Foolish, Foolish Throat: A Q&A with Steve Perry
Journey's ex-frontman talks vocal burnout, hip replacement, rock superstardom, and coyotes with Alex Pappademas
PLUS: Journey co-founder and lead guitarist Neal Schon responds
Every time I told somebody I was writing a story about the new lead singer of Journey, I’d get the same incredulous response: “Steve Perry’s not the lead singer of Journey anymore?” Even though the piece I was writing was mostly going to be about Arnel Pineda (whose pre-Journey work can be seen here) and the present-day incarnation of the band, I knew I couldn’t write anything about Journey without getting in touch with Steve Perry. I was supposed to talk to him for thirty minutes, but he had a lot to say—about how he joined the band, about why he left, and about the pride he still takes in the work they did together—and we ended up talking for almost two hours. The raw transcript of our interview was almost 11,000 words long; the highlights of that conversation appear below.
GQ: Journey had already made three records by the time you joined the band.
PERRY: Yeah. I joined the band in 1978. What happened was, I was in Los Angeles, trying to get signed, with a band that I was in at the time—it was called the Alien Project, but it was also called Street Talk. The name wasn’t settled yet. Don Ellis, who was running the west coast side of Columbia at the time, heard the tape and really liked the group. We were supposed to talk serious contract papers with him right after 4th of July weekend that year. And our bass player Richard Michaels got killed in a Fourth of July holiday accident on the freeway. We were destroyed by that—he was a wonderful singer, a wonderful bass player, and a great guy, and he was part of a real interesting chemistry that Columbia wanted to sign. So Don Ellis took the liberty, about two weeks after that, of sending our tapes to Herbie Herbert, who at the time was managing Journey. And I got a phone call from Don Ellis telling me that Herbie had called back and wanted to meet me and talk to me about joining the group. Because Journey had made a conscious decision, along with Columbia’s—what’s the correct word here—request [laughs] that they become a little more song-oriented. So they thought that I would be a good addition to the band. So Don Ellis called me and said Herbie wanted me to fly out and meet Neal. I think it was in Denver, Colorado—they were opening for Emerson, Lake and Palmer at the time. So I flew out there, hung out with the band. Neal and I wrote our first song that night in the hotel room, after the show. Called “Patiently.” It began at that point for me, with the band.
So Columbia was pushing Journey to write more commercial music?
They just wanted some songs to get on the radio. I was always a songwriting sort of guy. I wasn’t really into jamming too much. But I appreciated the musicality, the ability to jam. So it was the best of all worlds, I think, when I got into a band that had the ability to play in a progressive way but was open-minded about writing songs. When you have one or the other, it’s just not enough. They were really an amazing performing band. But they didn’t have any quote “hit records,” and weren’t on the radio much.
So they were okay with the change?
They were certainly amenable to it when I joined them.
And it obviously worked out pretty well.
It worked out really great. There was something that we had together that I think neither of us have been able to find anywhere else. Everybody’s gone on to their own incarnations, and everybody’s had success, but the truth is, there was a synergy that the band had, in the chemistry of writing and performing and arguing and recording, y'know?
You mentioned arguing—was there a lot of that?
Well, disagreements are part of life! Anything worth anything goes down the path of discussion, disagreement and greatness, I think. I mean, gee whiz. Whether it’s making a movie or making music. It’s no different.
But you ended up having creative and personal differences with Jon and Neal, differences that led to you leaving the band—is that a fair assessment of what happened?
[laughs] You’ve gotta print my response. You’ve gotta print your question and my response, because I think it’s so humorous that such a question is even asked. [laughs] I can’t believe that this is news. [laughs] Of course! The answer is of course there’s differences between us all! It’s called a band! You get in a baseball team and some people like each other and some people hate each other, but they still play together.
Were you and Neal friends?
Of course we were friends. We lived together when I first joined the band. He gave me the back bedroom at his place. But we were also working together. And a lot of time spent together can chew on a friendship. Look, you’ve got to remember, they didn’t want to make it with a lead singer. They wanted to make it without one. They had Gregg Rolie, and that was enough. And he was a great vocalist for what they were looking for, but they didn’t want to have a singer out front.
You think they would have been happier if they’d made it in that prog-rock incarnation?
I can’t speak for them. But I’m sure that if they could have been successful the way they originally set out to be, that would have been fine with them.
Do you think that dynamic was set up from the beginning? Did that tension persist throughout your tenure with the band? Do you think they wished they didn’t need a charismatic singer out front to succeed they way they did?
I don’t know. That’s a tough question. I think that’s getting a little into the area of conjecture.
But I’m wondering if you felt that way. Did you feel like you were the new guy, still, after all that?
Oh, most certainly, I was the new kid on the block with them. I was the new kid in town. There was a statement I made on a VH1 special, which I’m sure you’ve heard—that I never really felt part of the band. “All these years, it’s funny—I never really felt part of it.” What they took out, edit-wise, was that—[long pause] I gotta think about how to say this. Ask me the question again?
Okay. What did you mean when you said, on that VH1 special, that you’d never really felt like part of the band?
Okay. So—[long pause] when we did the VH1 thing, I said there was quite some time where I never really felt part of the band. And people didn’t understand what that meant. And what that meant was that there was a period of time where I always felt, from Neal, that I had to prove myself worthy of the position I was trying to occupy in the group. And not until it really took off, I think, did that question really get answered.
But along with this, you have to print that I can’t blame them. Because they’d had a certain amount of success without me, and they were wondering, once I joined, “Is this the right direction?” I could tell that. I didn’t have years of being in Santana under my belt, like Neal and Gregg. Ross Valory had played with Steve Miller and people like that, I didn’t have that. Aynsley Dunbar had played with everybody. I didn’t have that under my belt. So, yeah. I was the new kid. And I think that proving myself was something that went on for quite some time with the band members.
Schon was like fifteen years old when he joined Santana.
He was a child prodigy!
So he probably felt, justifiably—
You don’t understand. [Journey] was his band. Herbie built that band around Neal because he’s a star on his own from a guitar standpoint. There’s nobody who plays like Neal Schon, to this day. I still miss his playing. I love his playing. We don’t get along, but I love his playing. ‘Cause he’s brilliant. But you gotta know that Herbie built that band around Neal, and Gregg Rolie too, and then brought in Aynsley and Ross. And George Tickner in the beginning, who was the guitar player in the band before he left, and in came myself and Jon Cain.
That lineup of Journey ended up becoming one of the biggest bands in the world. You even had your own video game.
I was against that. Everybody went against me on that issue. ‘Cause I thought it was silly. I’ve come to find out that there’s a generation of kids who think it’s classic and wish they could find the arcade version. But I personally thought it was dumb.
But the fact that you had that—that’s a measure of how big you were.
See, it’s funny. That’s an interesting comment. Because I thought that we were big already, that we didn’t need a video game. But that’s how the world judges you. Like, “Gee whiz, you have a Lamborghini, so you must’ve been big.” I didn’t understand that. Every night, after every show, I would get everything I needed to hear. I didn’t need any of the other affirmations. I’ve read three reviews in my entire career, and they were all so painful that I decided not to read ‘em anymore. I got my review at the end of the night. When that audience wanted an encore, and they would not let you leave, it was just so gratifying. I didn’t need anything else, as far as an opinion on the show.
That kinda answers one of my questions. You had millions of fans and sold a ton of records—
I think it’s up to almost 50 million, now.
—but you were never a critics’ band. You were never cool.
That’s right. We did get a little bit trendy in spots, we all occasionally got a bit funny with our dressing, but we did not follow the New Wave thing, or the punk thing. We didn’t go nowhere near the disco thing.
Do you think that’s why the press didn’t like you?
There was a time that the press, and especially Rolling Stone, decided to call us—and by “us” I mean Foreigner, Journey, Styx—they called us faceless bands. Especially Journey and Foreigner. Because they said we all sounded alike. And I’ll tell you, to this day, I don’t understand what that meant. ‘Cause we didn’t sound alike. I think back in the day, there was a decision, by a couple of key editors, to never give us our just desserts. But like I said, at that point, I realized I wasn’t singing for, or co-writing with the guys, for critics. I was writing for the people who might want to listen to it. And as long as, at the end of the night, I heard what they felt about it, then I was good to go. Let’s roll. Next night.
When you started your solo career, was that the beginning of the end for Journey?
No. I think the beginning of the end was when Neal started his solo career. Neal did a solo album way before I was thinking about it, with Jan Hammer. And I said to Herbie, the manager, “I think this is a bad idea”—that it would fracture the band on some level. And he said “No, he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. I’ve tried to talk him out of it, but he wants to do it.” And then he did his second one, and I said “OK, look, if he does a second one, I’m probably going to end up doing one.” Then [drummer] Steve Smith wanted to do a jazz record. And the theory coming from Steve, and I kind of understood it, was that everybody’ll go out and be able to express themselves musically in some other areas, and then when we reconvene, perhaps we will have discovered or found things that we can bring to the group to help the group evolve. And so I thought that was okay. So after Neal did his second solo album, I went to LA, and in about three weeks, I wrote Street Talk, which was a bit of a nod to the earlier band, and to the bass player who’d passed, and with some great studio musicians and cowriters, we just knocked the record out and we released it.
That was the one that had “Oh Sherrie” on it?
“Oh Sherrie,” and “Foolish Heart,” yeah.
And that became a huge hit.
It did pretty good, yeah.
Was it weird, coming back to Journey after that?
Even while I was doing the solo album, even after it was successful—in my heart of hearts, I was never gonna leave Journey. I had no desire to. At the end of the last video from my solo album, for “Foolish Heart,” there’s an extra tag-on section that I shot for the video, to just tell everybody that that particular phase of my career was now over and now I’m back to Journey. The video is a one-camera move. One huge mag, with not one edit. It starts way in the back, over a railing, and it rolls up to the front. I walk onstage. I sing with a microphone and a music stand. And it rolls around, and halfway through the song it starts rolling back out. And when it parks back out in the audience, at the end of the song, I walk offstage. But in the extra tagged-on piece, I cut to stage right, facing me walking offstage, over the shoulders of Jon, Neal, Ross and Steve. Giving me high fives. Like, “Hey, man, that was great! Let’s go have some pizza. Right on!” So that was like a nod to Journey from my solo side. “Let’s go fuckin’ be Journey again.” I wouldn’t have done that if I had any desire to leave the group. I didn’t! We went back, and we started writing Raised on Radio.
So you came back together, you made one more record, and then the band took a break. You didn’t make another record for ten years after that. What happened?
Well. I remember [pause]. I remember that tour, the Raised on Radio tour. I remember by the end of that tour [pause], feeling musically toasty, feeling emotionally toasty, feeling vocally toasty, and, um, [pause] telling the manager, “I just don’t want to stay out here and keep doing this. Can’t we stop?” And eventually I had to say, “Look, don’t book any more shows after October. I just want to stop for a while.” So February 1st was when I finally got home from the last shows, in Alaska. And I just couldn’t do it anymore. I just needed to stop.
They would have kept going, I know that. But our relationships by then were not the greatest. At times it was wonderful, but it had been a long time, together. And we had differences of opinion in some areas, which eventually wore us down a bit. I thought it was silly to license songs for commercials and stuff. We’ve always had a difference of opinion in that area. There was a lot of stuff that we didn’t agree on. And a lot of things we did, but the point is we were toast. And maybe it’s just my opinion. Maybe I should just speak for myself. It felt like it was toast, and I felt like we should just stop. So I did.
Then shortly thereafter, I called Jon and Neal together. We met in San Rafael, we sat on the edge of the marina, and I just told them, “I can’t do this anymore. I gotta get out for a while.” And they said, “Well, what do you mean?” And I said, “That’s exactly what I mean, is what I’m saying. I just don’t wanna be in the band anymore. I wanna get out, I wanna stop.” And I think Jon said, “Well, just take some time off, and we’ll think,” and I said “Okay, fine.” And I just sort of fell back into my life. I looked around and realized that my whole life had become everything I’d worked so hard to be, and when I came back to have a regular life, I had to go find one.
Because you’d spent so many years—
Nothing was more important than being part of this huge family called Journey. And us being on this mission together, to be the greatest, and write the greatest songs, and come up with great sounds, and fight for the greatest performances. It was like being on a baseball team. Like, “Okay, we won the World Series. Now I wanna go home for a while.”
As a singer, were you dealing with a different set of demands?
Well, what I’m about to say—I’m gonna come across as a prima donna, but if there’s any singers out there reading this at this point, they’ll understand completely. You must put that in there, the preface, because it’s important. Everybody thinks singers are prima donnas. And to a degree I guess we are. But at the same time, the difference between a voice and fingers, or hands, is neurotic at best. When someone’s fingers get calluses on them, the guitar doesn’t hurt so bad. It feels better. Same for the bass. Same for the piano player, when his fingers get callused and strong. When a drummer gets calluses on his hands, they no longer chafe and they no longer blister, and that’s fantastic. The moment a singer gets one callus, he’s finished. Singers live on the edge of being powerful, being strong, and not degrading their voice, and it’s the most difficult edge to walk. You feel like you’re on a high-wire all the time. And the pressure of walking in front of an audience every night, and wanting to be what you know they want you to be, and what you want to be for them, and to have this silly little thing in your throat that’s about as neurotic as you are, is difficult. So it can make any singer a little crazy. It can make you just live your life in a state of insecurity and fear. Until you walk out there and open your mouth, and you see what you got, and then it tells you if it’s gonna be a fun evening or not.
And I imagine it’s much harder to take care of it.
Well, how do you do that and use it at the same time? It’s a very fine line. Like I said, using it can cause the problem. Using your fingers makes ‘em better. So it’s always a fine, artful dance. So at the end of a night, you feel great. I delivered what I wanted to do, I hit the notes, I feel good about it—but you don’t know how much you used up until tomorrow morning. And the tickets have already been sold. The next show is sold out. Only one night did I have to have a shot of B12 with an anti-inflammatory. That was in Dallas, Texas, because I got to a sound check and realized that people were lined up outside and I had half a voice. So that night we got a doctor to give me a shot. Which singers will do a lot—but I only had to do it once.
So that was a big part of the pressure? You were feeling like you were going to burn it out.
I was always on the edge of being what I expected out of myself, and what people wanted me to be, and I never wanted to settle for anything short of what it should be. And so I was always livin’ on that edge.
So when you told them you couldn’t do it anymore—at that point, were you thinking of it as a hiatus, or a breakup?
It was what I just said on tape. I sat down with ‘em at the edge of the marina, and I said I can’t do this anymore. And Jon said—or Neal, I can’t remember, it was so long ago—“Okay, we’ll take some time off.” And I said, “You don’t understand. I don’t want to be in the band anymore. I want out. I just wanna quit. I wanna let go.” And I’m sure they thought, “Oh, there he goes. Solo career. Fuck Steve”—y’know. But the truth is, no. I didn’t jump into that. I really had to let it all go. Completely. And fall back into my life. Because before that last tour—my mother had died, during the making of Raised on Radio. She was dying during the writing and recording of that record, and in the middle of doing vocals, she died. So I came home, took care of that, went back, finished the vocals and stuff, and before I know it, we’re on tour. And by the end of that tour, I was toast. I hadn’t even really addressed or dealt with anything pertaining to that loss. So I was about ready to crash and didn’t know it. And life just said, “I think you’ve got to go deal with this.” ‘Cause I was not happy with things in my life. And you can only run on the road and be in front of people so long before it doesn’t fix you enough, to where you can run away from things you haven’t addressed. You understand what I’m saying?
I imagine it was a really good way to run away from things, for a while.
You think? [laughs] Having people love you every night is a beautiful way to run away from things. Oh my God, it’s fantastic. But I needed to go home. So I did. After talking to Jon and Neal, I went back to my home town for a while, and I started doing things that people didn’t understand. I was going to the fair in my home town. I was riding my Harley a lot, all throughout the San Joaquin Valley. I mean, back roads, where there’s no cars, where there’s nothing but coyotes. Just lettin’ the wind kinda blow through me, and just trying to figure a little bit out, how much of me is in there, still, as opposed to what I became? What I thought I had to be? Now, I was grateful for everything that had happened. It was unbelievable. And I didn’t want to stop either, by the way. I didn’t want to leave the group, for Christ’s sake! I worked my whole frickin’ life to get to this point with these guys! We all put our lives and sweat and blood and tears into this thing. But it seemed like, for my life, to save it, I had to stop and get out. I know that sounds intense, but I had to take care of myself. It wasn’t easy to walk out, but I had to do it.
You made a couple of solo records after that.
Way after that. Way after. I think the last show, was at the end of January, ’87. I was back in my house February 1st—I’ll never forget that date. Home alone and going “Now what?” Knowing it was over. My first solo thing, I think, was maybe six, seven years later. ’94. Yeah. That’s right. Yeah, I ran right out there. [laughs] I think I needed some time off, what do you think?
But when you had that conversation, did you get the sense that they thought you were just going out on your own?
Mmm-hmm. I think they thought I was just going to leave the group and go solo and tell everybody to go—whatever. Remember, it took two solo albums from Neal before I did my first. I was a Journey member. I was a Journeyman. I was part of a band that saved my life. You don’t seem to understand how much I wanted to sing in that band. The manager, Herbie, fought for me to be in that band, when they weren’t sure. If it wasn’t for Herbie Herbert fighting for what he believed was the right direction, which was “This guy’s gonna be the singer of the band, and I don’t wanna talk about it anymore”—he fought for me. We’ve had our problems too, but if it wasn’t for Herbie, I woulda had no chance, to sing on that grand stage. He went to bat for me in a huge way.
With Neal, and the rest of the guys?
When they were uncertain?
When they were uncertain. ‘Cause you know, they had a singer before me, named Robert Fleischmann. And he was there for a brief time, until Herbie heard my tape and convinced them that they were gonna have to move from him to me. And he played the tape for ‘em, and they weren’t sure. They weren’t sure about any of it. I’m sure they weren’t sure about Robert, either, you know what I mean? But that’s okay. I completely understand their reluctance. They wanted to make it on their own goalposts. There’s nothing wrong with that. And I hope you print that, because it’s important that people know that. I’m not bitchin’. I can understand how they feel. But you’re asking me how it felt. I’m not whining. I’m not whining. I completely understand how they felt and why, and I want to make sure that’s clear.
Sure. You’re just responding to a question I asked.
Yeah. I did not use steroids! Except once in Dallas! [laughs] Okay? Now, have I perjured myself? You can’t bust me for steroids, but you’re gonna bust me for perjury—I get it!
The reunion, then—that was two years after?
Trial By Fire? I would say ’95. I called Jonathan around ’95, and talked to him on the phone.
So you didn’t speak before that?
No. Not much, no.
I imagine the band had become a huge business, given all the records you’d sold.
Oh, yeah, ‘cause it was so successful. People trying to sell hot dogs with your music. That doesn’t feel too great to me.
So you were always opposed to that stuff?
Yeah. Still am. The music is dear to me. Two summers ago I was asked by Sony to oversee the remastering of the entire catalog. And Journey was on tour, so I said “Fine, I’ll do that.” And so I went down and sat with this mastering engineer. We redid everything. That was one of the most cathartic and painful and wonderful experiences I’ve ever had, to go through the entire catalog, all the B-sides of albums that I’d forgotten about, and remember everything about the sessions, and remember the writing of ‘em, the struggles, the accomplishments. And the songs— I gotta tell you, it was unbelievable. And I only bring that up to tell you that, at some level, every one of those tracks are like a painting in a gallery to me, and they’re precious to me. And I just don’t think they’re for selling dogs and burgers. And so—[sigh]—I’ve tried to maintain that that’s just not what they’re for. ‘Cause I just believe in their sincerity. Those songs, and those tracks. And they are like paintings, ‘cause they were painted in a different time and they sound like it, and that gives ‘em their quality. And they’re good.
What was the reunion like? Tense?
It was a wonderful experience. I called Jonathan. His wife told me he was in a golf tournament, I think in Florida. And she gave him the message, he called me from there, and I said “Maybe we should talk about getting back together, I’d like to see what you think, let’s have coffee when you get back.” So we had coffee, talked about it, and he said, “Well, we should get together with Neal and talk about it,” and me and Neal and Jon had coffee, and that was kind of the beginning. We started trying to put back the original band, with Ross and Smith. And we wrote the record. It was really great. It was a real great experience.
We finished the record. We mastered the record. We were ready to go and rehearse and do the first video, and I was on a ten-day break before we started rehearsals. I was in Hawaii. And I went on a hike, one I had done many times before— this incredible trail, it’s pretty intense. I got to the top of this hill, and I was in trouble. I could hardly walk. I don’t know what had happened, but the pain was like an ice pick. I’d had some pain in my left hip area before, but I didn’t think nothin’ about it ‘cause it would come and go. I just thought it was part of the aging process.
So I came home, and started seeing a series of doctors, getting opinions. And the only one that was consistent was, “When the pain gets great enough, you’ll replace the hip.” And I said, “Excuse me? What are you talking about?” And they would show me on the X-rays, and the MRIs. I guess I was just in denial about it, like, “You gotta be kidding me.” [Journey had] just reworked our partnership. We were all ready to roll. And so I started a long process, seeing many doctors, and the guys got impatient. They wanted to get on the road, and I said “Well, let’s just get the video done.” So we got the “When You Love A Woman” video done—I was packing my whole left side in ice between takes. And, then after that, I continued looking for doctors, maybe hoping I’d hear what I wanted to hear. There was several medical, non-surgical choices, and I tried all of those. And then finally, months went by, and the band got impatient. I got a phone call from Jon, and I could tell Neal was on the phone, ‘cause I can tell when the line level’s down, and I could hear him breathing, I think. And Jon was telling me, “We want to know what you wanna do. We’ve tried out a few singers. And we need to know what you wanna do.” I said, “You’ve tried out some singers?” And he said yes. His exact words were, “You’re some big shoes to fill, but we wanna get out there. We wanna know when you’re going into surgery, because we want to tour.” And y’know— I didn’t feel like major surgery was a band decision. I said, “I’m gonna get it done. I can’t tell you when, but I’m gonna get it done.” It was suggested that I could tour and sit on a stool. And I said, I am not gonna tour and sit on a stool. [laughs] Please.
So at the end of that conversation, I said “Look, you go call whatever you wanna do with whomever you’ve checked out something else. Call it the J-Boys. Call it anything. But don’t call it Journey, y’know? Because I am gonna get this done, eventually.” But I needed to be ready to lay down and do this thing. And it took a few more months, until October, and then I was ready, and found the right doctor for me. Emotionally. Because then I started to become a medical guy. There’s like 20 different prosthetics, all claiming to be the one that lasts, and I had to do research on that crap. But in January, Jon told me on the phone, “I just wanna know.” And I said, “Don’t call it Journey. Because if you do, you will fracture the stone. And I don’t think I’ll be able to come back to it if you break it. If you crack it—it’s got so much integrity. We’ve worked so hard. Can’t you just, y’know—not do that?” And, he asked me again: “We wanna know when you’re going to surgery. Cause we wanna get out there.” That particular set of words. I said “Okay, you do what you gotta do, and I’ll do what I gotta do.” And I hung up the phone, and when the dial tone came back, I called my attorney, and I said “Start the divorce.” And he said, “What divorce?” And I said, “The divorce.” And I told him what happened. When somebody says, “We’ve checked out a few singers,” it’s like your wife’s saying, “Look, while you were gone—I know a few guys, and I just wanna know what you’ve decided to do, because I need to know.” My feeling at that point is very simple: “What am I going back to now? If you go back to that, what are you going back to now?” So that’s why I said, “Maybe we really are done.” I’d left to find my life, once before, gone back to it, to try to reclaim something we once had, and then we kinda fell into that same place again. Y'know? So I thought, “Well, maybe I’m not supposed to be there.”
Did you feel betrayed, by the fact that they’d been looking at other vocalists?
I did not like it, one bit. ‘Cause I’d called Jon to try to put it back together. I was the one who really wanted to do it.
You were the one driving the reunion.
I made the phone call. To Jon Cain.
Have you followed what’s gone on since then, at all?
I only know that they’ve been through three guys, and I’ve never heard any of ‘em, and there’s no need to. Really—I stay away from it, because it’s really none of my business now. We have children together, which are the songs we wrote together, and we have a vested interest, as songwriters, in where they go and where they don’t go. That’s about all. I really try to stay away from it. Because since May—hold on, I’ve got the fax on my wall, in my studio. May 8th, 1998, was the total release from all our contracts, and from Sony. I was a free man then. From all of it.
Did that feel good?
In the beginning, it felt extremely freeing. And then it felt terrible. [laughs]
Okay. Can you unpack that for me a little bit?
Well, it felt great to be free. They were gonna go do their thing. And I was not gonna be part of that. And I’m off Sony for the first time since ’78. And no contracts were really binding me to have to be or do anything anymore. So it felt freeing at some level to be a free agent, in ’98, ‘cause the industry was really changing, and the Internet was becoming a big thing, and I thought, “Gee, the future’s kinda wide open.” And then [laughs] then I just got this unbelievable freaky drive, which shows the neurosis of the singer-songwriter. I got a panic in me. Almost exactly like the panic I felt before I got into the band, Journey. Which was, “I gotta get signed before it’s too late.” [laughs]
You broke out of prison, and immediately started thinking about how to get back in.
As bizarre as it sounds, I felt like nothing had ever happened, like our arc of success almost didn’t exist. “I gotta go out there and try to get in this business.” [laughs] Before it’s too late! Which was my original motivation, back in the early ‘70s. Some of that stuff never goes away. It’s amazing. I was confounded by that. After all those years of doing everything, it didn’t change my original drive, my need to get some music out there or do something creative. I was kind of surprised. You’d think that a certain amount of success would squelch certain drives. At least I did. And I’m grateful for all of it, I wouldn’t trade it for the world—but it didn’t squelch much, y'know? I still felt this panic to get a deal, get signed, maybe make another record. But I didn’t. I didn’t do that.
That’s interesting. You had that urge, but you didn’t act on it.
No, I didn’t. I guess it’s because maybe I’d found a life. I’d gotten back in touch with parts of the life I had before I was successful. But I didn’t realize what we had done together until I stopped. And only now, when people come up to me, and tell me what it meant to them, do I realize what the band accomplished. It’s extremely gratifying to have people come up and say “‘Open Arms’ was my prom song, and to this day, my husband and I still listen to it.” Or when guys’ll come up and say, “Y’know, I wasn’t into youse guys, but if I took a chick to your concert… you know what I’m sayin?” I get the whole spectrum. And they’re all good. They’re all great. They’re all magical to me. I just love it.
Is there a validation when you see it crop up in pop culture? When you see a Journey song turn up on a movie soundtrack, or on TV?
[long pause, laughs.] Some of ‘em, I think the answer is yes. Sopranos is a definite yes. Because it was such an amazing use. The movie Monster, that Patty Jenkins wrote and directed, with Charlize Theron, was an amazing use of [“Don’t Stop Believin’ ”]. And there’s been some others, that I think have just been wonderful. And there’s been some that I wasn’t too pleased about, but my feet had been held to the fire, slightly, so I had to.
You were one of the few people in America to know how The Sopranos ended, before it aired.
What happened was, I guess Jon and Neal had signed off way before I did. I wasn’t sure what the Sopranos use was gonna be. I was concerned that it would play while somebody got whacked. So I held out a little bit, ‘cause I wanted to know. And the show was gonna air on Sunday, finally, my publisher got back to me saying well, they need to know, and I said, “If they’ll tell me how it’s used, then I’ll be glad to let go of my own equal approval.” So I had to swear to not tell nobody, which I did, and they told me how the show ends. But I didn’t see it until the first time it aired, that Sunday night. I stood up and screamed. He goes to a restaurant, he goes through the little jukebox at the table, they go through the thing, he goes through Heart, and then he ends up with Tony Bennett, and he reaches in, puts a quarter in and pushes a button, and you think he’s gonna play Tony Bennett—he’s a wiseguy, he’s either gonna play some rock and roll or Tony Bennett, that was how they threw the scent off. And then, boom, Journey starts, and I was like, “Oh, my God.” I just couldn’t believe it. It was so cool. It felt so awesome, to see that song be used in that moment.
It seemed completely right to me—given Tony Soprano’s age, he would totally have grown up listening to Journey.
You’re looking at it in a deep chronological way. I’m not. I’m looking at it very simply. Tony Soprano thinks Journey’s cool. And look at the choices he had! He could have picked Tony Bennett—the greatest voice! And he picks Journey. And then when they started editing with the lyrics—like on “Just a small-town girl,” they’re cuttin’ across to the wife, and they’re cuttin’ to everybody, as appropriately as the lyrics can—wow. It was really intense. And then the day after, I was at the airport, and you’d think we had a hit single again. Everybody at the airport, man, walkin’ by, givin’ me the thumbs-up, like, “Yo! Steve! Sopranos!” It’s like, “What the fuck?” It was unbelievably cool. And I tried to get to David Chase to try to thank him, and I have yet to be able to.
Of all the hits Journey had, why is that the one that seems to resonate the most?
Well, like I said—we were good together. Goddammit, we were good together. And Jon Cain and I used to spend hours together, doing lyrics. I mean, we’d get together with Neal, and we’d all write the arrangements. I’d write some melodies, I’d write some hooks. They’d play amazing chord changes, and we’d all try to navigate and try to help us be great with each other, and when we were done, Jon and I would take just, empty tracks, with the melodies in my head, to his house, and I would sit there at the coffee table and sing the melodies, and we would skull out lyrics. And those lyrics are a big part of it.
Is it just that people can relate to the sentiment in that song? That everybody’s a dreamer on some level?
I don’t know. If we’d had a crystal ball back then, we woulda wrote twelve of those. Nobody knew, y’know? I live just above San Diego, in Del Mar. And occasionally when I get up to Los Angeles, sometimes I’ll go out on the weekend, and some of these clubs, man—this new generation in the clubs, man, they’re playing this song, and when it comes on they’re screaming it out to each other. The girls are screaming “Just a small-town girl.” They’re screaming it at clubs. Do you have any idea what that feels like? In my lifetime, to see another generation embrace this? As I said in the beginning with you, there’s something reverent about that, to me. And I only wish to protect it, because it means something to them, like it means something to me. I don’t wanna see that get damaged. I really don’t. And I just love to see them love it so much. It just completely slays me. I would have never—I would have never thought that was gonna happen. I mean, who knew?
Are you unhappy that the other guys in the band are still out there performing this music?
I really, honestly—and you must print this—I really don’t want to respond to what they’re doing, because what they’re doing is none of my business. They’re doing what they’re doing because they feel it’s what they want to do, and I’m doing what I’m doing because it’s what I feel I wanna do.
Journey got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame a few years ago. Was that the last time you saw them?
That was the last time. And I wasn’t sure if I was gonna go. Because I’d never met the singer, I’d never met their drummer. And we do have some turbulence between us. I had always sort of planned to go, but I wasn’t sure I was gonna go, you know what I mean? But I went. And it was really, really great to see everybody. At some point, in all our lives, we’d all contributed to that star on the ground. But the greatest thing was, I really felt in my heart that Neal was happy to see me. He hugged me, I hugged him, and he said a few things in my ear—that are mine, I’m not gonna mention ‘em. But it was just great. And every now and then he’d look at me and go, “What the fuck, y’know? I’m so glad you came. Wow.” It was a lift for me, that I emotionally needed. And that star’s on the sidewalk. I go there, from time to time, when I’m in town.
Where is it?
It’s on Hollywood Boulevard, on the south side of the street, east of—I wanna say Vine. It could be east of Vine. Or east of Highland. Just a little bit east of the Musicians Institute.
So you just go check on it?
Yeah. I think I’m gonna go by with some brass cleaner one of these days, make sure it looks nice. One time, I went there—there used to be a coffee shop right in front of it, and I was having coffee, watching people. And these two girls were there with a friend. They were of the generation we were speaking of earlier, that newer generation of fans. And they laid down on each side of it and tried to pull sexy poses with the star. And their friend was kind of hovering over them with a camera. And I ran out of the coffee shop and said, “I gotta get in on this.” [laughs] She looked up, her eyes got like saucers. And I said, “Come on, we gotta take a picture.” And I laid down, and I said, “Aww, girls, this is too sexy.” So we took a picture laying down on the sidewalk, by the star. They love the band enough to lay down on the sidewalk? In front of all these people walkin’ around ‘em and shit? I thought, “Okay. I’m layin’ down, too.” And that sidewalk’s not exactly clean.
Are you working on anything now?
I started writing music again, at the beginning of last summer. I had not opened that up in over ten years. I was reluctant to try to write some more, but now I’ve been doing that, and it’s been a real experience. I got ProTools, and I’m working on stuff. I’m not sure what I’m gonna do with it yet, but I got a lot of material, and a lot of it I really like. I’m in the boil-down process. I got these ProTools sketches of songs, and I guess it’s time to record some of ‘em. I guess I have a desire to sing and write music again, and I’m letting it take me places. It’s been painful. Sometimes, when I hear myself sing, I sound like Steve Perry, and sometimes that has a lot of memories attached to it. I’m serious. I just told somebody that, a couple weeks ago, a writer that I’m working with—my own voice is sometimes difficult to hear. Because it reminds me of so much. But I’m embracing it. And I’ve played some of the stuff for friends, and for some people that aren’t afraid to tell me the truth. And they’ve really liked it. It sounds like me, they’ve said. And that’s great. It’s been a love-hate thing. All creative processes are a love-hate thing. Anything worth anything has got to be that way. Right?
[A few days after I talked to Perry, I did a follow-up interview with Neal Schon, Journey’s co-founder and lead guitarist, in which we discussed some of the same issues Perry brought up. In the interest of fairness, here are the relevant parts of that conversation.]
GQ: The first three Journey albums sound like the work of a completely different band. There’s a heavy jazz-fusion influence, and none of the songs are as anthemic as “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” or “Lights,” the songs that would make you famous. When you changed your sound, what was the thought process behind that? Whose decision was it?
NEAL SCHON: We had run our course doing what we were doing, and what we started out being. What happened was we’d put out our first record, Journey, and I think we sold a little over 100,000 records. Which in those days was not good. In these days, it would actually be respectable! [laughs] But in those days it was a bomb. And so we were basically known as a touring band. We toured probably nine, ten months a year, and the other two months that were left, we were in the studio making more new music, and then we’d get right back out there. And we did that for about five years, that grueling schedule. And we ended up making two more records—we did Look Into the Future and then Next, and each record sold progressively less than the last one, but we attained a huger live audience, because we were playing live so much.
Did you just realize at some point that you needed a frontman?
Well, no—I didn’t realize anything. The label said, “We think you need a frontman. Otherwise we don’t think that we can ever get anything on the radio.” They wanted us to get on the radio. And sell some records. And so they gave us an ultimatum—you either get a frontman, or we’re gonna drop you from the label. And at that point we’re all thinking, “Oh, wow. This is a drag, after all this hard work.” And Herbie [Herbert] had received a tape from somebody at the label, of Steve Perry. He was in another band, at that point, and apparently they were getting ready to get signed, and his bass player was in an awful car crash and died. And I think what Steve felt at that point that he wanted to fold the band and go back to working on his grandfather’s ranch. So Herbie got his tape, and he played it for us, and he goes, “This is your new singer.” [laughs] And we’re all looking at each other going, “Really. Okay.” So we’re listening and goin’, “Wow, this guy’s got an amazing voice, but does he fit with us?” Because it was a radical change. Listening to what he was doing, and listening to what we were doing—it was like A to Z. I was goin’, “How are we gonna morph this together and make it work?”
Well, Steve came out with us and started hangin’ out—he was hangin’ with me, actually, and we were roomin’ together, and I pulled out an acoustic guitar, and one of the first songs we wrote, in about a half an hour, was “Patiently.” And that just kinda came out of nowhere. And then the second song we wrote, I was downstairs in Gregg Rolie’s house, where I was living, in Mill Valley, and Perry was over, and we were sittin’ down in the beanbags in the music room, and he started singin’ me these melodies that he had, for “Lights.” And I just started putting the stumble to it, felt like it was gonna be a stumble, and tried to give it some Hendrix-y type chords, to make it sound cool, and then I added a bridge to that, for a guitar solo, and that one was done, in about ten minutes. And so at that point, I knew I had some chemistry writing with him, even though it was very different from anything I’d done before. And I started learning how to craft song songs, instead of just jams.
How did it feel to be told that you needed to change what you were doing? Was that a hard pill to swallow at first?
At first it was, yeah. It was a bit of a learning curve, for me. Blues and progressive stuff was where I was at, y'know? And some funk. So it was a completely different area for me. But, y'know, I just flowed with it. I went along with it. I think in the end we all took Herbie’s advice, and it ended up being great advice.
Did Steve have to prove himself to you?
Well, there was no proving to us that he could sing. The guy could sing amazingly well. And after we compiled enough material to go in and cut our first record Infinity, we all listened to it and went, “Wow, there’s something here.” And the label was freakin’ out, they were lovin’ it. Management—Herbie was freakin’ out, he was lovin it. We were all lovin’ it. It sounded good. And lo and behold, all of a sudden you started hearin’ “Lights” on the radio. And “Wheel in the Sky.” And those were our first singles.
You went on to make a string of hit records with Steve. You became one of the biggest bands in the world. And then you went on hiatus. What was the deal with that? Did you get burned out?
Well, of course, everybody gets burned, but I was like a machine out there. I loved touring. So I was ready to go, go, go, and I think pretty much everybody else in the band was. [After the Raised on Radio tour] Steve Perry just came up and said, “Look, I’m burnt, I’m toast, I need to take a rest.” And so in the middle of a tour, he just pulled out. I believe we were in Hawaii. We hadn’t finished the second leg of the tour. And so everybody packed their stuff, went home, and I’m hearing that we’re gonna be off for maybe a couple months, three months, six months, whatever—but it turned out to be close to eight to ten years.
Did you feel like Journey had run its course?
No—I didn’t think Journey was done. We actually never even quit. It wasn’t like we called each other and went, “Okay, this is history, nice knowin’ ya.” It was just sort of left at a hiatus. And it was all based around Steve giving us a call and saying “Okay, I’m fine now, I’m ready to go.” And it just didn’t happen.
Was that frustrating for you, that he sort of pulled out like that?
Well, yeah. You work on something for so many years, and you attain what you attain, which was an amazing feat, and then it’s sort of like the rug is pulled out from under you.
Eventually he came back. You made one more record together. And then he left the band for good.
He said he was having health issues, and he needed to have hip replacement, and this and that. And so we kept waiting around to see if he was gonna go take care of it. And he pretty much came back and said, “Y'know, this is a personal issue, and I’m not gonna be pushed in a corner to get my hip fixed. When I’m ready I’m ready.” And I said, “I understand that.” Everybody understood that. And we still waited, even though we had things goin’ on. I still never wanted Journey to go away, because it was something that I was there from the beginning and started. And I felt that we still had wings, y’know? Which made me, inevitably, want to put it back together, without Steve. If you watch the [Behind the Music] documentary on VH1—it’s pretty much one-sided, with Perry, the way they edited that thing, but there was a couple funny things that went down in that interview. He’s saying, y'know, “If these guys wanna go on, I think they should just start something new and not use the Journey name.” Don’t crack the stone is what he kept on saying. Don’t crack the stone. Don’t go out and play these songs with someone else and crack the stone. Well, he did the same thing, way before we did! He went out on a solo tour, a solo Steve Perry tour, where none of us were invited. Actually Jonathan Cain tried to go down and go in and see him in San Francisco and they wouldn’t let him in the building! And he was playin’, I think, nine Journey songs and three of his original songs.
This was in the ‘80s? When he was touring behind his solo record?
Yeah, the “Oh Sherrie” record. And then, y'know, after that, he’s talking about not cracking the stone. So to me, the stone was already cracked.
So was that the big strain on your relationship—his solo career?
Well, I think—looking back, I was sort of a workaholic. I still am, somewhat. I’ve slowed down a bit. But in those days, if we took a month off from the road, I would jump into a side project. I did a one-off record with Sammy Hagar. And I had always been a big fan of Jan Hammer, the keyboard player that was playing with John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra, and was doing all the Miami Vice themes at that time, the music for the show. I met him when Journey was opening up for Jeff Beck, before Steve was in the band. And I’d always wanted to do a record with him, because I just loved his musicality—I loved the fact that he played like a wicked guitar player, and was always curious what I’d sound like playing with him. So I went to do my first solo record with him. We did it in a month, again, with some down time. And I think that actually might have provoked Perry to go and do a solo record. So in retrospect [laughs] maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did, because he went, “Well, Neal’s doin’ one, why can’t I do one?” And everybody’s goin’, “Well, Neal’s not doin’ anything that’s gonna conflict with Journey, y'know? It sounds progressive, and Neal’s singin’ on it, he obviously doesn’t sing like you.” But that was his open door, to go do it, and that was sort of the beginning of the demise.
It’s been your band longer than it was ever Steve’s band. Do you get tired of it being defined by his presence or his absence?
Um—no. I think he contributed so much to the sound of the band, obviously, to where those songs are gonna be embedded in everybody’s heads and hearts forever. And I think that we accomplished a lot together. And the legacy continues, with Arnel. I think that he brings the realness to even the old material. He’s not just a Steve Perry emulator.
You and Steve don’t talk, right? Is it safe to say that there’s not communication between you anymore?
I have tried to talk to him, numerous times. And he will not allow me to have his number. Everything has to go through lawyers and management. And that is sort of a drag. You’d think that after a while, everybody would grow up and be able to talk, one on one. But it just hasn’t happened. So, because of his wishes, that’s the way things go down.
What’s the beef about, specifically?
You know what? I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s like I said—I didn’t crack the stone. In my mind, he cracked the stone when he went out and did our stuff without us.
With what you make off the old stuff, could you afford to retire at this point?
Probably some time ago, yeah, I could have done that. With the other company that I’m a part of, Nocturne [a video-production studio]—between that and the residuals that I get, yes, I could live comfortably and just hang it up. But I’m just not in it for the money. I love doin’ it. I love playing. And so I think I’ll play, probably until the day I die. I look at people like BB King and I go, man, God bless ‘em. That’s what I want to be doing. I look at people like Jeff Beck who are in their 60s and still kicking ass, with more fire than they had when they were kids. Those are the guys that I look up to. This is what I wanna do. I mean, it’s in my blood, y'know? It’s what I do. And it’s what I really love. I feel lost when I’m not doing it. I mean, this last year, I had a whole year off, and I kinda went buggy. The one thing that was good was that it allotted me some time to get some personal issues in order with myself. I drank a lot. All through the years. And really did have a drinking problem, and didn’t know it. And so now I’ve been sober for the last nine months, and I never want to look back. This is the healthiest I’ve ever been, and I think it’s the best I’ve been playin’. I just sort of rid of a lot of demons that were inside of me. And I think without the year off, I wouldn’t ever have gotten to that place.
You were able to function, so you never really addressed any of that stuff.
Yeah. I believe I was a functioning alcoholic. And the reason I didn’t realize that I was an alcoholic is that I didn’t have to wake up in the morning and pound down a six-pack. I could go out and I could have eight, nine, ten vodkas, and then I wouldn’t drink for another three or four days. When I did drink, it was in excess. And I think I made a lot of really bad decisions over the years, because I was messed up like that. I’m just happy to be on the right track now, for once in a row.
Do you think you made bad decisions in terms of how you handled things with the band? Do you think there were things you would have dealt with differently if you were sober?
Possibly. There’s definitely some decisions, that are pretty personal, that I wouldn’t have done the way I did, because I was not thinking clearly. But for the most part, I’m just glad that I didn’t completely F up everything. And that I was still able just to play and have at least half of myself there. Now I feel like I have 100 percent of myself here, and I’m more into it than I’ve ever been into it. So I’m really excited about getting out there and just being completely in control of what’s going on, for real.
But do you think your drinking affected your relationships with the other guys in the band?
I’m sure I was a bitch to deal with. Definitely. It depended where you caught me. If I was drinkin’, I was great to be around, and funny. Much like a lot of people are. And then the next three days after that, I was terrible to be around. I’d be comin’ off it, and probably didn’t know that I was probably just jonesing for a drink. I had been through a lot of divorces, and probably a lot of ‘em due to this problem, and I had to just really face everything on a straight level. I was using alcohol for many, many years, to numb myself.
I imagine it’s really easy to be a functioning alcoholic when you’re on tour with a rock band.
It was a nightly thing for me when I was on tour. I wouldn’t drink onstage, but I’d get offstage, and when I got in the bus, there’d be a chilled bottle of whatever vodka I was drinking, and I’d start plowin’ into it. And I’d sleep, and I’d wake up, go do the gig, and the same thing would happen all over again. I just don’t hang out in that environment anymore. You won’t catch me in a bar, you won’t catch me anywhere around that. And if I am around people that are messed up, you won’t see me there too long, ‘cause it reminds me too much of what I probably looked like.
When I met you guys in Vegas, you referred to Steve as “He Who Cannot Be Named.” Is there some legal issue here? Are you not allowed to talk about him on the record?
Oh, y'know—there’s no legal issue with talking about him. It’s just that he thinks every time we talk about him, we talk crap about him, and it’s really not true. We just try not to talk about him.
So you’re not enjoined from discussing him in public?
No. I mean, I didn’t say anything inflammatory to him. I didn’t talk about how he still gets paid like a motherfucker even though he shouldn’t be. It’s stuff like that I’m not allowed to talk about. But the facts are the facts, y'know? He sorta just bitches and moans and whines about everything. And he just assumes that every time we bring up his name, we’re sayin’ bad things. Or he thinks we’re hangin’ on to his coattails. And it’s just not like that. It’s never been like that. He barely ever talks to the public, and he doesn’t want us talking about him, and he doesn’t want to talk about us, but when people ask me for stories about the band’s history, and things that went down, I’m gonna talk about it. I mean—we’re completely done. I told you about the VH1 thing, which is true, about crackin’ the stone—I’ve been wanting to set that straight for a while. It’s the truth. So fuck him.
alex pappademas is a GQ staff writer.
Click here to read Alex Pappademas's profile of current Journey frontman Arnel Pineda, from the June issue of GQ.
PLUS: Pappademas talked to GQ Radio about his travels with Pineda and Journey. Listen here: