“No matter how hard I try, it comes out wrong” - Delicious Venom
I’m about to tell you about the coolest band that LA ever had. Cooler than Motorcycle Boy, even. I don’t think even Francois would argue that. What you do with this information is your business, but I just thought you deserved to know. If you read Slash’s book, he mentioned how GN’R were too dark for the glam bands in Hollywood and too glam for the dark bands. He was right. There was deliciously seamy underground in LA rock n’ roll in the 1980’s, filled with freaks and weirdos and druggy shamans and bleary-eyed dead-enders who ran all the way to the end of the America to find somebody to love, and still came up wanting.
The most infamous character in that whole scene was probably Jeffrey Lee Pierce of voodoo gospel-billy blues-punks The Gun Club, a man who allowed rock’n’roll to thoroughly destroy him, but there were plenty of other would-be rock messiahs trawling that town, from the Leaving Trains’ cross-dressing gonzo rock journalist Falling James to displaced cow-girl Texacala Jones of Tex and the Horseheads to The Flesheaters’ punk poet Chris D. There were bands that took the Hollywood glam template and turned into something remarkably more perverse, like future-shock rockers Rebel Rebel, needle-punks Stars from Mars or gender-bending provocateurs The Ultras, and then were the bands that were just plain ol’ mean, like the aforementioned Motorcycle Boy, The Humpers, The Hangmen, and The Coma-Tones, bands that took the basic Stones/Aerosmith template and dragged it right into the depths of LA’s sun-bleached depravity.
Guitarist Jimmy James, incidentally, was in both The Hangmen and the Coma-Tones and even before that, Rock City Angels. He’s still in the Hangmen, matter of fact, and he’s one of Hollywood rock’n’roll’s unsung heroes, a guitar-slinger with a past as harrowing as a character in a Johnny Cash song, a wanted man who’s been living on borrowed time for decades who’s responsible from some of the most searing, vital rock’n’roll Los Angeles has ever spewed up. The Hangmen have their own careening story arc, and we’ll talk about them someday, but this week, let’s talk about the band that everybody who was actually there would tell you was as good, if not better, than GN’R. The Coma-Tones achieved nothing but infamy during their time together and barely recorded and released anything at all, but every gig was a vicious stab into the very heart of darkness, a demonstration of formidable rock firepower discharged by slinky, back-alley creeps led by Jim Morrison’s one true successor, the eminently regal and elegantly wasted Gio Vitanza. Even his name slithers off the tongue like a venomous serpent. No one could command a room like Vitanza, and no band could ever successfully follow The Coma-Tones. When they left the stage, the night was over. You could burn down the club, because no one was ever going to top them.
So, why haven’t you heard of them? Because they were cursed. Hexed. Somebody layed a whammy on them, and they never found the right voodoo priestess to lift it. That’s gotta be it. I mean, yeah, there was booze and drugs eating them alive from the inside out, but that was happening with most LA bands in the late 80s, it was just a minor occupational hazard. There are legendary showcase gigs the band did for labels that invariably ended with Gio getting loaded and destroying the stage, but that would’ve only sweetened the pot if you wanted to sign a dangerous rock’n’roll band. And it wasn’t lack of commercial appeal, either. Even today, if I told you there was a band in LA that was basically Guns N’ Roses with Jim Morrison up front, you’d buy whatever they were selling. And it’s not like they didn’t deliver the goods, because like I said, there are plenty of people out there that will tell you the Coma-Tones were the best band in LA, period. So really, black magic is the only viable explanation. And the worst part is, at this point, there’s zero chance at late-career redemption, because Gio died a few years back. Not sure of the cause, but given his track record, it probably wasn’t from a broken heart.
There really aren’t any successors to The Coma-Tones, either. Who’d want to be? So there’s not much we can do here but acknowledge that this happened, that this band really did hold the very spirit of rock n’ roll in the palm of their hands for a brief moment around 1990 or so, but it slipped through their shaky fingers and lesser bands ran away with all the glory. What we have left are just a few fading memories and a clutch of hastily recorded songs, just a tantalizing glimpse of what could’ve been. It’s not enough, but it’s all we got. RIP Coma-Tones, the greatest band that never was.