October 15–22, 1998

music issue

So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star?

Six months in a band. You may change your mind.

by Margit Detweiler


Rooty-tooty or 60’s garage? The Rockula band shot with (l.to r.) Dalal, Giglio, Detweiler, Sotello and Hamilton
photo: Adam Wallacavage

“Laaaadies!” Rob, our drummer, dressed in a flowy Indian-print shirt, was urging us to hurry.

This was Rockula’s first real gig, so we’d decided to go all out—make a lasting impression. Somehow that meant dressing up like Ravi Shankar’s backup band. (Geeta wanted to break the docile-Indian-woman stereotype, so she’d appropriated some of her mom’s clothes.)

This was also the first time I’d ever played in a band. I was about to live out every music critic’s secret fantasy: to get out from behind my pen and rock.

Geeta Dalal, on the other hand, was a vet. A City Paper intern and Penn student at the time, she’d already played with Mister Pants, a garage-rock band in her native West Virginia. Using a three-song demo tape of her songs as bait, she’d convinced three Philly-scene regulars to play along in her new band: Wayne Hamilton on guitar, Roland Sotello on bass and Rob Giglio on drums.

But when she asked me to join, I hesitated. What was holding me back? Sheer terror.

I could read music (I studied classical piano all through school) but I had to train myself to jam: to let loose and improvise. And I hated the idea of not being able to go back and play it again if I screwed up.

I tried jamming with some friends—a miserable failure—so I went out to Sam Ash and bought a video called Rock Keyboards Step One with David Garfield. I couldn’t get past the fact that Garfield (who had no charisma whatsoever, which is probably why he’s making instructional videos) was wearing ropey friendship bracelets.

Throwing myself into the band, without a net, was the only way to do it.

At our first practice I hauled my huge Yamaha electric piano to rehearsal; it sounded nothing like garage rock and everything like Barry Manilow Live. Putting it on “harpsichord” didn’t help much. Eventually, I bought a swinging ’60s Elka Panther from Original Sins keyboardist Dan McKinney, which whirred and gargled like a Farfisa. Perfect, except that none of the black bass keys worked. We all just resigned ourselves to high-pitched organ frenzies.

We practiced in an honest-to-goodness garage in Northern Liberties, crowded with motorcycle parts, hardware, amps, the garage owner’s really lewd girlie pictures (intimate poses with dogs) and lots of soundproofing. For a long time I couldn’t get the hang of not looking at notes when I played, so I carried a mini spiral notebook in which I’d score our three-chord arrangements. But sometimes, when we’d really get cooking, my keyboard would shake and the pad would go flying into Roland.

It took us weeks to come up with an appropriate name for our band. Geeta originally called it Beta and the Carotenes, which, to us, sounded like a band at a Fresh Fields singles’ night. There was the Mach Five, Satin Chow and Geeta with the Heaters. For a while we stuck with a name suggested by our resident mod-motorcycle man Roland—The Manfred Hex, the name of a Moto Guzzi racer. But it had the unfortunate connotation of Manfred Mann and/or some ’70s prog-rock band.

We finally decided on Rockula, which came from Count Rockula, which, of course, came from Count Chocula. Count Rockula was too much like the Count Five (and their ultimate garage nugget “Psychotic Reaction”), but Rockula sounded potent. Monster-like. Biting. Gaudy. Ridiculous. Everything we wanted to be.

But first I had to learn to stop being the observer and start being a full-fledged player. My rock critic-ness would sneak up on me and I’d have to beat it down with a stick. I’d find myself spacing out and watching the others, only to realize, “Wait a minute, I’m in this band!”

It was during that Pontiac gig last July that I got my first taste of the uglier side of band life: a cop telling our drummer to move his “fucking” car, making us unload our equipment two blocks away; the sound man refusing to give us a sound check and grumbling when we asked him to turn volumes up or down; the second band in the line-up ignoring us completely.

The headliners, however, Garageland from Australia, were extremely cordial in that sweaty changing room. Even when we drank their beer. Oops.

You’re probably wondering how we got such a tony gig, right off the bat? It wasn’t through my connections—in fact it wasn’t until much later that people knew the music editor from City Paper was in the band. No, it was the drive of a star-crazed Geeta and the cachet of having Wayne Hamilton in our band—a longtime Philly musician who knows just about everybody. A schmoozer extraordinaire. Gigs weren’t particularly a problem.

Eventually we had shows at the Khyber, Upstairs at Nick’s and the Balcony at the Trocadero. Lugging a keyboard up the Trocadero’s long, steep staircase is enough to make anyone quit.

One of my favorite shows, however, was our second gig, when we didn’t play at all. It was in Bethlehem at the Fun House—a minuscule, hole-in-the-wall haunt for the Original Sins, the band we were supposed to open up for that night.

For this performance we were going to debut our new “outfits”—costumes that Geeta designed and sewed by hand. An orange and white checked dress for Geeta, a white vinyl dress with matching checked waistband for me, and black shirts trimmed with the same orange-checked fabric for the boys.

The guys weren’t too keen on the shirts. Roland eventually “lost” his. I liked mine, although a co-worker commented that I looked more like a waitress who’d serve you rooty-tooty-fresh-and-fruity than a ’60s garage babe.

When we drove up to the club, the Original Sins were standing outside. There weren’t any lights on the entire left side of the street.

“No power,” said Dan, the keyboardist, leaning into Wayne’s car.

It was the last thing I’d expected. I’d expected to screw up our new song. I’d expected to forget notes. I’d expected to have to find a place to stay the night after we loaded out at 3 a.m.

We went in anyway, convened at the bar, and had a few Yuenglings.

Then the Sins’ lead singer J.T. had a brilliant idea. He brought out a few percussion instruments and an acoustic guitar and Dan ran home and got a battery-powered mini Casiotone keyboard. Sitting in the glow of candlelight, with a sizable crowd huddled around them, the Sins gave an inspired, unplugged performance in Bethlehem that I’ll never forget.

After a few months we had eight songs—a 20-minute set which we blazed through each time we played. We never really titled any of our songs, just nicknamed them: “The Cowboy Song,” “He’s A Jerk,” “Wayne’s Song” and “Big Muff Pie.” Thankfully, I don’t recall the evolution of the last one.

We rarely changed the set list, which was a good thing because I’m sure I would have botched it up otherwise. I guess you could describe our sound as LOUD. It wasn’t exactly garage music—it had a bit more AC/DC to it, thanks to Wayne’s snarling guitar and Rob’s energetic drumming. Geeta’s 12-string Vox Phantom worked the ’60s edge in there. I just tried not to suck. Sound guys loved me because I never asked them to turn me up. Each time, though, I got a little better and more adventurous. By the third or fourth gig, I actually got up enough courage to play some chords.

Then we started getting cocky. We decided we needed a band photo.

We hadn’t recorded a damn thing, but Geeta thought we should get a photo taken: for out-of-state gigs, to send to local press (who won’t write about us anyway so what’s the point), but just to have in case. This was where it started getting weird. Playing in a band was fine, but now I was soliciting attention from other critics?

All of us had brought several outfits—our standard orange checkerboard mod get-ups and a few other decadent, sparkly things we’d never wear in public.

In the photographer’s bathroom, the size of a small outhouse, I tried to pull on a black cocktail dress that fit me five years ago. Now I could barely yank it over my hips. Geeta slipped on a glittery silver dress and looked stunning in seconds. She debated white thigh-high boots or silver glitter stilettos.

“Guys?” Geeta’s voice floated down the long, high-ceilinged studio, “Which looks less slutty?”

The guys were already outfitted in ’60s shirts and vintage jackets; Roland in his trademark black turtleneck and white jeans.

“The boots!” they replied in unison.

We took a few shots upstairs in a dark, decrepit room with loose floorboards and peeling paint. None of us seemed particularly comfortable.

“Stand on an angle,” Rob said, always the director. “Everyone looks better on an angle.”

Should we use the cool guitars, or would that make people think we were showing off? Should we smile? Should we make goofy faces? We should probably do it all.

Roland got the idea for the second shot—we’d sit on his Citroen with the headlights shining into the camera.

“Could you shoot it like that Donald Byrd album? You know the one, where they show the length of the car and…”

I was feeling a little self-conscious in my black lace dress so I put on a pink fur coat I wore for Halloween. (Actually, half the clothes I brought were from a Halloween outfit.) Very T. Rex. Wayne put it on and looked a lot better in it.

After a third setup—a very straightforward normal look in T-shirts and leather pants (yeah, that’s normal)—we called it quits.

When we got the pictures back the next day, they weren’t bad. Except for the straightforward ones where I looked like a bruiser in a polyester shirt, Geeta’s head looked like a melon and Wayne, kneeling, looked 4 feet tall.

After about five months we decided to record three of our songs: We went out to Fat City, a home studio in Plymouth Meeting where two guys, both named Paul, engineered our performances. It took us the requisite two days, two cases of beer, several pints of Chinese food and two boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts to record three measly songs. I was thrilled because I didn’t have to bring my keyboard; the Pauls had a selection: a Hammond Organ, Farfisa, even a Mellotron. I wanted to use them all, noodle around.

Shot down. I wonder why. You can get all kinds of kooky ideas once in the studio. Geeta decided to sing one of her songs, “Mr. Pants,” through the upstairs telephone.

But it became clear why some bands break up after recording; it can be a volatile experience. What should be a collaborative effort can become more like a five-person war. Thankfully, nothing like that happened for us. Disagreements on whether or not to put effects on Wayne’s guitar, add another background vocal, use Rob’s cowbell only brought us closer. Yeah, right. Let’s just say the ride back to Philly was awfully quiet.

One day we got a phone call at City Paper from Jill MacDowell, at the Philadelphia Weekly. “How do you spell Roland’s last name?” she asked.

“Uh… Why?”

“We’re writing up Rockula for our fall guide,” she replied in the friendliest tone imaginable. So friendly it was terrifying.

Now I’d really get to feel what it was like, from the other side. The critic gets critiqued.

“Okay, what’s the worst she could do?” I asked.

“Bad or good, it’s good,” said Geeta.

“The worst she could do would be to give a mediocre review and say, ‘Enh—they’re nothing much of anything.'”

A mediocre review would further our existential rock angst.

What was our purpose? What a waste of time. We were like all the other bands.

At least if we sucked royally, we could drop the whole thing and get out with unblistered fingertips. Get out before we became haggard, post-alcoholic 40-year-olds still playing Upstairs at Nick’s. At least if we blew chunks, people might still come out just to see how bad that rock critic at the City Paper sucked.

To be honest, we were all thrilled that someone cared enough to write anything at all.

“Why didn’t she ask how to spell my name?” asked Rob as we were driving to practice that week. “She probably won’t get the ‘G’ in there.”

The morning the issue came out, I grabbed a Weekly off someone’s doorstep. As I walked to work, I flipped through the pages and saw our name, at the bottom of a whole lotta gray text, in small bold type: Rockula.

MacDowell wrote, “Another groovy female-fronted outfit is Rockula—pint-sized, big-voiced Geeta Dalal shares the stage with Wayne Hamilton (of Overdrive Datemaster and the Brother JT), Roland Sotello, Margit Detweiler and Rob Giulio. Both bands [she included us with another band, Weave] get big points for infectious, guitar-based pop and excellent wardrobes.”

For the moment, all thoughts of inter-newspaper competition were irrelevant. McDowell gave us a good review. She was the coolest.

Even if she misspelled Rob’s name.

Soon after, I quit the band—I was not getting much sleep and not really getting anywhere with my five chords. You have to have an extreme drive to want to haul your equipment back to your practice space at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday night. Which makes me realize how many people out there, plugging away, really do have that kind of passion. Here’s to you, my friends.

As for Rockula, they broke up a month or so after that—Geeta decided to finish school and most of the rest of the guys are playing in other bands.

As for Jill McDowell, she’s leaving the Weekly.

And we never did anything with our three-song demo.

But it’s something to show the grandkids, I suppose.

Look! Grandma was a trashy little modster in a really LOUD garage band.