Monday, September 30, 2013

Mat Yeates: Ground Control to Major Tomkat

Todd, Jenny and Mat Yeates.

I was an extremely quiet child, a slightly terrified 8-year-old, in fact, being introduced to a brand new church class in our new town of La Crescenta, Calif. Standing at the front of the class as the teacher made the obligatory intro, I looked around at the mostly blank faces of people who would eventually go on to become some of the most important people in my life over the next 10 years. But I didn't know that then.

Most of the kids in the class, at least how I remember it, seemed to give off that "Don't sit by me, new kid" vibe as my eyes darted around the room — you know, like when you're walking down the aisle of a bus and people start subtly moving their belongings into the vacant spot at their side.

No hint of future mischievousness here!
One exuberant boy, however, greeted me with a smile, not only offering up an immediate hand of friendship, but also the seat next to him. And that was how I met Mat Yeates.

I didn't know it then, but I'd just made a friend for life. But, isn't it always that way?

This blog is usually about music, but today it will be about Mat. Sure, there will be some music involved. We not only went to some great concerts together way back when (some paid for, some as the result of sneaking in) but we also shared a brief, but memorable visit with Mr. Jan Van Halen at the VH homestead in Pasadena, Calif., on the afternoon of his sons' first performance at the Forum in Los Angeles. (That's a tale I have been promising to write for a long time, but have failed miserably at delivering.)

Mat died recently, leaving his vast array of friends shocked and saddened. Saturday was his memorial service back in La Crescenta. I couldn't be there in person – but I was there in keyboard. I guess that's appropriate, because that's probably how Mat communicated most since the advent of Facebook. Dude could certainly fill up a newsfeed with oddball links from around the world, pithy observations, and comical commentary on everything from his disgust for Brussels sprouts and hotdog water to his love for bacon and quirky cat photos — including one profile pic of a cat in a spacesuit that he dubbed Major Tomkat. The day Mat stopped posting on Facebook was like the day the music died.

"No Googling!" "Stay classy, Libs!" "For the win (FTW!)" "Bite me!" Those were some of Mat's favorite Facebook catchphrases.

My goal here is to share some of my favorite Mat memories. They may not be in order, there may not be great transitions and they may not be the most superbly polished accounts. But they will be what I have been remembering and thinking about — stream of consciousness-style — since receiving word of his passing

Mat was voted the smartest of his class at Clark Junior High. (Probably because of the Wallabys.)

Mat showing off an early penchant for Hawaiian shirts.
We all came out to Montreaux: Many of my early memories of Mat involve our days in Boy Scouts. Both our dads were assistant Scoutmasters, and the Grand Poobah, as it were, was the father of another friend, Mike Baker. We spent many a night sleeping out under the stars, or huddled in tents thinking of ways to prank our compatriots. There were snipe hunts and searches for left-handed bacon strainers. There were 50-mile hikes through the High Sierras, with our backpack-laden loads made somehow lighter along the trail by the chorus of a dozen kazoos playing "Smoke on the Water," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" or any other popular song of the day. I found it interesting that in the weeks preceding his death, Mat attempted to revisit those days, starting what he said would be a mention of each trait in the Scout Law while offering a story behind it and how it applied to some experience in life. Sadly, he only got to one: Loyalty. He told of a time he should have defended his brother, Todd, but didn't. He reached out and apologized for that instance, all these years later. I will always wonder what revelations he had in store for the remaining 11 virtues.

The Rossell Incident: Mat and I each had younger brothers close to the same age, and so we enjoyed many combined sleepovers. The ones I remember most seemed to happen on New Year's Eve — when we would take the opportunity to slip out and TP some neighbor's yard. Despite carefully plotting out our paths for retreat or hiding places beforehand, on one occasion we were surprised by an approaching car. While sprinting for cover, Mat and I ran straight into each other, Keystone cops-style, banging our heads together. I got the worst of it, and ended up with a black eye.

Since we all enjoyed sports as well, we often organized heated games of 2-on-2: My brother, Dennis, and I vs. Mat and Todd. We played football at Dunsmore Park and basketball at any local elementary school. We all remember these contests as being very one-sided.

Where's Mat? Graduation night photo op with the Yeates clan.
Pomp and one circumstance: It's funny how photographs maintain our memories. I don't have many specific memories from the night of my high school graduation ceremony, but I do have a photo that shows me with Mat's dad, his brother Todd and his sister Jenny. I've always wondered, "Where's Mat?" He was probably off reciting Shakespeare to one of the cheerleaders.

Rock and Roll University: We both went to BYU our freshman year, but in a complete coincidence, ended up being assigned to the same dorm floor. When we realized our good fortune, we immediately set about trying to convince one of our assigned roommates to switch quarters so Mat and I could room together. Mat's roommate was a strictly-by-the-books kid from Idaho, and he immediately refused to go against even the slightest perceived hint of protocol. At this point, Mat devised one of the most poorly concocted cover stories in history. His plan was that when meeting with my roommate, that we should pretend that I was this hardcore punk rocker – the idea being that he would be more than happy to make the switch rather than remain with me. As it turns out, I hadn't even met my roommate yet — we'd moved in at different times and hadn't crossed paths yet. Mat had a few Ramones records, and maybe a couple other punk recordings, so he brought those down and displayed them prominently on my side of the cramped room. At some point my roommate showed up and Mat launched into his act, describing how he and I were fantatical punk rock fans, went to shows together and listened to the stuff loudly all day long. If I hadn't seen Mat in "South Pacific" back at Clark Junior High, I'd say this was the highlight of his acting career. But it was all for naught — my roommate didn't seem to care, and he also declined to switch spots. Looking back, it was probably for the best. We got in enough trouble just living down the hall from each other. The irony? I hate punk rock.

Partners in Prank: Mat was probably the most intelligent person I ever knew. He was flat-out brilliant in the ways of math and science. But he also had an extreme fun streak. I was more of a detail person. Put us together on a prank and the results were impressive. (At least we always thought so.) In fact, I mostly remember that freshman year as one long series of pranks, interrupted occasionally by classes and other school-related activities. I'm going to relate a series of our most-memorable adventures, mostly because I think they should saved for posterity and partially because the statute of limitations has run out.

Penny for Your Thoughts: I come from a long line of prank pullers. I grew up listening to my dad tell the story about how he and some friends had managed to pack some large amount of limestone up a mountain in Salt Lake City when he was in college and turned the block "U" on the hillside (for the University of Utah) into a "Y" during Rivalry Week. He even had a newspaper article documenting the event as proof. It was my dad who taught us how to "penny a door" shut, by pushing in on the door and sliding a stack of pennies down the frame toward the door handle to the point where there was so much pressure that the person inside the room would not be able to turn the handle and get out. We enjoyed working on this technique, and then adding to it. Mat brought something to the table, which he dubbed a "shaving cream bomb." You would take a slick folder — in our days the Pee Chee ones were especially popular — and securely tape the bottom and long side shut, leaving only the top side open. Then you would literally fill the inside of the folder until it was bulging with shaving cream. After making sure our intended target was in his room, we would quietly penny his door shut, and then surreptitiously slide the open end of the shaving cream-laden folder under the door. At this point we would produce the biggest textbook we could find, or maybe a couple of them, and position them just above the folder. One of us would hold the book(s) and the other would take a two-footed leap right on the books, resulting in a spewage of shaving cream throughout the room. We loved that prank and kept expanding on it. One time we were able to get in a target's room when he wasn't there and disable his phone. Then in the middle of the night, we pennied his door shut, unleashed a shaving cream bomb and also deployed a Water Weenie under the door aimed in the direction of his bed. Perfect!

The Phone Booth: A local radio station at the time was running a popular promotional contest. The station would call the number of pay phones around the city. If you answered the pay phone with the phrase, "(Name of station) plays all the hits!" then you would win a designated amount of money. So we came up with a prank to play off that promotion. There was a pay phone just outside the main cafeteria of the entire dorm complex. This pay phone was also conveniently located near the bottom of a long walkway that came down from the main campus. We enlisted the aid of some accomplices back in the dorms, who wired up their telephone to stereo speakers in their room, so everyone there could hear the results. We supplied them with the pay phone number and the instructions to call the number every five minutes. Mat and I then went up to the pay phone and loaded the earpiece with shaving cream, and hid behind some nearby bushes. It was at night but there were still plenty of students returning from campus. The phone rang, and sure enough, we got an immediate victim. Then another and another. In fact, this was the prank that kept on giving. Between every victim, we returned to the booth and loaded up the earpiece with more shaving cream. In a way it was an unfair competition, like shooting fish in a barrel. It was hilarious to watch human nature at work. When the phone started ringing, inevitably, people's first reaction was to ignore it. But then there was that moment of recognition, when the thought of the contest crossed their minds and they immediately hurried over to the phone and regurgitated the required phrase. Some of the reactions were priceless. Some people started laughing, others angrily slammed the phone down or left the receiver dangling in disgust. Some were convinced they still might have won something and hung on the line, trying to clean out the receiver so they could hear instructions from the other end. The over-the-top winner in the best victim sweepstakes were two separate students who were walking down the pathway from campus, heard the phone ringing from a distance and literally raced each other to the booth to be the one to answer. Mat and I still laughed over that incident all these years later.

The Great Helaman Halls Smokeout: I mentioned how intelligent Mat was, right? Being a science geek, he somehow had obtained a copy of "The Anarchist's Cookbook." One entry showed how to make a smoke bomb. That type of thing was beyond me, but it was child's play to Mat. He made a small dose of the concoction, just to test it out, and it worked fine on a test run. Based on the amount of smoke it produced, Mat figured it would be OK to double or triple the recipe. So he mixed it all up on a tin foil plate and we went searching for a place to set it off. We found the perfect opportunity at a neighboring dorm building. We noticed an open window on the second floor. It was one where the window pane fans out, and there was a ledge of a couple feet running all the way along the building just under the windows. Mat climbed the ledge, walked over and set the contraption right under the open window. As it turns out, the door to the room was open (into the inside hallway) and it was unoccupied. Mat took a match and lit the pile of powder. Let's just say that Mat had vastly underestimated the amount of smoke that batch would produce. A gigantic belch of smoke emerged, with most of it being perfectly guided by the extended open window right into the vacant room. Mat hurriedly jumped down and joined me at a spot where we could enjoy the results of our handiwork. To say it created quite a commotion would be an understatement. Smoke started pouring into the inner hallway, and the building was evacuated, with people standing outside, us among them, looking up at the open window and smoke, trying to figure out what had happened. The cherry on the top of that prank was literally seeing some student walking from the hallway into the room wearing a gas mask. "What kind of student just happens to have a gas mask lying around?" we wondered. We did realize that effort was probably over the line in terms of perception, so we never attempted anything like it again. But the sight of that kid wearing the mask was more than enough takeaway from that incident to generate a lifetime of laughs.

Mat taking a selfie in recent years.
The Mask: Speaking of masks, we had several nights of fun with a particular one. I've always found that the masks that deliver maximum effect are not the most grotesque ones. No, the best results are the ones that look human enough on first glance or from a distance, but only reveal their more hideous nature upon closer inspection. I had one of those that year in college, and we would occasionally sneak up on the female dorms at night time. Now, it should be pointed out that this was nothing involving Peeping Tomfoolery. But we would find ground floor rooms where the curtains were wide open, and often there would be a girl or two sitting at their desks doing homework or something. The person wearing the mask would approach the window and just stand there, waiting for the intended target to notice. Sometimes it would take a minute or two, but those occasions would often produce the most scream-worthy results. If only we could have captured some of these scares on video.

The Laundromat Shakedown: One night we set our alarms for a pre-determined 2 a.m. mischievous meetup. During our search for prank opps, we were in a main stairwell when we heard a bunch of racket downstairs. We followed the noise to the door of the laundry room. Coincidentally, there had been a rash of burglaries in the dorm laundry rooms, with someone jacking up the machines in order to get the money out of them. We were convinced we had stumbled on the burglar in the middle of the act. We hurried back upstairs and decided we should inform our Resident Assistant — an upperclassman assigned to each floor to help keep track of the students. So we knocked on his door and after a couple minutes managed to get him to come to the door. We told him our story and he followed us downstairs. Sure enough, the loud metallic racket on the other side of the door was still in progress. We all tip-toed to the door and the Resident Assistant flung it open, catching the interloper completely off-guard. Except he wasn't ripping off money from the laundry machines. He was tap-dancing. Yes, tap dancing. He claimed that it was the only time and place where he could practice without bothering anybody. We always thought it was just because he didn't want anybody see him. As we returned upstairs, the obvious dawned on the R.A. He turned and asked, "What were you guys doing up wandering around at this hour anyway?" As I recall, we didn't really have a good answer.

Key to the Kingdom: Speaking of the R.A., he took a vacation once and left his master key (to all the rooms on our floor) with a trusted student (Read: Not Mat or I.) But a day or two later, Mat somehow came into possession of the key. From what I remember, this student had been helping someone and happened to leave the master key there. Mat picked it up, and that led to more than a week's worth of fun for the two of us. After making sure no one was inside certain rooms, we would enter with the master key and set up all kinds of pranks: Shaving cream in the phones, short-sheeted beds, turning the volume settings all the way up on stereos. Stuff like that. Mat had also figured out a new trick. As you entered each room, you would flip on a light switch by the door. There were also vanity lights by closet mirrors near the door, and you could set them to turn on when the main switch was flipped. At the vanity mirrors, there was also one electrical outlet, that was somehow connected to the vanity lights. Mat figured out that if you stuck a tinfoil gum wrapper in the outlet, that when someone entered the room and flipped on the main light switch that it would short-circuit the vanity lights with a loud pop. So he set up a few of those to go off, too. We had tremendous fun with that key for a week or two. Until Mat accidentally left it in one of the rooms we targeted. But no one ever figured out it was us messing with everyone.

Mat taking in a show with some some high school friends.
Concert firsts: I was with Mat the first time I saw two of my favorite groups in concert: Van Halen and Styx. The Van Halen experience was already documented on this blog (you can read that HERE) and Styx has gone on to be the band I have seen the most in my life. It's hard to think of either band without thinking of Mat as well. We were discussing Van Halen just a month or so ago and agreeing that "Unchained" was one of the best songs ever written. As for Styx, there were two separate occasions in the past couple years where I was interviewing or meeting with members of the band, where Mat asked me a specific question. One dealt with a lyric in "Blue Collar Man" and the other with how the band was able to get a photo of an ice block on fire for the cover of "Equinox." (It turns out that Mat and Todd had actually tried to recreate that cover themselves way back when, and had been unable to do so.) It was fun for me to get pretty immediate answers directly from the band and relay them back to Mat. I think he got a kick out of that.

"Remember My Name": It was that freshman year that Mat made a bold musical forecast. "Legs Diamond will become one of the biggest bands in rock within a few years!" Who? Exactly. We hit the motherlode on Van Halen, but he was miles away on Legs Diamond. I took much glee in reminding Mat of the complete and utter failure of his prediction throughout the years.

Christine vs. Stevie: While Mat and I agreed on many things musically, we didn't always see eye to eye. For some oddball reason he maintained to his dying day that Christine McVie was more integral to Fleetwood Mac's success than Stevie Nicks. Can you imagine? I baited him on several occasions to make his case — so I could completely and meticulously tear it down and show him what pure folly the idea was — but he never would. (I told you he was smart, right?) He would occasionally post a link with some rumor of Christine returning for the current Fleetwood Mac tour and I'd keep refuting it with links of flat-out denial from the band. Then literally a few days after he passed, it was announced that Christine would indeed make a short guest appearance with the band at only a couple dates in Europe, where she now resides. Coincidence? I think not. Still, even now that he's gone his own way, I still think I win the Christine vs. Stevie argument.

Have Mercy on the Criminal: As near as I can remember, the last time I saw Mat in person was in 1986 — where we attempted to sneak into an Elton John concert at Universal Amphitheatre. (What can I say? Some habits die hard.) These escapades were always more about the thrill of the hunt than anything else. I was back visiting Southern California for a few days and I rang him up. He was the same fun-loving guy I'd always known. We traipsed around the hills surrounding the venue to no avail — the terrain was unfamiliar to us and we were just trying to find a way to actually get close to the amphitheater where we could at least hear the show. After walking all over we finally cut across what we determined was the road that the tourist tram followed to reach the back lots, etc., and even found ourselves walking through some of the recognizable stops on the tour. At that point we realized that the risk-reward ratio was way unbalanced and we abandoned our mission. It remains a fun memory, though.

Mat in Robin Hood attire with classmate Vicki Adams Dorosy.
The King of Facebook: Mat made everybody laugh on Facebook. He just did. He couldn't help himself. He had no TMI filter. When our high school graduating class held a gathering to celebrate the year most everyone was turning 50, Mat showed up to the party wearing what can only be described as a Robin Hood outfit. He feigned surprise to learn that it was a "middle-aged celebration" as opposed to a "Middle Ages" party. This was pure Mat. His humor was mostly on target, even if slightly left of bulls-eye. Mat believed as I did, that pretty much everything in life could somehow be tied to a "Seinfeld" episode. We held ourselves to that standard often — offhandedly mentioning obscure "Seinfeld" references in the comments of each other's posts. I think Mat gave me the most treasured compliment I have ever received on Facebook. I can't remember the exact circumstance, just that I caught him offguard with a "Moores-Mopes" reference from "The Bubble Boy" episode. Mat's immediate followup comment was: "You magnificent bastard." That is high praise coming from Mat Yeates. I wear that name tag proudly. I wish I could have attended the post-memorial service lunch gathering on Saturday — if only to make sure no one double-dipped their chips.

Rock on, Major Tomkat. Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

15 Years On: Eddie Van Halen Interview Revisted

Eddie Van Halen performs in Park City, Utah, on July 14, 1998 — one week after our interview. (Daily Herald photo)

July 7, 2013

"Why?" asked the voice on the other end of the phone. "I'm just a normal schmo like anyone else."

Like Michael Jordan was just another dude that laced up Nikes.

Like Walt Disney was just your average everyday daydreamer.

Like Beethoven was simply another cat that tickled the ivories.

It's not often in life that one gets the opportunity to pick the brain of someone who is universally recognized as not only a true game changer in their profession but also on the short list of those considered the best ever -- whatever the category may be.

When the subject is greatest rock guitar players of all time, the name Eddie Van Halen is in the conversation. And that's whose voice was on the other end of the line 15 years ago today.

It was right at the beginning of our interview and I was merely trying to convey what a privilege it was for me to talk with him, when he responded with the above quote. Eddie went on to say a lot of interesting things over the course of our 40-minute conversation, but none of them have made me smile over the years as much as that spontaneous introductory declaration.

"I'm just a normal schmo like anyone else."

Anybody that knows me, recognizes my passion for the music of Van Halen -- speaking of both the guitarist and the Hall of Fame band that bears his name (and that of his brother, Alex). I wrote some time ago about how and why that dedication came to be ("My Introduction to the Mighty Van Halen"), so I'll spare the rehash here.

Looking back, I'd have to say my chat with Eddie was both the easiest and hardest musician interview I have ever done. Easy in the sense that I was well versed in every possible tidbit of Van Halen history -- having read pretty much every interview I could find throughout the band's career, which featured 20 years of "Behind the Music"-style story lines at that point in time.

The flip side was recognizing the rarity of the opportunity -- and worrying that I might somehow screw it up.

The interview almost didn't happen. The morning it was originally scheduled, I received a call from the record company rep who arranged it, informing me that Eddie had been working on a project all night in the studio and that he would be unavailable that day after all.

"Would you instead like to talk with Gary Cherone?" she asked, referring to the ex-Extreme frontman who had recently replaced Sammy Hagar behind the microphone for the "Van Halen 3" album and tour.

Child, please. No offense to Gary, and I would certainly relish talking with him someday, but I simply couldn't give up on the chance to interview the king of 10 fingers and six strings so easily.

Luckily, the publicist sensed my predicament -- and rescheduled the interview with Eddie for a couple weeks down the road. Even then, on the afternoon the duscussion did go down, Eddie had been up again the entire previous night working in the studio between tour dates. Tour manager Scotty Ross called me about 15 minutes prior to make sure I was ready, informing me that he was just going to wake the weary guitarist up.

Could This Be Magic: Eddie Van Halen on the VH III tour.
In our pre-serious interview banter, Eddie mentioned that he was looking forward to the Park City, Utah, date -- our local show -- the following week because his brother-in-law owned a home there and his wife, Valerie Bertinelli, and son, Wolfgang, were going to fly in and meet him since there were a few off days between shows.

"It'll be good," he said, "because every time I'm home, I seem to be working. I didn't sleep until 8 o'clock (this morning) because I'm trying to cut 'Josephina' down to below 4 minutes, you know, editing for a possible single."

When the real interview commenced shortly thereafter, I learned that our original discussion had been postponed because he was working on a new version of "Once," at the record label's request. I thought it odd at the time that a record company would make such demands on a band of Van Halen's renown. But "Van Halen 3" was struggling in both sales and radio airplay, especially when compared to previous efforts, so I figured Eddie was doing anything he could to up the profile of the new lineup.

Interviews generally serve as a snapshot in time. Certain sections are sure to seem outdated when glancing at them in the rearview mirror. Opinions and thoughts expressed may have since proven inaccurate or misguided. Looking back over this interview now, there are certainly points where that is true. But I think it mostly holds up and provides a look into the state of Van Halen at a very specific time, even if it was an era that ultimately proved unsuccessful when compared to previous VH standards.

A few of my favorite parts include:

-- Eddie's insight into the recording of his guitar solo for Michael Jackson's "Beat It." He recently discussed his involvement in much more detail, corresponding with the 30-year anniversary of the historic "Thriller" album. But 15 years ago, I had never seen him share some of this information before.

-- Our discussion about his sobriety and alcoholism. His comment that "when you hit 40 and you don't cut the crap, you know, you either kick the bucket or just lose it in the turn" proved somewhat prophetic. Completely off the wagon again by the mid-2000s, if he didn't lose it in the turn he was at least careening around corners with two wheels hanging over the edge. Today -- after another stint in rehab several years ago and the added incentive of having his son join the band, not to mention the strong influence of his new wife, Janie -- he appears to have rebounded. In fact, his playing on the band's 2012 "A Different Kind of Truth" tour was turning-back-the-clock phenomenal and better than anything since the "III" tour.

-- Eddie's mention of how he's not knocking people on the Internet, but he just doesn't have time for it. I'm guessing he never envisioned a day when even his dog (Kody Van Halen) would have his own Facebook page.

-- His slight scoff that there's "still people that want (David Lee) Roth in the band, you know?" Even he came back around to wanting the exact same thing eventually.

-- His memories of the band's triumphant homecoming show at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., on Oct. 7, 1979 -- the final date on the World Vacation tour. The Forum was the place every Los Angeles band dreamed of playing back in the day. It was the sure sign that you had made it. During his guitar solo that night, Eddie happened to look over and see his father sitting at the soundboard, unabashedly crying with pride. It's a story I had read years earlier and never forgotten. Probably because earlier that very day, a few friends and I had stopped by the Van Halen home in Pasadena, on a lark really, and met Jan Van Halen, Eddie's and Alex's dad, and enjoyed a brief but fun conversation with him. I've promised to write that experience up, and am finally committed to getting it done. Check back in the next few weeks for that writeup.

I remember typing up the interview into the wee hours of one morning at the office -- and immediately sharing it with the Van Halen Mailing List, a tight-knit Internet fan club of sorts with some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated fans the band has ever known. The response and feedback was extremely positive -- and that eventually led to it being published in the Inside, the band's official magazine, in 1998. It was a gratifying moment for me, and was the start of a great association with Jeff Hausman, who ran the Inside then, and now oversees the Van Halen News Desk ( and the Van Halen Store operations.

It was the last real interview with Eddie in the Inside before it eventually ceased publication amid the band's years of inactivity and media cone of silence starting in 1999 after parting ways with Cherone. The band wasn't really heard from again until the 2004 reunion tour with Hagar, and after that ended somewhat disastrously there was nothing until re-forming with Roth in 2007, this time with Wolfgang VH on bass in place of Michael Anthony. Even at that, the band in general, and Eddie in particular, have done very few interviews in the intervening years since the "III" project fell apart.

A few years after the interview, my wife and I were in a class where the teacher, attempting a grand object lesson, asked us all to envision having the opportunity to interview anyone in the world, whether it be famous athlete, celebrity or public figure. He then asked us to imagine how we would prepare, what questions we would ask and how we would react to such a unique challenge.

I offered up no response. I figured the exercise was for those who could truly imagine the assignment -- not those who had already experienced it.

Besides, I'm not sure a normal schmo would qualify.

The interview follows. Enjoy!

Caution: Normal schmo at work. (Daily Herald file photo)

 July 7, 1998

 DOUG FOX: Originally, I was supposed to interview you about two weeks ago, but it was postponed because you were up all night working on a project.

EDDIE VAN HALEN: Yeah that was for “Once,” they wanted an adult contemporary version of it. They didn’t realize what was quite involved in having to do that. I had Gary (Cherone) re-sing parts of it, it’s not a whole different song, but it’s quite different. I’m happy with the way it turned out. It’s not the way I wrote it. You know, Van Halen is not a pop band. But we write all types of different music. I don’t know, it’s like a big square peg trying to fit into a little tiny round hole, you know? And we’re not Spice. We’re not Hansen. We’re just Van Halen, you know? It’s not flavor of the month. I mean, I’m in the business of making music, not in the music business so to speak. There is a bit of a side to it and if they ask, “Can you do this please,” I go, “Well, if that’s what you want I’ll try my best to give it to ya.” But they just didn’t realize how much work was going to be involved. It took two weeks because I had to start from scratch.

DF: But you’ve said before that anything you do, no matter what you do, it still ends up sounding like Van Halen.

VAN HALEN: Oh yeah. Put it this way. I removed all the heavy guitars and replaced them with acoustic guitars and we had a friend of Gary’s, a girl, come in and do some backgrounds because when Mike and I did it, it sounded a little too manly. And just edited it.

DF: So that means I’ll be hearing it the next time I go to the dentist’s office?

VAN HALEN: There’s still no guarantee that they’ll play it because we’re Van Halen, ya know? It’s like a lot of radio stations when they hear the name, they won’t even give it a chance. It’s like in L.A., there’s not one station that will play us. There’s no AOR station, there’s no album-oriented rock station that will play us, and you know, I’ll be very, very surprised if they play us on top 40 radio.

DF: That’s amazing. I grew up there and I graduated in 1978 right when you guys came out and I think the station that I listened to then was like KWEST or something like that ...

VAN HALEN: Hey, right, right, right ... it’s very bizarre because every record that we make, you know, it always feels like that (first one). ... I’ll never forget hearing “You Really Got Me” at two o’clock in the morning the very first time on the radio. I ran and woke up my mom and dad, going, “We’re on the radio! We’re on the radio!” And it’s like that every time, even 13 albums later. Except this time it’s like, “oh,” you know, the album’s released and nothing. But I still get just as excited hearing us on the radio now as I did then. I have not yet heard anything on the radio. It’s kind of depressing, you know. Like wow.

DF: I’m sorry about that, but I’m hoping that this new album will get out cause it’s really good.

VAN HALEN: Well in a funny way, if I have to relate it to any other record, it’s kind of like “Fair Warning,” which was also a sleeper so to speak because there was no hit. It was the first record where I really started experimenting and overdubbing, layering and stuff, I don’t know. Radio wouldn’t play it. A lot of people didn’t get it, but they did a few years down the road. Then they went back and went, “Hey, that was a good record.”

DF: It’s funny you mention that because that’s one of my favorite albums ...

VAN HALEN: But it probably wasn’t when it first came out.

DF: Well, actually I was gone for two years on a church thing, so I didn’t hear it, but when I got back, I went right out and got it.

VAN HALEN: A lot of people when it first came out went, “Well, what is this?” This (new) record is not a one-listen record, you know? There’s a lot of depth to it and lot of diversity. To me, rock and roll is free-form music, and it’s there to take chances — to not fit a mold or be trendy, or this and that. So, no, it wasn’t the right time with a brand new singer to start experimenting and doing tripped-out stuff. But, hey, it’s rock and roll. Ask me if I’ll do it again and yes, you know, that’s what rock and roll is all about to me. It’s not about fitting into any mold or, “Hey, this is flavor of the month” or “Hey, let’s do that.” We do what we do. So we know what we do.

"I think when you hit around 40 and you don't cut the crap ... you either kick the bucket or lose it in the turn."
DF: So going back to your music theory class at Pasadena City College, I remember your teacher said, “If it sounds good, it is good.”

VAN HALEN: Yeah, his name was Truman Fisher, and he was a great teacher. Frank Zappa was one of his students. That shows you right there the difference, what a great teacher he was, you know, to not have molded his students, like, “This is the right way to do it.” I mean, it’s called music theory — not music fact.

DF: Hey, how’s Alex doing?

VAN HALEN: Oh, that guy, he never ceases to blow my mind. I mean we had a month off, we had to cancel our European tour because of the ceiling coming down. A brick just about the size of a cinder block, broke his arm (right forearm), during soundcheck. An inch and a half torn muscle, and our first gig (back) was Phoenix last week. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been in the studio, so I hadn’t played guitar in like a month, which is a long time for me to not play. So for the first gig, it was like, “Whoa!” It was like an athlete not keeping in shape, man, it’s like my fingers were locking up. And here’s Al just cooking, you know? And he hadn’t played in a month, on top of being injured. It just blew my mind. He can’t put a hard cast on because it heals short, the muscle’s torn. There’s a fine line to how much you move it. You can’t overuse it. I just don’t see how he pulled it off. He’s playing better than ever. I think the whole band is. I mean, I really think that if you don’t see the band live, you’re missing it, because this is the best we’ve ever been.

DF: I was wondering how much a process of development goes on since you’ve added a new member, is it taking some time to get used to each other?

VAN HALEN: Not at all. It’s like we’ve known each other, it’s like he’s a long-lost brother. I swear. In a funny way, when I think about it, my father was a traveling musician, so who knows? (laughs) The first gig we did together was at the Billboard Club the evening of the record release party, and it was like we’d played together all our lives. There was no need to get comfortable, no feeling each other out. It was just (makes sound like “VAROOSH”). He just fits like a glove. It was just meant to be.

DF: I’ve been reading the reviews of your shows on the Van Halen Mailing List and everyone is commenting on how happy you seem and how exuberant.

VAN HALEN: (I’m the) happiest I’ve ever been in my life.

DF: Is that mainly because of the musical situation, or is simply everything in your life combining to make it that way?

VAN HALEN: Everything. I think everything kind of relates. If you’re not happy at your work, you come home and kick your dog, you know what I’m sayin’? So yeah, it’s got a lot to do with Gary and (having) a musical soulmate, and he actually lives here with us in the guest house. And he’s just a wonderful human being. His passion for music is the same as mine. It’s not about money or how many records we sell. There’s just no ego, it’s truly a band now. You definitely feel that when you see us live.

DF: I read where originally you got a tape from Gary, and weren’t really impressed with it.

VAN HALEN: No, I wasn’t at all. Because what he tried to do was second guess me and do what he thought I would want. And that’s the last thing I want. So I told him, why don’t you just come out. You know, over the phone just doesn’t work.

DF: At what point did you know he was your guy?

"(I'm the) happiest I've ever been in my life." -- EVH, 1998
VAN HALEN: Actually when he hopped out of the car, I just looked at him and said, “He’s a brother.” Just no attitude. Just a real sweetheart from heaven. We blazed through eight older Van Halen songs, four Roth-era tunes and four Sammy-era tunes, and he just blew our minds. We took a little break and 45 minutes later “Without You” was written — the first day. And if that ain’t chemistry, I don’t know what the hell is. That evening I played him all kinds of bizarre music that I make (laughs) just to let him know that he is not in any way confined to “Panama” or “Jump,” hey, anything goes in this band. Any idea is worth pursuing. I just wanted to let him know that there are no boundaries in this band. I kind of overloaded him and the next morning I just told him, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re in the band, you’re the guy.” I hadn’t spoken with Mike and Alex, but I just told him, you know, “They’re going to make up their own mind, but as far as I’m concerned, you’re in.”

DF: Speaking of stretching boundaries, you’re singing lead for the first time on “How Many Say I” ...

VAN HALEN: Well, that wasn’t on purpose. That was not my call (laughs). It just so happened, this is like a milestone in my life. Never ever have lyrics inspired me to write anything. It was always music first, then squeeze a melody out of it and throw some lyrics on it. Well Gary just kind of stuck me some lyrics and goes, “Here check these out when you got time.” Well, of course, I looked at them immediately, and as long as that song is is as long as it took. It just came right through me. Not to get bizarre or spiritual on you, but it was almost like an out-of-body experience. I was like sitting there watching myself while I’m singing and playing. I had goosebumps, and I’m going, ‘Where is this coming from?’ I’ve always known, you know, where do ideas come from, if you really think about it? Once you start thinking you’re responsible, forget it. I mean, I’m just a conduit. The ideas are given. Now, it’s like I can’t write without him handing me lyrics. Then I write the melody, and I sing it and he re-sings them. That one, Mike Post and Gary said, “Hey, why should I sing it when the vibe is there?” That’s kind of a Tom Waits kind of, you know, I’m not really a singer.

DF: How hard was it to sing the first time in concert?

VAN HALEN: I was a little nervous, but you know, I sing backgrounds. I mean, I used to lead sing for the band before Roth was in the band. It’s just I never learned properly how to sing, so after about four or five songs my voice would be shot.

DF: In the past you’ve compared the band’s albums to children, obviously the newest child will get the most attention ...

Michael Anthony and Gary Cherone. (Daily Herald file photo)
VAN HALEN: No, that’s another thing. We’re playing everything. Gary asked, "How come you never do any of the old stuff?" You know, certain people didn’t want to sing it. So we gave him free rein and we said, “Yeah you pick the tunes and we’ll do ’em.” So I had to go back and listen to “Van Halen I” and learn “I’m the One.”

DF: Was it challenging to have to relearn some of those older songs?

VAN HALEN: Oh, it sure blew my mind — I didn’t realize how much my playing has changed over the years. You know, it’s an unconscious thing, but there’s a lick in the beginning that I’m going, “Man, how in the hell did I do that?” And it took me a while to learn.

DF: Now you know what the rest of us go through when we try to learn it!

VAN HALEN: (laughs) I guess I know how you feel now.

DF: At least you know you were able to do it once.

VAN HALEN: Yeah, well I can still do it. It’s amazing after 20 years you just kind of evolve or change and not necessarily for, I’m not saying I’m any better now or anything. But let’s say (Eric) Clapton for instance, you know? Look at him during Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominoes — and what he’s doing now, it’s completely different. I’m sure unconsciously, you know what I mean? I just think it’s a natural evolution or growth or whatever you want to call it. That’s the way I look at the band, too. I kind of look at it like we’re kind of like this huge oak tree that the seed was planted back in ’74 and it sprouted in ’78 with the first record, and we just continue to branch out and experiment. I think once you stop branching out and moving forward, then the tree dies.

DF: Well, you’ve sure provided a lot of shade for people over the years.

VAN HALEN: Well, it’s my life. I thank God every night for having found my gift, so to speak. I love doing it. I don’t know. That’s what I’m here for. I think everybody’s born with a gift, some people just never find it or bother to try and find it, you know?

DF: What’s the hardest song for you to play each night?

VAN HALEN: I don’t know. None of them are really hard. It just depends on if I remember how to play it or not! (laughs) ’Cause sometimes you get so wrapped up, I don’t know, it’s such a loose thing that we just kind of have a skeleton of a setlist, and sometimes we don’t follow it and we’ll go into a song that we haven’t played in a while and, yeah, then it’s tough. Then I’ve got to think — and I don’t like to think.

DF: Hey, do you mind if we talk about your sobriety for a minute?

VAN HALEN: No, not at all.

DF: How’s everything going there?

VAN HALEN: Excellent.

DF: What’s it been, like two to three years?

VAN HALEN: Oh, more than that. See, Oct. 2, ’94. Whatever, I’m not an A.A. kind of guy where I count the days. I’ve had a glass of wine here and there, it just doesn’t control me like it used to.

DF: I’d read where your dad had given you your first drink before to calm you down before you played ...

VAN HALEN: Yeah, my first cigarette and my first shot of vodka.

DF: I was wondering, with everything you’ve gone through and the experience of hindsight, if you were offered that first drink again, would you still take it?

VAN HALEN: I have no idea. I don’t know. That’s an interesting question. ’Cause I’ve never really looked back ... put it this way, if I had to do it all over again, I don’t think I would change anything ’cause I think it took that to get to where I am.

DF: ’Cause I was wondering if it was the kind of thing where having gone through the experience, you’re better off now, knowing what you know than never having done it?

VAN HALEN: Probably, yeah. But I wouldn’t know because that’s the way it was, you know what I mean? I think I caught it just in time. I think when you hit around 40 and you don’t cut the crap, you know, you either kick the bucket or just lose it in the turn.

The full Van Halen 3 lineup rockin' it in Park City on July 14, 1998. (Daily Herald file photo)
 DF: One of the other more memorable things I’ve heard you say, because you were talking about your dad just a little before, when he went and watched you play at the Forum ...

VAN HALEN: Oh, yeah ...

DF: I grew up there and I went to a lot of concerts there, so that was always the big place in my mind. I imagine it was for you, too?

VAN HALEN: It was always a dream to play there. A friend of Alex’s drew a poster when we used to play backyard parties, you know the band used to be called Genesis before it was Mammoth, and then we walked into a record store and go, “Hey, we’ve got a record out, Alex.” (laughs) Then, of course, we changed it. But the poster said “Genesis at the Forum.” You know, that was the place where we used to go see Zeppelin and Grand Funk and, you know, so yeah, it was a dream come true to play there.

DF: But you mentioned that you were playing there (at the first Forum show), and you looked out during your guitar solo and saw your dad was sitting there and he was crying ...

VAN HALEN: Oh, yeah, he was sitting by a monitor board. He was so proud.

DF: You know, when I used to crank up the guitar at home my dad used to cry, too, but it was for a different reason than that ... (laughs)

VAN HALEN: Well, that was my mom. My mom, used to always say, “Why do you make that high crying noise?” ... “It bought you a house, didn’t it?” (laughs)

DF: That must be very special to have a moment like that that you can remember and look back on.

VAN HALEN: Oh, yeah. The funny thing is, my father who was the musician, did not at all push us, you know? It was my mom who pushed us, to “Well, if you’re going to make music, do something respectable. You’ve got to play classical piano.” So we did that for a few years like the movie “Shine.” You ever seen the movie?

DF: “Shine?” No.

VAN HALEN: The Australian guy? Well, basically, you sit there and you practice one piece of music for a whole damn year, and they put you in a category of how many years you’ve played and what piece of music and it’s a contest. And, you know, I actually won three years in a row, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea, you know? There was no room for improv or to do what I wanted to do. You had to play what was on the paper. It was so funny because I never really learned how to read, so the judge’s comments were, “Very interesting interpretation.” I thought I was playing it right! (laughs)

DF: It probably sounded good though.

VAN HALEN: Well, (laughing) I won!

DF: How do you think your dad would enjoy the third incarnation of the band?

VAN HALEN: Oh, he would love it! Definitely. He’s up there, you know, watching over us.

DF: That’s a good feeling.

VAN HALEN: Oh, yeah.

DF: With the Internet and everything, you know, I’m on the Van Halen Mailing List, I get so much information and I can’t get enough of it, but then again, I look to the show next Tuesday (in Utah) and in a way, I wish I knew nothing about the show going in.

VAN HALEN: I still think that whatever people say, you’ve got to read the book, you can’t have someone explain it to you, you know what I mean?

DF: Having so much information out there about what you’re playing ...

VAN HALEN: I don’t even know ’cause I don’t even know how to run a computer. Valerie does and every now and then she goes, “Ummmmmmm errrrrrr ehhhhh” and I go. “OK.” There’s people that still want Roth in the band, you know? Of course. Now, I just think it’s funny, I mean, I’m not knocking people on the Internet, you know, but I just don’t have the time for it.

DF: What CDs have you been listening to?

VAN HALEN: I’m so into cello right now, Yo Yo Ma. He’s a Japanese-American cellist. I just listen to him and just like with guitar, I just listen and emulate.

DF: You’re not going to start playing cello now too are you?

VAN HALEN: Yeah, I am playing cello. I sit in a racquetball court. It just sounds amazing.

DF: You should have put that on “Once.”

VAN HALEN: No, I wasn’t that good yet. Oh, you mean for the remix?

DF: Yeah, for the top 40 (version).

VAN HALEN: (Laughs) I didn’t think about that.

DF: Have you ever thought about including the “Beat It” guitar solo in your guitar solo during the shows?

VAN HALEN: Oh, it was just an improv you know? I just walked in, blew two solos, “You guys just pick whichever one you want,” and then I left.

DF: That’s one of my favorite solos. Just hearing it when the song came out, you knew it was you.

VAN HALEN: Yeah, it’s funny, of all people, Ted Templeman happened to be in a record store and the song was playing and there were some people standing next to him and they said, “Oh, it’s just someone else trying to copy Eddie Van Halen,” and he goes, “It is.” (laughs) He’s the one, Quincy Jones called him and Ted gave him my phone number. It’s funny, when I walked in the studio I asked Quincy, “What do you want me to do?” And he goes, “Anything you want.” So I ended up rearranging the song, and little did I know the trouble I caused because there were two 24-track machines locked up with SMPTE code. It wasn’t my fault, but the engineer should have known that you don’t cut master 2-inch tape with SMPTE code on it. So he was editing master tape with code so it wouldn’t lock up afterwards. So thank God the idea I had worked, because, “Hey, let’s try this.” I thought he was just doing it on the two track and testing it. But it took them like months to piece it back together — and all they had was my guitar solo and Michael’s voice.

DF: Well, it turned out good!

VAN HALEN: Yeah, I guess it was fine. It was funny too because back then the guys really didn’t like me playing on other people’s records and stuff. Everybody was out of town and I figured, “Ah, who’s going to know if I play on this kid’s record?” And it ends up being song of the year. It was hilarious.

DF: That phantom riff at the end of “Women and Children First” (called “Growth”), that would have made a great song. Have you ever thought of developing that? Do you know which one I’m talking about?

VAN HALEN: I think you mean at the end of the second record. (Hums “Growth” riff.)

DF: Isn’t that on “Women and Children First”?

VAN HALEN: No, it’s on the second album, I think? I think it’s on Van Halen II.

DF: Yeah, but that is the riff. That would make a great song.

VAN HALEN: Yeah, I forgot about that. There’s so much music, you know? I mean, we were actually thinking about putting out a double CD with Gary, you know, the first one, we have so much material. You just keep writing and writing, just about every day.

DF: I bet you just have tons of tape ...

VAN HALEN: Oh, I’ve got so much music. I look at all the tapes and I go, “Ugh, I don’t have time to go back and listen to all of that, I got new stuff, you know?”

DF: I know Eric Clapton was your idol growing up, if you could ask him one question, what would it be?

VAN HALEN: Wow. I wouldn’t have any questions, I would just say, “Thank you.” And I have. I’ve met him a few times and it’s, you know, it’s just amazing because now, over the years I’ve met ... Jeff Beck is a really good friend, Jimmy Page is a real sweetheart, David Gilmour is just incredible. All these guys, Clapton ... you know, we’re just normal people making music.

DF: I guess that’s what I’d like to tell you is just thanks for all the years of making music. I can’t even begin to tell you how much listening to your music has meant to me over the past 20 years.

VAN HALEN: Thank you very much. I think that’s what music is all about. It’s a universal language. I think if it comes from the heart, which definitely with Gary now it does, it’s not contrived, you know? I mean, it’s not, “Hey, skateboarding’s in, let’s write a song about that,” you know what I mean? It’s definitely heartfelt and we don’t let it out unless we like it. And the whole purpose is to maybe touch some people’s lives with it, you know? Whether it be 10 people or 10 million.

DF: Well, you definitely have, and I just wanted to tell you thanks.

VAN HALEN: Well, you’re very welcome and I thank God for having the opportunity to do it.

My wife, Jenn, and I got to meet up with the band one week after my interview.

Related content: I have waxed poetic about the world's greatest rock band on more than one occasion. Here are a select few of the many other stories.

My introduction to the mighty Van Halen.
A 'Different Kind of Truth' sets Van Halen fans free.
Running with the Tiger: Van Halen at Tiger Jam XI
Where Have All the Good Times Gone? Fractured Van Halen inducted into Hall of Fame.
You Had Me at 'I Live My Life Like There's No Tomorrow.'
Van Halen Rocks Delta Center on 2004 Tour.
Sammy Hagar, Alex Van Halen Discuss 2004 Reunion Tour

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Passing my own shadow by Lou Gramm's backstage door

Lou Gramm, former Foreigner frontman, will appear in Springville on June 7,

It’s nearly impossible to be a stranger to the work of former Foreigner
frontman Lou Gramm.

Gramm — who will appear in concert June 7 at the Spring Acres Arts Park as
the headline event of Springville’s annual Art City Days celebration — was one of the defining voices in rock during the late 1970s and ’80s. He was a co-writer on most of Foreigner’s solid gold catalog, which includes rocking radio staples such as “Feels Like the First Time,” “Cold as Ice,” “Hot
Blooded,” “Double Vision,” “Dirty White Boy,” “Head Games,” “Urgent” and “Juke Box Hero” among many others.

Being a rock music aficionado at heart, Gramm’s work has brought me much
enjoyment over the past 36 years. Having seen him in concert a half-dozen
different times during that span, I feel like I’ve got his career bracketed.
In fact, my first and last concert experiences with Gramm were both
extremely memorable — for reasons that could not be more completely

The first time I saw him, I didn’t even have a seat and was escorted out of
the venue, whereas the last time I was summoned out of my seat by an usher
and escorted backstage to personally meet with Gramm.

See what I mean?

Foreigner broke in early 1977 when “Feels Like the First Time” started
climbing the charts, introducing a brand new band to rock radio listeners.
The song opened with a catchy guitar riff that immediately caught my
attention and Gramm’s powerful voice cut through the mix right with the
opening line: “I would climb any mountain, sail across a stormy sea ... ”
As a radio listener, sometimes you hear something new and just innately —
and immediately — recognize that there is a little something extra special
going on. That happened to me as I instantly latched onto “Feels Like the
First Time” and promptly went out and picked up Foreigner’s debut album.
What a fantastic record it was! While it may have been short on actual hits,
in comparison to the band’s later albums, I would match that first Foreigner
record up song-by-song with any subsequent release by the band. To this day,
album tracks like “Long, Long Way From Home,” “Headknocker,” “Starrider,”
“The Damage is Done” and “At War With the World” remain some of my favorite
Foreigner songs as the needle on my record player wore deep grooves into my
vinyl copy of the record from countless listens over the years.

That summer, Foreigner came through town — I lived in Los Angeles at the
time — on the band’s debut tour and headlined a show at the Greek Theatre, a
venerable outdoor amphitheater nestled in the hills of Griffith Park. For
some unfathomable reason to me now, my friends and I did not purchase
tickets — perhaps, as Gramm would later sing in “Juke Box Hero,” “it was a
sold-out show” — but instead decided to try and sneak into the concert.
Being surrounded by hills, trees and brush, it was somewhat of a fun
challenge at the time to surreptitiously earn your way into the amphitheater
crowd by virtue of crawling under a perimeter fence on the surrounding
hillside and working your way through the bushes and trees — or as we called
them “cover” — while evading a cadre of flashlight-toting guards who had
been specifically deployed to roam the area and catch miscreants like us
before we could stealthily slither into the amphitheater and lose ourselves
in the ticket-carrying crowd.

It was like a glorified game of “Capture the Flag” — except instead of some
meaningless piece of cloth, our mission was to experience a great night of

At the Foreigner show, however, it was the guards who won. We spent much of
the show maneuvering our way around the hill trying to remain undetected as
Foreigner blasted through its set, providing a rocking soundtrack to our
night’s adventure. Late in the show, we finally made it to the rear
amphitheater wall and jumped down into the venue. Unfortunately, our
movement caught the eye of an usher, who rushed over and made the collar.
It just so happened, however, that security chose to walk us out directly in
front of the stage while leading us out. As fate would have it, Foreigner
had chosen this exact time to launch into “Feels Like the First Time.” I can
still picture the scene: Gramm was front stage center belting out the
vocals, his long, curly hair flying in all directions. He was also playing a
tambourine, which at one point he let fly behind him, so that it soared
through the air, landing back near the drum set.

As far as concert moments go, that has remained a transcendent one for me,
the raw power of the music, the thrill of the performance, and the temporary
up-close view combined with a growing anxiety of what might happen to us
next. As it turned out, the security guard simply led us out the front
gates, where we hung around listening to the rest of the show.

Fast forward 30 years later, literally to the week, and I was sitting in my
seat at Sandy Amphitheater watching Sam Payne work the crowd in the warmup
slot and getting ready for a headline performance by the Lou Gramm Band in
2007. An usher walked up to me and asked, “Are you Doug Fox?” After my
tentative affirmative, he informed me that Gramm would like to meet with me
backstage. I had been attempting to set up an interview with Lou in the days
before the show, but had given up on the idea when no firm details had ever
been arranged.

So a friend and I were escorted backstage and downstairs to a sitting room
where I was able to enjoy a 15-minute pre-show interview with the delightful
Mr. Gramm. We even shared a brief laugh when I told him of my experience at
the Greek Theatre three decades earlier.

Upon leaving, I could almost swear I passed my own shadow by the backstage

I can’t wait for another trip through the past when Gramm, a veritable “Juke
Box Hero,” takes the stage in Springville.

I had the chance to interview Gramm recently in advance of the Springville show. We discussed his recent induction, along with his Foreigner cohort Mick Jones, into the Songwriters Hall of Fame; his brand new autobiography, "Juke Box Hero: My Five Decades in Rock 'N' Roll;" the surprising reaction he sometimes gets from audiences; his memories of being in Salt Lake City for a show in 1999 the day a tornado struck downtown; and my very first Greek Theatre concert experience with Foreigner.

 Here is the full interview:

LOU GRAMM: Hi, Doug.

DOUG FOX: Hey, Lou, how are you doing today?

GRAMM: Very well, thank you. How about yourself?

DF: Doing great. Hey, it’s a privilege to talk with you again.

GRAMM: My pleasure.

DF: I very much enjoyed reading your book and some sections, of course, clearly stand out than others, but I really loved the detail that was provided. Like you mentioned at one point getting the chance to meet Tom Seaver. And one thing I hadn’t known about you all these years was what a great baseball fan you were. I totally related to that, seeing as how you got the opportunity to do that and meet somebody like that who you’d followed their career and their work had had an important place in your life, that’s kind of what I enjoy about having the chance to talk with you, as someone whose music has been somewhat the soundtrack to my life all these years. So it’s a great opportunity.

GRAMM: Well, thank you. I appreciate that a lot.

DF: Now you’ve got a lot going on right now, obviously with the new book, the summer tour dates and also being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — is this as busy as you’ve been over the past few years?

GRAMM: It really is, and it’s kind of diverse because between in-stores, and selling the book and autographing it, sometimes doing a few songs acoustically, and then the Songwriters Hall of Fame will entail Mick and I to perform together for the first time in over 10 years, and then touring, we’ve got new management and a new booking agent, so that’s more or less on the upswing. It’s a busy summer and I’m kind of liking it for a change.

DF: Right. Now your work has always pretty much been recognized by the fans, even right from the very first album, but it’s great to see it actually being recognized now by the industry at large. What does it mean to you personally to have you and Mick inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame?

GRAMM: I think it’s huge. If you’ve ever looked at a list of people who belong and are a part of that special club, it includes some amazing, amazing people — and it’s such an honor to be part of them. I take it very seriously, and it’s very special.

DF: I think this one is kind of special because it’s kind of the writing partnership, you and Mick. Almost all of the great writing partnerships, when you look at them, there’s come a point where it’s kind of splintered due to tension or whatever, and I wanted to get your thoughts on why that may be. I imagine it’s a process where one is so personally invested in their ideas and whether they’re listened to or not, or tweaked or dismissed, it’s kind of hard to relate to that. What’s your take on that in how things have played out in Foreigner?

GRAMM: Yeah, when people write songs together, you look for that spark of creativity and then the ability to take that spark and flesh it out and make it something not only with the good parts that every song should have but parts that react and interact with each other to make it not only musically exciting but lyrically either incredibly contagious or endearing, you know? Although Mick and I over the years have had our ups and downs, and we’ve kind of gone our separate ways now, I still have a great deal of respect for him as a songwriter and a musician.

DF: Right.

GRAMM: And we did speak to each other for the first time about three weeks ago for the first time in over 10 years. It was very relaxed and a friendly conversation. I think the two of us and the house band are going to perform a couple songs at the Hall of Fame induction, so we’re going to have to rehearse a little bit. I’m looking forward to that and to performing.

DF: So you hadn’t talked to Mick in over 10 years, I’m wondering what was the first thing you said to him when you called him?

GRAMM: “Congratulations on your induction.”

DF: OK, and was he surprised to hear from you?

GRAMM: I think he was. He was taken aback and he said, “Yeah, same to you.”

DF: Did he know it was you calling at the very first, like, had you left a message first or anything?

GRAMM: No, I didn’t leave a message first. I think he did recognize the voice and was a little surprised that it was actually me on the other end.

DF: So things progressed very nicely between you two from there?

GRAMM: Right away we invited each other’s families to the other’s houses, because he’s been through some health issues of his own. He seems to be getting stronger. If nothing else it’s going to be a fun reunion.

DF: Have you decided what songs you’ll be playing yet?

GRAMM: We did, but I’m not going say yet. OK? (laughs) I’m not just saying that to you, I’m saying that to everybody who asks.

DF: (laughs) Well, I’m mainly asking because I happened to see an interview with Mick the other day where he said you’d talked about playing “Juke Box Hero” and “I Want to Know What Love Is.” (laughs)

GRAMM: Oh, he’s stoning you.

DF: I just wondered about “I Want to Know What Love Is” because obviously there’s some animosity and disagreement between the two of you over the production of that song and whatever. I’m wondering, when you sing it, does that come into at all or do you just have to be in a totally different place and mindset emotionally to be able to pull that off?

GRAMM: Yeah, I think I have to shut out all of those tender spots and sing the song in the spirit that it’s meant to be sung.

DF: Jumping to your book now, which I very much enjoyed reading ...

GRAMM: Thank you!

DF: I’m sure there were sections of your book that were difficult for you, not just to revisit and discuss and evaluate, but which ones did you find the most difficult to delve back into?

GRAMM: I think my drug and alcohol abuse, and my operation. Those two especially were tough to submerge myself into even for the book.

DF: All right, now dealing with your addiction, the thing I thought that was most interesting about how you handled that was some of your explanation for how that occurred. I think people, you know, when we think about rock bands and partying, that kind of goes hand in hand, but your take on it I thought was different in that it wasn’t so much that that was just the expected lifestyle or anything, but it really kind of was prompted because of the loneliness you felt on the road and the guilt from being away from your family.

GRAMM: Yeah, it wasn’t really party time ... I was hurting.

DF: And that’s, I think, a view that isn’t necessarily what people equate when they think about it. That’s why I found that part especially insightful.

GRAMM: That’s 100 percent true, and as strange as it sounds, that’s what I did for years.

DF: Now, a lot of the rock bands I followed in my youth and throughout my life have kind of gone through similar things, you see a lot of them talking about similar things now. I was just wondering, do you ever have contact with any of the younger rock bands today about some of these things. You’d almost think they could look ahead and learn from some of those who have gone through these things before.

GRAMM: You know, I haven’t had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with anybody from this generation’s bunch of new bands — I think that would be like my father trying to tell me not to go into music as a profession.

DF: Or not to go to the Rolling Stones concert?

GRAMM: (laughs) That’s right. It would be something that I would listen to and absolutely do the opposite. So, I think maybe if any of these younger groups are inclined to read the book, they could see a little bit about themselves without a one-on-one lecture from the likes of me.

DF: Now, I’m totally intrigued by the whole Black Sheep story, how you literally were coming off the highest of highs with that band and within two days the dream was pretty much taken away from you. Were it not for one slip on the ice there might never have been a Foreigner but everyone might know Black Sheep.

GRAMM: That’s a real strong, strong possibility.

DF: Obviously you must still sit back and in your mind ask the question, “What if?”

GRAMM: I do periodically, but I don’t try and dwell on it. But it is one from time to time that crosses my mind and I do ask that question.

DF: The one thing that’s good is you have through the years had the opportunity to go back and work with many of the members of that band still, so that’s got to be fun.

GRAMM: Yep, absolutely.

DF: Now the list of those who have successfully made the transition from drummer to frontman is probably not very long ...

GRAMM: There’s a few (laughs) ...

DF: Did you learn from anybody in that regard or did you cut your own path?

GRAMM: I cut my own path because at the time I put the sticks down and came up front, there wasn’t really anybody to compare that to. There was Genesis, but Phil was still on the drums I think. And the same thing with Henley.

DF: Yes.

GRAMM: I’m trying to think of who else ...

DF: When I was thinking of this question, those were the exact two that I thought of.

GRAMM: Yeah.

DF: And I remember Phil because I saw him on the “And Then There Were Three” tour in 1978, so he was still fairly new in that role. So he had made the move out front but he didn’t have the type of stage presence like you did. And, you know, the same can be said for Don Henley.

GRAMM: They didn’t look uncomfortable, but they looked a little bit like they weren’t sure what to do with themselves.

DF: Exactly. But you didn’t seem to have that problem.

GRAMM: I had my frontman heroes and fortunately had tapes of them live to turn to. For instance, Steve Marriott, Paul Rodgers, people like that. Even though Steve had a guitar he really was a frontman. Paul Rodgers was an incredible frontman for the band Free. I don’t know — I did not steal anything, but I borrowed, and fairly soon became pretty comfortable.

DF: It’s interesting to me that late in the book you mentioned that you’d been in touch again with Ian McDonald and Al Greenwood.


DF: How were you able to patch things up with them after their dismissal from the band?

GRAMM: I think it was just a matter of time that had gone by, and I had hoped that would understand why things were done the way it ended up — and I don’t even know that they do. But there is a friendship there, and I’m grateful for it.

DF: You once quoted your father as saying, “Life is simple,” so I’m curious as you’ve had this chance with this book project to not only look back on your long career but also to evaluate where you are in life right now and what you have to look forward to, which phrase best describes your current place: “cherry red” or “midnight blue”?

 GRAMM: (Pause) I think midnight blue. It’s not bright and brash cherry red. It’s cool, soothing and straight-ahead dark blue.

DF: Is there a time in your life when it changed from one to the other?

GRAMM: I think when I became born again, for sure, when I went to Hazelton and went to rehab and got my life on the straight and narrow, and put my addiction and the trouble in my life that I couldn’t handle in His hands, and pay attention to the things that I could deal with. Slowly but noticeably I became a little more tolerant. I didn’t need to control a situation. I didn’t need to make sure that my input noticed. It was a little more in God’s hands. ... And I could live with whatever came to be. It didn’t affect my ambition, but if the outcome was different than I projected then I wouldn’t beat myself up about it.

DF: That’s a great outlook. You’ve had a lot of shows in Salt Lake and the surrounding area over the years, but do you happen to remember the show in 99 when the tornado hit earlier that day?

GRAMM: I certainly do. I remember I was in the Holiday Inn and there was a farm equipment kind of event going on directly across the street. They had a huge tent with tractors and all sorts of things in there, and the hotel was full to the brim. People were mingling in the tent and everything and I was watching TV, and I saw a little thing go across the bottom of the screen that said, “Tornado warning.” And I looked out the window and off in the distance the sky was black — in the middle of the day, late morning. And I kept an eye on it, but I started watching the TV again, the next thing I knew I was seeing little particles of everything around striking my window. I knew exactly what that was. I grabbed my wallet and my keys and ran to the bathroom, you know, you’re supposed to stay in a room within a room? I did that, and just as I went walking in there, there was a knock on the door and it was the hotel management and the police saying to go down the fire stairs and meet on the loading docks at the back of the hotel. So I did that. But I peeked out the window before I left and I could see that there was a car tipped over, the tent was in little shreds, about 4x2 feet flying all over the place. The farm equipment was just scattered. When I got to the loading docks I noticed there was dump truck, completely turned on its top. And our tour bus had a hole in the back window that went in one side and went out the other side.

DF: Were you surprised the show still went on that night?

GRAMM: Yeah. We got in our bus and within two blocks of the tornado it was calm and sunny and people were shopping and had no idea what was going on.

DF: Amazing. I just wanted to ask you, do you still get the same thrill out of performing live that you always have?

GRAMM: I do. I definitely do. You know, there’s a certain point now when people could be very thrilled and excited, and if we’re on our game we could really turn the place on its ear. But then there’s times where we’re pushin’, and I know we’re sounding good and a song will end in a big way — and when the song ends you can hear the crickets. I don’t know if that’s God tapping me on the shoulder saying, “You’re getting old, you don’t belong on stage anymore.’ I’m not sure what that means, but it certainly knocks your legs out from under you.

DF: Let me tell you my take on that. As somebody whose been a fan for a long time and has seen this happen to groups. I think where I’ve seen this happening, a lot of time it’s outdoor performances in the summer where they sell season tickets.

GRAMM: Right.

DF: And so the people buy season tickets and they’re not necessarily fans of every band, but yet they still go because by buying the season tickets they get the best seats. I’ve seen this happen to a few bands, and they put on a great performance and there’s like no reaction because a lot of the people in the front, they’re not there for that specific person.

GRAMM: Exactly.

DF: And I always regret when I see that.

GRAMM: Yeah, it could make us push and try a little harder or it could make us just kind of go, “Oh, let’s do the next song and to hell with them” you know? A lot of times when we do “the hell with them” we have our best show. Because we’re not trying so hard to please or entertain, we’re more or less playing inward. And sometimes (that produces) some of the best and most creative ensemble work and solo work because there’s no pressure. It just flows out of us.

DF: Right — well just know that there’s people out there it does mean something to.

GRAMM: Yeah, I know that. It’s a little strange sometimes but, you know, you take the good with the bad.

DF: I know we’re running out of time so I’ll be quick, I just wanted to let you know that I remember the very first time I saw you in concert, it was at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on your very first tour.

GRAMM: Yeah, that was a great place.

DF: And the thing was, I think it was sold out, I didn’t have tickets — we did one of the “Tree People” things where you try and sneak in through the hills ...

GRAMM: (Lots of laughter.)

DF: So we could hear most of the concert, but we got to the amphitheater right before the end, we thought, “Oh, we’ve got to get in.” And we jumped in, but we got caught. But the thing I always remember, and it was a great benefit, was the security guards walked us out right in front of the stage, literally right in front as you started playing “Feels Like the First Time.”

GRAMM: They paraded you out.

DF: Yeah, it was like the perp walk. (laughs) But I remember you being right up there and you had your long hair flowing around all over and you were playing a tambourine. And you even threw the tambourine back behind, back toward the drum set. It’s like that moment is indelibly marked in my mind.

GRAMM: How cool.

DF: It’s always been a great experience for me even though that’s the only part of the show I actually got to see.

GRAMM: I bet. Did you leave after that?

DF: No, we stayed right outside the venue so we could hear the rest of the show! But that’s like one of my favorite concert moments.

GRAMM: Wow, that’s amazing.

(At this point, the voice of the moderator cuts in to end interview.)

GRAMM: Thanks, Doug, that was really enjoyable. Thank you.

DF: Thanks a lot. Have a good day.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Styx: Welcome to "The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" show

As an audience member, it was an uncomfortable moment.

The arena lights were out and the opening introductory film, providing important contextual background to Styx's impending special concert production, suddenly ground to a halt, with the gigantic video board blinking immediately to black.

At first, the delay served as a humorous reminder that no amount of preparation for a live performance can prevent technical stuff, inevitably, from happening at the most inconvenient time. But as the shutdown stretched toward the four-minute mark, those well-versed in Styx history undoubtedly had one of the band's most infamous moments cross their minds.

But this was not Chicago, circa 1981, and this was not the opening reel to the elaborate "Kilroy Was Here" tour -- the incident where everyone in attendance was sent home grumbling without a show when the projection failed. Instead, this was Las Vegas, 2012, the first of two "Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" concerts at the Pearl Theatre at the Palms Resort. And nobody would be leaving without a rock show -- video accompaniment or not.

Sure enough, after about a five-minute delay, the intro film started again, jumping ahead to the depiction of a teenage boy, alone in his room in 1977, scanning through a stack of albums and pulling out "The Grand Illusion." (How many of us discovered Styx, and many other bands, in this same exact way?) He removed the record and carefully placed it on a turntable, dropping the needle on Track 1, as Styx began the actual concert by launching into the title track.

I watched the band with intent curiosity that first song, looking for any telltale sign of stress, frustration or exasperation following the technical delay -- and certainly, any such reaction would be understandable to some degree. But there was absolutely none. Not a single trace. In fact, the band looked as confident and composed starting a show as any of the previous 29 times I'd seen them.

One of those previous times, incidentally, was the night before, when the band held a full rehearsal for the two special-format shows, which had not been performed live together since their original limited Eastern run in the fall of 2010. In rehearsal, the band was all business during "The Grand Illusion" portion of the run-through. There was a 10-minute-or-so interruption for a live TV interview segment (video clip from rehearsal above and below). Then the band was back to work on "Pieces of Eight" -- where everyone seemed to loosen up as the songs rolled along. Keyboardist Lawrence Gowan strolled the stage, and out into the empty arena, during one song, playfully grabbing his crotch while doing an exaggerated impression of a rapper. At another point, most of the band broke out impressions of "The Sloppy Swish" -- a "Saturday Night Live" skit maneuver, which cannot adequately be described, but should be Googled. Tellingly, the music was still played flawlessly despite the addition of the awkward "Sloppy Swish" choreography.

While "The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" double-album production was not performed West of the Mississippi until those two November Vegas shows, the project itself has had a huge impact in Styx's live performances ever since -- in that several of the deeper album cuts from those two records have elbowed their way into the band's nightly sets on a rotating basis. These songs have provided a welcome nod to the hardcore fans, sprinkled in as they are with the band's obligatory greatest hits, and given shows some spontaneous variety.

Another tangible fan benefit of the project was a fantastic DVD (as well as a double audio CD), recorded live on Nov. 9, 2010, at the Orpheum Theater in Memphis. The DVD not only excellently captures the production -- complete with special video content exclusive to the double-album show -- but it also captures the band in peak form, honed by years of constant touring. Not coincidentally, the DVD will make its broadcast premiere tonight on Palladia, followed by a Feb. 1 showing on VH1 Classic. Fans should check local listings for air times for both programs.

"This is the most magnificent piece of video we've done," said James "JY" Young in a press release marking the broadcast premiere of the DVD. "Our two biggest-selling albums performed live in their entirety, all captured in state-of-the-art high definition is something we're extremely proud of. The collective skill set of the people involved in this project rivals NASA in its heydey."

One of my favorite deep album cuts has always been "Man in the Wilderness," a song that was resurrected by this project and, thankfully, has become a staple of the live set ever since. Watching the DVD for the first time, I was struck by guitarist Tommy Shaw's introduction to the inspiring song -- which only piqued my interest in learning even more about it. A short time after that, I had occasion to discuss "The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" tour and DVD with Shaw, and he also graciously provided even more insight into not only the genesis of "Man in the Wilderness" but the emotional investment it takes to be able to pull it off live on a nightly basis.

This informal email interview took place in February of 2012 -- but I've been sitting on it in hopes of tying it in with a potential Western leg of "The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" tour. At this point, I'm not sure if or when that may ever occur -- and the band has mentioned the possibility of pulling the production out randomly for special occasions, such as the two Vegas shows in November. As Shaw mentions at the end of this interview, the idea is out there in the ether ...

That being the case, it seems somewhat appropriate to release this brief interview in conjunction with the broadcast premieres of the DVD.


DOUG FOX: Way back when we first talked about this, before the tour, you mentioned that you were skeptical of the idea when it was first presented. Looking back at that time, to when you actually performed the tour and recorded the DVD, how did your feelings change and/or what caused your feelings to change?

TOMMY SHAW: I'm not sure my feelings have changed. Live video shoots always take away from the actual performance. You get in a groove and it's all purely about the show, then you bring in the video crew and it throws the whole thing off kilter -- there's no getting around it. That's me as the band member talking. But I realized very early on that this was something that deserved being preserved for posterity, so it was me who pushed for it early on. JY, as producer, was saddled with the most time-consuming part of seeing the whole thing through, so all credit for how well it came out goes to him and the amazing group he assembled to bring it home.

DF: Obviously, with the band's vast experience of live performing, you probably go into any project with a certain level of expectation of how it's going to go over. Was there an aspect to this show -- whether it be a certain song, a group of songs, a production value or anything else -- that really surprised you in how it was received night after night?

SHAW: It was a complete unknown until the first time we performed it on stage before a live audience. You've seen our shows -- there is an arc, you know, how we like it to flow. Because we were playing the songs in the order they appeared on the original albums, that was off the table. We would be playing songs many fans might never have heard before unless they listened to the entire albums. What we did know in our hearts was that those albums were rock solid from beginning to end and had such a good flow, it could be enjoyed on the first listening. And that's what happened when we performed it live, thank goodness.

DF: On the DVD, I was intrigued by your introduction to "Man in the Wilderness" and how it was sparked after you opened for Kansas one night in Detroit, and then you turned around and wrote it the next day. I'm wondering if you can go into a little more detail on that. First, I've always loved that song, and know that it has been a fan favorite all these years, but it has a certain imagery to it that has always been intriguing. What was it specifically about what you experienced at the Kansas show and its merging with your own experiences that led to "Man in the Wilderness." And, did you really write it all the next day -- did it come that quickly and completely?

SHAW: I kneeled behind the back seat of the auditorium to experience Kansas for the first time. Epic! Unlike any presentation of rock music I'd ever experienced. To go that big opened up all kinds of ideas in my mind, and the next time I was alone with my acoustic, the song more or less unfolded itself. The lyrics were there in rough form right away. Think about it -- to go from playing in a bowling alley lounge to the kinds of venues we were beginning to play on a regular basis, and being away from home all the time, it was strange at first to be standing out there getting that kind of response from so many people who didn't really know me or how I was feeling at the time, etc. My brother was a tank commander in Quang Tri during the war in Vietnam. It was a very difficult job and took its toll on his spirit for a long time. He's a lot like me, and I could never imagine what it must have been like or how I would have handled it. Then to have it all be such a senseless chess game played by old men in Washington, D.C. -- it was worthy of a mention in the song.

DF: In regards to "The Grand Illusion" -- did you already have the album's theme in mind or a grouping of songs that fit the theme? In other words, regarding "Man in the Wilderness," did you already have "The Grand Illusion" theme in mind when you wrote it?

SHAW: Dennis [DeYoung] had the verses and choruses to the song early on and played it for us. It spoke to all of us and what we were experiencing as members of the same band, as our popularity grew and we started to make some money. We were a very tight group musically at that time, and it was all for one and one for all -- this wonderful moment in the life of any band. So we all began to pour our hearts into it like one big "AMEN!" Although there are credits for who wrote what, it was more the credit for who wrote the essence of the songs because everyone contributed unabashedly to each other's songs. The same can be said for the "Pieces of Eight" album. That's what sets those two apart from albums that came later. Again, the prime season of innocence in the life of a band.

DF: Of the songs the band had never played before live prior to this tour -- or rarely played, for that matter -- which one is your favorite?

SHAW: My favorite song to sing is "Man in the Wilderness." The only way to do that song is all in. There's no easy version of it that I can imagine. So when I'm done, I have to come back from that wonderful place it takes me. Every time. It's hard to explain, but for example, I have to really concentrate to play whatever the next song is because I often don't feel like I've completely come back. I feel a little bad for that because I have gunked up that next song on more than one occasion as I come back to the present moment. To me, there's no better live experience than getting lost in a song. Then there's the song "Pieces of Eight." [It] never got much attention or airplay but it is such an iconic Styx song content wise. Beautiful melody and lyrics, then treated with TLC as we put it together. We spent a lot of time arranging that song, especially the middle section, and when it resolves to the three-part- harmony at the end, I want to salute. It always holds its own.

DF: Oh -- and for all of us out here in the West, what are the chances this tour will be revisited again, and brought to the West?

SHAW: JY and I were just discussing this subject, and our manager brought it up a couple of days later. No plans for now, but the idea is out there in the ether ...

Note: I originally talked to Tommy, JY, Lawrence and Todd prior to the start of "The Grand Illusion/Pieces of Eight" tour. That story can be read HERE.

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