I must put my hands up to having been bugging Ron Young for the past 14 years to write a book about his life as I’m sure many others have. Some musicians just seem to have lived through more than others and if you are lucky enough to talk to Ron you’ll find he’s a rather philosophical chap, never short of an opinion and more balanced than your average resident of the U.S.A. When you add to that his band Litte Caesar’s treatment at the hands of Geffen it’s a potboiler waiting to happen. And here finally we have it – a couple of hundred pages of ups, downs, and mayhem riding the wave of an unforgiving industry in a time of great excess. It’s part cautionary tale and part Rock and Roll memoir but more than that, it’s a tale of surprising resilience and prevailing on your own terms against all the odds.
A turbulent childhood and love of baseball together with a taste of the limelight starts the story against a backdrop of parental issues and simpler times (I’d love to give you details but I want you all to go out and buy this!) And as Ron chronicles his getting into music and getting high, peppered with cautionary tales and commencing a pill and weed infused college life, the scene is set. From the off there are some wonderfully understated asides – like being unable to really remember being at the show recorded for Led Zeppelin’s ‘The Song Remains the Same’. New York you see in Ron’s youth was a rather special place: ‘These were the halcyon days of cocaine, Quaaludes, and disco. Free love and bad weed were the popular standards, and punk rock was making its way across the pond to the States.‘
It’s a glorious time to be alive, nicely rendered here, and whilst ‘experience’ is the main driver you always feel music holds the magic. Ron gets a job a ties the knot with his first wife Marlana amongst the artistic explosion: “It was 1980 in New York City. The City was positively vibrant in those days, exploding with a great music scene. I already mentioned one club, CBGB, which stood for Country BlueGrass and Blues. But the Mud Club, the Peppermint Lounge, Max’s Kansas City, and many other venues also ushered in the new sounds and attitudes of both the musicians and the fans.”
It’s that melting pot that pushes a youthful Ron into music answering an ad in the legendary Village Voice he auditions for The Kingpins whilst working at “Trash & Vaudeville, a famous second-hand clothing store, and The Unique Clothing Warehouse, another repository for unique threads.” There are shows with the legendary Johnny Thunders and tales of Lenny Kaye offering record production in return for moving his 70,000 records! There’s also an early meeting that is rekindled half a world away – playing with a punk band called The Big Boys, which included guitarist Chris Gates (later of Junkyard).
Before we get into the dirt and deceit of the music business on the West Coast though there are uplifting moments – like opening for the legendary SRV – who hands Ron’s band $300 from his own pocket. Then comes the cross country relocation to Los Angeles and the real meat of the story.
Ron arrives in L.A. with a love of music that is the “antithesis of 80’s metal” – just a regular guy who liked bikes, working as a doorman earning a crust. “From my perspective, I had always wanted to be an R&B guy in a shiny suit, singing and dancing on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Pips, the O’Jays, The Temptations—those cats had soul.” Fortunately the other guys in Litte Caesar share the same love and with that they get a showcase with Atlantic. ” A few days before the showcase, we landed on what would become our signature tune. I threw out the idea. “Hey—what if we did an Aretha Franklin song…but play it like AC/DC?”…” it sticks.
At that point n the book you wonder what would have happened if they had signed with Atlantic – would it have made a difference if they’d known about Geffen? Maybe, maybe not as it is they end up “getting signed and getting screwed” and there’s a wonderful breakdown for all those interested about where and how the monet goes once you sign on the dotted line. I’m still wondering but what if they’d taken Atlantic? Would it have mattered? The business is after all “a dirty fucking business filled with a shit-ton of unscrupulous assholes.” Ron muses.
Ron has only good things to say about first manager Tony Ferguson, but he sticks to his guns musically and has no time for Warrant or L.A. Guns. He is however initially taken by Alan Niven and Tom Zutaut. “They represented Geffen Records, and had already signed Great White, Tesla, and Guns n’ Roses. Guns had just released Appetite for Destruction, but it hadn’t quite caught on yet; it was on the verge of exploding. The industry was moving in that direction, and the rest of the labels knew it.” He’s blinded by the light and the potential and Little Caesar sign with Geffen. “We signed the biggest contract ever offered to a new artist by Geffen Records. And when I say big, I mean that in the most literal way possible. The stack of paper the contract was written on grew to almost three inches thick after a long period of negotiation. We signed with the implicit understanding that none of it meant anything until we started selling albums. At the moment, we were all bark and no proven bite.”
As many fabs will now it goes south very quickly or as Ron says “Our careers with Geffen deteriorated rapidly, as if we were shoved into a bus station toilet and set on fire.” But on the plus side whilst the slide is in progress the core of the book has some great anecdotes.
First there is a cautionary pre-internet tale that show you why you really can’t apply anything post-internet to the world we used to live in prior to say 1996 when communication was so much harder but so more enjoyable and reliable. I refer of course to the band’s name ‘Little Caesar’ which Ron claims no one in the band nor Geffen knew existed as a Pizza chain at the time. It’s one of those incredible things that you imagine couldn’t possibly happen today (though of course today all the good names are taken already), But also one of the first things I thought when I bought ‘ Name Your Poison’ EP back in the day – why are these guys named after an old movie and a pizza place? The Chicago style deep dish pizza place opened in the UK in 1989 (though closed soon after and has only just returned) and I remember vividly eating there back in California (I want to say Fresno?) before the first album came out in 1990. I should have been consulted…
The story of the debut album is as interesting as it is fraught. There are also some interesting early asides like the ‘bad boys’ publicity that comes back to bite, the affinity with the Hells Angels that kind of comes back to bite and some early shows with Junkyard that really seem quite enjoyable by way of contrast. The tour with Kiss takes up a large part of the book and whilst fans of the band will know some of those stories Ron regales us with a few more! The ‘business aspect’ of course shine through when they support Kiss without a record out replacing Winger and Slaughter who have a ‘pull’. It’s an interesting time and the Gene Simmons tales alone should be enough for a Kiss fan to buy a copy of the book!
At this point Ron muses that voicing opinions and keeping quiet may have an impact on why Little Caesar aren’t a household name. He’s right of course: keeping quiet at the right time is not just an artform but also an integral part of ‘getting ahead’. If there’s one thing Ron Young is though it’s honest and whilst honesty many say is the best policy the voicing of that honesty before the likes of John Kalodner may not be the best option on the table. Being right also loses far more points.
When we get to the making of the debut – where all the magic should happen things go ‘pear-shaped’ quickly. I remember asking Ron when we did our first interview a dozen or more years ago what album he would have loved to have been a ‘fly on the wall’ for, you know, just to see how the magic happened. He thought it might not be their debut. Throwing budding addicts into a party scene in Vancouver might have been bad enough but add to that delays and Bob Rocks stripping away of the essence of the band’s sound and the resulting overproduction and it got worse.
Whilst Ron opines the choice of first single and video from the album being ‘Chain of Fools’ and insisting that it’s not a great song (Though crediting Aretha with a great performance) I have to disagree it is a great song and would have been a great choice with better promotion in the UK especially where we loved that song towards the end of the night at Rock City along with the other slow numbers ‘From the Start’ and ‘In Your Arms’. I think Little Caesar’s loyal UK following would say the same though maybe that’s just us – we got it even if Geffen and Bob Rock didn’t.
One of the things you have to admire about Ron is his honesty, and whilst of course it might not have been part of his make-up during the heroin years that follow it is something that to some extent you feel he has little control of. He is rather disparaging about Geffen’s roster and the bands on it and the scene at the time in the late 80’s; and whilst at one point Little Caesar, Nelson and Nirvana are Geffen’s magic three he revels that he listened to Nirvana and thought “This shit is going to change music. This shit is about to blow up and there isn’t anything that anyone can do to stop it.”
I must admit I’d already been listening to Nirvana and at the time just saw a lot of rehashing of far more interesting 70’s bands in there mixed with a rather large borrowing from far more interesting local contemporaries. As for the song that made them famous – it merely ripped off a classic Boston riff and the reminder on ‘Nevermind’ was pretty weak or derivative. I didn’t mind it but to be honest I just saw Grunge as a Record Label construct – economics dictated it was far cheaper to pay a handful of heroin users than fund a flashy band of cocaine cowboys and their entourage! Nirvana had nothing to do with the demise of Hair Metal and the record labels had everything to do with it.
Just when thing could have gone right with ‘Chain of Fools’ at 17 in the charts and 160k albums shifted in 2 weeks the new head of Geffen is involved in an office faux-pas and the label is sold to MCA leaving a mountain of copies of the album in the WEA warehouse with the old distributor and none hitting the shelves. At the time “Little Caesar was in heavy rotation on MTV and riding a wave of 140-plus adds on radio stations across the country. We were in demand. Yet, we were stuck; nobody could buy our music.” Then Geffen and Iovine fall out and the latter forms Interscope, and Apache storms off. It really is like dominoes or a house of cards! On a bright note Earl Slick joins the band but sales tank, the label ceases to care and Ron hits the H. At this point the band is living on $100 a week and in debt a million…
The second half of the book takes the industry to task, opens the door on addiction and chronicles a rebirth of sorts. There are wonderful stories and anecdotes and some cutting observations that Ron makes in his inimitable style. There’s always the sense of teetering on the edge and the feeling that the decks are stacked. Despite a great new manager in Herbie Herbert and wonderful production by Howard Benson the second album is stifled by the label – without distribution, radio play, or a budget for promotion. It’s clear they need to leave Geffen as Ron says: “Our contract with Geffen was for two albums, with an option to pick us up for a third. Herbie was convinced, like everyone else on Earth, that Geffen would not pick up our option. That would leave us as free agents. No longer under contract, we would be able to sign with any label we wanted and choose our destiny. It would be perfect. We could get back to doing what we loved, in the way we wanted to do it—a new lease on life.“
As I guess you we sort of expecting things don’t go to plan and it’s here on in the rumblings of a discordant machine (the music biz) resonate and ebb and flow and take their toll. I won’t go into the details though as I found this the most fascinating part of the book. I knew a lot about the formation of the band and a little of teh early years but it’s the breakdown and the resurrection that eventuate in a happy ending. Everything Little Caesar touches as Ron so eloquently says “Turned to shit.”
But it doesn’t just go straight down the pan, there are moments you feel of real affection and hope – take the shows in Europe. The Marquee Club and the meeting with Thunder – we loved Little Caesar in Europe and I think a lot of that had to do with the press in the UK – we read Kerrang and it normally pointed us in the right direction! But there’s a turn down a dark alley for every bright morning – take the Bulldog Bash – a story I had not heard before! Then the label’s recalcitrance to dip into their pocket, leads to Little Caesar missing what I consider the best Donington of all 1992!
Dark time ensue due to the ‘Key Man’ cluse, Ron hit’s H and there’s some seriously heavy stuff regarding a certain Mr. Geffen not wanting to allow the band to be successful elsewhere. “I collect artists like I collect artwork. And if I want to put you on a shelf or store you in a warehouse, I will do so if it is for the
betterment of my business. So what I’m going to do is this: I’m going to hold you, Ron. I’m optioning the Key Man Clause in your contract. I’m letting the
band go, but I am going to hold you.” It is heartbreaking reading that as a fan.
So the career might have been killed but there’s plenty more twists and turns. It’s all wonderfully out of reach and you feel Ron is destined to forever have that top level stardom either stolen or tantalizingly out of reach. He might have fronted The Chilli Peppers or Slash’s first solo band. instead he made a record with the fast dissolving Manic Eden (a great record at that) and that was followed by in his own words “hustling in the industry. I sang on any number of bullshit records and projects; anything I could do to make money and push the ball forward.” All the time H digs its claws deeper and there are some interesting musings on addiction. We’re in 1997 a marriage ends and a fascinating rebirth begins. In a way it’s the final chapters that reaffirm that the fight is worth it. No matter how bad things get there is a way through the darkest of times. A therapist calls 911 and LAPD call and Ron visits Olive View Psychiatric Hospital at UCLA on a 5150.
It’s hard to imagine recovery if you have never been an addict, the mantras, the steps and the anniversaries and celebrations all seem kind of alien but their significance is stark and carved in stone: “It was September 23, 1997. I have been clean and sober since that very day. In the parlance of recovery, that date is my new birthday.” It’s hard to argue with that. And with a new life comes a new job production managing the Key Club sober. But there’s more: from Fidel Castro and Cuba to Gladys Knight and dating again interspersed with musings on addiction and then Renee. That of course is the turning point after seven years of hellish deals with labels.
For those that know the story the comeback finally came. ‘Redemption’ arrived when MySpace was still relevant back in 2009. The old gang was back together, briefly anyway. I’d have loved a little more insight into the songs not just here but throughout the book, but we do get more insight into the players like Apache, Loren, Fidel, Tom and of course Earl Slick. Then there’s the ‘new’ guys. There’s also only one typo in the book on p269 when Loren briefly becomes Lorne.
I love the story of The Cruzados, and the way it came about via Mark Tremaglia, it’s an uplifting end to what honestly is a great read and proof that Rock and Roll will never die. I was a little disappointed though that there’s no mention pf ‘American Dream’, the wonderful live record or ‘Eight’ though as all I know about them are through interviews with Ron and the press releases. Quibbles aside, If you’ve seen the band or gotten to know Ron on social media you’ll want to read this book. It’s a great story that bears repeating about and industry that in some hands can be not only cruel but vindictive.
We end with some wise words I live by “hang onto a crowd who will triumph your successes and grieve for your failures.” And that dear readers is all you need in this crazy thing we call life: good people around you who support you and you support them right back.
Now if only I could get a signed copy shipped Downunder!
Judge This Book By Its Cover: Young, Ron, Olivas, Steve: Judge This Book By Its Cover HERE
Autographed Ron Young Book – HERE
About Ron Young
Ron Young is the Lead Vocalist for the Los Angeles based, bluesy, hard rock band “Little Caesar. Ron was born in NYC and as we find out in his book “Judge This Book By It’s Cover”, was raised in a chaotic, working class environment. Weened on many forms of music that ultimately became his calling in life, he chose a path of making music for a living. That decision took him out west to Los Angeles in the heyday of the “Hair Metal” bands.
Realizing he didn’t fit in that genre of Rock and Roll, he formed Little Caesar in an attempt to get back to the blues based roots that were predominantly absent in that trend in music. He quickly put together a triumvirate of support with icons of the music industry that included Jimmy Iovine, John Kalodner and Bob Rock. His success seemed unstoppable when within a 4 week period of business catastrophes outside of his control, his career came crashing down to Earth.
His 14 minutes of fame nearly destroyed him and after years of drug abuse and pointless self pity, he rose from the ashes to continue on his journey of making music. He does so with the same band that showed so much promise years back. He continues to create and perform with Little Caesar, feeding their cult like following that they quickly collected some 35 years ago……yet this time the journey is pointed at satisfying the spirit rather than padding the wallet.
About JRNYman Publishing
JRNYman Publishing is an independent publisher based in Nashville, TN. The company was established specifically to publish autobiographies and memoirs of musicians and influencers, but the brand is more expansive now, considering manuscripts from a number of genres. We have an experienced team that can guide a book from conception through publication…and anything in between. All inquiries: [email protected].
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