It’s 1979, nearly three years before the advent of MTV. Roy Orbison is hosting “The Midnight Special,” one of the few places a rock ’n’ roll band can get nationwide exposure. The group onstage behind Orbison is making its national TV debut. With tentative gestures and an outstretched arm, Orbison introduces the Rockets, Detroit’s best and hardest-working rock ’n’ roll band.
In a mess of tattered leather, mirror shades and unkempt hair, the six-piece band kicks in. They offer up an oil-stained rendition of their recent top-40 hit, “Oh Well.” the R&B-poor-boy-becomes-a-rock star anthem.
The band is honed. It has that groove, that thing that can’t be simulated or rehearsed; a togetherness that can only result when a band tours together, lives together, endures internal fights and sees endless all-night parties together. It’s the sound of a band that literally eats out of each other’s pockets. The Rockets are seasoned, having done major tours with Kiss, ZZ Top, Bob Seger and the Who, among others. By all accounts, the Rockets are ready. They are going to be huge. After all, they’ve done the work.
Johnny “Bee” Badanjek and guitarist Jimmy McCarty bring grizzled pedigree and credibility: their near-legendary lineage that started with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.
What’s more, girls love Dave Gilbert, the band’s singer. Gilbert is the complete rock ’n’ roll front man, and he’s desperately pretty. He’s got a Jagger-esque maw and a perfectly golden mane of shoulder-length locks. He’s lithesome, and moves like a cross between a young Robert Plant and a skinny-era Jim Morrison. He makes young boys yearn for rock stardom — and he provokes the carnal conflict that puts butterflies under the skirts of teenage girls.
Gilbert’s street-heavy baritone came of age singing for beer money in Detroit bars when he was far too young to be anywhere near them, a voice born, oddly, of parents who are both deaf and mute. It is the kind of voice that sounds like it is dying to get out, to be felt; equal parts hey-look-at-me desperation and rock ’n’ roll libido.
“The Midnight Special” reveals a band that has it in spades.
Wolfman Jack ushers the Rockets on for a second tune, a rousing rendition of “Desire,” the hooky pop-blues single off the band’s just-released third major-label album, No Ballads. The song is going lengths to further the band’s national rep and is getting great response on radio, receiving heavy spins at FM powerhouses in Texas, Arizona, Florida, California and, seemingly, every hour in the band’s hometown.
But potential is a catalyst for failure more often than success. The rock ’n’ roll heap is littered with never-wases, almost-wases, and coulda/shoulda beens. Validation is so fleeting. The Rockets, and in particular, the group’s enigmatic front man Dave Gilbert, reaffirm this lore.
Gilbert’s short life — burdened with alcoholism, marathon coke binges, two divorces, murder, suicide and, yes, stardom — had an arc as tragic as anything that could ever be scripted.
That life ended a year ago this week, on Aug. 1, 2001. Like the band he personified, he was gone before his time.
David Lee Gilbert was born a rock ’n’ roll star. He presented himself as if there were nothing else in life for him. And he was a rock ’n’ roll star until the Rockets called it quits in 1983.
How does someone like Gilbert survive when he isn’t a star anymore? Where does one find the immediate adulation that only doe-eyed fans bring? How does one deal with the coke-toting sycophants who hang around, seeking a piece of the magic, long after the fawning crowds wane?
By most accounts, Gilbert did his best to hang on.
Born in December 1951 to Annetta and Stanley Gilbert, he was raised in Union Lake, a sleepy blue-collar town north of Detroit. His diminutive mother was, according to those who remember, “tough as nails.” She once put a roof on the family home by herself. She was the lunch lady at Gilbert’s junior-high school.
“She never wanted him to be in music,” says Delores “Dee” Gilbert, the singer’s third wife and widow who knew Gilbert for 25 years. “But his mother did see David perform before she died. She came when he was fronting Ted Nugent’s band. There she was standing in the crowd near the front, this 5-foot deaf-mute woman with her little Instamatic camera. I know Dave grieved so much when his mother died. She never got to see him succeed.”
By seventh grade, Gilbert was already the schoolyard badass. He smoked weed, skipped school, sported the longest hair and fronted rock ’n’ roll bands. Girls adored him, boys wanted to be him and school administrators hated him.
“When we were 13, me and David and a few others were the only ones in junior high with long hair,” recalls Devon Stacy, a childhood pal of Gilbert’s who went on to be the Rockets drum tech. “Even then, David was a rock star. He was the rock star on campus. We always hung together because we were the hippies.”
One day, the assistant principal decided he’d had enough of Gilbert’s nonconformity and made an example of him. He went for the jugular: Gilbert’s hair, which touched his shoulders, impossibly long for the mid-’60s. The administrator convinced Gilbert’s mother that her pubescent Pied Piper had to lose his locks.
“He picked on Gilbert because kids looked up to him,” continues Stacy, “and this was like ’66, and back then, long hair was a no-no. Back then it was all jocks and greasers. We were the freaks. The stoners. At 13 we were smoking pot. So his mom took him to get all his hair cut off.”
Stacy pauses. His voice rises to a laugh. “That night he went out and bought a shoulder-length wig. He showed up at school the next day wearing this wig that looked exactly like his hair! I remember the assistant principal chasing David down the hallway and David yelling, ‘You can’t fucking touch me!’ I mean, he was even using that kind of language then.”
Gilbert was a kid careening straight ahead with a lust for life. In his early teens, he did all he could to soak in rock ’n’ roll. Sometimes he would sneak through the bathroom window at Walled Lake Casino to catch James Brown or Billy Lee and the Riveras (a band that included Mitch Ryder and Gilbert’s future bandmates, Jimmy McCarty and Johnny Badanjek).
“You got to remember that Detroit in the ’60s was different,” Stacy says. “We’d get kids — 40 kids — and caravan to another state just to see a rock ’n’ roll show. That’s how much the kids loved it. In ’66 and ’67 you could go right backstage and talk to the rock stars. They didn’t have guards or anything then. At a Doors show you could go right back and talk to Jim Morrison. You could go right back and talk to Janis Joplin.”
This was a time when rock ’n’ roll still had vast tracts of uncharted ground, a sound and look that was still taboo. To participate, it took both a subversive spirit and fierce determination. Gilbert, of course, had both characteristics in abundance.
Gilbert, who never bothered with voice lessons, cut his teeth fronting garage bands including the Shades of Light and the Free (before the British band of the same name), among others.
His rattletrap bands played all-age clubs and high schools. By 15, Gilbert had quit school and was playing bars using a fake ID. The first hint of achievement came after the Free changed its name to Midwest Tree Company and won a high-school state battle of the bands competition. First prize was studio time and a 45 record. But the band didn’t last.
The Detroit riots had created a milieu ripe for rock ’n’ roll purging. The MC5 and the Stooges had taken root, redefining the course of rock history.
“David did a lot of moving around then,” remembers Stacy. “He would disappear and go down to Detroit and stay at a place christened The House [a notorious mansion that was a revolving door for local musicians and touring bands]. He would stay gone for a couple of months.”
Terry Valdez met Gilbert when she was 16. Gilbert was 17. They were married three years later and had a girl, Layla. Valdez first saw Gilbert play with the Free.
“I met David at Cass Beach,” Valdez recalls. “David was magical. Magical is the word. People were drawn to him. He invited me to see his band that night.”
The Free was playing at Mercy High, an all-girl Catholic school.
“When we got there he was already on stage,” she remembers. “He was signing — doing sign language while he sang and it was so emotional because his parents are deaf. It was the most beautiful thing. When he came off stage he had tears in his eyes.”
Gilbert later joined an Ann Arbor outfit called Shaky Jake, which he once described as being “country-rock, a Poco-type thing with a lot of harmony stuff.” Gilbert and Valdez lived with his Shaky Jake peers in an Ann Arbor dwelling dubbed the Hill House, which was a place of debauchery.
Enter Ted Nugent.
“Ted Nugent came over the house and we were jammin’ and he asked me to join his group,” Gilbert once told an interviewer. “That’s when I started with Nugent, 1971.”
Almost overnight, Gilbert went from a guy in a local band to a guy in a national act. Gilbert spent more than a year doing club shows and tours — sometimes opening for not-yet-huge Alice Cooper and Bob Seger — before parting with Nugent.
The budding rock star was by then a confirmed toxic-enthusiast. The match of Gilbert and the staunchly anti-drink, anti-narcotic Nuge had run its course.
“I know for a fact he was doing psychedelics then,” says Stacy. “I don’t know how that worked with Nugent at all.”
Valdez, who accompanied Nugent’s band on a U.S. tour, says Gilbert quit the band to play with his kid brother, Marc. They formed a band called Shadow that reportedly got a development deal with Atlantic records and recorded songs for an album. The band had various lineups, but was done by 1973.
Valdez says the brothers Gilbert were close. “They loved each other. He had a love/hate relationship with his brother. Sometimes they would physically fight.”
Gilbert’s mother died. A distraught Gilbert fled to LA, stayed drunk and high for weeks and was arrested repeatedly.
LA in the ’70s was all about blow. Gilbert, again, dived in.
“I was gonna quit [music]. I was getting too much of a buzz on after that,” he said later. “I was doin’ all kinds of different shit and everything. It was a long time I was fucking up … two years.”
Valdez says the marriage failed because of his drug problem. “Sometimes he would just be incoherent,” she says. “When Layla was born he didn’t make it to the hospital. So I moved in with my mother.”
Gilbert hooked up with guitarist Ron Asheton in LA and joined his post-Stooges band, the New Order, which also featured Dennis Thompson from the MC5. He moved into the band’s Hollywood house, which had once belonged to Jean Harlow. The year was 1975. The New Order preceded punk rock by almost a year, playing the same sort of gnarly rock ’n’ roll.
But LA wanted nothing to do with the New Order and Gilbert quit the band after reportedly racking up debts to drug dealers. He returned to Detroit.
Guitarist Jimmy McCarty and drummer Johnny “Bee” Badanjek were still in their teens in 1966 when they rose from the ashes of the celebrated Detroit Wheels, Mitch Ryder’s backing band. Later, McCarty did time with the Buddy Miles Express and recorded with Jimi Hendrix before joining the scarcely regarded hard-rock band, Cactus. Badanjek drummed himself a living doing studio sessions, including appearing on the platinum Alice Cooper classic Welcome to My Nightmare and Edgar Winter’s They Only Come Out at Night.
Badanjek and McCarty formed the Rockets in 1972. They were certain they should pursue the same visceral Detroit-style rock ’n’ roll as defined by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.
The Red Carpet Lounge on Detroit’s east side provided a base for the Rockets while they refined their sound, mixing standards with their own tunes. With no front man, Badanjak managed lead vocals from the drum kit. A fluctuating roster gave way to permanence once slide and rhythm guitarist Dennis Robbins joined the fold, which also included bassist John Fraga.
McCarty’s and Badanjek’s collective rep earned the band a buzz. The crowds were often strong and dotted with the occasional rock star. It wasn’t uncommon to spot someone like Bob Seger or David Bowie in the audience.
The Rockets had a deal with Detroit producer Don Davis’ label, Tortoise. Davis was an established producer with credits that stretched from the Dramatics and Bobby Womack to Johnnie Taylor and Johnny Cash. Davis and the band understood that a proper rock ’n’ roll group needed a front man.
“Bee’s [Badanjek] got a really strong voice but it’s not what you call a strong rock ’n’ roll voice,” says McCarty
Over the phone from his estate near Nashville, Robbins — who went on to write top-10 hits for Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt and many others — recalls how the band found David Gilbert. Robbins says he went to a club in Ann Arbor where Gilbert was fronting a bar band. “I’d been hearing about this singer, and I went in there and I said, ‘God almighty, there is the singer,’” Robbins says.
McCarty, described by many as the overtly pragmatic Rocket, wasn’t as impressed. “Dave came out to a club in Detroit and sat in with us on a song,” he says. “Even then it was obvious to me the guy was a space cadet. But don’t get me wrong, I love the guy. Still, it caused a lot of problems. We took the gamble and things started clicking for us. He had the energy and he looked good. He got us to the next level.
“Before Dave burned himself out, the guy had a tremendous voice.”
Gilbert was given lyric sheets and nothing else days before going into the studio to cut vocal tracks. Everyone agrees that what Gilbert did in the studio was remarkable.
Robbins: “So we brought him into the studio and he sang ‘Love Transfusion’ and, God almighty, we cut the track and Don Davis just sat back, and he looked around, and he said, ‘There you are, no doubt.’
“I thought, ‘Now we’ve got a band. We have got a rock ’n’ roll band.’ And of course, they never really believed that. McCarty I think never really believed that.”
“He [Gilbert] came in and knocked the songs off,” says McCarty.
Gilbert’s encore to his studio exploits? He disappeared.
“He showed up two or three months later,” McCarty says. “I said to John [Badanjek], ‘This guy is gonna be a lot of trouble.’”
Although they were a staple on Detroit rock radio, and sold out Cobo Hall and Pine Knob (now DTE) four times, history has shown the Rockets to be sadly unheralded, even in the band’s hometown.
What the band did was define a period of Detroit rock ’n’ roll that bridged from the Stooges/MC5 to the Romantics (who in 1983 had one of the biggest songs of the year in “Talking in Your Sleep”).
Aside from a lone German import, the Rockets’ titles aren’t even available on CD.
By all accounts, the Rockets should have gone over the top. The members of the group should have been set for the rest of their lives.
When the first record, Love Transfusion, came out, the Rockets received favorable reviews in then-important selling tools such as Rolling Stone and People, but national radio ignored it. The consensus in the Rockets' camp was that the record was too polished and failed to capture the gritty essence of the band. Still, the Rockets hit the road and went from playing long nights at an east-side lounge to giant venues with the biggest rock ’n’ roll acts in the world.
“Talk about trial by fire,” says Jim Hamblin, a gentle sort whose disarming demeanor belies the fact that he was, for three years, the Rockets' hard-nosed road manager, lighting director and driver.
Hamblin knew Gilbert in his younger days, when Hamblin had his own trucking company and hauled gear for local bands, including Shadow.
“I was there when we went from the Red Carpet Lounge to arenas. Right off we got a bunch of dates on the Kiss tour,” Hamblin says.
This is the pre-AIDS, pre-hepatitis C, pre-laptop-recording world of easy backstage blow jobs, free cocaine and flowing booze. Things were wide open, a seamless excuse for excess. Particularly for a careening David Gilbert, a kid from Union Lake fronting a great rock band that was opening for some of the biggest bands in the world.
“Usually I was the guy who would have to go get Dave,” chuckles Hamblin. “Once on the Kiss tour Dave was nowhere to be found. We were somewhere on the East Coast. But we had to go on. Turns out Dave got arrested for something, drunk and disorderly … something. When I got to the police station, there he was, singing songs to the cops with an acoustic guitar, playing Beatles songs.”
Stacy recalls: “When you’re doing tour dates with Aerosmith back then, you got a guy walking around with two ounces of coke at all times. David could stay up all night and still sing. His voice was huge. He ate, drank, breathed rock ’n’ roll. He was that way all his life. He did every show like it was the last show on earth — except for the ones he missed, of course.”
McCarty says, “Once we were supposed to open for Bob Seger and Dave didn’t show up. He had been out all the night before, doing whatever, and he didn’t show. That was just Dave. He had no responsibility. He didn’t have control of himself.”
Bill Blackwell was part of the Rockets' management team. He says much time was spent attempting to reel Gilbert in and soothe turmoil.
“A lot of times I would have to mediate between Dave and Jim. And you can’t lose your lead singer,” he explains. “As long as we were the Rockets, we needed Dave Gilbert. He was just such a charming individual and there wasn’t that spite where you might walk away from another guy and say, ‘Boy, he’s mean, he’s evil …’ That was never the case with Dave. You felt it was like your 5-year-old child getting caught with his hand in the cookie jar. That’s how it was with Dave. You know, he’d show up after he’d been out all night and, ‘Dave, what are you doing? We have a big show.’”
In the midst of this classic ’70s rock star over-the-top revelry, Gilbert is remembered as a guy who, despite the toxins he consumed, wasn’t arrogant. He hung with the road crew as much as he did other rock stars.
“Sometimes on the road he’d ride with the crew rather than the band,” continues Stacy. “Granted, sometimes he did so out of necessity, but the guy had no ego. I remember once the crew was leaving Charlotte, N.C., and Dave was busy trashing the hotel room. I remember walking by the room and he saw me. He just stopped right in the middle of what he was doing and said, ‘Hey, you guys leaving? Well, take care and be safe.’ Then he went right back and started trashing the hotel room.”
Hamblin: “I definitely remember him trashing hotel rooms. He’d get in an argument and starting breaking chairs. We’d walk out having to pay $800 or something stupid like that to cover damages.”
When the Rockets recorded the group’s second album, the band had reconfigured into a six-piece with the addition of Detroit keyboardist Donnie Backus (now a college professor). The band sacked original bassist John Fraga and got most of the bass parts from session man David Hood (from the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section). The band’s manager at the time, Gary Lazar, begrudgingly joined forces with Punch Andrews’ (who now manages Kid Rock) management team, which was having tremendous success with Bob Seger and the Sliver Bullet Band. Andrews’ office helped seal the Rockets’ deal with RSO records. On tap to produce was Johnny Sandlin, who did the same job for the Allman Brothers.
The recording sessions, which were rife with internecine arguments and drug festivities, gave up The Rockets, which is regarded by many as the band’s zenith. While recording, Sandlin recognized that the band was still short of enough worthy material to complete an album of songs that would have a chance in the charts. The band recorded a song Seger had written for them called “Long Time Gone.” Sandlin suggested the old Fleetwood Mac song “Oh Well.” It was a brilliant choice. The song hit radio and introduced the band to the heartland of America. The tune spent eight weeks on the Billboard pop singles chart and peaked at No. 30. The second single, “Can’t Sleep,” peaked at a respectable No. 51.
This was at a time when New Wave was beginning to hit — the Cars, Blondie, Devo, etc. And timing is, of course, everything.
Endless touring for the Rockets ensued. The band did “The Midnight Special,” got great reviews, even showed its Detroit colors with a Stars Cars page in Creem magazine, which saw the band on Belle Isle in front of a Stroh’s beer truck.
The second RSO album, No Ballads — again produced by Sandlin — yielded the minor hit “Desire,” a tune written by Robbins, with lyrics by Badanjek, that reached No. 70 on the pop charts.
Gilbert’s road shenanigans were becoming rote. Tensions rose. Gilbert and Robbins developed an alliance opposite the main songwriters, Badanjek and McCarty. Badanjek, who did not respond to interview requests, had been christened “The General” for his inflexible, business-first attitude and the fact that he rarely, if ever, partook in the drug/drink road rituals. The day before a major coliseum show a fracas erupted.
“We had just done a show in Portland, staying at the same hotel as Van Halen,” remembers Hamblin. “Dave had been out all night partying, hadn’t slept at all. He came back the next morning and said he wanted to stay. Bee and Dave got into it ... Bee pushed Dave over the TV set. At that point we just walked out. We had a show at the Fourth of July Rock ’n’ Roll Circus at the Oakland Coliseum the next day. We left him there at the hotel.”
In the Bay Area, “some shady guy showed up with Dave,” continues Hamblin. “He wanted money owed him for drugs and a plane ticket home. I had to pay the guy and get him out of there. Dave apparently had been up all night again. The show was at 11 a.m., so Dave had been up all night for two nights straight. I was up all that night worried. Everybody was pissed, oh, man. The funny thing is, Dave, who hadn’t seen sleep in days, pulled off the show. He was great in front of thousands.”
At the precise moment some of his touring mates would want to kill him, Gilbert would often reveal another side. “Once at St. Louis Keel Auditorium we were opening for Seger,” continues Hamblin. “Seger and Dave and Bee and the Silver Bullet Band stayed in the hotel all night and sang gospel songs. It was unbelievable.”
McCarty rejects the idea that tumult — that inevitable gust of testosterone tension — helps make rock ’n’ roll great in the truest, break-shit-up sense. Look to the Who, Stones, Aerosmith or anyone for that weary maxim.
“I’m not buying into any of that shit,” McCarty says. “Dave was a good guy and had a good heart. He just didn’t know when to put the brakes on. He eventually went off the cliff.”
Although the shows were going well and the fan base continued to swell, things in Rocketland were heading south. Road security had to be hired to make sure drug dealers didn’t get to Gilbert, who also got married again.
His second wife, Lynn Anne “Lynnae” Gilbert, fancied herself a Bianca Jagger to Gilbert’s Mick. The couple had a baby girl named Jade.
To add to the building antipathy, she would often come out on the road with the band. The couple would engage in knock-down, drag-out, smash-hotel-room fights.
“They loved to argue,” says Stacy. “We bought ’em pillows with handles so they could fight each other. And Gilbert and Dennis Robbins would fight like brothers too.”
The consensus at this point was the band needed the song to put them over the top.
Robbins says the Rockets, main writer, Badanjek, made a few ill-informed decisions. And he recalls an episode when Bruce Springsteen offered the band a song.
“I found out, the whole band found out actually… Springsteen had sent us a song. And Bee listened to the song and turned it down. This was, I don’t remember what year, but the song was ‘Fire’ (the Pointer Sisters took the song and immediately soared to No. 2 on the pop charts with it). Bee said, ‘Nah, it’s not a song for the Rockets.’ And, man, we had a major blowout when we found that out, like two weeks later, just a blowout. And it’s shit like that, on and on.
“I mean they sabotaged everything, you know, anything that could make them successful, they sabotaged it …”
Worse, the Rockets’ label, RSO, went belly-up after No Ballads, which, like its predecessor, sold in the 400,000 range.
The band signed with Elektra records. When No Ballads failed to match the band’s potential, radio hitmaker Jack Douglas was hired. Douglas had produced the biggest Aerosmith and Cheap Trick albums to date. He was producing John Lennon’s Double Fantasy when the ex-Beatle was murdered. So it was a grieving producer who walked into the fractious Rockets project.
The Rockets relocated to LA and made Back Talk with Douglas. The record, for myriad reasons, took the band in the wrong direction. Again, timing is everything.
McCarty sums up the sessions and resulting record: “Back Talk was our Hollywood record. That was us trying to find a hit record. That record went right down the toilet. Douglas was a mess after the Lennon thing. There was so much Jack Daniel’s and drugs in the studio. It was crazy. When the record came out, we alienated all the old fans and didn’t make any new ones.”
Back Talk stiffed. It even fared poorly on the radio in hometown Detroit, where the band was huge.
On the Back Talk tour in 1982, tension between Badanjek and Robbins came to a head. Robbins claims he was sacked by Badanjek. McCarty says Robbins left.
“Dennis Robbins just split from the band on the road,” McCarty says. “It was during a tour of Texas. He and Bee got into it.”
“I was fired from the band, that’s what happened,” Robbins asserts.
The band had four days off and was departing for a gig in Iowa. Robbins wanted to fly home to see his 2-year-old son and meet the band in Iowa. He says Badanjek wanted him out.
“We had a meeting and … Lazar went around the room, and everybody said, ‘No, we don’t want him to leave,” Robbins says. “‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’ve heard from everybody but Bee.’ And he [Lazar] said, ‘That’s ’cause he still wants you out of the band. And I said, ‘Well, that’s all I needed to know.’ The next morning I got up, got my gear, and flew back to Detroit. That was it for me.”
Gilbert’s father died. His drug use continued unabated.
Now a five-piece, the band hobbled. Then a new medium called MTV brought hope.
In 1982, the band went to work on its fifth studio album. Rocket Roll was recorded in Ann Arbor under dubious circumstances. The album yielded the Badanjek-penned single “Rollin’ by the Record Machine.” Elektra gave the green light for a video and MTV put the song in rotation. Still, it wasn’t the decisive boost the band needed.
“As I’m looking back — that was some 21 years ago, and it really is hard to believe (that the band never hit big),” says Bill Blackwell. “They were out there night after night playing their hearts out, trying to do it and not making a lot of money. The A&R departments at RSO, at Elektra were saying, ‘Don’t worry, this is it, this is it. …”
“The Flock of Seagulls sticks in my mind because all of a sudden this whole English synth-pop thing was happening. The Rockets were truly Detroit rock ’n’ roll and I think for the rest of the country suddenly it was a little dated, not fresh with the whole R&B influence, which is what the Black Crowes were all about some years later.”
A final Rockets record was recorded and released on Capitol records, a live album cut New Year’s Eve 1982 at a sold-out Royal Oak Theatre. Gilbert was strung out on coke. The record is spotty. The band was basically done.
“When we went into Back Talk, we were trying,” says McCarty. “By Rocket Roll the thing was over. I wanted Dave out. With him the band wasn’t going to get to the next level. The sad thing is we never had the hit record, the ‘Talking in Your Sleep.’ You can only go around [the country] so many times … The first album on RSO was the best time for the band. But the show must go on. I knew Dave was going down. But you can’t save somebody …”
The Rockets did a sellout three-night farewell stand at Pine Knob.
“You know,” says Blackwell, “sometimes you’ll work certain projects and listen to an album that you worked with and figure ‘You know, this really wasn’t a good album.’ But you look back at the Rockets album and it was a classic.”
Not long after the Rockets broke up, Gilbert’s second wife took their 2-year-old daughter Jade and went into the garage of the Shelby Township house she shared with her father. She closed the garage door, climbed into the car and turned on the motor. Mother and daughter died.
Gilbert was conflicted, a man torn and suffering. With some Union Lake-area pals, he formed a bar band called Roadhouse, a bluesy outfit that mixed covers with tunes Gilbert had been writing. Gilbert was broke and living in the house he inherited from his parents.
Guitarist/singer Val Ventro was 14 when he met Gilbert on the video shoot for “Rollin’ by the Record Machine.” Ventro, a Rockets fan, wound up playing with Gilbert after Roadhouse collapsed in a haze of coke and booze.
Ventro and Gilbert formed a band, and Ventro gave Gilbert a job building docks. He says Gilbert would open a beer first thing in the morning. “But he never missed a day of work. He cracked everybody up all day.
“Gilbert at that point was full-blown into his addiction,” Ventro says. “And we were playing pretty steady as Dave Gilbert and Val Ventro. But I could see he didn’t have the spark. David hid shit like the coke. He didn’t want anybody to know.”
Ventro began doing cocaine too. He and Gilbert spiraled until Ventro himself lost everything. He remembers when Gilbert went from looking like the rock star he was to looking like a grandfather. “He changed overnight. Basically he was an old man with no teeth … jaundiced, his skin looked bad.”
Ventro eventually got off coke and helped Gilbert do the same.
David Lee Gilbert’s widow, Delores “Dee” Gilbert, sits at a table in her basement bedroom of the townhouse she shares with her sister and niece. Her blond bangs spring up from her lashes when she laughs about stories of Gilbert. Other times her eyes swell with tears and she breaks down. Gilbert is everywhere — his concho belt, his acoustic guitar and photos from his life. She’s smoking Marlboro reds, one after the other.
It’s been a year since Gilbert died of liver cancer — brought on by irreversible cirrhosis — and Dee’s been reliving his life. For the past few weeks she’s been bringing herself to listen to the little spoken-word tapes he made before his death. The tapes contain prayers, personal stories and little love notes to Dee. She’s been watching videos, the Rockets at Pine Knob for one. She laughs at the one where Gilbert is onstage in front of thousands sporting a black eye. She explains that he’d been punched in the face by a cop after he’d passed out in his car along a freeway.
She talks about Lynn Anne, Gilbert’s second wife. Lynn Anne’s “mother had died a couple of months prior to her suicide. She did a lot of drugs. She died in the car with Jade, had put the baby’s dolls in the car, everything. Jade was 2. She had received divorce papers from Dave the same day. Dave barely survived that. He was in so much pain.”
Dee and Gilbert had been friends for years when Lynn Anne and Jade died, though they were not yet a couple. Dee and Gilbert met at a bar in 1978 when she was 18. They had gone out a few times before Gilbert went back on the road with the Rockets. Dee would often take care of his father. They stayed good friends until falling in love for good in the mid-’80s.
Dee left Gilbert three times in the 15 years they were together. She tells how he had to get dentures because drugs had rotted his teeth. Once his free-basing got so severe that she left because she didn’t want to see him die.
“At one point David weighed like 80 pounds,” she says in a shaky rasp. “He barricaded himself in the bedroom and wouldn’t come out. There were hangers-on from the Rockets days that would bring coke over to be Dave’s friend. I fucking couldn’t take it and left. A month later he called me from rehab and said he wanted to live.” She pauses, chokes back tears and says, “I just fell to my knees.”
The lead singer of the Rockets went from playing stadiums and arenas to the hollow horrors of addiction and destitution.
“We were homeless more than once,” Dee says. She adds, in total understatement, “We overcame a lot of obstacles except the last one …
“After the Rockets broke up Dave had a lot of pain. Horrible things that were said about him always got back to him. But he never bad-mouthed anyone. He just moved on.”
In the post-Rockets years, Gilbert made many attempts to get clean, with some success. He got a regular job and worked his way up from $7 an hour to $20 an hour as a wall plasterer. He and Dee married in 1995 when things were going well.
During the sober stretches Dee became confident that they had a chance. “We were gonna buy a house, we bought the truck,” she continues. “His boss was gonna give him another chance. Dave wasn’t the arrogant rock star. He went out and worked a regular job and he loved it. After 20 years he started making child-support payments [to Valdez]. The people he worked with loved him ’cause he had that charisma, that charm. We had such beautiful times together. The times were best, just so good, when he was sober.”
But the relapses came in fits and starts. Came on fierce as a tornado, slow as a setting sun. Dee kept the faith.
“He kept all the pain to himself, all the stuff that went down with his wives, the band. But it would come out like you wouldn’t believe when he was drunk.”
Devon Stacy remembers visiting Gilbert when he lived in a trailer.
“He saw me and didn’t recognize me at first,” Stacy says. “Then he gave me a big hug. You know, he was just existing. But he was happy to see friends. He couldn’t believe I traced him down. At that point he was purposely avoiding people.”
Around 1998, Gilbert started waking up sick in the morning. He was drinking beer. He’d drink a lot of beer.
“One day he came home from work and I knew he was going to die,” remembers Dee. “Then he got sick and he couldn’t work anymore. He started turning colors. That’s when he was diagnosed with cirrhosis.”
Dee had seen the inside of emergency rooms more times than she’d care to remember. Gilbert went through rehab six times during the latter half of the ’90s.
“His DTs were so bad sometimes that he would be screaming in tongues. It scared the shit out of me. There was no family there. No friends. No fans. But that was OK. He wanted to live. He really wanted to give.
“When he was really sick Bee and McCarty were gonna come and see him. Dave just said he didn’t want to see them. He didn’t want to. He was proud and he didn’t want them to see him like that.”
In October 1999, fans and friends gathered at a benefit to raise money for Gilbert’s medical costs. All of the surviving Rockets (bassist Bobby Harrelson had died in a drug deal gone awry) showed up and played.
It was Ventro who got Gilbert clean. In January 2001, Gilbert entered the St. Jude retreat house in Hagaman, N.Y. He received financial help from Music Cares, a service designed to help musicians with no health insurance. Gilbert stayed sober six months until he died. He and Dee made a final trip to Nashville to stay with his old friend Dennis Robbins.
“He loved to watch movies,”
remembers Robbins. “And you wouldn’t think anything was wrong with him. He’d laugh and smile but, of course, he was weak. I tried to push him to sing a bunch, but we messed around a little bit, played around a little bit in my studio. It was just a time that I cherished. It was sacred to me.”
Dee recalls with hesitation Gilbert’s final moments in the emergency room: “I went in the bathroom because he was screaming in pain and I didn’t want him to see me crying. I came out and I apologized to him for crying. He said, ‘It’s OK. You’re a good woman. You honor me with your tears.’ That was the last thing he said to me before he died.”
Visit the Dave Gilbert tribute Web site at www.davidleegilbert.com.
Click here to listen to the Rockets' Oh WellBrian Smith is the Metro Times music editor. E-mail at [email protected]