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The Fifties have become the decade of warm and cuddly. This is partly because today's rebel culture seems far more threatening - 50 Cent could probably beat James Dean to a pulp - and also because pop culture has endeared the Fifties to us as happy nostalgia, thanks to Grease, Happy Days, Pleasantville and the like.
We seem to have forgotten that the original greasers were scary, not just on a personal, devil-may-care level, but also as a collective anti-establishment element that threatened the gloss of post-war euphoria. Former Stray Cats bassist Lee Rocker - who arrives this week for two concerts in Tel Aviv - has had a long career of tapping into the darker energies of Fifties rock and rockabilly, but he's no tribute act.
Back in its Eighties heyday, Stray Cats combined a punky edge with rockabilly inspirations to make a new sound. Rocker explained the difference between the Cats' rockabilly and the soul-less music of his new-wave peers to the British magazine New Music Express: "Much of that stuff is so polished that there are no loose ends; it's just like a perfect sound. Everything where it is; there's nothing raw about it."
Today, Rocker's solo projects incorporate other contemporary influences, though Rocker doesn't think his music is specific to a certain era. As he explained in an 1985 MTV interview: "I don't think you can really put a date on it - like, rockabilly isn't Fifties music to me. It's, like, jazz isn't Twenties music; country isn't Thirties music. And [in Europe] that's how they reacted to it - just another type of music that's valid." That's why, Rocker told NME, his "good dance music" appeals to all types.
Rockabilly is what happened when rock and roll's influences (country, blues, gospel) reached a turning point. Elvis Presley's legendary 1954 Sun Records sessions in Memphis marked the genre's passage beyond fusion into something new. When Bill Flag was working on his seminal Tetra Records sessions in 1955 and 1956, he named the style "rockabilly," and the name stuck.
Since his father was a clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic and a professor at the legendary Julliard School of Music, Lee Drucker - as Rocker used to be known - grew up in a Long Island home full of music. Young Drucker started playing the cello at seven, but by the time he'd reached his mid teens he decided to explore rock and roll to appeal to the ladies.
In 1978, Rocker, "Slim" Jim Phantom and Brian Setzer (or "Brian Seltzer," as Homer calls him in one episode of The Simpsons) founded Stray Cats. Though still in high school, the band had some success in the New York area, playing bars in Long Island and eventually landing gigs at the legendary Eighties venue CBGB's and other Manhattan rock clubs.
Then, in the summer of 1980, the band decided to up and move to London. The members had no money, no career prospects in Europe and no plans - but in a matter of months they were selling out clubs and charting hits, and had even connected with big-time producer Dave Edmunds. They went on to sell over seven million records worldwide, were nominated for a Grammy and toured as openers for the Rolling Stones. The band broke up in 1984, reunited from 1988 to 1992, but hasn't appeared together since. "We talk, we're friends, but it's a relationship that kind of ran its course," explains Rocker.
As frontman, Setzer went on to perform with Bob Dylan, Robert Plant and Stevie Nicks. Later, he founded the Brian Setzer Orchestra, which is still wildly successful as a big band/swing jazz outfit.
Rocker appeared on the all-star Blue Suede Shoes special on American cable TV's Showtime Channel alongside Eric Clapton, rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins and former Beatles Ringo Starr and George Harrison. He continued to collaborate with Perkins for years afterwards, and has released several solo CDs, with varying levels of commercial success.
"You gotta do what you do as a musician, or as an artist," he says. "As the world turns and times change, you've got to stay true to what you are and what you do.... When people get tired of listening to the flavor of the month, they always return to their roots, and those roots are now known as Americana. But I just prefer to call it the Devil's music" - a reference to the demonization that rock and roll underwent in the conformist Protestant culture of the Fifties.
Nowadays, Rocker has a heavy concert schedule, and takes great pleasure in winning over even the most skeptical of crowds. After this week's Tel Aviv shows, he moves on to play two dates in Switzerland, followed by a February filled with appearances in southern California - which makes sense, given that Rocker lives in Laguna Beach.
Lee Rocker appears Tuesday and Wednesday at the Goldstar Zappa Club in Tel Aviv. Call (03) 649-9550 for more information.