JOHN WAITE ON JOHN WAITE
John shares his memories about his solo career.
John Waite (solo)
NYC. I literally fell in love with the city. It felt like home. It was still raw and had real edge. My head was on fire and I met a lot of new friends and a girl I was with for eight years. I came into a real “new world”. The result of everything was Ignition, which was probably my first autobiographical album. It was recorded at the famous Power Station and I had all these wonderful musicians like Frankie La Rocka on drums, Donnie Nossov on bass and Ivan Kral on guitar, all outstanding. It’s a solid piece of work and far away from the music everybody was expecting from me.
Fucking amazing period of creativity. Fearless. I’d lived in NYC virtually penniless two years before and became number one “overnight” in the same town. The neighbors thought it was great. I was proud.
Mask of Smiles
I was trying not to make the same album. I was working in “Hells Kitchen” on the west side. Separated from my wife. Living in the Gramercy Park Hotel. “Welcome to Paradise” says it all. Mask of Smiles was begun on Long Island at the Boogie Hotel. The board kept breaking down so we spent a lot time at the local bar. In the end I had to up and move it all back to the city. Clinton Sound in Hells Kitchen. I was crashing at different apartments or the Gramercy Park Hotel. When Johnny Thunders came by to play on the album he walked in sideways. He had this lovely pinstripe suit on and he brought his girlfriend along too. He was cool. Nice guy. We were sitting together later listening to a playback and I asked him if he had a cigarette. He reached in his waistcoat pocket and pulled out a beat up Lucky Strike. I said, “It’s broken!” He just grinned and shrugged. Great moment. That was Johnny. The real thing. When I handed the record in I got a sizeable advance that allowed me to buy Phil Ramone’s house in Pound Ridge. Home sweet home.
I started that record at the Hit Factory on 54th street. There was a producer involved but I swear I can’t remember his name. It was sort of comical. Everything I said, he would say the opposite. After about three weeks we “had words.” That was the end of that. I scrapped everything and started again. Expensive but darkly funny at the same time. It was NYC after all! I made that record twice. I couldn’t have done it alone at that point. I found Frank Fillipetti and he helped to produce. Great guy. I rewrote everything from scratch. Everything. I can remember driving out of the city after a session in a snow storm bound for Pound Ridge at night listening to roughs of the day’s work. Rewriting and updating as I drove thinking if I got through this one it would be by the skin of my teeth.
I’d left Bad English the year before and I’d holed up that winter in my house in Pound Ridge. I had cords of wood delivered every couple of weeks and kept the cellar pretty well stocked with wine. It snowed, rained and eventually turned to spring. I was offered a contract for Terry Ellis’s new label Imago. He gave me generous deal and I was able to move back into the city for several months to record. It’s the only time I’ve ever had the head of a company tell me to make the record I wanted to make. I did. Temple Bar was the best I’d done to that point—“Downtown,” “More” and “Price Of my Tears”. Mike Shipley produced. The A & R guy was told to stay away. My life as an artist had begun again. It’s one of my best. Great songs and players. I was back on track.
When You Were Mine
Walter Sear’s studio west off Times Square. In the 40’s. This was the high water mark. I’d been fascinated with the idea of going completely against the grain and this was going to be it. I used to arrive early. I would wake up at dawn and I’d make Earl Grey tea, burn some incense and play mid period Dylan or Fairport Convention. I even had the Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka album. I’d been reading a lot about Hank Williams and driven south to New Orleans and then back through Ohio to NYC. I listened to really odd obscure country stations and saw America through the windshield. Slept in motels or in the back seat of the Cherokee Jeep. “Suicide Life”, “Imaginary Girl” and “Bluebird Café”, not to mention “I-95”. It’s a simple song of freedom and it feels like deja vu; Ti Jean knew about it and John Lennon sang it too. It’s the ringing bell of truth and free speech on the radio. It’s there in the constitution, its little sisters called rock and roll and she’s alright! I’ve never done anything better since. I had my friends play on the record who were the best there was. I was burning the candle at both ends as they say but firing on all cylinders. It is my America.
Figure in a Landscape
When When You Were Mine got released my management was in LA. I decided to leave my apartment on Madison Avenue and spend a year there so I could take a break and promote the record. If all went well. I would be on the road anyway. I was itching to play live again so it seemed like a first step. Danny Goldberg, who had signed me to Mercury, left the company. The record got serious airplay but I was caught in the transition. I’ll always be grateful to Danny for financing the record. He got it. He liked it. He liked Steve Earle too and understood the subtle twist back to country in rock. Years later, Alison Krauss called Doug Morris and got the record back for me as a gift. There are some extremely nice people out there and Doug and Danny are two of them. Anyway, about a year later (stranded in LA) I was offered a deal by Norm Waitt at Gold Circle. (No relation) They were a very successful film company and had a music division. Norm was really a great guy and a lifetime fan. Another deal was made and I was back in the studio. Shane Fontayne had moved to LA. He had played on Temple Bar and When You Were Mine. We were like brothers really. Working with him was like flying. He got where I was going without thinking about it. We wrote and played together all the time. Again, he was unorthodox and knew country. English too. Great sense of humor. We call each other “budgie ” from the old Adam Faith series on TV. I was set. Making that record was slower than I was used to. It was LA!!!! People would show up late or one time the keyboard player didn’t show at all (his kid had a hockey match). The songs were strong and I had Shane so I focused on the vibe, not the clock. Me and Shane wrote “Godhead,” “Touch”, “New Thing” and I threw in Vince Gill’s “Whenever You Come Around.” Lovely song. I still play it live. It was like cosmic country with heavy rock overtones. “Godhead” was totally serious. Chemical enlightenment and the erotic! Nice combination. Debbie Holiday came into the picture and brought the soul. Good album. Journey rang up and asked me if I’d like to go on tour. I would. I did.
The Hard Way
When Gold Circle closed their music department Norm Waitt very graciously gave me back my masters for Figure in a Landscape. I was working with Jeffrey Steel in Nashville. I had the title. The guitar hook. The plot and the basic melody. I couldn’t do a thing with it! (wood for the trees) I sort of hit it off with Jeff and played him the pieces without being coy. He’s a great, gifted guy. I watched him screw it all together like a mechanic and throw his own magic at it. Hey presto! I recorded two acoustic songs in Scott Baggett’s studio down the street in Berry Hill (Tennessee) with Damon Johnson on guitar added them to the best of Figure, remastered the lot and put it out on my label, No Brakes.
Downtown: Journey of a Heart
On one my trips back to Lancaster I noticed HMV Records didn’t have any John Waite CDs. I made Downtown to fill the “W” section in HMV Lancaster. I re-recorded some big hits and thought if I put it out in Europe only, people would put two and two together. I did. They didn’t. HMV stocked Downtown for a month, then stopped. Soon after, they closed their doors for good. I like to think it’s because they didn’t carry my records. The upside of Downtown was dueting with Alison (Krauss) on “Missing You”. She was working on Raising Sand at the time with Robert Plant so I got to know Robert quite well. Nice guy. We were always on the verge of going for a pint. I wanted to pick his brains on Sandy Denny and the Incredible String Band. I regret not getting to know him better. Friendly guy.
Rough & Tumble
When I got into the studio for Rough & Tumble, I was insistent on it being simple. I didn’t want it to be dressed up. I thought the songs should have more humanity. That’s what people look at at the end of the day – they look for something that’s speaking to them, not a wall of effects and double tracking. My job as a musician—as a writer—is to try and push out into different areas and I think this album does it. Rough & Tumble is just a three-piece band and a singer and that’s what I really love the most.
(Album commentary compiled and edited by Ken Sharp)