Empty nesters with electric guitars now dominate the Arizona bar scene – and experts say they may hold a key to healthy aging.
By Jimmy Magahern
When JoDina Errichetti, recently retired from her job as an embalmer at a funeral parlor, decided to start a rock band as a lark back in 1987, she asked her son, aspiring comedian Joey Scazzola, to help her come up with a name. He suggested One Foot in the Grave. “I thought, heck, since they are so old, that would suit them!” Scazzola riffed in his stand-up routine at the time.
Promoted as the “world’s oldest punk rock band,” the one-joke novelty act churned out blistering tongue-in-cheek rave-ups about the aging process with titles like “Menopause,” “Aches, Pains, Capital Gains” and even a Ramones parody keyed to the retirement home crowd, “I Hate to Be Sedated.”
The young kids in the mosh pits at the Phoenix punk clubs ate up the joke, marveling at the energy and youthful attitude of the senescent quartet – particularly Errichetti, who reviewers pegged as a geriatric Debbie Harry. Errichetti, after all, had started her band at the ripe old age of… 47.
Today, at 78, JoDina (she prefers to use only her first name on stage) is finally old enough to relate to all the jokey lyrics about aging she prematurely spit out over 30 years ago. “We know all too well about all those aches and pains now!” she says with a laugh. But she’s still doing it, auditioning a new bass player this month to take the place of original bassist Gavan Wieser, a well-loved Valley virtuoso who passed away in 2015 at age 71, and lining up gigs for the latest incarnation of One Foot in the Grave.
“I still think I’m 23,” she says. “We don’t realize that we’re old.”
What’s more, rock bands led by 50-somethings are no longer considered a novelty; in Arizona bars, at least, they’re the norm. “Dad rock” cover bands – Baby Boomers returning in retirement to the music they grew up loving in their youth – now dominate the local bar scenes, cranking up their amps and goading like-aged patrons onto the dance floors to live out their rock ‘n’ roll fantasies. (Just hide the paunches and balding noggins in the smartphone selfies.)
“I teach guitar on the side, and my students are all over 50,” says Devo Carrillo, 67, an in-demand Phoenix singer and guitarist who also leads the popular bar band Boomer and hosts a monthly open mic jam session that regularly draws packed houses of older musicians. “Most of them either used to play or always wanted to play and are close to retirement. They have enough money now that they can buy these nice guitars, and they say, ‘You know what? I want to play again and be in a band, just like you!’”
Carrillo (real name Steve Thompson) is a prime example of today’s AARP rocker dodging the stereotypical midlife crisis with a Telecaster and a Marshall stack. A former telephone company engineer who played guitar in his teens before getting drafted into the Army and then coming home to marry his high school sweetheart, Carrillo recalls the fateful day he decided to return to music.
“I was fishing with a buddy in Lake Powell, crying in my beer because I was getting divorced after 32 years of marriage, and he said, ‘Hey, didn’t you used to play music when you were in college? Quit your whining! You’re divorced now; you don’t answer to anybody. Go play music again!’ And that’s what I did.”
Carrillo admits he had some reservations. “I was 54. I felt like I was too old and my playing had gotten stale.” Nevertheless, he took the plunge, and today, remarried, with four grown children, he’s finally living the dream he’s had since he was 12 years old.
“When I was in seventh grade, the first day of school there was a sock hop with a live band,” he says. “From that day forward, I knew that I wanted to play music, period. That was it.” It took a while to get there. “I’ll be 68 this year. But I feel like I’m finally doing exactly what I was meant to do.”
One of the advantages of being a rocker after retirement is the absence of youthful illusions about becoming the next Drake or Taylor Swift.
“If you want to get famous playing music and you’re looking to be discovered, that’s a young person’s game,” Carrillo says. “Most of the people my age that are working as much as I do just love playing music, and we’re not in it for the money.”
JoDina agrees. “Because they’re retired, and they say, ‘Hey, I like to play music. I don’t give a damn if I don’t get any money. I’m just going out for fun!’”
Those are exactly the kind of players JoDina was looking for when she placed a classified ad in the local newspaper seeking musicians over 60 who were looking to revive their music careers. “When I first started, I had two guys that were in their mid-70s,” she says. “Gavan was about two years younger than me. But I had one guy, Danny (Walters), who’d worked for Lawrence Welk for years as an arranger. My drummer, Gino (Costa), only started learning how to play drums when he was, like, 73 or 74 years old. He came to me when he was about 75, and he was the worst drummer in the world – but the best punk drummer, because he was crazy!”
Despite playing in a band called One Foot in the Grave (or maybe because of it), JoDina says most of her musicians managed to keep working for years.
“All my guys went on to be, like, 90, and they played up into their 80s,” she says. “Danny had to quit because he got Parkinson’s. My son joked that his playing just got too fast for us. And Gino said that I had added 10 years to his life.”
There’s some scientific evidence to support the claim that playing music can benefit healthy aging. AARP has partnered with neurologists — as well as longtime Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart — to lead drum circles for seniors to demonstrate the positive effects music-making has on the brain. The National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), which developed a four-week “Weekend Warriors” program specifically designed for older musicians to get back into the groove, has gathered research showing that music stimulates the brain and enhances memory in older people. In one study by C. Victor Fung, director of music education research at the University of South Florida, Tampa, adults aged 60 to 85 without previous musical experience showed improved verbal fluency and mental processing speed after a few months of weekly piano lessons. Other studies have shown boosts in breathing abilities, nervous system function and cognitive skills among older adults introduced to playing music.
Of course, there are some health challenges specific to older musicians. The New Horizons International Music Association (NHIMA), a nonprofit aimed at expanding music-making opportunities for adults, notes that visual problems in reading music can be the greatest challenge, followed by finger and joint pain and difficulty hearing what the other players are doing.
Joe Heath, a Glendale-based guitarist in his 60s who leads a five-piece ensemble of like-aged players in the aptly-named Last Shot Band, was recently sidelined by a bad case of carpal tunnel syndrome in his left hand, which required surgery and several months of rehab. He’s now back to rehearsing with the band and is planning to start booking more gigs.
“It’s a whole different game than when I was younger,” says Heath, who started playing when he was around 10, got into a rock band in high school and then played the dinner club circuit as half of a duo with his first wife after college. Eventually he found steadier work as a mobile auto mechanic, but “got the itch again” around eight years ago and decided to put a band together playing the music he grew up loving – everything from Blood, Sweat and Tears and Santana to Johnny Cash and Don McLean.
“I like the music that we play, I like the camaraderie that we have between the five of us, and of course I love to see the audience smiling and clapping along – that instant gratification you get for all your hard work,” he says. “That’s pretty therapeutic in itself.”
It’s 7 p.m. on a Tuesday at the Kimmyz On Greenway Bar & Grill, and Devo and Friends, Carrillo’s once-a-month gathering of assorted jam session buddies, count off the intro to “Josie,” the jazzy 1977 hit by Steely Dan that requires some advanced knowledge of things like open fifths and diatonic scales to pull off as competently as this group of grey-ponytailed players do.
“That’s one of the advantages of working with older players,” Carrillo says. “There are a lot of excellent musicians here who should be famous but never went nationwide. But they still love getting out to play.”
According to Carrillo, there’s actually a bigger market in town for Boomer-oriented bands than groups playing the latest pop hits.
“Young people aren’t going out to listen to live music in bars like they used to,” he says, noting that many clubs aimed at the younger demographic have turned to using DJs instead. “But classic rock and country Western still seem to rule in Arizona.”
There are some adjustments Carrillo would like to see bar owners make. “The crowd that wants to hear live music in a bar is generally older now, but they don’t go out as late as they used to,” he says. “So the bars need to stop running entertainment from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. and switch to 7 to 11.”
Nevertheless, he says it’s not hard for an older player to keep working around Phoenix and Tucson – as long as they’re willing to hustle. Carrillo says his main band, Boomer, works about 150 to 200 nights a year, and he fills up the rest of the calendar working in four different duos and leading the monthly open mic nights at Kimmyz.
“Arizona still has a robust music scene, although some people would argue with me on that,” he says. “But for a guy like me who wants to work, I can always find it here, and so can other people.”
Heath concurs. “It’s no longer about the money,” he says. “You know, there’s that old joke: ‘Who spends $20,000 on guitars, amplifiers and equipment, gets in a $35,000 car and drives 100 miles to get paid 50 bucks for the night?’ That’s the middle-aged musician! But we do it because we love to play.”
Devo Carillo (left) formed classic rock cover band Boomer when he was 54. Boomer plays about 150 to 200 shows a year around the Valley. (Photo courtesy Boomer)