Kenny Wilkerson isn’t sorry for party rocking. For about 15 years starting in the early ’80s, the Whiteland native played bass in Nova Rex, a hard-working hair-metal band that had a lot of fun and built a local following but couldn’t break out of Indiana.
Along the way, he played some memorable gigs, nailed his share of groupies and, apparently, followed the advice of Spinal Tap keyboardist Viv Savage: Have a good time all the time.
Ain’t Easy Being Cheesy takes us back to the days of metal shows at the Southside bar Bentley’s, HiJinx magazine (whose editor, Dean Robinson, directs the film), Slammin’ Sam on X103, and Q95 concerts at Union Station. Nova Rex — Wilkerson, guitarist J.P. Cervoni and a revolving cast of singers and drummers — was writing songs with titles such as “Turn It Up Loud,” “Bring the House Down” and “Blow Me Away,” and lyrics like “I just wanna rock/I just wanna roll/I just wanna rock and roll.”
They teased their hair and dressed in spandex because, as Wilkerson acknowledges in the film, the band’s look was a little more important than its talent. Cervoni calls the group “a hair band with balls,” though he wonders in retrospect: “How the fuck did we end up looking like fucking girls?”
And though Nova Rex didn’t take its music too seriously, the guys acted like rock stars. In one instance, Cervoni refused to go onstage at a Minneapolis club until the owner provided a promised case of beer. (Cervoni didn’t drink; he just wanted the guy to live up to the contract.)
Ultimately, Nova Rex’s story is a lot of bands’ story: guys with some talent and a desire to live the rock 'n’ roll life, start a group and try to get discovered on one of the coasts. When that doesn’t happen, they move home and try to soldier on.
After grunge stomped out hair-metal like a stale Pall Mall in the early ’90s, Nova Rex traded in its spandex for army boots and tried to adapt. But it was too late. And that leads to the one concrete lesson of the Nova Rex story: Stay true to what you are, Wilkerson said. Don’t be tempted to chase the trends.
When they finally gave up, in 1999, Wilkerson needed counseling to adjust to life outside the band.
“I was just a mess,” he said in a phone interview. “J.P. was a mess too... . I was 29, 30 years old. I didn’t even know how to ask somebody out on a date. I didn’t have social skills. When you play, girls come to you. You get your pick. 'Not you. Maybe you. Maybe you and you.’ We were living that rock star life.”
Wilkerson and Cervoni are now in their 40s, a bit thicker around the waistline but in good spirits and realistic about what they achieved — rock stardom in their minds, if not fully in reality. Wilkerson runs three tanning salons in Florida and Cervoni works on film scores and other projects as a studio musician.
They might have put Nova Rex in the rear view mirror, but in 2010, Wilkerson noticed some of the band’s old CDs selling on the Internet for good money. He called Cervoni and suggested they put together a greatest-hits package with one new song.
Around the same time, Robinson friended Wilkerson on Facebook. They talked about putting some old Nova Rex footage on YouTube but decided instead to make the documentary. Using a hand-held camera and what Wilkerson describes as a lamp without a shade to light the interview segments featuring him and Cervoni, they made the movie in one weekend.
Roughly a week later, Wilkerson sent copies to various outlets. Three months later, the Documentary Channel called and offered him a timeslot. There was no money involved, but Wilkerson figures this might lead to reunion shows and other opportunities.
“I don’t really know what’s going to happen,” he said. “But it’s all been good. And we had fun doing it.”