THE MORE LURID THE BETTER
A Metal Sludge exclusive with rock star turned cocaine addict turned porn king Phil Varone
By Gerry Gittelson
Metal Sludge Editor at Large
LOS ANGELES — Phil Varone is a certified expert on sex, drugs and rock and roll. He just mastered ‘em in reverse order.
First he was the drummer of Saigon Kick, which had a hit record back in the day with “Love is On The Way” but never quite reached the pinnacle despite lots of MTV exposure, a gold record and constant touring. Then after stints with Skid Row and Vince Neil, Varone crashed hard in the world of drugs, particularly cocaine, and his years as a crazed addict were documented in his self-produced, critically acclaimed movie “Waking Up Dead.” And then came the sex part through producing and acting in adult films and even having his own dildo line.
He is 46 now, and Phil Varone is content. He is what’s known as a unique one-of-kind, and the New York native now living in Los Angeles was only too happy to sit with Metal Sludge for an exclusive interview.
And before we get into things, a forewarning: This is not for the weak-hearted.
METAL SLUDGE: Phil Varone, how are you?
PHIL VARONE: I can’t complain. Things are great actually. The last two years, I’ve been working with Vivid and put out a couple of porn series that are doing well. So I can’t complain. That’s for sure.
SLUDGE: I loved that Saigon Kick song, “Love is On The Way.”
Yup. That was the beginning. That’s how we got our record deal.
SLUDGE: And I know the story has been told so many times, by so many bands, about how all these bands never made any money. Can you give us your side of things?
Well, like you said, it’s nothing new as far as the record business is concerned. It happens every day, and it happened to Saigon Kick. In a nutshell, a record contract is just a loan you use to do a record, then you turn in the finished master, and according to the contract, you get X amount of dollars for every record sold, so you immediately owe the record company a lot of money. Unless your record sales add up to enough, you continually owe money because you only get like ten cents on the dollar. We owed like $200,000, so we would have needed like to sell like two million records to break even, then you keep constantly borrowing more money for tour support and everything else, so before you know it, you owe like a million dollars, but you have to do it. And with no record sales, there is no tour and no merchandise being sold. It’s all based on the sales on sound scan or whatever, and it takes a pretty long time to break even. To this day, we owe the record company almost a million dollars.
SLUDGE: Was all this explained to you before you signed the deal?
I’m sure it was explained in some way, but when you’re 23 years old with a 40-page contract in front of you, plus an attorney telling you to sign it, you believe in every dream that you’ve imagined is going to come true. You miss the small print, but I don’t think there is any kid that wouldn’t sign. I’m sure the contract said everything like ten times over, but I was dreaming of being a rock star. It was a misconception of wanting to be famous and rich and everything that comes with it, but it’s all BS. All that stuff happens to just a small amount of the bands that sign record contracts.
All this was in the movie I did, “Waking Up Dead,” where I said something like I don’t know how many bands make any profit, maybe ten percent, but it’s pretty frightening, just a small percentage at the end of the day. This is something you don’t realize when you’re a kid reaching out to your rock-star dreams. It hits you ten years later when you’ve sold a few million records and done all this and all that, and you’re still broke. The reality hits you, and you’re like “Wow.” For me, that’s exactly what happened.
SLUDGE: And then you joined Skid Row.
Yeah, that happened in like 1992. Saigon Kick, we had lost our singer heading into making the third record, Matt Kramer. Then Jason Bieler, our guitarist, he left, too.
Just internal stuff. You put some kids together, give ‘em a little fame and little power, and basically you have four different personalities and four different power struggles, and that’s what happened.
SLUDGE: I thought the singer was particularly talented, Phil.
Oh, he was an amazing talent, the best I’ve ever played with. Matt Kramer, to me, was the Jim Morrison of his time. He wrote thoughtful lyrics and had a deep ability as a vocalist, and he was just amazing with his stage presence, just above all of ‘em for that time period. We were all talented in our way in Saigon Kick, but we couldn’t handle the stresses of the power struggles, and we had really bad management, and that was really our downfall.
SLUDGE: Who was your manager?
I don’t even want to mention his name [Warren Wyatt], that piece of shit. If he died tomorrow, it wouldn’t be soon enough. He is one of those guys who when you use the word “manager,” it’s offensive to other managers. Today I would say to young bands to just be careful who you allow to come in and do business with you. That was our biggest mistake, letting this piece of shit come in and talk us into things. He stole from the band, and to this day, now that we’re back together, we come into clubs and hear about how our old manager still owes money, and we’re talking 25 years later. He is lucky to still be breathing. If anyone deserves to be exterminated, it’s him. He ruined the band by taking control of the guitarist and singer, and they kept a lot of things from us, and when we found out, everything went to shit. It was a really bad situation, and one of the biggest mistakes was having this manager.
I remember in Skid Row, when I met Doc McGee, it was such a difference, a huge difference. Doc had actually wanted to work with us in the beginning but we were blocked. He told me that he thought Saigon Kick could have been a huge act but that our manager stopped him from getting to us. Had Doc McGee managed us, we probably would have been just as big as some of the other bands he managed. But instead, we had some mediocre success and fell off the face of the earth. That’s a shame because the band was great. We’re back together now, like I said, but back then at the time, we were kids who were new to the business, and instead of getting some guidance, that scumbag liar made Saigon Kick a casualty. All we cared about was playing music and getting chicks and being on MTV. We just knew nothing about the business side.
SLUDGE: In the movie “Waking Up Dead,” some guy throws a gram of coke to you onstage when you’re playing. Why did he do that?
Why not? The music business is funny. When you’re poor and can’t even afford to buy your own drums or your own drugs, you can’t get anything. Then when you make it and you’re on the road, everyone wants to give you stuff for free. You make a little money and now everything is free. That was basically the way things went because people want to party and hang out with you, and they want to have a story to tell their friends about, you know the “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” and the fans, they want to party with rock stars.
SLUDGE: Tell me more about the drugs. In the movie, you snort a huge line of cocaine on camera. That took a lot of guts, dude. You don’t see that very often. This was before “Intervention” and all those TV shows, you know what I mean?
Well, the drugs weren’t there at all in the early days. All I wanted were the girls, and I wasn’t into drinking or drugs at all. I didn’t do any coke until the year 2000 when I was 30-something years old. I was on the road and did them for the first time during that tour back then. I was going through some personal issues, my mom had passed away, and drugs were just a really good escape. It was my way of forgetting about life and my problems. I was hardcore for two or three years. It was definitely a big part of my life.
SLUDGE: And then you got sober. Are you still practicing total sobriety?
I’m just a regular guy. I drink once in a while. I’m not putting anything against going to rehab. I just stopped cold turkey and had a doctor monitor me. I went through a detox program, and it worked out really well for me. Later, I explored AA in Los Angeles, but eventually I just figured out that that life isn’t that bad if you face it, and you face realty. There just became a day when I realized I was OK. I’m an adult, and it was time to just shut the fuck up and deal with it. I just kind of felt like I was a fraud or something, but things happen in lives, and sometimes in life your mom or your career just goes away.
I was a little depressed, yeah, but some people were worse off than me, and there was just to reason to cry and piss and moan about it. I mean, hey, in Saigon Kick, we never made millions of dollars or even one million, but if you look at the big picture, and I look back on my career, maybe I thought the band could have done way better had we had a proper manager, but either way, I’ve had a pretty cool life and done some pretty cool things. And I joined Skid Row, and it was great.
SLUDGE: How did that come about?
Well, Rachel Bolan and I had done a side project together, a punk-type band in ’96 or so, after I had left Saigon Kick, and then around 2000, Skid Row got back together with Johnny Sollinger as the singer, and he is a brilliant singer, but they needed a drummer, so Rachel gave me a call. Before I knew it, we were opening for KISS, who were my idols, and it was amazing, a great time. At that point, I had known Rachel for like ten years, so I was pretty comfortable. Our first show was in North Dakota, and after one rehearsal, we opened for KISS for 20,000 people. It was like a dream come true.
SLUDGE: Tell me about Sebastian Bach. He must hate you, right?
No, there wasn’t any of that. In about 2003, I went over to Vince Neil’s house for Thanksgiving, and Sebastian came over, too, and we all had a great time. At that point, I wasn’t in Skid Row anymore, and we didn’t even talk about it. Sebastian was doing well for himself, doing Broadway for that show “Jekyll and Hyde,” and there was no type of bashing. He just asked how I was doing, like that. We had a good time. Sebastian and Johnny Solinger are different types of singers. Sebastian is a good rock singer, and Johnny is, too, but the difference is, when Sebastian was in the band, Skid Row was gigantic. But Sebastian didn’t say anything bad to me at all that night, but then when I was on the cover of Playgirl magazine, he did say something negative in the press to Page Six (New York Post), and I don’t know where that came from, something like being in Playgirl hurt Skid Row, and I just thought that was crazy to make a comment like that.
Editors note: In November 2010 Sebastian Bach made news on Page Six with his tweet and distaste for Varone posing in Playgirl. The ex. Skid Row singer said, “[This is] further proof that the name ‘SKID ROW’ has completely lost all credibility, cool, accuracy and is now devoid of all meaning in every way.”
When not playing drums or doing rim shots, Phil does some other rim work on the side
SLUDGE: Well, I guess some guys don’t like showing everyone their pee pees.
Here is the thing: I had been out of the music business, and at that point I was a 40-year old ex-rock star or whatever. I had tried stand up comedy and regular acting, and I had wrote a book and done my movie and I had done a reality show with Dr. Drew, and then Playgirl came around. Then I launched a sex-toy line and started producing adult movies for Vivid. I did the original swinger series, and now I have a brand new series about groupies with real footage from backstage.
SLUDGE: You like to push the limit, Phil.
To me, if you’re going to do a reality show, then you should really show reality. I’m not going to sit here and put something out that isn’t real. There is enough BS and lying and smoking mirrors out there, so I want to be raw and real, and that’s basically what I do.
SLUDGE: Do you have any regrets at all? In some ways, “Waking Up Dead” could be seen as incredibly embarrassing to you.
To me, if you’re going to do something that’s not real, then you’re a fraud, but do I have any regrets? Yeah, I do. I shouldn’t have done that movie so soon, but the views are different now.
SLUDGE: You had a lot of resentments about the music biz when you did that movie.
I did. I was definitely resentful, but now I’m at peace. It was Vinnie Paul, the drummer from Pantera, who convinced me. One day, he said to me, “You know what? The music business is not that bad.” It rang true, it really did when he said it, and now that I fast forward, I don’t feel that way anymore. Saigon Kick, we buried the hatchet and started doing shows together again, and we’re having a good time. The best part about playing today is it’s a hobby and not the way I make my living. I’m a weekend warrior, and that’s fun. The fans are amazing. It’s a different vibe now. In the old days, it wasn’t about just having a good time, but now it is. In the old days, it was about, “This guy got evicted, so let’s go out and tour and try to make a dime.” A lot of stuff has happened to me, and now I embrace my career with Saigon Kick. I’m very grateful.
Gerry Gittelson can be reached at [email protected]
Sex, Sludge & Rock N’ Roll