recently) seemed unlikely to reunite. But there also exist such oddball musical salutes as Anything for Loaf (a Meatloaf tribute), Kinda Kenny (as in Kenny Rogers) and Hair Supply, which claims to be “the greatest heavy metal tribute to Air Supply in the Tri-State area.” There are “not one but two KISS tribute bands peopled by dwarves -- Mini Kiss and Tiny Kiss,” he writes.
Novelty aside, Kurutz argues, the appeal comes down to a winning combination of accessibility and economics: “Aerosmith is never going to play your local sports bar. Draw the Line, however, will come and sing ‘Walk This Way,’ and you won’t have to spend a lot of money or wait an hour on the phone with Ticketmaster to see them.”
Some tribute bands allow die-hard fans to travel back in time; Jerry Garcia may no longer be with us, but Deadheads still can groove to Dark Star Orchestra’s painstaking re-creations of specific Grateful Dead shows from years past -- complete with note-for-note renditions of such improvisational jams as “Space” and “Drums.”
For some of these ersatz rockers, fantasy and reality can become horribly blurred, Kurutz writes, noting that “Beatlemania” cast members not only were chased through the streets by packs of screaming girls, but their personalities also began to take on the behavioral traits associated with John, Paul, George and Ringo. Chicago filmmaker Russ Forster tells of two “Eddie Van Halens,” both of whom demanded signed legal contracts before he could begin filming “Tributary,” his 2002 documentary on tribute bands.
“At the time, it freaked me out to have two different Eddie Van Halens from two different bands do the same thing,” Forster says, adding that he’s since been told that “the actual Eddie Van Halen is somewhat that way.” This leads Kurutz to muse on the “chicken-and-egg” question: “Does someone gravitate to the role of Eddie Van Halen because he shares similar personality traits,” he asks, “or did portraying Eddie Van Halen give rise to those qualities?”
“Like a Rolling Stone” is most enjoyable and thought-provoking when Kurutz ponders such things and lets musicians and band managers tell their alternately hilarious and horrifying tales of life on Planet Tribute. Unfortunately, these parts read like an extended magazine article; to flesh it out to book length, he spent a year following Sticky Fingers from gig to gig, taking time out to see the Blushing Brides and the real Rolling Stones -- the latter during yet another massively lucrative tour of America. This extended adventure, unfortunately yields little more than dreary and repetitive descriptions of life on the road.
Kurutz theorizes that the tribute band phenomenon “extends beyond music to the entire culture,” so that comedy show host Stephen Colbert “is, in a way, a tribute band to Bill O’Reilly” and “Quentin Tarantino is a tribute band to 1970s blaxploitation and B movies.”
Likewise, Kurutz’s “Like a Rolling Stone” could be viewed as a tribute to such Stones tomes as Tony Sanchez’s “Up and Down With the Rolling Stones” and Stanley Booth’s “The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones.” Just like the Stones tribute band churning its way through “Satisfaction” at your neighborhood sports bar, this book is ultimately less satisfying than the real deal.
Dan Epstein is the author of several books on 20th century pop culture. And he once played guitar in a Nick Gilder tribute band.