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It used to take Jimmy West roughly three days to set up the two-ton P.A. system he built from scratch when he first started working as a soundman in Denver. Most of the venues that hired him, from legit clubs to underground warehouses, had systems that were puny or non-existent -- totally unequipped to harness the raw power that West extracted from his bands.
1999, West plugged his own band, the Rok Tots, into that monstrous rig for one last show -- though he didn't know it at the time. In 2001, after a lingering period of intermittent practice and steady dissatisfaction, the three-piece ended the fourth incarnation of the band. The other players felt the group was going nowhere -- the Tots hadn't released any music since 1991, and the crowds at live shows were inconsistent -- and they just wanted to get on with life.
But for Jimmy West, music was life.
"There's a part of playing that's addictive, and the risk is that if you quit it, you'll never go back," says West, who, at 46, resembles both Cheech Marin and an Aztec Jesus. With fine features, wire-rimmed spectacles and long, curly black hair, he's your standard-issue Hispanic headbanger intellectual. "Playing music is an exercise in freedom," he says, "and freedom is the highest value humanity can embody."
First formed in 1978, the Rok Tots always embodied instability and knee-jerk nihilism along with their freedom. Beginning with its original lineup, which included lead singer Jeff "Jif" Jiper, the band would come together, then split up when the other members got sick of playing or West got sick of Denver music. West would retreat and recharge, then resurface, ready to start all over again. Twenty-five years after the band's inception, the pattern is much the same: This month, West and the Rok Tots return with a new band, plans to record new material and their first batch of shows in five years.
"I was just looking at my guitar, thinking, 'I still love it. I've still got a few things in the tank. Why am I just sitting on it?'" West says. "I realized that it was stupid to stop, because I'm still alive, still got my health, and I never cared about the aspect of 'You're too old to play.'"
West knows a lot has changed since the Rok Tots' early reign. The decrepit warehouse district where the band played some of its first shows is now LoDo. Musicians that were too young to see any of the previous Rok Tots incarnations now headline shows at clubs in which West has never set foot. In the early '80s, the band practiced in an old storage unit on the fringe of downtown. ("It used to be next to a meatpacking plant, and it just smelled like death, like blood and carcasses. It was perfect," West says.) Today that unit abuts a residential loft building, and the Rok Tots rehearse in an immaculate suburban home shared by West's new bandmates, drummer Scott Free and bassist Commander Adama.
Still, West insists that the Rok Tots are as relevant as ever.
"People used to tell me that they thought of me as a kind of godfather of the scene. That would piss me off," West says. "I didn't like the idea of being something antiquey. Nostalgia is fine, but just for a minute. I'm more interested in the present. Rock is supposed to be constantly a happening thing. It's not about the mainstream or a status quo. It's about breaking rules. And if that's your nature, you've got to get out there and live it."
When Jimmy West was a student at Aurora Central High School, the radio was ruled by ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin and Styx. But every now and then, he'd hear something that stood out among the wank and machismo.
"If you were lucky, somebody would turn you on to the New York Dolls or the Stooges, and that would be pretty eye-opening," he says. "I remember some friends of mine had happened upon an album, and they'd listened to it and thought it was stupid, so they gave it to me. It was the Ramones -- and that was just what I'd been waiting for. It was the beginning of the end."
West's musical awareness was given another serious jolt when he saw the Who's Who by Numbers tour stop at McNichols Arena.
"To this day, that was the best rock concert I've ever seen," says West. "It was like going to see four wild animals on stage. It showed me just how far it could be taken. There are bar bands and there are atomic bombs. The Who was an atomic bomb -- and that's what I wanted to be."
West had studied music since age seven, when his stepfather gave him an accordion, which he hated. He played classical and polka and performed in a few recitals before trading the instrument for a guitar; an early teacher taught him chords as well as twelve-bar blues. All through high school, guitar playing was the thing that kept him relatively safe.