When I lived in Boston it was not at all unusual to bump into rock and roll legend Peter Wolf.
The former late night DJ and the longtime front man of the J. Geils Band lives in Boston and often walks its streets. Whether meandering down the famed, exclusive Newbury Street or perusing additions to his vast music collection in Boston’s few remaining used record stores, the man was, to put it simply, not hard to miss. Dressed always in his ubiquitous black, from head to toe, and never without a chapeau of some sort, the slight and perennially pale Peter Wolf pretty much kept to himself. Pity the poor soul who chanced to approach him. The result was inevitably a disappointingly brief conversation consisting of a few brief words. So people would most usually leave him alone. He may have been the wild man of Borneo on stage or a mad gabber jabber on alternative radio all those years ago (“Wolfa Goofa Mama Toffa” was his nickname), but out in public and away from the spotlight, Peter Wolf is a man of very few words.
It’s really no wonder. The man born Peter W. Blankfield seems tailor-made to keeping his thoughts to himself. His own musical cohorts and influences, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, both make it a habit to speak in riddles and rhymes when they speak at all. The Chicago and Delta blues men who Wolf holds in the highest of esteem were men who spoke little and let the music do the talking.
Wolf’s history is a fascinating one. Once arrived in Boston in the 1960’s to attend art school, he was scooped up by recently acquired “progressive rock” radio station WBCN. Wolf said in a recent interview on NPR that he was offered half ownership in BCN for just $10,000. But Wolf, at the time was barely eking out an existence and says he barely had ten dollars. What Wolf did have was an incredible musical library, both LPs as well as an incredible variety of his beloved 45’s or singles. And so BCN, hoping to get their hands on all that music, offered him the overnight shift on the air. Wolf was on from Midnight until 7:00 a.m. and in addition to playing his own favorite mix of rock, blues and rhythm and blues, he also played requests. The program was a huge underground sensation and Wolf found a comfortable place behind the microphone where he discovered he had, well, the gift of gab.
But Wolf was not long for that vampire radio shift, which brings many men and women to their knees, and in 1966 Peter Wolf became part of a popular Boston-based band, The Hallucinations. A year later he went to see a performance by the J. Geils Band and quickly joined that group, becoming the hopscotching, fast on his feet, charismatic front man. That band lasted from 1967 to 1983. They played both blues standards and originals and they had a legendary live show, captured on three different live albums, all recorded in Detroit Rock City. Geils, as they were sometimes called, were soon one of the hottest rock bands in the country, playing to packed theaters, auditoriums and arenas from coast to coast and even garnering the coveted cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.
I had a chance to see Wolf at his most outrageous, two times and both in Syracuse, New York. The first time was at the cozy Landmark Theater, where Wolf and the rest of the J. Geils band nearly blew the roof off the place. At one point during the climax of the show, Wolf left the stage and danced and weaved his way up and down the aisles of the theater “high fiving” with his fervent fans. The second time I saw him, he looked like a different man in 1982 when the band was on top with huge hits like “Centerfold” and “Freeze-Frame.” Wolf had shed his long locks of hair and streamlined his stage show. But behind the scenes the band was, unknown to many, ready to implode because of “artistic differences” between Wolf and keyboard player and fellow songwriter, Seth Justman.
I worked at a rather large local college radio station I remember foolishly going backstage after the show. “Oh Jesus,” I remember thinking in the middle of the clumsy introductions, “what in God’s name am I doing here.” Wolf politely shook our hands staring blindly into the distance, barely even there. He seemed ten million miles away. And I felt bad for his discomfort.
With the band no longer a going concern, Wolf was left to retreat into the blackness of the Boston night, showing up here and there at bars and occasionally joining in to jam. I remember seeing him take the stage many nights in Boston with his pal Bruce Springsteen, but he never seemed comfortable in the guest spot, especially at larger gigs. He used to rule that city and now he seemed a drifter and a stranger in a strange land. Wolf eventually teamed up with some local musicians and made a series of solo records, none of which seemed to click until he finally found his way on 2002’s excellent solo album, “Sleepless.” It was ranked on Rolling Stone Magazines, “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.” Meanwhile, with rumors all the time of a J. Geils reunion, Wolf stayed silent on that subject, instead seeming comfortable to perform with his own group of new musicians and living off royalties.
During the 1990’s and into the new Millennium, Wolf continues to be seen around town. I would often be surprised when I got to a show early, only to see Wolf already seated, by himself, and waiting for the show to begin. I began to feel bad for him. Was this a chosen land of exile or did it reveal some deep loneliness. Nobody knew but Wolf and he wasn’t talkin’.
One night I went to see Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard at the Orpheum Theater in Boston. I bought a ticket from some guy about ten minutes before the show and it was in the very last row of the theater. During the opening acts, I was scouting an empty seat closer to the stage and out of the corner of my eye I spied one next to the soundboard. I asked a very attractive young lady if the empty seat was taken, she said no and invited me to sit down. It wasn’t until after I had taken off my coat that I realized that I was two seats away from Peter Wolf and the attractive young woman was his date.
During intermission, I introduced myself to this woman and to Peter Wolf and he greeted me with a thin smile and handshake. I had just happened to have finished reading a book about rock and roll called “Mansion On The Hill,” in which he was quoted extensively. So I asked Wolf about his impressions of that book. Speaking softly he told me he thought it was “just okay.” Conversation over? Not quite. Wolf actually surprised me by asking me what I thought about it. I told him I believed the author was too critical of Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau, who Wolf knew from days long ago in Boston. Wolf responded saying he thought it was too critical of a lot of people, including his friend Bruce. Then he got up and went backstage alone, ostensibly to say hello to Dylan, leaving me to have the most pleasant conversation with his knockout beautiful date.
I stayed and watched Dylan’s entire set sitting next to Wolf, looking over occasionally to see a man deep into the music. I left the theater, with the nice buzz that comes after a great show. But I was also happy to see that Wolf was not alone on this particular night.
After all, one can’t remain a lone wolf forever.