Jackson rocked in her seat to Macy Gray's horn-drenched bump-and-grind take on "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" and beamed her approval as Pink and a troop of stern dancers updated the "Rhythm Nation" video's misguided military choreography motifs. But, the cameras failed to register Jackson's reaction when L.A. hard rockers Buckcherry ripped into "Nasty," spewing sleazy wah-wah pedal guitar leads all over the glitteratzi as singer Josh Todd snaked across the stage and demolished the melody with his pained speedball howl.
"Nast-ee!" Just the way he contorted the word said more about rock 'n' roll than a million Steven Tyler hair-extension highlights ever would again. It was something like the second coming of Guns N' Roses, only with better tattoos and a stylist. The assembled rhythm nation's reaction ranged from stunned to bemused.
But somewhere in Middle America, a focus group of pimply-faced youngsters was holed up with MTV's marketing research team, who carefully collated pulse rate-to-hip gyration ratios, and employed the latest eye-tracking software to gauge movement across the word on Todd's taut abs. The tattoo spelled it right out. Chaos.
"A lot of the people who come to see our shows are kids that have never seen a live performance the way we present it," Todd says. "Their early years were Nirvana and bands like Weezer, alternative acts. And they've never just seen a straight-up rock band with a singer that sings and a band that plays their instruments well and goes at it really hard every night. It's a different experience and they dig it. They're turned on by it."
Still, there's no question the band is some years behind the zeitgeist, or more optimistically, they're the frontline in a resurgent cock-rock movement. Either way, as Todd sees it, Buckcherry is waging a war against the "rap-rock cesspool and disco metal." But will the "TRL" kids really buy it enough to sustain their career?
That's the question that's been buzzing around Buckcherry since their fabled beginnings in the tattoo parlors of L.A.'s has-been Sunset Strip in 1995. As the story goes, the band's early shows were bloody battles for respect and had some semblance of a following among the Strip's fickle, low-life burnouts. But by 1998, the band was signed to Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks label. Todd and guitarist Keith Nelson handled primary songwriting duties. Hotshot guitarist Yogi was added to the lineup of bass player J.B. and drummer Devon Glenn, and the quintet began recording their self-titled debut with co-producer and former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones.
One year and seemingly a million club dates later, the record went gold, riding on the strength of the cocaine anthem "Lit Up." It's kind of a touchy subject with Todd. Sure, the song broke the band, but at least tonight, he's sick of questions about the band's cultivated image as tattooed drug fiends.
"Yeah, that's something I'm very familiar with," he says with more than a hint of exasperation rising in his voice. "Am I sober right now? Absolutely. It's unfortunate that 'Lit Up' was a single and that's all some people think of with this band, because there's a lot more to it than that. Usually people who dig a little bit deeper [know] there's more to it than just a band that sings about drugs. Out of 24 songs, there are two songs about drugs and the only reason I've written about it is it's a part of my life."
Earlier this year, Buckcherry released Time Bomb, which expanded on their debut's swaggering amped-up classic-rock sound, drawing a bit more from Todd's punk-rock influences and less from the Rolling Stones side of the equation. It's a subtle shift, the band has already been tagged retro and worse, but there are things more dreadful than cribbing from the AC/DC songbook. And besides, originality doesn't really matter to anyone who gives a damn about rock 'n' roll.
"It's so silly because people say 'retro' when you play your own instruments and you're not using samples and drum loops and all that shit," Todd says. "I just think it's fucking ridiculous. We're just an electrified rock band. We're stripped-down bare-bones minimum and just writing songs and we're classified as retro. I just don't get it. AC/DC was a band in the '70s."
Buckcherry still has low-profile notoriety, but have found a hard-fought niche in the culture. Todd says the members knew it was going to be tough because they couldn't be classified as a particular genre of the here-and-now music that's popular.
"It has been difficult for us. But slowly but surely, one stage at a time, we've been really creating a little army of little freaks," he says. Surely opening slots for Kiss, AC/DC, Aerosmith and Kid Rock haven't hurt.
"I'm so thoroughly satisfied with what we've been doing," he says. "Even though it's on a small scale, we're really changing the way people go to see a live show and what they expect from it. That's all I could ask for."
Buckcherry plays the PlanetJam Cotton Club Sun., July 1. Show time is 8 p.m. $13. Call 404-874-1993 for information.