Jimi Hendrix: Where the Wild Thing Was

Jimi Hendrix performing in Helsinki, Finland, in 1967.
Hannu Lindroos/Lehtikuva – Wikimedia Commons

Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix By Philip Norman

400 pp., $28.95, Liverlight Publications

When veteran music journalist Philip Norman turns his attention to a musician, the word “definitive” is not an understatement. For while many of his subjects are themselves subjects of dozens—even hundreds—of tomes about their music and lives, Norman’s efforts tend to end up being the go-to one volume work. As he’s done with Buddy Holly, Elton John, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and Eric Clapton.

And his 1981 Beatles bio Shout! – while not the most in-depth work on the Fabs, was the first serious look at their career in which the band themselves were not directly involved. Norman continues his higher calling streak with this work, likely the “definitive” look at perhaps the greatest guitarist in rock history.

Part of that is Norman’s very natural storytelling ability and just way he makes words flow. Whether uncovering new information via his own interviews, or retelling familiar tales, Norman writing skills are evident. When he’s describing how a young Jimi’s first instrument at the age of 12 was a one-stringed ukulele that his father found in a garbage pile, the reader can visualize the pleading on the boy’s face.

The book also goes into detail about Hendrix’s complicated relationships with his absent mother (who died early), and a stern, ego-driven father who seemed unfazed and unimpressed by his boy’s worldwide success. Despite Jimi’s every attempt to please him.

One head-scratching aspect of Hendrix’s pre-fame career Norman details is just how easily he would move from job to job seemingly without a care – even when he was fired. As a backing guitarist, he played with everyone from Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, and Otis Redding to Solomon Burke, Chuck Jackson, and even Joey Dee and the Starliters. His tenure would always start out great, but eventually his tardiness, sloppiness in dress onstage, and showboating would make his employers sour on him.

As Norman notes, his tenure with Redding’s group ended when he was literally left on the side of the road in between gigs as the bus pulled away. Also interesting is how often he would be without a guitar, having hocked it, but always finding a way to have a bandmate or—more often—a sympathetic woman or girlfriend (and that term was a very loose one to Hendrix), pay to get it out for him.

“I still have my guitar and amp,” Jimi wrote in one letter to his father from the road. “And as long as I have that, no fool can stop me living.” And what he did with that guitar would be first appreciated by English audiences, leaving fellow players awestruck. Norman describes one scene at an early Hendrix rock show where in the wings Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton were “holding hands like awestruck toddlers at a fireworks display.”

It took Hendrix’s iconic performances at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival to ignite his career back in his native U.S., and then the world. Though even while his star was burning brightest, it didn’t shield him from both casual and flagrant encounters with racism from how he was described by some to those who took issue with his many white girlfriends.

The book is also filled with women who jump in and out of these pages as they did in Hendrix’s bed. That the guitar god would often use them to fulfill his own sexual and career needs, then drop them, and maybe come back does not paint him in the best light, but they all kept coming back.

His personal charm seemed to go a long way. And the one consistent of any Hendrix book is how the amplifier-humping, guitar-smashing, flamboyantly-dressed and flailing wildman onstage belied an offstage persona that was actually shy, soft-spoken, and surprisingly unsure of himself.

That personality type also led many to take advantage of Hendrix – first and foremost manager Mike Jeffery, the book’s designated villain. That’s not including the countless, hangers-on, groupies, sycophants and drug pushers Hendrix would eagerly surround himself with, then bemoan their presence.

Of course, Jimi Hendrix met an untimely end. Part of the “27 Club,” he died at that age in September 1970 from what varying has been described as a drug overdose and/or choking on his own vomit. The exact details of Hendrix’s death and how he spent his last 24 hours of earth will likely never be known given that the woman he was with at the time – girlfriend Monika Dannemann – changed her story and the extent of her involvement many times over the years.

The casualness with which the investigation happened would be unimaginable for a star even half as famous as Hendrix was in today’s climate. But with new interviews, Norman pieces together what is likely an as accurate as possible chain of events. And of course, wonders what kind of music the ever inquisitive and forward-moving musician could have made. 

Wild Thing does have one weak point in that Norman seems to rush past how large Jimi Hendrix still looms in the rock and pop culture consciousness in the 50 years since his death. And the amount text on the struggles and battles involving his estate and his family members could have been fleshed out a bit more, as well as a look at his discography.

Nevertheless, Philip Norman has once again managed to write what history may look at as the most complete word on his subject, and Wild Thing deserves a place on the top tier of the Jimi Hendrix bookshelf.

This review originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Vanilla Fudge Goes Sweet on Led Zeppelin

Vanilla Fudge in 2020: Mark Stein, Pete Bremy, Carmine Appice, and Vince Martell.
Photo by Tom Lewandoski/Courtesy of Dustin Hardman, Press Promotions.

One of Quentin Tarantino’s gifts as a filmmaker is to take a popular song of the ‘60s or ‘70s and use it really amplify a sequence. Think of the offbeat choice of Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” during the torture scene of Reservoir Dogs; John Travolta and Uma Thurman shimmying to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” in Pulp Fiction; or Robert Forster gazing longingly at Pam Grier while “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” by the Delfonics wafts in the background in Jackie Brown.

In his most recent work, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, the director chose an appropriate song as followers of Charles Manson descend upon a home on LA’s Cielo Drive to begin their murderous rampage (spoiler alert: it is not a documentary). To kick off the chaotic climax, the audience hears Vanilla Fudge’s heavy, psychedelic, spooky, and foreboding cover of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” The 1967 track reached #6 on the Billboard chart and was the band’s biggest hit.

“That was pretty cool! And it definitely helped with our streaming numbers. A lot of young people found out about the song that way,” vocalist/keyboardist Mark Stein says. “And Tarantino did his own edit on it. He’s a real music guy.” Stein says that Fudge’s version even got the stamp of approval from Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier, who penned the song with brothers Brian and Eddie Holland.

More than 50 years after their 1966 formation, Vanilla Fudge are still productive with three-fourths of their original lineup: Mark Stein (vocals/keyboards), Vince Martell (guitar), Carmine Appice (drums), and newer bassist Pete Bremy. Original bassist Tim Bogert retired in 2009.

But it is the full original lineup featured on the upcoming record Vanilla Zeppelin (Golden Robot Records), a reissue/remastered version of the band’s 2007 all-Led Zeppelin cover record Out Through the In Door.

“Led Zeppelin actually opened for us for a bunch of shows in the late ‘60s when Jimmy Page after the Yardbirds broke up. He came to America with Plant and Bonzo and John Paul Jones. And quickly, they became the biggest band in the universe,” Stein says. “So we thought it would be cool to do a whole record of their songs. And ‘Immigrant Song’ is a great rocker. We didn’t pull it apart too much, though.”

Vanilla Fudge is best known for their “Fudged Up” covers. In addition to “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” there was “Shotgun” (Jr. Walker and the All-Stars), “Ticket to Ride” & “Eleanor Rigby” (Beatles), “Season of the Witch” (Donovan), “She’s Not There” (the Zombies), and “The Look of Love” (Dusty Springfield). On recent tours, they’ve also tackled Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” (which Appice co-wrote while a member of his band) and even NSYNC’s “Tearin’ Up My Heart.” One of the band’s hallmark sounds is Stein’s swirling, bombastic, and sweeping organ and keyboard work.

Stein says the root of Vanilla Fudge can be traced back to when they were one of scores of bands working clubs in the New York and New Jersey, where they were expected to play mostly covers of the day’s popular songs.

To make their take a bit different, bands would play the tunes with a heavier or more soulful sheen, and stretch them out far beyond the original three-minute single. It was the “Long Island Sound” that also produced acts like the Rascals and early incarnations of Mountain, Blue Öyster Cult, and Billy Joel and his band.

Vanilla Fudge’s very name represents that combination of black and white music. Though it was actually the childhood nickname of a woman they met at a club. They liked it and used it, especially since their new label, Atco Records, requested a change from the group’s original moniker – The Pigeons.

But their discography is also dotted with original material that gets overlooked. Songs like “Where Is My Mind,” “Come by Day, Come By Night,” “Lord in the Country,” and “Street Walking Woman.” “Wow, you’re quite the historian!” Stein laughs when the titles are read out. “’Come By Day, Come By Night’ was actually the flip side of ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On.’ But we’re known for taking songs and remaking them on our own. That’s what people like.”

Over the ensuing decades, Vanilla Fudge have gone through periods of activity and inactivity, with various lineups featuring multiple combinations and numbers of original members. Stein also kept busy with a solo career, and playing onstage and in the studio with Alice Cooper (on the “Welcome to My Nightmare” tour) and the Tommy Bolin Band.

But perhaps the oddest day of his career came while recording with classic rocker and ex-Traffic member Dave Mason for his 1980 album Old Crest on a New Wave (on which Stein wrote or co-wrote half of the songs). And here’s how Stein and Mason got a young man by the name of Michael Jackson to sing the chorus on “Save Me.”

“We were in the studio and taking a break and I walked into the foyer and the Jacksons were down the hall in a different studio. It was before Thriller, but Off the Wall was already multi-platinum,” Stein says. “Michael was just hanging out by the soda machine, and I went up to him, introduced myself, and said he should come check it out since ‘Save Me’ has some of the same grooves as in ‘Off the Wall.’”

Jackson came into the studio – to the shocked face of Mason – and started snapping his fingers when he heard the track. “He put the headphones on and sang his part in one take. It was awesome!” Stein continues. “He and Dave went back and forth and I was doing backing vocals. Those were the days when a lot of artists just sat in on each other’s sessions.”

The current lineup of Vanilla Fudge plus Bogert were planning their next record project, a nod to their biggest hit with the all-Motown covers Supreme Vanilla Fudge. But then had to stop everything when the Age of Coronavirus hit.

“Hopefully, we’ll get to that in 2021. The sooner we get the vaccine, the sooner we’ll get in the studio,” the now 73-year-old Stein says. “It’s madness. It’s a very tough time for the entertainment industry and the service industry. Cruises, venues, tours, all shut down. It’s a strange trip and a never-ending Twilight Zone. We’ll get through it and be back out there, though. You just gotta keep the faith.”

For more on Vanilla Fudge, visit HERE.

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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America’s Book of History

America today: Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley celebrate 50 years of nameless horses, California highways, tin men and lonely people.
Photo by Erik Halvorsen/Courtesy of Rowman & Littlefield

If you’re a fan of the band America – the trio behind the classic rock warhorses as, well, “A Horse with No Name” along with “Sister Golden Hair,” “Ventura Highway,” “Tin Man,” “Lonely People,” “Sandman,” “I Need You,” and “You Can Do Magic,” you have one organization to thank: The United States Air Force.

Singer/guitarists Dewey Bunnell, Gerry Beckley, and Dan Peek met in late ‘60s London, England. That’s where their active duty military fathers were stationed, and all three attended the same high school. After stints with other groups, the teens were inspired by the acoustic music of the day (and especially Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) to form their own act.

Combining a brand of jukebox, the name of a defunct band, and their own yearning for the home country, they decided to call the group “America.” Barely out of their teens, their first single was a #1 hit in Bunnell’s country psychedelic “A Horse with No Name.” Which in a neat circle, replaced Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” for the slot in 1972. Even as many people assumed that Young was the voice on “Horse!”

The 50-year journey of America is told in music journalist Jude Warne’s America the Band: An Authorized Biography (288 pp., $24.95, Rowan & Littlefield).

The book’s genesis began when Warne interviewed Beckley for his 2016 solo album Carousel. As the only tome about the group was Peek’s memoir, she approached the band’s management about doing a full on biography. After about year of contact and finding a publisher, everyone agreed to terms. It also gave Warne access to the band’s archives and many, many hours of new interviews with Beckley and Bunnell (Peek left the band in 1977 and passed away In 2011).

“I could tell that they [Bunnell and Beckley] wanted to get their story down the way that it happened in their recollections, and we were all motivated to get it right in terms of the facts,” Warne says.

While Warne was somewhat familiar with the hits of America, it wasn’t until she was working on her 2015 New York University master’s thesis (which compared the literature of Sherwood Anderson to Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town album) that she really discovered America. She admits it was an “anxious” period while deciding about her future.

“Mom played the Greatest Hits record for me, and I had found the sonic experience I was looking for. To me, they reminded me of the Beatles, that positivity. And that made me want to go into the deep cuts,” she says.

In the book, Warne discusses America’s as a “Logo Band.” A group – like Chicago, REO Speedwagon, Yes, Grand Funk Railroad, Foreigner, or the Doobie Brothers – where the average person might have trouble coming up with actual band member’s name, but certainly knows the logo and the hits.

“At the height of their career, there’s an interview I quote in the book where the members are frustrated that people might not know them as individuals. But the music was so recognizable and successful,” Warne says. She puts it down to the fact that the band avoided any controversy or tales of wild rock and roll behavior that would get their names out there. Also, there was no “lead singer” (though the trio did utilize extra musicians for live concerts and recordings).

Author Jude Warne
Photo by Mary Jane Warne

America – like most other classic rock bands – are still finding new fans among Millennials and Gen Z, who have unprecedented access to music and videos of classic rock-era bands via Spotify or YouTube. Which can have an even greater influence than a parents’ record (or CD) collection.

“Everything is digitized and you can get it at the touch of a button. So [the music] is history, but a tangible piece of history,” Warne offers. “And they can view it as art rather as nostalgia with [no] memories attached to it.”

After severe drug and alcohol problems led him to leave America, Dan Peek became a born again Christian and mostly Christian music artist. America as a duo has lasted far longer than America as a trio, even if the hits dried up by the early ‘80s. Still, the current band (pre-COVID, of course) regularly plays around 100 shows a year to packed audiences and sometimes puts out new music.

Despite being offered insane money for a trio reunion tour or album at the behest of record companies and promoters, Bunnell and Beckley chose to remain a duo. Even after Peek himself warmed a bit to the idea.

“Gerry and I just felt…well, Dan never pursued it [a reunion] either. We were all resigned to our respective paths after he left. But, of course, the finality of his death quashed any idea,” Bunnell told this writer in 2013. “But I don’t have any terrible regret about it. We bring Dan to life every single night we’re onstage, his contributions.”

For her part, Warne recognizes that the key parts of the band’s catalog were recorded with the original lineup, but understands the mindset. “[Gerry and Dewey] went through a rough patch after Dan left, and they had to rebuild and reprove themselves to maintain their longevity. They remade the band,” she offers. “But [a reunion] always seemed semi-open to me.”

Her own “Desert Island Disc” for America is third studio effort, Hat Trick. “It’s my favorite album of theirs and one of my favorites of all time. It’s unique in that it has more of a concept sound to me, and the last album they produced on their own before they got to work with [Beatles producer] George Martin,” she says. “The ‘Hat Trick’ suite sounds like the Beatles to me, and ‘Green Monkey’ is a great rock and roll song.”

With this book, a new single CD anthology, box set, collection of rarities, and a fully booked tour schedule, America was hoping to celebrate their 50th anniversary in 2020 in grand style. But like every other band, the coronavirus put a squash on any live shows. Nevertheless, Warne is happy that the story of America is out finally there.

“The timing is just…I’m sure everyone has a version of that with things that were cancelled or put on hold, so not being on tour wasn’t part of the plan,” she says. “My book had just been sent to the printer’s in March when this all started. So I was glad it was even able to come out!”

For more on Jude Warne, visit JudeWarne.com

This article originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Chris Frantz Remembers Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, and – of course – Tina!

Talking Heads as the Esmerelda Theater, NYC, 1978: Jerry Harrison, Chris Frantz, David Byrne, and Tina Weymouth. Photo and copyright by Ebet Roberts/Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press

Chris Frantz remembers very vividly the first time he ever laid eyes upon one Martina Weymouth. It was September of 1971, and was lounging on a grassy park with a fellow student at the Rhode Island School of Design. When he saw a vision.

“Suddenly, as in a scene from a Truffault movie, I saw a girl pedaling down Benefit Street in our direction on an old yellow three-speed bicycle,” he writes in his upcoming memoir, Remain in Love: Talking Heads * Tom Tom Club * Tina (400 pp. , $29.99, St. Martin’s Press). “She wore a blue-and-white-striped French sailor’s shirt and very short sorts. She was a slender, fit, and her legs were fabulous. As she pedaled by, her blonde shag haircut tossed in the breeze.”

After Frantz pondered aloud as to the woman’s identity, his friend piped up that he knew her and mentioned her name. Frantz was entranced, even though he had a girlfriend at the time and soon found out Weymouth had a boyfriend. “Even though this was the first time I’d seen her, I felt some kind of familiarity or even kinship. I had to meet Martina.”

On the phone nearly 50 years later, it’s easy to hear how Frantz exemplifies his book’s title. “She was a very good looking young woman, but as I got to know her, found out she was also really smart and perceptive with a fine sense of aesthetics in music, art, and literature. Tina just knew a lot!” Frantz says. “And music! She could read it, whereas David Byrne and I couldn’t! And the more I got to know her, the more I liked her. A strong feeling of love that remains to this day.”

On a back cover blurb, a lovelorn Bill Murray – who had a crush on Weymouth after seeing an early Talking Heads gig — says with dry understatement “it’s become pretty clear to me that she’s already in a relationship, and what’s more, it looks to be serious.”

In Remain in Love, Frantz details their musical and matrimonial partnership – which included stints for both of them in a couple of well-known acts from the mid-‘70s to early ‘90s. The genesis of Talking Heads began when he (on drums) and a former RISD student David Byrne (vocals/guitar) began playing music together. They added Weymouth on bass – even though she had never played the instrument – and began gigging at area clubs like New York’s CBGB’s.

Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz as students at the Rhode Island School of Design. Photo and copyright by Roger Gordy/Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press

It was clear that these preppy-looking art students were miles away in look and sound from other groups that played the club like Television, the Ramones, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and Blondie. But then again, while they were all lumped together as “punk” they were all wildly different from each other.

The band added guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison just before recording debut album Talking Heads in 1977. And until they officially broke up in 1991, put out a series of challenging and groundbreaking records, a concert film, and memorable singles like “Psycho Killer,” a cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” “Life During Wartime,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Girlfriend is Better,” “Road to Nowhere,” “And She Was,” and “Wild Wild Life.”

The book was originally scheduled to come out in May, but due to the pandemic now has a July 21 publication date. Frantz, Weymouth, and their two sons and three dogs are holed up in their country house in Connecticut. “We’re very fortunate in that we can go out and roam around. We’re not stuck in a tiny New York apartment,” he says. But even before he put pen to paper, he had to ask himself an important question.

“I thought ‘What is the tone of this book going to be?’ And the last thing I wanted was a book by a whiny drummer beating up on a lead singer,” he says. “That’s not me. I’m grateful and have wonderful memories of my times with Talking Heads.”

While David Byrne is likely the only member of Talking Heads (and yes, there’s no “The” in front of the band’s moniker), that the general public could name, an unfortunate myth has grown that the band was his sole creative vision with all credit due to him. Frantz is firm that this was not the case – that Talking Heads were much more collaborative – and Byrne is guilty of the “sin of omission” when it came to songwriting credits that usually had his name only.

Frantz also notes many other occasions where the very idea of sharing credit or the spotlight or musical decision making was anathema to Byrne. And that as the band got more successful and popular, it made him even more “cold and dyspeptic.” Asked as to why he, Weymouth, and Harrison didn’t confront Byrne about these issues, Frantz says it was all about balance.

Lou Reed (left) joined Tina, Chris, and the Tom Tom Club onstage at CBGB’s in the late ’80s. Photo and copyright by Ebet Roberts/Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press

“Well, we did talk to him about it. And David is not wired the same way I am in his brain. It’s a different type of chemistry going on in his head. You can call it being on the spectrum or narcissism, but it’s a real thing,” he says. “It was something we had to learn to work with. We were working against that aspect of David’s character from the time of our first recording, like 1977 through 1991. We had to weigh in our minds what’s more important, keeping the band together or having a knock-down, drag-out fight with David that would break up the band. It was a dilemma, but I thought we dealt with it damn well.”

Frantz also writes about the many occasions that Byrne and others in the band’s orbit would marginalize Weymouth and her playing and contributions due to outright sexism, making things extra sensitive for the man who served a dual role as bandmate and boyfriend/husband.

“It was very difficult for me. I was very close to Tina, but I was also close to David and Jerry – not in the same way, of course!” Frantz laughs. “And I admired [Talking Heads producer] Brian Eno. I had to take a deep breath and at some point you realize that being in a rock and roll band is not easy. I mean, it’s easier than digging a ditch, but there’s a lot of ups and downs and twists and turns, and you just have to ride them out.”

Remain in Love isn’t skimpy on some details, especially about the Talking Heads’ early tours as names of clubs, opening acts, meals consumed, crowd size, and even what the band made unfold. Frantz says that he consulted Weymouth’s well-kept datebooks for a lot of that information, adding that she is writing her own book which he has not read yet, and that she didn’t see Remain in Love until it was almost completed.

“Both of us felt like we had good stories to tell, but we were also sensitive to the fact that most of what has been written about Talking Heads was either made up and not true or regurgitated information from [the past],” he says.

Frantz and Weymouth also formed the core of the offshoot band the Tom Tom Club, whose music showcased far heavier influences in dance, rap, and R&B. In 1981, they scored a massive radio and club hit with the utterly unique “Genius of Love,” sung by Weymouth and her sisters. An animated video was in constant rotation on MTV, and likely the first time a lot of its audience even heard the name “James Brown.”

Frantz says he knew it had become something big one afternoon in New York as he was walking around Sixth Avenue and Houston Street (“I know you’re in HOU-ston, but there it’s pronounced HOW-ston!” Frantz laughs). He passed by an area of bustling basketball courts populated mostly black and Latino players. Local R&B radio station WBLS was playing an extended mix of the song, and every boom box on the courts seemed to be tuned into the station.

“All these guys, like 50 of them, stopped playing basketball and just started dancing to ‘Genius of Love!’ I sat on a bench and just watched. And I thought ‘Well, this is it. We’ve made it and crossed over into a whole different realm from Talking Heads.’”

Ever the romantic, Chris Frantz today. Photo by James Swaffield/Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press

Talking Heads were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. And unlike other groups which had a history of conflict among themselves (Creedence Clearwater Revival, Blondie, KISS), the four members reunited for a one-off set of three songs. It remains the last time the quartet were together.

“It was intense, but in a good way. And nerve-wracking since we hadn’t played together in many years,” Frantz offers. “We rehearsed four songs for three days. It felt really good. It was bittersweet but mostly sweet. What was great is that our kids got a little taste of what their parents’ band was like. I know Jerry [Harrison] felt the same way.”

As for the future, Frantz says he is working on another book while Weymouth finishes hers. Then they might record a low-key EP of electronic/synthesizer music as a duo. “Something like Kraftwerk. Talk about a band that should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!” Frantz says. “I think I voted for the five times on the last ballot!” And eventually, they hope to welcome audience members once more to their Club.

“We’re waiting for the coronavirus to cool down so we can play as the Tom Tom Club again,” he says, before singing off with a well-wish based on local current events. “And good luck to you and the rest of the Houston crowd. I see the news is bad down there!”

This article originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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The Raw Rock of Michael Des Barres

Michael Des Barres: A multi-hyphenate entertainer with boundless energy and a bottomless reservoir of stories. Photo by Ross Halfin/Provided by Michael Des Barres

With 50 years in the music business, singer Michael Des Barres certainly counts as rock royalty. But he’s also actual royalty, as in the 26th Marquis Des Barres of France—though his childhood was anything but a soft ride on a royal horse-drawn coach.

“My father was a Marquis, but he was in prison when I was born for embezzling money. And my mother, who was 17 when she had me, was his fifth wife, a stripper, and was put in a mental institution. They were Caligula and Lord Byron,” he says.

“So I was sent to these very expensive boarding schools at a young age. I never went home. There was no home. I thought the only way I was going to survive was to really understand humanity, what people want from me, and what I could give them to make my life secure. Because I was on my own. And that was a blessing to me in many ways.”

Die Laughing Records cover

Des Barres has channeled his exuberant and seemingly boundless energy into multiple and simultaneous careers and a rocker, actor, Sirius XM DJ, and video game voice actor. He’s also currently writing a musical.

His extraordinary life and career was the subject of this year’s documentary Michael Des Barres: Who Do You Want Me To Be? It’s title is taken from “Obsession,” the song he co-wrote with Holly Knight and which became a big hit for the group Animotion in 1985.

“I’ve been using my vibe as currency since I was 8 years old,” he says in the documentary.

His most recent project is the EP Michael Des Barres and the Mistakes: Live at the Hi-Hat (Die Laughing Records). It’s six songs of raucous, raw rock and roll, and oozes a club vibe that seems like a lifetime ago, pre-pandemic.

“My new band, we’ve only had six gigs, and this was our second show ever. When everything shut down, I knew I had this magic night recorded,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll be shoulder to shoulder for a couple of years. But listen, man, there’s a lot more we can do with our lives than to go rock and roll shows. We’re going to have to sacrifice for things that really matter in life.”

The Mistakes include Erik Himel and Loren Molinare (guitars), Paul Ill (bass) and Matt Starr (drums). Not surprising given their relative short lifespan so far, the six songs on the EP are all covers: Three from Des Barres’ ‘70s bands, glam rockers Silverhead (“Hello New York,” “16 and Savaged”), and hard rockers Detective (“Detective Man”), as well as Marvin Gaye (“What’s Goin’ On?”) and a Little Richard medley.

“Hello New York” was about Silverhead’s very first night in the city in the early ‘70s, which saw them take in a show by the New York Dolls and return to their hotel…which was on fire.

“I walked into what most people would consider a nightmare, but to me it was a dream because my life has always been on fire!” Des Barres laughs. “We went to Max’s and there were five people there. We went back to the hotel and got in the elevator and the fucking thing was on fire. There were firemen in outfits from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea breaking down the fucking door to get us out! [Dolls guitarist] Johnny Thunders was so stoned he was saying ‘It’s really warm in here.’ We left covered in soot!”

Of a deeper meaning to him is Gaye’s timeless (and now timely) classic. “When I first heard it, I already loved Marvin Gaye. Everyone did,” he offers. “In that sophisticated, sexy way, he could talk about things and police brutality. It was Black Lives Matter, 50 years ago!”

There’s also the T. Rex cover “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” which became a 1985 hit for the Duran Duran offshoot group The Power Station. Robert Palmer sang on the record, but Des Barres took over for the band’s live appearances. That put him on stage at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia on July 13, 1985 as part of Live Aid to sing it in front of nearly 90,000 audience members and millions more watching at home around the world.

As to what makes the Mistakes different from his other bands, Des Barres says there’s no comparison to their situations. “Silverhead and Detective were bands with record deals and managers and agents and press,” he says. “The Mistakes are an odd piece, which is why I called them that. Over the years, I discovered the best songs I wrote and gigs I played…there were a lot of mistakes! You have to do rock and roll carefully, but carelessly. You have to throw it up and see where it lands. Rock and roll is not a discipline.”

Even before he was a rocker, Des Barres was a child and teen actor, most memorably as the student-behind-sunglasses in the 1967 Sidney Poitier film To Sir, with Love. But he dove head first into the rock clubs of Swinging ‘60s London, attending shows not only by big names, but those known only to record crate diggers.

“I went to school with [drummer] Mitch Mitchell, and he told me one night he was playing with this black, left-handed guitar player from America and to come to the club and see him. That was Jimi Hendrix, and he was something!” Des Barres says. He also rattles off the names unfortunately often unknown in the U.S. like Chris Farlowe, Steve Marriott, Terry Reid, Brian Auger, and Graham Bond.

“[Bond] was into Aleister Crowley, black magic and all that shit. In those days, everyone was experimenting with everything,” he says. “It was a piece of shit nonsense. Black magic, my ass! We were all strung out on hashish and velvet and sex.”


Today, Des Barres hosts a daily three-hour program on Sirius XM’s Underground Garage Channel, where he’s found like-minded spirits in his listeners and channel/Wicked Cool Records (where he’s also signed) honcho Steven Van Zandt.

“I love doing it, it’s really something. How great am I?” he laughs. “It’s just great for rock and roll music in general. I’ve been there almost seven years. I have such enthusiasm for this music, and I feel like I’m listening to it with the audience. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Finally, in the U.S., his TV acting credits over the years have been expansive, appearing on everything from Miami Vice, St. Elsewhere, and Alf to Seinfeld, Suits, Bones, and NCIS. Music nerds remember him on the original WKRP in Cincinnati as one of the oddly well-dressed members of the band Scum of the Earth, who specialized in their own genre: “We play Hoodlum Rock,” one of his bandmates offered. “It’s several levels below Punk Rock.”

But his most famous stint was in the original MacGyver show, as the recurring assassin villain Murdoc (he’s also returned for the current reboot, but in another role). That led to his most, um, interesting request from a paying customer on the celebrity video greeting service Cameo.

“A guy asked me to do one in character as Murdoc for his wife. He wanted me to tell her that I loved her, and that I want to take her to dinner, and make mad love to her in a hotel!” he laughs. “I get a lot of sexual stuff, but that was the funniest fucking thing. And the truth of the matter, is that he was serious. He told me he wasn’t kidding. How about that?”

For more on Michael Des Barres and the Mistakes, visit MichaelDesBarres.com

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Peter Frampton Shows the Way to His Past in Memoir

Peter Frampton was such a huge rock star in 1976 that he got invited to the White House. L to R: Manager Dee Anthony, girlfriend Penny McCall, Frampton, President Gerald Ford, and first son Steven Ford. Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library/Provided by Hachette Books

Do You Feel Like I Do?: A Memoir By Peter Frampton with Alan Light

352 pp., $28, Hachette Books

If rock star careers were measured in terms of their level of roller coaster-ness, then Peter Frampton’s would be a ride on (shout out to Astroworld) the Texas Cyclone, Greezed Lightnin’, and X-LR8 combined for sheer combined highs and lows, twist and turns.

He started out as a young guitar prodigy with the Herd, becoming a teen idol as “The Face of ’68.” His next group was the well-regarded power boogie rock behemoth Humble Pie…but he quit the group on the cusp of their commercial fame. A few solo albums failed to gain traction, but then came 1976’s double LP Frampton Comes Alive! It sold millions of copies and made him one of the biggest and most recognizable rock stars on the planet. Cue the procession of girls, substances, money, private planes, limos, and creative challenges.

Then a couple of unfortunate photo shoots involving shirtless and satin pants combos, a tepid follow up album (I’m in You) and the co-starring with the Bee Gees in the flop Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie laid him low. Meanwhile, his Mafia-connected manager, Dee Anthony, was busily stealing what his client estimates was about $30 million in 2020 dollars from the kitty. Refreshingly, Frampton takes full responsibility for the part he played in his own career/financial downturns.

But wait, there’s more! Bankruptcy, bad relationships, alcoholism, a horrible car wreck, and divorces. Then came wilderness years of an occasional album that only his diehard fans bought. But his guitar cred skyrocketed as a sideman-for-hire gigs on record and on tour with Ringo Starr and good friend/former classmate David Bowie. Frampton credits the latter with literally saving his life and career.

And slowly, over the course of the past two decades, Peter Frampton rebuilt his live audience, who gladly looked past the ‘70s image to focus on the great songs, the good vibes, and Frampton’s still-formidable singing and guitar playing. He won a Grammy (for the all-instrumental Fingerprints), was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame, voiced himself on the Simpsons and Family Guy, and had a small role and served as a ‘70s rock and roll technical advisor in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.

And when things were looking really, really great…Peter Frampton was diagnosed with IBM a few years back, a degenerative and irreversible muscular disease that will eventually rob him of the ability to play guitar. So he reluctantly embarked on a Farewell Tour (which played Houston in September of last year). A few final overseas dates were…cancelled by coronavirus.

In Do You Feel Like I Do?, Frampton (along with noted music journo and SiriusXM host Alan Light) tells his tale with a good deal of humor and aplomb. He comes across as a decent, genuine guy, the reader goes on the roller coaster with him. He also sprinkles in anecdotes about fellow musicians like Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Steve Miller, Steve Marriott, Alice Cooper, members of the Who, and more.

The book is filled with a lot of nuggets. Readers learn he picked up his first guitar at 3:30 am on Christmas Day when he was eight years old. That as a young teen, he lost his virginity to a young lady with the help of Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, his musical mentor who facilitated the encounter (leaving him with a case of the crabs and his mother to exclaim “Oh, that Bill Wyman!”).

Peter Frampton recently, on vacation on the island of Mustique. Peter Frampton personal photo/Provided by Hachette Books

He also discusses how his signature Talk Box effect originated with he became enamored of one used by Nashville-based steel guitarist Pete Drake. And how a tempestuous relationship with Penny McCall (who left her husband, Frampton’s friend, for him) inspired many of his biggest songs including “Baby, I Love Your Way,” “Show Me the Way,” “Baby (Somethin’s Happening)”, and “I’m in You.”

Interspersed in the book are chapters telling the story of Frampton’s fabled 1954 black Gibson Les Paul guitar – his favorite and the one on the cover of Frampton Comes Alive! Thought destroyed in a 1980 plane crash on a Venezuelan runway that also killed crew members, it resurfaced decades later. It was “liberated” from the crash site and sold to a local musician, who played it for years before throwing in a closest.

The new record from the Peter Frampton Band is out and features all instrumentals of songs by artists like Radiohead, David Bowie, Lenny Kravitz, and George Harrison.

In a turns worthy of a spy novel, the musician’s son brings it into a repair shop for repair – the sharp owner recognizes it for what it is – and contacts Frampton. But before any negotiations could be made, the teen runs off with it and is not heard from for years. Eventually, the guitar makes its way back to Frampton via a government courier and the shop owner, it is meticulously repaired, and called back into duty for the Frampton Comes Alive! 35th anniversary tour, the instrument now dubbed “The Phenix.”

That Peter Frampton is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame makes this writer’s #1 slot on List of Snubs, and Frampton himself is one of the nicest musicians I’ve interviewed in 30+ years of music journalism. Perhaps the Finale Tour, a reevaluation of his music, and this book will push things along to an appearance on the ballot (co-author Light is on the Nominating Committee).

But regardless, Do You Feel Like I Do? Is an honest (often brutally honest) book that flows exceedingly well, has enough to interest both the diehard fan as well as those who only own Frampton Comes Alive!, and is sure to be a top classic rock bio/autobio of 2020.

This review originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Artimus Pyle Remembers Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Fateful Ride in Film

Ian Shultis as Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle in Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash. Screen grab/Courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment

Sometimes, the sound of impending doom is quiet. And sometimes it is loud. Less often, it is both. That’s how Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle recalls what he and 25 other band members, crew, associates, and pilots heard inside of their Convair CV-240 plane over the swamps near Gillsburg, Mississippi on October 20, 1977.

“It was dead silence, everybody was holding their breath. When we first went into the the trees, it was just a brushing sound, the soft parts of the tops. But when we started lowering more, that’s when it sounded like a thousand baseball bats beating the fuselage. It was horrendous,” he recalls. “And then the plane started breaking up. It took us a long time to crash and stop. I was hurt, I was bleeding, I was cut, and all the cartiladge from my throat to my breastplate was ripped. And I cut my legs up getting out of the plane to look for help.”

Pyle’s tale and that of one of rock’s greatest tragedies is told in the film Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash.

The timeframe is mostly concerned with the day before, day of, and day after the plane crash, which occurred due to a combination of engine mechanical issues and pilot error in miscalculating fuel levels. In fact, the plane’s engines had already had fiery trouble on the previous flight, shaking all aboard as they deplaned at Greenville, South Carolina, where the band would play its final show. A mechanic was set to meet the aircraft after it would have landed in their next destination of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But that flight would never happen.

There were a total of 26 people on the plane. Killed were Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister/backup singer Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray. Others sustained injuries that would take years to recover from.

And while it’s a talented group of actors playing real-life participants, Pyle himself narrates portions of the film and makes occasional but not disruptive on-screen appearances. “There have been many variations and accounts and contradictions of this story. But I was there,” he offers. “This is something that shouldn’t have happened, but it did.” Pyle and his drummer sons also wrote and performed three new songs – including “Street Survivors” – that are heard.

The movie recreates Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ill-fated plane journey. Taylor Clift (behind bottle) plays lead singer Ronnie Van Zant. Screen grab/Courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment

Produced on a small budget of $1.5 million, Street Survivors looks a lot more expensive. Hardcore Skynyrd fans will snap to attention at the period-correct detail down to bandmember’s favorite T-shirts and the texture of wigs and facial hair (though Pyle says they could have done even better with more budget and his involvement – more on that later). Ian Shultis stars as Pyle, and gives an affecting performance.

In the film – as in real life Pyle stumbled out of the wreckage to find those around him dead, dying, or screaming in pain. These scenes are incredibly realistic and hard to watch at some points, more horror movie than music biopic.

And despite his own serious injuries, the drummer decided to head out to find help, which he eventually did at a nearby farmhouse. Just prior to that, the film shows Pyle wading waist-deep through dark swamp water and coming upon a water snake and yelling at it “I will bite your fucking head off!”

The real Artimus Pyle greeting fans in 2011. Photo by Carl Lender/WikiCommons

“It really happened, but I didn’t scream like a madman which is what Ian did in the movie. The snake slithered up to me in the dusk and I said calmly ‘I will bite your fucking head off.’ And then I laughed at myself. And in that moment, knowing I was talking to a snake, it made me feel alive. And that’s what drove me to get help back to my friends. And I trudged on with my Marine Corps training.”

The story’s basis comes from 22 hours of videotaped interviews that Pyle did with Director/Writer Jared Cohn. “It was difficult. I cried, I laughed, I screamed, sometimes I’d get up and punch a wall,” Pyle recalls. “I went to the deep tracks with that.”

There’s scenes of ‘70s-era rock star partying involving topless women, drinking, fighting, and the word “SKYNYRD” spelled out in cocaine on a glass table top. But there is also the band working on music, forging bonds, navigating their home lives, and talking about plans for the future.

That the film is being released at all is a story in itself. In August 2017 after the movie was completed, Judy Van Zant Janness (Ronnie’s widow), along with a group including reps and estates of other bandmembers, successfully won a U.S. District Court injunction to stop the film’s release. They cited a consent order members (including Pyle) signed in 1988 concerning usage of the band’s name and story.

That decision was overturned by a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in October 2018, clearing Street Survivors to be seen –  though Pyle had to disassociate himself from producer Cleopatra Entertainment and business relations during the filming process in order for that decision to come down in Cleopatra’s favor.

Pyle has a lot to say about the lawsuits – and Janess – enough to fill an another entire story. As he does about a number of other players in the Lynyrd Skynyrd story past and present, by name. Suffice to say, they are not complimentary. There’s also Skynyrd-related financial windfalls totaling $15 million that he says have been taken or stolen from him.

“Judy was coming at us the entire time with vicious, nasty lawsuits. But it was a film that needed to be done. And I wanted the Skynyrd fans to know what happened and what we had been through,” he says.

Viewers will notice there is no authentic Lynyrd Skynyrd music in the movie, nor any songs made famous by the band, even in cover versions (the sole number the band performs in the film is the J.J. Cale-penned hit “They Call Me the Breeze.” Pyle says Cleopatra wanted to explore either of those options, but the lawsuits it might generate would just bring additional headaches and delays. Though he actually puts it in more…um…colorful terms.

Taylor Clift (as singer Ronnie Van Zant) and Samuel Kay Forrest (as guitarist Steve Gaines) perform in the film. Attention to detail: Clift’s Neil Young T-shirt is a replica of the one the singer actually wore. Despite the barbs traded in Young’s “Southern Man” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s response “Sweet Home Alabama,” the musicians actually respected each other. Screen grab/Courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment

Asked why the band willingly got on an aircraft they saw for themselves had mechanical issues – buoyed by Ronnie Van Zant’s seemingly nonchalance and his philosophy of when it’s your time to go – you go.

“It wasn’t that cut and dried. On the plane before it crashed, we had gotten together and decided to buy two tour buses – one for the girls and one for the crew. And we had decided as a band to get a Lear Jet so our time in the air between shows would be 45 minutes instead of 2 ½ hours,” Pyle says.

“After our [planned landing] in Baton Rouge, they were sending a guy over from Falcon Airways, where we leased the airplane, to fix the engine. And if he couldn’t fix it, we were going to fly commercial. We had a contingency plan. Ronnie wasn’t just like ‘Hey, let’s jump on this airplane and go have a crash.’ It was like ‘Look, we’ve got a gig in Baton Rouge. Let’s get there the best way you can and let’s go.’”

In the end, Pyle says he is “very proud” of Street Survivors, and that the young actors put their “hearts and souls” into the project. He watched it the first time by himself and cried. And he’s screened it seven more times since, including a public premiere at a pre-pandemic Hollywood Reed Independent Film Festival where he walked the red carpet along with much of the cast and filmmakers.

Though he quit performing with Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1991 several years after the band started up again, he and guitarist Gary Rossington are the sole surviving members of the plane crash lineup.

The pandemic has also put a halt on the pandemic-delayed Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Last of the Street Survivors” worldwide farewell tour. Rossington himself has faced frequent health scares in recent years, and Pyle adds the only “silver lining” of the pandemic crisis is that it’s allowing Rossington to rest up.

And though he and other members came together to play a short set at their 2006 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he’s had no involvement with the band since then. As leader of the Artimus Pyle Band, the drummer and bandmates performer a mostly Skynyrd set to enthusiastic fans.

Still, time and mortality have a way of bringing seemingly bitter musician feuds to some sort of closure, if not a full reconciliation. Robbie Robertson has written about visiting ex Band-mate Levon Helm on his deathbed, and estranged former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts met with Gregg Allman toward the end of the latter’s life.

So, does Pyle see a time when he might have a similar encounter with Gary Rossington – related to either of their health statuses or not?

“Bob, I would give anything to talk to Gary. I would love to talk to Gary. I saw him at [Skynyrd keyboardist] Billy Powell’s funeral. He hugged me and kissed me, and we were surrounded by [current band reps] Vector Management and Gary’s wife Dale,” Pyle says, adding he feels that Rossington is easily manipulated by others and acquiesces to them, and it often involves money.

“I love Gary and I miss him. I know he’s surrounded by some snakes. I would give anything for us to have a private moment together. Just me and him meet. And it would be totally cool.”

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Blue Öyster Cult Still Recruiting Members with New Music

“On Your Feet or On Your Knees for…Blue Öyster Cult!” – Eric Bloom, Richie Castellano, Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, Jules Radino, and Danny Miranda. Photo by Mark Weiss/Courtesy of Frontiers Music

If you were lucky enough to be in Swanzey, New Hampshire at the Cheshire County Fairgrounds back on July 18, 2020, then you got to see two things classic rock fans anywhere else would kill for: a live show, and one by the mighty Blue Öyster Cult. Even if you did have to sit in or near your car in an open field, 25 feet from the stage, and far apart from your neighbors.

For singer/guitarist/keyboardist Eric Bloom, the gig wasn’t as odd as you might think, even if he had to engage with the audience a bit differently. “I think that deserves some high beams!” he said after one tune. And “Let’s hear some cars honking!” after another. The whole concert was filmed and is available on YouTube.

“It was a good show, and I was a little silly. But it was great just to play again, and it was handled with COVID safety. And the audience was…cars. In a field!” the 75-year-old Bloom laughs. “People brought their lawn chairs or stood by and it went off without a hitch. We had fun, and we hadn’t even seen each other since March.”

The setlist included many BÖC classics, but nothing from the group’s great brand new record, The Symbol Remains (Frontiers Music). And while 2020 saw a slew of reissue and live records from the group, this is their first studio release in nearly 20 years.

“Our fans have been asking for new music for a long time. But it takes about a year from when you start writing to when it’s done, and that’s a long time to take off from touring. That’s how we make our living,” Bloom says. “But this offer from Frontiers was good, and the current lineup is playing so well, it was time to get it on tape.”

What set BÖC apart from other heavy rock acts of the ‘70s and ‘80s and whose songs also had science fiction/mythology/sword-and-sorcery/apocalyptic themes was a good dose of wry humor with a bit of social commentary. After all, they wrote a song about golden age Hollywood actress/wooden hanger enthusiast Joan Crawford rising out of her grave to wreak terror upon the land.

That approach is also evident in The Symbol Remains with tracks about internet conspiracy nuts (“Edge of the World”), slavish devotion to smart phones and Alexa (“The Machine”), the weird world of crimes and oddballs in the Sunshine State (“Florida Man”), and a barroom brawl that didn’t quite live up to expectations (“Fight”).

Others address naughty behavior (“That Was Me”), the key to one man’s brain (“Box in My Head”), vampire love (“Tainted Blood”), epic battles (“Stand and Fight”), and…the mental toll of taking a New Jersey commuter train (“Train Tune [Lennie’s Song]”).

For leadoff track and first single “That Was Me,” Bloom and guitarist/singer/keyboardist  Richie Castellano handled the music while cyberpunk author John Shirley (who has collaborated with the band before) wrote the words. But when Bloom rifled through some papers at home and brought them to Castellano’s house as a new discovery, the pair found out it wasn’t so new.

“Richie said to me ‘I think we did this song already.’ I didn’t remember it at all. He said it was because I was an old man,” Bloom says. “So he looked at in on his computer and there it was – we had recorded it a few years ago! It wasn’t finished, but it was there!”

For Bloom, lyrical inspiration can come at any time – seemingly on transportation. He started both “Stand and Fight” and “Tainted Blood” while on an airplane with guitarist/vocalist Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser. “He gave me a mental nudge. I have a sort of camera bag that I take on planes with a book or a candy bar or odds and ends I might need. And I just took out a pen and paper and started putting down words,” he recalls. For the latter song, Bloom then finished it with Castellano…during a car trip!

To the average audience, Blue Öyster Cult is primarily known for a trio of classic rock radio warhorses: “Godzilla,” “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” and “Burnin’ For You” – but there’s a lot more powerful and varied music in their discography.

The band lays down basic tracks for “The Symbol Remains”…pre-COVID, of course: Castellano, Radino, Roeser, Bloom, and Miranda. Photo by Steve Schenck/Courtesy of Frontiers Music

On The Symbol Remains, as usual, Bloom and Roeser share lead vocals and songwriting credits (and Roeser has co-collaborators). But the real revelation is the heavy stepping-up of Castellano, who wrote or co-wrote half of the record’s 14 tracks and sings lead on three. Of those he wrote alone is the record’s most epic track, “The Alchemist,” a tale of Dark Ages royalty and retribution based on a story of cult horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. It’s also the upcoming fourth music video from the record.

“Richie really is the secret sauce on this record, and he was the pivot of getting it made in the studio. Most of it was recorded during lockdown, and his home studio was the master area” Bloom says. To accomplish this took a really futuristic and tech-savvy method. After the five recorded basic tracks while together in the same studio last year (pre-COVID), the rest was done piecemeal.

In Bloom’s case, that means he recorded lead vocals in a booth and on a computer in his home in New York. The live session was relayed to Castellano in his own house to engineer. The session audio files would then be uploaded from Bloom to Castellano’s computer, and he would also receive sound files from Roeser. Then all were then sent to Florida to be mixed, sent back to the band for changes, and by mid-spring the record was completed

The initial group came together in 1967 on the campus of Stony Brook University on Long Island as the Soft White Underbelly. Lineups and names shifted over the next few years (including stints as Oaxaca, the Stalk-Forrest Group, and Santos Sisters) before coalescing as Blue Öyster Cult in 1971, the name inspired by a poem written by then-manager Sandy Pearlman. The current lineup includes original Cult members Bloom and Roeser, longtime members Castellano and Jules Radino (drums), and the recently-returned Danny Miranda (bass).

Among the guys who lived or hung out at the original communal house at Stony Brook were Sandy Pearlman and Richard Metzler – who would be involved in both creative and business matters with the group for decades (Pearlman passed away in 2016). Another friend was budding (and Bloom says, “eccentric”) graphic designer Bill Gawlick.

It was he who came up with the final band symbol featured on the first record cover (and most of the others, taking up most of the cover for The Symbol Remains): a hook-and-cross logo is taken from Greek mythology. It’s the symbol of Kronos (Cronus) the father of Zeus and King of the Titans. Favorably for the band, is also the alchemical symbol for lead…a “heavy metal.”  “The punchline is that Gawlick has disappeared. Nobody knows where he is,” Bloom adds.

For diehard fans of Blue Öyster Cult though, there are two gaping holes in the band’s story. One is that despite their nearly 50-year existence, discography, and huge commercial (if not critical) success, they aren’t in and haven’t even been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (“That’s not up to us,” Bloom says quickly). The other is that there’s been no substantive band biography or autobiography.

Bloom says he’s not about to put his and the band’s story down on paper – there’s too much he’d want to say that would cause legal or relationship troubles. “Last night, I was fishing around the internet and found this esoteric Blue Öyster Cult history that was very interesting. It was almost like someone’s Ph.D doctoral study!” he says. And that’s not all he looks up.

“The internet is full of this weird shit! I see these new videos of teens and twentysomethings reacting to hearing music for the first time like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath. And there was one with a black guy, about 30, and it was ‘Listening to ‘Dominance and Submission’ by Blue Öyster Cult for the First Time,’” Bloom recalls. “He couldn’t even pronounce our name. And he’s just got his headphones on and he’s just popping and rocking out and going ‘Yeah!.’ That really put a smile on my face.”

For more on Blue Öyster Cult and The Symbol Remains, visit BlueOysterCult.com

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Pablo Cruise Takes Time to “Breathe” During the Pandemic

Zoomin’ with Pablo Cruise (clockwise from top right: Robbie Wyckoff, Larry Antonino, Dave Jenkins, Cory Lerios, and…Classic Rock Bob. Screen Shot by Bob Ruggiero

When the members of Pablo Cruise disembarked in Miami after playing on the high seas as part of the Puerto Rico-bound Rock and Romance Cruise, they had no clue that the late February gig was to be their last for 2020.

Since then in quarantine though, the band – Cory Lerios (keyboards/vocals), Dave Jenkins (guitar/vocals), Larry Antonino (bass/vocals), and Robbie Wyckoff have found the chance and the time to polish old skill as well as learn new ones.

“I’ve taken up archery to keep people from my front door,” Jenkins jokes in a Band Zoom Interview. “Actually, I’ve just been playing music. Playing the guitar and trying to write songs. What else are you gonna do?”

“It gave us the chance to really focus on writing,” Antonino adds, even if that meant they had to do it over the phone and calling from locations as offbeat as a store parking lot. “It opened up a window for us to finish this song.”

That song is the single “Breathe,” and it’s the first new music that Pablo Cruise has put out in 37 years. Formed in 1973 with Lerios and Jenkins as founding members, they released a string of albums in the late ‘70s to mid-‘80s with hits like “Whatcha Gonna Do?” “Love Will Find a Way,” “A Place in the Sun,” “Don’t Want to Live Without It,” and “I Want You Tonight.”

“Breathe” has an upbeat, danceable rhythm, whistle hook, and the classic Pablo Cruise sound. The lyric video shows a beach with blue water, white sand, and palm trees moving in the breeze – which looks like a damn good place to be now or at any time. And the lyrics – while seemingly universal on the surface – really apply to what people should do in the shit show that has been 2020 so far with pandemics, protests, and politics.

In a world that’s going crazy/I say maybe we take a time out/And break away from all the madness, the sadness/Someway, somehow/Just breathe, take it slow/Wherever you go, just breathe/Don’t worry about tomorrow/Live for today, don’t let it slip away.

“Breathe” started off with a bass riff from Antonino, and the four worked on the music and lyrics together (the fifth member, new drummer Sergio Gonzalez, just recently replaced founding/original drummer Steve Price, who’s been suffering from some health issues). Each recorded their part individually, and it was all put together through the magic of mixing.

Pablo Cruise 2020, ready to play again in…2021?: Sergio Gonzalez, Cory Lerios, Robbie Wyckoff, David Jenkins, Larry Antonino. PabloCruise.com screen shot

“We’re just tired of everybody bickering at each other. The climate with COVID and the political stuff…what happened to human beings?” Antonino offers. “I stopped watching the news just to get my own brain back. We just need to take time to get to know each other as human beings again. The lyrics just came out.”

There was a potential bump in the road when, during the final mixing, the murder of George Floyd by forced asphyxiation in Minneapolis broke on the news, and band members were leery that some might take the title “Breathe” the wrong way.

“You know how fickle the population is with news and stuff. People move on. We’re all still reeling from George Floyd and taking away some lessons from that and hopefully will grow. But it’s not as pressing right now as the California fires,” Jenkins says. “The song is timely in a lot of respects. The world has gotten fucking nuts and it’s time to step back and breathe and try to find some peace.”

The original lineup: Cory Lerios, David Jenkins, Bud Cockrell, and Steve Price. A&M/Universal Record Cover

“There’s a lot of hateful stuff out there. And this song has a good, positive message. Just spreading a little love among the madness that is happening right now,” Wyckoff – who sings lead – says. The band has also been bemused to hear some of their lyrics coincidentally echoed out of the mouths of politicians. They mention that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently recommended that people just “breathe,” while President Donald Trump said something about “taking a time out.”

Lerios says the band has gotten a good response on the single from their fans, and it has been added to a handful of radio stations. But a lot has changed in the past 37 years when it comes to releasing music. Pablo Cruise fans – typically older – aren’t rushing out to record stores (or the ones that are still around) to pick up a 45 or CD. And almost no classic rock radio stations are going to play anything new by classic rock band. Why play “Breathe” when a casual audiences just want to hear “Whatcha Gonna Do?” or “Love Will Find a Way” for the gazillionth time? It’s the Classic Rock Conundrum.

“You never know what’s going to happen when you put something out, especially today. But I have a feeling this song is going to get heard,” Jenkins says hopefully. “I’ve had a lot of people write to me about it. People feel like ‘It’s a breath of fresh air, it’s fun, and fuck it, I’m just going to enjoy life for three minutes!’ It’s going to be a riot when we can play this live.”

Lerios says the band has other songs in various stages of completion, and they do get together in person occasionally (but social distancing) to work on them. “Putting out this song is a kind of Hail Mary for the band, because we can’t play live,” he notes. “I know bands are doing a lot of these live Zoom things, but I don’t know, measuring the [response] to that is kind of tough. There’s so much of it, and it’s not really our demographic. It might not break until next spring or even summer.”

Antonino offers another take. “That’s why we need to get their kids! Maybe they’ll yell out ‘Breathe!’ like their parents do ‘Love Will Find a Way! This song is our ‘Kokomo!’” He’s referring to the insanely earwormy 1988 Beach Boys tune from the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise film Cocktail. It was a big hit that introduced the band to an entire new generation.

Still, music has never been so easily available to so many people as it is now. One of the reasons that Gen Z has embraced Classic Rock is that with a few swipes of a finger on Spotify, any 16-year-old could pull up the entire Pablo Cruise catalog as well as “Breathe” in an instant.

On other music fronts, Lerios – who has had a very successful side gig doing soundtracks for film and TV – is working on music for a Demi Lovato project on Quibi. Wyckoff has a song on in the recent Disney animated film Phineas & Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe. The band is also working on more new Pablo Cruise music – if they could just locate where the digital files are.

“How are those guitars going, Dave?” Lerios asks at the end of the Zoom interview.

“I sent them to you last night!” Jenkins protests.

“You sent them to me? I don’t see them!” Lerios counters.

“Just look in your junk mail,” Antonino offers. “It all diverts there, right Cory?”

“Breathe” is available on most streaming and purchase platforms. For more on it and Pablo Cruise, visit PabloCruise.com

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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Liberty Devitto: Life with the Big Beat (and Billy Joel)

Liberty DeVitto, Mark Rivera (sax), and Billy Joel on 1980’s “The Nylon Curtain” tour. Photo provided by Liberty DeVitto/Hudson Music

For nearly 30 years, he provided the big backbeat behind Billy Joel as a core member of his band for hundreds of concerts around the world and on a string of hugely successful records. The two also formed a deep personal relationship, enjoying good times and the vast fruits of their success. Not too bad for a guy whose sixth grade music teacher once told him “Put down the sticks – you’ll never do anything with them!”

But it all came to an abrupt halt when Liberty DeVitto discovered that he wasn’t invited to Joel’s (third) wedding in 2004. And when the Piano Man went back on the road, DeVitto’s phone remained silent. Lawsuits were filed about royalties and song credits, and the two only communicated through lawyers. But a surprise late turn makes a nice ending to DeVitto’s new memoir, Liberty: Life, Billy and the Pursuit of Happiness (290 pp., $24.99, Hudson Music).

While his relationship with Joel and the music they made provides the crux and the heart of the book, there’s plenty more to his story. Born to a large, boisterous Italian family in New York, DeVitto’s musical “a-ha” moment came like so many others of his generation: On the evening of February 9, 1964 when the Beatles played for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Liberty DeVitto performing at his Seaford High School, 1965. Photo provided by Liberty DeVitto/Hudson Music

“I was 13 and I didn’t really like Elvis. I liked the black R&B music and Dion. And when the Beatles came on, they could have come from Mars. Nobody knew where Liverpool was, they had these amazing accents, and nobody looked like them!” he laughs. “And they were recycling [American] black music. But nobody had seen anything like it!”

DeVitto began playing with several bands and, despite being underage, found work in clubs in and around Long Island. Occasionally, he’d run into another gigging teen musician – one Billy Joel – along with Russell Javors (guitar), Doug Stegmeyer (bass). The drummer later spent time playing with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and a group called Topper while trying to get his career kickstarted.

Meanwhile, Joel had recorded one flop album (Cold Spring Harbor), left the biz, moved to LA, then returned with two that barely did any better (Piano Man, Streetlife Serenade). So it was make-or-break for 1976’s Turnstiles, by which time Joel had returned to New York and coalesced his core concert and studio band that included DeVitto, Javors, Stegmeyer, and Richie Cannata (sax).

The next album was originally slated to be helmed by George Martin…the Beatles’ George Martin! But when the Englishman insisted on using studio musicians instead of Joel’s own band, Joel turned him down. Nevertheless, The Stranger became their huge breakthrough. And with the addition of David Brown on second guitar, Billy Joel and his band went on to worldwide success for more than two decades.

“Billy said ‘Love me, love my band.’ He wanted the same guys on the record and touring,” DeVitto says. “Luckily, the next guy in line to produce was Phil Ramone, and he was fantastic. And an even better fit for us.”

Liberty breezily takes the reader through those glory years, and DeVitto provides an album-by-album breakdown of some of the songs, including his contributions to them. “If he [Billy] was the father of those songs, and the songs were his children, then I was the uncle. I taught them how to walk,” he writes.

There are plenty of new nuggets for fans, as well as amplifications on stories. It’s been long known that early versions of The Stranger’s “Only the Good Die Young” featured a reggae beat. But DeVitto says studio visitor Paul Simon’s suggestion that a song with such heavy lyrics should have lighthearted groove altered that (the Catholic Church’s subsequent “banning” of the song only helped its sales). Oh, and DeVitto was so hung over, he passed out in a broom closet right after recording it.

Likewise, they were going to leave the ballad “Just the Way You Are” (written for Billy’s then-wife Elizabeth Weber), off because Joel and the band felt it was too mushy. But pleas from singers Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow that women would love it made them change their minds. It became one of Joel’s most famous songs, winning Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. And gave them a new fanbase.

“When we went on the road, we were playing a hall in Washington, D.C. And when we walked out, Billy just got mobbed by these girls. That’s when I knew things had changed,” DeVitto recalls. “I was on the outside of the circle and he was on the inside. He’s short, so he’s kind of on his tip toes looking over the girls’ heads, looking at me like ‘Wow, this is really cool!’.”

Of all the albums, DeVitto says that his favorite to record was 1984’s An Innocent Man, a smash whose entire sound harkened back to a previous era of rock and roll. “When we started recording, Billy only had ‘Tell Her About It’ and ‘Easy Money.’ The rest were all created in the studio,” DeVitto recalls. “He had some ideas and the band had some ideas. If we played it and it really swung, he’d go home and finish the song. I tried some different drums sounds on that as well.”

The Billy Joel Band in 1978: Richie Cannata, Russell Javors, Doug Stegmeyer, Liberty DeVitto, Billy Joel, and David Brown. Photo provided by Liberty DeVitto/Hudson Music

He notes that the band would be in the control room and put on the Drifters and the Four Seasons, and Joel would say he wanted to write a songs like that. That’s how he came up with the “An Innocent Man” and “Uptown Girl.”

There’s also sections about the highs (and lows) of life on the road, DeVitto’s own struggles with fame, drugs, and alcohol. And the band’s eye-opening 1987 trip to play a six huge shows in the Cold War thawing-out Russia. DeVitto once offered peanut butter to one of his government “minders” who, having never tasted it before, spit it out in disgust.

The book doesn’t really go into the animosity and estrangement between DeVitto and Joel went through post-2004. And maybe that’s for good reason, because the book ends with quite a surprise.

DeVitto had knee surgery in 2019, and recuperation gave him time to think. He had also started performing with former bandmates Russell Javors and Richie Cannata in the band The Lords of 52nd Street, whose set list is largely from the Billy Joel catalog.

“When I was relearning the songs, I started to fall in love with them again, and all I could remember was all the good times we had together,” he says. “I had the music, but not the guy whose eyes I looked into for 30 years. That was the only piece that was missing.”

So he offhandedly emailed Joel in February of 2020 year with caveat “it’s time for the piano and drum feud to be over,” and proposed a meeting over coffee or breakfast. Less than 24 hours later, Joel responded he’d like to do just that, as both were disappointed in how their relationship had ended. So they met one morning in a Florida diner where DeVitto had just played with the Lords and snowbird Joel was living.

“It was like it was at the beginning. We’re in a diner, I’m eating pancakes, and he’s eating bacon and eggs,” DeVitto laughs. “And we didn’t talk about business or the bad stuff that happened between us. It was mostly about our children and our wives, people we had knew and lost, and what we had planned for the future.”

DeVitto’s book was already written, but in a surprise development, Joel agreed to write the forward. And the drummer added an epilogue, which includes a picture of the old friends smiling together in the diner. DeVitto won’t divulge more specifics on their conversation, but he did tell Rolling Stone that it’s possible that all the bad blood was due to a simple misunderstanding.

As of now, Liberty DeVitto is happy to have his life story out and to talk to people about it. But his latest interest might take a more, um, scientific turn.

“I’m building a lab in my mother-in-law’s basement and I’m going to cure this virus so the Lords can get out and play again!” he laughs. “We’ve already done one of those parking lot gigs and we’ve got another one planned. You do what you have to!’

This interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com

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