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Lone Wolf

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.

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My Springsteen Epiphany…Down In Harvard Square

It was the summer of 1976 and I was sitting in the passenger’s seat of my sister Maureen’s Volvo in Harvard Square. (The serendipitous location of where my sister’s car was parked will become apparent as this story goes along.) I had traveled with my sister on a bit of a joy ride that summer day, as I had nothing better to do and because I always enjoyed visiting Harvard Square. She had to drop off some papers and it was my job to ride shotgun and sit in the car to try and avoid any chance of her getting a parking ticket. In return, I think she had promised me that we could visit the Harvard Co-op Store (also known as the Harvard Coop), one of the finest places to go to check out the latest musical releases on vinyl and cassette and also not a bad place to simply “people watch.”

This was the “old Harvard Square;” the quaint, friendly version, the one that still had plenty of independent establishments, cool bars, and even a few hippie-looking places where you might buy, say, some used clothes or even a few head shop items. This was long before corporate America, the ugly commercial chain store America marched into Harvard Square and transformed its look into an ugly consumer shopping and eating chain/mini-mall without much of the old 60’s funk and soul at all.

But on this day in 1976, Harvard Square still had funk and soul. (It’s questionable how much I actually possessed.) I was raised in a fairly traditional suburban environment. I respected my parents to the point where I didn’t imbibe anything smooth and fine (unless I happened to be in the company of my sisters when all bets were off.) I went to school every day, went to church every Sunday and hung out with a few friends in a nice little town called Weymouth where expectations were somewhat low among the families in my neighborhood. I mention this because it was on this very day that I fell in love with rock and roll, specifically the music being made by Bruce Springsteen, and suddenly I experienced an epiphany in which my expectations changed as dramatically as night and day.

And it was all because of the song, “Jungleland.” When my sister Maureen left me alone to go run the errand, I asked her to leave the car running. We had been listening to Springsteen, specifically his masterpiece album, “Born To Run,” which I was just getting to know. On this day, we were listening to it on my sister’s car stereo cassette system. (Remember when they called them “systems”.) And when Maureen got out of her car, I asked her to leave the keys so I could enjoy the air conditioning and get into more of the music. And just as she stepped out, the song “Jungleland” came on. And I turned that sucker way up loud.

So here I was sitting in a car in Harvard Square between Bow and Church Streets. Now I didn’t know this then, but it’s one of the most amazing examples of kismet of my lifetime. For it was two blocks away on Bow Street in 1974 where Bruce Springsteen had been introduced to writer/music producer/future manager Jon Landau, by Jon’s friend Dave Marsh. About 100 yards in the other direction was Church Street, the location of the Harvard Square Theater where Bruce Springsteen would play in 1974 and inspire Landau to write his famous review, writing that he had witnessed “Rock and Roll future” and its name was Bruce Springsteeen. Of course, all of that happened two years earlier. If my epiphany had happened the exact same year in that location….whoa; lookout! But this was 1976. Even still, what are the chances?

So “Jungleland” begins. The gentle symphonic strings and simple piano intro plays. And something must have switched on in my that part of the brain where endorphins are released, because suddenly my surroundings became irrelevant and fuzzy, but I was absolutely transfixed to the music.

And then the strings disappear and it’s just Roy Bittan’s piano that I’m hearing and about 40 seconds into the song there’s another brief swell of strings before Bruce Springsteen begins to tell/sing the story:

“Well the Rangers had a homecoming in Harlem late last night,
And the Magic Rat drove his slick machine, over the Jersey state line…”

I must have thought to myself, “now this is gonna be good.” Springsteen was singing with a slight beach rasp to his voice and a kind of desperate need to tell this tale. It felt like he really cared about these characters who were going to have this “experience,” and if he did then I should too.

“Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain
The Rat pulls into town rolls up his pants, together they take a stab at romance and disappear down Flamingo Lane…”

What an introduction to a story. Yes, a story full of vivid details about some gang called “The Rangers,” along with a physical description (the Jersey state line, an anonymous town probably by the beach, some posing by “Magic Rat” in front of this “Barefoot Girl”) and then action, as the guy and his girl take off down this street called “Flamingo Lane.” If that was the script for a screenplay it would be optioned out in Hollywood in about 10 seconds flat.

And so begins the story and I sat, silently wishing that my sister might take awhile so I could hear this whole song by myself, totally transfixed and mesmerized. I was as into the music as I had ever been in my short life of just 15 years. An distant organ sound creeps into the picture, as more of the plot unfolds:

“Well the Maximum Lawman run down Flamingo chasing the Rat and the barefoot girl,
And the kids round here look just like shadows always quiet, holding hands…”

We now have more details of what’s about to come. It seems like the law is looking for the “Magic Rat,” but nobody is saying anything to the police. And then in a triumphant and epic voice, the likes of I’d never heard before, comes this:

“From the churches to the jails tonight all is silence in the world
As we take our stand down in Jungleland.”

In other words, suddenly there is only one story to be told, this story, and there’s gonna be some trouble of major proportions. We’re only a minute and a half into a nine and a half minute song, but the stage has been set and the performers introduced. Time to rock out and settle in for the story, as the entire band kicks in and jams with energy both raw and powerful.

As the “Jungleland” story unfolds with Springsteen’s best, most detailed and vivid writing, I begin to realize that even though this is the only story that matters, it’s also a story that gets played out all the time. At its essence, he’s telling a story about a bunch of townie losers who, at least for this one night, are going to be involved in something great. Something big, and powerful; something romantic and beautiful.

Bruce pauses and takes a break from the action out on the streets for a scorching guitar solo, before suddenly and out of nowhere “Jungleland” takes a 180-degree turn musically. Bruce sings:

“Lonely-hearted lovers struggle in dark corners
Desperate as the night moves on, just a look and a whisper, and they’re gone”

And he runs flat smack into the one of the most gorgeous, meticulously played saxaphone solos ever played. It is said that Bruce Springsteen taught this solo to his sideman and Sax player Clarence Clemons note by note. The music that Clarence plays tells a story of its own and it’s up to the listener now to fill in the blank spaces. By my calculations that sax solo goes on for 2 minutes and 15 seconds but it might as well be two years considering the impact it had, not just on my experience and future, but on that of hundreds of thousands of others. The Big Man says he constantly has people coming up to him saying that sax solo saved their lives. I know it changed mine.

When the lyrics start up again, Bruce Springsteen seems to be in a much different place. Gone is the rock and roll jubulation; in its place we get a much quieter, almost whispered storytelling. And you know that this story isn’t gonna end well. Se we get a slow piano dirge and:

“Beneath the city two hearts beat, soul engines running through a night so tender…”

The rest seems to be a story of the “Magic Rat” and “Barefoot Girl” as they make love, only to have the Rat gunned down by police. Onlookers are stunned and the strings and piano build, but Bruce tells us not even the poets have anything to write or say. Then the long piano roll with Bruce wailing and shouting out as if he might be heard in parking lots from one coast of America to the other.

“Jungleland” is, at it’s core, a tragic story, but it has these moments, long moments of happiness, exaltation and joy. And if rock and roll can really change and save your life, then it did that day as I listened. For I knew if life could be epic and celebrated and triumphant for these characters, then it could be for me too.

No I wasn’t stuck to live out my life, like so many of my friends seemed in the “quiet desperation” of a suburban town. I could follow my dream of becoming a writer, or later a broadcaster and that, perhaps, greatness could be achieved. That’s what this song convinced me off on that summer day in that long, long ago. Sitting in the passenger seat of my sisters Volvo listening to Bruce Springsteen in Harvard Square.

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