Christopher Stewart Neelley Interview

CHRISTOPHER STEWART NEELLEY INTERVIEW:
August 11, 2006

Christopher Stewart grew up within the exploding Sunset Strip music scene where he watched bands such as Van Halen and Quiet Riot in their infancy. But soon he wanted in on the action himself and eventually landed a major label contract as a guitarist with the sleazy Johnny Crash. In this exclusive interview Chris talks about everything, from Eddie Van Halen ripping off Randy Rhoads to trying to convince Axl Rose to join his band because Guns N’ Roses was going nowhere!

SR: What are you currently working on these days?

CN: Nothing musically except supporting my own kids endeavor into music. My 8 year old son is playing the trumpet and my 6 year old son just got a guitar for X-Mas. Other than that I’m just working on the normal everyday trials of life. Mortgages, private schools, braces the usual. I am not resurrecting the band or involved in re-releasing anything. I’m quite content with my life. My wife is someone I met on the road just after finishing the Motley Crue tour. She’s given me 3 beautiful children and a great home life for the last 15 years so I’m feeling like I got the really big reward from the record deal and all the touring. I wish we hadn’t lost Andy and another huge part of the beginning, Jeff Snitkoff, but as far as regrets in the way the band rose and fell, no regrets. I’m where I’m at for a reason, I’m happy so I can’t say that I wish anything was different.

SR: Do you miss writing music and being on the road for the long tours?

Johnny CrashCN: I still write. I was involved with a monthly Movie Magazine that came with a DVD. I scored the music for that every month. It’s just been in the last 2 years that I have been really stagnant. The birth of my daughter in 2003, and we just finished building a new home. I own a ton of recording equipment, I just haven’t bothered to set it up in the new house yet. I will eventually set it up and produce my kids, force them into the biz so they can face full blown national rejection by the time they are 13 years old. LOL
   As far as missing touring, I don’t. There were a couple of spots on the globe I would have liked to rock, but for the most part we covered it all. Once was enough for me. I did an awful lot of drinking on the road so a good portion of Europe is just a hazy memory of bourbon, hash and women. It’s still cool to see an NBA or NHL game on TV and know that you rocked that arena once. You actually know what its like to get blown in the visitor locker room of Capitol Center. No regrets on the tours, its just I really really enjoy writing and producing. A lot of people hate the studio, I always loved the entire tedious process.

SR: If your kids decided to pursue music, would you like the see them join a sleazy rock band or something a bit safer?

CN: I would hope they would do something edgy and aggressive. That way I could enjoy listening to it.

SR: Is there any new music coming out that you enjoy listening too?

CN: My buddies band Butane is real good. It’s like a cross between RATT and Sum 41. They got a record coming soon.

SR: How did you first get involved in music?

CN: I grew up with a piano in the house. Never had lessons. At 11 I took drum lessons for 2 years. It really sucked. The teacher started me out with just a snare drum. After two years I finally was playing a kit. It burned me out, I was more into surfing and skateboarding. When I was 15 I was sent to a boarding school in Northern CA that was a working ranch. No beach to surf, no concrete to skate on. I met August there. He had a 75 Gibson Flying V and a Pignose amp and he was tearing it up. He was also teaching Eric Stacy from Faster Pussycat how to play bass. I came back from the first break with a drum set and we started a really bad bad band. We all lived in L.A. and when school was on break we would all go to the Starwood and the Rainbow and do what musicians do. When school ended August and I kept it together for a few years. Eric was into Duran Duran and all that other faggy English dance shit and went his own way. I was living in my car down the street from August’s mom’s house. She had finally barred me from sleeping there. I had a really crappy job and we just rehearsed, wrote songs, went to the clubs till 4am and got up the next morning to do it again. 7 days a week for years that’s the life we lived. It went nowhere. We eventually went our own ways and I ended up forming WWIII with Mandy. Also in the band were JB and Stagg who would eventually leave for Kingdom Come. When JB and Stagg left I called August to come on board. Mandy and the drummer left the band to join the guys in Hellion. I ran into Tracy Guns and he mentioned that he just had auditioned Vicki James Wright and that I should call him. I did and about 4 months later we had a deal.

SR: What are some of your best memories from those early days with August Worchell and Eric Stacy?

CN: During the high school daze, we played a talent show in a small town just south of the school called Cloverdale. It was a real family, “G” rated Christian type place. We came out dressed like Hanoi Rocks/Twisted Sister and played a 4 minute instrumental called “Demerol”. August was already quite the showman and was flipping the audience off and sticking out his tongue like Gene Simmons. It was hilarious. It scared the children and a lot of the parents. We lost the competition to a lip syncing group that lip synced Super Tramp’s “The Long Way Home”. I still hate that song. It was pathetic, we got all pissy with the judges at the end. We really thought we were good, we were bloody awful in an awful way. I mean there is awful that’s entertaining and there is plain awful this was plain awful.

SR: Tell us about the early days of WWIII and what Mandy Lion was like to work with.

CN: JB and Stag before Kingdom Come, Matt Sorum before CULT, Guns N’Roses and Velvet Revolver and I had this band called Population 5. It was more like Matt and I backed up JB and Stag. It was their material. I had an 8 track at home and had written a bunch of metal songs. I met Mandy on the Strip and we started talking. He ended up coming to my place to sing on my tracks. The minute I heard his voice I wanted to focus solely on my material. I played the tapes to JB, Stag and Matt and they wanted to be a part of what I was doing. Right about then Matt went to the Cult. We got this drummer named Skip Gillette. Real seasoned pro. He actually came up with the name WW III. After a few gigs, Stagg and JB got the gig with Kingdom Come. That’s when I called my old friend August to replace Stag. Mandy knew this cross dresser bass player named Tony and we were back in business. A few months later Hellion approached Mandy with a bunch of money and he left. I was introduced to Vicki James and 4 months later we were signed.
   Mandy was great to work with. Once you’re over the whole “I’m the son of Satan” shit he’s awesome. Great lyrics. No one had more expressions for getting pussy than he did. A real modern metal poet. Awesome show man as well. There was so much crazy shit we did before we got signed, I can’t imagine what he was like on the road. Must have been a blast.

SR: Of course you’d be happy for JB Frank and Danny Stag when Kingdom Come went gold and Top 20, but on the other hand did you ever think to yourself, “damn that could have been me!”

CN: I never auditioned for Lenny. I was never offered the gig. I really wanted to do my music. I knew that’s what I wanted and I knew I was going to get a deal at some point. I was really happy for those guys. JB is the hardest working man in rock. He has written close to 500 songs. That’s major. We are still best friends, I’ve been his best man twice LOL!. He’s shopping a TV pilot about his life. I’ve read the pilot and first three episodes. It’s hilarious. Matt Sorum is a different case. I laugh my ass off at the fact that I had to convince Matt to do hard rock. He was really into Terry Bozzio and Jazz and real technical drumming. Now he makes a living in 4/4. A real good living. He played drums on the second Johnny Crash album.
   I once told Axl when he was working at Tower Video on Sunset that he should join my band because that Guns and Roses thing is going nowhere. Months later I auditioned Izzy Stradlin and his buddy Chris Webber. They insisted that they came as a duo and would not accept a gig unless both were hired. I told Chris he had the gig if he wanted it but not Izzy because he sucked and would never do anything as a guitarist. LOL

SR: It’s funny you should say that. Many people feel Guns N’Roses changed the face of hard rock, but were they actually as influential to the scene as some people claim?

CN: When the lineup that got signed was finally put together it was amazing. I saw them really by accident at an old morgue in Santa Monica called Madame Wongs. There were maybe 10 people there. They were incredible. Axl blew the PA up. I knew if they could keep it together long enough they were going to be huge. You have to remember that there were about a dozen different Guns N Roses/Hollywood Rose whatever they called themselves that week lineups before the “Appetite” line up.

SR: What other bands were around that time that impressed you?

Johnny CrashCN: My fave of all time was THE HANGMEN. The singer Brian was awesome. He had a song called “Hunting For Dad”. Great song, great band. Didn’t really know those guys but liked the music. I always thought the Zeros were real good and also a band called Rozzi Lane.

SR: How did you get introduced to Vicki James Wright and how did Johnny Crash come together?

CN: There was a fairly successful band called Hellion. They offered Mandy some money, Skip the drummer went with him. No hard feelings, we went our separate ways. I ran into Tracii Guns at SIR. He had just finished auditioning singers and found Phil Lewis. He told me the guy that was second in the running (only because his hair was blond!) was looking for a gig and gave me Vicks number. I dug his voice, he dug the music. I took the WWIII demos and erased Mandy. Vic put down new vocals with his lyrics. We got rid of Mandy’s cross dressing bass player and brought on a friend of Vicki’s to play bass. I saw Punkee the drummer play with a friend’s band and offered him the gig without an audition. We started gigging and an A&R guy saw us at the Whisky on Friday night. He was there to see another band and saw us. Monday we had a commitment from the president of Atco. He ended up going to Sony and brought us with him.
   Before we started recording the first record I fired the bass player for abusing his girl in front of me. My buddy Terry Nails (Tommy Tutone & Steve Jones Band) ended up playing bass on the record. I’d known Andy Rogers for a few years. He came into the audition and told Vic and I that he would kill anyone that was offered the gig with us. So we hired him. Unfortunately he died right after recording the second album. He never even got to hear the final mixes of his first record. A real bummer. August’s drug addiction to crack which led to his dismissal and Andy’s OD were the final straw for the record company. Nirvana was breaking and we just lost all support from the label. I negotiated the ownership of the second unreleased record and wanted to head to Europe were we had much more success. My plan was to hang out in Hamburg, tweak the album with a few new songs and make a good living touring until we could get a new deal in the States. Vicki didn’t have that same vision. He thought there were companies just waiting to hear what he was going to do next and wasn’t willing to do the heavy lifting and hard work of being a touring band.
   Through our lawyer, we divided all the bands assets between Vicki and I. Both sides agreed that the division was fair. We just divided everything 50/50. No one got more than the other. I guess 50/50 wasn’t fair for Vicki because a few weeks later he called to ask if he could borrow my 2 vintage Marshalls for a recording session. He sold them claiming that I had ripped him off somehow. I guess if letting someone live in your apartment rent free for 8 months including long distance calls to his UK relatives is ripping you off I guess I’m a master thief. Not to mention that the royalties for all the Johnny Crash music was split evenly between Vicki, August and I. No one made more than anyone else. I insisted on that from the beginning. Unfortunately Vicki lacks morals. He is a thief. He always used to tell me how the last band he was in (can’t remember the name of the band, I think it was Van Halen Jr.) ripped him off. It’s always the guys that claim they’re getting ripped off that are doing the ripping off. I won’t forgive Vicki for that ever. I’d had those Marshalls way before I met him. They were my babies.
   The whole reason for this interview was because I contacted you after reading August’s interview. I just had to clear up what I consider some inaccuracies. August was fired, he did not leave. The final straw ironically involves Tracii Guns again. August was really messed up behind smoking coke. I and the rest of the crew put up with his tardiness and literally days of MIA for almost a year and a half. Finally one morning Tracii called me furiously looking for August because a guitar that Tracii had loaned August for a “session” had found its way into a pawn shop. It was the final straw. As far as firing Andy Johns, never. I fought for Andy with the record company. Andy’s demos with us were far better than anything we ever released. Andy knows that, I’ve told him so. The record company felt he was a liability. Considering Andy and I could drink a fifth of JD during a 3 hour session, looking back I see there point LOL! The performance royalties were split evenly among the band. The writing royalties were split evenly among the writers. It was always that way. No one made more than anyone else.

SR: How did the Andy Johns demos differ from the released album? And how draining was it fighting with the record company to keep him on the project?

CN: Our original manager got a demo to him. He liked the band. He started showing up at rehearsals and eventually took us into the studio to do 3 songs. The idea was he did the demos and the record company would take a Band/Producer pkg.
   How were the demos different? Its’ Andy johns. Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones. The guy was amazing. He would hang a few mics move them around for a few minutes and voila instant killer drums. It was way more produced. Most of “Neighbourhood Threat” was recorded “live”. For the most part every track on that album was a live take of 2 guitars, bass and drums. We only overdubbed the vox and the lead guitars and scattered percussion. We didn’t double guitars or go back and fix every little imperfection. We wanted a real sampling of the band performing as opposed to a polished sonically perfect over produced record. Everyone was making those over produced albums. In that respect I think we got close, but live, we were way better.
   As far as battling the record company, it was always draining. I always asked for way more than we needed so we ended up with what we wanted. Unfortunately the label president had had a recent personal experience with Andy on another project and wouldn’t budge. Like I said, Andy knows I idolize him and his work.

SR: How did tour dates supporting the debut go?

CN: Great. We were really lucky in that sense. Our first tour was with Bonham. They had just gone gold and were selling 3-5K seats a nite. Then we went to Europe with Pretty Maids who were doing about the same. Then we came home and did the East Coast/Midwest with Motley Crue. We always had buses, never had to do the 10 guys in a van pulling a trailer. We were lucky. The fans always dug us.
   We knew we had sold the first 60K in the U.S. People came up to us on the Crue tour and were telling us they couldn’t find the record in the stores. It was either a total planning failure, or the record company never planned on pressing more than 60k. It was really bad. I would call our record company president from a Wichita Kansas record store telling him there were no records in the store. He would assure me there were LOL. It was really fucked because here we were on the biggest tour of that summer, really connecting to people and the record company didn’t have records in the stores in the cities we were playing.
   I guess one of the most rewarding nights on the tour for me besides meeting my wife, was at the end of the Motley dates. We played a few dates with Bonham again around Ohio and Kentucky. We had just played to 40K at an outdoor event with Motley at Buckeye Lake. Now a week later we were in a 3K seater opening for Bonham. During our show the place was stuffed, when Bonham came on they had about 3/4 the crowd we did. I really started to think big things were going to happen. They never pressed more copies. Then Nirvana happened. We sold about 75K in Europe and 60K in the U.S. Usually in the U.S. you do five times what you do in Europe.

SR: Touring with Motley Crue back then must have been insane and filled with drugs, women and booze.

CN: You would of thought. Motley were all sober. There was no booze allowed outside of our dressing room. Of course the girls were insane. As much as you wanted, whenever you wanted. Lita Ford joined us and Motley for some outside dates. She had just hired this really young band from NY to back her up. Punkee and I grabbed some girls who agreed to blow us for passes. After they had swallowed every drop we took them over to Lita’s bus and told the guys in the band that these girls really wanted to meet them. 30 minutes later we see all of them coming off of the bus. The guys were kissing these girls and we were yelling at them “how do I taste?”, they never got it.
   On another occasion we convinced our very redneck/countrified bus driver Travis (great guy) to try mushrooms. I got a call from the hotel manager at 4am. They needed my assistance in removing Travis from the children’s play area where he was making snow angels in the sand box and singing to himself. Good times.
   We had all kinds of sick contests as well. Who could F the ugliest woman. My guitar tech Eddy banged a one legged toothless gal in Germany and still didn’t win. There was $1000 bounty for anyone that banged a mother/daughter and $5000 if you nailed a mother/daughter/grandmother. No one ever claimed those prizes. Maybe I have a book in me? LOL

SR: Was the label interested in a second release after screwing up the debut?

CN: They put us up in Nashville and Memphis for two months. We recorded and mixed the entire record. My point being they were willing to spend the money. I think the president of our label knew that we had real potential to make them money. They had underestimated us. The label didn’t believe we were getting the Motley Crue tour until we were literally on the road with them. One of the problems as I saw it was that our label president had come over from the Atco/Atlantic Records family and now relied on CBS/Sony infrastructure to help on his projects. There was a lot of corporate animosity at Sony/CBS. People resistant to help the new guy from Atco/Atlantic that got the job they wanted. It didn’t help matters.

SR: Between the tour and recording the second album August Worchell and Punkee were gone. Was the band as a whole starting to unravel at that time?

CN: No not really. August wasn’t showing up anymore. So we hired an old friend named JJ Bolte who played slide like no ones business. That was cool because I really wanted to do a lot of slide, ala Rose Tattoo. Unfortunately we ended up sounding like a bad version Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” LOL Punkee was the only one with any foresight. He wanted to strip it down even more and do more punk. He bailed when the record company insisted on a ballad. Vic agreed. He wanted to do a real commercial thing. I never liked ballads either, the harder the better was my motto then. I felt they were the kiss of death to the real fans of hard music. I wrote “When it gets hard she makes love easy”, as a joke. It was a stab at all the other lame ass ballads of the time. The record company didn’t get it, they thought the song was great.
   With Matt Sorum on drums, Dizzy Reed playing on a few of the tracks, the record company was really into the album. We were mixing the second album in Memphis and I kept telling Taylor Rhodes, the producer, and Vic that people don’t listen to this kind of music anymore and the only chance we had was to rearrange most everything and add some of the new stuff we had been working on with JJ. They disagreed. When Andy died that was the final straw. The record company dropped us in the States. So I contacted the European divisions and they all wanted to release the album. They still believed and Metal was still at its peak over the pond. I presented the idea of moving to Europe until we could break the record in the States to the band and Vic wasn’t into it.
   I knew we hadn’t paid enough dues and a lot of hard work was the only thing that could save us. In the end Vic felt we were already stars and deserved a huge U.S. deal. We showcased to a few majors, it never happened so I walked away. Vic and JJ formed some lame ass hillbilly Black Crowes sounding band and I went back to my day job.

SR: How did you manage to get Matt Sorum and Dizzy Reed to work with the band on the second album?

CN: Matt was an old friend and band mate. I guess I left Matt’s name out of this equation on one of your earlier questions. JB Frank and Danny Stagg (Kingdom Come) and Matt and I had a band called Population 5. At the same time JB, Danny and I were doing WWIII with Mandy and another drummer. JB and Stagg got the Kingdom gig and Matt went to the Cult. I called August to join WWIII and Mandy, August and I kept going with WWIII. Mandy and the drummer left to join Hellion and Tracii Guns introduced me to Vic. Literally 4 months later we had a deal with CBS. It really bummed Mandy because it was the WWIII songs August and I had written with Vic singing his new lyrics that we got signed with. James Kottak was going to play on the second album but I ran into Matt at the Viper Room and was talking about the upcoming sessions and he asked if he could do the album. I carefully and methodically ran through the best and worst case scenarios in my head. I wasn’t going to rush that kind of decision. So before he had the question completely out of his mouth, I had already said yes. He’s the greatest drummer in the world, period.
   Dizzy was not only an old friend of the band but was JJ Bolte (the new guitarist) band mate in the WILD. No brainer. I love Dizzy, I’m just not into keyboards. The only reason I agreed was I kept hearing Andy Johns voice telling me all great RnR bands have keys. LOL!

SR: How much did it piss you off when Vic didn’t want to move to Europe? Did you feel like you missed a great opportunity?

Johnny CrashCN: Disappointed but not surprised. I knew that another U.S. deal wasn’t in the cards. We were very popular in Europe, especially Germany. We had toured extensively there before touring with Motley. It would have been a great rock n roll experience. I know we could have made a decent living $3k-$5K a night as opposed to getting $500 a night at the Cathouse.
   At the same time I was relieved. I really had run out of energy as far as the personal relationship with Vic. He wanted to do more commercial metal or Metal Lite. I wanted to tune in D and shake the fillings out of the crowd. I was compromising a lot on the second record because I just didn’t want to waste the energy fighting Vic. I was ready to move on with my life. I had been rehearsing 3-7 nights a week, playing clubs steadily for close to 18 years without a break. I was ready to give it a rest. One day the lawyer called us for a meeting. Vic announced he didn’t want to continue and I stood up to leave without saying a word. He asked if I wanted to know why and I said I didn’t really care. I had been listening to his bullshit for the last 4 years and I no longer needed to. I walked out and we haven’t really spoken since.
   A few months ago August called wanting to organize a re-union. He had some dates and some money but I have a business, a mortgage, a wife and 3 kids. It would have to be a better payday than we ever made at our peak. I wouldn’t want to play that old stuff anyway, if I was to spend the energy it would be on something totally new and definitely with an American singer. No more Englishmen and no more Germans LOL.

SR: Do you ever plan to officially that second album, because I know there are still some people out there that would love to hear it.

CN: When we were released from our contract, the label president Gerry Greenberg was nice enough relinquish the masters and the rights. As far as official release NO. But if anyone wants a copy they can e-mail me @ [email protected]

SR: When you walked away from music after the Johnny Crash split, did you miss it and the rock lifestyle at all?

CN: The only thing I missed was a big pay day. I would have liked to earn more money and been able to retire after it all. The tours are always great at the beginning, but after a few weeks it’s just another job. I also miss using the best recording facilities in the world.

SR: Over the years have you ever had the urge to put a band together again and give it another shot?

CN: I had a paid gig for a while playing bass with a couple of songwriters who had written hits for some teen artists and were trying to put there own thing together. The rest of the guys in the band and I started playing our own songs while waiting for our employers to show up. We ended up in the studio cutting 7 songs 5 of which were mine. We called ourselves “Trashman” I didn’t want to do the leg work and no one else seemed to want to so it just fizzled out.
   If I had the time to put something together and could still pay my mortgage and private school tuition for my kids, I would love to. I’ve got enough songs for another album of stuff that is way more contemporary but still laced with metal overtones. What can I say, it’s in my blood.

SR: Bassist Andy Rogers passed away in 1992. What are some of your favorite memories of him, and did his death put the whole rock’n’roll lifestyle in a different light for you?

CN: I’ve got a lot of great memories. I first met Andy at the US festival in 1982. There we were in a crowd of over 250,000 and we ended up sitting next to each other. He was with someone that my girlfriend knew and we ended up talking. We ran into each other often at clubs and gigs. 8 years later he found out we had fired the original bassist and tracked us down for an audition. I knew he was going to be the guy. After his audition he asked for the names and numbers of the other contenders so he could call them and tell them the bad news.
   I don’t think his death was that much of a surprise to us. At that time everyone knew someone that was using heroin. Our drum tech Jeff Snitkoff had died just a few months prior. We had all watched him on his spiral down so everyone pretty much knew what was happening with Andy. Everyone tried talking to him, but with the exception of Vic who has never used any drug, we all sounded like a bunch of hypocrites because we had all been using or used in the past. He was so freaking talented. He wrote a song on the second record that really kicks ass. His performance on the record is nothing short of spectacular. He played fretless on a couple songs. The second record was much more than just pumping three different notes for 3 minutes. The shame is he never got to hear the final mixes. We were still tracking the album when he died. He worked so hard for something and never got to hear it. Except for his mother’s loss, it’s the saddest part for me. It’s still hard for me to come to grips with it.

SR: Seeing as you were in the middle of that whole Sunset Strip scene, what artists managed to garner your respect and which ones came off as assholes?

CN: August and I started going to the Starwood in 1978. I’ve seen so many great in there infancy at a small venue. Aerosmith, Mammoth (Van Halen), Cheap Trick, Quiet Riot w/ Randy (Rhoads) and later Carlos (Cavazo), Ratt, Gun N’Roses, Jane’s Addiction.
   One of my all time favorites was Red Cross. Great band that should have blown up. I think they were to ahead of their time.
   Never really considered who was an asshole and who wasn’t. The one episode that sticks out in my mind was Robbin from Ratt sucker punching a guy in the parking lot of the Rainbow for no reason. He was just trying to be a tough guy. The guy he suckered was at least 18″ shorter and 100lbs lighter and was just so not a threat in a very nerdy way. It was sad. When I read he died I wasn’t sad.

SR: You talked about GNR earlier, but could you tell bands like Van Halen, Ratt and even Randy Rhoads were onto something in those early days?

CN: Everything Eddie Van Halen did and got credited with inventing was because Randy Rhoads did it first. Randy invented the second hand on the fret board. He was doing it years before Eddie got famous doing it. Randy knew he was onto something and he actually used to turn his back to the audience when he would do it. I remember hearing the first Van Halen album and thinking what a rip off of Randy.
   Van Halen was very entertaining. They used to do Motown tunes and hum the horn parts, it was really pretty funny. Had no idea they would be that huge. They were friends with a band called SNOW (pure uncut rock) that featured Carlos Cavazo. I always thought Snow was the band that was going places LOL.
   My girlfriend at the time loved RATT so I saw them almost every weekend. They totally blew. That is until Bobby (Blotzer) and Juan (Croucier) joined the band. I saw the first show with those two guys and knew they were going to get signed. They were an excellent live band. Bobby and Juan made that band, period.
   I saw Cheap Trick before they got into the costumes. Rick had hair halfway down his back. Even then the songs were great. Still one of my favorite bands. I used to own one of Tom’s twelve string bass’.

SR: What sort of legacy do you hope your music leaves behind?

CN: Hoping we will be remembered by those that saw us as a good hard rock band. No make-up, no frills just very simple rock n roll that makes you bang your head and chuckle at the same time.

Thanks to Christopher Neelley