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
opposite.

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
entertainment.

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
door.

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.

GRAMM: Yes.

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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1 comment:

  1. Fantastic Doug! "Feels Like the First Time" has been a long time favorite of mine and it still moves me....like the first time.

    ReplyDelete