Few times and settings in rock history have as deep a mythology as the Sunset Strip of the late 1980s. As lead singer for L.A. Guns, Phil Lewis had a front-row seat for all the guitar solos and debauchery.
"It was like I died and had gone to Heaven. I had a flat right behind the Whiskey a Go Go. There were so many venues, and rock music was the glue. There were so many rockers, so many cool chicks. I'd go out on a Saturday night and walk along the strip, and there were so many band flyers you couldn't see the pavement."
The English-born singer had been all across America fronting bands like New Torpedos and Tormé but had returned to Britain unsure of what to do with himself when he received a fateful phone call early in 1987. "It was the manager of L.A. Guns. He told me their current singer wasn't working out. He asked when I could make it out to California. I said, 'How about tomorrow?'
"I go to sunny Southern California. We're in the rehearsal room, the band is tuning, and I just said, 'Check one, check two,' into the microphone, and they said, 'He'll do.'"
Lewis couldn't believe his luck. L.A. Guns was led by guitarist Tracii Guns, who had collaborated many times with Axl Rose. Guns N' Roses were just starting to really take off, and it seemed like there was no reason they couldn't be the next big thing out of West Hollywood. The original vision was for the band to be a cross between the Ramones and Ratt. Guns even stopped working with Axl Rose because he wanted a band with a heavier sound, so it was a great irony that L.A. Guns' biggest success came with a slow song in 1990 with "The Ballad of Jayne."
"It was almost a country song. Tracii wasn't too excited about that." Lewis laughs. "We were edgy to that point. But there was an ethereal, sweet side that people took to. That song took us from a cool, local L.A. act to a global band."
The band continued to record and tour through the '90s when in 2001 things came to what Lewis considered a bitter end. "We had a record coming out, and during the photo shoot Tracii said he was leaving," he says. "The band wasn't doing the business he wanted. It was a rough breakup. We tried a bunch of guitar players. I wish we would have formed a new band with a new name, but that's not really an economic reality."
But right when it seemed there was no hope for reconciliation, a good cause brought them back together. "A friend invited me and Tracii to play a Toys for Tots charity gig," Lewis says. "I was nervous. He had been my nemesis for 15 years, but when I finally saw him, Tracii is in the corner drinking a glass of milk. He looked so sweet and harmless. It turned out he was drinking a White Russian, but I could tell in ten minutes he had changed. He mellowed from having a kid. And the music biz had kicked the shit out of both of us. We played four songs, and it was great. I get tingly just talking about it. He brings out a side of me I forgot I had."
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The musical and personal chemistry worked so well that beyond the reunion tour that takes them to Culture Room June 22, they are also releasing a new record this October. "I'm climbing up the wall waiting for it to come out. We'll be playing one song from the new record, 'Speed,' which is a loud, heavy song about the sensation. It's not about crystal meth," Lewis clarifies with a laugh.
Though back when they started, few thought their brand of glam metal would stand the test of time, Lewis says L.A. Guns has aged gracefully, like a bottle of California wine circa 1987.
"We're older, wiser, and more focused than ever."