Feedback from the PA system is annoying Kip Winger. Wearing saggy jeans and old Chuck Taylors, the once pinup-hot frontman of an eighties glam-metal band named for himself kneels to fiddle with the PA, giving his band in the West Loop rehearsal studio a gander at his plumber’s butt. When he stands, his knees crackle like bubble wrap. "Aging sucks," he mumbles.
Winger (above) gently tells the drummer he’s playing too loudly, and the drummer, an eager 41-year-old Oak Park orthodontist named Bill Beam, can scarcely hide his excitement. Too loud? He’ll be telling his patients about this—even if they’ve never heard of Kip Winger. "OK," Winger says. "Let’s rock, but softly. Let’s sock." Then they slam into "Fat Bottomed Girls."
Such is life at Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, a 15-city tour where average schlubs pony up $2,000 to jam for a day with, say, the former drummer of AC/DC. Thirty-five campers signed up for the August session in Chicago. Some of them belong to bands that never made it or haven’t yet; others are music geeks—talent not required—whose spouses sprang for the ultimate birthday present. Elliot Levy, a 45-year-old systems manager in the northwest suburbs, won admission in a guitar solo contest in Carpentersville. He ditched his family vacation in South Carolina to be here. "I fly back out tomorrow," Levy says, then rips through the lead on "Suffragette City."
Beside Levy, the former Guns ‘N Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke can’t stop grinning. One could easily assume that Clarke, a diminutive Cleveland native with a wispy goatee, is cynically trading on his B-list fame for an easy payday and the adoration of fans like Levy—but he looks like a guy who simply wants to rock without complications. "This is fun," Clarke says later, while signing autographs and telling the guys that Brooke Burke’s sexiness isn’t overhyped. "It’s not like all that shit in bands, people fighting over who’s the leader. Look around— everyone’s got a smile on their face."
Not surprisingly, the camp’s demographic leans toward aging boomers. When Elliot Easton, the guitarist of the Cars, tells his bassist that his playing needs to "swing," the camper—a bald man in shorts and penny loafers—looks like the only swinging he does these days involves a porch and a glass of lemonade. But when the song "Get Back" kicks in again, he turns on the juice. Easton, 54 and soft around the middle, gives an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
Like the other counselors, Easton was carefully chosen for the camp. "We pick good guys to be counselors," says David Fishof, a former sports agent and music producer who came up with the rock camp concept in 1997. "Guys who have matured." Take Glenn Hughes from Deep Purple, for example: "I was a millionaire at 21, coked out of my mind, with my own limo, Rolls-Royces everywhere," he told Metal CD magazine in 1993. "I could have shot somebody and got away with it." Now Hughes is clean, polite, and unironically hurling campers bromides such as "If you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star, you have to believe you can be!"
For 12 minutes, they are. That night, each band gets a short set to warm up the warm-up band (King’s X, opening for Extreme) at a packed House of Blues show. Initially, the crowd seems more amused than swept away by the geezers onstage, but by the time Easton’s band hits "Summertime Blues" full force, playing like their khakis are on fire, the sonic blast has toes tapping. Heads nodding. It’s no longer a gimmick: Fans are lost in the song’s familiar riffs.
"That’s my husband!" screeches the middle-aged wife of Easton’s guitarist. "He’s a stockbroker!" She doesn’t appear ready to throw any undergarments onstage, but she does look awfully proud.
Photograph: (Winger) David Plastik