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Drugs, death and rock'n'roll - the debauched story of Cactus

Cactus

As the hope and idealism of the 1960s sank helplessly into the quagmire of war and civil unrest of the next decade, the big, ungainly beast known as rock’n’roll began to split into smaller, more tribal camps. The Beatles were on their last legs, and once those old gods died out it was anybody’s game. All anyone knew for sure was that the psychedelic era was over by 1970. Paisley power was no match for Helter Skelter. Love was dead, and tension was the new sex. 

The sounds dredged up between 1969 and 1974 were harder and heavier than anything ever heard before. Detroit riot starters the MC5 were the political insurgents. Their mean, ugly fuzz brothers in The Stooges were the apocalypse dudes. Alice Cooper kept the wrist slashers, schizo-kids and street creeps busy. The gender benders and deviants dug the stack-heel strut of sleazy glitter kings like the New York Dolls and Ziggy Stardust. 

But what of all the suds-swilling, dope-toking freakniks looking to dance themselves to death while the New Rome burned in the hot fires of insurrection? Forget the student unions, the Black Panthers and White Panthers, the cultural terrorists and the deathtrippers, what about the stoners and the hard-core party people? What about the longhaired, glassy-eyed motherfuckers with a bong in one hand and their genitals in the other? 

Well, they had a band, too. And that band was Cactus. “No doubt about it, we were a sex, drugs and rock’n’roll band,” says the villain-moustached power drummer and certified rock legend Carmine Appice. “That’s what Cactus was.” 

His perpetual partner in grime, bass wizard Tim Bogert, laughs over the other crackly phone line. “I’d like to say, for the record, how grateful I am for that.” 

The everlasting duo are calling from Carmine’s home in Los Angeles, an hour or so before rehearsal with their other band, Vanilla Fudge. “The Fudge”, as both men like to call it, was a thunderous blast of white boy R&B and dreamy-creamy psychedelia that formed in New York in 1967 and quickly rose to prominence thanks to their heavy, acid-damaged cover of The Supremes’ classic You Keep Me Hanging On. The band did not acclimatise well to the pressures of success, however, and just a year later, Appice and Bogert were ready to move on.

“See, what happened with the Fudge was, we did this second album, this… thing called The Beat Goes On, which is actually a concept album that our producer, Shadow Morton, told us would be the most amazing thing since The Beatles. And I’ll never forget the day we listened to it. Me and Tim looked at each other and said: ‘I don’t think so.’” 

Tim chuckles. “Remember the three girls in the hotel room started to cry when they heard it?” 

I guess that the hotel room girls did not cry because they were so overwhelmed by the album’s purple-mountain majesty. 

“No, they cried because they thought: ‘Oh my god, your career is over.’” 

“And they were right,” Carmine deadpans. 

With the Fudge quickly melting into a runny mess of clashing egos and dwindling popularity, the crafty rhythm section decided to break out on their own, scheming to put together an earth-shaking supergroup of heavy players that included guitar god Jeff Beck and Faces hips-wriggler Rod Stewart. 

“We had done well with the Fudge, so there was no reason to believe that we wouldn’t be successful again,” Carmine says. 

Although Bogert and Appice would eventually play with Jeff Beck half a decade later, the supergroup idea was dashed when Beck got into a near-fatal motorcycle accident that left him incapacitated for over a year. Out of frustration, Bogert and Appice formed Cactus in 1969. 

The Cactus band was rounded out with a couple of Motor City madmen. Guitar player Jim McCarty was recruited from the recently disbanded Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, and wild-hearted singer Rusty Day was a refugee from Ted Nugent’s Amboy Dukes. They immediately got to work on their first, self-titled album, a remarkably fast ’n’ furious explosion of fuzz and proto-metal highlighted by a berserk, hell-for-leather cover of Parchment Farm. No wonder, then, that McCarty referred to the first Cactus record as their “Methedrine album”.

“It’s true, we did a lot of speed,” Carmine says, honestly. “At the time, Parchment Farm was one of the fastest songs ever recorded. And that’s what we wanted it to be. We were trying to outdo Ten Years After. They had this really fast song called I’m Going Home, so we said: ‘Let’s make ours even faster.’” 

“And we did,” Tim adds. 

The speed trials and two-ton pummel of Cactus was not the only edgy aspect of this surly new gang of four. Their album cover, featuring an innocent cactus saluting the red sky, was banned from stores. “Initially, the cactus only had two little bits on the bottom, so it looked like an erect penis with balls,” Tim explains.

“It was a real cactus, it was completely untouched,” Carmine assures. “But they banned it, because they said department stores wouldn’t rack it. So we had to make it a little more presentable.” 

Eventually, the original cover was printed up as a sticker and plastered all over the US, and occasionally all over an otherwise naked whore of Babylon, as the band took their drug-fuelled act on the road. Then things started to get crazy. 

Both Tim and Carmine were already debauched road kings, hardened from their days with Vanilla Fudge. Tim was one of the original TV tossers and hotel room trashers, and Carmine was the guy with the mudshark and the groupie in the infamous Led Zep incident. But Cactus still made the Fudge look like amateurs in the rockpig sweepstakes. There were pot busts, nights in jail, and fistfights everywhere. “We did a few dates with Black Sabbath and we got into a big fight with them over a bag of pot,” Carmine fondly remembers. “Rusty Day was about an inch away from slicing Ozzy Osbourne’s neck.” Attempted Ozzycide was only the beginning for our man Rusty, however.

“One night in Boston, Rusty started a riot,” Tim relates. “The cops arrested him, so I sang the encore.” 

Seems Rusty’s on-stage banter could sometimes be construed as incendiary to the local constabulary. 

“The line I remember, the one I think that did it was: ‘Don’t let those pigs tell you what to do.’ I think that was the one that pushed them over the edge,” Tim laughs. “We got off the stage and they arrested him. They grabbed him coming right down the stairs.” 

Rusty stayed with the band for three albums (Cactus, 1970; One Way… Or Another, 1971; Restrictions, 1971) but was fired for his riot-baiting ways in 1972. Sadly, Rusty Day did not live to see his old band reunite. He was murdered in 1982 in Orlando, during a drug deal gone wrong. “Rusty Day was an amazing frontman,” Carmine says. “He had a really different kind of voice and an attitude all his own. He died by the same lyrics he wrote. He lived very dangerously. He was machine-gunned to death.” [See below.]  

“And his son,” Tim adds. “And some people that were visiting him. Everyone in his house got wasted.” 

“He’s got lyrics in the Cactus songs about being in jail, and partying, and getting naked, and doing drugs, and that’s what Rusty was about,” says a reverential Carmine. “And that’s what the Cactus audience was, too.”

Day was replaced by a bloozy singer named Pete French from proto-stoner bands Leafhound and Atomic Rooster. This version of Cactus released one more album, the half-live, all-sludge ’Ot ’N’ Sweaty (1972), before dissolving when Jeff Beck finally teamed up with Bogert and Appice to form the successful and cleverly named Beck, Bogert & Appice. And although the band officially broke up in 1972, two ‘new’ Cactus bands sprouted up soon after the original band’s demise. One was led by ill-fated singer Rusty Day, but that version never got much further than a few scattered gigs in Florida. The other actually had no founding members. It was formed by latter-day Cactus keyboard player Duane Hitchings, and featured Iron Butterfly guitarist Mike Pinera. They released one album, Son Of Cactus, before going the way of all flesh. And that was the end of the Cactus story. For 30 years, anyway. 

In 2006, Carmine was approached by the promoters of Sweden Rock, the annual outdoor, old-skull, heavy metal freak-forall. They wanted Cactus to play alongside other grey panthers like Alice Cooper, Whitesnake and Deep Purple. Which was presumptuous of the Swedes, seeing as Cactus hadn’t been together for 32 years. But Carmine Appice is a man of action, and he rallied the troops. “We got the offer, and I checked with Jim and Tim, and everybody agreed to it,” Carmine says. “We wanted as much of the original band as possible. Obviously Rusty couldn’t do it, and Peter French’s old band Leafhound were playing the festival too. Tim and I had worked with Jimmy Kunes from Savoy Brown on some stuff, so we asked him, and he was happy to do it.”

The festival gig started off as a one-off date, but yet another fateful phone call turned it into a fully fledged reunion. “As the festival drew closer, Escapi Records asked me if I had any new Cactus. I said: ‘Funny enough, over the past five years, we’ve been going to New York, and McCarty’s been coming with us, and we’ve been putting down some Cactus ideas.’” The end result was Cactus V, the first Cactus album in over 30 years. “On this album, before we decided we were going to do it with one singer, we were going to do it with a bunch of singers. Dave Wyndorf from Monster Magnet was one of the guys that wanted to sing on it. So did David Johansen, Kings X’s Doug Pinnick, and even Kid Rock.”

Ultimately, they went with the bluesy Kunes, and the result was a mature, soulful-sounding Cactus, somewhere between the brain-bashing crunch of old and jammy, latter-day Black Crowes. It’s a smooth-sounding album, but according to Carmine, putting it together was anything but smooth. 

“It hasn’t been easy, let me tell you. We had a couple of hard-drive crashes in the studio. Halfway through recording, Jimmy Kunes’s mother died. Jim McCarty had some physical problems just before we hit the road. It’s like, oh my god. Maybe Rusty’s pulling some strings, like, ‘What are you guys doing without me?’” 

Angry ghosts notwithstanding, Cactus plan on staying together this time. They are currently planning on touring with Vanilla Fudge, playing two sets a night. Obviously, retirement is not an option for Appice and Bogert. When asked which band they like playing with better, both spit out “Cactus!” without reservation. “Cactus is more fun, more of a party band,” says Carmine. “You just rock out, and that’s why we formed in the first place.” 

And that’s why they endure, after all these years. Cactus is puke-on-your-shoes, cheat-on-yourgirlfriend, burn-down-the-shithouse rock’n’roll, the perfect midnight snort of heavy fuzz for career criminals, boozed-out fuck-ups, and low-rent freedom fighters the world over. Revered to this day by dope rockers everywhere, without Cactus the entire stoner rock movement – from Monster Magnet to Fu Manchu, to Queens Of The Stone Age and Wolfmother – would be nothing more than a bunch of hairy, pot-smoking shut-ins, instead of a bunch of hairy, potsmoking shut-ins with guitars and record contracts. 

Someone had to take the first deep toke after all, and Bogert and Appice were just the men for the job.

Rusty Day’s Violent Demise

Lots of rock’n’roll singers die. It can be a very hazardous occupation. But few of them perish as violently as original Cactus frontman Rusty Day, who was machine-gunned to death in his home on March 6, 1982. At the time, Day was working on an album with Uncle Acid & The Permanent Damage Band. He was also dealing cocaine on the side. 

“In those days, it seemed kind of cool to be involved in some kind of ‘subculture’ activity’,” explains Monte ‘Mondo’ Thomas, who was Rusty’s close friend and guitarist. He also lived with Rusty at his house in Longwood, Florida, but was out of town the day of the shooting. “I agreed to give a friend a ride the day before, so I was 100 miles out of town when it happened,” he remembers. “Otherwise, I would have ended up being the fourth victim.” 

Some aspects of the shooting remain a mystery, but as to why it happened, Monte has a simple explanation: “It was a drug deal that went sour.” 

The predominant theory in the case is that the murderer was Ron Sanders, the other guitar player in Rusty’s band. “Ron was a madman,” Monte recalls. “He was a millionaire and a real bad coke fiend.” 

Rusty owed Ron some money and was waiting for a deal to go through so he could pay him, but as Monte sees it, Ron just wouldn’t wait any longer. “He had been up for days,” says Monte. “He was just nuts.” According to the theory, Ron and Rusty had words, and then later on Ron returned to the house with a machine-gun and shot out the windows, killing Day, his 11-year-old son Russell, and a house guest, Garth McCrae. 

Six weeks later, Ron Sanders shot himself after police surrounded his home. He was being investigated on an entirely different set of charges at the time. While Sanders remains the most likely suspect, to this day the murder remains unsolved.

The feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 98.