Jun
26
2012

Be a guitar hero with a fantasy rock camp

Play like a rock star

I jump on stage at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, grab my guitar and rip it up with rock stars as a crowd screams at my feet.

Jeez, did that curvy woman in the front row just throw me her underwear? Welcome to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp in Hollywood, where Sammy Hagar of Chickenfoot and Van Halen, Phil Collen of Def Leppard, Fred Coury of Cinderella and a clutch of other legendary rock stars become your mentors. Only now, you’re a star, too, and not just in your parents’ basement decades ago, playing guitar while leaping in front of the mirror.

Since 1997, Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp venues have included Hollywood, New York, Las Vegas and the Bahamas. There are typically six camps per year in different locations, most often ranging from three to six days and attracting 60 to 80 attendees at each camp.

“I started the camp to give people the opportunity to meet, rehearse and perform with great artists,” says founder David Fishof, a veteran sports and entertainment agent who orchestrates the entire experience. He places campers into bands piloted by rock star counsellors and ensures everyone, regardless of their musical ability, gets to play.

“It’s really about living life passionately, and this can be a place where people regain their passions.”

Like Alice in Wonderland, I go through the looking glass. Last May, I land on my feet on a windowless stage at Amp Rehearsal Studios in North Hollywood next to Mark Farner, founding member of Grand Funk Railroad. Farner, who in 1971 sold out Shea Stadium faster than the Beatles, is playing an itchy funk riff in the key of E. When I was 14, I idolized him. “Here, try playing this rhythm part,” he says to me, while other rock campers—salesmen, cancer survivors, kids, psychiatrists, movie directors, all of us musicians—look on.

With my guitar slung over my shoulder, Keith Richards-style, I’m playing it cool. On the outside. Inside, I’m jumping up and down. Electric pizzazz flows from my fingertips to my Gibson guitar pickups to the black voodoo cable attached to a Fender DeVille amplifier so ungodly loud, every person in its path vibrates like a tuning fork. It seems surreal, but here’s the thing: it’s not a dream. At Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, along with the other campers who’ve journeyed to this music mecca from Britain, the U.S. and Canada, it’s just like they promised in the brochure: I am living the dream.

We’re all getting ready to play our big House of Blues gig in a few days and Farner is clearly on, full-tilt boogie. Playing next to him, I bow when he strikes a down chord, I raise my guitar neck in unison with him on the up chord, and I ascend to guitar player heaven. It’s awesome. Sweeeet. Rad. Amazing. No, I’ve got to reach all the way back to my Paleolithic, Classic Rock-era teen years for what this is. Righteous.

307 Robert Sarzo (Hurricane) makes his guitar scream onstage. Photo by Eric Raptosh.

I first heard about the camp in Calgary during a mixer for writers, when a guy at my table raved about having gone to one of the New York camps led by The Who singer Roger Daltrey. He said it boosted his passion for playing bass. I listened, spellbound. It was catnip to a lapsed guitar player like me.

It’s not like I haven’t seen my own fair share of musical success. When I played in the band Blue Healer on the circuit in Calgary for several years in the mid-’90s, it was to crowds of up to 15 people, counting the waitresses and bar staff. Over the years, I made hundreds of dollars.

I’ve since abandoned my prized Gibson ES-335 to concentrate more on making more money. So rock camp promised a way to reignite my lifelong love affair with playing guitar, while providing the challenge and thrill of jamming with marquee touring musicians.

My bandmates at rock camp include bass player Bernt Bodal, who misses one of our morning practices so he could fly his jet to San Francisco and pick up Sammy Hagar. Bodal, a CEO with American Seafoods who starred in the television show Undercover Boss, also plays in a band called White Sox All-Stars with Yes drummer Alan White. Singer-songwriter Maria Lawson, a former X-Factor contestant and Sony BMG recording artist, flew in from London, England. And they aren’t even the rock stars. Like the rest of us, they just came to play.

Others in my rock camp band include Taft Van Stricklin, a Cincinnati-based guitarist and audio-visual wholesale supplier, and Boston dentist and guitarist Guy Morris. Fred Coury, a multi-instrumentalist composer and the drummer for Cinderella, is our enduringly patient rock camp counsellor.

It is a very intense camp, with much of it lived maniacally inside the rehearsal studios. It doesn’t matter what you may have achieved elsewhere. That falls away. Here, in this band, you need to hit the notes and play as a team.

When Sammy Hagar stops by to meet our band, Union Jack, we shoot the breeze about his Shelby Cobra sports car. “Point it straight and it just goes,” he says. But then, we have to hint, in not so many words, look, it’s great chatting Sammy, but frankly we’re just too busy. We are so intently practising for the show, that we don’t even consider jamming with the very friendly and personable rock legend. He leaves—not dejectedly, mind you—to jam with some of the other bands.

The next day, we record the original song we wrote, “Medicine,” at the historic EastWest Recording Studios with Eddie Kramer, who has engineered albums for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. An eclectic A to Z of music greats have recorded at this studio over the years, from Paul Anka to Frank Zappa.

Finally, the big day comes for our band’s performance at the House of Blues Sunset Strip. Hours before the show, I practise the songs and my onstage rock moves in my Hollywood Heights Hotel room. In front of a full-length mirror, I leap and strike a power chord, just as I did all those years ago when learning to play guitar as a teenager. I’ll repeat it onstage at the House of Blues Sunset, but, in this moment, I’m agelessly aloft, and time, a faceless fan, holds its breath.

Other fantasy camp experiences

You dreamt of being in a NASCAR race car…

Ride shotgun in a NASCAR race car for three laps at many different locations in the U.S. including Bristol, Phoenix, Miami and Michigan. (1800bepetty.com)

You yearned to ride waves and learn with a pro surfer….

Pro Surf School Hawaii offers training with champion surfer Kai Sallas. Sign up for beginner to advanced training in Waikiki, Hawaii. (prosurfschoolhawaii.com)

You wanted to ride a bull like the rodeo pros…

Bull Riding 101 gets you atop a bull in the chute for a day and you can even graduate to riding one. Fantasy Adventure Bull Riding Ltd. is located just outside of Calgary, Alta. (fantasyadventurebullriding.com)

You always wanted to get game with pro baseball players on the field…

There are baseball fantasy camps throughout the U.S., including the Arizona Diamondbacks Fantasy Camp. (arizona.diamondbacks.mlb.com)

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