After decades spent touring the globe with some of rock's biggest names—including Elton John, Joe Walsh, and Hall & Oates—Kenny Passarelli, a Denver native, returned home last year. Here, the 60-year-old bass player talks to 5280 about making music, looking for new challenges, and his long, strange trip.
When the Beatles hit, that was it. No one wanted a trumpet player. I noticed that no one was playing bass guitar, so I taught myself how to play the bass.
I got into college at University of Denver and was headed toward the orchestra. My father wanted me to be an attorney, but I just didn't have the study habits. I was a musician, and once I discovered rock and roll I said, "Screw Bach. I want to play rock and make money. I want the Ferraris and the chicks."
I went off to New York and played with guys like John Hammond Jr., but my big break was coming back to Boulder and working with Joe Walsh in 1971. The second record we cut had "Rocky Mountain Way," which I cowrote.
I was playing the fretless bass, which few people were playing at the time, so I had a unique sound. I'd recently met Stephen Stills, and in '73 I'd open with Joe's band, change clothes, and play with [Stills' band] Manassas. Stephen became my mentor.
My first gig with Elton John was in June '75 at Wembley Stadium in front of a sold-out crowd. We showcased Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy before anyone had even heard the record. No one had done that before, and only Elton could pull it off. The following summer we did his Bicentennial Tour that included seven straight sold-out shows in Madison Square Garden.
After that, Elton said he was burned out, and I panicked a little, but [producer] Tommy Mottola connected me with Hall & Oates, and later I toured with Dan Fogelberg. But by '83 I started to think I was repeating myself, so I wrote a bilingual record that I eventually performed with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Around then, I met a dancer from Denver, and I've been with her ever since. We lived in Santa Fe and Mexico City before returning to Denver in '09. Our 10-year-old daughter goes to Graland and loves it.
When I left in '69, I hated Denver and couldn't wait to get the fuck out of here. There was a vibe here that just didn't work for me. But since I returned, I love it. For me, Colorado music had its time with Caribou Ranch and acts like Firefall and Joe Walsh, but it seems like it's reappeared now, in a different form.
I really want to put together a storming rock and roll band and do some material I've always wanted to do—just come out and kick everyone's ass. I'll play bass, but I want to find some young, great kids who can really play.
I love the Beatles, but Brian Wilson was the best. Find me the next Brian Wilson, who's doing things musically—using old, new, and obscure techniques—that no one's ever heard before.
Bad music dies, but there's so much out there now on the Internet. It's like going to Santa Fe to look for art: You have to weed through a lot of shit to get to the brilliant stuff. The gold's all there; you just have to mine it.
There are a lot more ways now for new bands to get noticed, but the only way to keep people's attention is to pull it off live. You have to get out there, create a buzz, and show people you got it.
The excesses haven't stopped; the party's still going on. But the question is, can you stop long enough to figure out what's the thing that gives you the creative edge? Drugs, alcohol, and women are the bullet train to that level, but you have to find another way to get there. You can do it—it just takes longer.