ISSUE 24, MAY 1994

Rosie Vela: Facing The Music

You might have seen her on numerous covers of "Vogue" in the late '70s, in the Sinatra Michelob television ad in the mid '80s, or most recently in the Maybelline television and magazine ads announcing "I'm 40!" But as some of you might or might not know, '70s supermodel Roseanne Vela can actually claim credit for the first so-called Steely Dan reunion when she unintentionally snared Walter Becker and Donald Fagen to play on her 1986 debut record "Zazu." In this article that appeared in the Nov. 3, 1986 issue of "New York Magazine," writer Eric Pooley tells her story: "For ten years, Rosie Vela was a top fashion model. Now she has a pop album out. Despite all appearances, hers is not the story of a beautiful woman who parlays her looks into a record deal and stardom. Vela wrote all the music on "Zazu" and her songs were good enough to reunite Walter Becker andDonald Fagen, of Steely Dan, to play them."

One night in 1976, a studio owner watched a "Vogue" model named Rosie Vela record some rock songs. He looked Vela's body up and down, lingering over her red-blonde ringlets, heavy-lidded eyes, and pouty lips. Then he made a tasteless proposition.

"He said, 'Hey, you like music,' " Vela remembers. " 'You could be a star. You could do it -- I'll get you some songs. I'll get you a producer. I'll dress you up. I got it figured out -- an androgynous pop character, neither male nor female.' "

"I said, 'Huh?' "

Today, Vela tells the story with annoyance and satisfaction. After developing her music in private during ten years of modeling -- countless photo sessions, fourteen "Vogue" covers -- Vela has released her first album, "Zazu." And she's struggling to be taken seriously in a town where models rarely are. "People talk about my 'Cinderella story,' " she says, "because I'm a model, and because I haven't given concerts yet -- as if the genie just waved his wand over me."

Then she sits back in her sunken living room above the Hudson and listens to "Zazu." A song called "Interlude" comes on -- a solemn, beautiful ballad with a melody that unfolds as inexorably as a love affair running aground. It's no wonder the music is so strong -- Vela's band includes Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who made some of the finest rock of the seventies under the name Steely Dan. But the real power is Vela's: She sings in a voice that starts out low, hushed and sad, then goes double-time, urgent and hopeful. On the couch, Vela is rapt, singing along with herself in a lonely world somewhere behind her hair. Then "Interlude" moves through a haunting instrumental passage: Becker and Fagen playing Vela's melody note for note, adding one lyrical descending run at the end. It's a tribute from two master musicians to the music that reunited them after six years. Vela still sings along -- lovely, enigmatic and fragile.

Rosie Vela's story is not about the top model who parlays her looks into a record deal and becomes a pop star thanks to a sexy album cover and music made by others. Her story -- young woman comes to New York after the death of her husband, makes it as a model, then works to become a musician -- is a far more compelling one. It may result in stardom; it's too soon to tell. More important, Vela has already produced an album of music that's being compared to the works of Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones and Kate Bush. In fact, the complexity of Vela's music -- oddly structured songs with strong melodies but no hooks or pandering choruses -- is one obstacle to success. Another is her beauty.

Fashion models, of course, occupy a strange place in New York life. Rich and glamorous, they are ogled and looked down on by the fashion industry and the public. Vela can play the sultry-brainless-model game; she can play the wisecracking southern girl; she can play the spacey flower child she was 15 years ago, before her husband died and her life changed forever. But she really is an artist, "soft and inward," as she says, and also talented, determined and smart. And her good looks could make it hard for some people to recognize her talent.

"Modeling has been great to me," says Vela, not one to complain about how awful it is to make $3,000 a day for being pretty. "But it has its dark side. People think you're the Barbie doll of the century. They think that's all you are."

A classically trained pianist who grew up in Galveston, Texas, and Little Rock, Arkansas, Vela came to New York in 1974 after her husband, a gifted 21-year-old musician named Jimmy Roberts, died in her arms, of cancer. Vela became one of the most successful models of the late seventies, but never lost sight of her goals: Modeling was a job and music was her life's work. Patient enough to give her talent time, Vela and her brother Chat built a recording studio in her apartment, where she survived years of self-doubt as she taught herself to write and play and sing.

When she was ready, she sent a demo tape to A&M Records executive Jerry Moss, and soon she was in a studio with Becker, Fagen and their producer, Gary Katz. "She is so talented," says Katz. "Her playing, singing, writing. The thing about Rosie is, she doesn't think in structures -- she writes a passage because she likes it, then another and another, sometimes in the same key -- and it works. For someone who started out with basically no idea what she was doing, she's very, very good -- remarkable. Cool."

"Yeah, I thought I was good," says Vela with her disarming laugh. "But I never thought I'd get to work with rock-and-roll Vikings."

The sun is setting over the Hudson, red light flooding Vela, her white living room, her white upright piano. Around her are a half-dozen electronic keyboards, two electronic drum machines, a digital sampler, studio tape recorders, and assorted gadgets that alter sound and have names like "outboard" and "exciter."

Standing at a Yamaha DX7 electronic keyboard, Vela plays a delicate, contrapuntal melody -- a kind of pop fugue with dazzling interplay between the hands. She picks up speed, and the piece becomes a rollicking workout. Taped to the DX7 is a fortune from a cookie: "Among the lucky, you are the chosen one."

Vela takes a phone call from a model friend, laughs, says: "Beauty must suffer," and hangs up. She moves to the couch as "Magic Smile," the first single from "Zazu," lopes out of the speakers: syncopated keyboards over a walking bass line, and Vela's high, wistful voice -- a parody of the scat-singing chanteuse, and an affecting love song. Vela sits with her back to the window, snapping her fingers, shaking her head, singing along for the first time since the record was released.

"Can't imagine how/You'd thrill me and then you'd walk away..."

There's sadness, and humor -- the conceit of a woman who looks good and knows it. And there's some nifty scat singing in a language she calls Zazu:

"...Been trynta seeya baBUH/Been dyinta keenovay..."

"This is a joke about love," she says, "as corny as I could get it -- stretch the syllables for their feel. All these songs, really, are messages for the girls about the elusive lovers who never call." (Vela lived for nine years with artist Peter Max, moved out last year, and is now alone.) Other songs play: one about a desperate woman banging on boxes in the street outside her ex-lover's apartment; another about a woman in a "Blade Runner" future, taling to a vanished lover named Zazu. Vela sifts through magazines and newspapers, scanning reviews of "Zazu." One says she is sexy and in her mid-twenties; another calls her songs "pillow talk."

"Pillow talk," says Vela, 33. "That hurts. But the songs are personal, about my love guys, so I guess it's true. But it still hurts to see it in print. Pillow talk."

Galveston, Texas, in 1953 was a conservative, industrial Gulf Coast town; Roseanne Vela was born into a family of Spanish and English heritage; her father, Hector Vela, was a lawyer for the Army Corps of Engineers. Rosie grew up Catholic and coddled, a prodigy who started taking classical piano lessons when she was six. She played Rachmaninoff, Bartok, and Haydn; her wildest music in those days was made in the living room with her father, who played a mean Herb Alpert-style trumpet.

All that changed in 1967, when Rosie hit 13 and discovered "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and Frank Zappa's "Freak Out" -- and listened to them over and over in her bedroom. "My mother didn't know if it was a Communist plot or what," she says. Rosie joined a band made up of older boys -- her father would chaperone during rehearsals -- "and finally, I quit socializing with my parents," she says. "At home, I was alone in my room, drawing, playing records. I was someplace else."

She founds others in that same place after her parents divorced in 1969 and she moved in with her father and brother in Little Rock. Above all, she found an intelligent, laconic boy named Jimmy Roberts, who had a dry wit, curly hair, blue eyes, "and kinda puckery lips." Roberts led the best rock band at the University of Arkansas, played hot guitar and knew piano even better than Vela did.

"I melted," says Vela. "Oh, my God."

She enrolled in art-history courses, spent her time with Roberts and his band, and became a hippie of the wood-nymph variety.

"I ran with that wild crowd," she says. "Gypsy clothes, hair down to my ass, little tiny shorts, and long boots." She breaks up laughing. "I did have fun. We'd go out into the forest, meet at midnight, sit around a fire and sing and play guitar in the woods."

Roberts' band was doing well -- club dates, a demo tape, major-label interest. Vela would jam with Roberts on his tight, melodic pop and country-rock tunes. The lovers planned to marry in February 1974. "But at Christmastime," Vela says, "Jimmy got the cancer."

They married anyway, and spent Roberts' last seven months deeply in love, making the best of the time they had. When Roberts was entering the hospital for his final stand, they bought some records and took them and a stereo system into his room. "The last album he ever bought was Steely Dan's 'Countdown to Ecstasy,' " says Vela, her voice low. "They were like the Beatles to us. We listened to them in the hospital all the time."

She slept on the hospital's marble floor, bought her husband has brownies to ease his pain, and helped him record his songs. "On his last night, he sang me his last song. He had so much tumor growing around his throat he could hardly breathe, but he sang it line by line and made me sing it back until I got it right. Later I sang it into a cassette." Her voice cracks. "I can't play that tape."

Other musicians came by the hospital, asking Roberts if they could play his songs. Roberts said no, they belonged to Rosie.

"He said, 'You do 'em.'

" 'Me?'

" 'You can do it. Practice.' "

The next morning, Robrts fell into a coma. He died three days later.

"Everybody floundered after that, me especially. Havin' him drift away in my arms -- it really aged me. Devastated. I felt like I didn't belong in the world anymore. But I woke up and I was still alive. I decided I had to throw myself into something that moved so fast I'd be carried along with it."

She went to New York, where she knew no one, armed with a sheaf of pictures. A Little Rock photography student had asked her to pose once "because I wore such crazy clothes." The results were good enough to persuade the Wilhelmina agency to hire her. "I was surprised -- didn't think of myself of myself as beautiful, and I'd see other girls in the dressing room: 'Just look at them, Vela, forget it. You gotta be kiddin'."

After two months, she left Wilhelmina for the Ford agency, and her career took of. From 1976 to 1980, her young, innocent, sometimes sleepy look was everywhere. She was known to show up late for shoots and demand naps during sessions, but in front of the camera she was witty, provocative, powerful. There were times when she'd be made up for a shoot and look in the mirror: "I didn't know who that person was -- makeup galore, hair out to here -- where's Rosie? Made me uncomfortable. Alienated."

But she knew what she was in it for. "Modeling is money," says Vela, who even today helps support some of her family with her fees. "It's a job that pays better than most. I wish I could pay the rent with music, but I can't, yet. So I'm grateful." While other models spent their off-hours posing at Studio 54, Vela spent hers working on the 50 songs Jimmy Rodgers had left behind.

Vela's modeling career began to falter early in the 1980s. Vela says she was working less because she was studying acting under Sandra Seacat in Los Angeles and because she landed a small role in the disastrous big-budget Western "Heaven's Gate" and was on call for a year. She had also built an impressive recording studio in her apartment and was spending more time than ever on music. She'd come home from posing "for my little pictures," put on a tape Roberts had made, sit at her piano, and play along with him. "I'm a serious person, and serious people work at something," she says. "He taught me that. I worked at his songs. But I'd play them for people and they'd look at me like I was crazy. They weren't my songs."

One night she came home, sat down at the piano, and did not play Roberts' music. "My first one, I wrote for him," she says. "I opened myself up, said, 'God, take control.' And this piece just flowed out. After that, I did my songs."

"People say, 'Howdja get Steely Dan to play on your album?' " says Vela in her best sneering model's voice. " 'Musta cost a lotta money.' I say, 'No, it just... happened. "

Walter Becker, among the most elusive people in rock, walked into the Village Recorder studio in Los Angeles one night to see Katz, who was producing Vela's record. Becker stood in the mixing room while Katz spun dials and Vela worked on "Tonto," a psychedelic siren song about a woman tired of being a sidekick to a Lone Ranger who's never around:

"Well the heroes never call/Nobody's there/And there's nowhere to ball..."

"Walter was hangin' out," says Vela, "and I'm recording the lead melody line and he's watchin' and I'm sweatin' bullets."

Midway through the song, Becker sauntered into the sound room and picked up Vela's portable Yamaha keyboard. "He started doin' this little snaky, sexy thing that worked against the beat," says Vela. "I couldn't breathe."

"Walter just joined in," says Katz. "He liked the song."

Then Becker stopped. "I don't play keyboards," he said.

But he did want to play. And later that night, he told Katz he wouldn't mind playing on a few other songs. He said he liked the one called "Interlude" best.

"Walter Becker wants to be on my album," Vela thought to herself, "God bless America."

Later, Katz played Vela's demo for Fagen in New York. "That chick is... good," Fagen said. "Weird and good. I like 'Interlude' the most."

Vela, Katz, Becker and Fagen met at a New York Studio called Sound Ideas. Fagen was ill at ease, the way a divorced man might be when he sees his wife after a long while. He tugged at his face and hair. Katz soothed him. "The next thing you know Donald and Walter were playin' together for the first time in six years," says Katz. "It was a nice moment. The three of us and Rosie, just playing." (It went so well, in fact, that Becker and Fagen are now in a studio working on new Steely Dan material.)

Vela was so intimidated by Becker and Fagen that she found it hard to talk to them. "Frightened, man," she says. "The Beatles."

The next night, Becker and Fagen worked through the instrumental break in "Interlude." Vela was in the hospital, undergoing tests for formaldehyde poisoning after drinking from a plastic bottle left too long in the sun. For the second time in her life, Becker and Fagen's music helped her out of a hospital. "I called my brother Chat, who was in the studio. He says, 'Listen to this.' Then I hear the music: Walter's guitar is playing my melody, Donald's keyboard is all around it. I said, 'Goddamn, I feel better.' I never told Becker and Fagen about listening to them in the hospital when Jimmy was dying. I guess it would have been too much."

When Vela and photographer Herb Ritts met in April on the beach in Malibu, she knew the kind of pictures she wanted for her album cover -- simple shots at sundown, light makeup nothing to exploit her beauty. (At first, she had not wanted to appear on the cover at all.) But Ritts, the photographer who shoots Madonna's album jackets, had Vela heavily made up, in jewelry. "And the makeup artist kept pulling the shoulder straps down," says Vela. "He's pulling 'em down, I'm pulling 'em up."

The pictures were not what Vela had in mind. "I'm not Madonna," she says. Ritts liked them, and A&M wanted to use them. But Vela said no, got a photographer to shoot her at sundown in Central Park, and came up with a sleepy close-up cover shot and a dark shot for the back -- her body blending into the blackness behind. The first cover, she knows, would have sold more. "But I didn't want to say, 'Look at me, Miss Cover Girl.' "

After having posed for a million images, Vela doesn't want to manufacture a video pose for pop -- a risky notion in a rock era defined by pop cartoon characters. "I'm not Billy Idol," she says. "I could dress up and vamp anddance around, but it's not me. I've gone through those chameleon changes." She is convinced that if she performs her music to the camera, wearing the kind of clothes she always wears -- black jeans or long skirts, white T-shirts, small jackets -- she will get across to an audience.

Her first video, for "Magic Smile," was directed by Peter Kagen, who did Steve Winwood's "Higher Love" clip. Kagen's camera found Vela in Barbados -- in the sugarcane, on the beach, in her bed. But the clip may be too coy to establish her identity. "Magic Smile" stalled at No. 23 on "Billboard's" Adult Contemporary chart, and fell off after six weeks. "It was a good song," says Katz. "But not the hit. 'Interlude' is the hit."

So, after a long promotional tour -- radio stations, record stores, seventeen-year-old guitarists slipping her their phone numbers -- Vela is taping a video for "Interlude." It will be a straight performance video, including close shots of her singing on a midtown-Manhattan rooftop, with the Empire State Building as backdrop.

But Vela knows the best way to find an audience is to go out on the road and perform. Her only gig so far has been "Late Night With David Letterman," where she sang "Magic Smile" with Paul Shaffer and his band. Now Vela is auditioning a band of her own, planning showcase gigs in New York and Los Angeles. "I'm toomuch of a wussy to do sixteen cities in seventeen nights or something," she says. And the idea of testing her talent in front of an audience is both frightening and exciting. "Who wouldn't be nervous about it?" she says. "But I can't wait. Playing my songs for people, performing my different characters." She may do some new material, and possibly some covers by Hendrix, the Beatles, "maybe Donald and Walter, and certainly Jimmy Roberts."

If Vela isn't overly concerned about live performance, maybe it's because she's already performed successfully for some of the most demanding ears in the rock world -- Fagen and Becker, and, more recently, Joni Mitchell, guitarist Danny Kortchmar, and Don Henley, the former Eagles star now enjoying a successful solo career.

Last month, Henley asked Vela and Mitchell to sing on "Who Owns This Place?," Henley's single from the soundtrack of "The Color of Money."

"These are all Vikings, and I'm a teddy bear," says Vela. "I was singing into the mike, and I had never heard my voice so loud and clear. I got butterflies, and shivers. I was listening to myself sing, and that's disaster. So I said, "Bottom line, Texan -- get it together," took a deep breath, and just sang. Joni Mitchell came in and sang along with the tape of my voice -- matched her voice to my drawl. Then, Henley has me singing two words -- 'push-pull, push-pull' at the fade-out. I'm whispering 'push-pull, push-pull, push-pull...' steamy stuff."

Later, Vela was napping beneath the mixing board, curled up "in a secret place. Nobody knows I'm there. The place is quiet." Henley walked into the room alone, singing to himself. "And the song he's singing," says Vela, "is 'Interlude.' " Vela just lay there under the mixing board, listening to Henley sing her song. She never told him she was there.

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Last modified on Fri Jan 26 16:10:12 1996