Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer A Reason to Deceive

By Matt Hanks

MARCH 8, 1999:  Rock scribe extraordinaire Lester Bangs once wrote — and I’m paraphrasing here — “In the history of rock n’ roll, no artist has squandered his talent so completely as Rod Stewart.” Or something like that. Of course the same could be said of Bangs himself. His tenure as America’s greatest post-beat writer was cut short — at a mere 33 years of age — by a confluence of cough syrup, alcohol, speed, and prescription-pill ingestion. But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose. Any claim such as Bangs’ is open to conjecture. After all, when you consider that “Penny Lane” and “Silly Love Songs” share an author in Paul McCartney, that likewise “Good Vibrations” and “Johnny Carson” were both hatched from the mind of Brian Wilson (the list just goes on and on), the appropriate question at this juncture would be: “Who from rock’s Sixties/Seventies pantheon hasn’t squandered his talent?”

Still, to see Rod the Mod go from his classic study in camaraderie, humor, and abandon on 1971’s Every Picture Tells a Story to the arrogant, narcissistic vamping of 1978’s Blondes Have More Fun must have been particularly unsettling, even alienating to his then-loyal fans. It was around that time that Bangs registered another infamous jab at The Blonde One. “Rod Stewart,” he wrote in 1977, “now makes music for housewives.” Ouch. The 1980s saw Rod descend still further into artistic obsolescence, as he invested more energy into shagging models and attending the right parties than recording proper albums. But as he was cementing his reputation as the jolly jetsetter, he was also acting as midwife to a new profession. And that’s where Memphis’ Rob Caudill comes in.

A musician by trade and a songwriter by aspiration, Caudill has spent the last half-decade putting food on the table as a Rod Stewart impersonator, nay, “tribute artist.” “No small task,” you might think, and certainly, the thought of reenacting Rod’s fiery performances with the Jeff Beck Group or the Faces would be nigh on impossible. But when you take the art out of the artist, as Stewart did somewhere ’round ’75-’76, imitation suddenly becomes more than flattery, it becomes easy. Looking at Caudill, he’s a natural for the job. He possesses the high-definition jawline, the shock of spiky blonde hair, but most importantly, he has the nose.

“It’s funny,” Caudill recalls, “my hair used to be dyed real dark and then people used to tell me I looked like [Rush bassist/singer] Geddy Lee or Ronnie Wood from the Stones. I think the key is that I’ve just got that big ol’ rock-and-roll nose.”

Caudill spent those dark-haired days fronting a couple of modestly successful local bands — the Breaks and the Willys. It wasn’t until the latter of these groups split up that his future as an impersonator came into focus. “I went to Vegas after the Willys broke up. I saw some impersonators there and they were just cheesy as hell, so I figured I could do that,” Caudill explains.

Upon returning to Memphis, Caudill embarked on a (somewhat) rigorous regimen of Stewart video and album consumption: All Rod, all the time. As Caudill soon learned, there are many Rod Stewarts, many muses to pursue. There’s the early brown-hair-and-a-soccer-jersey Rod; the hungover-in-a-hotel-room-lounging-in-my-pajamas Rod; the leopard-skin-ascot-and-a-glass-of-champagne Rod; and the MTV-heyday-Don-Johnson-with-a-better-tailor Rod. After some deliberation, Caudill decided to focus on the latter. “The costumes from that era are just easier to find,” he admits. And sure enough, the night I saw him at Archie’s Rock-and-Roll Cafe, about a month back, he wore a canary-colored suit with white shoes and matching mike stand, which he twirled in the air like a lasso. The crowd — overwhelmingly populated by middle-age, middle-class, suburban housewives (see, Bangs knew what he was talking about) — loved it.

I ask Caudill about the crowd adoration, and he admits it’s a thrill, but it’s obvious that there are other factors at work here. He explains, “When I came back to Memphis [after the trip to Vegas] I was doing some sessions here with Joe Walsh. He’s the one that really encouraged me to start doing impersonations. He told me how much money there is in it.” That’s right, Caudill makes no pretense about his motivation for riffing on Rod. “When my son came along, I started thinking, ‘Man, I’ve gotta start planning for the future, I’ve gotta make some money.’ I mean, what I’d really like to do is move to Nashville and start writing songs, but for now, I’m in this for the money.”

Innate cheesiness? Opportunistic motivations? It’s enough to make one question Caudill’s ethics. Or is it? In a way, what Caudill is doing is almost admirable, compared to the man he emulates. As Stewart himself looks like an impersonation act these days, one wonders whether he even remembers the tarnished beauty and humble artistry that characterize his best work. At least with Caudill, there’s no nostalgic regret. He’s no shadow of his former self, no talent squanderer. He’s just trying to make an honest living and provide a life for his children. What’s the harm in that?

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