The late, great Randy Rhoads wasn’t born a heavy metal legend. In this exclusive interview, Kelly Garni, Randy’s childhood friend and fellow member of Quiet Riot, recalls the early years of the guitarist who became Ozzy’s boy wonder.
“I feel like he watches over me in a lot of ways.” Kelly Garni is talking about his departed friend, Randy Rhoads. A slim, compact man of 36, Garni still sports a roosterish rocker’s hairdo and earring. He was Rhoads’ best friend and played bass behind the legendary guitarist for years, first in teenage backyard bands and then in the first incarnation of Quiet Riot. Garni is the foremost witness to Rhoads’ early years, before his brief yet blazing tenure with Ozzy Osbourne, a musical adventure that ended in tragedy when a plane crash took the young guitarist’s life in 1982.
“I spent nine years playing with Randy Rhoads,” Garni says with quiet pride. “No other musician on earth can say that.
“My earliest memory of Randy is of being in the seventh grade and seeing this funny looking kid. He was a little skinny kid with long hair. At school, everybody seems to fall into some kind of category or social group. Randy didn’t. He was definitely not like anybody else. I thought: I have to get to know that person.”
Rhoads came from a highly musical family. He started playing guitar at seven and soon began teaching at the local music school that his mother still runs today. “The Rhoads family lived just around the corner from me,” says Garni. “The house was always full of musical instruments. Randy’s brother [also named Kelly] was a drummer and had this wonderful kit setup. His sister also played guitar, and there was a big old organ that you had to pump with your feet. His mom played every instrument in the universe. And, of course, there was Randy with his guitars. He had two at the time: a very old Gibson acoustic, called an Army Navy Special, as I recall, and an Ovation electric. His dad worked at Ovation and gave him this beautiful f-hole semiacoustic. Randy loved the guitar. He shined it all the time. He had that and a teeny, tiny Gretsch amp.”
Eager to learn an instrument, Garni took to bass at Rhoads’ prompting: “There was a little Japanese bass laying around Randy’s house, and I kind of adopted that. He began to teach me how to play it. He would come home from his lessons and say, ‘I learned this really good chord progression today. Here’s what you need to do to play it on the bass.’ As he learned, I learned. He was still working on chords at first, but soon he began to learn his leads. I was very useful to him then, because I could play a little pattern for him to do his lead over. That’s pretty much what we did all day. We didn’t go out and play games or sports or anything. We just jammed.”
When asked about their early influences, Garni goes to his record cabinet and produces an old Alice Cooper live bootleg: two well-worn vinyl discs in a soiled, plain white jacket, the paper sleeves torn at their circular centers from extensive use.
“This was one of Randy’s most prized possessions,” Garni says with all due reverence. “It fascinated him because it wasn’t all carefully rehearsed and polished like a studio album. You could hear the mistakes, and that was of great interest to both of us. There’s a big, long jam on the song ‘Eighteen,’ on the chord progression C, D and E. That was probably our favorite chord progression. We’d jam on that a lot. [Alice Cooper guitarist] Glen Buxton was a very big guitar hero of Randy’s. That’s never said enough in interviews. I always see names like Beck, Page and Leslie West, whom Randy certainly admired; he even went on to become friends with Leslie West. But Glen Buxton was the original big influence on him. And then, later on, Mick Ronson became a very major influence for Randy, both in technique and image. Look at Mick Ronson on a live Bowie video and it’s scary how much Randy resembled him.”
Asked if Rhoads chose a white Les Paul as his signature ax because Ronson played a similar guitar, Garni says, “No one has ever suggested that before, but yes, I think he did.”
It was Rhoads’ older brother who turned the boys on to Alice Cooper, exposing their impressionable young minds to Easy Action and Love It to Death. He also encouraged the duo to attend their first rock and roll concert: a 1971 show with Alice Cooper and Black Oak Arkansas.
“We were completely blown away by both bands,” says Garni. “It opened up a whole new aspect of life for us. Not only is it fun to play music; it’s really cool to go to a concert and watch people play it. And to see Alice Cooper back then doing a show! Most people just got up and played music in those days. But here, these guys came out dressed really weird, and Alice tried to hypnotize the audience and all. Black Oak Arkansas was great too. We thought they were really cool because they had hair down to their waists and they wore real tight jeans. So we started dressing like that and showing up at school that way. We really started raising some eyebrows.”
Longhairs were not very plentiful at Burbank’s John Muir Jr. High in 1971. By Garni’s report, he and Rhoads were by far the freakiest of all the guys who ventured to sport the rock fashions of the early Seventies: “We were harassed, beaten up, constantly threatened and constantly chased home. We often had to leave school early. I’ll never forget what I call ‘The Day Randy Wore the Red Pants.’ He’d saved his money for weeks to buy these red pants he’d seen and just had to have. They were the brightest red pants you ever saw, and skin tight. He was so proud of them. He wore them to school and the whole place went nuts. Everyone was talking about it. They called him a fag and all that. All the jocks were planning a mass lynching after school. We even got called up to the office and escorted home. After that, he put those pants away and never wore them again.”
To this day, there’s something quaintly “Fifties” about Burbank, a town that is oddly unlike any of the other suburbs that surround Hollywood. There are a lot of cute little family shops and, as you ascend the hills that lie to the north of the town, suburban neighborhoods that evoke images of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. It was in this environment that Rhoads and Garni first performed in public.
“We played a lot of parties in the neighborhood, every Friday and Saturday night, or any other night we could. If we heard about a party in town, we’d go over there and say, ‘Hey can we play at your party? We got all our gear right out in the car. We’ll do it for free.’ Usually it was a bunch of guys with a keg and they’d be happy to let us play. It was just me and Randy and whatever drummer we could get that night. We’d do ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ ‘Oh Carol,’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and all Alice Cooper songs. And we’d just jam the blues. We also had some early originals that were just guitar patterns. We took some of the riffs from when we were first learning and carried them over, making little songs out of them.”
Garni has one of these party jams on tape: a 12- bar blues with a series of inebriated vocalists trading off on the mic. The cassette is one of the few recordings of Rhoads playing with a second guitarist. “Randy was so shy, and the other guitarist was older than him and was sort of dominating the jam,” Garni recalls. “He was pretty good, but eventually Randy just had to blow him off his back.”
Garni puts the tape on. Sure enough, a few choruses into the jam, the teenaged Rhoads takes off with an astounding ascending minor riff, lightening fast but very tasteful and fully within the context of the blues. Incredibly beefy tone, too. “That other guitarist didn’t bother him after that,” Garni says, laughing.
More serious bands eventually grew out of these backyard rave-ups. The very first was called Mildred Pierce, a name suggested by Rhoads’ older brother, who’d seen the Joan Crawford movie of that name. “We thought it was really cool, ’cause it was a name kind of like Alice Cooper,” Garni recalls. “That band consisted of me, Randy, Drew Forsyth—who eventually became the original drummer of Quiet Riot—and a guy named Guy who sang and played guitar. That was when we were in eighth grade.”
Other bands followed. As part of a unit called the Whore, Garni and Rhoads played one of their very first bar gigs. Garni still has vivid memories of it: “The place was initially a massage parlor, but the owner got busted. He didn’t know what to do with his property, so he turned it into a rock club. All the girls who’d worked as masseuses were promoted to barmaids. The club was open for like a week. We played the opening night and made 10 dollars each to play the whole evening. We thought that was a fortune. After we got paid, these women tried to get us to go in the back room with them; they wanted to earn our 10 dollars. We were like, ‘No way!’ because we just weren’t interested in girls. That didn’t develop until later. It took a little while for us to even figure out what they wanted. They had cots set up in the back, and we said, ‘Why do you want us to lay down on the cot? Why should we give you 10 dollars for that?’ They were like, ‘Oh, you’ll see.’ We said, ‘No thanks. We’d rather buy some cigarettes and Cokes and guitar strings.’ ”
Stories like these are difficult to credit. These guys were playing in a band called the Whore and they couldn’t figure out what the girls were after? There’s something suspiciously sanitized about the extra-wholesome image that has become a large part of the Randy Rhoads legend. As if to fuel these suspicions, Garni produces a photo of a fifteenish Randy posing with a cigarette, a bottle of vodka and a half-filled glass. It’s an innocent enough picture, the kind most teenage boys pose for at some point. There’s a very similar shot of the young David Bowie.
One can only imagine what temptations the boys withstood when they played as Smokey, backing a transvestite vocalist of the same name, and became the house band at Rodney’s English Disco in Hollywood. Rodney Bingenheimer was, and is, a prominent L.A. rock scenester. In the early Seventies his club was the hub of the Hollywood glam scene. Bowie was a regular, as was Eric Burdon and a whole particolored parade of rock stars and glitterati passing through town. Rodney took up Smokey for a while and even gave his new house band the keys to his place so they could rehearse there during the day.
For two boys from Burbank, Hollywood held a special allure. It was a place where they could buy bootleg albums and find fresh musical collaborators. This latter aspect was especially appealing since they’d played with nearly everyone in Burbank. And it was at a girl’s apartment in Hollywood that Garni and Rhoads heard about a singer looking for a band—kind of a Rod Stewart type, they were told. The singer turned out to be Kevin DuBrow. With Rhoads and Garni’s old friend Drew Forsyth on drums, Quiet Riot was born. A homemade poster commemorates the band’s inaugural gig: Halloween Night of 1975 at the Machinist’s Hall in Burbank.
“It turned into an actual riot,” Garni recounts. “I’ve got it all on video. The whole place was destroyed. It was designed to hold maybe 1,000 people and about 2,000 showed up. We had to lock the doors, so they went up on the roof and kicked holes in the ceiling. Guys were falling down into this huge crowd. People were getting pissed off and it turned into a giant fight. Every single person who worked for us went to the hospital that night with broken arms, concussions… things like that. They called out the entire Burbank Police Department. And we were born.”
DuBrow’s arrival marked a real turning point, according to Garni: “Kevin was a real go-getter. He had business savvy; he knew how to make things happen, whereas me and Randy had no real direction up until then, other than ‘Where can we play tonight?’ ” It was DuBrow who found the band’s first manager, who brought the boys to Sound City, then an eight-track studio in nearby Van Nuys. There they made their first record, an EP on the management’s own Magic Wand label. The A side is “Suicide Show” by Randy Rhoads, with “Just How You Want It” by Kevin DuBrow and Randy’s “West Coast Tryouts” on the B side. The label bears the serial number EP002 and the advice “Play It Loud.”
Professional management also meant “better stage clothes and better equipment,” according to Garni. This was when Rhoads bought his trademark white Les Paul. It was purchased at a west-side music store; Garni can’t recall which one. “It was a band thing—we all went down with Randy to pick out the guitar. We traded a speaker cabinet for it.”
At the time, Rhoads was amplifying his ax through a Peavey head and Ampeg 4x12 cabinet. Thus armed, he was ready for the higher caliber gigs that management was procuring for Quiet Riot. They became the house band at the Starwood club on Sunset Strip. “The real hardcore music was going on at the Starwood,” says Garni. “You had Van Halen down the street at Gazzarri’s, and they were doing a Top 40 thing. They may have been doing originals, too, but I know they were doing Top 40 stuff so people could dance. There was a nicer, more upscale crowd at Gazzarri’s. The Starwood was a pretty rough club. Nobody danced at the Starwood. My dad used to come see us play and he’d say, ‘Man, I never had to step over more bodies and dodge more knives in my life.’ It was nothing to be a 15-year-old kid and belly up to the bar and get a Bud. The first time we played the Starwood we got a case of beer for our pay. Eventually we worked our way up to being the highest- paid band there, kind of a house band situation. But that took two years to accomplish.”
Even with the demonstrative, outgoing Kevin DuBrow onstage, Rhoads “unquestionably stole the show” at those Starwood gigs, according to Garni. “You couldn’t fail to see the amount of talent he had. I mean, here was this little guy…he was five-foot-seven and weighed 105 pounds. His guitar was almost bigger than him. But he’d run around like a wild man with it and just be humongously loud. His biggest thing was noises: feedback, working the knobs and switches, bending the neck. I swear he’s the one who invented that: various ways of bending the neck—with the strap, on his leg, all different ways. As shy as he was, he was a great showman. Randy was unquestionably the star. No one in the band was really jealous of that. We felt lucky to have him.”
By this point, Quiet Riot had “outgrown” their first manager, as Garni puts it, and thrown in their lot with a new team, the Toby Organization. The search for a record deal began in earnest. “We showcased for over 30 labels who all thought we were great, but no one would sign us. Our type of music just wasn’t selling, in their opinion. They were more impressed by a band like the Knack.”
The best that could be arranged at the time was a deal to make two records for Sony/Japan, with the hope that the recordings would eventually be picked up for stateside distribution. The band began preparing for the studio. By Garni’s account, they were heinously overrehearsed: “Eight hours a day, seven days a week, in a cramped, dirty rehearsal hall, we’d go through the same 12 songs over and over again. Kevin was the whip cracker. He made us stick to those 12 songs. Otherwise we probably would have just jammed after we’d gone through them seven or eight times.”
Finally, after the band was expelled from the rehearsal hall for having food fights, they were allowed into Wally Heider Recording, a fairly top-drawer 24-track facility in Hollywood at the time. Garni recalls that Rhoads mainly used his Les Paul for the sessions, although he also played a Strat, and experimented with a variety of amps including Marshalls, Peaveys, a Sound City, a Fender Champ and Twin Reverb. Right from Quiet Riot I, the guitarist was already practicing his famed technique of triple-tracking solos with astounding accuracy. Even onstage, Garni recalls, Rhoads’ solos “didn’t deviate a lot. He always played solos the same way, although he might add or take out whole sections. In fact on the new CD there’s a song called ‘Laughing Gas,’ which is a six-minute live guitar solo. If you listen to that and then listen to the three-minute guitar solo that Ozzy let him have on the Tribute album, you’ll hear a lot of the same things. And the two solos were played years apart.”
Discussion of Rhoads’ technique leads to the ultimate Guitar World question: Who was the first person to tap, Eddie Van Halen or Randy Rhoads? “I have to give that credit to Eddie,” Garni replies. “Randy didn’t really get into that until a lot later. Randy was always striving to be an individual. I think he actually shied away from tapping at first because Eddie did it.”
Quiet Riot I met with substantial success in Japan. It’s a pop-edged metal album that invites comparison with the first Van Halen album in many ways. Yet, despite the record’s success abroad, it never made it to the States, except as an import. And though they constantly planned for it, Rhoads, Garni, DuBrow and Forsyth never made it to Japan for a tour. While their old Sunset Strip rivals Van Halen hit the fast track to success, Quiet Riot’s career seemed stuck in first gear. Dejected, yet determined, the band rallied its spirits and recorded Quiet Riot II with producer Lee DiCarlo and the L.A. Record Plant. Garni feels this second record is better than the first. But shortly after the sessions were completed, the bassist was out of Quiet Riot.
“There was a lot of tension in the band due to our lack of progress. I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore. So it was felt I should move on. In the meantime I’d grown up. I’d been playing music all my life, and I was curious about what else was going on in the world besides playing the Starwood every two weeks.”
Garni began training to be a paramedic. For someone who’d been on top of the Sunset Strip metal scene, it was an abrupt transition—suddenly becoming anonymous, just a regular guy doing a regular job. One of his most prized possessions is a 21st birthday card Rhoads gave him around that time, with a long, heartfelt note offering support and encouragement.
Three months after Garni’s departure from Quiet Riot, Rhoads left the group to join Ozzy Osbourne’s band. From that point onward, Garni would see his old friend only every three months or so, on rare hiatuses from touring and recording. After leaving Quiet Riot, Garni saw Rhoads play only one more time, with Ozzy in Vegas. He still becomes animated when he recalls the performance. Rhoads had flown in a day early and the two old friends stayed up the whole night, cruising around town, hitting the all-night buffets at the casinos. A few months later, Rhoads was dead, leaving his childhood companion with his memories, photos, artwork and tapes. Garni says there’s plenty more material where Quiet Riot: The Randy Rhoads Years came from.
“There are over 30 songs. We only put 10 on this first album, so there’s enough for two more albums. But in the meantime, more than anything, I’d like to invite everyone down to Mount View Cemetery on March 19 and December 6. If you’re any kind of Randy fan, you’ll have a real good time.”