The suitcases are missing.
The Stray Cats have arrived at the Capitol Holiday Inn by cab from their bus, which has broken down outside of Washington. But an hour later, two hours before their sellout performance at the Warner Theatre, no sign of the suitcases that were to follow in a second taxi.
For the threesome, for whom clothes are so much a part of their signature, it might be a problem. What they wear when they are not performing is another version of rock 'n' roll '50s garb, but it is not the same as when they are on stage. "I'm into suits for this tour, I don't know why," says guitarist Brian Setzer. He wants his suitcase.
Setzer, 23, is the oldest of the group. His hair is dyed blond, greased with Nu-Nile -- "it's thicker than Brylcreem" -- and messy on top. He's wearing a sleeveless bowling shirt with "Cellar Dweller" scrawled on the back, black-leather motorcycle jacket, a navy bandana, skinny black button-front Levi's 501 jeans. And motorcycle boots. "It is Stray Cats' version of the '50s," says Setzer. "Sometimes we get bored. So we dye our hair."
He was into this kind of garb at age 18, before the others, drummer Slim Jim Phantom and bassist Lee Rocker came along. The other kids in Massapequa, Long Island, were into long hair, tie-dyed shirts and bell-bottoms. "The kind of clothes your mother would buy you," recalls Setzer. One day all that seemed wrong. Only rock 'n' roll music and rockabilly clothes suited him.
The first thing he bought was a big baggy zoot suit a la Elvis; he cut his hair short and greased it back, got an earring and a tattoo.
What a tattoo. A cat with a pompadour. "I drew it up, took it to the tattoo artist, he did it better and put it on my arm." His mother didn't mind. His father had an anchor with a wreath as a tattoo "and mom thought it was kind of nice." The tattoo, he says, "is me," and suddenly the wiry cat on his skinny upper arm looks like him.
Then came the pinup tattoo, with bikini and fish-net hose. "She'll never leave me," he laughs. The tatoos are important. "In the beginning, I needed them to be a rebel," Setzer says. "I was never very tough, but with a tattoo I would appear tougher than I was." It explains the sleeveless shirts -- the better to show off tattoos, he says.
Setzer has been quoted as saying the group checked the newspaper obits to find the guys who just died who were around in the 1950s, and then checked their houses for authentic 1950s clothes. But now, he says, "that was just something to say." The Stray Cats' clothes come from thrift shops and rockabilly stores that sell old clothes or make new ones. In Hollywood, the best shop is Flips; in London, there are several shops on Kings Road; and in Paris, "It's everywhere. In Paris they never gave up the 1950s style," says Setzer.
But wherever he buys them, the clothes are all American. "That's the big appeal of the 1950s look. Everyone knows it's strictly American."
All the shopping has to be done before the tour -- there is no time once they start moving, no time even to get clothes cleaned, he says. For this tour they have had suits made to order in California. Setzer's is purple with contrasting collar and a contrasting, diamond-shaped inset on the side of the trousers. Lee Rocker has ordered the same thing in gray and pink. (By the second number in last night's performance, Setzer had pared his costume down to his sleeveless shirt. Before the group got to the encores, they were all bare chested.)
Finally, the suitcases arrive -- all but Setzer's and his purple suit. There's a baggy tweed but it is wrinkled. "That's the disadvantage of old clothes, they wrinkle," he says.
The threesome are different heights but the same kind of skinny, so they can share each other's clothes. Setzer puts on Lee's gray suit and while the pants bag a bit more than planned, when he hikes up the trousers you can see that, like the other Cats, he's got two different socks in Day-Glo colors. His black and white shoes have thick, white-crepe soles.
Setzer says he stays away from places where the invitation calls for a style that isn't his style. And he'll never be caught in a three-piece suit. "That would be like wearing a costume," he says.