Asbury Park Press on 08/27/06

For one shining moment, Steve Savitsky was living his dream. The Middletown man was actually playing guitar next to his idol, former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts.

Then the cherry on top of the sundae: Savitsky snagged Betts' cigarette butt off the floor. Sure, everyone got a picture taken with Betts and an autograph. But that cigarette butt is all Savitsky's, carefully tucked into a plastic bag for safekeeping. "Unbelievable," Savitsky crowed, smacking his forehead in momentary disbelief.

Anywhere else such joy over a cigarette butt might seem, well, strange. But Savitsky was at Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, a place where tales of such brushes with greatness are traded and savored. The camp, a five-day, full-immersion experience in the rock music world, was held a couple of weeks ago in New York City.

"It's better than I ever dreamed. It's been incredible on every single level," Savitsky said of his camp experience as he wrapped up his week. "As a fan, it's been special. As a musician, it's been great because it's given me a confidence to go out and play."

The Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp gives such amateur musicians as Savitsky a chance to be a rock star for a week. They rehearse and play in a band, help write and produce an original song, make a CD and prepare a repertoire of cover tunes for a penultimate battle of the bands and jam session with the stars.

"It's been special just to meet other people and be part of a band," Savitsky said.

And spending a week playing the guitar and sharing his love of rock 'n' roll certainly beat his usual workweek responsibilities as a copper futures trader at the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Initially, Savitsky said he'd had some reservations about the camp's $8,950 price tag. Indeed, it was his wife, Karen Root, who convinced him to go as a special birthday present to himself. He turned 51 just before camp ended.

"She said, "Why not? You've been waiting for this your whole life,' " Savitsky said. "She was right. I have been waiting my whole life to be with these people, hang out with these people, have them teach me, play guitar with them a little bit."

By the final day of camp, Savitsky was a true daydream believer. "It was worth it. Man, was it worth it," Savitsky said during a break from rehearsals. "The people I've met, the stories I've heard, the things I've learned, it's all been incredible.

"I'm going to walk out of here feeling like, "Wow, I can play the guitar a little. I can do this.'"

Later that night, Savitsky was almost speechless with joy after his performance in the camp's Battle of the Bands held at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square. But his family was full of praise.

"I'm impressed, I really am. He was great up there," said son Matthew, the family's veteran guitarist, as he showed off photos he had taken of his dad trading licks with Betts onstage.

Added Root, "What a great night for him. This was his first big moment really. I'm so happy for him."

Gaining an appreciation for the work that goes into being part of a band is part of the fantasy camp experience. Campers rehearsed daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., then got together in the evening for jam or recording sessions as well as question and answer sessions with the pros.

Stargazing is a big part of the camp experience. Indeed, each band was led by a counselor/guru who is a rock star. Savitsky's band, dubbed Hell's Kitchen, was led by Bruce Kulick, a former member of Kiss who now plays with Grand Funk Railroad.

"My job has been to make these guys into a real band," said Kulick, who played bass for Hell's Kitchen. "Each of these guys is on a different level, so I've had to assess where they're at and then see how I can not only improve them as a player but make them fit in with what we need to do here as a band.

"It's not the same as one-on-one guitar lessons or band lessons. It's putting these seven guys together and making them into a cohesive band. You work on the weaknesses, find ways to emphasize the strengths and bring them all up to some level that they'll function together as a unit."

Besides the rock star counselors others included Peter Tork of the Monkees and Barry Goudreau of Boston the campers also got to meet and sometimes jam with a who's who of stars. The list ranged from Betts, singer/guitarist George Thorogood and drummer Max Weinberg to guitarist Joe Satriani, Yes singer Jon Anderson and singer/pianist Dr. John.

"I'm a miserable guitarist," Savitsky had said in an earlier interview after a day of work at the Mercantile Exchange. "I had a guitar for probably 10 years and maybe every two years I'd pick it up, play my three chords and get bored because I couldn't play great in 10 minutes.

"My son, who is a superb guitarist, started really teaching me about a year ago, trying to teach me some basic things. But to be honest with you, until I knew I was going to camp, I really didn't practice.

"I have no delusions. I'm not going to form my own band or anything. I hope doing the camp will kick start my interest in learning to play."

Like many of the other fantasy campers, what Savitsky lacks in skill he more than makes up with passion.

In Savitsky's case, that passion manages to sneak through in the most unexpected places. Take a close look at his trader identification tag at work, for example. Where most traders have their initials, Savitsky sports the letters CCR. Creedence Clearwater Revival a.k.a. CCR is one of his favorite bands.

The only other sign of the rocker lurking around the frenzied trading floor of the Mercantile Exchange is the gray ponytail that trails down the back of his trader's jacket as he scrambles between the telephones and the trader's pit.

At camp, everyone, it seems, has a story of working a day job while harboring rock 'n' roll dreams. Savitsky's band included a pulmonary specialist from Westchester; a manufacturing representative and diabetes charities fundraiser from Charlotte, N.C., who grew up in Beach Haven and also raises money for diabetes research; a venture capitalist from San Diego; and a journalist from England.

"Some of the band, like the doc, have been playing for years. Some of us are real beginners; I fit right in," Savitsky said.

Added Kulick, "This was a big challenge for Steve. In the beginning, I wasn't sure if he'd get past the first verse. But he's playing along with us now. His enthusiasm is what's going to make the dream come true."

And when it came to experiences like Betts' arrival at rehearsal, everyone is on equal footing. Kulick was almost as giddy as the amateur musicians around him, cackling along with them once Betts had left their rehearsal studio. Betts had surprised all of them by suddenly sidling up to "Doc," lead guitarist Dr. Charles Abate, and playing Abate's guitar.

"That was a true rock 'n' roll moment, man," Kulick said, laughing. "That's better than if he had picked up his own guitar and played with us."

As for who won the camp's battle of the bands, Hell's Kitchen didn't win. But the results were irrelevant, Savitsky said.

"There is no prize they could give us that could match the satisfaction of this experience," Savitsky said. "Really, just to be up there onstage playing was a success."