Ugly Kid Joe and beyond – the crazy life of Whitfield Crane

Ugly Kid Joe frontman Whitfield Crane

Before she left home to go and study at the University of California in 1980, Whitfield Crane’s elder sister handed him two records from her collection: AC/DC’s Highway To Hell and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors. “You’ll be done with these by junior year in high school,” she told her 12-year-old brother, “but for now, enjoy.”

“Except I never grew out of it,” says Crane. “I truly believed that this was my calling.”

Best known as the frontman with Ugly Kid Joe, the Californian rock band who hit paydirt when their 1991 debut EP As Ugly As They Wanna Be sold a million records off the back of hit single Everything About You, Crane has also sung with Life Of Agony, Medication and, most recently, Richards/Crane, a project with former Godsmack guitarist Lee Richards. In London to guest with Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo’s occasional ‘supergroup’ Mass Mental, today the mellow 48-year-old singer describes himself as a “seeker”, a working musician who’ll travel the world with a backpack and a credit card in search of adventure and experience.

Over the years, naturally, Crane has accumulated stories. Sitting in the corner of a North London pub, he unfurls these anecdotes with the practised manner of a man fully accustomed to holding court for a roomful of strangers. There’s the time he ended up ‘fronting’ Black Sabbath for three days, having been summoned to stand in for Ozzy for rehearsals at Birmingham NEC when the metal legends prepped for their 1997 reunion shows. The time he was “detained” at Graceland, accused of flashing his genitals for a photo op in front of Elvis’s old house. The time he flew from London to New York without a passport, granted permission to board a British Airways flight using only a tour laminate as ID: “I got to JFK [airport] and the immigration guys were just like ‘Really?’” There’s talk of arguments with David Lee Roth, and three-day drug benders with actor Sean Penn (“I can’t tell that story, though”).

But ask Whit Crane how it feels to be a rock star and he’ll look you square in the face and tell you that he’s never felt like a rock star. “Actually, the only time I ever felt like a rock star was before I was signed,” he insists. “When Ugly Kid Joe were a little band who could draw eight hundred people to a show on the beach, I was at my most cocky, like ‘Fuck you. We’re the kings of this town!’ But when things started happening for real, man, it was just too fast.”

Ugly Kid Joe formed in 1989 in Isla Vista, California, a college town Crane and his childhood friend, future UKJ guitarist Klaus Eichstadt, drifted to from nearby Palo Alto. The five-piece were propelled into rock’s premiere league when Everything About You crashed into US Billboard Top 10, pushing its parent EP to platinum status. On the band’s first national tour, in 1992, they joined Ozzy Osbourne and Motörhead in US arenas, playing the middle slot between the two British metal legends. On the tour’s opening day, an embarrassed Crane walked into Motörhead’s dressing room, got down on his knees in front of Lemmy and apologised for the tour billing.

“I knew that it was fucked up that we were playing after them after just one EP,” the singer recalls. “And he looked at me with that bad pirate scowl and said: ‘I’m glad you said that.’ From that day on he looked after me.”

So green were Ugly Kid Joe on their first tour that they were afraid to drink the crates of beer Ozzy sent to their dressing room daily, worried that the then-sober singer might be trying to entrap them into breaking the ‘dry’ tour rules. Each night, Ozzy would meet them from the stage with glass-vial stink bombs in his hands, which he would proceed to smash on their dressing room floor.

“After five gigs we were locking our door to keep Ozzy out, but he’d knock and be like: ‘I’m not going to do anything lads’ and we’d feel guilty. But as soon as we’d open the door – smash! – another stink bomb and he’d run away giggling,” laughs Crane. “We weren’t even good. We were just kids. But suddenly we were hanging out with all the people I’d been staring at on the posters on my wall. You can’t prepare for something like that, you lose the plot. But if there’s a time to be losing the plot, it’s when you’re young and living out your rock’n’roll dreams.”

Let’s talk about living the dream. What’s the largest number of girls you’ve had in your bed?

“One.”

Bollocks, come on, even I’ve had more than one…

“Well, I guess I have too. To be honest, when I had nothing, I had a lot of cool, hedonistic sexual experiences. But when I got to be something of a success in music, the girls sitting beside me didn’t see me any longer, they only saw the singer from Ugly Kid Joe, the idea of me. That symphony of pussy you’re talking about? That was a turn-off for me. I was never the crazy Kid Rock guy. Sure, there was a girl here or there, but that wasn’t the drive, the drive was drinking beers and having fun.”

I put a smell on you: Whitfield Crane with Ozzy Osbourne

I put a smell on you: Whitfield Crane with Ozzy Osbourne

In 1992, with Seattle grunge now installed as the new, unsmiling face of rock music, having fun in a rock band was seen as outdated and crass. There was a knowing irony in Ugly Kid Joe calling their debut album America’s Least Wanted. But as out-of-step as the Californian surf-bums were with the prevailing musical climate, the album went on to sell two million copies. And the band were hated for it. Crane recalls opening an end-of-year issue of Rolling Stone and seeing Ugly Kid Joe listed in the magazine’s annual critics’ poll as The Worst Band In The World.

“Our heroes loved us, but our peers hated us,” he says. “I just remember us feeling really alone. We were the last band that made it through that was smiling, and people hated that we were living our dream. It bothered me for years.”

Darker days lay ahead. In a “terrifying” incident that he’s still loathe to talk about, a flu-stricken Crane was kidnapped ahead of a show in Memphis, and escaped only after jumping out of the window of a moving car. “I’ve never been so scared in my life,” he admits. “I was convinced I was going to die.” The following year, in 1993, the singer was arrested and faced a 17-year jail sentence after being accused of inciting a riot in Columbus, Ohio while UKJ were on tour with Def Leppard.

“That day sucked,” he says. “We were playing a baseball stadium in front of forty thousand people. And I used to have a thing where I’d tap the biggest security guard at a show on the shoulder and say: ‘Hey, is it cool if I sit on your shoulders and ride you out into the crowd and high-five some kids?’ But this time the guy took me up, and then threw up me on to the ground. I said: ‘Did you mean to do that?’ And he said: ‘No, sorry. Get up here again…’ And I did, and then he body-slammed me to the ground. And so I threw a mic stand and said some bad things. So then I got arrested. My preliminary trial judge set my bail at half-a-million dollars.

“It was funny how things escalated. In England the rumour actually became that I’d killed someone. In the end I wound up with a fine equivalent to walking a dog without a licence. And then, after trying to get me sent down, the DA’s liaison leans over and goes: ‘Hey, could you please sign this for my daughter?’”

Ugly Kid Joe’s star was fading even before they released their second album, 1995’s Menace To Sobriety. In the UK the album peaked at No.5, in the US it failed to make the Top 100. As musicians, Ugly Kid Joe felt they were hitting their peak – “We were bad-ass by then, we were crushing,” says Crane – but the rock’n’roll circus was becoming a drag.

“I remember we went out to play stadiums with Bon Jovi and Van Halen, but it was getting silly,” says Crane. “My only request on the rider was clean socks every night, but that was nixed. One day we were sitting backstage in Germany, and I was talking to Eddie Van Halen, bitching like: ‘Can you believe that that motherfucker won’t give me socks?’ and Eddie just snapped. He said: ‘He won’t give you socks?’ And he pulled his shoes off and said: ‘I’ll give you my socks’, and pulled them off and handed them to me. When Eddie Van Halen is giving you his socks, you know your life is getting weird.”

Crane was on holiday in Goa in 1997 when Klaus Eichstadt informed him that he didn’t want to do the band any more. Returning to LA, the singer sought out his old mentor Lemmy for some advice.

“I came back to the States and I was just like, ‘Fuck, who am I?’ Because I’d invented my entire being into the singer of that band. When I got back back to LA I called him and he said: ‘Come over, then.’ He answered the door wearing only his pink Speedos and holding a Crocodile Dundee-style knife. He had a baseball-sized ball of speed, and he used this huge pirate knife to chop off a chunk, and offered it up like a high-class restauranteur elegantly offering a slice of fine cheese. He was the best guy, so smart and funny and caring, and he schooled me. I miss the guy a lot.”

Did you lose yourself in that period?

“Oh yeah. To realise you’re disposable can be a hard pill to swallow. I decided to replace alcohol with cocaine, and didn’t think it weird that I’d have an eight-ball [3.5 grams] in my pocket every day. I was in the desert for quite some time. And it’s okay to visit dark places, but you don’t want to stay there. I knew I had a skill set that was worth fighting for.”

In 1997, Crane joined Brooklyn alternative metal crew Life Of Agony, replacing singer Keith Caputo. It was a tough gig – “There were thousands of fans standing with their arms folded every night, just staring at me” – but the experience gave him the confidence to stand on his own two feet again and pursue his ‘calling’ with a new vigour. In 2010, life came full circle with Ugly Kid Joe reuniting. Six years on, their singer claims he’s never been happier. “Life is a gift, and I appreciate it all,” he insists. “Music is the ultimate currency. You can go anywhere in the world and music will open doors for you. Walking through those doors might not always be the best idea, but you’re guaranteed to have stories when you come back.”

Classic Rock 224: Features