Whaddya You Wanna Do With Your Life? Kid From Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” Video Talks Teenage Fame, His Own Band And How Dee Snider Became A Role Model
Many kids in the 1980s dreamed about starring in a music video. Back when MTV had a stronghold on the teenage consciousness through music videos, it wasn’t just the artists who could experience fame, whether it be Tawny Kitaen’s ascension through the Whitesnake videos, Milton Berle’s resurgence in Ratt’s early clips, or the Bee Girl in Blind Melon’s “No Rain”. One such story involves Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, veteran GAMV director Marty Callner’s first venture into music videos. Shot in a white picket fence neighborhood in California, the clip featured the band in all its makeup and costumed excess, as well as Mark Metcalf reprising his Douglas C. Niedermeyer persona (“A Twisted Sister pin? On your uniform?”) for a silly Wile E. Coyote-inspired jaunt. Our hero is a suburban kid who must defend his declaration of “I Wanna Rock!” and that kid was the director’s son, Dax Callner, who recalled for THE GOLDEN AGE OF MUSIC VIDEO his experience with the shoot, the PMRC hearings, and the unexpected result of Dee Snider’s influence.
So it’s 1984, and from what Marty Callner told me, you were on set, and he was auditioning kids for the role in the Twisted Sister video, but you seemed to be the only one who could do the windmill move on the guitar.
He auditioned the kids, but I also auditioned. They asked me to also get up there. I was the only one who could do the right rock and roll moves with the guitar, I guess.
Did you have acting aspirations, or were you being nudged into it?
Well, neither one. I didn’t have aspirations, and it was very off the cuff for them to ask me. I just happened to be there, so I just did it. I was like, “Sure! Why not?” It was really spur of the moment.
Had you been on many of your dad’s sets prior to that?
I had been on many of his sets, but they were not music video sets. He had been doing a lot of concerts and specials. This was the first video set that I’d been on. Later on, I came up with the idea for the video “Amazing” for Aerosmith. My idea was to set a love story in cyberspace. I guess he would bounce things off of me and the other kids because we knew the temperature of what was going on. I’d participate in brainstorming discussions about videos and such. I even worked on some of the sets for later videos, like Heart’s “Alone” for example. I was on set for some Aerosmith videos, and one of the Whitesnake videos, but I was there when David Coverdale essentially came to the house and sat with us. This was before he was that well known, and he discussed the new album [1987’s Whitesnake] and what they wanted to do.
Wasn’t there a point when [Twisted Sister frontman] Dee Snider was living at your house when you were young?
I’m not sure if it was when we were shooting “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, but he did live at our house for a while. He had no place to stay, and he stayed across the hall from me. It was funny as hell. Dee Snider and I are still friends, I think we had dinner about a year ago or so. My most vivid memory of him living at the house was when he and I were driving down Santa Monica Boulevard in my stepmother’s car, and on the radio was “Missing You” by John Waite, and Dee and I were singing it at the top of our lungs. (laugh) So funny to have a metal guy like that singing a total pop song. Then we went to a 7-Eleven, and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” hadn’t even been shot, and someone recognized Dee, and he was just so psyched to be recognized. He was thrilled.
One of your big moments in the video is spinning around to transform into Dee. It’s obviously sped up, but do you recall that shot?
I don’t remember how quick it was, but it was ridiculous, not a special effect. These guys were on the floor turning this thing, almost like a lazy susan, that I’m standing on. I’m there with my arms up and they’re there spinning it.
Do you recall where the concert scenes were shot where you catch the drumstick?
They might have been shot in New York, not in the city, we set it up, but there was a big audience because they were big fans of the band. I don’t recall exactly where we were.
How was it working with Mark Metcalf [reprising his Niedermeyer persona from Animal House for the role of the father]? Those are intense interactions.
It was great. He was a very nice person. I hadn’t seen Animal House, so I wasn’t aware of that intense character he played, which we were obviously trying to replicate for that video. He was so nice in between takes, and I recall my dad firing him up saying, “More! More! More!” (laugh) I wasn’t particularly scared, but I do remember him spitting. I remember his spit hitting my face, and that was not pleasant. (laugh) I couldn’t avoid it. I just had to sit there and take it.
Once this thing started airing, and it was in heavy rotation. How did that affect your life?
It had a huge effect. I wasn’t yet a teenager, I think I was twelve, it was right into my teenage years. I switched schools that year, and it had come out over the summer, turned into a huge hit over the summer. By the time I got to my new school, it was a massive hit. It didn’t impact me until I got to a new school. At about 11 o’clock, somebody asked me if that was me in the video, and I said yes it is. And in this era, before texting and social media, within fifteen minutes the whole school knew.
That could be a good thing or a bad thing.
Well, here’s the thing. I was fairly grounded because the previous year, I had been at a school where I was a total outcast and a loser. It was a really tough year, the seventh grade, and I’d been completely ostracized by my classmates. It was a new school for seventh grade, and then a new school again for eighth grade. I think what I realized when all of a sudden I was the most popular kid because I had been on TV was that it was as much bullshit as the ostracizing had been before, you know what I mean? It had no reflection on who I was. Being a loser or being a winner were both equally fake.
Before, people didn’t like you but didn’t know you, and now everyone likes you but they still don’t know you.
That’s exactly right. I knew it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was much better than people hating me. (laugh) Much much better, but it wasn’t real, and I knew it wasn’t real. It was funny to be recognized on the street and be asked for autographs, but that didn’t last very long, probably about six months. Then it faded. But people to this day, people want to hear about it. Even now, I’ll go to meet with a client, and they’ll ask me, and I’ll say, “how the hell did you find out that I was the kid in that video?” and people just research people online.
Does it still happen often?
Whenever I meet a new group of people. When I was going on job interviews a couple of years ago, it would come up. People would look me up, but that’s what people do when they research now, they go to your Facebook, your Linkedin, whatever. And I don’t hide it, why bother? And they get a good laugh out of it, and I don’t really care.
How did your musical interests develop? I mean, did you know how to do guitar windmills because you were playing guitar by then?
I had only started playing guitar about six months before that video. I was new to the form, but I grew up in a rock and roll household. My mom was a singer and writer, and was in a band that did USO tours and went around the world to army bases. My dad was obviously involved in music. I just grew up around it.
How would you describe the music you play currently?
I play what I would call passionate rock and roll with strings. I have an eight piece band that includes a trio of strings – a cello, a violin, and a viola. It’s a big band, and it’s a big sound, and we try to make really passionate evocative songs.
What is it about that sound attracted you?
I guess I’m not sure. I like big anthemic music, and I’m attracted to a large group of people who can make a “wall-of-sound”-type music. I used to play a more eletronica thing, and I wanted to move into a more organic way, a more natural instrumentation, a more real feel.
What is it about the marketing profession that attracted you?
In one way, I sort of fell into it. I would never have guessed that I’d be working in marketing, and what I do now is I am a strategist at a global marketing agency. There’s a parallel between growing up seeing and participating in music videos and marketing, because those are a marketing tool. I had an independent record label too, and using marketing to come up with creative ways to get music out to the market. I just learned how to create marketing campaigns, and then I applied it to my professional life in my first agency job.
What is your most vivid memory of that day? You’ve probably seen that video a million times, so when you see it, you probably recall the moment this shot happened or that shot happened, but what do you recall from off camera about that shoot?
One thing for sure is that, like you said, it is difficult to separate my memories from what I see in the video. It impacts what I remember. We were in a suburban house in New Jersey with these hulking guys in full makeup and crazy outfits, and it was just ridiculous. (laugh) It was just so strange, and it was so funny. My dad was just getting started in videos, so there was an element of us not knowing what we were doing. If you watch the video closely, during the moment when Mark Metcalf’s wife splashes him with water, in the background you can hear my dad laughing. That’s the degree of professionalism that was going on! We were all just making it up. They had a script and a plan, sure, but the way I got into the video, for example, was just us trying things.
Were you surprised at the PRMC using the video as a political football?
I don’t think I was conscious of the context at that age. I mean, I knew about it. It was very strange to see Dee Snider talking to Congress. That was bizarre. I do remember my dad coming back from the hearings and saying something that really affected me my whole life. He said, “I used to have so much respect for the people in our Congress. I used to think they were the smartest people in the world, and that’s how they got there. But they were just so stupid about this that I totally lost respect for them.” I’m actually a big follower of politics today, so that lesson has given me a certain level of skepticism about the people in government. And that is certainly reinforced by what I see and hear about government. Looking at it through the adult lens, it was certainly distraction politics. Let’s focus in on some really unimportant issue in the media to turn focus away from the real issues that affect us, which is what Frank Zappa was saying. I think if you were taking bets, he won that day.
Has the video ever been a hindrance to you?
I think I went through a period when I was starting my band that I felt it didn’t give me the opportunity to have credibility in what I was doing. It kind of had a cartoon-y feel to it, like pop metal, and I was trying to do serious music and somehow it invalidated what I was trying to do. For a couple of years, I shied away from talking about it for that reason, but then I just got over myself. I was like, this was a fun thing that happened when you were a kid! Get over it!
Anything else you’d like to tell us about how “We’re Not Gonna Take It” has affected your life?
There is one other thing, and that’s that the effect that Dee Snider has had on my life is actually profound. He sat me down when I was twelve years old and talked to me about drugs and alcohol and things, and I made a decision not to drink, and I never have. I’ve never had a drink or smoked pot. And the way he is, the way he interacts with fans, and the graciousness by which he lives his life has had a really big impact on me. I have to say that the more profound part of it was not the participation in the video, but the positive effect Dee has had on my life.
What did he tell you? Kids get those messages from many angles growing up.
But you don’t get it from a rock star! And not just a rock star, but a person you perceive as a very cool person who says to you, “you know what? I tried it and realized that it was totally the wrong path. And beware, you don’t have to do it. It doesn’t have to be a part of your life.” It stayed with me, and because he was such a cool, famous and talented person, it had more of an effect on me than say, an aunt telling me that. And I think he was right, because compared to many of my peers, I’ve been able to be successful in my life, and I believe that is because I’m really productive and focused. I think those bad elements move you away from what you want to achieve.
Check out Dax Callner’s music here: http://www.facebook.com/PassionProject
Check out Dax’s current company here: http://www.momentumww.com
And don’t forget to catch Twisted Sister’s holiday show at the Best Buy Theater on Saturday, December 17.
More on that and more Twisted Sister news here: http://www.twistedsister.com