Who hasn’t dreamed of being a rock star? The dream where you’re the cool guy with long hair, tight leather pants, traveling the world, playing sold-out arenas. In-your-face rock, as thousands of fans lift their hands in the universal sign of rock, screaming at the top of their lungs. Distorted guitars, thunderous bass, monster drums and soaring solos that summon raw, visceral emotion. Taking all the things in life that people love or hate and turning it into something creative and inspiring. Music that inspires love, makes you cry, vent your rage and perhaps even change the world. That’s the dream of rock and roll. Well, that and the girls.
In this dream, you and your friends start a rock band, except your friends are legendary rock stars. Jamming all day and rocking all night. Actually living your rock star dream. Playing alongside musicians who’ve inspired you is a dream come true and the experience of a lifetime. An experience that could only happen at Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy Camp in Las Vegas.
“Some people have a hard time explaining rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t think anyone can really explain rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe Pete Townshend, but that’s okay. Rock ‘n’ roll is a lifestyle and a way of thinking… and it’s not about money and popularity. Although, some money would be nice. But it’s a voice that says, “Here I am… and fuck you if you can’t understand me.” And one of these people is gonna save the world. And that means that rock ‘n’ roll can save the world… all of us together. And the chicks are great. But what it all comes down to is that thing. The indefinable thing when people catch something in your music.” (Almost Famous)
Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy Camp is the love child of David Fishof, every bit as legendary as the rockstars headlining Rock Camp. Why Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy Camp? Because Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘N’ Roll Camp would be illegal! It’s the rock star experience (without the illegal stuff). You hang out, practice, eat, learn, share and perform together. It’s a family, complete with the best roadies and sound crew in the business.
Musical Director and Rock Camp Counselor: Kip Winger.
Rock Camp Counselors: Vic Johnson and David “Bro” Lauser (Sammy Hagar’s Wabos), Joe Vitale, Billy Sheehan, Lita Ford, Tony Franklin, Zack Throne, Scot Coogan, Ron Keel, Phil Soussan and Michael Lardie. Production Tech and Stage Manager: Kevin “Dugie” Dugan (Roadie for Life Hall of Fame). What a lineup! It doesn’t get more rock star than that!
Before I was a photographer, I was a musician. All through school I played flute and saxophone. Most of those years, I held first or second chair. As a boy playing flute in high school, you had to be good or you put up with a lot of crap. My last year in high school, 6 of my 7 classes were music related. Jazz band, symphony, music theory, stage band, pep band— those were the days when the arts were funded in the public school system.
I taught myself to play guitar and piano. I had a Strat, Les Paul, keyboard and synthesizers. Performing throughout Missouri and Kansas with my band was a dream come true. Music was my life. I lived, ate and breathed music. I moved to Seattle and joined “Modern Man” (think Joe Jackson meets the Fixx). We recorded a song that got some airplay and performed at the Moore Theatre with Duffy Bishop and the Rhythm Dogs. Hard to believe looking at me now (yes, I had shoulder-length permed hair), but I used to rock out with the best of them, until it all fell apart.
The classic story of ego and dysfunctional dynamics, eventually broke up the band. The drummer’s new girlfriend, some of us wanting to move to LA and pursue a career, the rest wanting to settle down in Seattle. An entire life chasing a dream of being a musician, only to realize my success was entirely dependent on others who were not as serious as I was about it all. My day job as a photo lab tech eventually lead to a position working for an aerial photographer. I took a hard look at my life and decided it was time to go back to college and become a commercial advertising photographer.
Walking away from that life-long dream was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. I sold everything I owned to finance college, my camera gear and darkroom equipment. But music would never be very far away in my life.
I started my new career working as an assistant to Chris Cuffaro, a Los Angeles photographer who was all over the Seattle Grunge music scene of the early 90’s. We photographed Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, Bush. We were close to shooting Nirvana, but it never happened. What a story that would’ve been!
My taste in music is eclectic. I love it all—classical, rock, rap, country and blues. I’ll spend hours hunting down an obscure song that I’ve heard in a movie. The songs in my library have stories. Like photos, they are a touchstone to memories in my life. Music is an interwoven thread that continues to influence my life. I’ve been fortunate that a few clients are incredibly talented musicians. Music is always close by.
One is Mark DuFresne— a real deal blues veteren. I photographed his wedding over a decade ago in Seattle. He and his wife have become very dear friends. I photographed 2 of his albums, including “There’s a Song in There” featuring Mark on (vocals, harmonica), Kid Ramos (guitar), Jerry Cook (saxophone), Fred Kaplan (piano) and the late Richard Innes (drums), some of the best blues musicians in the world. He’s played at the Portland Blues Festival and was the front man for Roomful of Blues. My history with music gave me a special connection and insight into telling his story.
Another is Tim Taylor- yep, same as the tool man. Tim’s a professional on-air personality. We used to call them DJ’s back in the day, but now that everything is so automated, it’s all about the personality. And Tim is quite a personality. I met Tim at a wedding. He was filling in for a friend as the DJ. From the moment I met him, we were fast friends and have grown to be like brothers. He’s had quite a career in radio. One of the highlights was working in Mexico for Sammy Hagar’s internet Cabo Radio show! These days, you’ll find him doing the afternoon show at 99.5 The Wolf, CMA award-winning country music station in Portland, Oregon.
Tim’s story is similar to mine. We loved being musicians, but the realities of life required difficult choices. Music is always close by in our lives and we’ve spent countless hours sharing our love of music. Tim interviews rock stars all the time as part of his radio gig. He works in the music business, plays guitar (35+ years) and performs with a local band.
One day he announced on Facebook that he was fulfilling a bucket list dream of playing with Sammy Hagar and the Wabos at Rock Camp. I jokingly said he needed to bring along his own personal paparazzi photographer for the full experience (he’s met so many rock stars and has the worst photos). He needed a storyteller, who intrinsically understood what this experience meant. Someone to document and preserve that memory forever.
My background as a musician and photographer, gave me that unique perspective on Rock Camp. I bought a plane ticket that night and signed up as a groupie. I would be completely immersed in the experience, up front and center stage. It ended being an experience I’ll never forget.
The Rock Camp Experience
“Aw, man. You made friends with them. See, friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong.” (Almost Famous)
As we flew to Las Vegas, Tim and I established a set of Rock Camp rules.
1: Tim throws the first TV out the window.
2: Get a hotel room on the top floor. Why? See rule #1!
3: Be cool.
4: Don’t ask stupid questions. Why? See rule #3!
5. Every question is a stupid question. Why? See rule #4!
Well, you get the picture. The anticipation was palatable and we talked the entire flight to Vegas. That poor girl who sat between us—I’ve never seen anyone run so fast to baggage claim. People arriving from all walks of life with the same dream in their heart. Doctors, lawyers, CEO’s, executives, hard-working blue collar professionals and a 14 year-old kid. All heading to Vegas to do one thing. Rock!
The experience of Rock Camp is similar to the hit show The Voice. They shuttle you to the campus, which is in an office park setting, just a few miles from the MGM Grand. They have practice rooms with amps and drum kits. You find people you want to jam with and start playing. Over the next few hours, the rock stars go from room to room, playing with you and listening, evaluating your musical ability. Tim picked a room with Sammy Hagar’s drummer, David “Bro” Lauser. They jammed to some classic rock and were one of the few rooms with a keyboard player. An extremely talented musician from Massachusetts who brought his own Hammond keyboard. His day job is Vice President of a major software company. He can sing and play keyboards like very few people I’ve met. Not even two hours in and the experience is getting real.
A few more hours and the auditions start on the main stage. The rock stars set up a house band of sorts and anyone can come up and play with them. The idea is to rotate through everyone and give them an opportunity to show what they can do in a supportive and fun environment. Just hours into Rock Camp and you’re on stage playing with legendary musicians! It’s just surreal, even as a spectator.
Later, they announce the bands and pair you up with a counselor. These counselors are legendary, but unless you’re really into music, you probably don’t know them by name. Yet, they are every bit as rock star as the headliners. They are the musicians of bands like Sammy Hagar, The Eagles, Lynch Mob, Mr. Big, Ted Nugent, Joe Walsh, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Winger, Firm, Ozzy, and Billy Idol to name a few!
Once the bands are announced, you break to your practice rooms. Each band comes up with a set of songs to perform the next night. They also have to come up with a band name. Each day, you meet and practice for hours. Break for lunch which is catered by an amazing chef who travels and cooks with bands, so you’re getting the rock star experience. You literally sit, eat and talk with rock stars. Ask questions, listen to fascinating stories of famous places, performances and people. Learn what it’s like to live, eat and breathe making music for a living. And LEARN. This went on for 5 days!
Working one-on-one for a week with these seasoned rock stars really shows by the end of the week. Each night’s performance showed dramatic improvement from the night before. Their mentoring and experience had a dramatic impact and it showed. Tim’s band had a 14-year old drummer named Stevie. Their band, “Safety in Numbers” had Scot Coogan (drummer and bass player) as a counselor.
It was amazing watching Scot mentor Stevie and how quickly he soaked it up. Even the legend himself, Joe Vitale took time to take Stevie aside and give him personal lessons. Stevie’s a talented and powerful drummer. You’ll definitely be hearing about him! All week long, that bond made them a band of brothers. The band experience condensed into one week. It was amazing to watch the camaraderie develop between these guys. Lifelong relationships forged by music.
One night, Tony Franklin (The Fretless Monster) said, “The whole foundation of a band is the friendship, the chemistry. It’s actually even more important than the music, because when you have friendship and chemistry, then you play well together. And you want to play well for each other.” In Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City, Tom Petty said, “Music isn’t really supposed to be perfect. It’s all about people relating to each other and doing something that comes from the soul.” That really is the heart of the experience of Rock Camp. A group of individuals who collectively become one. Their music a vision reflecting the unique dynamics of each person. Music is what connects them, the language they all speak.
Every day, the counselors were the first to arrive and the last to leave. Their tireless devotion and passion to inspire and teach was clear. After each night’s band performances at the Rouge Lounge, the rock stars took the stage for a final set. From the first note, you immediately understood why we gaze at rock stars. They have so much fun entertaining and engaging with the audience. Their talent, experience and unique gifts are inspiring. They are there to rock ‘n’ roll.
On the third day of Rock Camp, the headliners show up. The first was Sammy Hagar. To say the place was buzzing is an understatement. It’s so cool to see how much these guys are all fans of each other. Taking a week off from touring and their demanding careers to simply hang out and rock is as fun for them as it is for the campers. Some of these guys have met each other in passing, but never had a chance to hang out and jam. They were as much in awe of each other as we were! I’ll never forget seeing Joe Vitale in the crowd taking pictures, enjoying the performances, as big a fan as any of us.
One by one, the bands were brought into the main room to meet Sammy, get pictures and autographs and perform a song with him. Tim’s band picked a classic Montrose song called “Bad Motor Scooter”, which Sammy clearly enjoyed singing. Especially given the 40th anniversary of that album. From the moment he started singing, everyone was smiling and in awe of his amazing voice. The one and only Sammy Hagar! That was a bucket list moment for Tim and exactly what Rock Camp was all about.
Later, Sammy was interviewed on stage by Eddie Trunk and then took a few questions from the audience. When Eddie announced they’d take one more question, one of the campers raised his hand and said he didn’t really have a question. He just wanted to thank Sammy for his music and the inspiration he’s given musicians. He then asked if Sammy would consider playing a song with his band before he left? Since Sammy’s bass player wasn’t there, perhaps he’d consider playing with Billy Sheehan? At that moment, it just got real. File what happened next under “Things that could only happen at Rock Camp”.
Billy was standing on the side of the room and said he’d be willing, any time, any where. Sammy laughed and said, “Let’s do it right now!” He asked what he wanted to play and Billy suggested a song off his favorite album of Sammy’s. Five minutes later, you have this once-in-a-lifetime performance and you’ll understand Sammy’s joke at the beginning… “We just rehearsed, by the way. You saw the rehearsal and now you’re gonna see the performance!” Sammy Hagar’s legendary performance with Billy Sheehan of the 40 year old, Montrose classic, Space Station #5.
When you watch that video, you instantly realize why these guys are rock stars. Professional musicians performing at a level few of us ever achieve. And c’mon, if you don’t have chills and a huge smile on your face 30 seconds into that video, there’s something seriously wrong with you! These guys brought it! They rocked that room — an intimate and spontaneous experience you’d never have anywhere outside of Rock Camp. It was clear how much that meant to Billy. A moment every bit as monumental as any camper had that week. So thankful I decided to record video for that historic moment.
The next day, Steve Vai arrived and the same experience of meeting him, playing with him and listening to him perform a few songs for the campers and answer questions about his life and career from the audience.
Something he talked about was being present in the moment. Something I talk about all the time when I’m working as a photographer. Someone asked him what he was thinking of while he played? It was partially living in the future, thinking of the next note, slightly in the past, but mostly in the moment. Pure artistic expression. And when you hear him play, there is no question that his guitar is his voice. You want to play like Steve Vai? Here’s the 10 things you have to do.
Living the Dream
After his band’s last performance, David “Bro” Lauser shared how much the past week’s experience of playing with campers brought back the passion and joy he felt when he first got into rock ‘n’ roll. Seeing rock stars touched as much as we were was humbling and inspiring. They treated us as equals. The family of rock ‘n’ roll! As the final performance marked the end of Rock Camp, we stayed till we were kicked out trying to delay the inevitable return to reality.
After staying up all night with no sleep, I felt like a rock star as I made my way to the airport early the next morning. Physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. They warn you it will take a week for the re-entry process to your normal life. Slowly navigating the security line at the Las Vegas airport, I looked across the zombie-walking crowd and recognized the familiar face of David Fishof. Struggling with an armload of paperwork and a rebellious suitcase, he came up behind me and asked, “How was it?”. His face reflected the exhaustion I was feeling, and I could only imagine his week. Yet, here he was, taking a genuine, child-like interest in my personal experience.
Exhausted, I quietly replied, “Life-changing and completely different than I expected.” He had a puzzled look on his face, “I get that a lot,” and then asked how it was different than I expected, taking notes the entire time. No doubt, working on making it even better and further exceeding the expectations of future campers. What a true rock star! His relentless passion and drive to make this the amazing experience it was the past week.
He shared with me that it’s designed so the intimate experience alongside legendary rock ‘n’ roll musicians becomes a part of you. It reminds you that rock ‘n’ roll is about having fun and living your life to the fullest. There needs to be music and passion in everyone’s life. We lose sight of that as we get older. Some of us walk away from our dreams dismissing them as the folly of youth. Could you live in a world without music?
Something I noticed is most of these musicians are self-taught with no formal training. That’s incredible! Driven by passion and a dream that’s accessible to anyone. Every single camper was a musician with a diversity of talent and ability and everyone stepped up and performed at their highest level.
Have you ever had a dream so real that when you woke up it stayed with you all day? That’s what it was like for an entire week! These musicians are talented, gifted, charismatic, hard-working and inspiring. It’s the experience of a lifetime that could only happen at Rock Camp. There is no way you would ever have access to these rock stars like you do at Rock Camp. What David Fishof has created is beyond words. A tremendous gift to the world.
Rock Camp reignited my passion for music. Friendships that extend past the experience of Rock Camp. A lifelong family of rock ‘n’ roll. If you’re thinking about Rock Camp, I can’t recommend it more highly. Now that they’ve found a permanent home in Las Vegas, they have access to more musicians as all roads lead to Vegas. Find one who’s headliners resonates with you and don’t look back. One of my favorite quotes is “leap and the net will appear”. Sometimes you just gotta jump.
Finally, be sure to support your local musicians. There is nothing like real-life musicians playing from the heart. The power and energy of live music is like nothing else. It has the power to heal and to change.
Huey Lewis sang “The heart of rock and roll is still beating” and at the end of the day, we all have a little rock star in us. Rock is fun! It connects us to each other and to something bigger. It inspires us, speaks for us when voices fail. As Pete Townsend sang, “Long live rock, I need it every night!” Rock on my friends!