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“There was a turning point in my band where I made a fatal mistake, which was my second album. We were misrepresented on that record. Two things: I should have waited to put that record out. And I should have just done an album cover of us in blue jeans. That’s what I should have done. And then the music would’ve spoken louder than the image.”
So says Kip Winger of his eponymous band behind hits like the now-politically-incorrect “Seventeen” and perhaps too-prophetically-titled “Headed for a Heartbreak,” as he looks back on his long-haired, short-lived heyday chronicled in the new Paramount+ docuseries, I Wanna Rock: The ’80s Metal Dream.
The bass-playing heartthrob was one of the most accomplished and sophisticated musicians of “hair-metal” genre, having studied the works of composers like Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky since he was 16 years old. (A self-described “total theory geek,” his pre-stardom former boss, Alice Cooper, actually used to call him “the ‘briefcase rocker,’ because when everybody’d be partying on the tour bus, I’d be working on a score.”) Winger, now 62, has even reinvented himself in recent years as a Grammy-nominated classical artist. But being the pinup boy of ’80s metal also made him the era’s punching bag, especially when he became the target — in the latter case, literally — of both Beavis & Butt-Head and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich.
“I'm not gonna lie to you: I was a total ham,” Winger tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I loved the theater of that time. I dug the glam, because I was a Paul Stanley protégé — that was what a ‘rock star’ meant to me. So, I hammed it up. I did all the pictures and all that [teen idol] stuff, and I was very competitive about it all. And it bit me in the ass."
Winger elaborates, “It was the irony of my whole existence, because my focus has always been the music and being a good musician. Like, one thing I will say about ‘Seventeen’ is if you take away the lyrics… you know, a lot of cover bands try to play people’s music, and you will never find a band that can cover ‘Seventeen’ and play it correctly. It’s a very, very difficult song to perform. It’s got a lot of tricky stuff going on from a musical point of view. And so, it was tragic, like: ‘Wow, how could I end up in this position, being the one out of all of these [’80s hair-metal] guys that can orchestrate for an orchestra?’ It was bad. It was really bad.”
Winger says it was “very interesting” that he was “the guy that was singled out from the whole industry, really, because my name was on Beavis & Butt-Head.” This was right around the time when the metal market had become “oversaturated” and it was “time for something new to happen. ... But nobody saw the grunge thing coming. Nobody. And then here comes Kurt Cobain, and I was on the wrong end of it,” Winger explains. The year Nirvana broke, Winger’s peers Metallica actually made a successful transition with 1991’s grunge-adjacent blockbuster The Black Album, and in the video for one of that LP’s singles, “Nothing Else Matters,” drummer Ulrich could be seen gleefully throwing a dart at a Kip Winger poster. And that dart was more like a nail in the proverbial Winger coffin.
“I liked a lot of songs Metallica did. ‘Enter Sandman’ is a great song. And by the way, the irony is that before that happened, The Black Album came out and I called my drummer and said, ‘Man, you should check out the drums on this record, it’s really awesome!’ I love the drumming on The Black Album,” says Winger. “And then next thing I know, Lars has got a dart in my forehead.”
Soon after the Metallica dart diss, Beavis & Butt-Head took over ’90s MTV. At the time, getting any mention on Mike Judge’s subversive cartoon series — which boosted the careers of everyone from Rob Zombie to the Flaming Lips to the Cramps — was a rite of passage and a badge of honor for most artists, even when the show’s titular couch potatoes/armchair critics had absolutely nothing nice to say. But the snark aimed at Winger was at a whole other level, with Beavis and Butt-Head’s nerdy nemesis, Stewart Stevenson, always wearing an ill-fitting Winger logo T-shirt. Kip found it difficult to laugh that one off.
“Apparently they tried a few different names on the Stewart T-shirt, and mine was the one that stuck,” Winger shrugs. “It could have been Poison; I don’t know, it could have been anybody. But mine stuck, and I think it’s because Metallica threw darts at my poster. I think the two go hand-in-hand.” (It should be noted that Beavis always wore a Metallica tee on the show.)
It took years for Winger to recover and move on from the backlash, but he finally got some closure, thanks to two conversations. “[Metallica frontman] James Hetfield called me to apologize about a year and a half ago,” he reveals. “He was really contrite and was like, ‘You know what? That was uncool. And I’m sorry we did that.’ It was a very nice conversation. It seemed that the guy was completely awesome and I totally could be friends with him. But, you know… it was really Lars [who threw the dart]…”
Winger says Ulrich has yet to apologize for the “Nothing Else Matters” scene, and he doesn’t believe that will ever happen. He grumbles, “It’s just not cool to diss musicians. Even with the most poppy musicians who people might hate, a lot goes into it, man. It’s a person’s whole life, devoted to what they believe in. So, I don’t believe in slagging off fellow musicians. That’s basically it.” But, he is quick to add that he’s “all good with [Metallica] now.”
Kip was also able to regain control of the Stewart narrative. “I had an email exchange with Mike Judge when they decided to remake Beavis & Butt-Head. They wanted permission [to use the Winger name/logo on Stewart’s shirt] this time, which was very ironic, because they didn’t ask my permission the first time — which was somewhat of an admission of guilt, really! Well, I didn’t seize the moment, because I’m not a vindictive person. ... I found [Judge] on Facebook and I private-messaged him and said, ‘Listen, I got a notice from MTV that you guys want to do this, but I'd like to talk to you.’ So, he was nice enough to email me and we just discussed it. It wasn’t anything other than me trying to take the high ground, like, ‘Hey, I’m not gonna hate on you for life for this.’ And I did give them permission — and they paid me! I thought, ‘Well, f*** it. It would be weird not to be on there now, after all this time.’”
Winger was happy to make peace with both Metallica and Mike Judge, but those feuds and his above-mentioned “fatal mistakes” aside, he insists that he “wouldn’t go back and change anything,” explaining: “It’s a very weird place to be in history, my position, but it fueled my engines to not let it end this way. I can’t be this guy in history. So, I forged through with what I always did, which was stick to the music.”
At age 35 — right around the time that he suffered a tragic setback in his personal life, when his first wife was killed in a car crash — Winger began studying orchestral music and composition theory at the University of New Mexico, and later at the Manhattan School of Music. At age 45 he debuted his first major symphonic work, Ghosts, with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, which was later adapted as an acclaimed piece by the San Francisco Ballet and was nominated for an Isadora Duncan Award for Excellence in Music. Winger then composed C.F. Kip Winger: Conversations With Nijinsky, which was recorded by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra; that album went to No. 1 on the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart and was nominated for Best Classical Contemporary Composition Grammy. He is currently writing a violin concerto for the Nashville Symphony, which will premiere in 2024.
“I’ve said it a million times: I never believed that it was ever even within my reach to have an orchestra play my shit,” chuckles Winger, who finds it ironic that the current classical music scene is much less snobby and judgmental than the metal scene of the 1980s. “They're not prejudiced. When I got into it, I was all like, ‘Oh, God, what are they going to think of me? They’re all so much better than I am!’ But they’re very open-minded. And the fact that I came from the rock world actually helped me, because they felt like I wasn’t just another composer that came up through the ranks of Juilliard or whatever. I can sell tickets, too, because there’s a little bit of fame involved. So, it all works for me.”
Kip is still surprised by how his career panned out. “I have a sound in my head that is huge and magnificent that was given to me by whoever your God is, or the universe — it’s coming from somewhere — and I felt like it was my duty to try to learn how to manifest it. But I don’t even feel like I can take much credit for it,” he says humbly. “Because honestly, when I’m writing classical music, it’s like it’s beamed in and I’m in a trance. And then I come out of it and go back and listen, and I’m like, ‘How the f*** did I do that?’”
There was a time when Kip, who still tours with his band “because I’m kind of at the place where I can still sing it all, and I would like to stop before I can’t,” missed the old days. And sometimes, he still does. In I Wanna Rock, he admits, “I have a deep sadness in me, because I did not get enough of that,” and he theorizes to Yahoo Entertainment that if the timing had been different, Winger’s success might have lasted longer. “My band just happened to come too late . If it had been four years earlier, perhaps we would’ve been a bigger headliner, sold way more records, and we’d be out there doing arenas right now, like Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard,” he says. But now he’s content with his “complete outlier” status.
“I was never in the cool club. I don't feel like I’ll ever make it into the cool club. I don’t feel like I’m a rock star, and I never really did,” Kip confesses. And in a way, that actually makes him cooler than any Beavis & Butt-Head-approved hard rock darling. Reflecting on his “late-in-life” symphonic success, he says with a smile, “I feel like I couldn’t have been vindicated in a better way.”