The title of Craig A. Williams’ memoir, Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants?: The Tale of a Teen Rock Wannabe Who Almost Was, just about sums it all up. While the book’s premise initially begs the question of ‘Who wants to read about a never-was?’, Williams’ book is as much a first-hand account of life on the fabled Sunset Strip of the late ‘80s as it is a coming of age tale.
Your average Yorba Linda kid, the author was the guitarist for a band of barely legal longhairs. No, not Bad4Good (featuring Danny Cooksey of Diff’rent Strokes fame. Give yourself an extra spritz of Aqua Net if you remember those kids), but a band called Onyx, which later changed its name to ‘Onyxx’ and then ‘Onyxxx’ thanks to several cease-and-desist orders from the rap group of the same name and yet another similarly dubbed band.
To be fair, Williams isn’t exactly a never-was. While he may not have his or his former band’s name listed among an ‘80s rock compilation disc, he has made his bones in the realm of film and television, having written scripts for NBC and Dreamworks, among others.
With its chapters quirkily titled after ‘80s hair metal songs that appropriately fit the milestones of both the author’s and the band’s story, Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants is chock full of winking references that arena rock devotees will undoubtedly pick up on and appreciate. Possessed of a twisted sort of fondness for the genre, Williams jokes out of love, referring to ‘80s pop metal by such nomenclatures as “rump rock”, “butt rock”, and “cock rock”—fully acknowledging its cheese factor in as good-natured a way as possible.
At the same time, Williams doesn’t subscribe to a blindly unwavering sentimentality for the local L.A. music scene that made a global impact via MTV and airwaves nationwide. At several points throughout the book, he lends insight, duly noting the socio-political climate from which it sprang. A product of the end of what was perceived as Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” and a burgeoning wave of hope, hair metal was also a reflection of the decadence and excess that typified the tail end of The Me Decade. According to Williams, “hair metal paid homage to that optimism in the form of neon, Spandex, and massive amounts of cocaine.”
Beyond a cultural approach, the author employs a very personal touch. It’s easy to form a page-bound bond with Williams as a teen. The early chapters of Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants paint a portrait of the joy of discovering that first, blasting earful of rock that truly says something to you (not necessarily in backmasked form).
Although his memories are uniquely his own, Williams reminds listeners of the first time of finding music that speaks to you—not your parents or older siblings—and the sense of self-identification, as well as identifying with something much larger, that it brings. He also reminds readers of what ultimately springs from this identification in conjunction with the idealistic nature of dreamy teenage innocence: the uncontrollable urge to pick up a loud, electric instrument and start your own band.
Throw in three other volatile, hormonal teenage hot springs from similar middle-class, Yorba Linda backgrounds and you have Onyxxx. What separated Onyxx from the pack of other teens with three chords and a dream was a bit more business acumen than most of their peers. The author willingly cops to the fact that Onyxxx was an insanely average band, at best. However, it was after the acquisition of a Loni Anderson-lookalike for a manager that they started to take off.
That’s when things get interesting. The author recounts the significant events of his teen years stemming from playing on the Sunset Strip. He notes the autographing of his first unsheathed boob post-show as well as the dilemma of the calling of “The Muse” and how important it is to work through it, even if your mother is insisting your spaghetti dinner is getting cold.
The problems Williams starts out with are nothing compared to the ones he would face as Onyxxx grew increasingly more successful. From garden variety egomania (“Sociopaths make the best frontmen.”) to being taken advantage of by amateur producers and pay-to-play club owners, these are the beginnings of the excesses and pitfalls of small-scale fame.
Progressing to venereal disease, drug addiction, and teen pregnancy, Onyxxx’s problems as a band were compounded even more so when the band’s manager took to sleeping with its underage members, subsequently putting them at odds with one another over her affections and causing an irreparable rift. With arguably the band’s most talented musician leaving the band as a result, Onyxxx’s nadir culminated with its lead singer having an onstage meltdown regarding the crumbling infrastructure of the band.
The decline of both the band’s musicianship and hair metal becoming the proverbial pariah of the music scene in the wake of grunge led to the band’s downfall. Williams gives a keen insight as both an inspired fan of Sunset Strip-spawned spandex rock and a practitioner aspiring to success. Beyond the blatant honesty of his account, if you read between the lines, there lurks something bigger than just the initial tale of teenage sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Besides imparting such pearls of wisdom as the psychology of your average rock star (teenage, or otherwise) based on his own observances of many in that scene, Williams’ story offers a broad-spectrum thesis on the success, excess, and ultimate failure of a band, as well as a musical genre.
In addition to honestly assessing what worked and didn’t work in his teenage metal outfit, he attempts to explain the cultural landscape of the times and how music served as its barometer. Williams offers a dissertation about what it was that made this genre so popular and why its shelf life was ultimately limited, replaced by a darker shade of grunge:
By the summer of 1991, the mood of society had changed. People were no longer looking for ‘Nothing But a Good Time.’ They were looking for jobs. The last thing college kids with little hope for gainful employment wanted to see was a group of guys with teased hair, leather vests, and neon guitars rolling around on a stage and giving one another noogies.
The beauty of Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants lies within its utter lack of ego. Quite frankly, it’s much more intriguing to read a fresh account of a story that hasn’t been told before, or a tale that hasn’t already been rehashed and/or whitewashed by various biographers (both authorized and unauthorized) and VH1 Behind the Music specials.
Although no one outside of the Strip in the early ‘90s can name you an Onyxxx song, Williams carves out an entertaining, self-effacing, yet highly informative legacy for his former band as well as his own career as a storyteller.