Donna Lynn Parker had what it took to stop a rock star in his tracks.
She was a blond bombshell, a country girl from the two-stoplight town of Berryville, a fresh face ready to start classes at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1971. She was on her own in the big city and felt the invincibility of youth.
"I wasn't in Richmond 15 minutes when Alice Cooper played at the VCU gym," Parker says. "After the show I leave out the side door to the alley just as Neal Smith was getting into a gold Cadillac, and I said to him, 'Hi, I'm 18 and I like it!' and he said, 'Get in the car,' so I did. And then I took off with Alice Cooper for like a week. Everybody was freaking out. They thought I had been kidnapped."
This was no fleeting brush with fame. It was a rush. Her encounter cultivated more addictive personal relationships with an impressive list of rock 'n' roll stars.
The Who's Pete Townsend speaks fondly of her in his 2012 book, "Who I Am: A Memoir," writing: "The girl I thought I'd fallen in love with was Donna Parker. … I was nuts about Donna, and we hadn't even had sex."
"Pete and I were really close friends," Parker says, somewhat sheepishly.
She was goggle-eyed, a celebrity fanatic, before the days of TMZ or dangerous stalkers, when stars were more approachable. Her looks got her in the door and her charm kept her there. And things moved fast.
After their meeting at VCU, Parker was a girlfriend to Smith, Cooper's drummer ("He broke my heart when he dumped me for a Cosmopolitan cover model") and Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry ("His son posted a picture of me on a website called Friends of Bryan Ferry"). She got engaged to founding Pretenders' bassist Pete Farndon in 1977, but left him after she asked him to choose between her and heroin. He picked the latter. "Then he was dead at 33," she says.
She met Led Zeppelin through Bad Company manager Peter Grant and lectured guitar god Jimmy Page about his Satanism and drug problem while staying in the Plaza Hotel in New York. She "is lucky to have survived" that relationship, she says.
Later that year she got backstage to see the Kinks after a show in Charlottesville, saying that one of the greatest privileges in her life was becoming personal friends with Ray Davies. "The Kinks [took] me to Washington," she says, "and I stayed a couple days with them, and that turned into a 20-year friendship. I went to England, saw their studios, met their friends. It was really cool. I really admire Ray Davies."
She met or knew Elvis Presley's "Memphis Mafia," though not the King himself, along with Nick Lowe, Golden Earring, Blue Oyster Cult, Ted Nugent, Black Sabbath, the Ramones, the Alex Harvey band, Nazareth, Iggy Pop, Humble Pie, Steve Marriot and Rod Stewart.
She says the song "Speakeasy" by True West was written about and for her.
While Parker's youthful relations with rock superstars afforded her bragging rights and the perks that follow celebrities, the relationships had a dark side. "Because of their lifestyles," she says, "they were the worst kind of men a woman could form a relationship with."
Back in Berryville, Parker had grown up in a religious family in the 1960s. Her grandfather was a Methodist lay preacher, her mother was a choir director, and her dad was a Sunday school teacher. She still valued her upbringing, but it seemed far away.
Then a friend talked her into going to Chesterfield County to hear evangelist Victor Torres. "When I went in I saw all these poor downtrodden people," Parker recalls. "I was shocked that they had so much joy because they looked like they had nothing in this life."
During the service, the 20-something had what she considers a conversion experience: "I saw a very bright light, and I heard the Lord speak to me, saying 'Seek ye diligently, for I am God.'"
The change wasn't overnight, Parker acknowledges. It took a long time to undo all the bad patterns she'd set, which included drinking but no serious addiction to drugs. "That was by the grace of God and my mother's prayers," she says.
Then came a truly close call aboard the Led Zeppelin plane with Jimmy Page in 1976, which sealed the deal.
"I didn't know that he was a heroin addict, but he was so articulate and so charming, and before I know it I'm on the plane with him," she says. "We're doing the usual recreational drug and alcohol thing, and I'm chopping up some coke. He was totally out of his mind on drugs and alcohol, and I was just about to snort this stuff when he came out of his stupor long enough to tell me stop — that was 100-percent Chinese heroin, and I would die."
About the same time, God was speaking to her mother in Berryville, Parker says, telling her that if she didn't do something, her daughter was going to die. Panicked, her mother drove to every pastor living within 35 miles to ask them to pray for Donna.
Parker says she's a new woman today. She hasn't been to a club in 20 years, and the last band she saw in 1994 was her old friends, the Kinks. During a recent conversation with Ray Davies, he asked her what she was going to do now, since she met so many important people. She told him she was going to meet and marry Danny Davis, a well-known evangelical pastor from Houston and become a preacher's wife. "Well that didn't happen," she says, "so I guess God did not want me to marry a Yankee!"
A home health care worker, Parker recently moved back to the Richmond area, where she's working at becoming a better Christian. "I pray, I go to conferences, go to church, read countless Christian books. I can't say I have it all figured out — we're not capable of knowing that. But on the other side we'll know."
Parker was embarrassed about her mention in the Who memoir, and says it still hurts when people say they miss her old rock 'n' roll, party-girl side. Some have encouraged her to write a book about her experiences. "One thing I hate about going out in Richmond is people want to hear those old rock 'n' roll stories ad nauseam. I don't want to be known for that stuff. The only book I want to write is one that Jesus gives me that is about him."
She's angered by people who think Christians have given up their brains or freedoms to follow Jesus, she says, saying it takes harder work to be a good Christian than to roll down "the broad path of destruction." She calls that the easy way out: "Most people would never dream that someone who was living the lifestyle that I led could be sober and happy. Holiness feels good."
On Halloween night in 1977, proto-punk band Ricky and the White Boys were the opening act at a VCU dance that was headlined by the now-legendary Talking Heads.
It was guitarist Mike Rodriguez's introduction to Richmond's early punk and hardcore scene. "That was an epiphany," he says of the concert. "Ralph [Harper] was rolling around on the floor, cigarette butts sticking to him, growling and pouring beer on himself. Boo Smith was drumming with this glazed-out look on his face. Bruce Terrell had on an Izod shirt and a cardigan sweater. I artistically came alive that night."
That epiphany started one of Richmond's most prolific, talented and angry musicians on a 26-year journey to the summit of the local punk movement and downward to its absolute depths.
After receiving his bachelor's degree in technical theater in 1981, Rodriguez saw his band Johnny Metro and the Suburbs became the Mod Subs, then Red Cross, and a year later, White Cross. "Somewhere in that time I got really angry and violent," Rodriguez says, "and it all coincided with drug use."
But as White Cross gained prominence on the East Coast hardcore scene, Rodriguez's drug problem worsened. "Being so lost in drug addiction — I could not even control my violence anymore," he says. "In my heart I was not a violent person. I was so angry, and about what, I don't know."
Then when Giant Records considered signing his band Mudd Helmut in 1989, Rodriguez left, knowing that he would have to quit his job at the Science Museum and worse, he knew being on the road with his hideous drug problem might kill him. He quit playing and sold his Marshall amplifier, using some of the money to pay old debts and the rest for drugs.
Shortly after, Rodriguez started a woodworking business and briefly reformed his band Dirtball. But he was kicked out after threatening to beat someone with a pool cue. Several injuries involving power saws — none life-threatening but enough to make it to painful to play guitar — put his music career on hiatus.
In 1994, Rodriguez met his future wife, Kim, at Twisters, a West Grace Street club where she tended bar. They recall a defining moment in their dual substance-abuse nightmare, while mixing drinks in early 1995. "[Kim] was making a bloody Mary and I was making my whiskey," Rodriguez says. "I used a measuring cup, with around nine to ten ounces of whiskey per drink. And then I drank beer on top of that. Kim saw me make that drink and her jaw dropped."
Recognizing her drinking problem, Kim stopped cold turkey that year to support her husband, and mindful that as a child she'd lost two close family members to addictions. A year later she joined Al-Anon and Alcoholics Anonymous.
"AA said you had to have a higher power," she says. With no Christian belief, she says she made her AA group her higher power. Then she got a sponsor who told her she had to pray. "I asked [my mentor] if there was only one way," Kim says of her early rebelliousness, "and she said to ask God, and I did. That was the best answer anyone gave me."
Rodriguez was still disappearing for two or three days at a time on cocaine binges, staying high and living in his car in seedy places. "I kept thinking I could handle it," he says. "Once I used the coke, I would say I can't go home, Kim would yell at me, I've let everybody down again. It was bad."
One night while her husband was gone, Kim says she had her own conversion experience, feeling God's presence in the room. She went to sleep, and after waking, all the shame and emptiness she felt her whole life was gone she says: "I could not stop crying. I have never felt love like that in my life … as if I had been pulled out of the world into a new place. After this encounter I began to pray for Mike."
She feared the effect of her husband's binges on their two young children and considered leaving, but says her strength through prayer kept her in their marriage. She tells of a time she and the children arrived home around midnight from Northern Virginia and saw Mike's truck was again gone. As she began crying, the younger child said, "We need to pray for Daddy." The older child drew a picture for his dad of the armor of God, she says, telling his mother that was what his dad needed to get well.
Rodriguez came home. On Oct. 16, 2003, he says he accepted Christ in his life. Even then, his drug binging continued, and on Dec. 9 he checked himself into St. Mary's Hospital after a final six-day bender. "I was a mess," he recalls. "I looked like a drooling crazy man from 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.'"
When he was released, Rodriguez checked into New Life for Youth Ranch, a 12-month, inpatient Christian residential care and treatment facility.
A professional baker, Kim stayed home and baked during the day, then worked three nights a week at a restaurant. "Our kids were going to be without a dad for a year and I did not want them to be without a mom too," she says.
Once out of treatment, Rodriguez joined his wife and children in immersing themselves in leadership roles in a country Baptist church near their home. Then they began a home-based healing ministry especially for teenagers coming out of bad situations. "Instead of just hearing his voice we began to live out his voice," Kim says of God. "It started with just praying for people."
Today both of them are ordained ministers and musicians in a genre they call "prophetic worship." Their Spirit and Truth Ministries meets twice a week at the Ashland Vineyard, but they and a group of cheerful young people are more likely to be seen on Broad Street or in Gilpin Court ministering and "laying on hands" to people sick, hungry and desperate for meaning in their lives. "I had no idea how powerful this is until we got out in the streets and just did it," Rodriguez says. "But just to simply say to someone, 'Bless you.'"
"We're loving the people, and expressing God's love to them," Kim adds. "We just look in their eyes and tell them we care."
Another child of the 1960s, Richard Bland was easy to recognize.
During his art student days at Richmond Professional Institute in the late 1960s, before it was known as VCU, Bland's flowing mass of kinky ginger hair and paint-splattered clothing was a common Richmond fixture. Usually he was either painting a street scene at an easel or frequenting the bars and rock clubs that proliferated during that seminal countercultural period.
Now all that quirkiness seems to have gone into the 63-year-old's extraordinary home in the Fan District. He helped rebuild a 6,700-square-foot, two-story, 1890 carriage-for-hire building, stuffed with thousands of artifacts, antiques and what some may call junk — including a lot of photos, one of a 1940s car that struck a trolley car in front of Main Street Grill.
"I always wanted to live in a rustic building," Bland says of his dream home. "I bought it when I was in my dark period, not understanding what I was supposed to be doing."
Bland's 1970s dark period included two failed marriages, his dissatisfaction with VCU's "cynical" art department and his growing obsession with antiquities.
But he prefers to keep the details of that life private, however. Of those days, he says, "I thought I was the potter, and the world was my clay."
As a younger man, Bland was disenchanted about the institutional church. "In the early '70s I found some very sad things, people who were false and pretentious," he recalls. "I began to see the worldliness of the church, and it left me disillusioned. I didn't know what I could do."
But he also knew that his art and the rock club and bar scenes were not enough.
He says that hanging out late was very superficial and unsatisfying at the time because of his separation from Christ. "As the Bible would say, I was lean of spirit."
Leaving Richmond briefly for New York in the mid-1980s to work at Columbia University, he returned in 1987, bought his studio carriage house and began hoarding artifacts from local alleys and antique shops.
Richard also began praying daily, like his mother used to do with him as a young boy, searching for what his culture really meant. After several months of soul searching, he says a single prayer one night in 2006 brought him to his knees. "The shackles were finally broken, in that one prayer," he says. "I had the Eureka moment, and it was like the heavens were opened for me."
The epiphany changed his life. He gave up television. And the hoarding lost its power over him.
"I want Christ to manipulate me now," he says.
As a residential supportive caregiver, Bland assists people with disabilities, helping them with such everyday activities such as meal preparation, housekeeping and medical care. "Helping others maintain a healthy home environment is good for me," he says. "Then I come back to this bohemian place."
Besides being an encyclopedic historian of late-19th-century Richmond, Bland is a passionate student of Greek, Hebrew and Latin theology.
And now his objects have even deeper meanings.
"I have wonderful books," he says in his cavernous study area, donning a miner's headlamp and poring through hundred-year-old history books, Bibles and scriptural texts. "These have opened up the verses and the meanings of individual words. I then send my knowledge through the rest of the world through a prayer, because I believe that will do more than the publication of a book."
Not all his friends understood the change in him, leaving him sometimes in "a lonely place," Bland says. "The conversion experience comes as a powerful awakening," he says, descending dark stairs on the way out of the study area. "When we turn from evil to do good, and we don't turn back." S