Occasionally, there are days when I hit a hot streak while flipping through the thousands of similar-sounding songs on the radio and I have a flashback. Those kind of flashbacks remind me of all the rabble-rousers who struck a chord for those of us sick and tired of the same bland nonsense. That's when you get that zing of a wake-up call that music runs deeper than what we are fed on a daily basis.
Not too long ago I stumbled upon a rock block consisting of the band and solo work of John Waite and realized that beyond his credentials, which would be impressive to both listeners and music experts alike, there was something else. Beautiful but raw songs, born of what I can only assume are God-given talents but also embraced by legions of longtime hardcore fans.
Because I was having a hard time articulating exactly why John Waite is so great, I decided we'd have a chat and talk about music, art, and the key to longevity... even when you have a terrible cold.
Hey John how are you doing today?
Well, I've got a small cold. I'm up to my eyeballs in antibiotics so I'm a little loopy, but other than that, I'm good. Thanks for asking.
Oh gosh, I'm sorry to hear that you're sick.
Ah, I'm not that bad.I'm on a z-pack.
Those are great.
Yeah, they're really good, but it's a bit like being from outer space for me at the moment.
If you give any bizarre answers I'll take them out when I edit, sound fair?
There you go.
Since you've got so much going on, I'd like to start out talking about Live: All Access. Live music is near and dear to many people's hearts, myself included. Is this supposed to be like a breath of fresh air for listeners, a sort of push back against all the digitized perfection of what's out there right now, since all the raw power of music and even the interesting mistakes are glossed over in most productions? What's the reason for the live album now?
Exactly what you said just there. Just write it down and that would be the answer. It's kind of like it really is a knee jerk reaction to all the synthesized, digitized, showbiz-ized kind of thing that's happened to rock and roll over the last ten years. I mean after leaving Bad English, I started a whole different writing style really. Became mostly a songwriter for a couple of years. And then gradually moved back into singing and becoming more engaged in rock. Which was great because I had a backlog of songs that were also country or blues or whatever, but I had a pretty big catalog. This time around, it was really about capturing the spirit of a live band. We had a new guitar player Keri Kelli; he had played with Slash and Alice Cooper. Our other guitar player moved to Chicago and decided he wasn't going to play gigs anymore and we were just stuck without a guitar player and then Keri showed up. I can't even remember quite how we got in touch with him, but he showed up and within three weeks we were doing shows. And about two months into it--we never rehearsed--that was a big thing. We plugged in, this friend of ours just did the session, and we just kind of sat around and played some stuff and he was on. But about two months into playing the gigs everything changed. He really seemed to get it, you know?
Like lightning in a bottle.
There you go. It's exactly it. And I realized something was going on that was intangible, really as far as technical things go. It was pure energy and music and I wanted to capture that as fast as I could. We started with two shows in south Philly, in a church that's been converted into a recording facility called Philly Sound. We bought three kegs of beer for two nights and announced it on the radio as a free concert and we did two shows. Some of the shows were great, some were a little out of tune and couldn't be used, but we got a big selection of songs. There and then, two months later I decided to try it again and by this time the band was on ten. We went up to New Hampshire, in the middle of winter.
Yeah, Manchester. Ice cold. And I don't know how it happened but it was just one of those things where all the planets align and everything just goes right. Although, the sound check was terrible, and I thought, "Oh no" and then we plugged in. But the audience went nuts and from the downbeat we had this incredible show. I sang my ass off, sang well, I was holding back in the end and Keri and the rhythm section were locked and it was one of those shows. A majority of the album comes from that show. It's trying to go back to that thing that you heard in Rolling Stones live stuff or the similar seventies bands that could do it really well like Humble Pie. It's like going back to that before synthesizers kind of made it so middle of the road. There are no overdubs on this whatsoever. It's completely live so that's why I'm proud of it.
It's really great. And part of the fun for me is that I've seen so much live music in my life I like to think I can really appreciate a great spontaneous performance. So many people have so many wonderful memories tied to the epic concerts of their life. The audience really does play such a large role in the whole experience.
Yes. Absolutely. You get the bounce from the audience when you are on stage. It's like being in some vast moment of communion. It's like everybody is in this space together. That's what my job is. I've said this before: the only difference between me and the audience is that I've got the mic. That there is something that happens that pulls us all together. That's rock and roll that's just worth every second. It's what it's all about.
So many people come away with life-changing experiences at a concert. Some terrible and some life-affirming. You've done your fair share of concerts for the masses and I was wondering what some of your best and worst memories of being on stage?
Oh man. Well, one of the worst would have to be being pulled off stage at the Palladium.
With the Babys, right?
Yeah, pulled off stage by an overzealous fan by the lead in my cord and my bassist. Some girl ran up and I just went straight into the audience, and that was our opening night in New York. So that was a lot of fun.
Welcome to New York.
Ha, I know right. Also, on the way back from Japan we were added to a gigantic bill in Hawaii in some gigantic stadium and they were having power outages and things like that. It was very badly put together and we all had terrible jet lag. We went on stage in broad daylight and everything blew up but the bass sound and I remember singing "Head First," just me and Ricky Phillips, him playing the bass and there are about thirty thousand people watching. But, conversely, there are moments when you do an acoustic show in a theater somewhere and there's such an immediate connection to the audience where there is such a profound oneness and your feet are on the ground and your head is in the clouds, you are somewhere else and it's almost like sleepwalking but it's a vivid experience. Like I said, these songs that I wrote and even in Bad English there are songs on an album called When You Were Mine that are almost country, but then kind of aren't. They are story songs. And you can put those songs into those shows and then do an unplugged version of "Head First" and it just brings the house down. That's where I want to live. I want to live in a world where I can do those kind of songs and then turn around and rock until the roof comes off.
With the songs you write , they lend themselves to doing both types of shows. You've been writing, recording, and playing for ages. I'm not going to tell you how old I am, but I can say I saw you emerge from the Babys era into Bad English and all your solo work. You've been prolific, well-loved, and seen a lot of radio play.Oh yeah, definitely. But it was never about the money and it was never about having a lucky streak. It's when you know, like living in New York City when things are going really well. It's just New York City and it's great but when things are going badly you've still got New York City and the people that you love and your guitar. I mean, I don't know what the difference is. It's like making a million dollars and then buying a McMansion. What's the fucking point of doing that? If you go and see great art and you either get it or you don't and it belongs to everybody. I've done quite a lot of it, but I've also been taken to the cleaners on a regular basis as well. I've always believed in what I was doing and it's not all "Watch me, I'm about to do this." It's more two and two suddenly come out to be four. And I've got this song, that I've no idea where it came from. I'm going to start this new record at the end of the year and it's going to be, I don't know, I get the feeling that it's going to be bigger than me. And it's something I want to start work on as fast as I can because I feel motivated, but I don't know where that comes from. That's the joy of the whole thing. People mistake it these days for money and stuff but the joy of it is the creation of it, it really is.
I can't imagine something less inspiring than the joyless creation of music. Although, I'm more than sure some of the product I've heard out there has been manufactured with the dollar signs in mind more than anything else. If you've been around long enough to see the shift in the way artists are signed and marketed these days, what it used to be and what it has become are two totally different animals.
Used to be like a counter culture, now it's pandering to people and now the tail is definitely wagging the dog. There are so many people who are game for playing that role. The dog is wagging at both ends. It's an unbelievable thing that has happened over the last ten years: what was, in fact, the counter culture has sort of disappeared in some sort of showbiz, God, I don't even know what it is. But it's fascinating to watch it because it will self-destruct because it has to. It has to disappear, and something will take its place, maybe Kabuki Jazz.
Something will fill the void and it will be something people will go after because it's new and real. It used to be that you had to go work to find good bands, and raid the record stores to find their new single, and fight for the ticket to the seedy club to see their live show. Now it's so easy, I don't even have to leave my couch.
Right. Keith Richards said the same thing. There was a time when it was all so underground, you had to go looking for rock and roll.
You did. And that's why it was so great. Because clean-cheeked Mary Sue down the street thought it was dirty and bad, and no one wanted you to go gallivanting off to these hellholes to see shows, or blast it on your stereo.
It's all over the television and it's been marketed in Vegas as musicals, and God knows what's going on, but like I say, every ten years or so, there's some guy or girl in some small apartment, at the wrong end of town, strumming a couple of chords and says something and everything turns inside out. And everybody gets real and true again. It's just the way it is. Thank God, it's a cycle. I think we are at the absolute height now of the showbiz aspect of rock and roll. It's hard for me, it's almost funny, but not really.
I predict a revolution soon. Although, if you talk to people who know me, they'll tell you I've been wrong before.
Keep your fingers crossed.
You move back and forth very easily between these epic collaborations and your solo work and I noticed there are many different musical styles in the mix.
Yeah, but i started off with Western music. When I was a little boy, there was a record store near my school and I used to run down the hill after four o'clock when they let us out to catch the bus home. I used to run faster, so I could stand and look at this album of Marty Robbins, it was like Day-Glo pink and it was called Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs, I think. And I used to stare at it through this window and I was so in love with Western music that, that was my entrance to rock and roll and country which led to blues, which led to The Beatles, which led to everything being circular. Allison Krause actually found me the album, had it framed, and gave it to me for Christmas once. It meant that much to me. Somewhere back in the past... I was there two weeks ago visiting my mother, and we were waiting for a bus and across the street was this shop I was talking about, where I used to stand when I was three feet tall. It never fails to conjure memories. I always see myself standing there, looking up at Marty Robbins.
Can I just tell you that I love it that the place is still there?
It is! And I wondered to myself if it was the same glass still there in the window. They used to sell washing machines and records in the same store. And now they sell fabrics, and I looked at the glass and I want to know if it's the same exact glass in the window or has it been broken and put back? But every time I walk past it, I think of that.
I hope they still sell records. So many record shops shutting doors these days, all of them with some cranky guy in the back who knew everything about every album ever made.
You know what, maybe it will come back as records, maybe it won't be digital. Because I know a lot of people are buying albums now. These shops, you can get really high-quality reproductions of Hendrix records and Miles Davis. Everybody is buying good record players with a good stylus. Maybe the record companies will reconfigure themselves so that you can't download it, you're going to have to buy the record. That will solve the problem with the internet taking a bite out of the music business.
So there's the album and then touring to support the live album?
So yes, we are always working. A couple of years ago I had a record out called Rough & Tumble, and there is that country thing of touring anywhere you can and playing anywhere you can; you always went to radio and tv. Every morning we'd get up and go to the clear channel station and play live and then go to the Fox news station and do television and we ended up with a number one record of classic rock, with a hard rock song called "Rough & Tumble." It was the biggest surprise I ever had in my life.
You were shocked? Really? I mean you are no stranger to huge success.
Have you heard the song?
Yes, actually, I have. But I'm a little stunned you are so shocked at your own hit.
Yes, but it was so raw and really rock and roll, and it went number one and I just went, "Jesus Christ, how did we do that?" It just blew my mind. But on that same album there's a song called "If You Ever Get Lonely," and we all thought that was going to be the single but the record company didn't put it out. So we brought the album back, put it on iTunes and said, "Right, here we go again," made the live album, and meanwhile "If You Ever Get Lonely" is on the live album, and we're going after that again. There's also a band in Nashville called Love And Theft who've covered the song and they had a number one song last year with "Angel Eyes" I think it was called. So they covered "If You Ever Get Lonely." So when we're on the road doing what we do this year and they're out all the time doing what they do, and we're both promoting the same song and it's going to be interesting. I'm actually so interested to see how that works. But about it's popularity, I'm mystified. In the same way that I'm surprised that "Rough & Tumble" went number one, I'm just as surprised that a country band has done a cover of my song. They're both good songs. I'm not being coy, but still.
I guess if you look at it from the point of view of a very tiny sliver of fans who have only followed a small portion of your career, it might seem baffling that you'd done something that seemed so different from what they'd been used to, but anyone who's looked at your whole body of work might not be so surprised. But even for that tiny sliver of fandom, it might be a nice shock to expect one thing and get something entirely unexpected.
Yeah, well there's always that. That's always a great thing. That reminds me of the seventies too. It's like when you heard somebody's new single, it was never like the last single. There was nothing really generic about music in the seventies. Every band sounded different, every singer had his own style, and everybody was writing their own songs. And then it went into the massive business that it became in the eighties. Everybody seems to have lost the plot. It will come back. It's probably coming back now. It came back yesterday.
We don't know it yet.
We are looking in the wrong direction. Someone is quietly tuning a guitar right now, and all hell is going to break loose.
When I talk to most musicians, I ask them about being in charge of a musical festival where they get to fill the bill with acts and pick the songs that everyone can jam on, but then it occurred to me that you may have already played with most of the artists that many of the other musicians named in their dream list. After Ringo Starr, etc. I was like, "Oh Lord who is he going to come up with?"
Oh my god. Well, it would have to be a woman because I don't think that the men singers that I admire like Steve Marriott and Paul Rodgers, those guys, they are in their own league and that's all there is to it. Singing with Allison Krause was almost about as good as I can tell you it gets. That was something that was magical. I played the Opry with her. I played the Ryman, and we did a couple of songs. We did "Missing You" and I did "Whenever You Come Around" by Vince Gill. And Vince Gill actually showed up out of nowhere and played guitar in the background.
Oh. What a nice surprise.
Yeah, I just looked around and he just gave me a nod and we went into this song in a different key than he's used to so he had to make it up as he went along. So me and Allison did a duet on "Missing You" and "Whenever You Come Around" and I think that would be one of those moments that I would think the world almost stopped turning for me because it was the Ryman, and it's kind of like, it's almost impossible to express what that means. When I was in The Babys and we played Nashville, I would go and stand outside the Ryman and just put my hand against it. I couldn't even go inside.
I can't enter. It's like a holy temple.
Yes! Really, but one day I said to Allison, I told her that story, and I was in Nashville and she took me in and took me on a private tour of the Ryman and I stood where Hank had stood and Johnny Cash and just wow. Country music has turned inside out at the moment but it will turn itself back and it will be wonderful. But as for the imaginary show, it would have to be a female singer and there are so many great women singers, I think some of my favorites like Etta James are just beyond belief. God, I mean how do you choose? Bonnie Raitt, Pink. Pink is a very, very good singer. There are just so many. And then of course I don't know what I would sing.
Could you pull a little "At Last" with Etta?
It would have to be some sort of blues. It would probably be my swan song. The last thing I would sing on this planet would be a blues song with a strong back beat and it would be great if it was a duet.
See, I told you you'd have a hard time coming up with someone you hadn't already played with.
You know, I once got on stage and played with Steve Marriott in a small club in New York when I first moved there and we hung out and had a few drinks. The next day, I went to his house and had dinner with his wife and there's me and Steve Marriott drinking Fosters, watching TV and I'm sort of like... I don't know what... like...
A little starstruck, were you?
You could say that. I could hardly function. Then about two months later, I'm in the same club and Pete Townsend walks in and so I go on stage with Pete Townsend and we jam these songs. There are moments like that where you just meet somebody you idolized all your life and he turns out to be a really great guy. And not only that? They're geniuses. I mean Townsend is an actual genius, Steve Marriott was a genius. And I've shared that breath, so after that you don't really need to go looking for new people to play with.
Wow, I guess you really don't. I should get the name of that club. You hit all the bells on that question.
I've got the replay.
Okay, so I have to ask. All this whispering about The Babys reunion. Blasphemous rumors or fact that you'll have any part in this?
You know, the two of them, Wally Stocker and Tony Brock, have put together a couple of very capable guys and they're going to tour and make new records and God bless 'em.
So you're not going to be part of it?
Nope. I said, although I can't remember exactly when I said it or where I was when I said it, but thirty years ago when we split up I remember saying there wouldn't be a reunion. It would never happen. I don't believe in those things. I'm solo. Those guys were the cornerstone of The Babys so they have every right, God bless them. I hope they have a lot of success.
I was hoping you might be popping up as a surprise in this whole thing.
No, Chrysalis, they were hard to deal with and I wouldn't go back to anywhere near being in the same room with Chrysalis. I wouldn't do it for the money and I wouldn't do it for the music. I think it's like getting divorced. You might have loved somebody once, but thirty years later you don't say, "Oh, damn it, let's get married again." And for me, being a singer and probably being the major writer in that band, going backwards, I just couldn't do it. But I do wish them so much goodwill. I want the best and I hope it turns out really well for them.
Okay, so you've got something that everybody who wants a career in music is after which is longevity. What advice would you give the up-and-comers who haven't quite cracked the nut yet?
I don't know what it is that drove me to do what I do. Iggy Pop once said he's still in the game because he's stubborn. I think about it all the time. I'm reading To Kill A Mockingbird right now. I like literature and I like the sound of words. But I also like to kick ass on stage. Sort of like wanting to be a renaissance man, I guess. I like that art-driven thing. It's primitive, you know. Primitive art. It's maybe what drives us. I was reading Walt Whitman this week and he blew my head off my shoulders. And that's what it is. It's about growing up. I think if you try to be young all your life, you are going to wind up looking ridiculous. There is nothing wrong with having lived. And I've certainly lived, and it's not over yet.
Yeah, I'll also say that I think that you either have it or you don't. And even if you do have it, you have to go after it with extreme gusto.
Also, a lot of dangers and a lot of pitfalls. But it's like I said before about New York, when things were really great, it was still New York. And when my record got dropped or whatever happened to me, it was still New York. The guitar was in the corner just waiting to be played. It's about some sort of purity. It's given me everything in my life I've ever looked for. It's the nearest I've got to religion.
That's the truth.
Ain't it though?