Supermen with Silver Guns by Jonny Steiner

Posted: March 23, 2008 by Maximum Mike in The Rocking Chair Blog

There are superheroes in real life. I do not speak of the Firefighters and the Police who are genuine heroes and all that. I am looking to make a comparison more apropos of the costumes and personalities inherent in our heroes. Here I speak of Rock frontmen. Standing on stage, chests heaving with confidence as they convey the music to the audience, these are our superheroes. With all eyes upon them they place us in the palms of their hands and lead us like children crossing a busy intersection. Some are more talented vocally, some athletically; yet each has his own style and his own methods of performance. I remember one of my first concert experiences, R.E.M. at Gund Arena in my hometown of Cleveland Ohio. Our seats were close but a little behind the stage so that Michael Stipe had his back to us throughout the gig. It was not until they played “Orange Crush” that Michael came around to face us. I felt in that moment as though he was singing to me, even though there were a few hundred people in my section. It is the skill of transmission on a personal level within a communal gathering that is one of the more fascinating skills of the frontman. Of course a mere spiritual connection with the audience is not nearly enough to propel these men to super heroic status. It also takes a certain degree of athleticism, and movement. At a Dream Theater concert once I saw James Labrie run around onstage with his mike stand in tow. He was whirling like a madman and tripped over the stand, mid note. He caught himself on one foot and did not break the note for a second. In fact the whole thing almost looked intentional.
There are two types of frontmen. Those that play instruments and those that do not. I chose to focus here on those that do not because when your arms are unhindered by an instrument you are free to gyrate and dance around like a devil worshipping madman. With that in mind I will begin my break down of four of the greatest, and leave you with my personal top 10.
When you look up the word “frontman” in the dictionary there will be a picture of Steven Tyler. The prototype, Steven has done it for over 30 years. Getting his wings with Aerosmith in the early seventies, Steven is to this day the most recognizable members of one of the most famous bands the US has ever produced. Steven’s trademark is the microphone stand adorned with scarves. The tradition came from back in the drug fueled 70s when he would hide substances in them. It is this prop that is the source for much of his gyrating and movement. He is known for swinging the microphone stand around. This is not to undercut his musical skills in any way. Steven is an extremely talented singer with an honest raw timbre to his voice that makes him that much more adored. It is his emotive voice combined with a confident persona that makes him so devastatingly compelling. You could say that without the scarves he is only imitating Mick Jagger whose swagger is legendary. True, Jagger is a timeless figure in Rock, but I think that Steven’s vocal skills give him the edge.
From the complete package to a more nuanced performer, David Lee Roth is the consummate entertainer. His thin tinny vocals have gotten him criticized by many for the reason that he seems to be a case of style over substance. The truth is that Diamond Dave, as he is sometimes called, has the unique ability to focus his voice into a high pitched throaty scream that very few can imitate. Aside from an innate confidence that seems to fuel every frontman’s personality DLR was one of the most athletic men to ever step foot on the stage. There is a famous video of the song “Unchained” live in Oakland in 1981, when Dave does a twirl and leap off of the stage into a flying split high off the ground. He has even said that some of his personal style and antics came from a childhood love of comic books. This is to say nothing of the striped spandex jumpsuits he wore onstage throughout the 80s.
From the comic to the dark, or from Batman to Superman. David Lee Roth’s pro performance personality is in striking contrast to the brooding musings of Jim Morrison. He felt that his decent into the darker side of Poetry and Lyrics came on a family trip when he was four years old. After witnessing a car accident with several Native-Americans lying dead and bleeding on the ground Jim Described the experience “That was the first time I tasted fear… and I do think, at that moment, the souls of those dead Indians- maybe one or two of them-were just running around, freaking out, and just landed in my soul, and I was like a sponge, ready to sit there and absorb it.” The psychedelic backdrop provided by Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore, helped to solidify The Doors in Rock. The reason lay in Jim Morrison’s love of vocal experimentation. Truly he could wail Rock anthems, and yet he had the delivery of a Lounge singer. His dark brooding personality and spiritual connection to music made him a star, and one of the greatest sex symbols in Rock History.
We have covered the personalities and the performances. The true power of a frontman, however comes from the voice and there are few that can claim to have bigger voices than Freddie Mercury. Best known as the lead singer of Queen, Freddie’s voice had a four octave range which allowed him to sing a variety of songs in a variety of ways. As a performer Freddie did not disappoint either. His ability was to move a crowd as one, cajoling them into playing along with him. Whether it was singing along or clapping, when Freddie spoke people listened. David Bowie has said, “He was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand.“
Another interesting fact in the comparison between frontmen and superheroes is the idea of the sidekick. Truly if any of the following men read this they would beat my skinny white behind, but follow the metaphor for a moment. Each great singer has at least a famous guitar player to make his job that much easier. As I break down my top 10 singers you will see that each performed with someone musically equal to their voices. It is because of this that although the singer is in front of the band he cannot go it alone. Without Jimmy Page there is no Led Zeppelin and therefore no Robert Plant. The list is as long as anyone can explore, and plays to the most important distinction between superheroes and frontmen.
The top 10:
1) Steven Tyler – The Prototype – Joe Perry
2) David Lee Roth – The Athelete – Eddie Van Halen
3) Jim Morrison – The Brooder – Ray Manzarek (Keyboards)
4) Freddie Mercury – The Energizer – Brian May
5) Mick Jagger – The Forefather – Kieth Richards
6) Robert Plant – The Emotion – Jimmy Page
7) Roger Daltry – The Strut – Pete Townshend
8) Morrissey- The Preening Adonis – Johnny Marr
9) Bono – The Conscious – The Edge
10) Phil Anselmo – The Angry – Dimebag Darrell


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