By: Jason Stacey
Q: Congratulations on the new album, Mobius. You worked with some talented musicians for this album. Can you tell us a bit about the recording sessions and what that experience was like?
A: I started a little experiment with that album where I was primarily the lyricist, although I did solo write about half of the songs, the other half I co-wrote with the musicians I was working with (George Kroller, Derek Sedleron and Lou Pomanti). For our next album, we’re going a step further where I’m actually co-writing the whole album with the musicians. It’s very political, very current and very much a statement of life here in the 21st century. We’ve been working on the writing for about three or four months now. However, Mobius was an exciting project to do, working with those musicians. We’re very happy with how it turned out.
Q: Your opening track on the album is “Back to the 60’s” where you sing about going back to the 60’s just one more time. Can you tell us a bit about what that era meant to you?
A: I think what the song does is draw a direct line between Woodstock and today, and the regret as to what has happened to peace and love. It’s the John Lennon philosophy: imagine no countries, imagine no borders, and about how far we’ve come from that. Woodstock, as you probably know, wasn’t all about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll; it was about a peace movement. That’s what brought 600,000 people together. It was a genuine spirit and I think that was exemplified by the fact that in three days, you had what was equivalent of a small city’s population and not one incident of violence was reported. We’ve come so far from that and that’s what the song is all about.
Q: If you could go back to Woodstock, what would you do differently?
A: Nothing. We did a great show, the band was very hot, we had the number 1 album in the world at that point and we were playing at home. Blood, Sweat & Tears was a New York City band, so a lot of the people there were our neighbours. They were the people who had seen us play the lower clubs in Greenwich Village all the way up to Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden. We had a tremendous amount of hometown support at Woodstock. I have nothing but great memories of it.
Q: What was it like taking a helicopter into Woodstock and seeing it from that vantage point?
A: At the time concerts of 100,000 plus people were not unusual. We landed at LaGuardia Airport and were told we wouldn’t make it to the show because the highway was blocked, and nothing was moving. We stayed at LaGuardia for several hours and then they brought a bus in which got us about halfway, but that was as far as we could get. The previous day, the Governor had declared Woodstock a national disaster area and had mobilized the National Guard. They flew us in with a helicopter which means my experience at Woodstock was kind of limited because we were basically just dropped backstage, did our show, and whisked away immediately afterward so they could get the next helicopter in.
Q: In your autobiography, ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’, you write about your time in Burwash Prison in Northern Ontario. Can you tell us a bit about that time and the events that changed your life’s path?
A: I was an abused kid. My dad had some severe problems, so when I was 14, I ran away from home. For the next year or so I was a street kid sleeping in parked cars and abandoned buildings. Eventually, I ran into trouble with the law and ended up going to Burwash. I’m involved today with an organization called Peace Builders International, which is a wonderful organization that is working to reform the juvenile justice laws in this country. I’m doing fundraisers and appearances for them because it’s a cause that’s dear to my heart. It’s all kind of come full circle. Eventually, I was whisked into court for obstruction of justice or something and then they banged the gavel and I was gone. I had no lawyer or anything, I was just out of there and on a bus heading up to Burwash. While there, I met a family of kids and one of them had an old beat up guitar. It was almost unplayable, but I asked him if he’d let me play it. I worked on it a little bit and got the neck reset right and started practicing guitar. When he was let out, he said “you already play this better than I do, why don’t you keep it?” So, I kept it and that was the start of my musical career.
Q: Once you got out of prison you began your music career in the bars and clubs on Yonge Street in Toronto. Can you tell us a bit about that?
A: Today, Toronto is around 3 million people and there are only like four or five places for people to play. Back in the 60’s, you could go all the way from King Street to Bloor and play at 20 bars. You could literally work year round, go from one club and do two weeks, go to another bar and do two weeks and never leave Yonge Street. The talent that came out of that was just amazing and that led into the Yorkville era where a lot of the musicians who started out on the strip decided they wanted to write their own music and the best place for that was Yorkville. Yorkville was a mini Greenwich Village and they shared a lot of the same artists. I got to see artists like Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and John-Lee Hooker, and actually got to meet them and got to know them. I stayed for about two years in the bars and then graduated over to the Yorkville scene, where you had Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, John Kay and the list goes on and on. Then the City of Toronto, in its ultimate wisdom, decided that Yorkville was a nest of drug dealers, sex fiends and musicians. So, if they wanted to turn it into a boutique area, they needed to get rid of these people. Literally, the City of Toronto closed Yorkville down in a matter of two weeks and it was gone. They would just pull paddy wagons to the end of the street and about 40 cops would jump out and just sweep the street. There was a mass exodus and all of those artists took off. Joni and Neil went to Los Angeles, some went to Nashville and I went to New York because I was hanging out with Jazz musicians and I loved the music. Jazz lived in New York, so that’s where I went.
Q: What was the music industry like in Canada when you started out?
A: There was simply no music industry here. I had three number one records in a row in Canada and I was still working in the same bar over that time. That’s what drove me to New York because there was just no way to grow. That has since changed and now we have a pretty vital industry, but we still don’t have a population. You can sell more records in the state of California than you can all of Canada and so, of course, the music companies put the investment where the market is. I once asked Clive Davis, who was then President of our record company, right at the peak of Blood, Sweat & Tears, “How come we don’t play more in Canada?” and he said, “Because you sell more records in Brooklyn.” That was the truth and that stuck with me. We’ve lost the live venues here in Toronto. I bet there are more places for musicians to play in Hamilton than there are in Toronto. Hamilton has always been very close to my heart because I played in Hamilton, London, and Sarnia, that was the circuit. I still have very strong ties there.
Q: Your first album with Blood, Sweat & Tears was a major success. It included three songs in the top 10, five Grammy’s, 10 nominations, album of the year, best performance by a male vocalist, and the list goes on. How did you handle your new found success at that time and what doors did that open for you?
A: What that did was make sure that Blood, Sweat & Tears was on the road 300 days of the year, so for the next three years it was just a blur. It was two hours of sleep after a show, 3 o’clock wake up call, 6 o’clock in the morning at the airport and onto the next one. We were touring all over the world, we could be doing a tour in Germany one week and then be in Australia the next week. It just exploded and our lives exploded too from what we thought it was going to be. Getting the Grammy Award wasn’t the end of the journey, it was the beginning. I basically stayed on the road for the next 40 years.
Q: I want to talk about your autobiography. While you were writing it, what did you learn about yourself?
A: It’s painful. We go through life and the nasty things that happen to us we burry in the back of our minds. We only focus on the good stuff and move forward, so having to go back and dredge all that back up was not easy. It took me about a year and a half to write the book and I had no idea if it was ever going to get published. It was cathartic to write it. When I got into it, I realized that you can’t BS your way through something like that because everything you write about, there are still people alive that know what happened. You really have to strip it down and tell the truth about everything and that can be painful to dredge up things that you haven’t thought about for years, like Burwash. I don’t walk around every day thinking about it. When I left there, I put it behind me, and I didn’t want to think about it or talk about it. So, 40 years later to bring it all up again was not easy.
Q: You mentioned that you’re writing albums every year to year and a half. Why do you continue to make albums?
A: Because it’s what I do. I’m a songwriter. It’s actually the reason I left Blood, Sweat & Tears. They hadn’t been in a recording studio in 30 years. They were cranking up millions of dollars a year for everybody, playing the oldies and that’s one of the pitfalls in this industry. When you get a record that is that big, all the promoters want you to do is play that record. Then everyone just wants to hear that record so there was no motivation for Blood, Sweat & Tears to go in the studio. They were making millions on the road playing the oldies. That just went against everything that I am as a songwriter. When I finally parted with them, I was the only original member left and we were still playing songs from 1969. I had dozens of songs written that I had never been able to record, so when I moved back to Canada in 2005, the first thing I did was go into the studio and start recording. I recorded 3 albums in the first 3 years. All that stuff came pouring out because I had no previous opportunity to record it. Not only were we on the road for 250 concerts a year, but there was no motivation within the group to come up with new music. The whole reason I got into this business was to make new music. If you take that away from a songwriter, you take away his motivation in doing anything. I had grown tired or the Blood, Sweat & Tears thing. I had a kid to get through college and of course we were making a ton of money so it’s very hard to break, but finally I said enough is enough. If I ever wanted to make a new record and write another song, I had to get out. Now I’ve been out of the band for over 15 years and I’ve done 13 albums over that time.
Q: What can Canada do to help encourage musicians?
A: Darcy Hepner, who is head of the music program at Mohawk, and his wife Astrid have a wonderful program called ‘An Instrument for Every Child’ where they provide elementary school children in Hamilton’s challenged neighbourhoods with the opportunity to learn to play an instrument. Lessons are provided for free by professional musicians on an instrument of the child’s choice, which is provided on a free loan basis. If a kid shows talent, there is an opportunity for a scholarship at Mohawk. It’s my passion doing something for those kids because that old guitar that guy gave me in Burwash, saved my life.