A CONVERSATION WITH THE MASTERFUL PETER WOLF
This article is written by MIKE RAGOGNA at THE HUFFINGTON POST
MIKE RAGOGNA: Peter, are you there?
PETER WOLF: Yes I am, sir. Thank you for playing that track from MIDNIGHT SOUVENIRS (I DON’T WANNA KNOW). I love THE GEILS BAND. But the solo albums are a great love of mine. They’re a labour of love and I really appreciate you playing it.
MR: No problem. Thanks for the thanks. Hey, ever since LIGHTS OUT…Well, ever since LOVEITIS you’ve had a fan here. Peter, what are the major differences you see in yourself as a creative person between LIGHTS OUT and now?
PW: You know, I was with THE GEILS BAND for so long – we had been together for seventeen years – and when you’re with a group, it’s like being with a repertoire of actors. You play off each other and you know each other’s weaknesses and strengths. When I started the solo records, it really took me a while to define myself and really figure out what I wanted to do. There was an album called LONG LINE, which was the first time that I started getting more personal and made the songs more personal.
MR: Your solo career’s been pretty active with some amazing guests appearing on your projects.
PW: Since LONG LINE, there was another album SLEEPLESS, that had MICK JAGGER and KEITH RICHARDS. I was very honoured when ROLLING STONE considered that one of the five hundred greatest albums of all time. Then this new one has this incredible singer SHELBY LYNNE. NEKO CASE is quite an interesting artist. One of my favourite singers and songwriters of all time, who to me is right up there with VAN MORRISON and BOB DYLAN, is MERLE HAGGARD. Doing a duet with MERLE HAGGARD is one of the great things of my life.
MR: Working with MERLE must have been amazing.
PW: MERLE is quite an interesting character. He has kept the legacy of American music alive, starting way back with JIMMY ROGERS and BOB WILLS. It was so great to see MERLE opening up for BOB DYLAN on a tour. That’s pretty historic, having two great geniuses together on stage.
MR: It’s great that he’s still with us, you know. WILLIE NELSON too.
PW: Right, and not only still with us, but still making records and writing songs.
MR: Yeah…and I just heard his latest album, which is terrific.
PW: Just like BOB, VAN and NEIL YOUNG – these guys just don’t stop and that’s what makes it so inspiring, at least to someone like myself.
MR: Now, you’re not only a recording artist, but also a visual artist and the album artwork is featured in the album packaging. How entrenched are you on a daily basis with your art?
PW: I’m with it pretty much. I have a sketch book with me and my favourite medium besides oils is pen and ink because it’s unforgiving – once you put it on paper you can’t change it, you’re committed. I didn’t finish high school, but I travelled around the country, going to colleges, pretending to be an art student. At one point, a friend of mine drove me into Boston and I brought him some paintings. Long story short…I ended up getting a scholarship, but I didn’t have a place to stay.
So I was sleeping on the Charles River one night. I was looking for a place to stay on the bulletin boards in the hallways. This guy came up to me and said, “I have an apartment but I’m looking for a roommate.” I looked at him and said, “Well, I’m the roommate and I’m looking for an apartment.”
The guy turned out to be DAVID LYNCH the filmmaker. DAVID and I lived together in Boston for about a year.
MR: When you guys lived together did you become close? Do you guys still talk?
PW: Oh yeah. DAVID is out right now. I think he’s doing seminars on transcendental meditation. In an interview that he did in Boston, he said some very kind things about the time we lived together. We were like THE ODD COUPLE – I was a guy that was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. I thought I’d be dead by twenty.
I was listening to music like THELONIOUS MONK and CHARLIE PARKER, while DAVID was kind of into a suit and tie and listening to things like THE BEACH BOYS and THE FOUR SEASONS. I didn’t shower, I didn’t shave and DAVE was very meticulous, so it was quite like oil and water. We did some crazy things. One night, it was one o’clock in the morning and we decided, “Hey, if we make it really fast, we can get down to New York and get drunk.” So that’s what we did. We got in the car and drove from Boston to New York. We would do all sorts of crazy things.
MR: Peter, there’s also an anniversary coming up of one of your pals. You were in LITTLE STEVEN’S UNDERGROUND GARAGE show and this is the eighth anniversary of that show, isn’t it?
MR: And you played on his SUN CITY.
PW: Yes I did…and that was quite an experience. I actually helped choreograph that with JONATHAN DEMME when we were in The Village. DAVID RUFFIN, one of my favourite singers, was there. BONO used to open up for THE J. GEILS BAND with U2 and he had never met LOU REED, so I remember introducing him to LOU REED. There were just so many eclectic musicians and artists there and I thought that STEVEN just did a miraculous job. It was such a great cause that we were representing.
MR: Yeah, he participated in a large way to raising consciousness about apartheid.
PW: Oh yeah, in a tremendous way. At that point, many people had no idea what apartheid was. They had no idea about NELSON MANDELA, the imprisonment and what was going on in South Africa. I thought what he did was very noble and historically important.
MR: Sometimes people say, like they did with THE DIXIE CHICKS, that musicians should just play and shut up. What are your thoughts on that?
PW: Well, I think you have to take it case by case. I think THE DIXIE CHICKS were feeling very strongly about the war in Iraq and they voiced their opinion. I think it’s an individual case with artists. There are times that I’ve felt an artist might go too far, in the sense that they become consumed politically and it almost becomes preachy to the point that you lose the basis for their music. I respect that artists have causes and I respect that artists stand up for certain causes, but it also depends on the way it’s done.
Sometimes it can be done in a very dignified way and sometimes it can be kind of preachy and that can turn someone off no matter what side they’re on. If you’re supporting the right wing and waving the flag a little too hard, it can be a turn off and the same thing can happen on the far left, so it’s a tricky balance.
MR: Good point.
PW: I’m also of the belief that musicians aren’t necessarily all philosophers. Just because somebody is good at music doesn’t necessarily mean they have any pertinent thoughts. I just feel that everyone is entitled to their beliefs and to voice those beliefs. Some artists try to keep it quiet, like their religious beliefs and some choose to express it. I respect both sides of that.
MR: Nice. Let’s get into what’s happening with THE J. GEILS BAND.
PW: Well, THE J. GEILS BAND broke up a long time ago. It was artistic differences – no need to rehash all that. There was a terrible fire in Worcester, Massachusetts, where many firefighters lost their lives. There was a benefit for the families of these firefighters and somebody called us and asked if we would participate. So we called the whole band around and that was the first time that we got together. Then CAM NEELY, who is the head of the BRUINS, has a CAM NEELY CANCER FOUNDATION for parents who don’t have the money to be with their kids while they’re getting treatment. He sets up housing for them. So we did a benefit for him.
Then, last year, we were asked by Fenway Park to play with AEROSMITH, which we did. Then this year, DOC RIVERS of the CELTICS asked us to be a part of a cause for him. We figured, since we’re getting together, let’s just do a bunch of cities because you never know when the last one is going to be and we’re all together. So we’re doing about eight dates or so. But we have no plans after that. There are no plans to do anything beyond that.
MR: Plus you’ve got your own touring to do, right?
PW: In October I’ll be back doing my solo tour.
MR: These reunions must be fun at this point.
PW: When THE GEILS BAND gets together to revisit the body of work that we created, it’s just great. Also, when we get together on stage, we work like a fifteen rounder, we don’t just sit around on stools. I lose about nine or ten pounds just going through a Geils show, so we still kick it high.
MR: Yeah. By the way, a whole generation was brought up on CENTERFOLD and I know folks who still know every word.
PW: There you go. You know what’s interesting? We just did a couple of shows in Boston that were very well received and I looked out into the audience and the age was so varied, it made me feel good because it actually showed that rock & roll is for all types and all ages. It really was very inspiring for me.
MR: And Peter, I have to say, love still stinks.
PW: (laughs) Yeah, love still stinks, but we all still crave the smell.
MR: (laughs) Nicely done, sir. And we all have LOVEITIS.
PW: Yes, we’ve all got LOVEITIS. My family doctor told me I got it. No cure.
MR: Nice. From someone with your experience, what is your advice for new artists?
PW: Well, it’s very strange because the landscape has changed so much. I beckon back to the days when musicians used to travel around the country, before radio. I imagine what that must have been like when radio came out, where somebody could be playing in a room in Chicago and people all over the U.S. could hear him or her, where it would have taken that person twelve years to cover half that amount of people without radio. So there are dramatic changes.
One of the advantages that we had in THE GEILS BAND was that there was great radio, radio that did support us and radio that was free formed, so DJs could play what they felt like and if they came to a show and saw a band on Wednesday night, on Thursday night, they could play it on the radio. So, there were more opportunities. I think today, sometimes it seems like they have to pay to play and I feel very disheartened by the way a lot of the newer bands are treated. It’s so hard for them to stay together and keep it together because I think a lot of the infrastructure that was there for THE J. GEILS BAND, THE ROLLING STONES, JONI MITCHELL, it just doesn’t exist in the same way, which makes it harder.
MR: Yeah…and the labels aren’t willing to wait four or five albums before you have a hit.
PW: No, they want it right away. If you come out, you’re almost given one chance at the bat and if you don’t hit a home run, there are twenty five other people behind you waiting to swing. There is a tremendous amount of great music out there. I’m always going to clubs and hearing new great young artists that I think are fantastic, but it’s very hard for them to get and kind of focus because there is so much out there. People say that with the internet, you can just post your music, but how are people going to find it? That’s where the trick is.
MR: You can put it anywhere you want, but you’ve got to get the traffic there.
PW: That’s one of the things that was great about the day when underground radio was starting. If JIMI HENDRIX had a song, people would be able to hear it and then they’d be able to go into a record store to discover other things. A lot of that opportunity for discovery is not as potent as it used to be and I think everyone suffers from that.
MR: Peter, I also have to ask you what is your favourite blues song of all time is.
PW: Well, I don’t have a favourite. I had the great opportunity as a young kid to have MUDDY WATERS stay over at my house and JAMES COTTON…I got to become good friends with JOHN LEE HOOKER. I learned a lot from these gentlemen who came from such interesting American backgrounds and travelled into the cities. They taught me a lot about life and to say that there is a favourite would be like asking what my favourite painting is. There are so many great blues songs that it’s a question I really couldn’t answer.
MR: That’s fair.
PW: I’ll tell you one thing, with THE J. GEILS BAND, we’re going to be playing a whole lot of everything. We’re going to be doing a tribute to MUDDY WATERS and to JOHN LEE HOOKER throughout the evening. So, if you like blues, you’re going to be hearing some of that because nobody can play that harmonica like MAGIC DICK.
MR: Excellent, man. By the way, with MIDNIGHT SOUVENIRS being awarded ALBUM OF THE YEAR by THE BOSTON MUSIC AWARDS, what was it like?
PW: Yeah, it was very exciting. I put a lot of effort into that album and it was nice to see it get some recognition. If people are curious, go on line, check it out and give it a listen. I tried so hard to make an album that had a beginning, middle and end and I also worked really hard on the packaging, which a lot of people don’t get a chance to see. So if you have the desire, it would mean a lot to me if you would just check it out at peterwolf.com.
MR: Thanks, Peter…and thank you so much for your time. All the best.
PW: Well, thank you.