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Living in a Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy—Camp, That Is

Day One: Rock On!

As the harmonica player winds down his solo, Mark Farner, the former leader of Grand Funk Railroad, gives me "the nod"—that magical moment when a bandleader hands you the reins. I open up the volume on my Telecaster, the Marshall amp roars to life, and I step up to rock. I start playing like a drowning man reaching for a life preserver, far better than I am usually capable of. When I emerge from my haze, I’m stunned to see Farner grinning his approval. As I unplug my guitar cable afterward, the legend shakes my hand and says, "Nice riffs, man!" (Watch Billy and his Telecaster rocking out in the Day One video.)

My rock 'n' roll fantasy has just come true.

You see, I’m a musician, but I’ve never stopped being a fan. Ever since I watched the Beatles perform live on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, I’ve been chasing the exhilaration that rock 'n' roll ignites in me by attending hundreds of concerts—and fronting a band myself. So when the opportunity arose to jam with the creators of the soundtrack for my formative years, I jumped at the chance.

The Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy Camp in New York City promised "up-close and personal action with legendary rockers," including performing and recording with them. The grand finale would be playing with Kiss front man Paul Stanley at B.B. King’s nightclub on Times Square after five days of lessons and jam sessions. Rock on!

Like any nervous performer, I immediately began sizing up the others as soon as I arrived. There were about 50 of us—mostly around my age of 47, give or take five years—and many appeared to be garage-band refugees or weekend Top 40 warriors. Camp director David Fishof sorted us into 10 five-piece bands, and we were then delivered to the Hell’s Kitchen rehearsal studios that would be our campground for the upcoming five-day session.

My four new bandmates and I jump right in, practicing the staples like "Honky Tonk Woman" that our camp counselor, 57-year-old Simon Kirke (the former drummer of Bad Company and Free), had instructed us to learn the week before. When I tell the group I am from AARP, attorney-by-day/drummer-by-night Howie Gordon says he plans to join when he "comes of age" two years from now. Kirke happily notes he’s a member.

Since my return to writing and performing music after a 20-year hiatus, I’ve gotten comfortable fronting a band. So I’m disappointed to learn that some other guy named Tom Merigo—who bears a distinct resemblance to the Austin Powers movies' Dr. Evil—will be our group's lead singer, meaning I’m relegated to a supporting role on rhythm guitar. That's when John Gaechter—a 47-year-old audio/cellular-phone store owner in civilian life—reveals he's really a lead guitarist in bass player's clothing. Counselor Kirke takes the bass off Gaechter's hands, then finds him a Telecaster so he can play lead guitar at this, his fifth, rock 'n' roll camp.

As we run through a few songs Kirke made famous in the '70s, I grudgingly concede that lead singer Merigo has the raspy delivery of a classic bar-band vocalist. Repressing my starring ambitions for the greater good of the band, I focus on honing my fret work. Meanwhile, Kirke is offering gentle pointers to the band’s two drummers, Gordon and Derrick Sturge, on how to be the well-oiled rhythm machine this band needs. (One of this band-camp's recurring oddities is that in any group of five boomer musicians, two will turn out to be drummers.) At the conclusion of our first raggedy rehearsal, the five of us agree that our best song to showcase at tonight’s scheduled performance is "Movin' On," the can’t-miss, Bad Company blues rocker, circa 1974.

That evening, the "Late Show with David Letterman" bandleader, Paul Shaffer, has a confidence to share: He's not quite prepared to deliver a master class, because he was asked only last week to replace Ted Nugent on the camp’s roster. In fact, the lineup of talent has changed considerably from the time I signed up. Most disappointing is the departure of the wild, outspoken, bow-hunting Nugent, who—judging from his online tour calendar—bailed on the camp because he got a couple of (probably higher-paying) gigs during my weekend.

Shaffer tells a few music-biz stories and retraces how he got where he is today. He opens up the floor to questions, and someone asks about classical training and whether reading music is helpful. He replies with an anecdote from the Blues Brothers bassist, Donald "Duck" Dunn, who once told him that music-chart reading done by the horn section "had no place in rock 'n' roll." As the Q-and-A continues, I ask him, "Did you think you’d be playing rock 'n' roll into your 60s?"

He chuckles, "I’m still only 57; but no, I did not." Damn.

Shaffer and the camp counselors then back Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes for an impromptu performance of "Walking in the Rain." Shaffer pauses during its rendition to explain the hand signals he uses with his "Late Show" band: They indicate which chord will be next in the progression. Shaffer and Spector then stumble through a couple of tunes but close strong with "Be My Baby."

Our band takes the stage next. Fingers atremble on fret boards, we pull off a surprisingly tight rendition of "Movin' On." It’s all in good fun—as are the other band-camp performances.

Back at the hotel room I am ready to crash from a draining first day. I'm disappointed that I won’t be singing because somewhere in the back of my mind I still think I will one day be "discovered" and it could happen here. But instead I am stuck playing rhythm guitar. I call my wife and we try to laugh it off because she knows better than anyone what an emotional roller-coaster it’s been for me trying the music biz again in my forties.

Looks like there’s a lesson here I hadn’t bargained for.