At a window table at Coffee House Cafe, Kelly LeMieux sips a Crush, his back to a gathering of dreadlocked twenty-somethings playing guitar on the sidewalk. After twenty years, the 42-year-old Salem native and bassist for the band Goldfinger just came back to town and he’s already got a beef with local business.
“I mean, there’s no Urban Outfitters, and there’s four freakin’ Wal-Marts?!” he said. “I can only think of two of ‘em in L.A.”
[To be fair, the company’s Web site in fact lists three Wal-Marts in the Salem area and 20 in Los Angeles.]
LeMieux returned to his hometown of Salem in July after a recent 10-stop tour that included DubFest in Hollywood, Fla., with Bunny Wailer and Reel Big Fish.
The place has noticeably changed, he said.
“It’s way cooler than it used to be,” he said. “I really like hanging out downtown and I like that I can drive down the street and recognize people.”
A major reason he chose to return was exhaustion with the hassles of life and traffic in the downtown L.A. music club scene.
“I’ve been away for 21 years; I miss my family,” he says. “I’m craving mellow right now.”
With the group now on hiatus, he currently teaches guitar to school-age children from the garage of Normandy’s Guitars on State St. Typically he comes to work at around 10, manages the register and schedules individual lessons throughout the day.
But by no means has he given up live music. At closing time, he still straps on a bass or guitar for JFK, a friend’s cover band, or King Black Acid, out of Portland. On occasion, he’s even been willing to drive between Portland and Keizer to perform with the two bands on one night.
“I will quit when Mick Jagger quits,” he said. “And Mick Jagger’s still going, baby. I don’t see that old mothertrucker quittin’ anytime soon!”
LeMieux’s numerous winding tattoos, which snake out across both his arms and chest, serve as postmarks for a life well-traveled in service to rock. In 1988, he left for the bohemian jungle that was post-Guns ‘N’ Roses Los Angeles. He played in the bands Electric Love Hogs, Fear, and 22 Jacks, among other projects, before joining Goldfinger ten years later in 1998.
He is a musical Kevin Bacon when it comes to influential musicians and rock personalities of the past and present, having recorded with members of Motley Crue, Megadeth, Foo Fighters, Mr. Big, and The Ramones, among others.
He has experienced it all, he said, all across America and Canada, and in places as far away as Japan, Australia, and Poland. He has toured with all types of bands, from the Sex Pistols to Silversun Pickups, and They Might Be Giants.
“On memories alone I could have retired five years ago on some of the stuff I’ve seen and done, places I’ve been,” he said as he reached deep for a Bon Jovi lyric. “‘I’ve seen a thousand faces and I’ve rocked them all.’”
Swapping the rock tour bus for the Salem waterfront is a change he’s definitely ready for. He no longer drinks, and the darker aspects of the rock lifestyle don’t interest him the way they used to.
“My party ticket got punched,” he said.
Not to say that things can’t still get pretty raucous on a Goldfinger tour. Just look up ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Twinkie’ on YouTube, LeMieux said with a laugh.
“And make sure you’re old enough to watch it.”
Goldfinger plays mostly punk/ska music [“That’s where you find us at the CD store – Do they have those, anymore?”], but his influences are all over the map.
“There’s two kinds of music: good music and bad music,” he said. “I don’t care what category you slam it into, if it’s good, it’s good.”
For LeMieux, music is a passion that has moved him since the first moment he played bass in a band, at age 13, rocking his fellow classmates at Parrish Middle School.
Twenty years later the music industry itself is “on its side right now,” LeMieux said, still trying to right itself amid the sea of changes in the digital age.
Recording software now makes multi-track mixing and a near studio-quality sound available to garage bands. Aspiring songwriters no longer need to be discovered by powerful Hollywood agents, they only need a MySpace or Facebook page and a lot of “friends.” And file-sharing software continually caters to millions of youth who just don’t want to have to pay for music anymore, LeMieux said.
Many of these changes have been well documented in recent years, as industry advocates and music labels have cried poverty over diminishing sales and the rise of sites like Napster.
For his part, LeMieux says some of these changes have been a blessing to songwriters. But some have also made music less organic, he said.
“In a way, it’s messed up the whole essence of a band,” he said. “A lot of these bands that you hear, you can play four bars of something, chop it up and duplicate, you don’t have to be able to play the song all the way through. It’s taken a certain human quality away from it.”
There may already be a backlash against digital, LeMieux said. More youth are rediscovering the vinyl records of classic rock and punk.
But many more are being exposed to the seminal hits of yesteryear by video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band.
“I think there’s a certain romanticism about the past and times,” he said, “and a little bit of the warmth you get off a record.”
For better or for worse, digital or analog, ultimately it’s the visceral feel of a good rock song, in your feet, in your neck, in your blood, that matters in the end. And for LeMieux, nothing else has come close to that passion yet.
As he paused to reflect, The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” played in the background.
“I just want to write really cool songs and go play ‘em, because nothing can duplicate a live band, onstage, naked, steaming, in front of your eyes, rocking their hearts and souls out, playing music for the moment. You can’t buy that.”