Living Out Loud
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.
"My parents were just happy that I was interested in something," says West. "I'd been hanging out with a bunch of reprobates. A lot of them are dead or in prison. That's why I first liked rock and roll so much: It was trouble, made by a bunch of screwed-up kids."
Screwed-up kids themselves, West and Jiper formed a band and began working the live-music circuit in Denver. Bands like Firefall and Sugarloaf had stepped into a void left by the dissolution of Zephyr, the blues-rock band led by guitarist Tommy Bolin, who died of an overdose in 1976. But most audiences weren't interested in original rock, and West's band had to sneak its own tunes into its sets.
Sick of playing other people's music, West formed the Rok Tots in 1978, while in a state of infatuation with the Who, the Stooges and the Ramones -- bands that illuminated youth and music as twin forces of nature that were simultaneously immediate, dangerous and absolutely essential. He wasn't the only one in love: The Tots were among a scattershot collective of like-minded souls that began popping up around Capitol Hill at the close of the '70s. While not catastrophic like the movements pummeling England, Detroit or New York, Denver's live-music explosion was seismic in its own way. Punk's new converts shopped at Wax Trax, produced their own fanzines and went to shows in underground warehouses and dance halls on the Hill and in underdeveloped downtown. Thirteenth Street was the scene's major artery; the 3.2 club Malfunction Junction, in a space now used by the Snake Pit, was the epicenter, home to bands like the Johnny III, the Defex, the Violators and the Tots.
"You'd spend your whole week looking forward to whatever show was going on that weekend at Malfunction Junction," says West. "It was mostly rejects who fell into it, the refuse. The original Denver rock scene was for people who had nowhere else to go."
"When I came out here, there was not a big scene, not a lot of bands, but I thought it was heaven," says Dave Wilkins, a veteran Wax Trax employee who moved to Colorado in the early '80s from Des Moines. ("Me and a couple of friends were the first punk rockers in Iowa in 1977," he says.) "There was a feeling of excitement. It was a link to something different -- a link to the worldwide movement. Even though it was just a small movement here, there were small movements everywhere, and you felt a part of something new and exciting -- something you hoped would change music, if not the world."
For the next five years, Denver was hit by wave after wave of new bands. Early combos like the Aviators, the Kamikaze Klones, the Young Weasels and CrankCall Love Affair were followed by younger acts wearing heavy influences from Southern California hardcore: Bum Kon, Happy World, Acid Ranch and Child Abuse sent young punks thrashing through venues like the Packing House and the Kennedys warehouse. When Malfunction Junction closed, it was replaced by the Broadway, Walabi's and the Mercury Cafe, which was anchored on the corner of 13th and Pearl.
"It was powerful. A lot of the bands started around 1981, so by '82 and '83, there were lots of them and a lot of energy and excitement," says Mercury owner Marilyn Megenity. "It was a spectacularly cosmopolitan crowd, because the neighborhood was that. There were older people, younger people, blacks, Chicanos, then young, white hipsters. That was the best mix that I've ever been a part of."
"Part of the beauty of that whole scene was that is was really street," says Tom Headbanger, a former zine publisher and promoter who now lives in Washington, D.C. "There weren't any codes, nothing was cut out, there wasn't really a way that people were supposed to look. We weren't even sure what the music was."
But by the mid-'80s, Jimmy West and the Rok Tots were removed from the scene they'd helped to shape. Rather than join the love-in, West would head for the shadows, playing shows only sporadically in lesser-used spaces like the Aztlan Theater and the Denver Turnverein.
"Initially, they had as big a role as anyone in showing that you could play exactly the kind of music you wanted to," says Wilkins. "But they'd go for a year or two without playing and didn't care about money or success. They're just the great iconoclasts."
"Their band was excellent," says Megenity. "They were intense. They were extreme. And a huge part of that intensity comes out of Jimmy West. Henry Rollins is a really intense performer, and I think Jimmy is of that level. But they had a big attitude, and that big attitude probably kept them from being as communal as others."
West never cared much about the concept of community. He moved in direct opposition to others of his era. When local acts probed new-wave influences and pop sensibilities -- adding keyboards and primitive sampling technologies -- West dug into a deep, dark sound. (Two recordings of that period, a seven-inch single released in 1984 and the 1986 eight-song cassette They Are Them and We Are Us chronicle the progression.) He and Jiper were longhairs in a scene ruled by buzz cuts and mod fashions; their shows drew as many roughnecks and bikers as punk-rock loyalists. And there was a menace about the band, both implied and actual.
"Most of the punk stuff that was happening was made by these goofy kids doing stuff with this kind of angry edge," says Headbanger. "The Rok actually had that edge. There were always fights at their shows. Jeff was a nut, very confrontational. There was this feeling at their shows that push could come to shove, and it often did."
"There was a period when the so-called musical establishment was saying there was no place for us," says West. "It was like, 'Bullshit. This is too important. We'll just find our own places to play.' We never advertised ourselves like, 'We're a good band to come see and get the shit kicked out of you.' We put violent images into our fliers and our music because we wanted to draw attention to ourselves. Sometimes it turned into a bad thing, but we were never there to win any governor's awards."
Or president's awards. In 1980, the Tots raised the suspicion of the Secret Service, who interviewed all members of the band after happening on one of its fliers. The handout, which paired images of then-presidential candidates Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in crosshairs, advertised the "Assassination Ball," a concert whose roster included the Rok Tots, the Jetsens, the Broadcasters and Zebra 123, a Denver combo featuring guitarist Kirby McMillan, later known as Mojo Nixon. "They came out in their little blue blazers and were asking all kinds of ridiculous questions," West says. "It didn't take them long to figure out that there was no serious threat there."
When Jiper left the band for good in 1987, Jimmy became the frontman -- a role he wore like a natural-born metal man. ("When you only have three people, you all have to be really, really good," he says. "I always thought I should concentrate more on being a really good guitarist than a mediocre vocalist. But I've gotten to the point where I like it.") In 1991, the Jiper-less trio released Thirty Ill Moons, an eight-song cassette originally recorded as a demo. The tape included live staples "You're No Fun" and "Dig That Hole," a classic Westian dirge about a man's inability to escape his own dismal fate. The new Rok Tots were harder, heavier and more metal-inflected -- unlike anything else going at a time when the Warlock Pinchers and the Fluid dominated Denver. By 1998, the band was filled out by bassist Imo -- one of the few female musicians to play in a male-fronted band -- and drummer John Henry.
"Everything I ever liked about rock and roll sounded the way I felt: dark," West says. "Sabbath's sound was fat, raunchy, threatening and powerful. It wasn't something that I tried to consciously reconcile -- I didn't get up and imitate it. But it was always an inspiration. I could be singing about the darkest thing, and the audience would walk away smiling."
West also found inspiration in volume. As a player and a soundman, he was notorious for cranking -- often backed by not just a cabinet, but a wall of amps.
"Some of their shows were just brutally loud," says Wilkins. "I don't know if it was Jimmy trying to prove something -- that he thought that they sounded better as their sound changed a little -- or maybe Jimmy got more proficient at working sound and having it sound good at five billion decibels."
"I always thought it was better to be able to play as loud as you needed to be," says West. "There's a way to play loud. It's all a matter of proportion. The music that I like to do is loud, hard rock; it's big, and it's flying in your face. The key is to be in control of the monster."
Jimmy West spends his days working in a bike-repair shop near the University of Denver. Over the past ten years, he's worked construction, fixed motorcycles, run sound -- whatever it took to finance his muse.
"Everything I do is somehow related to music," he says. "That comes first. Everything else is secondary. I don't have a wife or kids or a girlfriend or any of that shit. A lot of the people I used to know, that's what they've settled down to. I guess we'll see when everything comes full circle which way works out best."
West is hoping his musical career will come full circle with the new Rok Tots. The band already has plans to enter the studio with producer Mike Jourgensen, who recently remixed Thirty Ill Moons for reissue; previously available only on cassette, Moons is now available on CD. As for his ability to connect with a new audience that might not know him as Denver's consummate badass, West is characteristically maudlin.
"Some take it drunk, some straight, but most of them are going to get something out of it," he says. "And if they don't, I don't know how much I really care. That's the pressure of being really cynical. Sometimes you get a feeling like, 'Hell, let's push a button and wipe 'em out. Humanity? Fuck 'em.'"
Tom Headbanger, for one, is looking forward to the brave new Tots. He says there's a timelessness to the band, and to West -- universally regarded as a guy not to mess with, a believer with a self-inflicted case of musical myopia.
"Jimmy was never really punk; Jimmy was just Jimmy," says Headbanger. "I think of him as more of a roots-rock guy -- more like Chuck Berry than Sid Vicious. It's like Motrhead: There's always been a clarity of vision there. He wanted to make music that hit your chest, not your brain. And that makes him a dinosaur, but that's not a bad thing: Dinosaurs ruled the earth, and if they were still here, they'd still rule.
"Jimmy would be doing what he's doing if it was the '50s or 2020," Headbanger adds. "And he'd still be wearing that leather jacket. He wears it in bed -- you can tell. He doesn't take that thing off."
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