Reesa's newest wave
She and her Rooters rocked South Street in the '80s. Now she's back onstage, belting out her lyrics from a wheelchair.
By Kathy Boccella
Inquirer Staff Writer
It's Saturday night on South Street, and to Reesa Marchetti the crowds of hormone-laden teens make it feel like the 1980s, when her outrageously uninhibited band, Reesa and the Rooters, played the strip.
The group was known for its bouncy New Wave music and campy antics, with its leader bounding out in cheerleader duds one minute and writhing on the stage with X-rated props the next.
But this July evening, as Reesa and her new Rooters fidget nervously, waiting to perform, her husband has made sure to bring the most important prop of all.
It's the portable ramp that allows the 60-year-old rock-and-roller to power her electric wheelchair onto the stage.
"If I forget it, she uses my back," Dan Marchetti jokes.
It's been a dozen years since Reesa's multiple sclerosis was diagnosed, a decade since she lost the strength to hold a guitar pick.
But she never fully surrendered her rock dreams.
"That's who I was then," said Reesa, who lives in Elk Township, Gloucester County, of her former stray-cat persona. "And this is who I am now. To me it's no different. If I can't play something on guitar, the band will play it on sax or keyboard. As long as I can sing."
Then she deadpanned: "I still have my twisted vision."
The irony is this: In the '90s, as she approached 50, Reesa was ready to pack in a rock career that had never risen much beyond dingy clubs and crummy pay. But since the onset of MS, she's been battling to get her groove back, as much as the debilitating disease will allow.
Back in the day
She was known as Reesa Laskey in the 1980s, the big-hair time when music was still on MTV, artists like the Hooters and Robert Hazard again put Philly on the rock-music map, and girls just wanted to have fun.
Her wild-woman routines in the Rooters and later Suburban Wives Club - dressed in fishnet stockings and lace gloves, or a cheerleader jumper with a big R on her chest - left lasting impressions on her audience.
On numbers like "Nervous Breakdown," she would hurl herself across the stage, displaying panties, shivering and shaking in a mock meltdown. Sometimes she'd throw herself into the audience or crawl onstage like a deranged person who had wandered in from the street.
Her music was satirical, with songs like "Fat Thighs," which mocked ads for diet soda and got everyone up and doing exercises.
"She was always edgy . . . provocative," recalls her friend Frank Siegel, a member of the '70s Jersey Shore metal band Ziggy and now owner of a video production company.
Reesa's husband, Dan, 68, remembers her performing "Stiff as a Rock," playing slide guitar with a big pink, ah, sex toy while lying on the stage, kicking up her legs.
"She was very bold, the female Jim Morrison," he said. "But things change in time."
Always out front
Reesa's run started at age 7 when the Cherry Hill girl won a talent show. In high school, she played in an all-girl folk band. In the late 1960s, she dropped out of Syracuse University and moved to California, where she got into rock.
"She's always been at the forefront of trends, even being a hippie," said her husband, a retired WHYY operations manager who built his own plane and bottles his own wine.
Returning to Philadelphia a few years later, she played in various bands before forming Reesa and the Rooters with her brother, Larry, in the late 1970s. By the mid-'80s, they'd put out a single and done gigs with the Stray Cats, the Hooters, and Cyndi Lauper.
"I knew her, the A's, all those people," said Reesa, whose Web site, relivethe80s.com, showcases the acts of the era.
A record contract was always tantalizingly close. "We had moments where I was sure we were going to break through, but we never did," she said. "After 25 years, I was still making cruddy money."
After fronting one last band, Network 23 and Reesa, which folded in 1994, she worked as a reporter at Today's Sunbeam in Salem County and designed Web sites while playing on weekends with a Grateful Dead-style band.
When she began stumbling at work and tiring on bike rides with Dan, she thought she had Lyme disease. In 1997, doctors diagnosed multiple sclerosis, a neurologic disease that can rob sufferers of motor function.
By 1999, she could no longer walk onstage without help. Unable to strum or hold a pick, she realized her guitar-playing days were over.
"I used to be a female Jimi Hendrix wannabe," she said. "I was really good."
She gave up her newspaper job - too many steps - and dancing, another love.
Through all these setbacks, she kept a hand in music, singing at friends' parties and designing Web sites for musician friends.
"She's strong. She's real strong," her husband of 40 years said. "If she had folded up and cried like a baby, I'd be gone."
When asked in 2005 to take part in a tribute concert at World Cafe Live to the late Alan Mann, a Philly songwriter, she didn't hesitate. As luck would have it, two of her former bandmates - Len Brown and John Melinchock (now with Bill Haley's Comets, descendants of the original rockers) - had called recently to see if she wanted to regroup.
With her good left hand, she played keyboard and sang lead vocals in her Chrissie Hynde contralto.
"For me it's always been about the music," said Brown, the drummer in Network 23 and Reesa, "and as far as songwriting goes, she's really, really good."
After another Mann tribute, the band recorded a CD with two classic Rooters songs and a Mann number, "You Can't Talk to Her."
"If I still had the show, I would definitely play it," said Cyndy Drue, a DJ at WMGK (102.9) who hosted Street Beat on WMMR (93.3) until 1996, featuring local bands. "The songwriting is good, and her voice is really strong."
Last year, Reesa and the Rooters played their first comeback gig, at the Bus Stop Music Cafe in Pitman. They'll be there again Oct. 10.
Reesa has had to make adjustments. At first, she felt uncomfortable performing in a wheelchair.
"I wanted to hide it, cover it up with something and pretend I'm just sitting in a regular chair," she said.
But in 2006 she got involved with the American DanceWheels Foundation, a Bala Cynwyd group that teaches people in wheelchairs how to dance with standing partners, just like her and Dan.
It changed her life, she said.
Because dancers must have good posture, the lessons forced Reesa to sit up straighter in her wheelchair and get better control of her arms. Moreover, dancing had been one of her and Dan's joys, especially at weddings, where their antics nearly upstaged the happy couples.
"Since I became handicapped, I never knew what we could do together," she said.
The classes also inspired her to write songs again, though in a different vein. Recently, she penned "Dyrty Tango," one of her darkest numbers, about how MS made her feel dirty and helpless.
Talking about it, she began to cry. "I remembered how it felt to fall and not be able to get up," she said. "I don't like to write bummer songs."
Last month, she and Dan showed off their ballroom style at a wedding - their daughter's, Sue Taney. They were the first on the floor when the band struck up a tango, their favorite.
"People are pretty amazed to see us dancing together," Reesa said. And just as in the old days, "we always get a reaction."
Back on South Street
At Tritone at 15th and South Streets, the plan is for Reesa to roll up on stage while the band lays into "Groove City," an upbeat dance number.
But the soundman is missing. Rather than wait, Reesa wheels onstage, metallic gold shoes and belt setting off a red shirt and blue pantsuit.
After a few minutes, the soundman comes hustling back in, and the five-piece band launches into its set.
Her voice is strong, and she sways her arms and upper body to the music. Family and old friends have come to cheer her on - Melinchock; Al Rappa, an original member of Bill Haley and the Comets ("The Beatles opened for us in Hamburg, Germany," he recounts to astounded fans); Drue from WMGK; and Siegel of Ziggy fame.
Daughter Sue, new husband Nick, and their friends are the only ones courageous - and young - enough to get up and dance. At the end of the set, the crowd whoops and claps.
"By the way," Reesa says after the applause dies down, "we are Reesa and the Rooters. We didn't get a proper introduction."