by Anthony DeCurtis
Peter Wolf's apartment in the heart of downtown Boston is exactly like his mind and his conversation, insanely cluttered with music, books and paintings. He moves amid the innumerable teetering piles that cover every surface of his living room with the manic energy and catlike grace of a true rock and roll frontman - which of, he has been for more than three decades now, first with the J. Geils Band and, since 1983, on his own. He's like a frenetic, endearing cartoon character, intense about everything, his words pouring out in torrents.
Wolf has a strong, soulful new album out, "Fool's Parade". It picks up the emotional charge of "Long Line", which he released two years ago, and cranks it even higher. It's easily the best work of his solo career - a moving, impassioned statement of rock & roll commitment. And Wolf made his reputation as a wild man onstage, so it's welcome news that he has a tour coming up.
But, for all that, it is - as always - virtually impossible to get Wolf to talk about himself. First, as a kind of initiation, you have to hear this heartbreaking track from "The Complete Hank Williams", a ten CD set that has just been released. Then there is the litany of titans - all the incomparable artists whom Wolf has worshipped since boyhood and whose names he speaks like an incantation : Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Don Covay, Sam Cooke, Ralph Stanley and so many others.
In Wolf's world, respect must be paid - it's a code of honor he learned growing up on the streets of the Bronx in the Fifties and early Sixties. That code is a big part of what "Fool's Parade" is all about. To get Wolf to address his new album, it seems best to get him away from the distractions of his home. So we adjourn to the restaurant of the nearby Four Seasons Hotel for a long afternoon of drinks - but distractions emerge there, as well.
"Ah, the first lady of the evening has arrived", Wolf observes as he sips a glass of wine and gestures discreetly toward a tastefully dressed blonde who saunters in alone, plants herself in a chair and immediately begins eyeing the lounge for prospects. Later, Wolf darts over to the opposite end of the room to admire a phote of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg backstage at a show during Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. Finally, he settles in and describes an incident that formed part of the emotional core of "Fool's Parade".
"I was at the House Of Blues in California, and Johnny Cash was performing", Wolf says. "His wife, June Carter, was with him - and she comes from this great legacy. Her family helped form a great part of American music. Johnny had been ill, and this was one of his last public appearances. I was listening to him and I realized, 'My God, as a kid I went out and bought "I Walk The Line". He's survived all this time.'
And here's this bar filled with these young, cigar smoking guys who are there to pick up girls, and I just wanted to scream 'Shut the fuck up!'. It scared me that here was this great American master, who deserved a concert hall, playing this bar. It really disturbed me. It was a cold, chilling feeling that I think comes through on this album. Is there any grace? Is there any sanctuary?"
Wolf would be the absolute last person to compare himself in any way with Johnny Cash, but at fifty two he knows that the emotions he registered at that show have deep implications for himself as well. Still thin as a rail, he has kept his shape and his retro-cool, greaser sense of style, in which elegance and the street eloquently converge. A black silk shirt complements worn black jeans ; strands of long black hair spill out from under a black leather cap worn backward.
But popular music has increasingly become a young person's game, and its been may years since the Geils Band was spinning off irresistible hits like "Freeze Frame" and "Centerfold" and Wolf was the darling of MTV. Those feelings come most fully to the fore on "Fool's Parade" in "The Cold Heart Of The Stone", in which Wolf's touching evocation of the ebullient Boston music scene that shaped him crashes into the icy commercial realities of today.
"I was thinking of the innocence of an earlier time, when I first came to Boston to study painting and I dropped out and got into a band", Wolf recalls about the song. "It was a vibrant, exciting time for me. Van Morrison had just moved to Cambridge, and we became very good friends. 'Green Street full of memories' - that's where Van lived.
We would spend hours listening to music and hanging out at clubs. There seemed to be a certain hopefulness - a sense that your dreams, if you worked hard enough, could come to fruition. Things were more open, less defined. It was the art first, the commerce secondary." He pulls himself up short.
"What's important to include", he continues, "is that I'm not looking at this as some nostalgic 'Hey those were the great times'. I'm not some veteran rocker pining for the glory days. It was constantly changing, and it's still constantly changing. But if you're trying to be a survivor and you're in it for the long hall - which I am - sustaining yourself through all that is a challenge."
To meet that challenge, Wolf set out to do what he has always wanted to do : make the kind of album that speaks to him the way all the great records he loves do. "Because I was in a band for so long - the Geils Band was together for more than seventeen years - it really took me a long time to get used to being a solo artist", he says. "It was not something I chose to do, and it didn't come easy. With this album, I wanted to take a step back and make a record that was intimate and personal. The music I've responded to always had a credibility between the singer and the song : Wilson Pickett's 'I Found A Love', Van singing 'Tupelo Honey', Muddy Waters singing 'Louisiana Blues'. You believe those singers, and I felt I hadn't fully acheived that on my previous solo records."
To attain that credibility, Wolf looked deep inside himself and then sought out some trusted people to work with. He and songwriter Will Jennings - who has collaborated with Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Steve Winwood - generated songs like "The Cold Heart Of The Stone" and "Long Way Back Again" that perfectly captured Wolf's state of mind. The legendary R&B guitarist Cornell Dupree plays on a couple of tracks, including Wolf's sprited take on O.V. Wright's soul chestnut, "I'd Rather Be (Blind, Crippled And Crazy)". And Keith Richards' sideman Steve Jordan co-produced and co-wrote the funny, heartfelt ballad "If You Wanna Be With Somebody".
Wolf has the full support of his record company behind him, as well. "Peter is one of a kind, a larger-than-life character at a time when there's a real shortage of those", say Danny Goldberg, the president of Mercury Records. "There are rock radio stations who want to play him, and magazines and newspapers that want to write about him. When you make a record that has some magic in it - and Peter has made the exact record he needed to make - a little exposure goes a long way.
Take Lucinda Williams, not every radio station is playing her, but when she does get played it generates sales, and that album is going to be successful." In addition to Williams, who is fourty five, Goldberg is quick to cite other older artists who achieved success agains the chronological odds. "When I managed Roy Orbison, he hadn't had a record deal in nineteen years", he says. "Then he did well with the Traveling Wilburys and with his solo album. When I managed Bonnie Raitt, we would have been thrilled with a gold record for "Nick Of Time" - it ended up selling 5 million copies. So you never know. I just want to make sure this album finds it audience."
With "Fool's Parade" behind him, Wolf intends to put a band together and hit the road. He is a galvanizing performer who loves the stage, so it will be terrific to have him out there again - playing songs from the full range of his career, doing what he does best. When he's asked what he wants from his career at this point, though, Wolf bursts into laughter. He then collects himself, pauses, says, "It's a good question", and never gets around to an answer.
Like so many artists of his age and tastes, he knows he's heading into uncharted waters. But if passion, conviction, heart and an unsurpassable love of music can win the day, Peter Wolf will triumph. "I always felt that the great artists I loved were the real deal and I was just a student", he confesses. "'Fool's Parade' was the first time I felt the composure to take myself more seriously. I really, truly feel that I'm a late bloomer, and this is the most focused effort I've made to express the journey I've been on.
I tried to start with "Long Line", which is about the lessons I learned from Muddy and all the other greats, and the passing of the torch: 'Here I am, baby, right back where I been / I been tossed around, kicked around / I'm on the outside lookin' in / Every mountain has its valley / Every valley has its climb / I got these worried blues from tryin' / 'Cause it's uphill all the time / It's a long, long line'"
"I still sometimes find myself weary", Wolf says in conclusion, "but at the same time, feeling blessed that I'm still doing this. And the long line prevails."