Mojo workin'

Rock 'n' roll saved the soul of the Mojo Gurus' Kevin Steele.

Kevin Steele sits back in an antique wooden chair, peers up at the ceiling and exhales a thick plume of smoke after a heavy bong hit. The Mojo Gurus frontman leans forward, lights another cigarette and takes a sip of whiskey on the rocks. His face tightens. "I'm criticized for not being topical or political in my songwriting," he says. "But people forget that the original attempt of rock 'n' roll was escapism and good times."

It's a Tuesday night at Kevin's St. Pete home, and we're discussing, among other things, the singer's new album, Let's Get Lit With... The Mojo Gurus. It's an exceptional disc of rowdy blooze, rockabilly and honky-tonk that's very much about good times and escapism — subject matter Kevin has successfully, and dutifully, surveyed during a two-decade recording career that's landed both bands he's fronted on major labels, a rare accomplishment for a Tampa Bay musician. Kevin's first outfit, the glam-rock squad Roxx Gang, inked a deal with Virgin Records in 1988 and, while the band never achieved stardom, its debut album, Things You've Never Done Before, has managed to sell around 250,000 copies. In 2005, the Mojo Gurus released Shakin' in the Barn (produced by Jack Douglas, who also helmed classic John Lennon and Aerosmith albums), which was distributed by the Universal imprint Empire. Although the two bands are quite different, both find Kevin extolling the romance of hard living in the same cocksure manner as heroes like Iggy Pop, Muddy Waters and Keith Richards. When Kevin sings the blues, the lyrics are cloaked in metaphor and come off as clichéd at times. But that's not for the singer's lack of real-life drama or unfamiliarity with grief. Few men in rock 'n' roll have overcome tragedy like that known by Kevin Steele and his younger brother/band manager Brett Steele. Their horrific experience, which Kevin speaks about in detail — something he's rarely done on record — made headlines across Ohio.

Kevin would much rather talk about the Mojo Gurus' new CD, how he loves working with longtime bassist Vinnie Granese, as well as new guitarist Doc Lovett and drummer Mark Busto, and why he feels no obligation as a songwriter to veer from titles like "Let's Get Lit," "(Just a) Couple of Kicks" and "Party Doll," all of which are included on the freshly minted disc.

"I personally think it's harder to write listenable, shake-your-ass music," Kevin says, "than do rambling, woe-is-me stuff."

We're seated at the large wooden table in the dining room of the gloriously Gothic home Kevin shares with Linda Militello, his girlfriend for the past 21 years. The hardwood floors are festooned with Persian-style rugs, and the walls are painted the color of bordeaux. A display case contains a sampling of Kevin's impressive voodoo doll collection. The lights are low, and it feels like the setting for a palm reading in the French Quarter.

Kevin fires up his purple glass pipe every few minutes. Next to the bong sits a handle of Crown Royal that gets halfway killed by night's end. Kevin (or perhaps Linda) has also set out crackers, a wheel of Brie and red grapes for us. Incense and high-grade weed mingle with the near-constant outpouring of cigarette smoke. A mix CD plays on the living room stereo. Kevin made it to warm up crowds before Mojo Gurus shows; it includes gutbucket blues tracks by the likes of Mississippi Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and the Rolling Stones. After our nearly five-hour interview wraps, we'll watch on his big-screen TV the legendary, unreleased Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues, which vividly chronicles the hedonistic, X-rated backstage activities that took place during the band's North American tour of 1972. It's a scene Kevin witnessed firsthand when Roxx Gang spent time in Los Angeles during the 1980s and toured with hair-metal hitmakers like Warrant.

"Yeah, there was all that," Kevin says with a devilish grin, while Linda relaxes in another room.

The couple's 2-story, 80-year-old house is located a few blocks behind Ringside Cafe, a blues bar on Fourth Street where the Mojo Gurus often delight their loyal following and will celebrate the release of the new album on Friday. Kevin and Linda regularly throw private post-gig parties that last well into the early morning at their home, the ideal setting for rock 'n' roll debauchery. Steele affectionately refers to it as the "Addams Family house" and enthuses about the human remains he found in an urn mistakenly left by the previous owner.

"I wanted to keep it and display it over there with my voodoo dolls," Kevin enthuses. "But Linda wouldn't let me."

Kevin is an affable, soft-spoken guy. But due to the rock-star persona he projects while performing, some people mistake his offstage shyness for arrogance. Most casual fans know Steele simply as the man who donned makeup and big hair in the 1980s and reinvented himself in recent years as a swaggering roots-rocker. To some, on the local level at least, he's perceived as the quintessential rock 'n' roller. Kevin's a 40something still living the high life, with the hip home, wine-colored Caddy in the garage and beautiful girlfriend at his side to complete the picture. Kevin wishes the story ended there — or that his life was that carefree. But truth is, he's still haunted by a tragic childhood.

Kevin's mom, Marlene Steele, was murdered in January of 1969 when he was 9 years old. The killer entered the family's suburban home in Euclid, Ohio, outside Cleveland, and shot her to death while she slept. Kevin's father, tears streaming down his cheeks, woke his son in the middle of the night to say: "Mother's dead."

Kevin and Brett, 5 years old at the time, had just gotten separate bedrooms, but on this particular evening, big brother had slept in the room of little brother, who still hadn't gotten used to being alone. "I started crying and remember my brother asking 'What's Kevin crying about?'" he recalls. "That hit me harder than anything, that [Brett] didn't understand what had happened, that he didn't understand that he had lost his mom."

Kevin's father, Robert Steele, was an English teacher at one time, just like Marlene Steele. But the elder Steele later became a lawyer and then, by the time of his wife's murder, a powerful municipal court judge. "He was being groomed to be a Senator by the GOP," Kevin says.

The murder initially went unsolved, and Robert Steele continued to raise his sons in Euclid. The boys endured a traumatic four-year existence in the home their father shared with the woman he married three months after his wife was killed. It was later revealed in court that Robert Steele was having an affair with his future bride at the time of his wife's murder.

"My brother and I were mentally and physically abused by them," Kevin says. "He'd lock us in our rooms. My parents used to read to us as kids; reading was my first form of escapism and then music — Mott the Hoople, David Bowie, Lou Reed, T. Rex — those were my only escapes from that shitty reality."

One day, Kevin's father gave him a newspaper clipping for a school project that, on the back, just happened to contain a story naming Judge Robert Steele as a suspect in Marlene Steele's murder. Shortly after, Kevin and Brett went to live with their maternal grandparents in Venice, Fla. Kevin was in high school, eight years after his mom died, when Robert Steele was convicted of masterminding his wife's murder. The powerful judge, it turned out, arranged a contract killing through a pimp he knew named Owen Kilbane and Owen's brother Martin. The actual shooter was hit man Rick Robbins, who turned state's evidence in return for immunity. After being incarcerated, Robert Steele didn't write to his sons. They didn't visit him. He died of throat cancer while in prison about a decade ago. Kevin doesn't recall the exact year. The Steele brothers still worry — and are pestered by the Cleveland media — every time the Kilbanes come up for parole.

"My grandparents dropped everything to take care of me and Brett," Kevin says, quick to accentuate the positive. "Thank God. Their love and nurturing got us through."

Kevin and Brett have remained extremely close ever since that awful night the baby brother couldn't understand why his older sibling was crying. Kevin has long been sheltered from the business end of music, because his younger brother is his manager. From his earliest days with Roxx Gang to the present, Brett has diligently overseen Kevin's bands. Together the Steele brothers have toured the country, playing to packed arenas with acts like Alice Cooper. They're currently shopping Let's Get Lit With ... The Mojo Gurus to the various label contacts Brett has made over the years. Kevin has no plans to hang up his rock 'n' roll shoes anytime soon. Like the old and deceased bluesmen he adores, he hopes to continue playing until his body gives out — even if that means on stage.

"Music took me away from my own bad scene," Kevin says. "I realized how important that escape is, and maybe I've provided some escape for some other poor bastard. I'd like to think I've done that."

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