Randy Pepprock sees Guns N' Roses in a much different light than most of us. As a budding musician in 1985, Pepprock moved to Los Angeles after growing up in Missoula and spending time playing music in Seattle. He recalls his excitement the day he noticed GNR bassist Duff McKagan's red Ford Maverick parked on his block in his Hollywood neighborhood.
Guns N' Roses hadn't made a blip on anyone's radar yet, but Pepprock knew McKagan's name from the Seattle punk scene when McKagan played in the Fastbacks and The Living, two bands that often opened for hardcore acts like Hüsker Dü and D.O.A. Hoping to find a comrade in music, Pepprock left a note on the Maverick's windshield. McKagan stopped over to the apartment for beers and the two became fast friends, working together as telemarketers (along with fellow GNR bandmate Izzy Stradlin) and eventually forming a band with Ron Reyes, the former singer for Black Flag. They played a few shows, but McKagan had a couple of other music projects going on. One day he told Pepprock to come down to a small club to hear one of his other bands play.
"We've been working on this new song," he told Pepprock. "It's called 'Welcome to the Jungle.'"
Pepprock tells a handful of stories like that one, all worthy of a segment on VH1's "Behind the Music." His own life seems quieter in comparison, but listening to him talk about growing up in Missoula's punk scene, or his days in Seattle and L.A., provides a sense of the moment from someone who was in the thick of it. Now at 49, he's still playing music, most recently with his band Letters to Luci, which opens at the Palace this week. His bandmates include friend Paul Nelson on lead guitar and bassist Stephanie Mansfield, who's 20, and Malcolm Morgan, who's 17. The songs are edgy with a sound that's reminiscent of old punk bands like Social Distortion. With Pepprock at the helm, the songs are a little less fueled on teenage angst and more crafted by Pepprock's years of going from dyed-hair rebel to Bitterroot Valley business owner and family man.
"I had fun," he says. "I had other friends who went from high school straight to college and straight into working for a corporation. They're probably set up better than me now, but I got to do a lot of cool stuff when I was young."
Pepprock grew up in Missoula's late '70s/early '80s music scene playing punk rock in bars full of blues hounds and hippies. As a young rocker he met Steve Albini, the now legendary music engineer, journalist and musician who also grew up in Missoula. He played in Albini's band Just Ducky for two weeks.
"And then he realized I really didn't know how to play guitar because I had just started," laughs Pepprock. "I got kicked out, which was fine. So then I started my own band called Who Killed Society."
Who Killed Society played random gigs at places like the Tijuana Cantina, which used to be across from the Top Hat. Pepprock says the few punk bands at the time—Ernst Ernst and Eye-90, plus a couple others—would show up along with a few friends for support. In that crowd, he recalls, was a young Jeff Ament, who later made his own mark on the scene when he started hardcore band Deranged Diction before hitting it big with Pearl Jam.
Most places weren't ready for punk, says Pepprock. The Top Hat's main draw at the time was The Lost Highway Band—a big deal outfit that toured with Bruce Springsteen and Willie Nelson, among others. Blues and psychedelic country bands ruled the roost, but when Who Killed Society got up on stage it was glaringly different: short, speedy songs with very little attention paid to precision.
"We got up there for a talent night once," says Pepprock. "Back then you had guys doing blues jams for hours and hours and we were doing something different. Our songs were 20 seconds to two minutes, loud, fast and sloppy. We weren't really very good, but we had a lot of energy and spirit so people were into that. We did our own songs, some Clash songs and a Sex Pistols song. And they were really cool about it."
Other places weren't quite so accommodating. When the band got a gig at the 44 Bar in St. Ignatius (a place that now often hosts punk, noise and metal bands), Pepprock recalls thinking they'd at least be playing on a stage, even if they didn't have much of an audience.
"We show up and they had to move the candy machine out of the corner so we could set up," laughs Pepprock. "We played one set and they said, 'Well, we'll pay ya. But you're going to have to leave.'"
If you were in Missoula in the early 1990s, you might recall Pepprock's other band, Shangri-La Speedway, which played with the likes of Skunk Throat at the Moose Lodge and Union Hall. Since that time, Pepprock married, had kids and started a business called Downtown Deco in Florence, where he sells model kits for building dioramas. He says he's happy to be back playing music, but he's not unhappy that he never made it big.
"I'm glad to live in a little town and have my family and my band and not be on the National Enquirer," says Pepprock. "The guys I know that made it had talent, worked really hard and positioned themselves for it. Whether I thought I was going to make it, well, you always hope, but you can't count on it. I don't regret trying."
Letters to Luci plays the Palace Thursday, Dec. 9, at 9 PM, with Magpies and Velcro Kicks. $5.