The Creative Type. This is the third in an occasional series about imaginative, artistic Southern Arizonans. Read the first two profiles by clicking on the links at left under "Related Stories."
Robert Mason brushes his long blond hair from his eyes as he urges the audience at Cactus Moon to sing along.
The hair is fake, but Mason's passion for hair bands of the 1980s is very real. He's created a head-banging character that's cobbled together from the likes of Sebastian Bach and Axl Rose.
"C'mon," the 41-year-old lead singer screams, holding the microphone to fans crowded near the stage. "That's right. Go ahead with your bad self."
A gaggle of gals in tight jeans and halter tops are up front, waving their arms in the air and shrieking with appreciation as Metal Head tears into another anthemic Bon Jovi or Def Leppard cover.
The audience is mostly middle-age fans who loved this music when it was new and don't see why it can't live forever. They are joined by a sprinkling of fist-pumping twentysomethings who see the grand theatrics on stage and recall dim memories of '80s music videos.
"Don't stop believing," they all sing, generations united in rock balladry. "Hold on to that feEEEEeling."
Mason, who rocks acid-wash jeans, a sleeveless black shirt and reflective aviator shades, loves every minute of the band's two main gigs: Cactus Moon on Tuesdays and the Martini Ranch in Scottsdale on Sundays. With a weekly toehold in two cities, the band has played nearly 1,000 shows since it got going in 2003.
Though he's never been on the cover of Rolling Stone, or found himself the star of a reality TV show, Mason considers himself a rock 'n' roll success story.
In addition to Metal Head, which aims to re-create iconic sounds and styles of '80s hair bands, he's also the lead singer for Warrant, a real hair band that scored a string of hits in the '80s and early '90s, including "Cherry Pie" and "Heaven." The band averages 40 shows a year these days, playing state fairs, casinos, arenas and biker rallies.
Mason, who was asked to replace Jani Lane in 2008, says he's grateful for the chance to be himself when he's with Warrant ("No sunglasses or wigs to hide behind").
But whether he's rockin' a wig or not, both rock personas feel natural to him.
"I am really introverted until I flip the switch and go on stage," says Mason, a single dude who shares a home in Cave Creek with Bonzo, his dog.
Mason went to high school in New Jersey, where he played soccer and lacrosse, ran track, taught himself guitar and studied opera.
In college, he toyed with the idea of becoming an attorney or a journalist. But rock 'n' roll wouldn't let him alone.
Driving to class one morning, the radio blaring as he drummed the steering wheel and hit every note, he had an epiphany.
"I can sing damn near everything on the radio," he recalled thinking to himself. "Maybe I could do this."
Within two years, he was the lead singer in a band that played clubs in the area.
He dropped out of college after the band, which never settled on a name, landed a major-label deal. But his dreams of rock stardom crashed hard soon after a leadership change at Epic Records. The band lost its contract, and "we were all but forgotten."
In 1991, Mason scored an audition with Lynch Mob, a Phoenix-based hair metal band that lost its lead singer after signing a $1 million record deal.
He was asked to audition a second time, then a third.
After a club tour, playing 14 shows in 12 days, he finally got the word. On his birthday.
"They brought out this big cake, and the drummer came out and literally pelted me with it," Mason says. "And then, boom, I was in the band."
Lynch Mob made a record and then went on a national tour.
"This was the first time I had a record out that was a worldwide release, was on MTV and in all the magazines," Mason says.
The group disbanded within two years. "Not everyone gets along, and grunge had hit," recalls Mason. "The record industry had really changed."
Mason survived by finding work as a "behind-the-scenes sessions guy, which was kind of cool."
In 1995, Sharon Osbourne called, inviting him to sing background vocals for her husband.
Mason took off two weeks later and toured the world with Ozzy for a year, an experience he calls an honor and a "unique privilege."
"I was being paid really well and getting treated really nicely," he recalls.
But being stuck in the background was not for him. Not feeling the magic, he went to Sharon and begged out of his contract.
He soon joined Cry of Love, a American rock band that was based in Raleigh, N.C. Mason was a lead singer again, but the album flopped and members didn't see much point in continuing.
Mason wasn't through with rock 'n' roll work, though. Not by a long shot.
"I've always been able to make a living and figure it out one way or another."
A cover band is born
In 2003 he and a few musicians from the Phoenix area started Metal Head, a band that works hard on its heavily stylized look.
"We realized that it needs to be visually impressive," said Mason. "You need to play well, but the audience listens with their eyes."
It's a lesson he says he learned from Gene Simmons, the tongue-flicking frontman of Kiss.
Metal Head played its first gigs at City Limits, a nightclub on East Tanque Verde Road that's now closed. It distinguished itself from the scads of other cover bands by recording guitar tracks and backup vocals to create something close to the original.
"Anything worth doing in the '80s was worth overdoing," Mason explains. "Hair, drugs, music, any of it. The audience wants to hear it and see it just the way they remember it."
Dozens of shows
Metal Head's members have driven to Tucson and back every Tuesday for the past four years. Mason and the bass player, John Colby, bought a house on Tucson's east side a couple years ago but still call Phoenix home.
Mason says that singing in Metal Head and Warrant amounts to "two really good part-time jobs."
When City Limits went belly up in 2006, Metal Head moved to Cactus Moon. The band took over Tuesday nights, and there was nowhere to go but up considering the East Broadway club used to be closed on that night.
"I knew I had a great band on my hands," says Dru Cassell, the club's general manager. "They have their hardcore 200 people that come and see them every week."
Metal Head, which draws much bigger crowds in Scottsdale, created a half-serious band called Nerd Alert in February to spice up their Cactus Moon show.
The idea was to prime the pump for the main event.
"We just wanted a fun thing that was different to kind of reignite our Tuesday nights at the Cactus Moon," says Mason.
The geeky, goofy opposite of Metal Head plays covers from Cheap Trick, Puddle of Mudd, and Billy Idol.
"It's an experiment," says Mason. "We laugh at each other so much."
But it's the give-and-take with screaming Metal Head fans that really gets him off.
"The people singing along with us is the greatest rush there is."
If you go
Metal Head plays Cactus Moon, 5470 E. Broadway, on Tuesday nights. Cover $5.