Punky Meadows’ band left D.C. to rock arenas, party with Kiss, and test the limits of white spandex. He came back to run a tanning salon.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
It makes perfect sense that Edwin Lionel Meadows spent his previous life as an arena-rock god in an all-white costume. Today, he wears perfectly creased form-fitting jeans and an unbuttoned-to-below-the-sternum silk shirt; the look is no less immaculate than the one the now-52-year-old sported before he came back to the D.C. area almost 15 years ago. Meadows likes to keep his clothes immaculate. He likes to keep his hair immaculate, too: His chestnut mane is cut into a one-of-a-kind half-gladiator-helmet, half-California-swinger style with strategical blond highlights. And Meadows especially likes to keep his tanning salon immaculate. “People take off their clothes here,” he says, “so you want it to be pristine, like a doctor’s office.”
An obsessive centerer of rugs and checker of lights, Ed Meadows—he doesn’t use his childhood nickname, Punky, so much anymore—is a self-confessed “neatnik.” “I guess I’m what you’d call obsessive-compulsive,” he says. “A control freak.” He claims that he “hasn’t had a vacation in seven years,” which happens to be just how long he’s owned the TanFastic Tanning Club Inc., a deceptively small-looking one-story affair that sits beside a dry cleaner on Chain Bridge Road in Oakton, Va.
“I’ve got the ankle chains on,” Meadows says, rubbing at a smudge that mars the perfect reflective sheen on one of the 10 tanning machines in his salon, which is done up in lots of cheerful pastels to remind him of sunny California, where he lived from the mid-’70s through the late ’80s. “I always have to be here to do something. Just this morning, the plumbing broke. There was water everywhere.”
Not that Meadows is really complaining. “It’s a fun business,” he says, as he shows off the Starship—a stand-up booth reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron, which comes complete with disco lights, a sound system, and God knows what else—and the alarmingly named Dr. Muller, a lie-down bed that looks as if it came straight off the set of Alien. “UV light relieves depression. It’s very relaxing. It makes people happy. Plus, you get to meet all kinds of people. It’s like being a bartender.”
Another nice thing about owning the salon, says Meadows, is that he can keep a guitar at work, because that’s something else he’s obsessive about: playing the guitar. On slow days, he’ll plug into the amp behind the front desk and play along to the songs on the Country Music Channel, which plays on the portable TV that sits atop the glass-doored cooler with its offerings of bottled water, iced tea, and Red Bull.
“I’m into country music now,” Meadows says. “For me, that’s where the real guitar players are anymore. [Country is] difficult to play. Nowadays, rock guitarists don’t seem interested in pushing the boundaries. You hear them making fun of Eddie Van Halen. Now who, if they’re really honest with themselves, wouldn’t give their left you-know-what to play like Eddie Van Halen? Nobody wants to dedicate themselves to developing that kind of ability.”
Meadows cares a lot about ability, about doing something that takes a special aptitude or a bit of flair. He infinitely prefers the tanning business to DJ-ing, which he spent six years doing at the Crazy Horse Saloon in Georgetown. “I never enjoyed being a DJ,” he says. “I don’t think it takes any talent. It was always like, What am I doing here?”
But back then, he did it anyway. He had just returned from Los Angeles, his 24-year career in the music business was in a shambles, and he was, he says, “feeling pretty shot-down.” Besides, he adds, he needed the money.
Things had been different in California. There, Punky Meadows played guitar for a band called Angel, and at the time, the glam-pomp band seemed destined to reach that celestial level of stardom Meadows calls the “crystal wave.” His face adorned giant billboards on the Sunset Strip. The readers of Circus magazine voted Angel the Best New Group of 1976, the same year the band played the great American arena circuit with the likes of Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Journey, and Rush. Angel had its own fan club—not to mention one of the most elaborate stage shows in rock, a fantasia of smoke, magic, and mirrors that led one wag to suggest that the band might be better off staying home and sending its props on the road.
But Meadows doesn’t talk a lot about the old days. “Most of my customers don’t know I used to be in the music business,” says the fellow who turned down spots in such bands as Kiss, Aerosmith, and the New York Dolls, and a steady gig with Michael Bolton. Nor does he seem to spend a lot of time thinking about what might have been had he bolted Angel for greener pastures. Or had MTV come along earlier. Or, for that matter, had Angel never pigeonholed itself with those infamous white costumes.
“I don’t know if they were a mistake or not,” says Meadows. “It depends how you look at it. At the time it was cool. We were like the opposite of Kiss. But maybe we got typecast.”
Mistake or not, those outfits helped make Punky Meadows one of the more outlandish figures of an outlandish decade. “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who’s the prettiest band of them all?” asked one Angel promotional poster, and in a group that prefigured the pretty-boy hair bands of the mid-’80s, Meadows was the prettiest angel by far. The creator of the online Punky Meadows Shrine has gone so far as to describe him as “the white clad, fabulously coiffed, guitar-playing epitome of androgynous glam perfection,” and provides this account of one woman’s first look at the “Prince of Pout”:
Near my favorite part of [Woolworth’s], the Candy section, they had placed a bin full of records marked down to ridiculously low prices for rapid sale….
Sectioned alphabetically, or perhaps presented there in the front by God himself was an all white album with a quintet of five lovely men in white spandex and satin reclining on the cover. My eyes casually roamed the cover until my eyes fell upon the black and white reproduction of a pair of eyes I would later come to find were the color of mahogany.
I froze, trapped like a deer in headlights, and my palms began to sweat. The longer I stared at the face of this Angelic man, the more my young brain cells melted, mutated, and died….It was at that moment Punky Meadows became the ideal male role model.
Though Punky and his prettified bandmates were a smash with the teeny-bopper set, their airbrushed androgyny did little to improve Angel’s standing with critics, one of whom called the D.C. band’s image “one of the silliest ever, despite stiff competition.”
Of course, the band’s larger-than-life image succeeded only in obscuring its music, which was a curiously appealing mix of glam, metal, and Styx-style pomp-rock that now seems startlingly ahead of its time. Nonetheless, plenty of pre-hair-band listeners recoiled at the band’s stage gimmicks, white outfits, and “flowing locks of hair that would make even a Breck Girl green with envy,” in the words of Midwest Beat’s Ernie Thomas.
One of those listeners was Frank Zappa, who went so far as to write a song about Meadows. “Punky’s Whips,” originally slated to appear on the 1978 album Zappa in New York, dismisses Angel as product (“In today’s rapidly changing world/Rock groups appear every 15 minutes/Utilizing some new promotional device,” the song begins. “Some of these devices have been known/To leave irreparable scars on the minds of foolish young consumers”) before delivering a slightly blunter verdict: “Punky, Punky, your album’s the shits!/It’s all wrong!”
To his credit, Meadows readily agreed to let Zappa record his mock tribute to the “pooched-out succulence of his insolent pouting rictus,” even if his less-than-flattered bandmates delayed the song’s release for several years. “I thought it was cool,” he says. “Frank is very satirical, so you can’t have a thin skin. I found it kind of flattering. Around the time he wrote the song, he was playing in L.A. He asked if I’d be willing to come onstage in my Angel costume and play with him on the song. I went to the concert, the curtain goes up, and there’s this giant publicity photograph of me doing this pucker kind of thing. It was like Dean Martin’s roast or something. Afterwards, Frank asked me to his place to drink some beer and play some tunes.”
Despite Zappa’s efforts—not to mention the rise of punk, grunge, and nu metal—Angel continues to be popular. All of its albums are in print. The band is even touring again, white outfits and all. But Meadows has consistently declined to rejoin the resurrected Angel, saying that “rock is for kids.” Besides, he says, just the thought of “a bunch of 50-year-olds in white spandex” is enough to make him shudder. He also avoids the frequent Angel-related meet-and-greets and regularly turns down requests for interviews from fanzines.
“They just played at Jaxx,” says Meadows of his former bandmates. “They asked me to come and play. From what I heard, the keyboard player didn’t show up.”
Meadows was born in Southeast Washington on Feb. 6, 1950. The oldest of four brothers, Punky—he doesn’t remember how he got his nickname, only that “it’s Southern”—grew up in the same predominantly black Barnaby Terrace neighborhood that spawned such D.C. guitar legends as Danny Gatton, Roy Clark, and Link Wray. He attended Draper Elementary and Hart Junior High Schools; the latter is where he played his first show as a member of the Intruders, a quartet of Beatles wannabes who practiced at their drummer’s house on Xenia Street SE. According to Meadows, the band’s every last piece of electrical equipment was plugged in to a Silvertone amp with reverb. It was, he recalls, “pretty hip.”
From the beginning, Meadows’ ambition was to be a rock ‘n’ roll star. A quick study on the guitar, he was playing Georgetown nightclubs on a virtually nightly basis at an age when most of his contemporaries were still looking forward to high school. By the time he was 16, he and his band the English Setters were opening for the likes of the Jimmy Page-era Yardbirds, Neil Diamond, and the Young Rascals at the Alexandria Roller Rink, a hulking brick monstrosity that during its long history played host to the Doors, Lou Reed, and, almost, the Sex Pistols.
Jay Nedry, owner of the metal-friendly Jaxx nightclub in Springfield Va., first laid eyes on Meadows at Springfield’s American Legion Hall. “This was the summer of ’67,” says Nedry. “The English Setters were in full English regalia, Beatles boots and gray jackets. They did a good chunk of Sgt. Pepper’s. They had the look, the attitude, the whole nine yards.”
But as times changed, so did the band, and by the time flower power hit D.C., the English Setters had abandoned their mod finery and changed their name to the more psychedelic Cherry People. (“Pick Kelly, our bass player, came up with the name, but he wanted to go with Perry Cheeple,” recalls Meadows. “We were tripping at the time.”) A visit to New York in the summer of 1967 gave Cherry People their first real exposure to the pop-music fantasy factory: Impressed by the band’s summer residency at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village, Heritage Records signed Cherry People to a recording contract.
Unfortunately, the finished product, which was released in May 1968, bore scant resemblance to anything the band was doing onstage. Not only did the producers decline to use most of Cherry People’s material, Meadows says, they opted to use studio musicians—and even other vocalists.
Heritage marketed Cherry People as a kind of “poor man’s Monkees,” Meadows recalls, complete with prepackaged personalities. As the “wacky one,” Meadows, according to his official bio, was supposed to have uttered such nonquotables as “I love soap operas, man…I’m having a special guitar made with a transistor TV built in so I don’t miss anything.”
The whole experience ended sometime after Heritage sent the band on a surreal cross-country tour—an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, a weeklong stint at Caesar’s Palace, a showcase at a San Diego bowling alley—that would have tested even Hunter S. Thompson’s taste for American grotesquerie. Small wonder Cherry People wrote their time in the major leagues off as a terrible bummer.
Besides, says Meadows, the boys in the band were still haunted by the unearthly sounds made by an obscure black guitarist they had seen back at the Cafe Wha?. “We realized we didn’t want to be the Monkees,” he says. “We wanted to be Hendrix.”
Following the demise of Cherry People, Meadows wandered for a spell—first to Biloxi, Miss., then to Boston, where he joined a band called Daddy Warbux, aka Bux, and hung out with the struggling musicians in another bar band: Aerosmith.
When Bux went under for lack thereof, Meadows and bassist Mickey Jones returned to D.C. and, in late 1974 or early 1975, briefly formed a group called Foxy. They were joined by Gregg Giuffria, a keyboard wizard with decidedly proggish inclinations; drummer and D.C. native Barry Brandt; and singer Frank DiMino. Shortly thereafter, they renamed the band after a favorite Hendrix song. Angel was born.
If Hendrix turned Meadows’ musical world upside down, Kiss gave him his first glimpse of rock ‘n’ roll as escapist spectacle. Indeed, Kiss’ outrageous Kabuki schtick validated everything Meadows was trying to do with the nascent Angel. “We were always interested in the entertainment aspect of rock,” he says. “We put together some stage costumes and really went overboard with the flashpots. We were setting off these arena-size explosions in these small clubs. Beer glasses flew off the bar every time we’d set one off. The owners
Soon the members of Angel, attired early on in white jeans and T-shirts, were putting all the money they earned playing at D.C. clubs into their stage show. “We introduced glam rock to D.C.,” says Meadows. “Before us, everybody was dressing like the Allman Brothers. Suddenly, everything was lipstick and glitter.”
But Angel’s connection to Kiss goes much deeper than clothes and beauty products. There’s no greater rock myth than the band that is discovered playing in a small club and catapulted to stardom virtually overnight. But that’s precisely what happened to Angel at Connecticut Avenue’s Bogie’s one night in early April 1975, when the members of Kiss themselves walked in, having played a D.C. show earlier that evening.
Legend has it that Kiss bassist Gene Simmons placed a 3 a.m. phone call to Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart, advising him to sign Angel pronto. The original plan was for Angel to audition at a concert at Anaheim Stadium, as Kiss’ opening act. But Kiss nixed the idea, not wanting to be upstaged. According to Meadows, Simmons told Bogart, “No way will Angel ever open for Kiss.”
Angel’s signing had immediate consequences. “By the end of that week,” says Washington rock historian Mark Opsasnick, “they were out of Bogie’s, out of D.C. Gone. Disappeared. Casablanca whisked them off to L.A. just like that.”
Angel’s association with Kiss was something of a mixed blessing. On one hand, Casablanca’s idea to market Angel as the anti-Kiss—with Angel in white and Kiss in black—certainly provided the band with lots of publicity. On the other hand, Casablanca gave the Angel boys free rein to follow their schmaltziest impulses. With funding from Casablanca flowing freely, they sought out some of Hollywood’s finest illusionists—Doug Henning among them—to create effects for the band’s live show.
The result was an extravaganza designed to blow the minds of the teen stoners who made up most of Angel’s audience. A giant Angel logo would suddenly open its eyes before introducing the band members, who would appear onstage in pillars of smoke. It was great, Meadows recalls—except for the occasional Spi¬nal Tap-esque technical difficulty.
“We’d appear every night in these tubes of smoke during our introductions,” Meadows says, “and all these outrageously stoned kids in the audience would go [he makes the universal fingers-to-mouth gesture for smoking a joint], ‘That was weird, man…’
“Of course, all we were doing was coming up through trapdoors from beneath the stage,” he continues. “Well, one night, the big talking head introduces Mickey Jones, and Mickey isn’t there. We’re looking at each like, Where the fuck’s Mickey? Turns out his trapdoor got stuck. And all those stoned kids are going [Meadows sucks on his imaginary joint again], ‘That’s really weird, man…’”
Angel’s stage show was so over-the-top glorious that even Simmons & Co. borrowed a bit of it here and there. “I was watching Kiss one time and [guitarist] Ace [Frehley] goes like this,” recalls Meadows, hitting an air-guitar power chord and then holding his arm out in a sideways U. “Now, that’s something I’d been doing for years. Afterwards, I took him aside, and I said, ‘Ace, you’re copping my moves!’”
Frehley’s 1982 departure from Kiss might have been a godsend for Meadows, had he not felt committed to Angel, which was on the verge of collapse. “They had this cattle call for guitarists,” he remembers. “So I auditioned. Afterwards, Gene and [Kiss vocalist] Paul [Stanley] said, ‘You’ve got the gig.’ I said, ‘I can’t. I’m still with Angel.’ I heard later that Gene was in shock, that nobody’d ever said no to him before. I also found out that I’d have been making $200,000 a year plus points. I was broke at the time.”
But that was later. In the early days, every night was a party. And Meadows was brushing elbows with the likes of Peter Frampton and famous L.A. club owner Rodney Bingenheimer at such Sunset Boulevard hot spots as the Roxy and the Rainbow. “Peter Frampton was kind of rude,” he recalls with some amusement. “I wanted to tell him how much I liked his stuff with Humble Pie. Of course, this was before he was big, and [Angel] had these big billboards on the Sunset Strip….Maybe that had something to do with it.
“We’d go to a meeting…and there’d be bowls full of cocaine,” Meadows continues. “Of course,” he adds with a laugh, “this was before cocaine became addictive. Back then it was chic. Purely a recreational drug.” Though Meadows says that nobody in Angel was a “flat-out junkie,” he admits that they all
did their fair share of, well, whatever was handy at the time.
“It’s the road,” he says. “You’re out in Bumfuck and there’s nothing to do. You go to the show, back to the hotel, then it’s on to the next town. You don’t know where you are after a while. It was one long party. I was married at the time, and that made things hard. I’d come home and my wife would want to go out on the town, whereas I had just partied for eight months straight. All I wanted to do was sit at home.”
In the meantime, the band was learning its music-biz lessons the hard way. “We were opening for Aerosmith,” Meadows recalls. “First night, we had three spotlights. Then it went down to two. Then one. I said to our tour manager, ‘What’s with the spotlights?’ He said, ‘When you play with the headliner, you play by the headliner’s rules.’”
In addition to touring relentlessly, the band was putting out albums, one per year from 1975’s Angel through 1980’s Live Without a Net. But despite a rabid following, radio airplay largely eluded Angel, much to the consternation of Meadows, his bandmates, and their bosses at Casablanca. By the time of 1977’s On Earth as It Is in Heaven, the band’s music had taken an unabashedly commercial turn. As one not-particularly-friendly Circus reviewer wrote, “Plenty of unmitigated garbage passes for commercial hard rock…on the strength of its meticulous presentation and shrewdly manipulated production values, and this is the void Angel helps fill.”
Of course, by 1977, the American musical landscape was being changed by punk—not a good harbinger for a band of Farrah-haired, fancy-dud-wearing fops. Yet Angel persevered, and 1980 should have been a banner year: The band released its live album and placed two songs on the soundtrack to Adrian Lyne’s Foxes, which starred Jodie Foster and ex-Runaway Cherie Currie; Angel even made an onstage appearance in the film.
Instead, 1980 was the year Casablanca pulled the plug. The severance was due in part to disappointment over lagging album sales, but also to the departure from Casablanca and subsequent death of Bogart. At the time, says Meadows, the band was approximately $1.6 million in the hole. In 1981, Angel began to fall apart, with bassist Felix Robinson, then DiMino, leaving to do other projects. Meadows and Giuffria hung in—and came close to landing a record deal
with CBS. But it didn’t pan out, and Angel finally disbanded.
By then, Meadows had had enough. He was over 30 and had been playing music professionally for more than half his life. His marriage had ended, and he was doing too many drugs.
“If you’re riding the crystal wave, it’s great,” he says. “If you’re not, then it’s not so great. You wind up getting taken in by managers and lawyers and every other thief in the business.” He notes, for example, that he and his Angel bandmates signed away the rights to all of their songs. “Musicians don’t have legal minds,” he says, “and there ought to be laws protecting them.”
The irony is that Meadows and Angel hung it up just as MTV was rearing its ugly head. With its flamboyant image, Angel was tailor-made for the video age. “I have no doubt,” says Opsasnick, “that had he stuck around for the advent of MTV, Punky would have become a superstar. He was a natural for the medium.” Nedry agrees: “The tragedy of Angel,” he says, “is that they came along too early.”
And then too late: In 1999, Meadows was asked to play on an Angel reunion album, which was later released as In the Beginning. “[The band] asked me to come to New York, but I said no,” recalls Meadows. “Then they said they’d record in Virginia. They also agreed to record one of my songs.
“So I played on a couple of songs. Afterwards, their manager, a real smooth talker, gives me a document to sign. I said, ‘What’s this?’ Turns out he wanted me to sign away the rights to my song. It was the same thing all over again. I told him, ‘I don’t have to sign this,’ and I didn’t. In the end, they dropped the song, because it wasn’t going to make them any money.”
Nowadays, Meadows doesn’t worry about things like that. He shares a home near the Westwood Country Club in Vienna, Va., with longtime partner Diane Eaton and four cats. He has a son, an actor living in New York. He gardens, though he leaves the more technical aspects—like the names of flowers—to Eaton, who does the books for TanFastic.
“I think we have, uh, gardenias? And some of these little red flowers,” says Meadows. He likes to mow the lawn, too, and, he says, “does lots of edging.” “I hate the winter,” he says. “I get depressed when I’m stuck inside. I think it’s a reaction to all those years I spent inside when I was young, playing at night, sleeping all day.”
When Meadows gets stuck inside nowadays, he lifts weights in what he describes as “a serious home gym.” It’s something he fell into after finding some 20-pound barbells in his place in California and discovering the results a few simple curls could produce. “I wish I’d worked out when I was younger,” he says. “I’d have had my shirt off onstage a lot more.
“I was so painfully shy my whole life,” he continues. “You get so insecure about that stuff. When I was a kid, I used to wear two pairs of pants because I was so embarrassed about how skinny I was.
“I spent all those years in clubs, playing onstage, entertaining, but the truth is, I’m kind of shy. I’m an introvert. I get nervous when I’m around a lot of people. I’ve always been a lone wolf. Rock gave me an alter ego. Something to hide behind.”
He smiles. It’s the oldest story in the book: the performer hiding in the spotlight. But Meadows seems to have come to terms with all the old stories of his life a long time ago.
“I wanted to be famous,” says the man who once told an interviewer, “I always knew I’d be a star.” “Unfortunately, D.C. is the kind of town you have to leave to make it. So I went to L.A. to become famous. But you know what? The best times weren’t the arenas—they were playing the clubs here in D.C. Playing four or five sets and then going home. I’d get stoned out of my mind, go up on the roof with a joint, then come down and burn up the guitar all night long, sweating, drinking beer.
“It’s a classic story—you hear it over and over again,” he adds, straightening a rack of “Some Like It Hot” T-shirts. “Watch out what you wish for, because you just might get it.” CP