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It's all part of their Rock N’ Roll Fantasy

Doctors, lawyers, assorted chiefs pay big money to strut their stuff at camp
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Last year, Gary Hofstetter was nervous. Turning 50, he was celebrating the milestone — or trying to ignore it — by signing up for Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp. President of a real estate management company in Boston, he was a lifelong rock music lover who owned an acoustic guitar that he couldn’t play very well. The fantasy camp, which would culminate in his first appearance onstage as a musician, was a self-imposed challenge.

This year, Gary is going back. He’s nervous all over again, but for different reasons. His first trip to camp, he says, was so exhilarating that he worries it can’t possibly be as good the second time.

“I had the most life-altering experience,” he gushes. “We played ‘Wild Thing’ and ‘Pinball Wizard’ at the House of Blues. You’re right up there with your idols.”

Repeat customers like Hofstetter make up a substantial portion of the lawyers, dentists, brokers and divorcees who will plunk down $8499 apiece to take instruction from the Who’s Roger Daltrey, the Allman Brothers’ Dickie Betts, the members of Cheap Trick and many other crow’s-footed rock stars at the fifth Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, which kicked off Feb. 16 in Hollywood. On Feb. 22, The Learning Channel will feature a two-hour special on the class of 2005.

Every first-time camper thinks he’ll be easy to spot, says promoter David Fishof: “They always say ‘I’m the one with the wobbly knees.’” It’s the instructors’ job to help them banish their inhibitions.

“I tell them, ‘Look man, just go for it. That’s your stage. At that moment, there’s no one better than you,’” says Night Ranger’s Jack Blades, who is returning for his second stint as camp director.  “And believe me, you get some wild things happening up there.”

Part Deepak Chopra, part ‘Smoke on the Water’
Fishof, who presented his first Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp in 1997, still gets excited when campers tell him they feel changed by the process. “I tell people it’s like going to Deepak Chopra for a week,” he says. That, plus “Smoke on the Water.”

Fishof got his start as a sports agent, negotiating with George Steinbrenner on behalf of his first client, then-New York Yankee Lou Piniella.

“Lou taught me how to win,” he says.

Sidling into the entertainment world, he engineered a reunion of the Monkees in 1986 and helped form Ringo Starr’s touring All Starr Band three years later. Working on Piniella’s baseball clinics for kids, he noted the rising popularity of fantasy sports camps for adults, and he envisioned a similar getaway for would-be rockers.

Unlike the retired players who typically run the sports camps, however, Fishof points out that his counselors remain viable commercial draws. (Yes, people still pay to see Winger.)   

“Some of these rock stars still sell out arenas,” says Fishof. “Cheap Trick is going on tour with Aerosmith two days after camp ends.”

At Rock Camp, it’s not all guys, and they’re not all having their midlife crises. Blades says there are always a few women and campers as fresh-faced as 16, “young guys that want to be around seasoned musicians.”

And now kids, meet your counselors!
The counselors — this week including Neal Schon of Journey, Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad, Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, Bruce Kulick of KISS and many others — have sold a combined 100 million albums, Blades figures.

“It’s crazy,” he says.

Some of the campers are passable musicians; some, like Hofstetter, are the self-proclaimed “bottom of the barrel.” Still others have never picked up an instrument before. “You don’t do anything?” says Blades. “Great, you’re a backup singer. Here’s a tambourine.”

Counselors choose their band members by rough estimation of their skill levels and stylistic sensibilities. But the bands, Blades says, aren’t meant to be mirror images of the counselors. The Knack’s Doug Feiger, for instance, won’t necessarily get all power-pop fanatics.

“You might have a shredder with Feiger,” he says. “Last year we put a Limp Bizkit-type guy with Gary Burr, a Nashville songwriter. Sometimes opposites attract.”

Last year, Hofstetter had Elliot Easton of the Cars as his counselor. He had Daltrey sign his battered vinyl copy of “Who’s Next.” After coming home from camp, he caught a Night Ranger show at a casino, where Blades greeted him “like a long lost friend.”

“My fantasy was complete,” he says. At least until the next one.

The next Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp takes place August 13-17 in New York.

James Sullivan lives in Massachusetts and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.