Kalapana, the Hawaii band that, in the mid-’70s, was the 50th state’s answer to the Beatles, will return to L.A. for a concert at the Aratani Theatre on Saturday, Aug. 17.
They’re sure to bring back fond memories of such classics as “Moon and Stars,” “Naturally,” “(For You) I’d Chase a Rainbow,” “The Hurt,” and “Lost Again.”
The four-man band features original lead singer Malani Bilyeu, original member D.J. Pratt, Kenji Sano and Gaylord Holomalia, both of whom joined the group in 1985. Guest vocalist Zanuck Lindsey will perform the songs originally written and sung by the late Mackey Feary.
When the first Kalapana album was released in the summer of 1975, Hawaii radio stations played just about every cut as if it was a Beatles LP. Most of the popular songs were written and sung by either Bilyeu or Feary, the handsome, charismatic singer with the magic “pure pop” voice.
At the time, the guys had no idea of their popularity back home because they were too busy touring the mainland, eventually covering 43 states. Earlier that year, they’d moved to Huntington Beach to write, record, and begin touring.
A year later, they moved operations to Malibu for the rest of their association with manager Ed Guy (who also handled Cecilio & Kapono, the other big Hawaii act at the time). In late 1973, Guy put together solo artist Bilyeu and Pratt, then told them to put together the rest of the band. They found jazz musician Kirk Thompson and Kaiser High School student Feary, who’d created buzz after opening for C&K on a tour of the outer islands.
Looking back on it, Bilyeu realizes the transition to the mainland was tough, especially on Feary, who wrote about missing his high school girlfriend and Hawaii on many of the songs on the band’s first two albums like “The Hurt,” “Moon and Stars,” and “What Do I Do”: “If you read his lyrics between the lines you can see a really young guy that really didn’t know what was going on. But all of a sudden he was ‘Mackey Feary.’ ’Til today, I believe it was pretty heavy for him. We had to leave to go to the Mainland to live and that’s where ‘Nightbird’ comes in. He was totally in love with his girlfriend, and they were such a cute couple you know, they’d come to group practice, and she’d hang out. And they were just totally in love. So then when he had to move to the Mainland, that was pretty rough.”
In 1976, the songs from “Kalapana II” seemed just as pervasive on Hawaii radio as the first collection. But in L.A., Feary had fallen in with the wrong crowd, and whereas the other band members were admittedly into pot, Feary was also doing pills.
After a year, Pratt remembers, “It was getting bad to where it was affecting the stage performance. And you know, we sat him down and we just told him, ‘You know, Mack, we can’t do this! I mean, we’re trying to help you, but it’s not working. We’d rather send you back home and get you help and save your life vs. just keep you in the band and you end up killing yourself…’ As much as we wanted him to stay, we wanted him to go.”
In 1977, “Kalapana III” received less airplay than the previous LPs and the band never recovered in Hawaii. Though the group carried on with a replacement for Feary, his songs were sorely missed.
Pratt realizes, “It would’ve benefited us to keep him in the group. You know, we could’ve done more records and done a bunch of stuff but still, it’d be like, who knows how long he would’ve been living at that point?”
Feary got together with former Country Comfort keyboard player Gaylord Holomalia, formed the Mackey Feary Band, and in 1978 released their self-titled album, which included classic cuts like “I Remember You,” “Lullabye,” and “Catherine.” At the time, Holomalia felt the singer had cleaned himself up and was back to being creative and professional.
That same year, Kalapana released the “Many Classic Moments” soundtrack, which took off in Japan because, Bilyeu says, the surf film and surfing in general became popular there at the same time. “Today, we have a major big fan base in Japan just because of that one movie and the theme song. More or less, Japan has really kept Kalapana together because of our tours and the fans we have there. They’re really loyal people.”
Despite their popularity, the guys never received any royalties. “We didn’t even get any money from touring,” Bilyeu says. “All the money that came from touring went to pay for the rent, for the office space in Hollywood. And we were still getting $20 a day to live on.”
A lot of the money Kalapana made was invested in another Guy act, Summer, which, according to Bilyeu, “got real homesick and left, and left us with the bill… It was a good idea but everybody didn’t go along with the plan… Summer just dropped out after the first album, and that kind of started the breaking of the bank… So that kind of started to put a strain on the relationship with management and with Kalapana.
“I never got a penny from those old albums from Ed Guy. But because of his management, Kalapana was put together, so it’s a toss-up, you know what I mean? I believe in whatever goes around comes around, and if I dwell too much on the loss, which I have… it can depress me, and I just don’t wanna go there.”
It wasn’t until 1981 that Bilyeu and the remaining band members learned that after their 1978 soundtrack, Guy turned down a $3 million deal with Columbia Records, supposedly because he didn’t want to give up control of the group and his tiny Abattoir Records, which released the band’s music. Fed up, Bilyeu left, though Pratt stayed and took the band in a more hard-rock direction.
On Dec. 26, 1982, Bilyeu, Feary, and Kirk Thompson reunited as Kalapana for a concert that was captured on the “Kalapana Reunion” album. When Pratt returned late the following year, he found Feary a changed man. “I mean, he got rid of the dark cloud that was following him around. And when I saw him at that point, he looked really healthy. And you know, he looked happy. I think he had a new girlfriend… He seemed like he had his stuff together.”
Thompson left, and in 1985, the band welcomed Japan-born Sano and Holomalia, who’d been assistant engineer on Marvin Gaye’s last Motown album (1981) and Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Daylight Again” (featuring “Wasted on the Way” and “Southern Cross”). He later engineered and co-produced Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “N Dis Life” CD.
But Feary eventually got into harder drugs. On Sept. 4, 1996, he was arrested for ramming his wife’s car with his and smashing her windshield with a hammer in a shopping center parking lot and for possession of crystal meth (ice). He tried to hang himself the day after he was arrested and spent six months in jail.
Cecilio Rodriguez of Cecilio & Kapono visited Feary and reminded him he had no reason to end it all; he had friends all around him. But Feary just gave him a hard look (Feary’s sister later said he was diagnosed with severe depression).
In November of 1998, Feary almost missed their 25th anniversary “Island Music Island Hearts” concert at the Waikiki Shell. Holomalia remembers that during the group’s sound check, the police came in and arrested Feary again for violating a restraining order. “I had to spend all the way up until showtime getting him back,” he laughs. After he was bailed out, Feary barely had time to take a shower and get dressed for the performance.
A month or two before, Kalapana had been honored with a KGMB-TV special, but if you look at Feary’s face, he looked dead serious and didn’t appear to be enjoying himself at all (check out the 9½-minute mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=la-hWt22dg8).
Pratt agrees: “You could actually look at his face and you could tell the emotions throughout the years were kind of gaining on him. It took its toll.” Despite efforts by his bandmates, they couldn’t control Feary’s habits or whom he surrounded himself with. “He would walk in, and he would be the Mackey that we [knew]. But as soon as he walked out the door, something just clicked and you know, he’s back to his same routine.”
On Jan. 21, 1999, Feary’s probation was revoked after testing positive for ice, for violating a restraining order and failing to complete a drug rehab program. He begged the judge to send him to rehab and not to prison, but he was sentenced to 10 years. His appeal was rejected on Feb. 18.
Two days later, Feary hanged himself with his bedsheet and left a note blaming the judge and admitting he had no control over his addictions. He was only 43 years old.
Bilyeu’s reaction? “It was more disappointment than shock. You know, I mean, he was going through some heavy times. You know, if you look at the Michael Jackson scenario of [his] life, you know, a man that basically has everything at his will… So what happened? You know what I mean? And it’s something that I can’t explain ’cause I had my own situation. Everybody had their own situation. So I’m not sure… I was angry at him for a little while ’cause what the heck, you know what I mean? There’s always a way out. You have friends… Whatever was going on with his life, you know, is ’til this day basically a mystery to me… He made his choice but until today, we feel it. You know, the fans still miss him, definitely. We were in Japan, Guam, and everybody’s asking us [about him].
“I always talk about ‘Nightbird’ because it’s my giving back to my friend that was a songwriter to people to know how much I appreciated him, you know, and people like ‘Naturally’ [which I wrote], but my [favorite] song in Kalapana is one of his songs.”
Bilyeu, who’s been sober since ’91, is involved in the “U-turn for Christ” drug rehab program, where addicts fly to a ranch in Kauai for a two-month treatment, which can lead to six months.
How has the current Kalapana line-up been able to hold it together for 28 years, unlike the tumultuous early days?
Holomalia, who says he’s excited about returning to Little Tokyo: “You know, there are fans out there that wanna hear the songs and also to keep Mackey’s memory alive, you know, keep his songs out there.”
Pratt: “The bottom line’s everybody’s growing up, they’re older, they understand the business more, they’re a little more responsible for themselves, so they see light at the end of the tunnel… And we all get together, there’s really no internal problems like we had in the old days or when we were first starting. We were young kids. We didn’t know what was going on. Now, we know better.”
To order tickets for Kalapana ($40/$50) and opening act Carlos The Experience, call the Aratani Theatre at (213) 628-2725 and inquire about group discounts. For more information, go to www.jaccc.org.
’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.