by Ted Drozdowski
Peter Wolf leans back in his chair in the bar at the Four Seasons in Boston to confide the real reason the J. Geils Band are getting back together. "In '72", he says, looking over the top of his round framed sunglasses, "we did this deal with the Mafia. It's payback time, and there's gonna be broken legs if we don't".
But seriously, Pete, why, after the hitmaking version of the group crumbled 17 years ago, after nearly two decades of reprotedly tight-lipped animosities that occasional fruitless meetings couldn't overcome, after earlier offers for reunions, after your own solo albums and Jerome Geils and Magic Dick's formation of their own band Bluestime.....Why, after all that, reforming to play a 17 date tour of amphitheaters this summer, starting with two home town shows at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield on June 23 and 24?
"Part of it is that someone approached us with the idea of making it real simple", says Wolf's Geils bandmate Seth Justman, who's seated across the table from him. Justman's keyboards provided the signature of their 1981 #1 hit "Centerfold". He's been producing for others including Debbie Harry; the reunion comes just as he's finishing an album with his own new band. "In the past, proposal like this involved making new Geils Band albums and other things. That didn't feel right. This summer, all of our schedules seemed to coincide, which was a big thing. But really, it just sounded like we could have some fun - just go out for a month of shows and return to why we all wanted to be musicians in the first place - to get together to play in one room and all get off on it. Nothing else."
Wolf elaborates: "In music things change a lot. If you look at what's going on this summer, besides the Geils reunion, you have Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Springsteen & The E Street Band are together again, the Stones are out there, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. This is music that came out and imbedded itself in an audience before the MTV era, when the innocence of FM radio was starting and people were discovering stuff together - Hendrix, for some people Led Zeppelin, electric Dylan."
"When the Geils Band started in that era, we were working the clubs with and influenced by people like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf - and now they're on postage stamps. I think there's a sensibility now that people want to connect with that kind of purity, that sense of honesty."
"Authenticity, really." Justman interjects.
"Right", agrees Wolf. "We came out of that era when there wasn't really an 'industy'. It was just music and we were making funky little tapes and jumping in a station wagon traveling across the country. I think that's also the kind of exciting thing that happened 10 years ago in Seattle, with independent bands coming up with indie labels like Sub Pop. There was a certain integrity and honesty that audiences connected with. Then a lot of these bands ended up getting gobbled by big corporate conglomerates and MTV."\
"Look, none of us wanted to go out feeling like an oldies band. I don't think people look at the Springsteen tour with the E Street Band as a nostalgia tour; five years ago they might have. But today there are all the No Depression artists, from newcomers like Robbie Fulks and veterans like Steve Earle. The Malaco label is putting out some great R&B. Radio's not playing this stuff, but lots of records are being bought of music that has integrity and comes from a primal place."
"Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Springsteen, the Stones...These are artists who have put together a body of work, and people who go see these tours feel it's profound to them. People feel the same way about U2 or Pearl Jam or Nirvana. Their work has authenticity. And people get a sense of communion in seeing them."
"I feel the same way about the J. Geils Band. I'm not saying we're doing anything great. We started as a bar band and always stayed that way - playing really primal, honest music. I think that was our strength. We always try to make the best music we can. Like other artists who came up in the same era, we created a body of work, and there are thousands of people who say 'Hey man, we want to hear it again.'. That's what we're doing it for - that sense of communion."
But what about the money? "Money, money, money", Wolf replies. "The record industry has always been about making money, and bands got to eat, but it has never been as vulgar as it is today." The sting of disgust hangs in his voice. Justman nods in assent.
Wolf goes on, "When we got signed to a record company, it was by people who knew about fuckin' music. I mean, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler" - and he's name checking key men at the Geils Band's first label, Atlantic, where they signed in 1969. "They knew music." Justman picks up the ball: "Ahmet could tell you what the rhythm section was doin'...talk about the little guitar parts. He was gettin' off on it."
Justman runs with the ball: "The music industry is out of touch with itself. The industry is so preoccupied with selling music and figuring out slick, economical ways to funnel it out - te get the money out of your wallet - that they've forgotten the whole thing is about being turned on by the music. It's out of touch with music."
"There's a time when you'd be listening to the radio and on the same show you'd hear the Contours, Dion & The Belmonts, Del Shannon, Gene Pitney, and the Flamingos - disparate styles. And when's the last time you heard a DJ say, 'That was so nice, got to play it twice'. You felt like you'd connected with someone who really felt the music."
Wolf tosses in a Borscht Belt riff: "I figured I'd go into the shoe business. It has a lot more sole, at times, than the music business."
But back to the money.
"Because of the uniqueness of this event for our fans, I think we could have approached it in a mercenary way," say Wolf. "But our concern with ticket pricing was to keep it street friendly, to the bare minimum. Very important. [For the record, the price range for tickets is $25 to $39.50] This is not a take-the-money-and-run tour with 'Golden Circle' and that stuff built in. You got the shed, you got the lawn, you got some basic T-shirts. Let it rip!"
What about a corporate sponsor?
"It's Shinola!", Wolf barks.
Doesn't that get confused with another product?
"Well, it was a big battle between Shinola and Yoo-Hoo soda...No, we have no corporate sponsor. We're trying to keep it primal and funky, as we always try to approach things.
Primal and funky has always been a good description of the J. Geils Band ethos. Singer Wolf (born Blankfield), guitarist Geils, harmonica wiz Magic Dick (Salwitz), bassist Danny Klein, and drummer Stephen Jo Bladd came together in 1967, playing classic blues and R&B and their own variation of the two. In 1969, Justman moved to Boston and joined the band almost immediately. They were signed by Atlantic later that year, but - despite the now legendary performances at the FIllmore auditoriums and other venues - the label allowed their contract to languish.
"Atlantic was going to drop us", Wolf recounts, "but Jerry Wexler realized he'd never even heard us in the two years we were signed to the label, so he asked us to come play in a club where he could hear us. [Soul instrumental dynamo] King Curtis, who was the head of Atlantic artist relations for the R&B stuff at the time, was key in our staying on the label."
Their first album was 1971's The J. Geils Band - cut in just three days. "We played the songs live, just like we were in a club", says Justman. "They had something like two weeks booked. But most of the songs were first or second takes, with a couple of overdubs. I remember we had to do one tape edit, and we were all standing over it, worrying that it wasn't cool, it wasn't real." He laughs.
But the album, straddlin the turf between the Rolling Stones and John Lee Hooker, was about as real as basic rock gets - rooted in the music's African-American fundamentals, but pushing in the lean, hard, focused way of all good torchbearers. Its follow-up, Bloodshot, went gold. By 1977's Monkey Island, the songwriting of Wolf and Justman had come to the fore and the band's sound had reached an apex of muscularity.
That was the J. Geils Band's last Atlantic album. The following year's Sanctuary was issued by EMI America. "Many people believed that our value as a commercial entity was over by that point", notes Wolf, since Monkey Island failed to generate a hit like '75s #12 Must Of Got Lost" or '73s reggae-fired "Give It To Me".
Then of course Sanctuary, Love Stinks, and Freeze Frame yielded a chain of Top 40 hits that took the J. Geils Band to the upper echelon of rock stardom. It was the culmination of a career spent largely in the trenches, as they toured their high energy live show to win fans in a way that their inconsistently selling albums could not.
Yet the 1982 buzz of monster singles "Centerfold" and "Freeze Frame" - their bestsellers - couldn't still dissent within the band.
"I would have liked to have seen us prevail and keep things together", says Wolf, "but for a variety of reasons - creative differences, etc. etc. - things atrophied and we didn't hold it together. If we'd had somebody like John Baruck [the California based band manager who was able to engineer the current reunion], he could have maybe mediated things. We handled our own affairs, and when people did try to come in to help, things were way down the line. So we were unable to get out of the tailspin that was pulling things down."
"It was definitely an unfortunate turn", adds Justman.
The J. Geils Band soldiered on with the Wolf-less You're Getting Even While I'm Getting Odd in '84, but the magic was lost. Wolf released his successful solo debut, Lights Out!, the same year, and the title track rose to #12. Three years later, "Come As You" Are, from Wolf's album of the same name reached #15. Since then his solo efforts - including this year's marvelous Fool's Parade, released shortly before his label, Mercury, folded its wings in the latest round of record industry merger mania - have been artistic gems that have failed to recapture the charts.
Nonetheless, the reunited band should have no problems recapturing the hearts of their fans - even if drummer Bladd has chosen to remain on the sidelines. He's being replaced on stage by hard hitting Henry Rollins Band drummer Sim Cain.
"The Geils Band was able to achieve this kind of rapport with the audience that was not unlike what people used to feel about the old Brooklyn Dodgers", says Wolf, who moved here from New York in the mid '60s to attend art school. "It's like what sports fans in Boston feel for the Red Sox or the Celtics. This kind of communion with the audience took place whether we were playing in the Catacombs club or Boston Garden. They really identified with our hard driving, blue collar thing."
"And if we get to Peoria and there's 10 people there, well, they're gonna see one hell of a show too."