It was barely 10 a.m., and '80s rock stud Kip Winger was winking at me for the second time as he played bass. He was making me blush profusely. I could barely look at Kip, or the cop standing behind him in our tiny hotel room, a man whose face was fixed in a beaming, reddened grin.
For those not up on their Me Decade hair metal, Kip Winger became famous as the beefcake namesake for a group called Winger, a band that should've been as big as Bon Jovi, if my dedicated teenage enthusiasm for their power balladry had anything to do with it. Winger possessed the requisite curly soufflé 'dos, the manly chest hair poking through their ripped tank tops, and the hook-stacked pop metal anthems. In 1988, Winger debuted with two MTV hits that still give me a guilty Jolt Cola rush: the breakin'-up epic "Headed for a Heartbreak" and the let's-just-pretend-Kip's-not-a-predator anthem "Seventeen" (sample lyric: "Daddy says she's too young, but she's old enough for me").
So why were the cop and I so excited to be in Kip's presence 20 years after the fact? Because we were living the fantasy – sorry, the Fantasy – of Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp, a traveling heshfest where novice musicians pay a couple of grand to spend time with former stars like Kip. Based on the concept of baseball fantasy camps — where fans live and play ball for a week with old pros — this decade-old rock school came to San Francisco for the day for the first time last week.
Thirty musicians from cities in California, Canada, and Brazil ponied up the cash to form cover bands with and get instruction from dudes who've played with Winger, David Bowie (Earl Slick), the Cars (Elliot Easton), Megadeth (David Ellefson), Deep Purple (Glenn Hughes), AC/DC (Chris Slade), and another guilty pleasure of mine, Slaughter (Mark Slaughter). At the end of the day they hit the stage at the Fillmore for the final test: opening slots for hard-rock has-beens Extreme and King's X as their friends and families cheer them on. And while these students gleaned valuable tips about playing their instruments, the truth is that any professional teacher could give them the basics for far fewer dollar signs. People paid between $1,999 (for the day) and $9,999 (for five days, traveling to several cities) for a service only someone who has performed in an arena can offer: a brush with fame, even if your instructor's 15 minutes ended decades back. For the day, this awesome rock dude was your good buddy, someone you could introduce to your friends at the club and play-punch during practice, someone who'd occasionally throw you a flirty wink.It's a pretty powerful brand of companionship to sell.
In room 1617 of the Serrano Hotel last Monday, the campers included the 40-year-old policeman (Mike, the biggest Winger fan I've ever met, who also fronts an all-cop band called Igniter); a fortysomething headhunter (Tony, a drummer for 30 years); and a sixtysomething demolition man (Wayne, who had learned guitar only six weeks previously). We were crammed into a baby-chick-yellow room where the only furniture was a wooden bedboard and a table with a water pitcher — which came in handy during Kip's singing lessons. Everything else had been removed to make room for stacks of amps, coils of cords, a cowbell, tambourines, and a keyboard. Kip used the keyboard to play "Headed for a Heartbreak" at Mike's request, a performance that provoked from the sweet policeman a sort of compliments Tourette's: Oh my god, oh man, he mumbled. Thank you so much, you're incredibly talented, that was amazing.
Kip, smiling back from behind granny reading glasses, was eating it up. He's thickened a bit since the '80s, and his hair soufflé has calmed into a stringy poof, but his Eddie-Vedder-as-soap-star looks and casual charisma proved charming. He's the Fantasy Camp's head counselor, and comes from a family of teachers. His aunt taught opera, his dad was a philosopher, and he's a serious musical scholar who has studied at university level.
In between giving Mike advice like "Take it easy on your voice; we're gonna need more of you tonight," Kip was as approachable as a college prof hosting office hours. He even gave us his G-rated Behind the Music story: He never got into drugs, heavy drinking, or tattoos. He's spent his recent years working on three film soundtracks, "But I won't tell you which ones," he added, "because they're shit." Later, when the group left the room on break, Kip clicked on his laptop to show me a classical piece he'd written for a New York ballet choreographer. "Now you have to listen to this," he instructed me, flashing a grin. "It's what I'm most excited about these days."
As a journalist, you get occasional moments like this, times where you believe you're really bonding with a musician because they're revealing the person behind the video images. But in an age of 20-minute telephone interviews from the road, those connections are becoming increasingly rare. Over the course of the camp, I got sucked into the same fantasy as the students. When Kip grabbed my reporter's notebook to draw a rock hands symbol on the page, or when we were alone in the elevator and he clutched my wrist to compliment my tattoo, I felt my 14-year-old self taking over and stupidly thinking, "Kip Winger is my friend!" instead of "Man, this guy really knows how to flatter his fans."
I wasn't the only one feeling the camp kinship, though. Downstairs, a Brazilian drummer named JP in a Rolling Stone shirt was learning Iron Maiden and AC/DC songs under the tutelage of Mark Slaughter and Chris Slade. During a break from practicing "The Trooper," JP told me that Mark had invited him to come backstage at an upcoming Slaughter show in São Paulo. Even though Slaughter hasn't entered the mainstream radar since Nirvana crushed pop metal, JP was thrilled. "It's difficult to meet rock stars in Brazil," he gushed. "Their shows are too big."
By late afternoon, the campers had worked out their covers and it was time to hit the Fillmore. There were about 200 relatives at the club by 6 p.m. Mike was there with his wife, son, and best friend, and brought Mark Slaughter over from the sidelines to shake hands with his crew.
When JP's group took their turn performing, he and former AC/DC drummer Chris Slade play-fought each other as they traded off on the kit. It's the sort of thing you'd never do with someone you hadn't spent the day getting to know. The Brazilian was breathless when he walked offstage. I asked him how it went. "You know sex?" he said. "You know orgasms? I like sex, but this was even better." As for the music, the groups sounded like polished cover bands as they performed alongside their counselors songs by Green Day, the Rolling Stones, and Joan Jett, an impressive feat considering they'd come together only at 8 that morning.
Kip goofed around with a couple of different bands, stepping in as their singer. As he walked offstage after Cream's "White Room," I saw him grinning in my direction. How cool, I thought. Kip is totally my good buddy. Maybe after this we can hit the bar, and I can ask him why he wrote that song about 17-year-olds, and we can laugh about how bad hair-metal bands used to dress. Kip was coming closer, giving two thumbs up and a funny little wave. I blushed again, and waved back ... only to see Kip throw his arms around the woman next to me. Someone who, from the wedding ring he wears, I assume was probably his wife. So, um, yeah, there's a reason the word "fantasy" is in the title of this camp. I left the Fillmore feeling slightly foolish. Although perhaps Kip really needs a new MySpace friend?