Goldmine likes to celebrate music anniversaries. It’s what we do. And guitarist Jay Jay French opens up about the 40th anniversary of Twisted Sister’s core lineup and what it took to reach a certain level of success.
By Patrick Prince
IT’S A FASCINATING STORY of how a bar band develops its craft by performing relentlessly over the course of nearly a decade in the rough-and-tumble New York-area club circuit, eventually reaching their goal of worldwide appeal.
The documentary “We Are Twisted F***ing Sister,” released on DVD/Bluray in February, captures the entire evolution of a band refusing to quit. And after 40 years of forming Twisted Sister’s core lineup, the band appears to be retiring for good. They are having a celebratory send-off, complete with an obligatory farewell tour.
But the whole Twisted story started with guitarist Jay Jay French. In the early ’70s, French made the transition from devoted Deadhead to loyal follower of glam-tinged artists such as David Bowie and Mott the Hoople, ultimately becoming the founder of Twisted Sister, the heavy metal band that would one day reach megastardom.
French explains to Goldmine the origins of Twisted Sister … somewhere between Manhattan and New Jersey, around Christmas 1972.
JAY JAY FRENCH: It was a pivotal point in my life, you know, a really important point. I started putting feelers out, “I want to be in a glitter band” — that’s what they were kind of called, glitter bands — then a conversation came up with this guy, (agent) Lou Mang was his name, out of New Jersey, and Mang said, “Some band I know is looking for some glitter guy.” He gave my number to this drummer, Mel, who called me and said, “My name is Mel Anderson (who later changed his name to Mell Star) and I have this glitter band called Silverstar and we’re looking for a guitar player.” And I said, “I’m your guy.”
GM: Silverstar is a pretty good name for a band.
JJF: Well, here was the problem: I said to him, “One quaalude, somebody’s gonna forget that name.” Well, I didn’t realize (Mel) thought of that name. He was really upset with me that I didn’t like it. So I said, “You need something hipper than that.” Now let me explain this to you. I’m a Manhattan guy with a certain sense of humor. I came up with what I thought was a very hip name, considering we were a makeup band. I said, “How about calling us The Max Factor?” And he didn’t like that idea. (laughs) That didn’t wash. But this was the origins of it, and what we did was either tons of Bowie, and tons of Lou Reed, and tons of Mott the Hoople and a couple of Rolling Stones songs. Don’t forget, The Rolling Stones at that point were wearing mascara. So it was of its time.
We’re all like 20 years old and we’re all questioning our sexuality and Bowie comes along and — bang! — with this hypersexual image — gorgeous, beautiful — you know, I didn’t look at myself as beautiful up until that point. Which, by the way, was only emphasized more when we played a club in Jersey City called The Spruce Goose, which was a completely gay bar, about one month into the band’s working — which we started in March of ’73. I mean, I’m wearing hot pants, purple boots and a little terry cloth top and I guess I’m looking pretty hot, you know. And I kept saying to the drummer (Mel), “Where are the groupies? You told me there was going to be a lot of groupies.”
And we haven’t started really collecting them yet, and now we’re playing a completely gay bar and I’m chained to my lead singer because we’re walking onstage with dog collars that were chained. Well, if you’re gay and you’re in a gay bar and the band comes out dressed like women, and the guitar player and singer are chained together, I guess one could make a logical decision that you’re probably gay, too, right? It’s not a stretch, is it?
So this guy gets on his knees and starts licking my boots in the middle of a guitar solo and I’m horrified. And I look over at the drummer like “What?!” and he goes, “Did you look at yourself in the mirror? It’s a gay bar, and you look gay. Consider yourself successful at your image transformation.” (laughs) “This is what you were trying to do and the guy’s licking your boots. Obviously, you’re carrying it off!” And then my sense of humor is like. “Oh yeah, right, okay. If this is kind of like how this game gets played until the girls show up, then fine.” And then the groupies started showing up pretty quickly thereafter.
GM: Talk about the new documentary, “We Are Twisted F**king Sister.”
JJF: The documentary “We Are Twisted F**king Sister” tells the story of the first 10 years of the band, and the band essentially, in those days, whether you looked like Bowie or not it didn’t matter. The bar scene — the suburban bar scene — was this amazing opportunity if you were a musician, to learn your craft. And the difference between the Jersey, Long Island, Westchester bar scene and the New York City bar scene was that the bar scene in the suburbs were copy bands and the scene in New York City had original bands. I will go even further and say that the bands in New York City couldn’t play very well. And they couldn’t be copy bands because they couldn’t play. It was perfect that they came up with their own music, because they couldn’t play anybody else’s. The bands in the suburbs were comprised of these musicians who listened to records to really learn how to play correctly. I really don’t think this is an unfair comment about the scene differences. A lot of people say, “Well, man, you know, you come down pretty hard on these other bands,” but what I’m saying to you is that there was a real divide between the same-aged people in Manhattan and in the boroughs and the suburbs. A real different, clearly divided and defined difference in the scene. The kids in the suburbs may as well have been in the Midwest, okay? They wanted to do everything right and copy bands exactly, because they thought that was the way to learn properly. And the New York City bands were like, “Hey man, you know, we don’t know how to play and we’re just gonna figure out songs we can do with three chords and four chords and not really sing in harmony and build up a cult scene in New York City.” Which they did. That’s the difference between them, and the twain never met.
Except on the rarest of occasions, bar bands were bar bands and New York, Lower East Side bands were Lower East Side bands. And when those Lower East Side bands got their record deals and tried to play outside New York, for the most part, they failed. For the most part — at least in the suburbs around New York — when they tried to expand their popularity into the bar scene that we came out of, they were booed off the stage. Okay, partly because the fans who went to those bars didn’t want to hear original music — that’s a big one. Second, the bands weren’t good, relative to what (suburb fans) were seeing. So back in 1973, ’74, ’75 you went out to the bars and you saw perfect clones of Led Zeppelin, perfect clones of Aerosmith, perfect clones of this or that, and that was your expectation. And also the benefit was this: In the New York scene, how many clubs could you play during the course of a month? You play one night a week at CBGB or one night a month. But in the (suburb) bar scene you played six nights a week (and often multiple shows a night), so you learned your craft quickly and you had to be pretty good because there were a lot of bands out there. So we immediately went into this phase of six nights a week … so by the time Dee (Snider) and Eddie (Ojeda) join the band in ’76, I already had 3,000 performances under my belt. So what bands play 3,000 shows before they are signed, let alone 6,000? Twisted was at 8,000, I think, before we got our record deal. This was the unique part and this is what the movie “We Are Twisted F**king Sister” is about — the journey. From that first chord in a basement to getting the record deal, and the length of time it took to get it.
Because I think if you look at The Beatles, Stones, Who, Zeppelin, Floyd, Sabbath, AC/DC, Queen and all these great bands that we all know and love — except for The Beatles, I think each one of those bands were signed within a year of forming. The Beatles famously went to Hamburg and everyone always talks about that. They are the greatest band in the world so I am impressed, but the fact is I don’t think any of those bands I just mentioned would have lasted 10 years in the bars trying to get a record deal. I’m not making a grand statement about how great Twisted Sister is in that context, I’m just saying how many bands stayed together 10 years to get a record deal, and the answer is zero. Except us. I don’t know of a single band that ever did that.
GM: That’s what you call perseverance.
JJF: Well, you’re either really smart or really stupid. You’re either so smart that you figured it out and learned your craft or you’re just so stupid and don’t know when to quit. (laughs)
GM: But if you look back at those days as a fan, those club days are very special. I saw Twisted Sister in a club around 1980 and it was one of the greatest shows I had ever been to. Not only was the music good but you and Dee were up there like stand-up comedians. Everything you guys commented on was hilarious.
JJF: And the reason for that was — and you can imagine our situation — when you’re playing four to six nights a week, week after week, year after year, eventually what happens is that you have to learn ways to entertain yourself as well. Because the groundhog day effect becomes overwhelming. It’s almost like a prisoner of war, you know. So while people think we’re partying every night, we’re just biding our time to the next attempted record deal, the next demo tape recording. I mean, I want to be clear. We learned to be professional entertainers because our characters were forged in the fires of the bar scene.
The story of the band that most people don’t get — the ones who just hear “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock” and see the (MTV) videos is that we learned these techniques or performance art in the bars because we were bored to f**king death and we needed to entertain ourselves. But we weren’t going to be selfish about entertaining ourselves. We knew we had to entertain you, right? So we kept coming up with concepts, and those concepts were kind of evolutionary. You know, I can’t say to you that everything we ever did was so calculated and perfectly set up to do something. What I will say is that if you’re playing as often as we played, you would realize that your evolution of technical ability and performance technique is gonna change; in the same way that an actor who has done theater for many years learns his craft because he’s done theater for years, it’s the same thing.
GM: I’ve yet to see, in a bar or a club, an experience or time like that.
JJF: And the (bar) rooms in those days were huge — huge! Some of the rooms held up to 5,000 people. And you had to entertain yourself and you had to be good. You had to be good because the best bands of that era were all good — Rat Race Choir, Zebra, Southern Cross Band, the Stanton Anderson Band … most of these bands were clone bands.
GM: Yeah, but you guys sounded like yourselves. For instance, Zebra sounded like Led Zeppelin to me.
JJF: Yeah, big difference. I was about to say. Most of these bands were clone bands. Great clone bands, by the way. Much better live than the bands they were copying. And to Zebra’s credit — and I give them all the credit in the world — when their debut album came out with “Who’s Behind the Door,” it was the biggest selling one day in the history of Atlantic Records. And they were not able to capitalize on it … and they’re good friends of mine and they’re wonderful guys. And it was nice to see that they got their shot out there. In the movie “We Are Twisted F**king Sister,” Randy Jackson from Zebra is interviewed and Mark Hitt from Rat Race Choir is interviewed, and they both talk about the good and bad parts of the club scene. The good part was that you worked all the time, you made a lot of money and you learned your craft. The bad part is that you got stuck in there. And you were held by golden handcuffs in a way because you were afraid to break out of it. You were making such good money, why risk it?
GM: Wasn’t there also a negative connotation, in the minds of record companies at the time, to be a “club band”?
JJF: Huge. Absolutely. “They’re a bar band.” It hung on us like crazy. They all assumed we sucked. And there was no belief that we were really any good. We could draw thousands of people while other bands couldn’t draw anybody, but they wouldn’t come and see us because they had zero respect for the band. It was very frustrating … to have zero respect with all the hard work we were putting in. And we were being told, basically, that it was all smoke and mirrors and bullsh*t. You couldn’t get any labels to believe in you, because we came from a circuit that was so disrespected.
GM: And the band had to go to England to get signed.
JJF: The idea of going somewhere else is not an alien idea. It wasn’t like a new idea, but who the hell wants to think that you have to travel 6,000 miles to get a record deal. It would be nice if you could get recognized (in America), but as the movie tells the story, every attempt we made to get signed here was met with a horrible fate that would’ve killed most bands. Most people, if they endured what we endured … we were turned down more times than a bedsheet in a whorehouse is how I would describe it. I mean, how much rejection can you handle. Very few guys come out of that with their brains and heart intact.
GM: Talking more about perseverance. It’s the 40th anniversary of Twisted Sister and the core of the band has really stuck together. And you mentioned to me last time we spoke that the band members respect each other’s space. And that seems to be the biggest problem with bands – they can’t get along.
JJF: Yeah, but first of all, isn’t it interesting the phenomenon of bands that have been together 30-plus years? You grow up with The Beatles and they were together eight or nine years and that was like the longest a band had lasted. And now here we are in 2016 and we’re looking at 20 or 30 bands that have been together 30 years, and maybe 20 who have been together 40 or celebrating their 40th. And that’s a ridiculous amount of time. You know, the reason why they said “til death do us part” in marriages is because you were dying at the age of 28. Of course, you could survive to that. So when you read stories about Aerosmith and all these bands’ internal issues … of course bands have internal issues. It’s like marriages. In fact, my joke is: If you been together 40 years and don’t hate each other’s guts, your band ain’t worth sh*t. There’s a certain aggression, a certain ebb and flow, a certain understanding of where we eventually want to evolve … that either the successful ones figure out or they don’t. And frankly, Twisted didn’t for a long time. I mean, we took a long break. Because the success was traumatic and I didn’t think the band was going to get back together again. And here we are, 13 years into the reunion … I would say it’s the longest reunion, but KISS’ reunion is apparently the longest reunion. They have been on their farewell tour for 25 years at this point. I mean, Twisted have been together longer in the reunion than we were in the bar scene. And that leads us to where we are right now, which is coming to terms with ending it.
A lot of people have come to me and said, “Why do you need to be so final about it?” That’s an interesting question. Which I will address I think. When you watch the movie “We Are Twisted F**king Sister,” one may be surprised by how much Dee verbalizes his distaste for the entire bar scene. Dee had this crazy love/hate relationship which I didn’t even know about until I saw the movie. I didn’t know how much he felt that the bar scene was killing him through its repetition. And he’ll say to you, “I love the adulation and I love the accomplishments but I hated the regimentation and the constant repetition, and the hard work of putting it out there every day.”
And here’s a guy who is arguably the greatest frontman who ever lived. I’ll put him up there with anybody. I don’t know a frontman that’s better than him and that’s why I don’t feel like going on without him. I’ve been on stage with the best frontman. What am I gonna be with somebody else? So with that as a backdrop, maybe when the band got back together, maybe the thought was get back together for two years and then year after year piles on and finally about a year ago Dee sends an email and says “I’m not kidding. This is it. I don’t want to perform.” He’s not saying break up the band. He’s just saying I really don’t want to do this after this year.
GM: I thought it might have been because of (drummer) A.J. Pero’s passing.
JJF: No, but I’ll get to that now. A.J. was on the road with Adrenaline Mob. I called A.J. on the Thursday night before he died, and Dee and I had some private emails where he says “I’m really done.” Mark (Mendoza) and Eddie are (in New York) so they know this stuff, but A.J.’s been on the road. So I call A.J. and I say “Listen, man, this is really it. So just keep that in mind.” And he says okay but also, “I’m not feeling well. My shoulder’s bothering me. I’m gonna leave the Adrenaline Mob tour after this weekend to rehab it for our shows. So if you hear through social media that I left the tour, don’t freak out. I’m fine.”
That’s my last conversation with him. The next morning, I’m having breakfast with the director of the documentary. We’re talking about promotional plans for the documentary and I get a phone call from my tour manager and he goes “A.J. had a heart attack on the bus and I’ll let you know.” Because nobody wants to think the worst. I get a phone call later and (the tour manager) says, “A.J. died.” And I just lost it. I love this guy.
So we’re at A.J.’s service a couple days later — me, Mark, Eddie and Dee talking — I said, “Dee, you made it clear, that’s it. Let’s make it official. Next year’s the 40th anniversary of you, me and Eddie being together in 2016. I think we should do an official 40th and then call it — and my girlfriend suggested it — “40th and F**k It.” So the tour is called 40th and F**k It and the band is doing select dates. And along with those dates are a lot of things happening. We got the Twisted documentary out on DVD and in some theaters. We got a 3-CD set coming out (in the next three to four months) of music recorded live in the bars. We have the live A.J. Pero Memorial Concert that we taped and filmed in Vegas last May with Mike Portnoy on drums — he’s been filling in, doing the A.J. part. And I believe Warner Music, at my suggestion, will have a 10-album box set. So it’s kind of like a lot going on and I feel like it’s the last 10 minutes of a fireworks display in a way. All these events are happening and with them will be our last shows.
So when people say to me “How do you feel?” … You know, I’ve been down this road before we did our last shows in ’87 and then we didn’t play for years. I would say I don’t look at the glass as half empty. I look at it as being half full. We accomplished a lot. We’re not supposed to come back. I never thought we would. The 9/11 disaster in its own weird way — when we played the NY Steel show — brought the band back and made it clear to us that there was a following out there who cared that we didn’t know about. We now have exceeded every expectation about our following, the worldwide appeal … 36 countries, South America, Russia, all over Northern Europe … It has been an extraordinary time and we’ve accomplished so much. I’m really proud of our unique place in this world. And we never would have accomplished it if we never came back. And everything has a time, and Dee makes a point of saying that he doesn’t want to perform below his expectations of a band. I understand that because without naming names, there are plenty of bands out there that shouldn’t be playing.
JJF: Look, of course, you can play. The question is are you delivering a performance that’s worthy of your history. And I don’t believe there are … but if people keep paying to see them that’s their business, not mine. I don’t want to be in that position. And Dee doesn’t want to be in that position.
GM: I understand that but … we interviewed Rudolf Schenker of the Scorpions last year, and they’ve been on their farewell tour for many years. They’ve said twice that this was their farewell tour but they’re still playing. It came to the point where young kids were coming up to them saying “Why are you quitting? I just started getting into you.” So the band thinks this is so alive and it’s got a fan base … maybe we can’t stop it. We gotta rock ’til we drop (laughs).
JJF: Yeah, well, I don’t want to rock ’til I drop. I really think there’s got to be something else for me besides this. Not that this accomplishment hasn’t been wonderful. But I’m writing a book. I do motivational speaking. And I believe I have other things to accomplish and I can’t do them while the band is out there. And Dee doesn’t write anymore and that’s another problem, too. He refuses to write and the band doesn’t really feel like recording, so you’re not putting product out there. Not that anybody buys it. I mean, let’s be honest. Any classic band that releases a new record is an idiot for playing it. I mean, they can justify it all they want but no one cares. Let me tell you, you’re a bunch of stupid fools if you think that anyone gives a sh*t. They don’t. They say they do but they don’t. Which is why most of these classic bands make a new album, go out on a tour, start out with five songs from the new record, after a few weeks there are two songs and then they just want to play that one new song and get it over with. Because no one knows it and no one gives a sh*t about it, and they’re delusional to think they do. Another delusional thing is, let’s alter the arrangements and be hip. No one gives a sh*t about that either. If you’re a great entertainer, you’ll give them exactly what they want to hear, exactly how they want to hear it. That’s what great entertainers do. Idiot entertainers don’t do that. And 99 percent of the bands we play with are idiot entertainers and that’s why we blow them off the stage on a nightly basis everywhere we play, because they don’t understand their audience.
GM: Or maybe the mistake is that they think they are more artist than entertainer.
JJF: Well, I got news for all of them. Whether you like it or not, once you reach a status of “classic” you really start to understand people — if you really truly want to understand why people like you. You can make new product, it’s all well and good, but when someone spends 200-300 bucks for a ticket, they expect certain songs, they expect the songs played correctly, they expect you to be proficient, on-time and professional — that’s what an entertainer is. And I will tell you that the club scene taught us an enormous amount of discipline. You know, I can’t emphasize it enough. Dee became one of the greatest frontmen in the world because he learned how to do it on the club scene. We learned how to be great entertainers in the bars and we followed through. And I think the band just wants to say that we reached a point where we can’t do it anymore in the manner that we feel we need to do it and we should probably be respected for that. Because I don’t want to takes someone’s money that I don’t earn. And it’s hard for some people to understand that. They want to keep you hermetically sealed in a jar with their memories forever. Which I get. I do get it. But I think at some point this year will be our last show, and I’ll turn around to the other guys in the band and that’ll be it.