Why do we play?
Why does anyone start a band?
Back when I was a kid I just wanted to get out of Fremont. As far as “dreams or goals” I didn't care about being famous or making money, getting laid would've been rad! But truthfully, playing guitar and whipping everyone into a circle pit frenzy would’ve been the ultimate goal in my young mind. My friends and I wanted to thrash the backyards, schoolyards and community centers of Fremont, California. But truthfully the ultimate dream stood about 30 miles, and a lifetime away. That dream my friends was to play The Stone in San Francisco and Ruthie’s Inn in Berkeley, without question the Thrash epicenters of the Bay Area.
So who were these under aged kids with dreams of clubs and circle pits in their heads? Well back then it was Jim Pittman and me. Another friend of ours played bass, his name was Steve Lombardo. In due time guys like Noel Plaugher, Leroy Mendez, John Tegio and Craig Locicero would share in these lofty thoughts, but in the very beginning it was just Jim and me.
Shit, here I go reminiscing again…
I first “discovered” hard rock and metal when I was living in San Lorenzo with a friend of mine, Lisa Sgroe. We started with Van Halen, AC/DC, and Devo (and Duran Duran, but we won't go into that right now) and I was off and running. My family then moved from San Lorenzo to Fremont and one of the first friends I made was a girl named Lori Kibby. She turned me on to the "Heaven and Hell"-era of Black Sabbath and I flipped out on it! Clement and Vernon Leung turned me on to the Pop-rock of the time. Another friend, Rene Sanchez, his older stoner brother would get us all stoked on the bands we knew, as well as plenty of others. Rene was a good kid though, and when I wanted to start smoking weed we ended up drifting apart. Looking back it was kind of a bummer, we were close.
The first time I ever got high was with my buddy Elvis Faria (I shit you not, his name was Elvis) and his dad smoked. So Elvis would go in and steal some weed from somewhere in his dad’s bedroom. On that fateful day when I smoked for the first time, Elvis put on Black Sabbath's ‘We Sold Our Souls For Rock N Roll.’ "Paranoid" was the first song he jammed and I'll never forget it as long as I live. It wasn’t just the music, those lyrics hit me like ton of bricks. I'd never heard something so dark and depressing.
Lyrics like "Make a joke, and I will sigh, and you will laugh, and I will cry, happiness I cannot feel, and love to me is so unreal." What the fuck? This was heavy and fucked and not the usual “let’s take-on-the-world” kind of stuff, but more “I-want-to-die” type shit! It scared the crap out of me and I thought I would go to Hell for listening to it, like instantly… so I asked him to change it. But you know how kids are. A few days later there we were, cutting high school and smoking weed and I asked him to put on Black Sabbath again. This time I was “ready,” this time, I fell in love.
As I got more into smoking weed an older buddy named Vance Sterbank, who lived down the street would play Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla" and Gary Numan's "Down In The Park" while we got high. Then one day he put on "N.I.B" by Black Sabbath. The intro, the sound of the bass riff when it kicked in... in my stoned haze I asked him, "what is THAT?" "What makes that sound?" It was the heaviest thing I'd ever heard. He said "that's a bass, I got one, wanna try it?" He pulled out a bass his dad had picked up for him and I fiddled around with it and said out loud to him, "that is the sound I want to make."
Smoking weed and listening to music became my default thing to do in high school. Well, that and frying on "purple micro dot" mescaline, trying to "maintain" and not let the teacher see I was about laugh-to-death hiding behind my book. Tripping was mostly with my friends Matt Williams, Jim Barger, and Elvis. Aerosmith’s "Live Bootleg" was one of our favorite “go-to” records to listen to while stoned in my buddies bedroom at night. Fuck man, it rocked, hard. And while these dudes were my friends, we weren't really "friends." When I finally met Jim Pittman in high school art class, even though he didn't smoke weed or know any of my stoner friends, we really bonded. I talk about him in the ‘Remembering Cliff Journal,’ he’s an important character in my “story” for lack of a better word.
By the time we met I had a 4 string classical guitar with nylon strings that my dad had picked me up at a flea market. I say 4 string because 2 of the string were missing, but I didn't need the high strings anyway, I wanted to play riffs! The first song I ever learned how to play on guitar was “The Lemon Song” by Led Zeppelin. I wasn't particularly enamored by Zeppelin at that time, I didn't really like them as I was definitely WAY more into Black Sabbath, though Sabbath wasn't on the radio. But if you lived in Northern California at that time, Zeppelin was on endless loop on the 2 rock radio stations, 92.3 KSJO and 98.5 KOME. I do however remember really liking their song "Ramble On."
So there I was, just noodling on the guitar and I just happen to stumble on those notes to Zep’s “Lemon Song.” All single string notes, no chords, but I knew they were the right notes, don’t ask me how I knew, I just did. At this time I had no lessons of any sort, (though I'd take a few and get fed up enough to practice more... alone) but it was my weed dealer and a real-all-around-jerk named Roger _______ that taught me my first power chord!
One day we were stoned in his bedroom and I decided to show him that I had learned the notes to "Sweet Leaf" by Black Sabbath. He then turned to me and said "yeah, but can you do a power chord?" I was curious, "what's a power chord?" His answer was perfect stoner wisdom, "It's exactly like it sounds, it’s the sound of power." That’s all it took. It totally felt like one day I was noodling, single notes, and the next, I was working on my power chords, learning riffs. My life literally changed directions in that moment. Prior to this all my time and effort went back and forth between Jiu-Jitsu and the guitar…that week I quit Jiu-Jitsu and started playing guitar non-stop.
I began to play all day and my dad could see I was into it, so he "rented" me an electric guitar from a music shop (whose name I can't remember) at the Fremont Hub. The rental was 45 bucks for 3 months, 20 bucks for the amp and distortion box. If I stuck with it he would then match me on whatever money I saved and we'd buy a guitar from Allegro Music in Fremont. I practiced like the world was ending tomorrow. Eventually I saved $200 bucks, my dad matched me, and the first guitar I bought was a total look-at-me guitar, a candy-apple-red Ibanez Flying-V.
Where I had started with Van Halen, Aerosmith and AC/DC, thanks to Jim, my musical tastes were now about to fuckin’ explode! Soon enough Jim was turning me onto all these bands that no one I knew had even heard of. Bands like Accept, Raven, Metallica, Exodus, Discharge, Holocaust, Exciter, Witchfinder General. Furthermore Jim’s brother had a drum set and he'd let Jim play on it. It wasn’t long before he talked me into singing and playing guitar. "Steve has a bass already, you should play guitar." I was like, "OK." A few weeks later he said to me "you seem like the singer, you should sing," and again I was like "OK."
I'd love to sit here and say I had all this confidence in myself and knew it was my fucking "destiny" or some bullshit. But if it wasn't for Jim it would have taken a lot longer or it may not have even happened at all. He pushed me, and I just rose to the occasion. I always wanted to be onstage. I always tried out for (and got) the main character in school plays and sang cover songs at talent shows. Maybe he saw something in me I couldn't even see, yet... but he was so into it, he made me into it. We began jamming songs in Steve's garage and later we moved to my dad's garage. When the neighbors complained, my dad was cool enough to let us jam in the living room.
We would cut 2nd period to 4th period and jam all morning, mercilessly stealing Slayer and Exodus riffs to make them our own. Then jam again after school. Jim and I continued jamming in my living room and we eventually got more people involved like Craig Locicero, Leroy Mendez, and John Tegio. We went thru awesome names like Inquisitor, War Witch and finally settled on Forbidden Evil, which we stole from the song title of a band called War Cry on Metal Massacre 4.
Eventually my dad kicked us out (when the neighbors narc-ed us out for cutting school) and we went and jammed in Leroy's grandma's garage. Then we found vocalist Russ Anderson through an ad at the music store at The Hub. Russ was a killer singer AND was old enough to buy beer which was a HUGE plus! We then moved on to Craig's parents’ garage and shortly after we were playing backyard parties, kegger parties and community centers.
It was amazing! Here we were playing cover songs of our favorite bands. We’d play “A Lesson In Violence” (6 months before it was released) from Exodus, “Black Magic” by Slayer, maybe “Whiplash” and a couple of originals. The first almost-song I wrote was a blatant Slayer rip-off called "Thrash Til Death." But my first Song-song was a massive Mercyful Fate rip-off called "Egypt Has Fallen" (probably the best song title EVER!). We debuted "Egypt" at Craig's high school Washington High for a raging lunch hour thrash-fest. Craig booked most or all of shows at the time. He could just call up someone and make it happen, he had that knack, still does. I was too introverted at the time.
I was obsessed with guitar, I played anywhere and everywhere. It's all I wanted to do. The night I graduated from high school I discovered speed and that was it. Now I could play guitar for even longer, my focus was insane (don't try this at home kids!) I'd practice an arpeggio for 3 hours, another for 2 more hours, staying up til 6AM. I had an ear too. I could play along to tapes, records, and hear all the right notes and none of my friends could do that. Even though they might have been better players, when they’d play a song I could hear that they were doing it wrong.
I'd learn Exodus songs from live bootlegs Jim had traded. I could play most of ‘Bonded By Blood’ a year before it was even out! I learned every Mercyful Fate song there was, be it demos, EP's, whatever. I took my crummy Radio Shack tape recorder and would record a song once on guitar, and then play along to it so that I could figure out the harmonies. I would figure out later it was a great way to learn to play with another guitar player.
Eventually Craig scored us a gig at Ruthies Inn, but that's a story for another day...
A lot of buddies I run into from that time say things like "they knew it would happen." But I don't buy it. It’s not like I had some kind of plan. I was pushed into it, was good at it, it worked and I loved it, needed it. It filled a hole in my life. But don’t forget I was clueless, introverted, and insecure. I was getting good on guitar, good at singing /screaming, good at performing, and getting good at writing songs. I was able to get "good enough" at these things that I KNEW no one could take that away from me. That no matter what anybody said; parents, friends, better guitar players, no one ever could ever deny me what the guitar gave me.
It was the first time that I believed in myself.
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