Mike Scaccia of Rigor Mortis Died With His Boots On: Echoes and Reverberations
Safe to say that I was doing bong hits on the couch one afternoon back in 1987 when Michael Alago, the A&R rep from Elektra Records who discovered and signed Metallica, called me up out of the blue and asked what was happening with the music scene here in Dallas. Alago was based in New York City, and he had heard a lil' something through the grapevine about the tiny yet potent music community that was emerging in Deep Ellum.
Heavy metal was obviously Alago's area of expertise, so I suggested that he should come down here and check out Rigor Mortis - the one speed metal band in town that had managed to find a sympathetic audience in a neighborhood that was - at the time, anyway- being driven predominately by independent alternative rock music.
By Jeff Liles
I had first met the guys in Rigor Mortis the year before, when I was also booking shows at the old Longhorn Ballroom. Lead vocalist Bruce Corbitt and guitarist Mike Scaccia walked into my office one afternoon, saw right away that I was also a kid who was pretty much their age. And they knew that they didn't have to pull any punches with me.
"Dude, why the fuck are you putting Scratch Acid on with Megadeth?"
I didn't really have a good answer for that, other than I've always really liked to pair acts together that might create the sort of odd aesthetic juxtaposition that really forces people to experience and confront something they wouldn't otherwise ever be exposed to. Bruce and Mike immediately helped me understand that kind of thing doesn't really work in the metal community.
"Will you at least listen to our tape?" asked Bruce. The cassette cover featured artwork that had been sketched or drawn by hand, possibly by a child. I half-promised to give it a listen sometime during the week.
Scaccia: "No, man. Like right now. We came all the way down here."
For a second or so there, I was so sort taken aback by this abrupt and unsolicited effort. Then thought, "fuck it" and put the tape in the jam box. Twenty seconds into "Reanimator", my eyeballs nearly exploded.
"HOLY SHIT! Is that really you?"
I had never heard anyone play an electric guitar that fast; and that was just the intro and rhythm guitar part. When the arrangement arrived at the solo, the notes became an even more furious flurry of seemingly impossible harmonics; static sheets of glistening distortion, not unlike the sound of broken glass spinning wildly in the disposal of a kitchen sink.
It was fucking perfect and beautiful.
That afternoon, I shifted Scratch Acid to a different show (an opening slot for Motorhead), and promptly added Rigor Mortis on as the opener for Megadeth.
A month or so later, I became their manager.
I freaked-out the first time I watched Mike Scaccia play a guitar. I thought, "Damn he's as good if not better than all of my guitar heroes." He was only 15 years old at the time. Even that young, Mike was so humble about his ability; because at that time he was obviously way ahead of the other musicians around him, as far as his skill level. But he never acted like he was better or above anyone else. For his entire life, he just simply let his music and his guitar do the talking for him.
-- Bruce Corbitt (Lead vocalist of Rigor Mortis)
Rigor Mortis had four members at the time; along with Scaccia and Corbitt, there was bassist/backing vocalist Casey Orr and drummer Harden Harrison. The band had initially emerged from the highly territorial mid-cities metal scene, where they had stiff competition from dozens of other young thrash garage bands who were all scratching and clawing for the few gigs that were available. When the handmade cassette copies of the first RM demo tape began floating around East Dallas, the group found an unlikely audience -- oddly enough -- with the kids (bands like the Buck Pets and New Bohemians) who often played at Theatre Gallery and The Twilight Room downtown.
A couple of weeks after his initial unsolicited phone call, Mike Alago booked a flight to Dallas. On the way back from my picking him up at the airport (in a borrowed car -- I had no driver's license at the time), we were listening to the first Rigor Mortis demo dangerously loud when I rear-ended another car idling at a stoplight. Mike could tell right away that I wasn't your typical (meaning experienced) band manager.
Over the three next three days, Michael Alago gave all of us a crash course in Music Business 101. He loved the band, but his hands were already full with Metallica and there simply wasn't a spot for them on Elektra's roster. We didn't come away feeling at all rejected or disappointed. None of us were really sure how this business really worked up until that point. Meeting him was kind of like someone turning on a light switch in a dark room.
Less than six months after that, Los Angeles-based A&R exec Rachel Matthews made a similar pilgrimage to Dallas, and after having had a similar mind-blowing experience upon hearing the Rigor Mortis demo tape for the first time, formally offered the band a contract with Capitol Records.
Things were suddenly moving very fast, and we were all still flying by the seat of our pants. The New Bohemians (who had just signed with Geffen Records) and Rigor Mortis shared the same entertainment lawyer, Los Angeles-based Ken Kraus. It wasn't unusual to see the members of both bands attending each other's gigs. For a relatively unknown speed metal band from little Red Oak, Texas to sign an agreement with the same record label that had once included The Beatles on its roster - and especially when so many other Dallas musicians over the years had tried and failed up until that point - well, this was all a very big deal at the time.
Backstage at Theatre Gallery in Deep Ellum with Mike Alago of Elektra Records.
I remember watching them play at Theatre Gallery and thinking that they were an absolutely badass live band; and a little intimidating as well, probably especially to us as the 110 pound baby boys that we were at the time. But talking to them, Mike in particular, they could not have been any cooler. That meant a lot to me; that we were two (mostly) completely different types of bands, and they were as 'real' and accepting as could be. We had a great relationship with them, much more so than with 99% of the rest of the other local bands at the time.
-- Chris Savage (The Buck Pets)
It was November of that same year when the 22-year-old Scaccia and I had ventured out to Los Angeles to take care of some business stuff. Rigor Mortis had finished recording their debut album for Capitol with Skinny Puppy producer David Ogilvie, and Mike needed to approve the mastering job and album cover artwork; my band Decadent Dub Team was trying to sort out a demo deal with Island Records.
Kim Buie, the Island Records VP of A&R who had just put together a compilation album called The Sound of Deep Ellum and signed The Buck Pets, had invited us stay at her apartment while we were in town. On the second night that we were there, the three of us went to dinner at a place called Chan Dara (first time that Mike had eaten Thai food), and then we stayed up late listening to records in her living room.
It was a little after five in the morning and we were just about to call it a night; then the front windows started shaking and rattling - my first reaction was that somebody might be trying to break into her place. I shot straight up out of my chair as this very loud, low rumbling then took over and literally drowned out the sound of her stereo. Then the whole building just started pitching back and forth, with books now flying off the shelves, pictures falling from the wall, and dozens of car alarms going off all over the neighborhood.
Having spent most of my life in Texas, I had never been in an earthquake. I found this whole thing to be particularly disturbing, still one of the very few "life flashing before your eyes" events I've yet to encounter. It was as relentless and frightening as anything I ever experienced, going on for a full two or three minutes.
While Kim shouted for us to try and get up and into a structurally reinforced archway (this kind of thing wasn't new to her), I looked over at Mike, and there he was - just like in this photo taken earlier that same day - laughing, still reclining on the couch, with that shit-eatin' grin on his face the whole time. Never even stood up. Dude wasn't afraid of anything.
When it was finally over, he looked like a kid that had just ridden a rollercoaster at Six Flags. "Wow. That was awesome!"
On the couch at Kim Buie's place in LA on the day of the earthquake.
It was Rachel Matthews at Capitol who first saw the potential for a group like Rigor Mortis to have a crossover appeal with the industrial music crowd. Mike's guitar parts had a certain mechanized perfection. It was her idea to have Ogilvie produce the debut album, and that subsequently lead to a relationship between Scaccia and Ministry leader Al Jourgensen. Most would agree that when Scaccia eventually joined Ministry as a full time member, the group did more as a band to accommodate his style and approach than he did theirs.
You introduced me to Mike when I was in Dallas for a photo shoot with Cottonmouth, Texas. I was familiar with his earlier work with Rigor Mortis and in awe of his sizzling leads. I can still remember the day I brought home Ministry's 'Psalm 69' album and lost my mind at how his scorching speed and tone had completely re-vamped the sound of that band! Over the years and after spending a great deal of time with them, I really got to know Mike better as a person. He was always a blast to hang out with while sharing a friendly adult beverage. Couldn't have been a nicer guy, and his speed riffs will be greatly missed. I wish had one last opportunity to tell him, Thank you for being in my life, friend.
-- Dean Karr (Photographer/Music Video Director)
The first time I actually spent time with Mikey was back in 1994. Al Jourgensen had asked The Cartwrights to play at a party in Marble Falls, and then also asked if I would play an upcoming show with Scaccia, Paul Barker and our drummer, Richie Vasquez. That was the Bridge School Benefit show at the Shoreline Amphitheater- playing acoustic in front of 50,000 people - and it was happening just two days later. Mike was obviously out of his element, strung out and scared shitless. Sixteen years later, Mikey and Al called me to sing on the Buck Satan project, which was Country music with a big bite to it. When I got to the studio, I was surprised to find that, not only had Mikey lost none of his lightning speed and flair as he aged into his forties, I remember thinking, "How can you get better and faster and older at the same time? He had expanded his guitar repertoire into other genres and could really play country, blues and other styles as well as or better than anybody I'd ever heard. I was truly amazed.
-- Barry Kooda (The Nervebreakers/The Cartwrights)
While some were happy to see Mike out on tour and playing in front of a huge audience every night, there were other others who preferred to see him play in his natural element, in a band where he had actually written the arrangements.
Rigor Mortis went through a couple of different readjustment periods; one where co-founder Casey Orr took over on lead vocals (he had also often performed with GWAR and Burden Brothers whenever Scaccia was out on the road with Ministry), and another line-up that featured a lead singer/rhythm guitarist from Alabama named Doyle Bright. Throughout these line-up changes, the band still maintained a rabid fan base in Deep Ellum, often playing in front of packed houses at Trees, Deep Ellum Live and Galaxy Club.
A few of the folks in Scaccia's musical peer group over the last 25 years took time this past week to share their experiences with him.
I'm sharing this because it shows once again what a wonderful man Mike Scaccia was. Rigor Mortis had once again won the Dallas Observer Music Awards in 1990, and I was fortunate enough to be with the band at that time. As we were called from the audience that night, we met at the stage stairs and started up them in order. But our beloved Mikey decided to push us all forward and the four of us went down like dominos! We eventually made it to the reception stand and accepted the award, but here's the thing for me: as we walked off stage behind the curtain, Mike stopped and handed me the award. He told me he wanted me to have this one. Of course, I kinda teared up. Who wouldn't? I cherished this gift from Mike and Rigor Mortis, and I displayed it proudly for many years.
-- Doyle Bright (RM lead singer from 1989-1991)
I knew Mike Scaccia for almost 26 years. Mike had grown into one of the most warm and likeable people I have ever met, and he was that way to everybody. Besides the loss of Mikey as a friend, I will forever miss the sheer joy and amazement of watching him play the guitar. I have worked with and seen a lot of incredible guitarists, but Scaccia was truly unique. What set him apart is melody. Mike didn't run scales and play series of memorized licks. He played melodies that came straight from his heart and went directly to the guitar. He had a perfect knowledge of how to combine incredibly intense flurries of notes with beautiful, delicate, soaring melodies. I have heard no one else with his sense of melodic dynamics, except a few classical composers.
-- Kerry Crafton (producer/engineer)
Mike Scaccia was so talented, gifted, unique, authentic, original, so ahead-of-his-time, motivated, dedicated and versatile. He was the true definition of the word 'natural'. I really believe that he was put on this Earth to play a guitar. I was blessed enough to have the chance to watch Mike play on a daily basis. Imagine being good friends with someone like a Michael Schenker or Randy Rhoads at a young age. To have them hanging out and sitting on your couch just playing whatever they wanted at the time. Mike could play anything and everything as soon as he heard it. From Chuck Berry to Van Halen from The Beatles to Slayer, etc. It could be any song on the radio, or something on TV like a commercial jingle, or the background music to a movie, or even the old MIDI sounds on video games. To me the most exciting music to hear Mike play was our material in Rigor Mortis. Everyone will always talk about his speed and precision forever, and so many nicknames have been used over the years to try and describe his style. I've heard it called 'the hummingbird', 'the bumblebee', 'the chainsaw', 'the drill', etc. I think it's safe to say that his picking hand was the fastest of all time.
-- Bruce Corbitt
Mike Scaccia changed the face, and the world of guitar playing, in my mind as much as Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, and if I please may sensitively say, Darrell Abbott of Pantera. The landscape of guitar will never be he same. The best thing about Mike was he was a real guy, a real dude. Scaccia played his guitar like it was an extension of his breathing. It was a horrible loss, but the birth of a legend that will always live with me in my heart as a true person of love and passion for loud fast guitars, real music, and family.
-- Jason McMaster (Watchtotwer/Dangerous Toys)
On the new Rigor Mortis album "Slaves To The Grave," Mike was free for the first time ever to completely express himself as a mature accomplished guitarist. On the new song "Bloodbath," for example, Mike covers it all. The song starts as a brutal, in-your-face Metal masterpiece, then seamlessly transitions into a guitar orchestration of intricately woven layers. On top of that, he plays the most beautiful, soaring guitar solo I have ever heard. It evokes a sense of sadness and heartache, while at the same time, is uplifting and joyous. It is a solo that only Mikey could have created. Now, that solo strikes a special resonance. Mike was just about to play that solo live for the first time when he left us. I will miss Mikey the friend and Mike Scaccia the guitarist. I was blessed to know him.
-- Kerry Crafton
I knew him for over 20 years and was always amazed at how many great bands and music projects he was involved with, and how he was able to juggle them all. Whether it was his main bands Rigor Mortis and Ministry, or the various side projects he was involved with, the level of his musicianship was miles above most any other musician that I have ever heard. What many people might not have known was Mike the family man. He lived in our guesthouse for the last year of his life and I got to know him on a more personal level. It was amazing how he was able to balance the busy life of a working musician and family man. Mike was able to tour the world, record numerous album projects and conduct guitar clinics, and yet he still made his family a priority. His love for his wife, children and his beloved dog Zeke were every bit important as his music career. Mike Scaccia was one of the few musicians that really had it figured out.
-- Erv Karwelis (Idol Records)
I asked Mikey what he did for a living these days since he wasn't really touring, and he said that he was a rep for Gibson Guitars and did shows, demos and clinics. I said that's gotta be the worst, most soul sucking job in the world, having to go around and listening to wannabe guitar guys trying to one up each other while you pretend you're interested. He got this weird smile he sometimes did and said, "Man, I have the greatest job in the world. I love it! I get to go around the world and meet people and nurture and guide them when and where I can. Anything I can do to encourage some kid to pick up a guitar and learn to love playing just makes me feel great." That's when I really understood how happy he was. Mike Scaccia had finally conquered all his demons and found his bliss. I miss him, but I know that he went out on top doing what he loved, loving his life.
Everyone who crossed paths with Mike Scaccia came away from the experience with a memorable story and a lasting impression. I often think about that night in Los Angeles when he laughed right through an earthquake. Nobody does that, right? But consider his background, where he came from, what he did every just about single day of his life.
Being onstage with Rigor Mortis was really not unlike standing in the middle of an earthquake every night. And he lived for that kind of thrill.
Mike Scaccia died doing what he loved to do most. The man's time on this Earth ended in the middle of a live performance, with his hands wrapped around the neck of an electric guitar.
If you spend the better part of your adulthood playing in a speed metal band called Rigor Mortis, then you already know that there are no encores in real life.
Here's to laughing through earthquakes.
On June 14th, Trees in Deep Ellum will host a birthday tribute, benefit concert, raffle and fundraiser for Mike Scaccia's family. It will be an excellent opportunity to gather and share the legacy of this unique and extraordinary musician.
Warbeast (featuring Bruce Corbitt and Casey Orr of Rigor Mortis), Goatwhore, Hammer Witch, Rotting Corpse and others will perform. A number of donated, one-of-a-kind memorabilia items will be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to Mike's family.
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