JUST A KID FROM MASSAPEQUA WITH A MODEL AT HIS SIDE
Slim Jim Phantom and his Quest for Cool
by Don Stradley
The Stray Cats were one of the stranger pop culture stories to come out of the early 1980s. Three young guys from Long Island, dressed up as rockabilly dudes, ripping it up alongside The Clash and Duran Duran. It made no sense then, and after reading Slim Jim Phantom's quaint A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel, I'm still not sure how to explain it. Of course, the Cats were a fine band and they fired off a handful of memorable tunes, and Brian Setzer's guitar licks were supple and bright, and the band's image was indelible, and one of my favorite CDs is a live set they recorded in 2004 called Rumble in Brixton; but since when does talent get anyone to the top? I'll always think of the Stray Cats as an anomaly, an accident, something that slipped through the cracks, like an alley cat that sneaked into a restaurant and ended up being the chef's favorite. What lesson can we learn from the Stray Cats? That hard work and chutzpah is rewarded? That enthusiasm pays off? Like the Bermuda Triangle and the pyramids at Giza, the Cats' success mystifies. We didn't know we needed them until we saw them.
Barely out of the litter box, the band became a favorite mascot of the Rolling Stones, all fans of the 1950s rock 'n roll style being aped by these Long Island boys. Phantom, who wrote the book without help from a ghost writer (which deserves kudos, because I'm sick of barely literate slobs hiring pros to make them sound like Hunter S. Thompson) describes his early encounters with Mick Jagger in the way you'd expect from a New York kid. "The whole scene was a kind of summoning to a mythic figure," he writes about a visit to Jagger's office. "He was holding an antique hand mirror with a big pile of coke on it." The style never veers; it's endless awe and gratitude for the situation that has dropped into Phantom's lap, including friendships with such diverse characters as Lemmy and Harry Dean Stanton, plus a surplus of gorgeous women that us non-rockers never meet. He doesn't kiss and tell; he's actually rather gentlemanly. "We are still together," he says of the current woman in his life, "and she's my girl." Sweet, eh?
There's a smattering of backstage stuff, but it's all rather tame. Jerry Lee Lewis comes off as eccentric; Keith Richards as earthy; George Harrison as eccentric and earthy; Johnny Ramone as a bit of a control freak; Setzer as egocentric; none of it makes for a galvanizing memoir. Phantom falls too easily into the "Aw shucks, I'm just a drummer," role, but once in a while he cuts loose with something that penetrates, like his observation that "the cast of the Grand Old Opry had as much sex, drugs, and rock and roll as Led Zeppelin, the main difference being the volume of the drums on the records." Or when Lemmy offers him a special concoction off the blade of a buck knife: "It felt like someone had shot an orange flavored metal arrow up my nose and through the top of my head. I was frozen. I couldn't talk. I couldn't even blink." And like all rockers of a certain age, Phantom offers tributes to his dead pals, and a sense of Gee, how lucky am I to still be here?!
Phantom refrains from anything that might counter his nice guy image, to the point where we wonder if he's holding back. He certainly doesn't say much about the Stray Cats. Their early days were a whirl of kismet, and he's still flabbergasted by how hugely famous they were for a while, but he offers little about on his band mates, except to say the trio simply grew apart in the way successful bands often do. Early on he describes a chat with Stones bassist Bill Wyman, who wasn't especially forthcoming with info on Mick or Keith. "I myself have been in that conversation a thousand times," Phantom writes, "being on the receiving end of the 'What's your lead singer really like?' question." From that, we can gather, Phantom will take Wyman's tip and not divulge much regarding the Cats. We'll learn about his first wife Britt Ekland being a sweetheart, and John Candy stumbling drunk outside an L.A. club, and the trials of running the Cat Club on Sunset Boulevard, and Phantom falling from a stage and breaking his arm, but it's all just enough to keep the line moving, like he's entertaining fans with quick stories at an autograph signing. What he's learned over the years is how to keep us at a safe distance, to give us enough tidbits to make us forget we're outsiders.