Wednesday, October 31, 2012
An atom bomb of a news story dropped on the pop culture world today, one that still doesn't seem quite real to a lifetime Star Wars fan like myself...and one who had all but lost his faith. In a staggering announcement, it was revealed that 1) Disney is purchasing Lucasfilm for four billion dollars, and 2) that the next Star Wars trilogy is coming, starting with Episode 7 in 2015.
Why this is fantastic news.
First off, my main complaint, as a Star Wars fan, has (sadly) been George Lucas himself. I hate to say it, because he's the one that started all this and made me such a fanatic for his world since the age of nine, but somewhere along the way, he just lost it. I've spent too many years trying to say it diplomatically, so let me just spell it out - he started to suck. The prequel trilogy was an insult to fans of both Star Wars AND film in general, as all three were just terrible, terrible movies; bad dialogue, silly stories, horrible acting (much of it from otherwise great actors, a testament to poor directing), and characters that ranged from sort of tolerable to hate-inducing to hilariously racially insensitive (you-sah know who I be talkin' 'bout). He proved to us that he was no longer fit for command. And our hopes for getting any kind of relief from this, any chance that a new generation of young filmmakers would come in and revitalize re-imagine the franchise, were thwarted because Lucas refused to admit anything was wrong and refused to give up control of his baby. So Star Wars became silly, and Star Wars became for kids. This was the demographic he seemed bent on supplying. Not the countless millions of fans who grew up on Star Wars and were so excited to be getting new stories as grown-ups, but kids. Hey, I'm all for kids being into Star Wars. I was a kid into Star Wars. But my Star Wars didn't have Jar Jar stepping in poop and smelling farts. It was a mysterious, epic, sometimes edgy and always thrilling journey that had things to say about the nature of good and evil and the choices we make in our lives that can lean us one way or the next. It didn't have little kids in pod races screaming "Yipee!". Yes, Return of the Jedi had an army of teddy bears and Chewbacca giving a Tarzan yell as he swung from a vine, but that was also the beginning of the end. This is where Lucas started to lose his edge.
And I feel bad for saying all this, because Lucas not only started it all, but he's like the nicest guy in the world! He's been taking endless fanboy rage for years, being told how much he sucks, and he's accepted it all like a gentleman, never getting bitter and striking back. Part of this is his good nature. Another part of it is his penchant for denial. Had he stopped to listen to some of the rage, he might have altered course during the past decade, but he firmly held to the belief that he knew what he was doing. He clearly didn't. Yet, again, it's hard to stay mad at the loveable, sincere guy. I have, don't worry. I'm just saying it was hard.
In today's announcement, George discussed how he was retiring and felt it was time to hand Star Wars over to different, younger creators. I could have hugged the big bearded goof. A lot of us were starting to think he'd never let anyone touch his toys, that he'd go to the grave never passing the keys over. But he's finally done the right, and smart, thing. He's letting it go, and he's letting us continue to have it, and letting today's filmmakers who often became filmmakers because of how George inspired them try their hand at the franchise they (and we) love. Good for you, George. Good for you.
The Disney acquisition is the other fantastic news. I'm already hearing shouts of "Oh, the evil Disney empire is doing it again, thinking they own everything!" and "It's Disney, they're going to make it for kids!". To the latter point, it's ALREADY for kids, thanks to George. Now we of the post-grammar-school fan base might finally get a chance to have something made for us. Where do I get this confidence? Very simple. Disney bought Marvel. We got the Avengers movie. I think that Disney is so happy with that business model (as that film made them a billion bucks, not even counting the other films in the franchise) that they're sure to try to repeat it. And the core of the Marvel movie franchise is quality. Good stories, great characters, and amazing new breed of filmmakers. They learned that if you make it right, people will come back to see it again and again. They will see this done for new Star Wars movies as well. I'm confident in this. And I hope justifiably so.
So right out of the gate, the announcement came with not just a promise of new films, but a timeline. We know we'll be getting Episode 7 for summer of 2015. Then 8 and 9 every couple of years. Then more after that every two or three years. Their current plan is for 10 movies, with TV plans also in the mix. This is exactly that kind of rebirth of the franchise I never thought I'd see. And now it's a reality.
I'm left to wonder, now, exactly how they plan to handle this next trilogy. I'm already grateful to them for not going with a reboot, but actually continuing the story post-Jedi. This has to mean recasting for the main characters, and I think that's great. We're at a point now where even the most hardcore fans have to admit that Mark, Harrison and Carrie are too old to play these parts. With a new generation of films comes a new generation of actors. I think we're all totally on board with that. All I ask is that Nathan Fillion at least gets a screen test for Han Solo.
And where will the story go? For those who've known nothing but the movies, you may not be aware that the Star Wars story has been ongoing for quite some time in book format (and comics as well). The most famous of those, back in the 90s, was the Timothy Zahn trilogy that picked up where Return left off, and showed us what our favorite characters had to face trying to take on the remnants of the Empire and a new threat in the evil Admiral Thrawn, all while trying to build a new galactic government. The books kept going. Han and Leia got married. And had kids. Luke got married, and had a kid. Those kids grew up in these books. They're adults running around in the novels now. In short, there's over 30 years of Star Wars continuity that takes place in what's known as the "Expanded Universe" (the non-film stuff), chronicling the rise of the New Republic, the re-establishment of the Jedi Order, and one giant 19-novel galactic war where several main characters die (including ones you know from the movies). Will these movies take those into account? Or will they go a different direction, starting a whole new timeline and essentially invalidating all the books? I can see arguments for both. Seems like a waste, to me, to have all this story source material and not make any use of it. I'll be curious to see their decision on this, but either way, it means new Star Wars movies. Ones that George (God bless him) will not be writing and directing. So I'm on board.
So, yeah, the big news is pretty giddy-making to me and other fans. I remember all the excitement leading up to Episode 1. Finally, we were getting what we'd always dreamed of. I look forward to having that kind of delicious anticipation again (though I hope with different results this time), and to being there on opening night in about two-and-a-half years. I feel confident that Disney's going to do this right and pull the franchise out of its nosedive and raise it to new heights. I'm ready, finally, to get my Star Wars on proper again.
And to start liking George Lucas again.
Monday, September 17, 2012
But before the film began showing, I, and all the other people at the premiere, had the opportunity to be interviewed by a film crew that was making a documentary about Firefly fandom and the cult favorite show's journey to the big screen. The doc was to be called "Done the Impossible" (a title that makes immediate sense if you're a Browncoat), and would be hosted by Adam Baldwin and feature interviews with the whole cast, with Joss, with writers and TV producers, and with just plain old fans. So I sat down with them in a back room at Universal and answered a bunch of questions on one of my favorite topics. Wasn't hard to do.
The film finally came out in the summer of 2006, and I caught the premiere of it at Comic-Con International in San Diego. I hoped that maybe I might see a glimpse of myself somewhere in it. I was quite pleasantly shocked to find myself in it six times. If I'd had any doubts about my being an "official" Browncoat, I guess they were safely gone after that. I was now on the record with my Firefly love!
The film has just shown up on YouTube in full. If you'd like to check it out, do so below. Look for my clips at 5:28, 12:13, 32:35, 34:00, 35:20, and 1:04:16.
It's a fun film, and if you're a Firefly/Serenity fan at all, you really want to check out all the special features on the DVD. Tons of 'em! The DVD can always be purchased at www.donetheimpossible.com.
Good memories. It's nice to be immortalized as being a part of the whole Firefly experience. I'll always wear my Browncoat title with pride. I do believe that makes me mighty.
Tuesday, September 4, 2012
The new MichaelOComedy.com is now up and live. In it, you'll find stuff like my comedy bio, a listing of places I've performed and interviews I've done and such, some photos, a few videos, detailed listings of upcoming shows and the ongoing shows I'm involved in (Smokin' & Jokin', The Comedians with Disabilities Act). And there's a page on contacting me, so people who actually want to book me (it happens from time to time...) can actually do so. And I gussed it up pretty, so it's more fun to look at. Oh, and the blog (the original MichaelOComedy) is still there, too, accessible through a link at the top cleverly titled "Blog".
So I'm hoping you'll do just that. Drop in and give it a look, and turn there first to find out where I'm going to be next and what's going on in my comedy world. See you there!
Monday, August 20, 2012
I've written a REALLY large multi-part piece on the subject for my Tumblr page, one that walks you through the whole process from joke ideas to taking the stage that first time, based on my experiences stepping into the world of comedy. Part One, the introduction, is up today. I'm going to be releasing a part a day each day this week. By the end, if you make it that far, you'll be armed and hilarious, ready to grab a mic and split some sides.
Feel free to give it a read. It all starts HERE.
Monday, August 13, 2012
THEM: I just saw The Dark Knight Rises, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it.
THEM: Why did I enjoy it?
ME: No, why do you "have to say"?
ME: I mean is there someone putting a gun to your head or holding one of your children hostage and forcing you to admit that you enjoyed the movie?
THEM: I'm not following. But whatever you're trying to say, you seem to be drama queening it a bit.
ME: What I'm saying is that the phrase "I have to say..." suggests that this opinion you're giving goes against the one you would normally hold, but the quality of the subject won you over and forced you rethink your position and unexpectedly praise its merits.
THEM: Yeah, that's...way too many words. Can you try that again, but less fancy?
ME: I know for a fact that you wanted to see The Dark Knight Rises. Right?
ME: You've waited for years for it. You've followed the news. You've blogged your excitement about it and your faith in the people making it, indignantly debating anyone who doubted them. You got tickets to the midnight opening show. You went dressed (inexplicably) as Clayface. You knew going in how well-reviewed the film was, and that, coupled with your own predisposition to embrace it--
THEM: You're doing that fancy thing again.
ME: --all but guaranteed you were going to love the movie. There was almost zero chance you weren't going to come out of that theater anything but thoroughly pleased.
ME: So why would you HAVE to say you enjoyed it? You knew you were going to enjoy it, WE knew you were going to enjoy it, and then you enjoyed it! Where's the arm-twisting come in? Where's the change of heart? Nowhere! You don't HAVE to say you enjoyed it. You can just say, "I enjoyed it"! And we'll go, "Hey, big surprise. Didn't see THAT one coming." And then we'll all have a good-natured laugh together and you'll explain to us all the things you loved about the movie that there was no chance you weren't going to love. Seriously, when you finish your favorite meal, do you "have to say" that you enjoyed it? When you look at a Scarlett Johansson photo spread, do you "have to say" that she's attractive? No! You WANT to say it, and you just say it.
THEM: I have to say, I think I'm starting to see what you're getting at.
ME: There! Right there!
ME: You did it right!
THEM: I did?
ME: That's how you use it! You didn't want to see what I was saying, because nobody likes to be called a douchebag and have their errors pointed out to them, but after listening to me you were surprised to find yourself understanding my point. THAT was the right time to pull out "I have to say". Well done!
THEM: I feel pride.
ME: As well you should. Now, go back into the world and be less annoying when giving your opinions, as you are now prepared to do.
THEM: I have to say, I'm glad we had this talk.
ME: So am I, my friend. So am I.
Friday, August 3, 2012
It was time for the band's next album. There was enormous pressure to follow up on the success of their first offering, and there was a new twist. It was called Nirvana. The Seattle band had descended on the world, and the world's eyes were on them and the new sound they brought. Already it was beginning to look like the ears of music fans were tuned to this new revolution, and the Lounge Axe was no longer the latest and greatest. They would have to fight, for the first time, for their place in the hearts of fans.
Rich and Mike at the Viper Room in Hollywood
As the songwriting began, getting all the members together at the same time was tough enough. Social engagements drew them in all different directions, as did side projects that seemed to pop up for each of them. In the midst of this, the first scandal struck.
Stuart O'Connell and Ken "Snowman" Wood in Miami
Mike's twin brother--and co-manager of the band--Stuart was suddenly under F.B.I. investigation. The I.R.S. was looking into his holdings and some business dealings he'd been into, all while the money was flowing in for Vega Management. Stuart was seen in the company of reputed Miami drug kingpin Ken "Snowman" Wood. Their connections in their business arrangements were being probed. Vega was now under a microscope, and the taint of that naturally reached back to the band.
But the scandals hadn't stopped. News broke of lead singer Mark Tackett's political affiliations and his ties to certain groups. He had started moving in circles with certain questionable activist organizations, and one night, CNN led the evening report with word that Mark Tackett had joined the Communist Party. Band mates were shocked. Contact between them outside of engagements and recording sessions had been slight, and no one knew what he had been doing with his off-time. He had been studying Marx, and attending rallies, and channeling his plentiful monies into movements and charities of the Communist cause. Efforts of band mates to try and understand, to question, were met with only defensiveness and anger from Tackett. They realized how little they'd really known about his life before he joined their band.
Mark Tackett photo taken at a meeting of the People's Revolutionary Coalition
That lack of knowledge was brought finally and forcefully home when press background checks on Tackett turned up involvement in pornographic films before the band had formed. Tackett was underage when he'd made the two films. The blanket of scandal covered him, and the band, completely. Two days after that story raced through the media, RCA executives gave the band an ultimatum. Mark Tackett had to go. Tackett made the decision easy on those who had risen to stardom with him. He walked away from the band, and from music, and disappeared.
News of Tackett's early involvement in underage porn surfaces
A new album was due, and the band was now left without a singer, one that was a key reason for their success. They met with each other, and with RCA execs, to look for solutions, for a way out. The record company wanted the album, for they had already poured substantial resources into it. The band was contract bound. RCA told them they needed a new lead singer. And RCA ended up choosing the singer for them.
New Lounge Axe lead singer Aaron Storck
Aaron Storck, a lounge singer from San Diego, was under RCA contract and considered an up-and-comer in the wake of Axe's success in the genre. He was brought in for talks with the band, and seemed likeable enough, and certainly talented enough. No one in the band argued his election. Though things had changed, the band had to go on. Doubling their resolve, the group went through marathon studio sessions, working and reworking new material. To their surprise and relief, the old magic was back, and better than ever. Storck brought a new energy to the mix, an exciting singing style that punctuated the music, and a stage presence that rivaled, and in some ways surpassed, Tackett. They had taken their lumps, and weathered the scandals. The Lounge Axe was back, and ready to take back what was theirs.
The new album, "Last Call for Seconol", was considered by many critics to be a breakthrough, artistically superior to their first. There was a new maturity in their music, a new daring, perhaps inspired by all they'd been through. Tracks like "Ride" and "Listen To The Moon" were powerful and haunting. Revamped standards like "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)" and "Witchcraft" had RCA drooling and optimistic for the band's reemergence. "Seconol" was released, and the band began touring again, with Metallica opening for them. New videos were shot. Promotion was heavy. Expectations were high.
The Lounge Axe's follow-up CD
But for all the hope, it was too little, too late. Record sales were well below projections. Despite his scandals, Tackett was still seen by many fans as the voice of Axe, and many rejected Storck, despite his talents.
"It was the whole Roth/Hagar thing all over again," Mike laments. "Fans were totally divided. Right at a time when we needed them behind us. Seemed like it was either/or with people. Those who loved Mark couldn't accept Aaron. The Aaron fans were huge fans, but there just weren't enough of them."
There was another reason for that. It was grunge. Nirvana, and all the bands that followed in their footsteps, were now everywhere. Again, rock and roll had changed, had evolved. Lounge metal was seen now as quaint, almost amusing, like the dying hair bands that saw their own sales drop, their own tours cancelled. The band fought hard, but they seemed to take two steps back for each critical and commercial victory.
"You can't imagine," Rich says. "The critics say this is your best stuff yet. You pour your heart into it. But suddenly, no one buying records cares. You're yesterday's news. You feel betrayed. But it's the way of the business. We weren't the first band to ever go through it. It's been that way since they started selling records."
Kris's gambling problem was well documented
Disappointment hit the band hard as tickets sales plummeted. This led to bad times. Band members, good friends for so long, started to turn on each other. There were more incidents of heavy drinking and fighting. Joel smashed a monitor at an MTV appearance. A nasty war of words started between A.T. and Eddie Vedder. Kris developed a gambling problem, and lost much of his earnings in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Mike began putting on weight and losing himself in his solo project, a piano and spoken word album that received neither commercial nor critical acceptance.
Mike during the "Piano Talk" solo project recording sessions
And on the heels of all of this, the final blow. Not being businessmen, the band had left all their handlings to Stuart O'Connell and Tim Watts. It started with bad business decisions during the making of the second album. Then all the facts came out. Stuart had embezzled millions and channeled them to his drug connections abroad. Watts, while not doing anything overtly illegal, had set things up to cheat the band out of huge profits while making himself rich. A fatal break between the band and Vega Management came quickly, and a massive lawsuit that still hasn't seen resolution to this day. The legal problems tarnished the band's image further, with Watts spewing as much dirt and bad spin on the band as he could. Stuart, meanwhile, Mike's own twin brother, fled the country and disappeared into South America. To this day, his whereabouts are unknown.
Tim Watts and Stuart O'Connell cashed in big...on the band's money
The band tried to hold things together, but the end was already in sight. Aaron Storck caught the worst of the bad press as the outsider, ridiculed by Tackett loyalists and blamed, somehow, for Mark being gone. His own drinking problems increased tenfold. Some of the few concert dates they could still manage were cancelled when Storck either showed up drunk or didn't show up at all. He finally checked himself into a rehab center just before a Lounge Axe Chicago show. At this point, the rest of their tour was cancelled. Two months later, a band meeting was held at a resort in Scottsdale. They all had to face the truth. The Lounge Axe was finished. That night, the band that had come so far, so fast, was dissolved.
Aaron Storck passed out in his limo before a Lounge Axe concert
"It was the hardest night of my life," Kris says. "We'd put so much of ourselves into the band and the music. It felt like we were quitting. But all we were doing was acknowledging what had already happened. We yelled some. People gave speeches. But by the time the sun came up, we all agreed. It was over."
Grunge rolled on, and hip-hop would replace rock and roll as the national obsession. It wasn't long at all before no one even remembered lounge metal, or The Lounge Axe. They had had their time. They had stepped in at the perfect point in music history and changed it all...only to see it change again and leave them behind.
The band mates didn't see each other for a while. It was all still too hard at first. Eventually, the friendships mended. Each of them had financial worries. They had huge debts and legal fees, and no new records to bring in income. The mansions were gone. The sports cars sold. No more trips to Europe or Japan. No more celebrity friends. The boys from northern California were back where they started. They'd had their moment in the sun. And the moment faded.
Mike, Rich and Kris vacationing together in 1995
Now, over ten years later, they can speak of it with perspective.
"It's just music," Rich Straub shrugs. "It's the business. We had our shot, and it was an amazing ride."
Aaron, Rich, A.T. and Mike at the Lounge Axe band reunion weekend, 2001
Sitting across the table, Mike O'Connell nods sagely. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. Hey, very few get famous and stay that way. We had it better than most. We've got the memories. We've got the magazines, the award show tapes. I have a huge collection of tour pictures that I like to take out and look at from time to time. I can do that now. It's not painful anymore. Now I can look back and smile."
Kris Kanas looks nervous. "What kind of pictures?"
The three friends from Carmichael, California laugh, much as they probably did in their old carefree days in that three-bedroom house on Stollwood Drive, where together, they created a sound that, just for a time, made the world stop. And listen. And love.
Mike O'Connell is a piano teacher in Tempe, Arizona. In his spare time he records music that he provides free of charge on his web site, michaeloconnell.com, and plays at resorts and hotels.
Rich Straub is a successful record producer in Los Angeles, having shepherded some of the most successful albums of the past three years. He is also called often by the Los Angeles Superior Court as an expert witness in music-related trials. He is married and has four children.
Kris Kanas is a youth pastor in Sacramento, California. His church's music program is considered one of the best in the nation. Seen here with his wife Tamara, Kris has 3 kids of his own, and many more in his youth program to take care of. In 1997, his Christian rock band, All That Matters, sold 400,000 copies of their award-winning CD.
Kris's original Lounge Axe guitar, which recently sold on eBay for $9,850.00
Joel B. Levy owns a computer game company with his business partner Ben Bellot. MAGIC Games produces some of the best-selling games in the PC and MAC markets. He has sold 5 novels and won numerous awards for these and his short stories.
Aaron "A.T." Thompson is a successful club owner and promoter in Hollywood, California. His club, The Mandarin, is one of the hardest in L.A. to get into, and is a regular host to post-Oscar parties. He manages several bands, including Like A Glove and They're Not Stolen.
Aaron Storck left singing after the band dissolved and used his remaining royalties to invest in a number of extremely successful dot com companies. A billionaire by the end of the 1990s, Aaron purchased the ailing Sacramento Kings NBA franchise in 1999 and built a team that went on to win the NBA finals. He splits his time between his homes in Sacramento, New York and Las Vegas.
Mark Tackett, the original voice of The Lounge Axe, disappeared from public life after his numerous scandals. Reports have him living in Tibet under an assumed name, where his friends and band mates hope he has found inner peace.
Stuart O'Connell has not been sighted since the 1990s, when he fled to South America. His brother, Mike, has not heard from him, but hopes his twin will return home and face the charges against him. Numerous federal warrants are still active on him.
Tim Watts, former co-President of Vega Management, still maintains his innocence in the Lounge Axe financial matters. Various lawsuits with the band and RCA are still ongoing. His autobiography, I Did It For The Music, sold a dismal 14,000 copies. He currently works in real estate speculation and lives in Newport Beach, California. He has never married and is currently involved in a paternity suit with actress Heather Thomas.
The story you have just read above is about 67% total bullshit.
This is a transplant, a thing I'd written on my original pre-blog web page years ago. It was quite popular with the people involved in it, so if only for them, I decided to reprint it here for their future viewing.
This all started one day when I was looking through some scanned photos I had of me and friends of mine from the good old days. I remember laughing and thinking, hey, that's weird, if you look at a few of these together and in the right order, it kind of looks like we were all in a band. That suddenly sparked a very strange idea in me, and with such force that I stayed up all night cranking the thing out. I became very excited about the creative challenge of using photos to work with words to tell a story, and to let the photos guide the story. By the next morning, there was the Lounge Axe.
This story is filled with truths, half-truths, and wholesale bullshit. The facts that are true are that the people in the pictures are all friends of mine, and these are all their names. Rich and Kris and I have known each other since high school, but never lived together at the house on Stollwood Drive (which was my house, and we did hang out there a lot at the end of high school and into college). Kris and Rich actually are musicians. I'm a guy who wanted to be one, bought a keyboard, learned to play a bit but eventually sold the keyboard to pay the phone bill. We never formed a band of any kind, though Rich and Kris had a two-man band called Sneaky Peter that they recorded tracks for, must of them comedic tunes. Joel did not play drums. I have one photo of him messing around with a drumstick, so that's how he became the drummer for the Axe in this tale. AT can actually play bass, but was never in a band. Neither Mark Tackett nor Aaron Storck are singers. How did they become the singers in this story? I had pictures of them with microphones. That simple.
Also, I do not have an actual twin brother named Stuart. He's made up. Tim Watts is not a music agent, but is another of our good friends who would have probably ended up in the band if I'd had a picture of him holding or standing near an instrument. He and Stuart do not run Vega Management (a company named for the Vega that Tim used to drive when we were young), and they only appeared in the tale because that horribly cheesy pic of Tim and I holding up money during our shared mustache period suggested a couple of slimy agents.
If you just finished reading the whole story, you PROBABLY figured out that it was fictional. Especially since you probably never heard of this apparently world-famous band or the lounge metal movement (and you're pretty sure that Aaron Storck doesn't own the Sacramento Kings). Pretty obvious, right? Not necessarily. I got some emails from people who found it on the web who were convinced it was true, including one from a guy who once lived on Stollwood Drive and was trying to find out if we were still playing dates. I love the internet.
Also, the "Where Are They Now?" stuff is filled with lies based on partial truths. Elements are in them that are truisms of the people involved, but no one has actually ended up in any of the lives I described there. Again, my old roommate does not own the Sacramento Kings, and as far as I know, Tim never banged Heather Thomas. Lots of little in-jokes are throughout those bios, Easter eggs for those in the know.
This little fantasy was just a fun writing exercise for me, and a little gift to a few of my friends that have been in my life for decades and deserve a little gift once in a while for being so awesome. I hope you enjoyed it, too.
Coming Soon? VH-1 Bands Reunited? We'll see.
The year was 1989. The music world was still in the midst of its love affair with heavy metal and hair bands. But the end was nearing. Grunge was not far away, the music phenomenon that changed the sound, and look, of rock and roll forever. But even before the revolution from Seattle came, fans and artists alike were beginning to hunger for something new. Something to light their imaginations and electrify the airwaves.
No one suspected that this something new was waiting in Sacramento, California.
In 1989, no one had heard of lounge metal. Today, few even remember that it existed. But for that brief window of time, before grunge exploded and wiped everything else away, this new sound, this fusion of styles and eras and ideas that none had ever imagined, took the world's breath away. For that golden moment, everyone stopped, and listened, and loved.
The band that they loved, that created and nurtured and shared this new sound, that rose to the top of the music industry in a whirlwind and toppled to Earth just as dramatically, was called The Lounge Axe.
This is their story.
Mike O'Connell, Rich Straub and Kris Kanas, circa 1988
It began in the Sacramento, California suburb called Carmichael. Three friends--Mike O'Connell, Rich Straub and Kris Kanas--shared a house together. They had been friends since high school, where they all met and bonded because of their shared interest in music. This interest continued for all of them after graduation, and when not working their day jobs, the three were either playing in their separate bands, hitting the Sacramento rock clubs to network and check out the competition, or lounging around the living room of their house on Stollwood Drive, jamming and writing songs together.
"It was a great time," Rich Straub remembers. "I mean, we all had jobs, yeah. Lousy jobs. I worked at senior living place. Kris was working at a warehouse driving a forklift and moving pallets of skin magazines around. Mike worked in telemarketing. Something to do with cosmetics, I think. But we didn't care about all that. It was all about the music. Playing it, making it, hearing it. Sacramento was a great town for rock and roll back then."
Guitarist Kris Kanas
They were each in different bands with different degrees of success--from some to none. Kris played rhythm guitar for a Foghat cover band called "The Fog". Rich played lead for a band he formed called "Cutthroat", but member turnover and poor attendance kept them from ever getting off the ground or getting more than three gigs. Mike played piano for a lounge band that saw occasional work at weddings, airport and hotel bars, and one mall opening. "The Mixers" were never meant for greatness.
It was during one of their weeknight jam sessions at home that the three friends and roommates came to the obvious conclusion. It was time to stop talking about it and start their own band.
"It just made sense," Kris shrugs. "It was all we talked about doing after high school, but then one of us was always in another band or had a big overtime job or whatever. Finally we just decided to do it. Our other bands were holding us back. We never worked as well, musically, with any of those people as we did with each other."
During one of the pre-Lounge songwriting jams at the Stollwood Drive house
So they quit their other bands and started putting their efforts and all their free time toward songwriting together. Each of the three brought different styles and skills to the process. Step one was deciding on a sound.
"We wanted something different," Mike recalls. "We wanted to stand out. Sac was just filled with one wannabe hair band after another. I mean, we all loved rock and roll. We all dug the metal. But the question we asked ourselves was how can we take what we love and really make it our own? Really knock their socks off?"
After many experiments and failures, something just happened one night. Mike started playing an old Sinatra standard on his keyboard. Rich, just screwing around, started joining in on guitar. Kris suddenly started laying down some power chords.
"I don't know what happened," Kris laughs. "Dude. It was just one of those moments. This sound just came from nowhere. It just worked. It didn't just work, it rocked!"
That was where the sound was born. These three musicians began both writing songs and rewriting old standards, fusing lounge music with hard guitar. The songs flowed, and their excitement grew. They knew they were onto something.
Mike O'Connell songwriting at the Stollwood house
"You know that story of how Brad Whitford came up on Steve Tyler at the piano?" Mike asks. "Steven's all excited, says 'Hey, man, listen to this', and starts playing the piano part from 'Dream On'. He tells Brad 'This is going to be huge. A number one song.' Brad's like, well, okay. Didn't think much of it. And look what happened. It was kind of like that. I'd try to tell people about it, other music people I knew, and they just kind of stared at me like I was nuts."
But neither Mike, Rich nor Kris listened to the doubters. They knew that had started something. They also knew that if this music was going to have a band to go with it, they'd need more than just the three of them.
First came the drummer. Mike had met Joel B. Levy, a percussionist and struggling novelist, at a Queensryche concert in Oakland. The two had become fast friends.
"They were in the middle of 'Eyes of a Stranger', and this guy I'm fighting for space up front with is doing air drums. You know how people, like, do the air drums or air guitar or air bass when they really can't play any instrument at all? Like they think if they fake it with confidence, some hot betty will look over and go, 'ooh, he's a musician! I'm so going to screw that guy!' But, you know, you can tell. And I remember watching him and thinking, 'Hey, this guy actually is a drummer. And a pretty good one, too. Maybe some chick will screw him.'"
Drummer Joel B. Levy at the Oakland Queensryche show
While there was no screwing in store for Joel that night, he and Mike did meet at the tee shirt booth after the show, and started talking music. Now, a year later, Mike would call Joel and ask him to drive up to Sacramento and talk about a band proposition. Joel meshed with the rest of the group, and the concept, right from the start. Within a week, he'd moved to Sacramento and into the Stollwood house.
Joel on drums at band rehearsal
The next step was a bass player. Here, it was Rich's turn to contribute. One of the many bass players that he'd gone through in Cutthroat was a guy named Aaron "A.T." Thompson. A.T. had worked well with Rich, and was an excellent bassist, but personal problems with the other band members, and musical differences, caused him to become another Cutthroat casualty. But he and Rich would still see each other at bars, clubs and shows. It took some time to track him down, since A.T. tended to go through homes and roommates like Cutthroat went through singers, but finally, he was called in.
Bassist Aaron "A.T." Thompson
"Oh, we knew he was the man right off," Kris says. "Great guy. Got along with everyone. Was really excited about the songs and the ideas, too. Guy's a serious artist. We'd get in these big heated debates over songs, but not like fighting. Like, we were struggling to get to a place we couldn't reach except by working together. Many late nights doing that, dude. They were great. Some of our best songs came out of A.T. griping that something just wasn't right. Usually, he ended up on the money."
And then there was the last, and most important, piece of the puzzle. The band, still unnamed, had no singer. Sacramento was ripe with raw-throated rocker singers, trained in the art of the power ballad and the party anthem. But for this band, a band trying for lounge metal, no ordinary singer would do. They needed a crooner. One with attitude.
None of the assembled musicians knew anyone who fit the bill. The group put ads up in local music stores and publications. Many applied. None were what they were looking for.
"'No, dude,'" Rich says, rolling his eyes. "'Lounge. We're going for lounge'. They'd be like, 'Huh? Oh, yeah, I get it. Let me try again.' Then they'd start doing Coverdale. No one got it."
Just when it looked like all hope was lost, and this experimental band was dead before its first real breath, Mark Tackett called.
Singer Mark Tackett
Mark was working at the time painting house numbers on sidewalks and gutters around Sacramento. He'd done some singing in high school. He was a fan of the old standards. But also of Skinny Puppy. And he never had any real dreams of singing for a living. But one Monday, on a very hot summer afternoon, he was painting numbers on the curb in front of a local music shop. He just went in to ask for a glass of water before he passed out. While rehydrating, he happened to read the bulletin board there. He found the ad. And for some reason, he decided to copy down the number and give a call.
"The whole band was together that night, all at the house," Mike says. "Mark showed up, and we made introductions. We talked music, but he really didn't say much. He wasn't the music nerd that the rest of us were. And then we decided to just jump in and try him out. We started him on 'Death Be a Lady'. And it was magic."
Everyone there knew it that night. Their band was formed. All the elements clicked. They began rehearsing and doing more songwriting as a unit. And discussing what the band's name would be.
"It's one of those things," says Kris. "There's no way to know which one person came up with it. Somebody did. It just came from the lounge and metal fusion. It made sense. And we all liked it, so it stuck."
Finally, The Lounge Axe was ready to play.
Lining up gigs was a little tough, despite all the bar and club owners the collected members knew. Their concept was a hard sell. But their first gig did come together, on September 5, 1989, at a restaurant/bar called Jose's. There was no stage at this bar. Bands had to jam themselves into a corner of the bar, and there was scarcely room for them and all their equipment. But they made it work, just happy to finally be able to try their music out on a live crowd. Even one as small as the one at Jose's.
"There were maybe forty people in there that night," former Jose's bartender Chuck Newton remembers. "About normal for us. But those guys started playing? Man, everyone stopped. Stopped talking, stopped hitting on chicks, stopped on their way to the john. They just had to listen. No one had ever heard anything like it."
The crowd, small as it was, went wild. The mood was electric. There were two encores and would have been more if Chuck hadn't needed to kick everyone out and close. The Lounge Axe had turned their small show into a big success.
At the Jose's show. (L to R): Rich's friend David McKnight, Rich Straub, Vega Management's Tim Watts, Mike O'Connell, high school friend Jack Barnes, Kris Kanas, and other high school friend Kevin Brace.
"Who knew?" Rich shrugs. "None of us expected that. We just hoped people wouldn't boo us and tell us to start playing 'Freebird'. We were just high off it."
But more happened that night than just standing ovations. The first was that Creem Magazine's Charlie Dix happened to be there. This might have been an amazing coincidence, but it wasn't. A.T., who seemed to know everyone in the business, knew a guy who knew a guy who leaked it to Charlie that he may want to be there, since he was already in Sacramento covering the Whitesnake tour.
"Blew my mind," Dix wrote in the January 1990 Creem. "Like nothing I've ever heard before. I was witnessing a moment of creation. I was there in the garden, watching the day being divided from night. I ate from the f**king tree, and I knew. Rock and roll had just evolved."
"Aside from the mixed metaphor with the creation and evolution things," Joel would later say in a radio interview in Boston, "I was pretty jazzed about that piece. I just liked the review, but I didn't know it was going to be what really launched us."
The second turning point of the evening was the attendance at the show of Mike's twin brother, Stuart O'Connell. Also interested in music all his life, but lacking any musical talent, Stuart was trying to make his way into the business through management. He and his business partner, Tim Watts, managed three Sacramento bands and had aspirations to get out of the small market.
Stuart O'Connell and Tim Watts of Vega Management
That night, they both heard the Lounge Axe sound. Stuart was impressed and surprised--having been one of Mike's doubters when his brother had tried to explain the band--but Watts was struck by lightning. And, in his 1997 autobiography, I Did It For The Music, he wrote that he had a vision right there on the spot, seeing money raining down from the ceiling all over the band. And he made up his mind right there that wherever they were going, he was going with them. And getting plenty of that visioncash for himself.
Without even discussing it with his partner, Stuart, first, Watts approached the band and immediately started working to get Vega Management behind them. He worked every angle, shook every hand, and sold them on the idea that he and Stuart would take them right to the top. It was Mike's relation to Stuart that convinced everyone to give them a try. After all, they didn't have a manager, or any experience at it themselves, so it made sense to leave the business end to someone else and just focus on the music. Watts arranged a weekend for all of them in Reno, where the liquor flowed, the women were plentiful, and the papers were signed.
Stuart O'Connell, Tim Watts and Rich Straub in the suite in Reno signing the first Lounge Axe/Vega Management contract
To their credit, Watts and Stuart O'Connell did get right to work, and soon The Lounge Axe was playing all over northern California. Word of mouth spread fast. It was standing room only in every bar and club they booked, and A&R reps started to get wind and take in the shows. The band generated major buzz just on performance, but when the Creem article came out, things went through the roof.
"A record deal," Mike marvels, holding his hands up in mock astonishment. "We just wanted to play to people in bars, man. This is this dream. Everyone who plays in every crappy little band in any city in America. This is the dream you play in your head while you're tuning your guitar or checking your levels. And it was happening to us."
It happened through RCA records, who signed The Lounge Axe to a three record deal and immediately started pushing for a national tour. As their managers, Watts and Stuart were merciless on contract negotiations, and got nearly everything they wanted. That's how much RCA execs believed in the band, and this new phenomenon they felt they were going to be shepherding. The band got huge advances. None of them had ever seen that kind of money. And before they knew what was happening, they were on a national tour, initially opening for Def Leppard. They were no longer playing clubs. These six northern California musicians, all in their early twenties, were playing stadiums, playing before thousands.
Kris checking out the crowds pre-show at Candlestick Park
"You can't imagine," Kris says, shaking his head. "Stepping out on that stage for the first time, hearing your band's name announced--your band--and hearing and feeling the roar of all those people. I almost passed out the first night of the tour. Mark threw up for like three days beforehand, but got it together for that night. And we rocked that place, dude. We were flawless."
Mike and Joel backstage in St. Louis during the "Rocked, Not Stirred" tour
Concertgoers and record buyers alike felt the same way. The band and their sound was a sensation. They made the covers of Rolling Stone and Circus. But their fame wasn't just spreading in the usual music periodicals. Word was getting out. Metal fans were in a frenzy, but fans of Rat Pack-era music were getting the word and tuning in, and inexplicably loving the new interpretation.
Manager Tim Watts and Guitarist Kris Kanas in a limo after the sold-out Madison Square Garden show
"I loved those guys," Tony Bennett says with a grin. "The first time I heard Mark Tackett belting out 'Best Is Yet To Come'? I was floored. I told my agent, who was listening to the CD with me, 'This kid's got chops'. They all did. They did what everyone's supposed to do with the standards. You make 'em your own. And, baby, did these kids. And they went a step further and wrote up some new classics of their own. I was a fan. Bet your bottom dollar."
The Lounge Axe's first CD went gold seemingly overnight
Sales of The Lounge Axe's first CD, "Rocked, Not Stirred", skyrocketed. Word of mouth kept the sales going. Kids were buying them for their parents to listen to. The music itself seemed to be bridging the generation gap in many families. When the band would show up for a record store signing to promote it, thousands would pour to the locale and block traffic. Each band member was shocked to find people knew their names. Mark Tackett, a shy, formerly inconspicuous young man, was even more shocked to find himself a sex symbol. Female fans would scream like school girls when he crooned old classics, then go out of their minds when his power vocals kicked in.
"He was Frank, man," Rich says. "He was Elvis. The chicks were all over him. He got underwear thrown up at him. He got flashed more flesh from the front row than David Lee Roth. Teenage girls and their mothers wanted to take him home. He didn't know what to do with that."
Mark takes a big dive into his pool at his Bel Air compound
Indeed, none of them knew what to do with their new fame and lifestyles. They were on talk shows. They had two successful music videos on MTV at once, "Death Be a Lady" and the live concert video for "Bite My Olive". And there was the money. Where once most of the band members lived in the same house, now they all had their own homes...some of them very extravagant. Most them either had houses or kept houses or condos in L.A. But some, like Rich and Kris, also owned homes back in Sacramento. They all had cars. Clothes. Boats. All the trappings of fortune and fame were theirs. As well as the excesses that come with them.
Rich taking one of his new cars out for a spin on Hollywood Blvd.
Kris grilling up at his Beverly Hills mansion
Lost in the tumultuous happenings in their lives, many band members overindulged. Drinking became a problem for some. As many new stars learn, when you wait your whole life to become one of the rich and famous, you want to mingle with as many of them as you can, so partying at hotspots all over L.A. and the nation became the norm. The Lounge boys were the toast of the town wherever they went, and the toasts were many. Mike was arrested in Cleveland for D.U.I and excessive speed in a rented Jag. After a weekend-long party in Malibu with The Cure's Robert Smith and actor Christian Slater and others, A.T. was taken to the hospital with a case of alcohol poisoning. Though Joel was the member of the band who stayed away from the drink, he had his own problems with the law after punching an over-ambitious photojournalist in Miami. The band, while still tame compared to many of their contemporaries, was racking up a rap sheet. A sure sign that they had arrived.
The photo taken by photographer Deke Jamison after he was punched by Joel at Miami International
The next confirmation of this came when CD sales and reviews resulted in awards. The Lounge Axe stormed the 1991 Grammys, winning 6 awards, including Album of the Year. They similarly reigned at the MTV Video Music Awards, taking home 5, including Best Group Video for "Death Be a Lady", where they beat out Joel's idols, Queensryche, and their "Silent Lucidity" video.
A.T. backstage at the Grammys after the Axe's award number four
Kris and Mike at the post-MTV VMA party
They had every kind of validation they could ask for, from fans to critics to the music industry itself. The Lounge Axe was, by anyone's definition, on top of the world.
And that's when things started to go wrong.