Behind the Curtain: Vinnie Vincent

Steve RosenCategories:Behind the Curtain

Rock Cellar Magazine

Vinnie Vincent is a superhero. Well, in a way. He is part of a great and rare fraternity called the Secret Society of Six-String Supermen or S.S.S.S.S [imagine the sound of a pick sliding down a guitar string].

It is the most exclusive organization in the world—in the history of the world—and there is only one way to attain membership: You must be a legit, no arguments, bona fide guitar playing superhero.

There is no club like this, though I’d like to believe there is one. If one existed, Vincent would be in it. Alongside him would be fellow guitar warriors of the most breathtaking and stunning variety. Wizards such as Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Paul Kossoff, Rory Gallagher, Eric Johnson and others. The truth is, the table around which these masters sit [imagine it is in the shape of a guitar—I do] would not be a very big one because only a few of the most truly gifted would be honored with a seat. You would need to do more than just shred or burn to find a seat at this exalted table.

Some of you reading this may already be a bit puzzled even this early into the story. You might be shaking your heads and saying to yourselves, “This writer is a moron. Vinnie Vincent at the same table with those other guys? I don’t think so.” I can’t blame you for thinking like that because you immediately associate the name Vinnie Vincent with KISS or maybe the Vinnie Vincent Invasion, and though his guitar playing in both those bands was adequate, it could hardly measure up to the magic of the other guitar gods sitting around that table. I totally agree.

Give me a couple more paragraphs here to make my case.

For any of you faithful readers of my monthly Behind the Curtain stories, you know I have written about and met some of these superhuman players, these most stunning and breathtaking guitarists to ever lay fingers on strings. Billy Gibbons. Edward Van Halen. Stevie Ray Vaughan. These musicians, as well as many of the others I’ve covered, are supremely special. They are more than mere mortal men and carbon-based life forms. They are wired differently.

They are superheroes in reverse. They can’t fly or stop bullets by catching them in their teeth or breathe underwater for hours at a time or turn back time. They can’t do any of those things, but through their playing they allow us to.

Vinnie Vincent is one of those backwards superheroes, and what I mean by that is when we hear the magic flying from his fingers like sonic thunderbolts crashing into our ears, we are transformed. We listen to the notes and we feel like we can soar like eagles upon them and crash through walls and stop time from ticking. We become invincible. InVincent-ible. This is an astonishingly rare gift and only a very, very few possess it. Vinnie, I believe, is one of them and that’s why I want to write about him.

He is maybe the best-kept secret in the guitar world, and it’s a shame. Through his own bad choices and inability to accommodate the desires of his fellow musicians, he burned every bridge in front and behind him and now, here in 2018, he is barely talked about. You can’t outrun your past and even guitar gods have to come back to Earth now and again. Still, for all his self-destructive behavior, he is—or at least he was—a marvel of a player.

I first met Vinnie somewhere around the early 1980s—’82 or ’83 maybe—when he was in KISS. I’m pretty sure my very good friend Jimmy Waldo [keyboardist/co-founder of New England and Alcatrazz] introduced me to him. Jimmy knew Vinnie very well. At the time, Waldo’s band New England was looking to replace guitarist John Fannon. Jimmy asked Gene Simmons [New England was managed by Kiss’ manager Bill Aucoin] for a recommendation and without a second’s hesitation the man with the tongue mentioned Vinnie Vincent. “He was super talented and an amazing guitar player,” says Waldo of Simmons’ referral.

Indeed, the keyboardist was blown away when they played together. Waldo describes Vinnie as a combination of Jeff Beck and Gary Moore, bringing fire, grace and majesty to New England’s music. Through a rented Marshall, the guitarist brought an element to New England’s music that had never been there before. But right off the bat, Vinnie was unhappy with bassist Gary Shea’s playing and butted heads immediately with drummer Hirsh Gardner. There were problems from the outset and they festered and grew and turned into what became an untenable situation.

Vinnie departed, but what he left behind has since been released under the moniker Warrior. His playing is fluid and flashy, muscular and melodic and as full of passion as a lingering first kiss. The tapes languished in relative obscurity until their recent re-release and though Vincent should have been pleased that they were finally seeing the light of day, he was incensed.

This past January, the guitarist finally emerged from seclusion to appear at the Atlanta KISS Expo. Several ardent fans approached Vincent and asked him to sign their Warrior albums. He wouldn’t do it. “That’s a piece of s—t,” he said to the hopeful autograph seekers. “Those clowns who put it out were never in the band. It’s a bulls—t bootleg.” Waldo relayed all this information to me.

It just seems like a strange reaction from someone who hasn’t had any new music out in decades and would be happy to see anything released. But Vincent was outraged, and it appears as if another bridge was burned.

Though Vinnie went through that huge falling out with New England and badmouthed Shea and Gardner and was already exhibiting signs of a temperament that would haunt him for years to come, I must admit when I first met him somewhere in the early ‘80s he was personable, relaxed and more than a little charming. Again it is difficult to remember the exact chronological details but Jimmy must have put me in contact with Vincent because though the New England/Warrior project had not worked out, Waldo remained on friendly terms with the guitarist.

I went to his house on Cheremoya Avenue in Beachwood Canyon, which was about eight minutes from my little guest cottage in Laurel Canyon. I headed to the end of Weepah Way [the street upon which I lived at the time], made a left on Ridpath Drive, another quick left on Kirkwood Drive and then a right turn on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. As I headed down to Hollywood Boulevard where I would veer left and head east, I mentally ticked off a few things I had learned.

Vinnie had been brought in to replace Ace Frehley, who had been kicked out of KISS. Though Frehley was no longer in the band when the  Creatures Of the Night album was released, his picture remained on the front cover and that must have made Vinnie insane. It was a bad start to a relationship that unraveled daily like a ball of yarn.

Still, for all of the destructive drama going on, the newcomer’s playing on the album had its moments — though there weren’t many. He pulled out a beautiful Jeff Beck-styled solo on “Saint and Sinner,” a legato flourish reminiscent of Beck’s slide work on “Beck’s Bolero.” There were the requisite hard rock solos on the other tracks but for the most part they were pretty well uninspired.

These thoughts ran through my head as I pulled up to his house. He met me at the door, all smiles and sunshine. I immediately liked him. We walked inside the comfortable canyon cottage and I saw one of his Jackson RR1 guitars sitting in a corner. We sat down in this little alcove next to the kitchen—imagine the kind of booth you’d sit in at a 1950s diner—and began talking. I asked him about some of the sessions he’d done, including working with Felix Cavaliere [from the Rascals] in a band called Treasure and then writing for various television series including Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi.

Of course, all of this was leading up to a discussion about KISS. I started asking him questions about working with the band and he basically said it was a cool situation and liked working with Gene and Paul. Nothing could have been further from the truth. As I touched on earlier, my buddy Jimmy Waldo had remained in contact with Vinnie and the guitarist had been regaling him with the real inside story. Vincent hated Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley. They had forced him to sign a contract whereby he gave up 50 percent of all publishing monies and on top of that, the two KISS founders administered the funds [which meant that everything first came to them and then they distributed the royalties].

Needless to say it was a turbulent situation. Still, Vinnie didn’t reveal much to me during our first encounter but all of that changed when we met some five years later. At that time, I had developed a series of cassette interview tapes called ProTalk, which were manufactured and distributed via REH Publications. I would interview various guitar players and then these conversations would appear under the ProTalk banner. I wanted Vinnie to be part of this—I had previously spoken to Carlos Santana, Steve Lynch, Lee Ritenour and C.C. Deville—and when I asked him to participate, he couldn’t have been more accommodating.

Still living on Cheremoya Avenue, Vinnie greeted me with a big hello. I was blown away by his willingness to be involved in the ProTalk project—he didn’t make any money from it—and I only hoped he would be open and forthcoming with his responses. Boy, was he. By this time, he had left KISS and the vitriol and hate he felt for Simmons and Stanley was visceral. Here is my first question and his first answer:

Me: I’m curious about what happened with KISS? What did you learn? What are your feelings?

Vinnie: “It’s a good question. I was with them for two-and-a-half years and what really happened was my dissatisfaction for being holed up in one little corner and “You can’t move from this corner.” It wasn’t fitting, and I actually knew three months into the band that it wasn’t what I thought it was gonna be. I know what it is I love doing and if I feel cramped by it then I don’t love it so much anymore and the love for it turns into pain. They weren’t interested in guitar playing and it just wasn’t was KISS was based around. I think I contributed to their band.”

Indeed, working with Gene and Paul must have been a nightmare of major proportions. With Gene, it was always about power and money but certainly Vinnie must have brought some baggage along as well.

I steered the conversation to his earlier work with Carmine and the Rockers, a band assembled by drummer Carmine Appice. Here, Vinnie played melodically and honestly and from the heart. The playing wasn’t fast or overboard. Rather it was almost delicate and embodied elements from Jeff Beck, Gary Moore, David Gilmour and members of S.S.S.S.S. Unfortunately, the Rockers never recorded, and unless you saw the band perform live—which I did one evening at the Whisky in Hollywood—you never heard this profoundly wonderful guitar work.

Vinnie was very forthcoming in talking about his miserable experience with KISS and his love for Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix. The ProTalk interview turned out wonderfully and remains a collector’s item with Vincent fans to this day. I felt like I had forged a real connection with Vinnie during our conversation. At one point, he picked up his Jackson and began noodling around and I was transfixed. He played this one little riff that only had about six notes in it but it was so stirring and stunningly executed that it truly took my breath away.

I watched him play the lick and I was stupefied by the beauty of it. I had been in close proximity to other superheroes as they noodled around on guitars while I interviewed them—Edward Van Halen and Jeff Beck immediately come to mind—and there was something about the way their fingers touched the fretboard that was somehow beyond description. I’ve used the term “hands of gods” before and I truly felt like I was watching some immortal creature—some superhero—perform this astounding dance between fingers and fretboard.

I asked him if he’d show me how it was done. He placed the guitar in my hands and pointed out the notes and I played them exactly as shown but I didn’t even sound close to what Vinnie had done. I knew I wouldn’t and neither would 99 out of 100 other guitar players.

We were talking about songs and he was discussing his approach to writing for the Vinnie Vincent Invasion—the band he was in at the time—and somehow I mustered the courage to tell him I was also a songwriter. He said he would like to hear some stuff and so I brought him a tape of some songs and to my astonishment he liked a track called “Thrill Of the Chase.” So much so that he recorded a version of it with Mark Slaughter on vocals.

Vinnie actually came over to Jimmy Waldo’s house to cut the solo and to be honest it was pretty disappointing. I was expecting—hoping—he’d unleash some beautiful and lyrical notes but instead he played as fast as he could and lashed together a solo that was not moving in any way. Still, Vinnie Vincent did record and play on one of my songs and for that I’m grateful.

So yes, Vinnie Vincent is one of the most marvelous six-string maestros you’ve probably never heard. He has finally emerged from a long hibernation and appears on the verge of releasing some new music. I hope it’s the kind of playing he was known for back during his Warrior and Carmine and the Rockers periods, but my head tells me it will be the other end of his stylistic spectrum with notes being spit out a thousand at a time. He is a significant guitar player with a unique vision [Vincent is also a remarkable songwriter and singer] who is capable of making a true impact on the world of electric guitar and he deserves a seat at the S.S.S.S.S. table.

If only he can get out of his own way.

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