It's another Wednesday-night open mic at the Stagger Inn ... Again in Edwardsville. A lanky guy in a leather jacket, his face rough from razor burn, stands with a guitar and a longneck. He's talking: "I'm just gonna stand here and keep talking until someone brings me a Busch beer. I'm not kidding. I'll just keep talking." What kind of act is this? the crowd is thinking. Evidently this ain't no act. Soon enough, the beers are lined up like bowling pins around his beat-up motorcycle boots. Rosco Vill a starts to play again, whacking out three-chord rhymes with a rock-star strut:
"Smoking cigarettes 'cause I'm lazy/Another dollar burns, well, that's cool/Gettin' drunk again, sunny day/Sitting on my porch swing, blowing my blues away/It's just a cocaine-nosebleed afternoon/So lay me down some rails after you."
Rosco Villa -- it's not his real name, but it gives him a "mysteriousness with chicks," he says -- grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of Collinsville, Ill., the son of a union electrician who played in cover bands in the '70s. By the time he was 13, Rosco was playing the same Creedence Clearwater Revival songs as his dad. AC/DC, too. His grandfather tried to hip him to Hank Williams; the teenage rocker didn't get it. Fifteen years later, Rosco's guitar playing isn't much better. "I wanted to be Angus Young," Rosco says, "but not so much anymore. I have my own identity now. At first my bands were predominantly punk rock, drive-my-El Dorado-through-your-house, kick-your-ass sort of stuff. What I do now isn't much different, but it's with acoustic guitars."
What is Rosco's identity? On a crappy four-track recording, he screams over a blues lick ripped off from Led Zeppelin: "Take your guns and your big bad ass/Come on, dude, let's take it to the max/I'm not afraid to get it on now/Even though you say you're the baddest dude in town/I huff your gas, I smoke your grass/Then I come on over and I whup your ass."
The song is called "High on Booze" -- not to be confused with "Baby, I'm High." It could be a joke, but something in his voice -- the angry Midwestern drawl, the way he chews the syllables and spits them out -- suggests that if it is a put-on, Rosco isn't letting the truth off easy. In a twisted but honest fashion, his songs document everything a complacent Midwestern middle class would rather not acknowledge, would rather not know, about their sons and daughters. There's a lot of dope, booze, sex, crime and anger in Rosco's songs. He shines a rock & roll light on these fucked-up lives, but he knows he's one of them. Or maybe his songs are just a ticket to the bar. "It's like when I took my first drink of beer," he says. "I knew that's what I was gonna do the rest of my life. Playing for free beer -- that's the greatest thing on earth! It makes you feel like you've finally made it."
How seriously one should take Rosco and his songs -- which are often as smartly rhymed as an N.W.A. rap -- depends on how seriously one takes life, especially the working-class, white-trash lives most would just as soon sneer at as understand. "That song 'Trailer Park Queen' is total metaphor," he says, even though the metaphor is true. "It's about finding a kick-ass woman. Maybe if you are into smoking crystal meth, it'd be pretty cool to find a chick that likes to smoke crystal meth. Every song I write is from the heart. 'Cocaine Nosebleed' is a freaking true story. It was the last time I did cocaine. My girlfriend was out of town. Whenever I was left alone, I'd get in trouble with stupid stuff. I was bored one day, did some rails, sitting on my porch -- this was in Columbus, Ohio. I was just sitting out there drinking a 40, all high, being a people-watcher. All of a sudden, people start looking at me real weird; when I went inside to take a piss, I noticed that my nose was all bloody. I freaked out. I thought I was gonna die."
What was Rosco doing in Columbus? He won't tell you much: "I was just rockin'. They had cheap malt liquor. You could buy 40 ounces of Country Club for 70 cents. The worst place I ever played was in Columbus -- El Dorado's. Total blue-collar bar. Kinda place that a guy like me walks in, the way I'm dressed, and I'm, like, man, I'll be lucky to walk out of here without a busted lip. People just hated us. I'm not shy. I'll tell the crowd what I think: 'Fuck you guys.' They'll yell, 'Fuck you!' back. I think I said, 'This has got to be the worst godawful place I've ever played in my life.' Someone unplugged my guitar cord, and that was it. It was like that at the Stagger Inn the first few times. People didn't boo, but I don't think they cared to hear me."
Rosco's discography to date includes titles such as Country Metal Up Your Ass; Inhalant Bent and Hellbound; American Country Metal; Bad Words, Bad Women, Badder Drugs; and the more pithily titled 7-inch "Drugs." But the bands that backed Rosco on those albums -- including players such as Slayer Jones and Carlos, their Hank Jr.-meets-Metallica sound -- are all long gone. Rosco is looking for a more acoustic, song-based sound. In January, if the money comes together, the current band will record again. The lineup features Mark Johnson, a longtime hired gun and one of the best, most understated guitar players in the bi-state area. "I like to complement Rosco's songs," he says, "bring them out and enhance them." Jeff Widdows, who studied classical violin at Southern Illinois University and has gigged at bars for years, joined last month. "Rosco's music was real," he says. "It was still fun, but it was real as hell." The band's rhythm section, no surprise, is in flux. "We keep having to find drummers left and right," Rosco complains. "I can't find a drummer who don't piss me off."
As clichéd as it may sound, so me hard-to-nail-down honesty, some "real as hell" quality redeems Rosco's music from his own over-the-top, under-the-barstool obsessions. He's just a Midwest rocker, but he doesn't pretend he's anything more or less. "I kinda live a hoosier lifestyle," he says. "I don't want to be mean by saying 'hoosier'. I work as a carpenter; I'm a blue-collar guy. I love NASCAR. Shit, I'd love to have a satellite dish. I'm not too big into hunting, though. You gotta be able to laugh. In some ways, I'm making fun of myself a little bit. I don't intend to piss people off."