NEW YORK – Long before they became doctors and lawyers or CEOs and real estate developers, they played in garage bands and maybe even dreamed of becoming rock stars. That’s why they signed up for Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, and that’s how they ended up on the stage of B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill on a recent Monday night, dressed in leather and tossing their drumsticks and guitar picks to a cheering crowd.
For nearly a week, the mostly middle-aged “campers” had rehearsed in the West 54th Street studios once known as the Hit Factory, where Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder used to record. They came from as far away as London and Tokyo and as close as Long Island and downtown to prepare for their moment of on-stage glory under the tutelage of rock star “counsellors” like Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad and Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot and the Ozzy Osbourne band.
“I feel like I’m 18 again,” said Jerry Goldberg, a 60-year-old investment banker and guitar player, originally from Brooklyn, whose family was in the audience. “I admit that I felt a little intimidated when I first got here, but this has turned out to be a wonderful experience, one of the greatest of my life.”
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp is the creation of David Fishof, a former sports agent who expanded into the tour promotion business when he began handling artists like the former Beatle Ringo Starr. He organized the first camp in Miami in 1997, more than a decade after baseball fantasy camps began proliferating, thinking of it, he said, “as a one-off.” That venture, he said, “lost a lot of money,” but he tried again in 2002 and found that a market had developed.
Since then, his camps have been held in locations as far-flung as Las Vegas and London, where campers and their rock star counsellors recorded in Abbey Road studios and made a side trip to Liverpool to play in the Cavern, the club where The Beatles became famous. (Pete Best, The Beatles’ original drummer, sat in.) Celebrity participants vary from camp to camp but have included Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones, Jack Bruce of Cream, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Slash of Guns N’ Roses.
“Everybody has two businesses, their own business and show business,” Fishof, 54, said. “This can be a life-changing experience for them, and that’s what I’ve built this business on.” Asked how much the rock stars are paid for their participation, he said, “I don’t share that information” because “it’s their private business.”
At January’s camp in New York, the big attraction was the singer Roger Daltrey of The Who, who went from one rehearsal space to the next, jamming on Who hits like “My Generation” and “I Can’t Explain” with campers who beamed with delight. After long days of rehearsals, there were also evening “master classes” with the likes of the drummer Simon Kirke of Bad Company, the producer Phil Ramone and the songwriter and producer Mark Hudson.
Daltrey, who has appeared at several fantasy camps, was asked why he keeps coming back. After all, at 66 he is secure financially and has no obvious need to spend time working with people whom others might classify as wannabes.
“I’ve had people tell me that I shouldn’t be doing this, that it’s bad for my image or my credibility,” he acknowledged. “But that’s rubbish. Look, I’ve been on the road for more than 45 years now, and this reminds me of why I chose to do this in the first place. It’s all so positive, and everybody is having so much fun. And if people like me, with my stature, didn’t support this, it wouldn’t exist. So what’s bad about that?”
Jeff Munger, a drummer and rancher from Durango, Colorado, who is also an avid fan of the Cleveland Indians, has gone to both baseball and rock fantasy camps and noted a sharp difference between the two. The baseball camp he attended, he said, was intensely competitive, whereas this was more collaborative.
He was playing in a group led by the multi-instrumentalist and singer Kip Winger. “It’s fun to be able to meet these guys as people,” Munger said. “I’m at a point in my life where I’m going to spend my money on things I’m passionate about, and I’m absolutely crazy about music.”
For the camp in New York, more than 60 musicians and singers enrolled (men substantially outnumbered women, and guitarists substantially outnumbered any other type of player), paying up to $10,000 for six days of camp and recording and $5,000 for a four-day package. Most of the campers are successful executives or professionals: a founder of the Oracle computer company, a personal-injury lawyer, a McDonald’s franchisee whose father invented the Big Mac, a plastic surgeon, presidents of health care and seafood companies.
Many campers like their experience so much that they come back again and again. Ed Oates, 64, a founder of Oracle, was attending his ninth camp, has acquired what he called “a small equity stake” in the company and once even invited the other members of the garage band he plays in near Silicon Valley to come along as his guests.
“It’s addicting, and cheaper and safer than cocaine,” said Oates, a guitar player. “That’s the flip answer. The serious answer is that you get to eat and breathe music for a week and meet some pretty fabulous musicians who are also fabulous people. This revitalizes us as musicians, and it also teaches something about teamwork, since you’re playing with people you’ve never met and have to find a way to make it work.”
At Oates’ urging and using the slogan “Step out of the boardroom and into the spotlight,” Fishof two years ago also started a Corporate Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, with seminars, “weekend getaway” packages and programs of up to five days, all intended as a team-building exercise, bonus or corporate perk. “That’s my emphasis now,” Fishof said, especially since “it’s a hard market in this new economy.”
For other campers, the experience offers catharsis. Jeff Lack, a 47-year-old oil-rig operator from Enid, Oklahoma told how his teenage son, Cory, died while driving drunk seven years ago this February, also killing two other people. He wrote lyrics and within 48 hours a complete song called “Seven Year Fog” had been written and recorded.