“When I think of Peter Wolf I always remember the Portuguese proverb: ‘Never say you will not drink from that glass again.’ ” – Faye Dunaway, Academy Award-winning actress and Wolf’s former wife, in her 1995 autobiography, Looking for Gatsby
“You never say never.”– Peter Wolf
Same subject (L-O-V-E). Same sorrowful scenario (L-O-S-T). Totally different playing partners.
Peter Wolf, who helped turn the J. Geils Band into one of America’s most electrifying rock ‘n’ roll acts during the 1970s and early ’80s before they musta got lost, leaves the door open for rejoining his cohorts somewhere down the line. His first – and only – marriage is another story that he mostly has kept to himself. Even during his high-profile relationship with Faye Dunaway, Wolf artfully dodged the celebrity spotlight years before TMZ and Reality TV ruled (destroyed?) the world.
While looking forward to the release of his seventh solo album – Midnight Souvenirs – on April 6, Wolf recently reflected on his blast from the past, touching on everything from his breakups, reunions and musical relationships to why his former band isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Growing up in the Bronx, Wolf listened to Jocko Henderson and the Magnificent Montague on the radio and eventually became a late night DJ called “the Wolfa Goofa Mama Toofa” at WBCN in Boston. He rapped before rap and jive-talked before the Bee Gees, a wiry scat cat who could move to the groove.
He soon went from interviewing rock stars to becoming one. After his love of painting brought him to the Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, he soon joined a rock/R&B group called the Hallucinations before connecting with a Boston trio to eventually form the J. Geils Band.
With boundless energy, motormouth banter and stage moves as slick as his attire, Wolf was America’s version of Mick Jagger while the other five members of the J. Geils Band – Seth Justman (keyboards), J. Geils (guitar), Magic Dick (so sharp on the harp), Danny “D.K.” Klein (bass) and Stephen Jo Bladd (drums) – became Stones Clones. The hardest-working, hardest-rocking group of white boys in the U-S-A could paint it black, too, mixing R&B with blue-eyed soul/funk and old-fashioned, sweat-soaked blues. While some have dismissed them as a “glorified bar band,” others with the proper credentials have hailed their explosive combination. Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band claimed this group of House Party Animals that put the sex in sextet was "the greatest live act of the 1970s, bar none." There are three live albums out there as irrefutable evidence, including the double-play Blow Your Face Out (with the notation: MADE LOUD TO PLAY LOUD).
The band officially disbanded in 1985, two years after Wolf left the group over what he still today likes to term “creative differences.” His recent “never say never” comment to Billboard dealt with the possibility of performing one more time with his former bandmates. They have reunited sporadically for charity events (with Marty Richards replacing Bladd on drums), including a Big Brothers/Big Sisters benefit on January 23, 2010 in Boston that Wolf said was the final chapter.
Less than two months later, though, Wolf was reflective during a lengthy phone interview. Speaking carefully in a measured but friendly tone, the singer/poet/painter/bandleader answered the question for probably the umpteenth time:
Is there a chance the J. Geils Band will reunite again?
“I don’t know. There’s no plans,” Wolf insisted, still sounding too cool for old school. “There’s always the possibility. And I enjoy performing the stuff. Their songs ... there are many songs ... I haven’t really ... it’s part of my life, it’s part of my history ... so ... ”
First, though, Wolf aims to prove he is still a creative force, with those “differences” collecting as much dust as an 8-track cartridge in the attic. Midnight Souvenirs (Verve/Universal Music Enterprises) should go a long way to accomplishing that mission. It’s Wolf’s first album since the critically acclaimed but overlooked Sleepless in 2002, which included duets with the Stones’ Mick and Keith, along with country/folk rebel Steve Earle.
Wolf took his time to make this current project click, still sounding in anguish after too many Sleepless nights eight years earlier. “I just didn’t want to go through that aspect of putting out a lot of energies into something that takes a lot of work and a lot of trials and tribulations and have it, sort of, vaporize rather quickly,” Wolf said of the failure by someone on the advertising/marketing/distributing end to promote a product that landed at No. 432 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
“It’s too heartbreaking for me. ... Or pointless, I wouldn’t say heartbreaking. It’s just pointless. At least give someone’s work the opportunity to be available or heard and then they’ll like it or not like it. But at least have that opportunity.”
Preferring to look back on the good times with J. Geils’ first label, Atlantic, where he ran into performers from Brook Benton and Otis Redding to the Young Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere, Wolf also seems pleased about “moving forward.”
Never A Lone Wolf
While his soulful, earthy voice does just fine all alone, Wolf still enjoys the company of others. His Midnight Souvenirs duets with Merle Haggard (“It's Too Late For Me”), Shelby Lynne (a rocking “Tragedy”) and Neko Case (the stunningly beautiful “The Green Fields Of Summer”) are the standouts – and his personal favorites – of the 14 tracks that he co-produced with Kenny White. (See Paul Cantin’s review at nodepression.com.)
Wolf co-wrote all but two of the songs, which skillfully cover a lot of musical ground. His “Thick As Thieves” is another highlight, drenched in blues with an intro that could pass for a vintage recording discovered in a North Mississippi cellar. Wolf said he actually used his cell phone to record friend and local musician/subway performer David Johnston (“a great bottleneck guitar player”) at a Boston park.
And if his association with country/Americana/roots artists seems surprising, be prepared for a Wolf attack.
“I don’t look at (these songs) as country or Americana. I look at it as just music,” Wolf said, two days after “testing the difference between 12-year-old bourbon and 22-year-old ryes” in celebrating his 64th birthday with friends near his Boston home. “You go into the Louvre Museum, you don’t go, ‘Oh that’s oeuvre paintings, that surrealism, that’s German Weimar painting. You look at it and you go, ‘Man, that’s a great painting.’
“And the artists such as Merle, Shelby ... obviously Merle (far left, with Wolf) is one of the great pillars of country music. But he’s someone I consider a great songwriter in the same way that Oscar Hammerstein wrote songs and stuff or Irving Berlin, who wrote songs for a lot of movies, but he did Broadway, he did songs that ... (they were) just unique, great artists.”
Lynne, who on April 20 is releasing Tears, Lies, And Alibis, her 11th studio album since 1989 – and the first on Everso Records, her newly found label – was asked about working with Wolf and if she was a J. Geils Band fan growing up. She replied via e-mail, “Yes, a fan in the ’80s. I was a bit too young to know JGB in the ’70s. Peter is a passionate, and wonderful music lover. He and I can stay up all night drinking and talk music till the sun rises. I know because we have done just that.” The two will reunite April 5, when they perform “Tragedy” on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
Just because he grew up learning about jazz and the blues, doesn’t mean Wolf neglected the rootsier sounds of country-western. He said he was honored to have "Cry One More Time," co-written with Justman for 1971's The Morning After, recorded by country rock pioneer Gram Parsons (see “Wolf’s Early Brush With Greatness”), whose version is available on Live 1973 and G.P. And, along with having an extensive record collection, this walking, talking musical encyclopedia is proud to announce he has kept (forgive the plug) No Depression magazine, which became an online-only entity after ceasing to publish hard copies with Issue No. 75 for May-June 2008, “from the first issue to the last.”
“And the last really kind of stunned me,” Wolf continued. “Because, the way it happened, it was sort of like, ‘This is our last issue.’ ... What I liked about No Depression was there was a sort of street feel and DIY aspect to it, the low-tech aspect which I enjoyed.”
A rich musical background has provided Wolf the opportunity to work with multiple collaborators, from R&B godfather Don Covay (co-writer of “Lights Out” on his first solo record) to soul sister Aretha Franklin (“Push” duet on her Who's Zoomin' Who?) to indie darling Aimee Mann (his co-writer for several songs on 1996’s Long Line).
He regrets not getting the chance to sing with Willy DeVille, though. Instead, Wolf co-wrote “The Night Comes Down” with Will Jennings (Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”) as a tribute to the former singer-songwriter (Mink DeVille) who avoided all musical boundaries before dying of pancreatic cancer in 2009. “He’s very well known in Europe and he’s got great respect in Europe but he didn’t seem to get much respect here, which I found very sad,” Wolf said. “And I would recommend checking his stuff out. I’m hoping the dedication might turn more people on to his work.”
Smell of Success
“Ladies and gentlemen, the J. Geils Band ...”
That introduction on national TV came from none other than “Mr. Get No Respect” himself, Rodney Dangerfield, less than 30 minutes into Episode 13, Season 5 of Saturday Night Live on March 8, 1980. Wolf, in a red-and-black striped outfit, let it rip, as usual.
You love her
But she loves him
And he loves somebody else
You just can't win
And so it goes
Till the day you die
This thing they call love
It's gonna make you cry
I've had the blues
The reds and the pinks
One thing for sure ...
The 1980 album’s title cut was an anthem for star-crossed lovers everywhere, taking Parsons’ “Love Hurts” a step farther. In-and-out-of-love songs were always part of the Wolf/J. Geils Band arsenal (“Love-Itis,” “Lookin’ for a Love” and The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go?” among many others), but this one had to be particularly painful to perform.
Wolf’s five-year marriage to the glamorous Dunaway had ended the previous year, forcing admirers of the rare pair (name any other rock superstar/Oscar-winning actress twosome of the ’70s) to live vicariously through another set of lovebirds ready to spread their celebrity wings.
Despite how it ended, Wolf doesn’t look back in anger regarding the time he spent with one of the era’s most accomplished – and attractive – American movie stars, who from 1968-77 had three best actress Oscar nominations (Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, Network), winning on the third attempt. (Dunaway, with Wolf, on their wedding day – August 7, 1974.)
“Well, we were in a romance, she worked hard and was very dedicated to her work,” Wolf said. “I worked hard and was very dedicated to my work and it was great going out one day and having dinner with Wilson Pickett and the next day we’d be having dinner with Paul Newman (who played Dunaway’s husband in The Towering Inferno). She enjoyed hanging with Wilson Pickett and I certainly enjoyed hanging with Paul Newman. We both shared each other’s worlds and we both respected the work. And, I might say, we made it a very assertive attempt not to become a celebrity couple. We turned down all these Barbara Walters-coming-to-the-house kind of things and yak, yak, yak. It was something that we really – I think – wisely avoided.”
The two first met in September 1972, after Dunaway saw the J. Geils Band perform at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Her first impressions of the man she also called a “dark prince,” according to her autobiography, were spot-on:
“He has the face of an apostle, all bones and hollows above his dark beard. Hidden behind his dark aviator shades are velvet eyes that you can drift in forever. His voice, though, is what locks its grip on you, as he weaves in and out of music and a smoky rap, telling tales of passion and pain. The blood of every important recording artist – of blues, jazz, rock – runs through the veins of his music.”
Asked if he read the book, Wolf said, “Ummmm. I remember she put the book out and I really don’t remember the content of it.”
He peps up, though, when reminded that most of Dunaway’s comments about her first husband and, perhaps, her “one true love” were complimentary.
“Well, that’s nice,” said Wolf, who still stays in touch with Dunaway. “I mean, we were friends. It was very hard to keep the schedule we were doing and also being a woman in that time and place. The land of Hollywood was not very kind or friendly to women at that point. It was rough.”
“Love Stinks,” still occasionally heard on classic radio stations, has invaded our pop culture in other ways. It was the title of a cinematic stinker in 1999, the words are printed on retro T-shirts (recently seen on a lovelorn male in the Hard Rock Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, of all places) and the music is heard (perhaps too frequently) as the soundtrack to Febreze TV commercials.
Simple? Absolutely. Kitschy? Maybe. Just remember that Rolling Stone heralded the song as “one of the great trash-rock singles of the ’80s, with a three-chord riff that later showed up as ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ ”
The message was definitely clear. Wolf closed out that SNL episode in celebration, popping open a bottle of champagne, spraying it around and offering a swig to a startled Dangerfield, who took a gulp. If J. Geils’ lead singer was broken-hearted, he covered it up pretty well. Meanwhile, an even more enduring relationship was getting ready to crumble.
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
The band seemed to be on a roll, following up Love Stinks with its most commercially successful album, Freeze Frame (with No. 1 hit “Centerfold” and its teen-wet dream video launching the MTV generation), in 1981. But those all-encompassing “creative differences” involving Wolf and Justman became more “divisive,” according to the biography on Wolf’s website, as tension built and, “Ultimately, the band decided to continue without Peter's involvement.”
While politely declining to name names – or even make a brief comment on his former bandmates (“To break it down like that would be unfair to each member,” he offered) – Wolf was perfectly willing to discuss what the J. Geils Band meant to him and his career.
Rattling off the names of blues and rock legends (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Sun Ra, Van Morrison, Junior Walker & the All Stars, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy) that shared the bill with his band, Wolf sounded wistfully keen, yearning to go back to the heyday.
“We were there during a lot of great times during the rock ‘n’ roll era. And when we were together making music, it was a deep bond and we worked hard night after night because putting on a J. Geils show required ... it wasn’t just standing there and doing the music,” he said. “You had to do it body and soul. And so we were there and ... unfortunately it dissipated. And every now and then, we get together and celebrate what we accomplished as musicians as far as a body of work. It’s not unlike ... it’s like somebody goes back with a group or an artist will go back or a Frank Sinatra will go back and play with the Count Basie Band or he did some things with musicians that he started his career with. You get in there and ... Eric Clapton got back with Cream and they celebrated the music that they created. And, uh, they might do it again and they might not do it again. And, obviously, they’ve all moved on.”
Apparently, so has Wolf, who’s elated to be back in the game again, even providing the cover art that “seems to connect with the theme of what might go on or what might become a Midnight Souvenir. The smoky, behind close doors ... the whispers that go behind closed doors that usually starts with two people entwined.”
Their Claim to Fame
He might move a tad slower and get winded a lot sooner, but Wolf’s showmanship remains fully intact. His energetic burst gave the 2010 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies a much-needed shot in the arm as the March 15 event at New York’s Waldorf Astoria was crawling to a conclusion after nearly four hours.
As one of the artists performing a tribute to the famed Brill Building musicians/songwriters who were inducted as non-performers that night, Wolf brought everyone – from Paul Shaffer’s house band to members of the audience – into the act during his rendition of Jesse Stone’s swinging “Money Honey.”
It might have served as a subtle reminder to Hall of Fame voters that Wolf & Co. not only are worthy to perform for them but also should be accepted one day as rightful rock ‘n’ soul brothers into their hallowed institution. Wolf isn’t a stranger to the Hall – he was the presenter for the late Jackie Wilson’s induction in 1987, attended the ceremonies in 2006 and 2008 and performed Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” with Bruce Springsteen (Class of 1999) and the E Street Band, Darlene Love, Billy Joel (Class of 1999), John Fogerty (Class of 2003 with Creedence Clearwater Revival), Jackson Browne (Class of 2004), Sam Moore (Class of 1992 as Sam and Dave) and others during the 25th anniversary concert in 2009 at Madison Square Garden. Of the featured performers, only Wolf and Love (2010 nominee) aren’t enrolled in this prestigious School of Rock.
The J. Geils Band has been nominated twice – in 2005 and ’06 – since becoming eligible in 1995, according to futurerocklegends.com, which keeps tabs on such things. And every year the nominations are announced, there’s an outcry for the snubbed bands. (See a sample of some of the heated comments at rollingstone.com. And cast your vote in the poll below.)
“It’s funny because a lot of it has to do with timing, age demographics and there is a lot of politics and there are some people that get inducted that people find bewildering. ... But I really can’t speak for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. ... It’s ... yeah, I appreciate the sentiment,” Wolf said of the band’s more vociferous supporters, admitting it would be “nice to be honored,” before quickly adding, “I can’t say it bothers me.”
If others have forgotten about this Wolfman, there clearly are a few heavy hitters in his corner. Quoted in Rolling Stone’s December 10, 2009 issue, Tom Petty (Class of 2002 with the Heartbreakers) said, “Peter Wolf was a master at working the crowd. He knew how to get the place really rockin'. I learned a great deal watching him.”
A performer who was at the height of his career about the time Springsteen was taking over Jerseyland, Wolf was asked if his work ethic and charismatic stage presence might have influenced what The Boss was unleashing on the world, and if the two dynamos ever discussed it.
“Well, he doesn’t have to say it,” Wolf offered. “Because every time he comes to town, he always invites me up on stage with him and we do something together. So, I think, that says it in itself. He’s been always very generous to me and he’s a person I’m fond of. I’ve known him for a long time and he’s been always very kind to me in that way. We enjoy ... sitting around yakking about all the music we love.”
If hard work was the secret to his – and the J. Geils Band’s – success, longevity might have been a close runner-up. Asked how he looks back on those heady times, Wolf pauses for a contemplative moment.
“Well, we were together for 17 years. I think we worked very hard on keeping ... we were very committed to putting on great shows and trying to ... uh, we were just very committed to it all. And I’m proud of the body of work we put together.
“The breaking up of a band is like the breaking up of a family or a marriage. It’s never ... bands are rare commodities. I wouldn’t say commodities, they’re just rare. Bands that stay together, it’s hard. For a really good band to stay together, it’s rare. And I feel proud of what we did and I look back at it ... I feel obviously sad that we couldn’t continue.
“But that’s what many of my solo records are all about. Kind of following ... staying with what I want to do, which is make records and perform.”
So be listening for that howl at the full moon around midnight. There may be a wild manimal on the loose, still hungry like the Wolf.
• Hear Peter Wolf and Shelby Lynne performing “Tragedy,” the opening cut on Midnight Souvenirs: