Posted February/March, 2011
If you are into rock music at all, then, in all likelihood, you’re more than aware of the incredible musical legacy of Journey. How many school dances in the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s played such great slow dance songs as Faithfully and Open Arms?
In their concerts, these songs and many, many others are greeted with squeals of approval and delight at the very opening piano riffs on those songs as well as on Who’s Crying Now. The closest that I came to ever experiencing anything close to that reaction was the shrieks of horror during my piano recital performances.
But that’s a whole story of its own.
Always a huge Journey fan, my daughter bought me the Journey: Live In Houston 1981 Escape Tour DVD this past Christmas. I smiled as I enjoyed the performances and remembered all the thoughts and memories their treasure chest of musical gems brought to mind. Gems that drove worldwide sales of their albums to over 75 million. What also came to mind is the idea of chatting with one of the boys in the band.
I tracked down Journey keyboardist and co-writer of many of the band’s hits, Jonathan Cain. He was gracious enough to grant me a phone interview. I was especially flattered that he would spend a considerable amount of time on the phone immediately after spending an hour in the dentist’s chair near his home in the Nashville, Tennessee, area.
After living in California for 30 years, Jonathan, his wife, Liz, and his three children, Madison, Weston and Liza, moved to Nashville late last year. I go to the Bay Area a couple of times a year on business and, while I do find that part of the country absolutely beautiful and vibrant, I must confess that I left my heart in Nashville long ago. I started our chat about what prompted his move to God’s favorite city.
“Well, you know, I’ve been coming here since 2000 – writing with different people and we made a lot of friends in the last 10 years. My daughter’s doing a recording down here. We have this friend that was writing and I heard her (his daughter) sing country and I said, ‘My god, you’ve gotta sing country!’ because she’s got a great voice. She was messing around with different styles and I heard her sing Redneck Woman and it was like, ‘Girl! This is your deal!’
“I wanted to get her in the studio right away so we did. She cut a couple of sides and we kept coming. Then, I got her into the songwriting room. Now, she’s seventeen. She auditioned for Capitol records a couple of days ago, so it’s pretty serious. We’ve got a couple of other labels and some other people interested in her. She’s got a Carrie Underwood kind of thing going on. She’s into the progressive country – kind of ‘crossover’ country. She has a very strong voice and she writes some good songs. She’s been fortunate enough to get into some songwriting sessions. I’m getting a few licks in myself.”
Bringing the subject back around to why he moved to Nashville, Cain said, “I started in Nashville back in ’69 with Buddy Killen (the late, legendary producer and publisher). He signed me to Dial Records. I just had a singles deal down here. I kind of come full circle by coming back here. Plus, I guess we kind of wore out our welcome in the Bay Area. It used to be such a vibrant, musical community and I think it’s kind of missing there.”
However, there was more than just the change in the music scene that compelled Cain to move his family to the Volunteer State.
“The whole school thing there (in the Bay Area) wasn’t so good and we knew that the schools are great here. You just know when it’s time. I just wrote a song about it – about leaving a place and just knowing that it’s time to go. I’d been there 30 years so my kids were all excited about meeting some new friends and getting the heck out of where they were. I guess we needed a life change and now we’re getting snowed on!” With a laugh he adds, “They say that an ice age is coming and I believe them! That’s what everybody’s saying – it’s not global warming – it’s the ice age!”
As a die-hard Nashville fan myself, I’ve been to the town several times and found how “celebrity friendly” it is compared to, say, Los Angeles, where there seems to be paparazzi behind every bush . . . or Bentley, so to speak. Cain’s response reflected a refreshing matter-of-fact humility that permeated the rest of our chat.
“It is cool. I don’t have to worry about that, being a keyboard player. It’s a different way of life. I find people here are accountable citizens for people who live here. It’s like a welcoming spirit – more than ever. It used to be, ‘Californian’s, go home!’ but I think they see that the changes are cool. The town really has a lot of culture and it has a conscience. I love the writers that are here and to get the opportunity to sit down and to sing with these great songwriters.
“I did a show on (satellite radio) XM with Jonathan Singleton, who wrote Red Light for David Nail. The opportunities you get are just incredible. I did a show with J.D. Souther and Brett James at Tin Pan South last year. So, it’s pretty cool to kind of sit in. My daughter (Madison) and I will do gigs. I’ll sit in at Puckett’s or the Blue Bird with her. Just the other day, she was asked to sing on a David Nail record. That will be her first background on a big time record. So, yeah, you just get opportunities here that you never have in California.
“We got to go to the CMA awards together. My daughter has a website (www.madisoncain.com) and she’s tweeting all the time. She got to go down the red carpet at the CMA’s and she drug me along. She actually had a little feature on the E! Channel. It was ‘Rock Dads and Their Daughters’. They interviewed me, her and the family. It was a pretty good little blurb for her.”
One thing that many Journey fans may not be aware of is that Cain is quite the wine expert. My pre-interview research uncovered the fact that Jonathan moved from an expert wine connoisseur to a successful entrepreneur of higher end wine. Cain explained his venture to me.
“I’m sort of a wine savant. I go out and find the best grapes I can and make really high quality juice. We get a lot of money for it - $50 to $60 a bottle. I really like great wine. The wine I make is not for everybody. You have to have a palette to spend that kind of money on wine.
“I’m a ‘virtual winer’. I don’t really have my own vineyard, per se. I get grapes from cool places and make the wine. I only do a couple of hundred cases a year. I do business here in Nashville and am trying to break out in Atlanta with it. I’m trying to get into Chicago. I partnered with Horizon Wine and Spirits here. But that’s it. We have fun. I like wine making and I think they’re (Horizon) awesome people. We have a lot in common.”
One of the tragedies in Chicago history took place on December 1, 1958. A fire broke out at Our Lady of the Angels grade school, killing 3 nuns and 92 children. From the research I conducted on the sad tragedy, families moved away, divorces destroyed several marriages of the parents of the victims, and emotional scars remained on all who were touched by the fire.
One of the children who was at school that day was Jonathan Cain. The fire obviously had a tremendous impact on young Jonathan and was instrumental in leading him to immerse himself into music. It’s against that backdrop that Cain uses to write a book. I asked Jonathan about the yet-to-be published tome.
“It’s a memoir. I end the book where I’m about thirteen years old. It’s about nine years of my life that I spent in Chicago. The new consensus is to finish the story and tell everybody how I got into Journey. I don’t know. I’m going to give it a shot in the next couple of months. It’s called Mixed Blessings. I’m probably going to self-publish. It’s been a labor of love. I’ve been at it for four or five years. I’ve got some interest. I’ve got to keep going at it. The book business is in bad shape right now. It’s not good. So, the audio books are a good way to go. There are some more meetings we’re going to have next month. So, we’ll see. At this stage of the game it’s just a neat thing to be able to say you did.”
“I was in a school fire back in ’58 where a hundred kids were killed and three nuns. It’s telling the story of that neighborhood and how music really saved my life – from going insane. It helped me out a lot. I’m an old accordion player. We didn’t get any grief counseling or anything like that. I think that getting that squeeze box helped me get my mind straight. It’s really about the love affair I have with music.”
Cain continued, explaining how he got into songwriting.
“It was challenging. I wrote my first song in 8th grade. I had a piano teacher who saw something in me and challenged me. She was actually the music teacher at school – she taught choir. I wanted to get off the accordion and start playing the piano. So, she came to the house and gave me lessons. She said, ‘You have a good imagination with your music. You should try to write a song.
“So, we had this school play – an 8th grade play – so she said, ‘I want to leave a spot in that play for your song.’ So, I was on the spot to write the song. I wrote the song about a little girl that I had a crush on. I got up there and sang it and played it. It was copyrighted and the whole deal. That was the beginning. But it wasn’t easy. I was going to school and I was interested in the writing part – and my dad thought I could do it – so I kept writing, trying to get songs done.
“Then, when I was playing in clubs, we had a little slush fund that we saved money for studio time. After about a year and a half or two years, we had enough money to go into the studio so that drove me to come up with ten songs. We went into a studio down in Pekin, Illinois, and recorded these songs I had written. I had been going downtown to see this guy, Bill Trout, from RCA. He would see me at the end of the day and listen to my songs and critique them and help me. I kind of had a mentor there. I was really fortunate to have him because he was big time – for Chicago, anyway. He was a producer and had his own production company.
“So, we made this little demo. The studio owner was sending tapes around to different people. He was quite a cool dude. He sent my demo to Buddy Killen – a big time producer and publisher – and that’s why I came here (to Nashville) in ’69 and did two or three sides with him. We had about three years together, coming down here and doing that.
“That was my first plane flight. I got on an airplane to Nashville from Chicago and signed a record deal. My dad was with me. He was kind of my Svengali. Dad was always believing that good things were on the horizon with me. He pretty much was my cheerleader in rock for me.
“I always tell kids when I give seminars that you have to have a ‘vision keeper’. Somebody that buys into your plan and believe in what you want to do. He (Jonathan’s dad) was that for me. I was blessed to have a vision keeper who was my own father. In his mind, I was always going to be a success no matter what happened. No matter how dark or shadowy the thing got – and it certainly got like that a few times. We thought we were off to a roaring start, getting signed at 19. Then, it was just harder than hell after that.
“We slugged it out. Ended up on American Bandstand – went to L.A. It was funny. I had a friend who had seen the band. He liked our songs and liked what I was writing. He said, ‘You should come to L.A.’ It turned out that his partner was managing Wolfman Jack and they signed me as a solo artist. So, I moved to L.A. and slugged around there for awhile – hung out with Wolfman. We got a little indie to sign us and had a Top 40 record in L.A. called Until It’s Time To Say Goodbye. Then, I got on Dick Clark. Wolfman knew him and Dick Clark wanted somebody different. I was on the show with Natalie Cole – 1976. It was a pretty big break for me but it didn’t matter much having a single out in L.A. on the L.A. charts didn’t mean much so I still ended up doing gigs. That kind of went by the wayside. I kept going out with my band and playing different places and continuing to right a little more rock stuff.
“We were seen by Albert Grossman, who was Bob Dylan’s manager and Janis Joplin and Albert signed me to Bearsville in ’76 or ’77. I made an album in Bearsville called Windy City Breakdown. That didn’t go so good. Everything went wrong that could go wrong. Albert said, ‘Oh, come to Bearsville.’ And, I said, ‘Why can’t we just do it here? It would be so much easier.’ We had several studios we could have done it at. We could have done it for nothing, you know? But he was insistent that we go all the way up to Woodstock and record this thing.
“We went there and the studio was in shambles. Nothing worked. The air conditioning was out and it was the dead of summer, out in the middle of forests. The place was haunted. We were like, ‘What the hell?’ Everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong. Tape machines breaking. Counts were going out. Not having enough tape. So, we would make little trips to New York City and party, trying to make the best of it. We were far from focused. You take city boys and bring them out into the woods and they go nuts.
“He (Grossman) got me to the Chateau Marmont and he said, ‘You made a piece of crap album.’ First he got me stoned – good and high – and then he told me that he didn’t like my record and he wasn’t going to put it out. So, I stormed out, telling him, basically, to stick it you-know-where. I got my lawyer and said, ‘I want the album coming out.’”
“We printed five thousand of them and made them put it out. And, nothing happened. Then, I got dropped from that shortly after. I got to make a demo that was fun – with some of the Toto guys. I got close to getting some interest but they didn’t want to know about it.”
While Cain was one of the few people to successfully flex his muscle against the notorious manager, the experience left him disillusioned about the music business.
“I quit the business for about two years and sold stereos in L.A. I just kind of had it. My dad was, like, ‘Well, you gotta do what you gotta do.’ I remember I had Manpower gigs where I would stack beer – Budweiser. I would do anything to get my mind off of show business. I continued to write songs in my apartment there.
“Then, I got a phone call from some guy that found me that wanted to write with me. I said, ‘Well, sure.’ I went over to his house. He had been writing with Fleetwood Mac. His name is Robbie Patton. We wrote a couple of cool songs. He was telling me about this audition for this band called The Baby’s. He said, ‘You know, you’re a rocker. You should really go there.’ I go, ‘I don’t know. Maybe.’ He said, ‘Well, show up for the audition and see what happens.’
“So, I did. It was a song I had written, really, that I think got me the gig. It was called Stick To Your Guns. I wrote it for my dad because that was his war cry. When I would call him up and borrow money from him, that was the last thing he would always say to me, ‘Stick to your guns.’
“The audition went well but it was the song that stuck in their head. So, I was the Stick To Your Guns guy. They had auditioned 40 people. These guys (The Baby’s) were completely in debt. It was just John (Waite), Wally (Stocker) and Tony (Brock). They had been through it already in L.A. They had a manager that just completely buried them. They did a 99 city tour and he let them live like rock stars. They had roadies from England and rental cars. After a year or two of that, you’re buried in red.
“I got the gig. They called me a month later. I must have went back about six times and jammed with them and played with them. The next thing I know, I was flying off to Amsterdam to do TV shows with them because they had just released Head First. Hanging out with John and those guys was really cool because they were really the rock and roll that I always wanted to know about. John had that voice. I wished that I could sing like John. He had a swagger about him that he taught me. I learned a lot him and those guys real quick – how to be a pro and how to act like a pro; how to do an interview.”
After the proper grooming, Cain’s education into the rough and tumble world of rock and roll went to the next level. While the lessons learned were invaluable, the expected big payoff didn’t happen.
“We went on tour with Alice Cooper. That was an awesome tour, meeting Alice and his wife. He flew us around on his plane and pretty much treated us gold plated. Being around him is an honor because he’s a legend. It was the Welcome To My Nightmare tour. So it was me up there opening up with The Baby’s and Alice. The Baby’s had been doing a bunch of Midnight Specials for (Burt) Sugerman back in L.A. We were almost like the house band for Wolfman. He was so proud of me because he had seen me kick around in L.A. When he found out I got the gig, he always had us on it seemed like. God bless Wolfman!
“It was cool. We were just kind of bubbling under but we just couldn’t seem to get over the hump – so in debt and selling records but not really getting air play to sell enough to go platinum – you know, break the big one. I guess Midnight Rendezvous was the biggest record we had after those ballads that they had out and they didn’t even write them. These two guys wrote them – (Jack) Conrad and Raymond Kennedy – these two songwriters from L.A. They had worked with (Ron) Nevison, so we branched away from that Nevison thing and worked with Keith Olsen. So, we made a new album with Keith called Union Jacks.
“Then Chrysalis (The Baby’s label) wanted my publishing. I’m like, ‘No, you can’t have my publishing. I’m only making $250 a week.’ So, I had to get a lawyer to slug it out with Chrysalis and we won and I kept it. I was fortunate – not unfortunate as with John, who they had a lien on. They had John’s publishing. It was one of those deals like with The Police. I felt bad for John because, even when he left us and went to EMI, Chrysalis was there attaching his new deal.
“Anyway, we had some success with Union Jacks. Union Jacks was what got me into Journey. Journey always was kind of progressive. They heard the Union Jacks album and loved it so they wanted us to open for them. So, we showed up in San Diego and began a tour with them – 50 cities or so. I’d get to watch them every night. I started hanging out, watching the band because I was kind of curious as to what their deal was. I really liked the pieces. I liked Steve Perry voice. I liked Neal’s guitar playing. The fans were just unbelievable. They just loved that band.
“We used to open every night. We’d do our little 40 minute set and they’d get up there and figure out how to follow us. So, they kept changing their set around. And, finally, they hit on this much more Spartan rock and roll set than what they were doing. They really started tearing it up.
“After the shows, Neal and I would go out drinking and jamming. John Waite would go out with us on some nights and Ricky Phillips, our bass player. Sometimes, Steve Perry would show up. We’d stick him on the drums and then we’d do all these old Motown/Wilson Pickett songs – all this old stuff and just have a good ol’ time. Neal and I got going with each other and he would go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you knew all those chords!’ and we’d get pretty out there and start fusing.
Taking the conversation off course just a bit, I asked Jonathan what he feels is the most positive change in the record business that has taken place.
“I guess digital downloads, really. The internet is somewhat honest now. You still have the sharing sites that you can’t stop – the Limelighters and stuff. I think iTunes and the iPhone have really revolutionized music in the way it’s played. The fact that Don’t Stop Believing is number two in the most downloaded songs is still outrageous to me. We get compensated for the downloads. ASCAP and BMI are looking after us. It’s all worked out. It’s a far cry from when our album was ripped off back in 2000. Napster got hold of it and people were getting it for free. I hate to see people giving away music. I think it’s disturbing. These young bands have to stop that or they’re not going to get anywhere.”
I asked what Cain what he thought it’s going to take to fix all that’s wrong with the music business. Again, his shrewd business sense kicks back into high gear.
“The biggest problem is sustainability. You have to have a sustainable product. That means when you sign an act, they have to have a place to play. You have to get the fans out to see them. You have to make sure that the fans are kept up to date, all that stuff. That’s a whole look at how we’re going to continue the process. If you sign an act that you think is great, you have to make sure that the garden is tended to and that it will continue to flourish. It’s a brand.
“Back in the old days, we had an army of people doing that on behalf of Journey. Today, they put a band out there and unless they have a shrewd manager and a team behind them, they just get lost in the shuffle. I think that’s a big issue. And I think that the places to play are sort of vanishing and clubs are dying. It’s not good.
“I talked to Bill Graham about this before he died. We need a sort of circuit that you can count on. A record company’s music people need to look at making sure that these places stay open. Maybe getting creative and doing things with the malls or something. If there’s no place to play for these acts to grow then how are they ever going to get anywhere? How are they going to get seasoned? It’s a problem – the performing venues that are available. They’re far and few between. It all takes money but it can still happen. You have the live streaming stuff that can happen. I just don’t think that the labels are thinking progressively enough. If they’re going to feature a band and do a live feed somewhere and get the stream on the internet and let them have their shows and let the people see what they’re going to be buying. Show them what they’re doing. There’s just too much of this cloak and dagger thing going on right now.
“Rock and roll is dying because of exactly what I said, the sustainability, the places to play, the crowd’s interest is moving away from rock because there’s Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and all this other junk. Kids are listening to rap, grunge. The alternatives are dark. Rock has gotten a black eye for being depressing, gothic and dark. Heavy metal fans have taken over the rock and roll venue and that’s fine. There’s other music out there that’s not getting heard and not getting signed and that’s unfortunate.”
Obviously aware of the numbers side of the business, Cain adds, “Rap takes its place. It’s far more lucrative. They sell far more units than rock does. Rock is kind of out right now. It’s passé. It’s not the flavor of the month any more. These rappers have really honed in and taken MTV away from rock. I don’t think it’s going to change because they’re real avid buyers and they know what works. It’s all money driven in the end.
“But, again, I go back to where can you play? If there’s no place to play, I don’t know where you play rock and roll unless you’re a big time band. You’ll have to play in some little dive club. So, yeah, I feel bad for the young musicians trying to make it. Kings of Leon did it. They managed to slug it out. I don’t know their story but you certainly see enough of them, I know that.
“Now they’re talking about closing down the Hard Rock’s. They’re in trouble. The casino’s are keeping the old fogies alive and that’s good but it’s a tricky time. I think the whole business is up for grabs. I think whoever’s smart and can survive can do it. There’s sort of an upheaval going on.”
Who IS commanding Cain’s attention these days as far as the newer talent is concerned?
“You know, I’ve looked at a few different people. I thought that Carrie Underwood has done a nice job with her career. I’ve seen her show and it’s pretty darn good. I’ve never seen a bad show from her. As far as rock is concerned, there isn’t a whole lot out there that I even like. I was kind of into Coldplay for awhile. I thought they were cool but they’re not really rock.
“Probably the neatest thing that’s come down the pike is Kings of Leon, I think. They’re pure cool rock and roll – that sounds like something. It’s got that vintage thing to it which maybe appeals to me. I like Switchfoot. I like a lot of that stuff. I like some of the Nickelback stuff. They’re a successful group that has done well with their brand. They’ve done a really good job with branding their thing. I just think they play too loud.” He concludes with a chuckle. “They’re still a good brand. They’ve done a good job staying alive in this market which says a lot about them. They’ve written some cool songs. They’re good. Young guys, but smart. I got to meet them a couple of months ago – the two brothers, Chad and Mike. They’ve done a really good job. So, that’s about it, really.”
Wrapping up my chat with this legendary artist, I asked Cain what his plans were after Journey wrapped up its tour.
“Chilling. If all goes right and I don’t get cold feet, I’ll go ahead and finish up my studio. I’ve got grand plans for it. I’d like to get it to the point that it’s a facility and I can go in there and try some things. Maybe do some producing and help my daughter down the road. That’s what I’m hoping to do – make a little noise here in Nashville.”
Keep up with Journey at www.journeymusic.com.