Rock on the Wild Side

updated 09/09/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/09/1991 01:00AM

ONE LOOK AT SKID ROW LEAD SINGER Sebastian Bach—no relation to Johann or even P.D.Q.—and you know the 6'3" blond with YOUTH GONE WILD tattooed on his forearm doesn't often dine with the social set. "We play music that has guts," says Bach, popping a room-service beer for his afternoon breakfast as he tries to explain why Skid Row's manic, subtle-as-a-chain-saw rock has caught on with fans. "There's an element of danger to it. It's about social circumcision, a shoe box full of bones, the experiences we see on the news every day. Life's hard, and so is our music."

Which is why Bach, 23, and his four bandmates figured their new album, Slave to the Grind, would appeal only to heavy-metal fans who had banged heads to Skid Row, the group's 1989 Top 10 debut album. But last June the new LP, with its mix of tough-guy misogynism and clenched-fist defiance, entered the Billboard charts at No. 1. "It was the last thing any of us expected," says guitarist Dave "the Snake" Sabo, 26. Adds Bach: "The average 12-year-old girl who's into Nelson isn't going to understand it."

There is something about the handsome, hazel-eyed Bach that little girls do understand, however. "Good songs," says Bach, with a laugh, "as well as high cheekbones."

Though not quite Guns N' Roses, the group has earned its rep as rock's new bad boys. During Skid Row's first tour in 1989, Bach quickly established himself as the most untamed lead singer this side of Axl Rose. First came a concert melee in Springfield, Mass., where Bach, bloodied by a hurled bottle, threw it back at the hurler only to hit an innocent female fan by mistake. The incident put the victim into the hospital and Bach into hot water. Soon after, Bach was given a T-shirt with a gay-baiting slogan, which he casually wore onstage. Critics climbed out of the woodwork. "At the time I didn't realize anyone cared what was on my T-shirt," he says. But when a 12-year-old fan told him, " 'Hey, I hate faggots too,' I thought, that's not cool to spread an emotion like that. I have good friends who are homosexual. I don't represent gay-bashing."

Other kinds of bashing, though, were less worrisome. At first, "we thought, okay, we're in a band. Let's trash something," says guitarist Scotti Hill, 27. Trouble was, "a couple months down the road, the bills start coming in." Bassist-lyricist Rachel Bolan, 27, remembers getting dunned for $2,000 in phone charges, "but I couldn't remember making that many calls," he says. "Then it was explained to me. I'd smashed $2,000 worth of phones."

For Bach, heavy-metal habits began early. Born Sebastian Bierk in the Bahamas and eventually transplanted to Toronto when he was 8, the oldest of artist David and wife Kathleen's three children led a normal life—until he turned 15. "That's when I told my dad that I was going to be a rock star. He said, 'Not in this house you're not.' So I split."

Dropping out of high school in the 11th grade, Bach spent four years bouncing through bands. Then in 1987 he heard a demo tape by a Tom's River, N.J., group that was looking for a lead singer. The band, Skid Row, had been formed that year by Sabo and Bolan, both of whom worked in a music store with Hill. The three, plus drummer Rob Affuso, 28, had spent eight months rehearsing in Bolan's parents' garage.

Bach appeared after the Skids had auditioned close to 100 singers, and was quickly enlisted. Soon after, he tattooed onto his forearm the title of the Bolan tune that would become the Skids' first hit, "Youth Gone Wild." "We didn't even have a record deal," says Bach (known as Bas to his pals). "I just loved the lyrics." ("Since I was born/ They couldn't hold me down/ Another misfit kid/ Another burned-out town.")

After opening for Guns N' Roses this summer, Skid Row will set out on a headlining tour of its own this fall. There were few shocks on the Guns tour—other than Bach's introduction of his son, Paris, 3, to surprised fans at an L.A. concert in July. "I love my son very much," he says. (He is not married to the boy's mother, an old girlfriend he won't name.) "I don't get to see him as often as I'd like, and that hurts. But I do the best I can to act responsibly."

As evidence of that, perhaps, Bach has moved out of a small apartment and into a contemporary suburban home nearby in Red Bank, N.J. Now, "all of us are paying mortgages," says Affuso, who lives close by. Notes Hill, another neighbor: "I had to buy a refrigerator. I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I'm a guitar player, for Chrissake."

To be sure, success has ushered the band into a strange—and unexpected—new world. "I didn't think we'd be accepted," shrugs Bach. "I thought our music would be more underground. I figured people would use our CD as a coaster or a Frisbee. But it seems a lot of them are listening. Who would've thought?"

STEVE DOUGHERTY
TODD GOLD in Los Angeles

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