Saturday is the 29th anniversary of the death of heavy metal guitarist Randy Rhoads. A Burbank boy, born and bred, his solos on Ozzy Osbourne records rank among the best in hard rock history. Each year a graveside gathering remembers Rhoads and reunites the extended family that keeps his flame burning.
After a plane crash claimed his life, Rhoads lay in peace at a San Bernardino cemetery. He's been dead longer than he was alive, but he's still a guitar god thanks to his recorded virtuoso work on songs like "Crazy Train."
Each year, Mountain View Cemetery welcomes back men with tattoos and long hair. On motorcycles. With guitars. Men who have lived hard. Workers set up an awning for the hours visitors stay. Usually, someone brings a TV. Concert footage plays on a loop.
Last March, these men — women too — sat in folding chairs facing Rhoads' skinny, tiny sister Kathy Rhoads D'Argenzio, who received their love.
"I appreciate that. You guys holding the fort down and still being there and keeping his memory going and alive," Kathy tells them.
She gets vows of fealty in return: "We will always do that. Always, always."
Behind Kathy, crinkled handbills, concert posters and signed photos are taped to the marble of Rhoads' tomb. Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne sent a flower cross.
"There's some people that have come from Canada," Kathy says. "There's someone here from Russia ... this fella over here took a train from Connecticut. Texas. Cleveland, Ohio. Anyone else?"
One man says, "I'm from San Bernardino," and he gets a big laugh.
"How very dear hearted this is to our heart, that you make this trip for us," she says.
Jamie Tilley came from Connecticut: "I have always wanted to visit Randy Rhoads' grave. I started playing guitar at 17 because of Randy Rhoads," he says. "I bought my train ticket, and here I am. It's a life time I've waited to do this, and I brought a guitar pick I played quite a bit with, and left it for Randy to just kind of show him thanks, you know what I mean?"
Tilley drops his offering behind the bars of the Rhoads’ tomb. Pilgrims like him speak reverently about Rhoads’ guitar skills. Tilley has come to prefer the intricacy of his slower solos over the power of the fast ones.
"You might think, in the heavy metal community, there might be a lot of us going nuts, going wild. I think a lot of us are at the age when we don't do that anymore,” he says. “Twenty years ago, I would have been going crazy, too. Now a lot of us are here because we respect Randy as a talent. He's the goal we shoot for as guitarists, is to someday learn how to play like that.”
"Like that" means schooled in the fundamentals. Delores Rhoads — mother to Randy, Kathy, and their older brother Kelle — ran Musonia Music School in north Hollywood. Kelle teaches and composes classical music. The Rhoads boys were in an early band with Bob Kelekian, who says Delores was his second mother. She taught him the value of work.
"I wanted a guitar case. So, I went to Musonia and I painted the white picket fence around. I had to sand it all down by hand and painted two coats of paint for the guitar case. But she was fair. She said, ‘You want it? Are you willing to do this?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’” Kelekian smiles down to himself. "I still got it."
This crowd adores Delores. Now 91-years-old, she doesn't make it out to the cemetery these days.
Pilgrimages, even musical ones, transform as they track back over the past. Frank and Merideth Santa Cruz have a daughter named for Randy. Thirty years ago, Frank was a student. They were part of the extended Rhoads family.
"Fourth of July was a party. Their family house in Burbank was a block away from where fireworks went off. Everybody gathered there, barbecued, drinks,” Merideth says.
Frank joins in: "Randy would be standing there in the middle of Amherst Street. Totally illegal. Totally unsafe and insane," he laughs.
Those unsafe and insane days recede a little further in the rear view mirror each year. The Rhoads family, fans and friends say they'll do what they can to keep them closer than they may appear.