A British rock-star-turned-celebrity-preacher is really just a schmuck from Cleveland Heights

Rebecca Meiser

April 2, 2008

The year was 1977, and the musical Beatlemania was about to launch on Broadway. Thousands of rockers who'd spent their teenage years worshiping John Lennon, dressing like John Lennon, believing they were John Lennon auditioned for the show.

Caspar McCloud, a pasty British guitarist, was among them. He was celery-thin, crowned with a blond shag cut, and walked with a forced swagger that spoke of achievements he didn't actually possess. Though he'd never performed on Broadway -or any other stage, really -he reeked of confidence.

And why shouldn't he? He liked to tell people about his childhood in Manchester, England, where Genesis' Peter Gabriel had christened him the best guitarist he'd ever heard. McCloud was so obsessed with practicing, he confessed to friends, that he often fell asleep with his guitar in his arms.

So he arrived for his audition in full Beatle regalia. Of the 3,000 people trying out for the role of Lennon, he was one of the few who actually came from England. "I was built for this part," McCloud recalls in his autobiography.

The director asked him to play "Help." McCloud strummed his guitar like it was an instrument of God. But he only made it halfway through the song before the director cut him short. "You, you're it," McCloud remembers him saying.

There was no need for further auditions. "In less than a minute," McCloud writes, "I went from nobody to a rising star on Broadway."

He was soon sharing rehearsal space with the Rolling Stones and hobnobbing with the guys from Santana. He partied with people who snorted coke from bathroom sinks and barfed up hundreds of dollars worth of alcohol. But after six months, he began to feel restless. There was no real glory in impersonating the famous. McCloud wanted to be the one others impersonated. So he quit.

He would soon doubt his decision. The "glamorous solo life," McCloud recounts, "consisted of playing for a handful of people in a smoke-filled bar, being paid barely enough to buy a bag of fish and chips." But talent attracts money, and a few months after McCloud broke from Broadway, the record companies came calling.

Virgin wooed him at the fanciest restaurant in England. Sony invited him to meet the real Lennons. What sold him, however, was the gushing of Atlantic Records CEO Ahmet Ertegun, who told McCloud he had "the moves and charisma of Mick Jagger."

Caspar signed a two-record deal. His first album, Self Portrait, filled with angsty, soulful rock, made it to the top of Billboard's music charts. It wasn't long before private jets were delivering him to sweaty, cheering audiences in Australia and he was hanging with Sting, Gene Simmons, and U2.

"These were the days when I would be recording in the 'A' room and Madonna would be in the 'B' room next to me," he says.

But he was also becoming increasingly religious. The deeper he delved into the life of a rock star, the more he realized that it was no place for anything spiritual. Record execs wanted him to play gay clubs, and they wouldn't let him sing about God. "I had become a slave to a life that was no longer mine," he says.

So just as his career was soaring, McCloud kissed it all goodbye.

As he tells it, his pact with God began in the late '70s, when McCloud was concentrating so much on music that he drove away his wife. In a last-ditch effort to woo her back, he flew to her sister's house in Indiana. On the plane, he sat crunched in a too-small seat, looked out the window, and prayed.

He felt "like the Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth was sitting in the empty seat next to me, just holding me." At that moment he became a full-fledged Christian.

McCloud reunited with his wife, quit the rock life, and launched the Ministry of Three, a Christian band inspired by Zeppelin, Johann Sebastian Bach, and God. Once again, he found quick-strike fame.

The band was soon playing before thousands of screaming kids at churches and arenas across the country. "Caspar is an amazing guitarist -as skilled as you'll ever see," says Seth Barnes, head of Adventures in Missions, a Georgia outreach ministries group. "He resonates with people. I've known people who have driven three or four hours to hear him play."

Fans like Michael Stark describe McCloud's shows as religious experiences in themselves. "Their hands go to war on your behalf, their fingers fight furiously on the fretboards against the forces of evil, and there's still a beat you can groove to," Stark writes on one fan site. "If any of the Osbourne kids are ever to get saved, it's probably going to be at a Three concert."

But McCloud knew people weren't really cheering for him; they were cheering for God.

"I remember I was at a concert -it was another full house," McCloud recounts. "From the stage all I could see was a sea of teenagers . . . the Lord would use me as his instrument."

When he finished the set, McCloud "invited teens to raise their hands if they wanted to receive forgiveness and salvation from God. So many hands were raised that there were not enough ministers to do follow-up."

But touring wore him down. McCloud was diagnosed with a fatal cardiac condition. Doctors put him on heavy medication, suggested he give up performing, and told him he could die any day.

That's when the Lord showed up in full force.

McCloud recalls sitting in bed, poring over scripture, when he heard a voice. "God," McCloud remembers, "wanted to ordain me as a minister. It was clear I had little choice in the matter."

So he joined Pleasant Valley Church in Thomaston, Georgia, where he studied under Pastor Henry Wright. His studies taught him that physical illnesses weren't really physical after all. They were merely caused by a weakness in faith.

Slowly, as McCloud studied scripture, he let go of his bitterness and fears, and his heart began to heal. But in 2001, as he sat praying at Pleasant Valley, his hands felt clammy, and his heart began to pound erratically. He fainted.

Congregants would later tell him how doctors rushed to his side, searching for a pulse. There was none. The congregation began to pray, bodies reverberating with appeals for God's intervention.

Suddenly, without any explanation, McCloud sat up. His heart returned to normal. He was certain: God had pulled him from the dead.

A miracle like that couldn't be kept to a small church in rural Georgia. So McCloud began traveling the country, preaching about how a rocker had turned witness for the Lord. His story was told and retold on Christian television.

In 2006, McCloud's autobiography, Nothing Is Impossible, was published to favorable reviews. "We all love a story!" declared Christian magazine editor Tony Dale. "And when that story is true, it only enhances the book's value. This is such a story."

The only problem was the true part.

There is no birth record for Caspar McCloud. Like Adam and Eve, he seems to have been spontaneously generated. In a way, he was.

Before he was Caspar McCloud, born-again Christian rock star, he was Michael Roth, unhappy Jew from Cleveland Heights.

Though McCloud talks of a childhood spent riding horses in Manchester, England, he was actually raised in a small split-level home on the corner of Kildare and Cedar. His father, Paul, was a Cleveland cop. Mother Jean was a choral director. Roth attended Taylor Road Elementary and Roosevelt Junior High, and graduated from Cleveland Heights High School. The name Caspar is actually a childhood nickname: He was so pale, people thought he was a ghost.

As a young adult, Roth was gawky, introverted, and self-conscious, appearing sickly and frail. His body was a tangle of knobby knees and sharp elbows. When you hugged him, you could feel his rib cage.

Like many kids his age, Roth wanted to be a rock star. But his parents, both classically trained musicians, wanted him to play the violin. In the end, he got to take guitar lessons. His father, he says, never forgave him.

"I got the feeling that he didn't have a very happy home life," says Heidi Spencer, the mother of one of Roth's friends, who later took the teenager in. "He couldn't understand my husband and my relationship. He said it was so unusual for him to see a couple who gets along."

To compensate, Roth began spending most of his free time at the Spencers. It was the start of his pretend life. "I think we represented a different world for him," says Heidi. "He stepped into it and decided he liked it better."

His high-school years were spent in garage bands. Everyone knew Roth had talent. "That boy could play the guitar," says a former friend.

But he also held a moody artist's temperament. When former girlfriend Debbie Smith broke up with him, Roth was so despondent he ran barefoot to her home in a snowstorm and begged her to take him back. Smith relented -but only after he ended up in the hospital with a collapsed lung. "He saw himself as a tragic romantic figure," she explains.

His mother died of ovarian cancer when Roth was in his 20s. He and his father, Paul -never close -stopped

The name change was easy, but it was impossible to escape his roots.

In 1983, McCloud's sister Sharon filed for divorce from her husband, Jacob Feuerweker. He was violent and abusive, she claimed in court filings. With nowhere to go, she and her baby moved in with Dad.

One day, Feuerweker arrived at the home for a scheduled visitation. He began fighting with Sharon over custody agreements. The debate moved into the kitchen, where Paul was cutting carrots. Before anyone knew what was happening, Feuerweker pulled a gun and fired five shots into Paul Roth's back. It was one of the most violent homicides in Cleveland Heights history, Captain Tim Cannon says today.

In an affidavit, Sharon claimed that her husband was a "vengeful man" who "hated the police." Feuerweker was sentenced to 15 years.

Roth learned about his father's death days later. Solace came from his new wife, Joan, who had her own tragic past: Her dad had killed her mother in an alcoholic rage.

When asked today why he chose to edit these details of his early life, Roth -who now answers only to Caspar pauses, his voice wavering like the sound from a 1920 Victrola.

"My childhood was very tragic, very dysfunctional," he says. "Why would I want to go back and talk about those things? . . . I don't see why it's important."

It's a sentiment he takes to heart: His own children don't know his real name.

People who meet Caspar McCloud have a hard time forgetting him. When his name comes up 30 years after auditioning for a role in Beatlemania, actors from the original production fall over each other trying to describe the man.

"This guy was -and still is -one of the weirdest side stories to the Beatlemania saga," says actor Lenie Colacino, who played Paul McCartney.

In 1979, two years after the show opened, Beatlemania was still selling out most nights. Producers decided to take the show on the road. Every Thursday they held open casting calls to fill the extra spots -for the touring production, not the Broadway version, as Caspar claims.

It was a warm spring day when McCloud showed up for his audition. He ambled straight up to the director. Hello, he said, I'm Caspar McCloud. I'm from England, and I'm here to audition for the role of John Lennon.

Cast members rolled their eyes. "I instantly recognized him as a fraud," Colacino says.

The biggest giveaway was McCloud's voice. It was peanut-butter thick and sounded like a cross between Prince Charles and Kenny Chesney. "His speech and enunciation was suspiciously unlike any [we] had ever heard before," recalls actor Glen Burtnik.

But McCloud impressed the director with his bravado and was hired on a temporary basis. The cast was surprised, but not shocked. "He had a very cool look about him, and sometimes in this business, it's all about how you sell yourself," Colacino says.

But McCloud -or "Cas-puhh," as the cast came to mockingly call him -never made it past early rehearsals. Colacino claims that the wannabe rocker couldn't carry a tune.

Even in New York, a city full of embellished tales, McCloud stood out with his stories of riding horses in the English countryside and jamming with Gene Simmons. "It all sounded highly questionable," says Burtnik. "But it was hard to believe someone would keep up such a scam for so long. He had a wife and everything, so how could they both be in on such a creepy hoax?"

McCloud was eventually fired. Though he still insists he originated the role of Lennon onstage, Brian Penikas, head of BeatlemaniaAlumni.com, says McCloud's name doesn't appear in any printed material from that period. "Many musicians have tried to cash in over the years by claiming that they were part of the show, when they had nothing to do with it," he says.

Castmates lost track of McCloud over the years. Some claim that the rocker did produce a record that quickly disappeared. One former colleague, who refused to be named, says he is "almost certain an album came out." In fact, one used copy is currently for sale on Amazon.com.

Others are unconvinced. "Never happened," says another colleague. (Atlantic Records didn't respond to interview requests.)

But even as they mocked him, it was clear McCloud still cared about their souls.

The cast tells stories of how he would appear at shows, convincing security to allow him backstage. Performers would find him patiently waiting in their dressing rooms, holding pamphlets about Christ. He'd launch into lectures about God's love and how the Lord pulled him from the dead.

"It sounded like a grandiose, egocentric, messianic fantasy to me," says Burtnik.

"Honestly, I was kinda creeped out by the whole exchange."

In the Christian circles in which McCloud runs, few people are aware of his real story. To them, he is an honest, upstanding Christian and lovable Brit. They won't hear otherwise.

"I just can't conceive that it wouldn't be true," a youth pastor in Georgia says of McCloud's past. "He's never had any negative publicity. He's never been involved in any mess in the public eye. All he's doing is raising awareness for Christianity."

"Caspar is warm and compassionate and creative," says Barnes, head of Adventures in Missions. "He's a man of great passion and faith."

Others are not so kind. "There's plenty of gullibility in Christian circles," says Dale, the editor of House2House, a religious magazine. "Every time you extend that trust and it's broken, there's a tendency toward becoming cynical . . . It's very discouraging when people you trust don't turn out to be what you hoped they were."

The Georgia Christian Alliance, the state's largest Christian lobbying group, condemns McCloud's tale. "I think it is the height of dishonesty," says chairwoman Sadie Fields. "The most important thing that people [look for] today, whether young or not, is the truth -something of true substance in their faith they can hold onto through the rough times . . . If indeed this man is lying to people about himself in order to glamorize his past, then it's inexcusable."

But either way, the show must go on.

McCloud's next big concert takes place in McDonough, Georgia. It's being hailed as one of the biggest southern Christian youth conventions ever. Organizers expect more than 3,500 kids to show up.

"It's going to be phenomenal," says planner Barry Drexler. "There's going to be people there from all over -even people who haven't yet been saved."

And the biggest draw is Caspar McCloud, who's fashioned the life Michael Roth always dreamed of having. "When I tell people that Caspar's coming, everyone gets, like, all excited," says Drexler. "Caspar's such a superstar." LOAD-DATE: April 3, 2008