Stray Cats’ Slim Jim Phantom Keeps It ‘Rockabilly Confidential’
Stray Cats drummer Slim Jim Phantom chose a career path that put him in the same room with countless musical legends. Yet to hear him tell the story, it was largely just happenstance.
When they came together at the end of the ‘70s, his rockabilly group was in a league of their own. “We were the only three guys around that looked like that,” Phantom tells UCR, going on to note that there was no “scene” in the New York area where they would have fit in.
Stray Cats’ future success began to take shape thanks to their early gigs overseas, shows that would attract rock 'n' roll luminaries like Robert Plant and the Rolling Stones. Rockabilly was the common thread, with the Stray Cats providing a way for fans and musicians alike to hear their favorite music again on stage.
Phantom recaps stories from those glory years on his Rockabilly Confidential podcast, mixing it all with music to soundtrack the experience. The rapid-fire pacing of the podcast (three songs and a story in less than 20 minutes) fits with the drummer's own constantly shifting attention span.
As he joins our Zoom conversation, he’s got music playing (a track from his Kat Men project). “Let the song finish,” he directs as he grooves to the music. He allows another few songs to play out and then we dig in.
How did you first get into doing this podcast?
Rockabilly Confidential was my friend Tyler McCusker, who runs [the podcast company] Snippet. He comes from a radio background. He and his family have worked for a long time at the indie FM station [KX 93.5] that’s down in that area. I think he might have gotten in touch with Bruce Ravid, an old pal of ours from Capitol. We all met and it was something that they read my book and they thought it would be a funny thing to [share some of those] adventures. When they came to me, that’s when I really thought, “This is the way of the future.” Podcasts for me [are] a little bit too long. The few times I’ve been recommended to listen to one, I’m always like, “Yeah, this is great – but don’t bore us. Get to the chorus.” I don’t know if I have the attention span for it. The whole concept of Snippet is that it’s done, dusted in 20 minutes with three songs. They get it and they let me be me. That’s their concept of their channel, so it’s really cool. So it’s a podcast, but it’s still attention length. This whole podcast, you’ve got a great story, you’ve got three songs I knew you loved in the amount of time it took you to find a mailbox, drive around your neighborhood or go to the mall to try and find a parking spot. It’s already over!
The way it is produced, there’s also a theater-of-the-mind aspect to it.
I love that. That’s the thing we always talked about doing. We loved the old theater-of-the-mind stuff. That’s my favorite thing to listen to. When the baseball season’s back, we have baseball on, but anytime I listen to anything, it’s that theater-of-the-mind stuff. You know, the Prairie Home Companion kind of vibe. But I was a fan of the original ‘40s radio and it’s not really done [like that] anymore. For young people to come up with that idea and love it, to me, maybe we got through a little bit. You know, the whole concept of cool stuff from the past. That’s what we dig.
In one of the episodes, you tell a story about climbing up on a billboard above the Whisky with Axl Rose to drink. What were the circumstances that led to that?
I remember him coming to the Cat Club. He told me the story that we’d done that. That part, I was pretty happy to let him remember the details because I didn’t remember it. Even by the time I had the Cat Club, I hadn’t really monkeyed around with getting wasted in a very, very long time. What Axl was talking about must have happened in the late ‘80s. We were talking in 1999, maybe 2000. He was happy to [share that story] and you know, the customer’s always right! [Laughs.] I wasn’t going to argue with him. He remembered it a certain way, and that’s good enough for me. I think there used to be a lot more of those hijinks going on around there. We were there the other night and it seems kind of different now. It’s all good, they can have their own Sunset experiences now, but I think it’s a little bit different than it was.
You jammed on the Rolling Stones' “Dead Flowers” that night with Rose. Was that the first time you had played with him?
I think that was the first, last and only time. I know them very well. Slash was my buddy for a long time. Duff [McKagan], too. All of them are really my friends, but Slash is my pal. I think there would have been more likelihood of one of those guys coming and playing, but it was the early days of the Cat Club [which Phantom co-owned] and I think Axl just came. I don’t even know why. I can’t remember, but he turned up and there was a band playing. We just kind of took over the band a little bit. OK, it’s my joint, I’m going up and I’m going to play. Gilby [Clarke] was there and my friend Jimmy Ashhurst, who played with Izzy [Stradlin] and has that pedigree [was on hand too]. Also, he’s a Sunset Boulevard guy. I just saw him the other day. We just all happened to be there at the same time. There was a band playing and they were cool, so we went and played.
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How did you become friends with George Harrison?
The first time I met George, I was rehearsing for a TV show with Carl Perkins. Lee Rocker and myself were the bass [player] and drummer. The band was organized by Dave Edmunds, who produced the Stray Cats. We’re fortunate in life, because all of these names, these great pioneers and heroes of rock 'n' roll, came to the Stray Cats – because you can’t really say, “I want to go and get George Harrison,” or “I want to get Brian May.” It’s an impossible task in a life. How it played out was I met them first through the Stray Cats. Carl Perkins came to the Stray Cats in the early part of the ‘80s when we would have played near him [in] Memphis [or] Nashville. He just came with us for a little while. It’s funny, [it was] maybe a week’s worth of stuff. This was in the early ‘80s because he loved that we were doing it again. When he decided to do something in ‘85 or ‘86, we did a TV show and he called his famous friends and his famous friends were George, Sir Richard [Ringo Starr] and that group of guys who loved Carl. [Dave] got in touch with Lee and me to play with Carl. Earl Slick was on it with us. Dave Edmunds’ band, [including] Geraint Watkins [participated also] and then it was up to them to invite the guests. The guests wound up being George, Ringo, Rosanne Cash, who I guess was friends with Carl through her dad, and Eric Clapton, who was friends with George. These are things, I was just happy to be there. We rehearsed the thing for three or four days before the TV show and that’s where I got to know everybody.
I think I would be more nervous or cautious now. Back then, I was a kid and I would just say, “This is the guy. This is George Harrison and Sir Richard.” I’m a Beatle geek like everybody else. I love those guys and know everything about it. So I just went up and started talking to [them]. Because it’s a rehearsal, there’s a lot of people involved. So that was a few days and then the show was a successful thing and I really just stayed in touch with George, always. I’m still in touch with Olivia [Harrison] and Dhani [Harrison]. He was a beautiful guy. That’s another example where I’m totally grateful for rockabilly and finding out about it.
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One of the great stories involves Lemmy Kilmister going through his basement trying to find an old Gene Vincent recording to play for you. You must have had some great conversations with him about music.
Lem was another one. You see, all of these people, I’ve got to ultimately be grateful to rockabilly, then the other two guys, me and some guys from school, Brian [Setzer] and Lee. What we did and we loved [happened] without really knowing. You can’t say, "I’m going to be into this because I’m going to find out that all of these guys are also into it." It’s so clear once it happens. Lem was at those original shows in London, probably for two reasons. I found out later that he loved rockabilly, but also that was a happening thing and what you would do that day. He was that guy. He liked to go out after the clubs like me back then. You’d find out that of course, he loves Gene Vincent, of course, he loves Eddie Cochran, of course, he loves Chuck Berry. It all became so obvious. He used to come and play back then and I would see him every time I went to London because we used to go to his house. Then he moved to L.A. in the early part of the ‘90s. A little bit ironically, we were neighbors. That led to us being around each other, not just the gigs, not just hanging out at the nightclubs, but during the day. I’d knock on the door and go hang out and watch TV. An opportunity came up to do one track for an Elvis tribute record that someone had asked me to do. Who would love to do this? Lem, of course. Johnny Ramone, he’s another guy that’s a dear, dear pal – baseball and rock 'n' roll. We did the track for the Elvis album and of course, we did it very quickly and we had the whole day booked at the studio. John went home and Lem said, “Let’s stay. You know this one too, probably. I’m sure you know this one.” That was the birth of the Head Cat.
The Head Cat was such a cool thing. He didn’t have an outlet to play music like that.
He loved it. And that’s the thing. That’s why I’m even more grateful in life that for my day job, I played drums for the Stray Cats. We were always into it. So to be able to shred and play Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran songs, I had had that experience. I was with the Stray Cats. So for Lem, for him, it was like a dream – because, in his day job [with Motorhead], he didn’t go and play those songs. So he got to do it. It was a bit of, I don’t want to say “bucket list,” but it was a funny thing that he got to do something that I was happy to be able to be part of. Danny Harvey, who we can’t leave out of this conversation, was a great guitar player. He was a friend of mine and [had a similar background]. He’s very savvy with the studio and great at organizing that kind of stuff. Lem loved him too. We were able to go there and while we’re there, “Let’s do this, this and this song.” At the end of that session, things were sounding pretty good. I asked the guy at the studio, “Are you open tomorrow? Can we get this room tomorrow?” “Okay.” So that’s really what it started with. [It was] us just going in every day for a week or so, hanging around – and Lem and I would do it anyway. I’d rather watch the TV at his house. [Laughs.] [But] we’ll go to the studio. That’s pretty much what came out. I’m happy to think that it turned another generation onto rockabilly and kept it going for.