The Red Rocker looks out of place wielding a customized toy guitar at the Moon Tower, a small bar off Cherry Lane in southwest Fort Worth. Wearing a red and black striped Mad Hatter hat, a black metal band T-shirt and a red, black and green checkered kilt with a leather fanny pack, the 6-foot-9 rocker looks like he stepped out of an Iron Maiden video or the Highlander movie.
Unlike his younger video counterpart, the Red Rocker’s long gray hair hangs past his shoulders, and a decorative silver clasp pulls his gray beard into a facial ponytail. Silver rings on his fingers, leather bracelets on his wrists, he’s been a fixture of the local metal scene for more than three decades. Anyone who’s ever attended a metal show in Dallas or Fort Worth has seen the Red Rocker in his Mad Hatter hat towering above the crowd with a grin on his face as he headbangs with the band.
Warren Garza, a booking agent at The Rail Club, says he met the Red Rocker a couple of years ago. The Rocker was charismatic, he says, but made some people feel like “every day is Halloween” since he wears the Mad Hatter’s top hat and kilt.
Jem Stephens, 52, created the Red Rocker after playing with the character creator in Rock Band 2. His goal was to create a character that he could recreate in real life, “a real, living, breathing Rock Band character,” he says. He got the red and black top hat first. A friend found it at Party City and gave it to him. He later sold it for $80 at Ozzfest '09, but he bought another one for $20. A kilt followed. He wore it partly because of his Scottish ancestry but mostly because of an old kilt-wearing friend who hung around the Deep Ellum metal scene in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Six years have passed since he first created the Red Rocker. Now Stephens is part of the Rock Band Road Crew, a select group of 500 Rock Band fans chosen to promote the newly released Rock Band 4 as a social game to be played among friends and family.
“This is really a social game,” he says, which is part of the reason why Harmonics, the creator of Rock Band, didn’t include online game play: They wanted to encourage people to come together and play the game in social settings like house parties and bars like the Moon Tower.
“Music should be social,” Stephens says.
Rock Band’s roots runneth deep
Tonight is Stephens' first Tuesday night to host Rock Band at the Moon Tower since the rainstorms and his recent allergy attack. Only a handful of people linger around the bar, nursing their beers and checking over their shoulder every so often to watch the cartoon Rock Band jamming on the TV.
Stephens set up his Playstation 4 on a table and placed the electric drum kit in front of the 48-inch TV screen hanging on the wall next to the poker machines. He’d prefer to have the TV facing the band so they could face the audience like when he held the Rock Band charity event at The Ranch in Arlington.
But the Moon Tower is much too small. The distance between the bar top and the far wall is only a few steps, separated just by a few tables and bar stools. It’s quaint, almost pleasant, inside the bar as patrons greet each other and laugh while a couple of members from Cull the Heard, a local Fort Worth metal band, get into position to play Rock Band 4.
“There are some guys out there who are only after the perfect score,” Stephens says. “I like to play more for fun. I want to do it well. But man, I’m not a score chaser. I’d rather play socially.”
Stephens’ love for Harmonix started long before Rock Band. It started when he first picked up the SG guitar included with Guitar Hero that he purchased when it was released on November 8, 2005. He bought the game for his 9-year-old daughter. An old metalhead who grew up in the early '80s, the heyday of the local metal scene, when Pantera played at Joe’s Garage, he fell in love with the game, and by January 2006, he was customizing Guitar Hero guitars.
Stephens says he wanted to get creative with it. He searched MySpace and Guitar Hero forums and saw other people who were trying to customize their guitars. “It was horrible," he says. “They didn’t know what they were doing. I mean, they were just doing nasty things. You would get somebody who painted a guitar using Rust-Oleum paint and then coated it with layer upon layer of pledge wax for a glossy finish. That’s just nuts.”
Stephens took the Guitar Hero SG guitar and painted it a dark blue with smoke creeping across its surface. He created the original painting guide for the Harmonix guitars and posted it online. Then he figured the next best thing would be to make the guitar wireless so a player could move around the room.
He hatched the idea with another guy from the Chicago area. They stripped a guitar apart, took the guts out of a wireless controller and rewired it. They posted the instructions online so other players could learn how to map it all out and make their own wireless controller work.
But he still wasn’t sure if painting was the best way to customize the toy guitars. He says he thought there had to be an easier way to do it. Then he thought of a car wrap. With his previous experience working in mobile detail work, Stephens says he knew he could create graphic skins. All he had to do was print a design using an inkjet printer, then laminate it with a clear coat piece before he ran it through a machine that cut it all out so it could be placed on the guitar like a sticker.
When Rock Band hit shelves in November 2007, Stephens expanded his graphic skin customization to include the new game’s drum and bass offerings. Over the years, he has created dozens of graphic skins that celebrate local hangouts like The Clubhouse, owned by HellYeah’s Vinnie Paul Abbott, as well as singers like Fort Worth’s Kylie D. Hart. He also creates his own designs like Metal Mayhem, a flaming guitar that showcases a demon’s head with the words “Boiler Room” in a banner above it.
Stephens still has his original customized, wireless Guitar Hero SG guitar. It hangs on his wall alongside nearly a dozen other Rock Band guitars that he’s customized over the years. He recently took it down from the wall for a video that he recorded, and looked almost lovingly at it as he talked about its history.
“It’s the one that started it all,” he says.
Death striketh Rock Band
Stephens still remembers the year Rock Band died. It happened three years ago when MTV Games and Activision oversaturated the market with games like Rock Band 3, Rock Band Beatles and Rock Band Green Day, as well as four games from Guitar Hero. They were all released over a year period.
“There was so much of it all at one time that everybody said, ‘Okay, enough.’ And they all quit,” Stephen says. “And it just died.”
He used to host Rock Band bar nights at The Clubhouse on Monday nights. Even The Clubhouse owner Vinnie Paul would come watch them play, although Stephens says he could never get Paul to play drums on Rock Band because he had watched so many people fail on it. “He was like, ‘No, no, no, I am not getting booed off playing my own damn song. That’s not happening,’” Stephens recalls the legendary drummer saying.
Stephens didn’t give up on Rock Band. He kept supporting it, downloading and playing new songs still being released online. It’s what differentiates Rock Band from Guitar Hero, he says. For example, Guitar Hero Live’s songs won’t transfer to Guitar Hero 5. But Rock Band brings its music forward with each game released, allowing people to expand their musical libraries. Nearly 4,300 songs were available the last time the company updated Rock Band 3. And since Rock Band 4 was released in early October, Harmonix has been offering three to four new songs each week.
Rock Band resurrected
Stephens submitted his video as soon as he found out about Harmonix’s Rock Band Road Crew concept, which invited fans of the game to submit a 3-minute video highlighting why they deserved to be among the 500 fans who would receive the new game two weeks prior to its early October release.
In the September 17 video, Stephens not only discussed his 16-year love affair with Rock Band but also showed his devotion to the game by presenting several of the guitars he has customized over the years. He talks about his company Hero Gear, where he makes both graphic skins for Rock Band equipment as well as local band T-shirts and signs.
He also mentioned the Red Rocker in the video, how he dresses as a character he created in Rock Band 2 and how he has developed that character over the years. He included several pictures of his Rock Band character and of him dressed up as the character playing Rock Band at Best Buy and posing with Cindy Scull from 97.1 The Eagle as well as several girls at various concerts across North Texas.
“The response to Red Rocker has been absolutely amazing,” Stephens says in the video. “I don’t know why. I don’t know how. But he’s the most popular thing I’ve ever done in my life. It doesn’t matter where I go. Redneck girls, pimps, rockers, it doesn’t matter. I fit in everywhere.”
The next day he received an email notification from Harmonix that he’d been selected to join the Rock Band Road Crew.
Paul Boatwright, another Rock Band Road Crew member, said that Stephens was one of the only ones out of the Road Crew who was invited to attend a special Rock Band release party in Austin. “I think he has special connects to get invited to the party,” Boatwright says.
Stephens says he received the game about a week after he received the email notification. He hosted Rock Band parties with his friends and even headed out to Vinnie Paul’s house and set up Rock Band by the swimming pool, he says. But he still couldn’t get the Hell Yeah drummer to play the video game.
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“He won’t play it all,” Stephens says. “He’s still scared of it.”
Stephens plans to continue hosting Rock Band on Tuesday nights at the Moon Tower. He also hopes to revive Monday nights at The Clubhouse in Dallas. “Who wouldn’t want to play Rock Band with strippers dancing around them?” he asks. “It would be like a Mötley Crüe show. Only you’re right in the middle of it."
Stephens believes with the social push Rock Band is receiving from the Rock Band Road Crew, one day it will replace karaoke as the activity of choice for people looking to showcase their inner musical talent after one too many beers.
“Everyone wants to be a rock star,” he says. “You can look at people sitting in their car and they’re banging away on their steering wheel or jamming out and banging their head.”