Parting Shots: Peter Wolf

Dean Budnick on June 21, 2016

On April 14, 2016, Mayor Marty Walsh declared Peter Wolf Day in the city of Boston. The event helped commemorate Wolf’s eighth solo album, A Cure for Loneliness. The record blends live and studio cuts and spotlights Wolf’s stellar Midnight Travelers touring group, which includes guitarists Duke Levine and Kevin Barry, bassist Marty Ballou and drummer Tom Arey. The longtime J. Geils Band frontman manifests both humility and grace when reflecting on the Boston honor: “We did it in the home for homeless wanderers and veterans. The mayor was trying to get awareness for this cause, and playing for these homeless veterans was a really powerful experience. They are a great audience and people who, obviously, sacrificed so much. Being able to get the award and play for the veterans was really meaningful. It was just more profound for me.”

The late Merle Haggard joined you on your last album, Midnight Souvenirs. Can you reflect on his legacy?

He was so prolific, and his influence was so profound. He’s someone who was very hard to categorize because he was a country artist, but his creative output—the scope of his subject matter—was so broad that he transcended country. He also was generous with his music and had such great respect for the traditions that came before him. He was always trying to turn people on to the things that he loved: Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and, especially, Lefty Frizzell, who helped create his style.

Many people know Merle just through “Okie from Muskogee,” which is like just knowing Orson Welles from his wine ads. The first time I met the Stones was at the Boston Sheraton in the late ‘60s. Sitting on the floor with acoustic guitars were Gram Parsons, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. They were doing “Sing Me Back Home,” and Merle’s influence made its way into Exile. His style was so profound that almost every male country singer in the last 20 years has been influenced one way or another by Merle. He was a maestro. He was a genius. He was a poet.

In Fred Goodman’s book The Mansion on a Hill, you make the point that, in the 1960s and early ‘70s, artists never really got involved with the music business. How has that changed?

Fred was trying to analyze something in the same way as Cameron Crowe in his film Almost Famous. That was the era where the music was so important and so culturally influential and so dominating— like being a poet or a novelist in the ‘20s and ‘30s, someone like Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. They were celebrities, not in the way we think of celebrities today, but they were considered important because of their achievements. That’s changed now. I don’t think people consider many writers to be important the way they did in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and it’s also true of painters and filmmakers.

The businessmen used to chase artists because they were a valued commodity, and now, it seems, the artists are chasing the businessmen to get some visibility for their work.

Moving to the present, how did the bluegrass version of “Love Stinks” on your new album come about?

We like to do a lot of different textures. One time, we were doing some Bill Monroe standards on an acoustic tour. I am a fan of certain bluegrass— Jimmy Martin, The Stanley Brothers and, obviously, Bill Monroe—and I just started singing “Love Stinks” backstage. Everybody started laughing and we had a good time. So when we went onstage, I went into “Love Stinks,” and everybody followed me. 

That’s what happens a lot of times live. If I were to choose a favorite J. Geils record—which is one of those questions people ask—I would say the closest would be Full House because I think it expresses and demonstrates the communion between the band and the audience.

Have you considered other material for such a treatment? I can imagine a similar arrangement of “I Need You Tonight” [from Wolf’s solo debut, Lights Out]. While that album sounds a bit like the era in which you recorded it, a lot of that material would translate.

It’s funny you mention “I Need You Tonight” because, for some reason, it has been popping up on YouTube, done by a lot of young Canadian bands. But it’s a song that went pretty unnoticed when it was released.

If you look at the credits on that record, everybody and the kitchen sink was on there. I mean, everyone from Mick Jagger to the P-Funk horns, to Adrian Belew to G.E Smith to Elliot Easton to Yogi Horton, who played drums for Aretha Franklin, and Alan Dawson, who played drums at times with Charles Mingus. I worked with Michael Jonzun, who came out of the Jonzun Crew, which was a hip-hop, tech band. So, it was a strange pairing. 

I agree that certain songs can be dated because of the recording— the sound of the synthesizers or the electronic drums. But there are also certain songs, like “Beast of Burden” by The Rolling Stones, that are just timeless, in the sense that they could be recorded tomorrow the same way. “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” by Sinatra is that same kind of thing. They just have a definitive, timeless sense about them.

You identified Full House as a favorite J. Geils Band album. Do you look back at one of your solo albums in a similar light?

I would like to say, hopefully, the next one I’m going to make. I admire certain artists who can sit and listen to their recordings and enjoy them for the achievement. I have a hard time because, a lot of times, I hear things I wish I could have done.

Each one, for me, has been an exploration, and there’s always something that I’ve come away with that I hadn’t realized before I got involved with it. At first, I was going to call this record Rolling On because I just felt like I was just rolling on, doing what I do. After a while, it seemed kind of generic—I was second-guessing it. Then, when the idea for A Cure for Loneliness came about, it seemed profound to me because music has been my cure for loneliness. It has been something that has been such an important part of my life, and it remains so. It has defined me, and working with talented artists—both live and in the studio—that’s what keeps me, dare I say, rolling on.