Prince’s stunning death spurred myriad musical memories for fans across the world, but for five La Crosse area men, it meant something more. For the former members of White Widow, it brought to mind a time 25 years ago when they were on the cusp of breaking big in the music business and when the world seemed to be at their feet — thanks to Prince.
These days, with his shortish hair and scruffy beard, Brian Spindler looks the part of a middle-aged roofing business owner. Turn the dial back 25 years, though, and you have “Spinny,” the heart-melting, shaggy-maned lead singer of White Widow, a promising “hair metal” quintet intent on following the path to the top of the charts blazed by Cinderella, Poison, Warrant and Mötley Crüe.
In early May 1991, Spindler and his White Widow mates — guitarists John Larson and Brian Feally, bassist Dave King and drummer Scott Yonkovich — found themselves going where no hair band had gone before, Prince’s Paisley Park studio. Prince had relinquished Studio A, one of three in the complex, to White Widow so the band could record songs for its second album, “Turn It Up.”
“We were in awe,” Spindler said. “It was probably at that time the most state-of-the-art studio in the United States, … and he was the most phenomenal musician I’ve ever seen in my life — and I’ve seen a lot of musicians.”
Now, in 1991, 15 years into his career, Prince was definitely a big deal. By spring of that year, he already had released 12 albums, including soundtrack albums for 1989’s “Batman” and his own movies, “Purple Rain,” “Under the Cherry Moon” and “Graffiti Bridge.” He also opened a Minneapolis nightclub, Glam Slam, and his Paisley Park studio drew top stars to record at his suburban Twin Cities compound in Chanhassen.
The guys in White Widow, meanwhile, were still working day jobs to supplement their musical income right up until the time they went to Paisley Park.
So how did five blue-collar guys trying to become rock stars wind up recording in Prince’s studio, just after Paula Abdul, just before Janet Jackson and at the same time as Terri Nunn (formerly of Berlin, doing her first solo album)? Well, there was a lot of hard work and sacrifice involved, but also a bit of luck.
Larson formed the band in 1986 while he was living in Eau Claire, Wis., taking the name of the band from a middle school “air band” made up of neighborhood kids. The kids urged Larson to adopt the fictitious spider moniker for his fledgling band after they heard them rehearsing in the basement. Larson was actually no slouch at picking good band names. Early on, he played in a popular La Crosse rock band called Nirvana.
Gradually, the Eau Claire members of White Widow were replaced with Larson’s La Crosse area friends. After releasing the band’s independent 1989 debut, “Bustin’ Out,” the band began what Spindler described as a “starvation tour.”
Band members traveled all over playing shows, pushing for — and getting — radio play. They were bringing in some decent money, but they also had a lot of expenses for equipment and crew members, so they didn’t have a lot of money left for food. It was so tough that they’d go in to buffet restaurants and fill their coat pockets with food for the road, Spindler said.
The tour brought the band to a venue in St. Cloud, Minn., where its members opened for a popular Twin Cities band, Slave Raider, which had a recording contract with an RCA subsidiary. One of the guitarists, Lance Sabin, took notice of White Widows performance and offered to manage the band.
“He came to our hotel and said, basically, ‘Boys, you want to be rock stars?’” Spindler said.
In early 1991, after the start of Operation Desert Storm, the band wrote “United We Stand,” a song that, despite a seemingly patriotic title, contained an underlying anti-war message while paying tribute to U.S. troops. The band recorded the song at Creation Audio in Minneapolis, and Sabin took the recording to Paisley Park, which was managed by his friend Tom Tucker, to “tweak” it.
“Lance called and said, ‘Prince stopped and listened to your song.’ We were told Prince doesn’t stop and listen to just anybody’s song, so that was an honor right there,” Spindler said. “Next thing we knew, we were in Studio A.”
Before they even came near Paisley Park, the boys in the band were told to give Prince a wide berth.
“We were told right off the bat, ‘You don’t approach Prince, Prince will approach you,” said Spindler, who really wishes he could have thanked Prince somehow. “Prince gave us our credibility and our notoriety to get as big as we did back then. He didn’t want to be thanked. He just wanted to help people out. He was a very Christian man.”
Driving up to the outside of Paisley Park, the studio seemed more like a very plain, very well-guarded institution, with none of the flash that Prince brings to mind. Their time inside the studio, though, which mostly took place in the middle of the night, was plenty impressive.
“The classiness of the place and the technology that was there was unbelievable,” Larson said. “It was really cool. We had people taking care of us, and the media coverage at the time was pretty neat, too.”
One of the La Crosse TV stations sent a crew to film and had a White Widow segment five nights in a row. And the Sunday La Crosse Tribune on May 5, 1991, featured a multistory full-page spread on the band by reporter Geri Parlin, who got a chance to observe White Widow at work in the studio.
“I have to say it was really cool. It wasn’t the first time I was in a recording studio, but it was the first time I was really ever in an important one,” Parlin recalled. “Just to say that you have been to Paisley Park, that was kind of a big deal.”
Parlin has no recollection of what the band was working on the day she was there 25 years ago, but she does remember asking to interview Prince (the answer, as expected, was “no”) and that the boys in White Widow were pretty pumped.
“What I remember the most is they were out-of-their-minds excited,” Parlin said. “That’s about as excited as I’ve ever seen a band.”
And who wouldn’t be excited? The band was working with talented studio professionals in a famous and well-equipped studio. But before “Turn It Up” was even released, things started to turn a little sour.
Undone by grunge
Bassist Dave King, who had joined the band just nine months earlier, had a falling out with Sabin over a number of issues, and he was out of the band before the tour to promote the new album even started. “It wasn’t going the direction I wanted, so I opted out,” said King. “It didn’t work out in White Widow.”
Because King wasn’t going to be on the tour to support the album, Sabin left King’s photo off the back cover of the CD.
The band hit the road hard again to promote the new album and had some good times on the road, to be sure. “You know what they say about rock bands? Well, it’s 150 percent true,” Spindler said. “They were glory days. … Back then we were like a band of brothers.”
But the days of White Widow’s brand of pop metal were numbered. Ironically, a big part of the demise of “hair bands” was due to a band from the Pacific Northwest that recorded its second album in 1991, working with a producer who grew up in Viroqua. That band, like Larson’s earlier band, was called Nirvana.
After the runaway success of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album, produced by Butch Vig, record labels were chasing after bands with a grunge sound, not melodic hard rock. “Between the new sound and a few drug and alcohol problems, that was it for White Widow, just like 90 percent of the other national metal bands,” Spindler said. “All the hair bands faded away and we faded away with them.”
The band fizzling in 1994 after getting the chance to record at Paisley Park was understandably a big disappointment for the band, but Larson said it’s best not to dwell on it. “Yes, it was pretty crushing,” Larson said. “I mean, I wish we would have made it, but life goes on.”
Larson said he took 10 years off from playing in a band after White Widow broke up before being drawn back into it. He and King played together for time in Flashback, and Larson is still playing in Last Call, an offshoot of Flashback. Meanwhile, King and former Flashback drummer John Jansky are recording an album with a Holmen-based band called Redemption.
Spindler hasn’t sung with a band since a one-off White Widow reunion show in 1998, although he has done some singing for commercials. Feally and Yonkovich also have stayed out of bands since the breakup, although Yonkovich is mentoring a local hard rock band called Nailed Down.
“They want to be rock stars for all the right reasons,” Yonkovich said of Nailed Down, and he can share his hard-learned lessons with the young band members. “It’s tough getting to the top, but when you get to the top it’s even tougher because you have to maintain that.”