LAMB OF GOD: THE DUKE

(EPIC RECORDS/NUCLEAR BLAST ENTERTAINMENT; 2016)

theduke

I don’t know if you are a fan of Lamb of God or if you know anything about their passionate, compassionate singer, Randy Blythe. I don’t really care but, you should know about this incredible new EP from the aggressively progressive boys from Richmond, Virginia; you see, Randy and his bandmates care and they are more than willing to go the extra mile for their fans and put their money where their mouths are. I’m just gonna let Mister Blythe speak for himself about this record’s title track: “A little while ago, I became friends with a fan named Wayne Ford – he was terminal – leukemia. I talked with him often, even video chatted him into the studio. He was very calm about his impending death, and we discussed it very openly. I learned a lot from him. This song is for him.”

Lamb of God (Randy Blythe with Wayne Ford, 2012) (uncredited photo)

Lamb of God (Randy Blythe with Wayne Ford, 2012) (uncredited photo)

Randy was made aware of Wayne’s illness in October 2012, when one of Wayne’s buddies asked him if he could give his sick friend a shout-out from the stage; Randy met Wayne and his wife after the show, giving him a much needed shot of positive energy. A little over two years later, in January 2015, Randy received an e-mail telling him that Wayne was losing his fight with cancer; Randy contacted Wayne and they stayed in touch for the next few weeks, as Lamb of God worked on their next album (VII: STURM UND DRANG), with Blythe even allowing Wayne to video conference with him during recording of his vocal tracks (something that even his LoG brethren aren’t allowed to experience). On February 3, 2015 Randy learned that Wayne had succumbed to the disease. His immediate response was to write a song for Wayne Ford, called, perhaps with a bit of divine intervention, “The Duke,” as Wayne’s father later told Randy that he was a huge John Wayne fan and that he had named his son after the legendary actor known as the Duke. The band has also set up a charity campaign for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society online, at propeller.la/lambofgod.

Lamb of God (John Campbell, Chris Adler, Randy Blythe, Willie Adler, Mark Morton) (photo credit: TRAVIS SHINN)

Lamb of God (John Campbell, Chris Adler, Randy Blythe, Willie Adler, Mark Morton) (photo credit: TRAVIS SHINN)

Now that you know what kind of men… no, make that Men… the guys from Lamb of God are, here’s why you should check out the music they make. “The Duke” is a progressive metal tour de force. The track features pounding drums (should it be otherwise?) from Chris Adler, a John Campbell bass line that thrums ominously along the bottom and inventive, pulsating guitars from the tandem of Willie Adler and Mark Morton, topped off with a stunning solo; Blythe’s vocals are mostly clean, only hitting on that well-known throaty growl on the chorus. I always considered Lamb of God to be a very technically proficient group, but this song really blows me away! The other new tune is “Culling,” which is more of the same, while not quite as inventive; this one is all abut the groove. There’s a Zakk Wylde style stun guitar running throughout, with a fleet-fingered, trebley solo punctuating the affect. Randy’s vocals revert to the norm here: Intense, guttural screams, which ain’t a bad thing.

Lamb of God (Randy Blythe, 2005 SOUNDS OF THE UNDERGROUND TOUR) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Lamb of God (Randy Blythe, 2005 SOUNDS OF THE UNDERGROUND TOUR) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The remaining three cuts are live versions of three numbers from VII: STURM UND DRANG. The first, “Still Echoes,” recorded at Germany’s Rock am Ring festival in 2015, features quick, precision strikes from the four musicians while still delivering a vicious, pummeling riff. The last two, “512” and “Engage the Fear Machine,” are from the 2016 edition of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. The autobiographical “512” is particularly moving, as it recalls Blythe’s plight, being locked away in a Czechoslovakian prison awaiting trial on charges of manslaughter; the music, especially the snaking, circular guitar figure gives the song a suitably claustrophobic feel. By the way, the full story of Randy’s ordeal is told with brutal honesty in his memoir, DARK DAYS is available from Da Capo Press and all major book outlets, both online and brick and mortar varieties… or, you could check out a copy at your local public library. If the above story about his interaction with one terminally ill fan hasn’t given you proof of the man’s character, this book surely will!


TOMMY JAMES: A TALK WITH THE ’60S ICON ABOUT HIS SURPRISING CAREER

(SOON TO BE A SCORSESE-PRODUCED MOVIE)

Tommy James

Story and interview by KEVIN RENICK, writing for The Mule

Children, behave!/That’s what they say when we’re together.” “Look over yonder, what do you see?/The sun is a-risin’/Most definitely.” “C’mon everyone, we got to get together now./ Oh yeah, love’s the only thing that matters anyhow.” If you’re of a certain age, you know those lyrics as the opening verses of some of the most beloved and successful pop songs of all time, and chances are you can sing the rest of the words with no trouble. For those compositions are just part of the amazing pop catalogue of Mister Tommy James, one of the most successful recording artists of all time. James had an unprecedented series of major hits in the 1960s: “Hanky Panky,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” “Mony Mony,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Sweet Cherry Wine,” “Ball of Fire,” “Draggin’ the Line.” And those are just the HUGE hits, there were many, many others that charted. But among the countless surprises in James’ career is how so many of his songs had a second life due to all the cover versions: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts scored a Top 10 hit with “Crimson and Clover” in 1981, teen star Tiffany scored her biggest hit with a cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” and new waver Billy Idol had a dance floor smash with his incendiary take on “Mony Mony.” Both of the latter were in the late ’80s, and kept James’ name out there despite all the changes in the music industry. This is not to even mention the many James compositions that ended up in movies and TV shows. His songs have truly been omnipresent in the history of American rock and roll.

Nothing, however, is as startling all these years later as the too-weird-to-be-believed saga of James’ years at Roulette Records, which it turns out, was a front for organized crime. In his suspense-filled 2010 autobiography ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC: ONE HELLUVA RIDE WITH TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS, James not only gives plenty of interesting details about his hits themselves, he tells a tale of being under the thumb of mobsters like Morris Levy that is so gripping, it sounds like something Martin Scorsese would dream up. In fact, the DENVER POST called the book “the music industry version of GOODFELLAS.” Not only that, one of Scorsese’s producers, Barbara DeFina (who worked on GOODFELLAS, CASINO and CAPE FEAR) is set to produce the James film. It’s all pretty heady, enthralling stuff for an amiable kid from Niles, Michigan who just wanted to play music.

CoverArt-book

Tommy James was born Thomas Gregory Jackson in 1947, and though born in Dayton, Ohio, his family moved to Niles early on. He was a child model at the age of four, and formed his first band, the Tornadoes, when he was only 12. Soon after, the band changed their named to the Shondells. In 1964, a local DJ, at WNIL in Niles, named Jack Douglas launched a small label, Snap Records, which recorded some early Shondells tunes. One of these was “Hanky Panky,” a catchy little ditty penned by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Some locals dug it, but there was no budget for promotion at the time, and the song was largely forgotten about. But in the first of countless legendary incidents in James’ stellar career, something unpredictable happened. In 1965, Bob Mack, who was a local dance promoter in Pittsburgh, found a copy of “Hanky Panky” in a used record bin, and began playing it at his dance clubs. An enterprising bootlegger then started pressing copies of the disc, and it sold an estimated 80,000 copies in Pittsburgh in ten days. By early 1966, the tune was Number One on Pittsburgh radio. And, after James got word of what was happening and flew to Pennsylvania to meet with Mack and Chuck Rubin (the talent booker for Mack’s clubs), the resulting promotional efforts led “Hanky Panky” all the way to the top of the singles charts by July of 1966. Much had already changed for James by then; he no longer even had the services of the original Shondells. But Tommy met a five-man group called the Raconteurs at the Thunderbird Club in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and found great chemistry with them. So the rechristened Tommy James and the Shondells started doing shows and shopping for record labels. Rubin, an experienced industry type, suggested they go to New York, where the majority of the key labels were located. And one of their last stops was Roulette Records. The head of the label, Morris Levy, was initially out of town and James and company heard nothing back at first. Oh, but the story was to get so much more interesting than the young Tommy could ever imagine, and we should hear it right from him.

Manager Leonard Stogel, Tommy James and Morris Levy, management agreement signing, 1966 (publicity photo)

Manager Leonard Stogel, Tommy James and Morris Levy, management agreement signing, 1966 (publicity photo)

Suffice to say that James was soon recording all those classic hits that every baby boomer has memorized, and achieving his wildest, most improbable dreams… although not quite the way he imagined. I was lucky enough to speak with James by phone last fall, and I began our talk by telling him how much his music meant to me in the late ’60s. I had a particular obsession with the song “Sweet Cherry Wine,” which I thought was beautiful and produced just brilliantly. That song was my favorite of the year in 1969, and the first album I can ever remember buying with my own money was THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS, released that year. James is an amiable, charming person in conversation, and he is well aware of how incredible his story is. He’s involved in the ongoing development of the movie based on his life and book, and he still tours and releases new music. I first met James in the late ’70s, when I attended a New Year’s Eve show he was performing while I suffered from a horrible cold. James said he played in Saint Louis the first time in 1966, but couldn’t remember the venue. What follows is an edited version of our lengthy interview.

THE MULE: Tommy, it is so amazing to talk with you. I wanted to start out by telling you how much I loved “Sweet Cherry Wine” back in the ’60s. It was really one of the first songs that gave me chills, every time. I couldn’t wait to hear it on the radio when I listened.

TJ: Well thank you. It’s as close as we ever got to a protest song. It’s a semi-religious song. There was no such thing as being politically correct back in the ’60s. The singles that you did, and we were basically doing singles then, were like snapshots of where you were as a human being. That was one of the songs in the mix between the CRIMSON AND CLOVER album and CELLOPHANE SYMPHONY, the magic year of 1969. All the records we did were so different from one another. “Crystal Blue Persuasion” was so different from “Sweet Cherry Wine,” which was in 3/4 time and, “Sweet Cherry Wine” was so different from “Crimson and Clover.” We outsold the Beatles with singles.

THE MULE: Wow, that’s amazing. And things were so crazy back then, the way rock and roll was progressing.

TJ: In late 1968, we were out on the road with Hubert Humphrey, we did the presidential campaign. And the whole industry changed from singles to albums in the 90-day period we were out with him. In August of ’68, when we left, all the major acts were singles acts… Gary Puckett, the Buckinghams, the Rascals and us and the Association. And we came back 90 days later and it was Blood Sweat and Tears, Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills and Nash. The world had turned upside down in the music business. So we were very lucky to be working on “Crimson and Clover” at that very moment. Because that single allowed us to make the jump from singles to albums, from “Top 40” to FM progressive album rock. I don’t think there’s any other single we ever did that would have allowed us to do that in one shot like that.

Tommy James with Hubert Humphrey (uncredited photo)

Tommy James with Hubert Humphrey (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: “Crimson and Clover” and then, “Sweet Cherry Wine.” I wanted to say that those songs were among the first I remember hearing where background vocals were a key texture and added to the haunting nature of the song. You were doing something unique, I couldn’t even explain it at the time, but those background harmonies were amazing. Can you explain a little about what you were trying to do?

TJ: As music got more and more complicated, the background parts became actually almost part of the lead. With “Crimson and Clover,” it happened almost by accident. Basically, we had done the record with tremolo and we put it together really quickly. With tremolo on the guitar, that was sort of the signature sound. When we got to the end, we had the fade, we knew what was going to be there. We just decided to throw tremolo on it. So, we actually recorded the backgrounds straight, and then piped ‘em out through the guitar amp, and then mic’d the guitar amp, turned on the tremolo like we’d done with the guitars, and brought it back thru the board. The point was, it became sort of the signature sound of the record and it became our biggest selling single.

Tommy James and the Shondells Crimson and Clover picture sleeve, 1968

Tommy James and the Shondells Crimson and Clover picture sleeve, 1968

THE MULE: Do you have a personal favorite story about a song from back then? About where something came from, for example?

TJ: Well, we’re doing a movie. We’re gonna try to put as much of this stuff in the movie as we can.

THE MULE: I read that. It sounds amazing. Wasn’t Scorsese interested in the film?

TJ: His producer, Barbara DeFina, is going to produce our movie. She produced HUGO, GOODFELLAS, CASINO, CAPE FEAR. She’s an incredible talent. She’s doing the movie of the book.

THE MULE: And you’re a consultant on it?

TJ: Sure, sure. And we’re going to be working very closely with the screenplay writer, Matthew Stone. Over the next few months or so, the screenplay will be put together. And also, we have several more stories that will be in the movie, than we had time for in the book.

THE MULE: I read your book with amazement, I gotta say. I just couldn’t believe it. I never knew any of that stuff about the mob, I just liked your music so much. And my jaw dropped as I read about all those shenanigans you went through with Morris Levy. How did you even keep your cool?

TJ: Well, what it boiled down to is that we constantly had to ask ourselves if it would be smarter to get out of this thing. When we were first approaching record labels in New York, “Hanky Panky,” our first record, sort of exploded out of Pittsburgh. Really unexpectedly so. I grabbed the first bar band I could find because I couldn’t put the original group back together. We were in NY two weeks later and we made the rounds of all the record companies to try to get a national or international deal. So, this is spring of 1966. I’m 19 years old and we get to New York, and we’re taken around by a couple of people who had been in the business a long time. We got a yes from CBS, RCA, Atlantic. And Kama Sutra who were hot at the time. And the last place we took the record to was Roulette. And you know, at the end of the day we didn’t pay much attention. I thought it would be great to be with Columbia Records, one of the big corporate labels at the time. So, I went to bed that night feeling real good. And we woke up the next morning, and all of a sudden all the record companies that had said YES the day before, suddenly said, “Tom, I’m afraid we’re gonna have to pass.” And I said, “What d’ya mean you’re gonna have to pass? I thought we had a deal!” And finally, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic told us the truth, that Morris Levy at Roulette Records had called all the other companies, and basically backed them down. (James speaks in a low-pitched mobster voice) “’This is my fuckin’ record company, back off!” And they did. Red flags went up right there… what was so special about Roulette? We’d heard rumors, but didn’t believe it. But apparently, we were gonna be on Roulette, because the first offer, we couldn’t refuse! (he laughs) All of a sudden, we started recognizing people we were doing business with. We’d meet somebody up in Morris’ office, and a week later we’d see them on the TV news being taken out of a warehouse in New Jersey in handcuffs. Y’know… “Didn’t we just see them in Morris’ office?”

Tommy James and the Shondells receive their first gold record from Morris Levy, 1966 (publicity photo)

Tommy James and the Shondells receive their first gold record from Morris Levy, 1966 (publicity photo)

THE MULE: That is NOT exactly what a musician hopes for from their first label.

TJ: No! Roulette was basically a front for the Genovese crime family in New York. In addition to being a functioning record label. But if we had gone with one of the corporate labels, I’ll tell you what would’ve happened. We would have been turned over to an in-house A&R guy and that’s probably the last that anyone would have heard of us. Especially with a record like “Hanky Panky.”

THE MULE: Oh, that’s hard to believe. You think so? So, was that sort of the trade off you had to make, that you were sacrificing money for the artistic freedom you were given?

TJ: Sure. But we didn’t know that at first. It took us a while to realize that we weren’t going to get mechanical royalties. We weren’t gonna get paid for all this. Of course, we made money from all kinds of other directions, like touring, commercials. All that. But mechanical royalties, no. We had to constantly ask ourselves if we wanted to take our life in our hands and try to get outta this thing. Or, because we were having such great success there, if we could just keep our mouth shut and go along, and have the hits. Because we were making so much money in other areas, like touring. I think we made the right decision to stay. ‘Cause it worked out for us. Plus, I get to tell the story now. But we ended up doing about $110 million in record sales with Roulette.

THE MULE: There was a point in the book that was really cathartic, when you finally told Levy off after years of being kinda screwed, and not getting the money you earned. It felt like a big moment.

TJ: (He laughs) I have such mixed feelings about the whole thing. Because the truth is, every time I go to say something really nasty about Morris Levy and Roulette, I have to stop myself. The truth is, if it hadn’t been for Morris Levy, there wouldn’t have been a Tommy James. That is true. However, having said that, there were a lot of bitter feelings. And there was a lot of danger up there. It was a dangerous place to be.

Tommy James and the Shondells on the Ed Sullivan Show (uncredited photo)

Tommy James and the Shondells on the Ed Sullivan Show (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: You mean like, were there times you feared for your life?

TJ: Yes! One of the times, y’know, they were having this big gang war in New York. The Gambino family was taking over, and Morris was on the wrong side. And Morris left for Spain and wasn’t heard from for almost a year. And the rest of us were just left holding the bag at Roulette. So, my attorney told me flat out, “I think it would be a real good idea if you left town ’til this damn thing blows over.” There was almost 300 people killed. Bodies were flying around all over the place. He said, “If they can’t get Morris, they’re likely to go after what’s making Morris money, and that’s YOU.” So I said, “Oh, that’s freakin’ great!” So I had to go to Nashville. I went to Nashville and did an album with Elvis’ guys. That was in 1971. And then I get back, thinking everything was over, and Tommy Eboli, Morris’ partner, who was the head of the family by that time, all of a sudden he gets killed. That’s when I exploded. I said, “I gotta get out of here. I’m done.” But Morris wasn’t gonna let me go. He said (low voice again) “You’re not goin’ anywhere.” So, I basically went about destroying my own career. Essentially, I stopped making any more records for Morris. I’d write stuff and ,sometimes I’d record it, but I wouldn’t turn it in.

THE MULE: That was purposeful on your part?

TJ: Oh yeah. God, yes. It was a horrible thing to have to do. But I finally got out by 1974. I went with Fantasy Records, on the west coast. But, we were just real lucky to make it out of there in one piece. So the gist of the book and the movie is, that here we are, trying to have this career in rock and roll, with this dark and sinister and frightening story going on behind the scenes, and we can’t talk about it.

THE MULE: There can’t be too many rock stars whose career went like this. It’s quite unique!

TJ: Probably true. When we started writing the book, Martin Fitzpatrick, my co-author and I, we were originally gonna call the book CRIMSON AND CLOVER, we were gonna write about the hits, and making records and writing songs, and that would’ve been great. But we got about a third of the way into it and,, we realized that if we don’t tell the whole Roulette story, we’ll be cheating ourselves and everybody else. I was very nervous about finishing the thing. Cause some of these guys were still walking around. And it’s not like we were talking about a huge amount of criminal activity. I mean, there was some. But the fact you were talking about this stuff could’ve gotten you killed. So I was nervous. And we put it on the shelf for about three years. And finally, in 2006, the last of the Roulette regulars as I called them, passed on. And we finally felt like we could finish the book, which took us two or three years to do. When we did, we immediately got a deal with Simon and Schuster. They just gobbled it right up.

Tommy James with ME, THE MOB, AND ME (uncredited photo)

Tommy James with ME, THE MOB, AND ME (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: And you started getting all those royalties that you were cheated out of before.

TJ: Of course. But then, at the end of all that, we started getting calls for the movie rights and for the Broadway rights. It’s gonna be a Broadway show after that. So, this is gonna be a real interesting time.

THE MULE: What kind of a shift, aesthetically, happened for you with your music after the Roulette era ended?

TJ: Well, in the ’70s, by that time music itself had changed. We kind of went with that flow. The band and I had broken up in 1970, so I was by myself doing this. The first place I went was Fantasy, and we had two albums out there. They did pretty well for us. Fantasy was a great place to be, an interesting place. Couldn’t be any further geographically from Roulette than it was. And then. after those two records, I came back to New York and signed with Millennium Records, which was RCA. And had three more chart records, one went number one, “Three Times in Love,” in 1980. We were very lucky because I took three years off in 1981 and sort of collected my publishing and got a lot of my masters back. And it was really a good time creatively. Finally, in 1988, I began recording again. We were getting all kinds of cover records in the 1980s. A lot of movies and stuff. And I released a record in 1990, the HI-FI album. That did very well for us. And that’s kind of where the book ends, in 1990. ‘Cause that’s when Morris died. He was indicted in 1986, and was put on trial in 1988. And he lost. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. But, he died before he could serve any time. He died of colon cancer in 1990.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Did you ever have any final conversation with him during those days?

TJ: The end of the book and of the movie are gonna be quite touching. Because, basically, what happened is that he asked for me. As I’m rushing out the door to do a gig in Chicago – this actually happened – the first gig on this promotional tour that I was doing for the HI-FI album. It was the first album I’d put out in 10 years, so it was a big deal. And Morris was asking for me. I didn’t realize how sick he was. And Howard (an accountant at Roulette Records) said, “If you wanna see him, you better get up to the farm right away.” So I said, well okay, I’ll be back the next day. And he died that night. So I never officially got a chance to say goodbye to him. The last scene in the movie is going to be, where I am telling this story. In the book, I’m actually telling the story after he died, to a reporter there in Chicago. I go down from the theatre, about two in the morning. It’s a beautiful, crisp night in Chicago. And I’m by myself. And we’re gonna go back to the hotel. The limo driver is snoozing. And I get in the back of the limo, and I sort of have this imaginary conversation with Morris. This is at the end of the movie, and I get a chance to say goodbye to him that way. The funny part is, in the film, at the very end, the closing credits happen right then. And the limo takes off, you can see the Chicago skyline. And the credits start rolling. And this new version of “I Think We’re Alone Now” that I did with the original Shondells. I brought them up from Pittsburgh. Took ‘em in the studio, and we did this slow, beautiful version of the song at the end.

THE MULE: Oh man, that gives me chills.

TJ: The funny part is, the words work so well. Because Morris was gone, and we’re alone now! It worked so well in this somber moment, just as well as they did in the original teeny bop love song from the ’60s.

Tommy James (photo credit: TOM WHITE/THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Tommy James (photo credit: TOM WHITE/THE NEW YORK TIMES)

THE MULE: There are three of the Shondells still alive, right?

TJ: Yes. Mike, Ronnie and Eddie. Course, I’m out on the road now every year with a new group of Shondells.

THE MULE: I wanted to ask you about one of the many covers of your songs… there’s been a zillion. But, the Billy Idol version of “Mony Mony,” which became a huge dance hit. You surely knew about this obscene four-line chant, that people started doing in the song. How did that come about?

TJ: That happened on a spring break by a bunch of kids from Chicago, who went down to Fort Lauderdale during the ’70s. And they started doing that to the song. I don’t know… it was amazing, they would sometimes do that when I was onstage. And I thought I was getting booed offstage. That just kinda happened, one of those spontaneous things the college kids just made up.

THE MULE: Two other funny things I read. You actually said NO to George Harrison about something in 1968? What was that all about?

TJ: Well it wasn’t that I said no. George Harrison wrote with a group he was producing, called Grapefruit. What happened was, when the Beatles started Apple, it started out as a publishing company before it was a record company. And their idea was to write songs for all their friends. For other artists. That was the original reason for Apple. George wrote me a bunch of songs. “Mony Mony” had been the biggest record of the decade in England. It was actually bigger over there than it was here. So, they wrote me oh, eight or ten songs. But they all sounded like “Mony Mony”. They brought ‘em over here and delivered ‘em to my manager. At that time, we had moved on to “Crimson and Clover,” to sort of another sound. And so I never really got a chance to do those songs. And I felt terrible, I never got a chance to thank George for what he had done. I just always felt bad about that.

THE MULE: Another thing I did not know. You almost died in 1970, right?

TJ: Well, that’s true. I collapsed onstage in Alabama. That was real scary. I was popping a lot of uppers at the time. And they all caught up with me onstage. I was lucky I didn’t have a heart attack. It was close.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: I wanted to ask you about a couple of the more recent songs. I was struck by “Megamation Man.” It’s an interesting song, with that little boy’s voice on it. Was he one of your kids, or just a kid you found?

TJ: No, it was one of the kids of my engineer, with whom I was making the record at the time. I wrote that song back in 1994, actually. It got recorded about ten years later. And it’s about what’s called the new world order. I guess you could call it the police state that’s being set up right now around the world.

THE MULE: Is megamation a real word?

TJ: I made it up, as far as I know. It’s about the character that scripture calls “the anti-Christ.” It’s a strange topic to be writing about in rock and roll, but I just felt the urge to do it.

THE MULE: How much do you allow politics or topical concerns to affect your music? Early on, “Sweet Cherry Wine” was an exception, but do you have a line there that you don’t want to cross when you are writing something?

TJ: Sometimes…. my view is that, when you write a song, it can come from several different places. It can be something that you imagine. But, when you write a song, you are writing a little story. No matter how trivial the lyrics, you are writing a story. It’s sort of a snapshot. It doesn’t have to be about real life. But sometimes it is. “Megamation Man” was about a topic that I felt strongly about, and wanted to make it musical. It’s not easy to do that sometimes. But every now and then, I have the urge to do that.

Tommy James (photo credit: MICHAEL BUSH/UPI)

Tommy James (photo credit: MICHAEL BUSH/UPI)

THE MULE: And you re-recorded a new version of “Sweet Cherry Wine.” What made you do that?

TJ: My engineer came to me and was playing the piano. He’s a great musician. And he played me this sort of gospel version of “Sweet Cherry Wine.” And I said, “We gotta do that.” ‘Cause, really, that’s a gospel song. And so we created a little choir, and I was just really happy with that record. In 2006, we released the HOLD THE FIRE album. And we had three top five adult contemporary records from that album. One of them went Number One, “Love Words.” And so, that was our first time back on the charts for quite some time. We were gonna release “SCW” as a single but we decided not to.

THE MULE: I also wanted to mention the song “Give It All,” which I thought was really strong. It seemed like you had reached some new kind of powerful place as a vocalist with songs like that. Did you feel that yourself?

TJ: Thank you. To me, my favorite album that I have done in the last 40 years is our Christmas album. (I LOVE CHRISTMAS, released in 2008 on Aura Records) I have never sounded better vocally. It all just came together. I recorded it with Jimmy Wisner, who I had first started making records with in 1967. Just this last Christmas, we released it on vinyl, as well. But I have been really blessed with being able to keep my voice. In my view, I’ve gotten a little better. I’ve gained almost an octave that I didn’t have as a kid. Usually, it’s the other way around.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Are you still enjoying making music just as much as in the old days?

TJ: Oh. yeah, I am. When we play on the road, I see three generations of fans at the concerts and it’s amazing.

THE MULE: Well, a lot of us grew up with your songs and just have vivid memories associated with them. There must be people that come up and tell you stories all the time, right? Poignant stories about what songs meant to them? Does anything stand out?

TJ: The funny thing is that radio was a much more intimate media than movies or TV or anything else and, your record on the radio was more intimate than anything. So, when people come up to me, they have memories attached to that song. And so do I! I feel that way about other acts during that period of time, like the Beach Boys or the Beatles. I have a lot of memories attached to the music. People feel like they know you. And your audience becomes like an extended family. It’s as close to a religious experience as you can have in rock and roll.

THE MULE: Who were some of the artists who affected or influenced you when you were coming up in music?

TJ: Oh, man… all of them. I listened to the Beach Boys’ records and I’m there. The Four Seasons. I used to PLAY a lot of that stuff, it wasn’t just listening to it. I was in cover bands in high school and so forth. So I played all this stuff. “1-2-3″ by Len Barry. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard that record. It’s amazing what music does for me. I can tell you what year it was, where I was in my life, I can almost tell you what I had for dinner that night.

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

Tommy James (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Well Tommy, there are so many other things I’d love to ask you, but I know we have to wind down now. Do you have certain hopes for your musical future, things that you want to accomplish that you haven’t quite done yet?

TJ: Well, you know we just started our YouTube channel. YouTube people came to me over the previous Christmas holiday and asked me if I would like to have a YouTube channel, because our catalog was so deep. And I said, “Yeah. What’s THAT?” (laughs) And they told me. And it’s all your past stuff, plus new stuff. So every two to three weeks, we put up a new video on the YouTube channel. It’s usually me talking about the song or where it came from. And we’re gonna keep putting up new music.

THE MULE: Finally, and this is silly, but I gotta ask. Does your baby still do the hanky panky?

TJ: Oh yeah. It never stopped. When we still play that record, the place kind of explodes.

Tommy James with his gold records (uncredited photo)

Tommy James with his gold records (uncredited photo)

By the time Tommy James was truly free of the Morris Levy craziness, he had sold millions upon millions of records, had become a household name, and found himself with a tale to tell that would give him a wildly improbable entry into the movie business. The ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC book talked about earlier is essential reading for anyone wanting to know the depth of James’ journey. James only released a few records in the 70s (the Shondells era was long over by then); these included CHRISTIAN OF THE WORLD, IN TOUCH and MIDNIGHT RIDER, but few of these yielded hits as huge as what had come before, although “Three Times in Love” was a 1980 single that made it to number 19 on the Billboard chart. But, after that, there was no new James material until 1990’s HI-FI. James’ last new album was 2006’s HOLD THE FIRE. There have been many compilations, of course; with a catalogue as deep as James’, record companies will always want to keep the reissues coming. And James has a YouTube channel well worth investigating, because he talks about various songs himself in a witty and lively manner. The link for the channel is here: www.youtube.com/user/TJShondells. James also continues to tour, both solo and with a new version of the Shondells. Although he could easily coast on his past glories, James still loves songwriting and performing, and continues to write new stuff. He’s a very lucky guy and he knows it. Despite the royalties he was once screwed out of by Morris Levy, not only was the wrong eventually righted in a way that gave James unprecedented financial security, Levy unintentionally did James a peculiar favor by making his particular tale so interesting that new life was given to the music years later, and James would get the opportunity to work with top people in film and theatre. Whatever “hanky panky” happened in the past, Tommy James is enjoying some “sweet cherry wine,” indeed, these days, and the audiences still turn out in droves for his shows. His is an amazing rock and roll tale, and we can look forward to much, much more from James in the near future. For tour dates and more, visit Tommy’s official site: www.tommyjames.com and, of course, ME, THE MOB, AND THE MUSIC is available at all of the finest book repositories and the usual on-line places.


EASY STREET (THE HARD WAY): A MEMOIR

(Ron Perlman with Michael Largo; 297 pages; DE CAPO PRESS/PERSEUS BOOKS GROUP; 2014)

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I’ve always liked Ron Perlman’s quirky choices of roles… especially HELLBOY. His voice is immediately recognizable, with a depth of emotion and a sonorous quality that defines the man every bit as much as his character studies… maybe more. When I saw that he was writing his memoir, I was stoked to wander around through the noodle of one of the most adventurous actors of the past 35 years. I wasn’t disappointed with the journey. Well, not much.

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron Perlman) (photo credit: Prashant Gupta/FX)

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron Perlman) (photo credit: Prashant Gupta/FX)

Like many of us, Ron Perlman grew up in a home where the Dad went above and beyond to give his kids the kind of life that he didn’t have; like many of us, Ron Perlman was not an exceptional child and was bullied and abused at school; like many of us, Ron Perlman’s parents made him a better person (not just a more successful person); like many of us, Ron Perlman has taken what he learned from his parents and made a better life for his children. Unlike most of us, Ron Perlman did everything in front of the world. The story he tells is poignant, funny and irreverent; it’s the story of a young kid dealing with a nearly crippling lack of self worth and how, as an adult, he has learned to live with – even embrace – these feelings of inadequacies.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Ron Perlman, in costume, with co-star Linda Hamilton) (publicity photo)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Ron Perlman, in costume, with co-star Linda Hamilton) (publicity photo)

A young Perlman was infected by the acting bug in high school when, as a member of the swim team, his coach picked him to try out for the school play because they needed bodies and his body wasn’t getting a lot of time in the water at swim meets. In college, he was offered an internship as a production assistant with a very, very off-Broadway company that would occasionally take their show on the road. Ron was on the road when his girlfriend and his cousin came to deliver the word that his father had died; he immediately went home to help his mother with his older brother, a man incapacitated by manic depression (years later, at 39, Les Perlman committed suicide). So, like his father before him, Ron Perlman put his dreams and aspirations on the back burner because that’s what families do. All of this is told in a forthright, warts-and-all narrative in Ron’s inimitably… uh… flowery turn of phrase.

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron and Opal Perlman at the 2011 season premiere) (uncredited photo)

SONS OF ANARCHY (Ron and Opal Perlman at the 2011 season premiere) (uncredited photo)

Perlman (ably assisted by Michael Largo) is fearless in his assessment of his career (and, for long spans of time, lack thereof). When he was cast in the 1981 movie QUEST FOR FIRE, he was certain he was on his way to being a household name; his next job didn’t come until three years later, when he was cast in the STAR WARS spoof, THE ICE PIRATES. That has seemed to be Ron’s career trajectory: A defining moment in front of the camera followed by long lulls when the actor was doubting his choice of career followed by a job he would take to put food on the table. He seemed to be getting typecast in an odd sort of way, also; as varied as most of his early roles were, nearly all of them buried Ron’s face in makeup and prosthetics, including his next big role, as Salvatore in THE NAME OF THE ROSE. The role that defined him for quite a few years, Vincent in the highly successful CBS television series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, was one he told his agent to pass on because he was tired of his face being an artist’s canvas for four hours every day. When things weren’t happening in front of the camera, Perlman started getting work behind a microphone, doing voice-overs and cartoons.

PACIFIC RIM (Ron Perlman with director Guillermo del Toro at the 2013 premiere) (uncredited photo)

PACIFIC RIM (Ron Perlman with director Guillermo del Toro at the 2013 premiere) (uncredited photo)

A life-long working relationship and friendship was formed in 1992 when Ron was told that a guy named Guillermo del Toro wanted him to star in a movie called CRONOS and was anxious to meet the actor. As fate would have it, that meeting led to the two working together several more times, including BLADE II, PACIFIC RIM and, of course, HELLBOY and its sequel (another is rumored to be in the works). His work as the lead character in the HELLBOY movies directly led to his being cast in the FX series, SONS OF ANARCHY. Guillermo has had a great calming effect on Ron, helping him to keep his feelings of inadequacy in check (Perlman has been diagnosed with clinical depression, a lesser form – though equally as debilitating – than his brother suffered from). The other calming effect in his life has been his family; he’s been with his wife, Opal, since 1976 (they married in 1981) and they have two kids, Blake and Brandon. Opal was by his side through some of the leanest of Perlman’s lean years and continues to be a solid pillar for him to lean on. When he speaks of Opal and his children, you can tell he has a deep and abiding love for his family and an undying respect for the woman who has stayed with him through thick and thin.

HELLBOY (Ron Perlman in make-up and costume to fulfill a MAKE-A-WISH request, 2012. This is why we love you, Ron) (publicity photo)

HELLBOY (Ron Perlman in make-up and costume to fulfill a MAKE-A-WISH request, 2012. This is why we love you, Ron) (publicity photo)

EASY STREET (THE HARD WAY) is a wild ride through the life of one of Hollywood’s true characters and, as mentioned, Perlman does not pull a single punch. The only problem I find in the book is in the final two chapters, in which Ron does the standard Hollywood political stance thing. I’m not gonna tell you which side I come down on as regards the last few residents of the White House, but I do find it disingenuous and more than a little unfair to label everyone who didn’t vote for our President a racist; I don’t agree with that assessment. I think my real objection here is that, unless I’m reading a biography or autobiography about a political figure, I don’t particularly want to read about someone’s political leanings. Nothing personal… I feel the same way about political statements coming from the stage of a nightclub, too… or from the pulpit. It seems to me that a celebrity making their political thoughts known is well on the way to alienating half of their audience. And, with Ron Perlman, that would be a shame because I believe that he really is one of the good guys.


LUNAR NOTES: ZOOT HORN ROLLO’S CAPTAIN BEEFHEART EXPERIENCE

(Bill Harkleroad with Billy James; 125 pages; Gonzo Multimedia, Re-released 2013)

LUNAR NOTES

Short and to the point (94 pages of text plus a preface and foreword along with several pages of rare and personal photos), Bill Harkleroad recounts his days as one of the most well-known members of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Dubbed Zoot Horn Rollo by the Captain himself, Don Van Vliet, Harkleroad joined the group as an eighteen year old, just in time for the grueling rehearsal sessions for what would become – arguably – the band’s most-beloved (by the fans, anyway) album, TROUT MASK REPLICA.

TROUT MASK REPLICA (Bill Harkleroad, John French, Don Van Vliet, Mark Boston, Jeff Cotton (photo: Ed Caraeff)

TROUT MASK REPLICA (Bill Harkleroad, John French, Don Van Vliet, Mark Boston, Jeff Cotton (photo: Ed Caraeff)

Like Van Vliet’s high school buddy, Frank Zappa, the Captain was a dictatorial band leader. Unlike Zappa, however, Beefheart’s musical vision was scattered and unfocused, relying on the musicians to turn his various thoughts into a close approximation of that vision. He would dub a different member of the band “the bad guy” each day, fraying nerves and causing friction. This practice led to a heavy rate of turnover, eventually leading to Harkleroad becoming the “musical director” of the Magic Band. He would be the person that Van Vliet would call in the middle of the night, whistling a melody or thematic thread into the phone. It was his job to turn those threads into musical notations and to help the rest of the band turn them into a somewhat cohesive tune. The process was exacerbated by Van Vliet’s reluctance to practice with the band (if he bothered to show up at rehearsals at all). At least, Zappa actually attended his marathon rehearsal sessions, armed with ideas and music ready to play.

Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad onstage, circa 1970) (uncredited photos)

Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad onstage, circa 1970) (uncredited photos)

So, this is a “let’s bash the eccentric frontman” type of memoir, right? Wrong! Harkleroad (and, really, just about every player who ever shared a stage – or recording session – with Don Van Vliet) did butt heads with the enigmatic Captain, but maintained a deep, heartfelt love and an emotional tie that continued, at least, until the original taped remembrances (LUNAR NOTES was originally released in 1998 and has been out of print for more than 10 years) that make up this book. In Harkleroad’s preface, he mentions his reticence to doing a book like this, primarily because he wasn’t a writer. Noted publicist, musician and biographer of several outre artists (The Mothers, Todd Rundgren, Michael Bruce among others), Billy James, took up the mantel of “co-author.” James’ involvement allowed Bill to reminisce in a rather scattered, stream-of-consciousness way, with Billy cleaning up and streamlining the stories into a chronological order that takes us through Harkleroad’s first meeting with the Captain and His Magic Band in 1967 through his departure from the group in 1974 and the formation and dissolution of the band Mallard. The final part of the book recounts his life to that point (approximately 1996 through 1998) following Mallard and his ultimately coming to terms with his history and pedigree. That final chapter is entitled “I Am Zoot Horn Rollo.”

Bill Harkleroad, 1998 (photo: MAGNUS TOREN)

Bill Harkleroad, 1998 (photo: MAGNUS TOREN)

I have long been a fan of Captain Beefheart’s music. Yes, his lyrics and vocal delivery are a large part of what I enjoy about the music, but – equally important to me – was the musical acumen of the Magic Band. The inherent groove of almost every album draws me in, something I don’t believe would have been possible with other players. Bill Harkleroad, as Zoot Horn Rollo, was a major part of those late ’60s and early ’70s albums that I love so much. This book gives me insight into those times and the imaginative and talented musicians who created that music. For that, I must say, “Thank you, Rollo, for this book.” For any Beefheart or Zappa fan, this is a must read!


THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN: A BIOGRAPHY; MAKEUP TO BREAKUP: MY LIFE IN AND OUT OF KISS

(Fred Kaplan; 655 pages; DOUBLEDAY, 2003); (Peter Criss and Larry Sloman; 384 pages; SCRIBNER, 2012)

TWAIN CRISS COVERS

 

One may ask (and rightly so), why are two such disparate (auto)biographies lumped together in one review? Well…

Short answer: These are actually the last two non-fiction books that I have read. Essay answer: I feel that, no matter how intriguing your subject matter (in Criss’ case, himself), at some point in the writing process, you’ve just gotta say, “Enough is enough!” In both instances, the story would have been much more enjoyable (and manageable) with… less! I mean, do you really care that on Clemens/Twain’s 63rd birthday, he was blessed with a healthy bowel movement? Yeah… okay… I’m exaggerating, but not by much. In the case of MAKEUP TO BREAKUP, a shaving (or, at the very least, a condensing) of a chapter or two wouldn’t have hurt. As far as Kaplan’s… uh… exhaustive (exhausting?) biography of Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain, shaving a couple hundred pages of minutia certainly would have made MY reading experience more enjoyable! His “no-stone-unturned” approach, while commendable, is fairly daunting. I mean, c’mon… in these hard economic times, everybody’s cutting back. Why not here?

Does that mean that I hated these books? No. Not really. At least, not completely. However, considering that I generally can read a couple of fair sized books in a week, the fact that it took over two MONTHS to complete THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN, certainly doesn’t appear that it will be on my list of favorites or list of “re-reads.” Mister Kaplan’s thorough examination of perhaps the first true rock star of American literature comes off as dry and just a little foreboding to the ordinary reader. Once you get past the 655 pages of minutia, there’s still another 70 pages of notes and an index to further dissect the information (if more you must have)! I have only found one book impossible to get through, even though I’ve tried on several occasions, but this one sorely tried my patience. I would be lying, however, if I told you that I didn’t learn anything about the irascible humorist. His early allegiance to the South during the Civil War and his beliefs regarding slavery, while well-known, nonetheless came as a surprise as to the depths of both. The support Clemens offered his older brother, Orion, and the loathing that he harbored toward that same brother as a result was also unknown to me. There is an indication that he felt the same way about the rest of his family, as well, including his much-loved mother. As much as he doted on his wife, Livy, and their three daughters, he also spent much of his time away from them, not caring to be bothered by the intricacies of a family life.

Mark Twain and family in Hartford (The Mark Twain House & Museum-AP)

Mark Twain and family in Hartford (The Mark Twain House & Museum-AP)

The struggles of the man Samuel Clemens to rectify his life and short-comings with the mythical Mark Twain and his celebrity are, as they say, the stuff of legend. But even a legendary life can surely be summarized in a more concise, entertaining form than is offered in Fred Kaplan’s THE SINGULAR MARK TWAIN. Mister Kaplan is also the author of biographies on Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens, among others. I mention those two because I was very interested in seeking them out, but after sinking chest deep into the morass of this book, I think I’ll look for other options regarding the life of those two.

Mark Twain (uncredited photo) Peter Criss (Bryan Bedder-Getty Images)

Mark Twain (uncredited photo); Peter Criss (Bryan Bedder-Getty Images)

I think that, like many others, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Peter Criss. At the height of KISS’ career, he seemed to be the most together guy in the band. When he fell from grace, I tended to give him the benefit of the doubt. After reading his tell-all autobiography, MAKEUP TO BREAKUP, I still feel for the Cat. Not because he was wronged by band mates Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, but because he was wrong in many instances himself and refuses to take responsibility. His cavalier attitude toward his sexual conquests collide head-on with his derision of Simmons’ and guitarist Ace Frehley’s sexual proclivities. He complains about Gene and Paul being all about the money, but he doesn’t see the hypocrisy of his abandoning his band, Criss, for the high-profile, high-profit KISS reunion tour in 1996 and quitting the band again – and turning his back on his one true friend in the group, Ace – when he discovered that Frehley was making more than he was per show. He attacks both current drummer Eric Singer and guitarist Tommy Thayer for wearing the Cat and Space-Ace make-up when both he and Frehley signed their rights to the make-up over to the KISS corporate body (in other words, Gene and Paul) for a few thousand dollars. He spends paragraphs discussing how betrayed he felt by his second wife when he discovered that she was having an affair, but shows little or no remorse for the fact that he was having sex with two or three women every night on the road; to say that’s expected because he’s in a rock band just doesn’t cut it! My point is, we all make mistakes; it’s what we learn from our mistakes that matter. Unfortunately, for Peter Criss, all he’s learned is avoidance of guilt and buck-passing.

Peter Criss (publicity photo)

Peter Criss (publicity photo)

 

Now, like the Clemens/Twain book, there are some enjoyable – even uplifting – moments (actually, more here than there). In particular, Criss’ wife Gigi’s fight with breast cancer and the ultimate revelation that he, too, had breast cancer was a wake-up call to everyone, males included, to do a regular self-examination. There are also some moments that could have been condensed (or cut completely!). Just about every person who reads this book is a KISS fan; they wanna know about Peter’s time in what was once the biggest band on the planet. As such, the first three chapters or so of the book (BK: Before KISS) could be cut down to one shorter, introductory chapter. The constant and continual references to dicks, titties, pussy and sexual gratification in its many forms get tiresome unless you’re a ten year old boy. Okay, Peter… we get it! You were a big rock star! The overwrought bashing of just about everyone who has ever been in Peter’s life tends to make this more of a “oh-woe-is-me” book as opposed to a tell-all. Manager Bill Aucoin and Casablanca Records owner Neil Bogart went above and beyond, financing the band and molding them into the juggernaut they became after the release of ALIVE in 1975, but one perceived slight from Peter Criss and they were finished in his mind. He never trusted them again and they became cannon-fodder in MAKEUP TO BREAKUP.

I have very fond memories of KISS and Peter Criss from their heyday in the ’70s. His raspy, Rod Stewart-like vocals were always a welcome surprise and his drum solo during “100,000 Years” on ALIVE is testament to his talents (and to his adoration of drum legend Gene Krupa). This book, though, leaves a rather bitter taste in my mouth. (DT)