Sunday, September 23, 2012

All the (Not So) Young (Joe) Dudes

"All the Young Dudes", as performed by Bruce Dickinson

My friends and I owe a debt of gratitude to Tim "Ripper" Owens, former front-man of the British heavy metal superband Judas Priest (among other well-known metal acts).

Before he became a world famous rock star, he was an ordinary kid from Akron, Ohio who delivered office supplies by day and sang in local heavy metal bands by night - including our hometown heroes U.S. Metal - crafting an epic stage persona and cultivating his resonant mega-voice. My friends and I met Tim a few times, but never really got to know him. He replaced our old buddy Jimmy Williams as the lead singer for U.S. Metal when Jim headed out to California in search of stardom (he became a co-founder of Graven Image and became a local heavy metal institution in his own right in L.A.).

Through an absolutely amazing turn of events, Tim realized his dream and was invited to become the lead singer of his all-time favorite band, Judas Priest. He went from being just Tim from Akron to being the platinum-throated globe-trotting "Ripper" and touring with world-class celebrities. 

But in spite of his success, Ripper did not develop an ego problem and put Akron, Ohio (and his old friends) in the rear view mirror (and I know who my northeast Ohio friends are thinking about just now...).  By every account, Tim remains a nice guy, a family man, one who often looks for ways to support worthy causes, who can still belt it out with his big bombastic, even operatic, vocal apparatus. Although he tours around the world in various heavy metal music projects, Ripper owns a local bar and restaurant in Akron. He has not turned his back on his old friends - including Jimmy Williams, his predecessor in U.S. Metal who was a kind of voice coach and mentor for him as a young singer.

In fact, Tim recently did something very cool.

U.S. Metal Coming Back?

He set up a reunion of his old bandmates in U.S. Metal to sing at the local Rockin' on the River in Cuyahoga Falls (the Akron suburb where I grew up). Word spread like wildfire thanks to facebook. Back in the 1980s, U.S. Metal developed a fanatical following of young northeast Ohio rock and rollers - including myself and my three friends: Rick, Ron, and Tim.

At that time, I was working as a software consultant in New York. I would fly or drive back to Ohio every other weekend. My friends Rick and Ron Gjurkovitsch (brothers and fellow alumni from Walsh Jesuit High School) and Tim Cerepak (who worked with me at my aunt's restaurant when we were teenagers) would converge on Friday nights wherever the guys were playing: the venue I most remember being Ramon's Nightclub - though there were a few others, such as the Temple Tavern (Akron), Genesis and Filthy McNasty's (Kent) or even at a rollerskating rink in New Philadelphia (which for me was a cold ride in the back of a pickup truck, though I earned a warm spot in the driver's seat on the way back by virtue of abstinence).

On Friday nights, it was off with the silk ties, jackets, dress slacks, pencil protectors, and away from the computer terminals, and on with the tattered jeans, leather jackets, bandannas, and chains. We would stand right in front of the stage (probably having scarred eardrums to this day) and "mosh" with the band. As they played, we would mess with them mercilessly. We would grab their feet, their instruments, and try to crack them up.  It's a wonder they didn't hate our guts. But they seemed to like having us around. We were backstage before the show and after the show.  One of the guys' girlfriends once sniffed, "He likes being around you guys more than me!"

U.S. Metal sang all the well-known covers of metal tunes from the late sixties up until the contemporary standards of the period - with a few originals thrown in. Jimmy Williams fronted the act either bare-footed, in socks, or wearing over-the-top fuzzy slippers - providing an interesting contrast to his leather and chains. He played the lead role as a true showman.  He shrieked, growled, grinned, and strutted around with his long locks trailing behind - typically downing beers between songs - which must have provided and interesting flavor clash with his ubiquitous cherry Halls lozenges. Scott Jones had tightly-curled tresses down his back, always a smile on his face, and played his guitar with energy, precision, and sheer joy. Chris Jones (Scott's brother) was more reserved (as bass players often seem to be), sporting a full-blown 80s mullet and laying down the intricate bass lines like a walk in the park. Rick Shore played the drums like a madman, on one occasion leaping over his drum kit and brandishing his sticks like nunchaku as a fight was about to break out in the audience.

On one occasion, a couple of us spent the day with the band on one of the beautiful lakes near Akron. It was relaxing and crazy at the same time. We almost sank the boat twice. It's a wonder it was able to float at all with so much beer aboard.  I hope the statute of limitations has passed.

Rick, Ron, Tim, and I even had a collective nickname: the Joe Dudes. This was because we called everyone "Joe." Jimmy (being the singer) was "Joe Singer." Chris (the bass player) was (you guessed it) "Joe Bass." Scott was "Joe Guitar."  Rick was "Joe Drums" - although we sometimes called him "Mantis" because that was his previous nickname. We knew "Mantis" from prior pickup basketball games. I don't know if anyone remembers this little bit of Joe Dudiana or not, but I nicknamed Tim "Joe Throat" because of his remarkable set of pipes (of course, "Ripper" is a far cooler appellation). Similarly, other guys got "Joe" monikers. The guy who sold U.S. Metal t-shirts became known as "Joe Shirt." One of the guys who used to sing with the band from time to time showed up in a tuxedo one day, hence: "Joe Tux." There were a few non-Joe nicknames as well: Brother George, Shake n Bake, the Shrunken Head, Pan Head, Gums and Roses, the Toe Tappers, the Soap Brothers, etc. They all have their stories.

There was even a remarkable 88-year old fan who treasured his time at the nightclubs.  Harry wore a leather jacket (gift from the band) and sported a button that said: "Not too old to rock and roll").  He was proud of the leather, and always wore it to the shows.  All the patrons loved him.  When he was tragically murdered, several band members and Joe Dudes attended his funeral.  His son was the pastor who presided over the funeral, and he was quite touched to see us there for the service.  It turns out that Harry was a deeply devoted husband who attended his ill wife for many years.  When she passed, he began going to the rock and roll clubs and spending time with young people.  It made him feel alive.  His enthusiasm was infectious.  He was an institution.  He is missed to this very day.

The band would sometimes invite us Dudes up on stage to open a song or two with them. It makes me laugh to think that today I sing the ancient western Mass twice a week in public as part of my liturgical duties, and even recorded a CD with a choir while at seminary. But before all that, I had just the tiniest taste of being on stage as a heavy metal singer.  And even that little taste was awesome.  The guys were really good to us.

For added craziness, on Halloween, the Dudes we would put on wigs, spandex, leather, and other heavy metal gear and we would "become" the band for a day. We referred to that activity as being in "full regalia" - and hence the name of our mythical band: Full Regalia.  We knew we were posers, but it didn't matter.  We had a lot of fun.

A typical Friday night out went like this for me: I would work at the Kraft General Foods office in Rye, New York (aka the Taj Mahal) writing the order-entry system for one of the largest corporations on the planet using a not-so-well-known software package (called SYNON) which enabled me to be a hotshot consultant commanding a huge hourly rate - at least for my employer - the consulting company. I was admittedly paid pretty well for a twenty-something, but the consulting company actually made out like bandits on the deal. But they did give me flights and a company car and a decent per diem.  And I still got to have my second life as an Akron metal-head.  So I shouldn't complain.

At four o'clock pm Friday, I would leave the Taj Mahal, drive my tiny Ford Escort eight hours across I-80, traversing the entire states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  I would roll into Akron about midnight, and join the Dudes and the band for a couple hours of ear-splitting rock and roll, flashing colored lights, occasional pyrotechnics, and the smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke. Afterwards, at 2 a.m., the Joe Dudes would head to the local (and now-defunct) Bob's Big Boy for the breakfast buffet. We ended up getting to know all of the workers so well that we typically glommed our food for free. Our craziness carried on for about another hour or so. I would then slip exhausted over to my parents' place and catch a few hours sleep. I'd spend Saturday getting caught up with family and friends. I would attend Divine Service at Redeemer Lutheran Church Sunday morning, and then I would return to New York, leaving about 4:00 and arriving back at my digs at about midnight. This went on for a few years.

Here are some pics from about 1990.

And this is the kind of thing you can do when you're a young Dude. But over time, we kind of drifted apart. My visits home became less frequent. We all got married, had children, advanced in our jobs, bought homes, etc. Eventually, I went to seminary. The rest of the Dudes moved up in the world. Jimmy went to California. Ripper made the pinnacle of rock stardom. U.S. Metal (and the Joe Dudes) came to an end.

Until August 17, 2012, that is.

This is why I want to thank Tim Owens for remembering his old friends and not turning his back on his roots. Tim had arranged the reunion with U.S. Metal at Rockin' on the River. He paid for Jimmy to fly in from California. I arranged to fly in for a quick visit - only my second time back in The Falls in nearly a decade.

But the reunion almost didn't happen. Tim's schedule suddenly changed (he was on tour in Europe with the Dio Disciples, a Ronnie James Dio tribute band), and he could not make it back to Akron. I couldn't get out of my airplane ticket, so although I was disappointed, I decided to come up anyway and enjoy a visit with my folks. I would hopefully also see the Joe Dudes - whom I have now known for more than 30 years. Scott Jones (the U.S. Metal guitarist) and I swapped a couple facebook messages, and he wanted to join us as well.

But it got even better!

The U.S. Metal show was going to happen after all (though without Ripper) at Tim's restaurant: "Ripper Owens Tap House" as part of a show featuring the local band Fractured. My friends picked me up, and it was like old times. Rick wore his mint condition U.S. Metal shirt (25 years old?) and Ron was so metaled-up that my dad didn't recognize him. For my part, I donned my 1986 Aerosmith concert tee.  Three of the four Joe Dudes got to Ripper's in the late afternoon and enjoyed wings and beers. Tim joined us shortly.  It was all laughs after that.  The Tap House is a kind-of Heavy Metal version of T.G.I. Fridays or Hard Rock Cafe combined with a sports bar. There is, of course, metal memorabilia on the walls. There is also an intimate stage for live bands - and Ripper often has top-names roll into Akron for shows. Needless to say, there was a lot of reminiscence, teasing, and laughter. Aside from grayer (and shorter) hair, we all really look pretty much the same.  By the way, the food at Ripper's is excellent!  If I still lived in N.E. Ohio, I would be a regular.  It would be a great place to write sermons.  And the days of the stale beer and smoke smell are over.

Anyway, a couple hours later, Jimmy and Scott rolled in. They recognized us immediately. They moved us to their table, and we took pictures and recalled the old days. We saw people we had not seen in a quarter century. It was a grand reunion!

We are still posers, and Jimmy took advantage of my being there to get himself a halo
Fractured played a few songs, and then at about 11:00 pm, invited Jimmy and Scott to come up. Tim Zuver (who played drums and sang with U.S. Metal before Rick Shore's tenure) also mounted the stage. It really was like the old days - except for two things: 1) There were no thick clouds of tobacco (and other kinds of) smoke, and 2) people had their camera phones and were shooting stills and video.

The guys played a short but intense set, and it was nothing short of magical. It was like going back in time. We all became 25 again and moshed with the band. Hopefully, none of the middle-aged throng needed chiropractic adjustments the next day.

In the course of the evening, we met Jimmy's wife and Scott's wife and son (who is a newly-minted police officer). Chris had a family obligation and could not make this reunion - but he did contact me by text message and we were able to catch up a little bit. Scott (now a fit fifty years old, whose locks are today closely-cropped) told me that he played some Christian rock music with his church - and was a bit surprised by my disapproval. I'm more of a traditionalist when it comes to worship. As much as I love my rock and roll, I won't surrender my chorales and Gregorian chant.  He promised further discussion with me on the topic - and I hope it happens!

The Dudes and U.S. Metal have all gone on to lead productive lives. And yet we all still love our heavy metal. It was a great joy to see my old friends again.  We always got along well with one another, went through good times and bad together, and are once again in touch after a too-long hiatus.

Thanks again to Ripper Owens (a real class act) and to Jimmy and Scott for putting on a great show and re-uniting the Joe Dudes and our U.S. Metal friends. Joe Tim, Joe Ron, Joe Rick, and I are all looking forward to our next reunion.

So, what do you say, guys? A.D. 2022 at Ripper's?  By the way, here are all of my pictures from the Reunion.  As Harry reminded us all those years ago, we are "not too old to rock and roll!"

Not Bob's Big Boy, but close enough for rock 'n roll

Bonus: For hanging in there and reading this whole blog post, here is Ripper Owens covering Iron Maiden's "Flight of Icarus" (the singer of Iron Maiden was, and is, Bruce Dickinson).  "Icarus" was often covered by U.S. Metal.  Enjoy, and don't fly too close to the sun!

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