John “Jay” Geils passed away of natural causes at his home in Groton, MA on April 11, 2017. This one’s for him.
In the early 80’s, with songs like “Love Stnks,” “Freeze Frame,” and “Centerfold,” the J.Geils Band were a staple of MTV. I was happy for them because those were pretty big hits and it’s tough to have a career in music long-term without a few of those. But I am here to tell you this – that was not my J. Geils band.
“My” Geils band was the stuff of the boozy, smoky beerhall, the kind of shithole where they’d just as soon throw you through a plate glass window as pour you a shot of Johnny Walker Red. Maybe that amounts to the same thing, I don’t know. I’m just saying these guys were not some pop confection dressed up for mass consumption.They were a blues/rock band and when say blues I mean Blooze, baby.
I can do no better than to here quote Wikipedia: “The band started as an acoustic blues trio in the mid-1960s, with guitarist John Geils, bassist Danny Klein (Dr. Funk) and harmonica player Richard Salwitz, (stage name Magic Dick.)
In 1968, the band switched focus, starting to play electric guitar and bass and recruiting two fellow musicians from a local Boston band called The Hallucinations, drummer Stephen Bladd and Peter Wolf, who was the fast-talking former FM WBCN DJ.” (And the wooba gooba with the green teeth.)
They became the J. Geils Blues Band, later dropping the word “Blues.” The same year, former fan Seth Justman joined on keyboards and the band started to earn a sizable local following in the Boston area. The group signed to Atlantic Records in 1970.
This is where yours truly comes in. I wasn’t living in the Boston area at the time, I was in NYC. I was heavily dependent on my friends to recommend bands and concerts and they never, or rarely, let me down. And EVERYBODY plays in New York, nobody skips it.
So we decided to go to the Fillmore East one cold February night in 1971 to see… Black Sabbath! But one of the guys in my crowd said (I can still remember this like it was yesterday), “A group called the J. Geils band is opening for them. They’re a hot band outta Boston.” (The opening act was some turkey named Sir Lord Baltimore. This concert is so legendary (?) that Bill Graham actually mentions it in his autobio. I really don’t know why to be honest with you.)
Now, folks, I can be honest here and say that my tribe was way more of a Sabbath-oriented group than some sort of local blues aficionado society. (We were all good Catholic boys and so a taste of the dark side was mighty, mighty tempting.) But boy did we dig the Geils band. We didn’t know much but we did know this – if you buy a six-pack of Colt 45 and drink it down really fast you get pretty buzzed. But I digress.
This wasn’t “Freeze Frame.” This was madness in the form of songs like “Homework,” an Otis Rush tune dialed up to 11. The YouTube video is from Winterland 1977; the Spotify song from their 1972 album, “Full House.” That album was recorded in a town that is so rock n’ roll frenzied, so crazed, so out of control, of it Mick Jagger once said, “We never really got it on till Detroit:”
No less a personage than my own one-man quality guy, Duane Allman, thought they were a primo band. That wasn’t some idle outside observation. The Allmans’ first gig outside of the South was at the Boston Tea Party. They either met Wolf and crew there or maybe at ‘BCN.
But Geils rocked, they rolled, they put on a hell of show. They did a lot of covers at first but they were true to the sound and the fury. Like all great live bands, they toured relentlessly, laying waste and pillaging towns wherever they roamed. They released an album every year or so, their fame and notoriety gaining, especially on the FM circuit.
Did I promise you some blues? Sure. Here’s “Serves You Right to Suffer,” a John Lee Hooker tune.
“Serves you right to suffer, baby. Serves you right to be alone.” Blow your horn!
Gossip time: Does everybody know that Peter Wolf and actress Faye Dunaway were married once upon a time? Yes, Faye Dunaway of Bonnie and Clyde fame and total patsy for the Warren Beatty Oscars fuck-up this year. Not exactly sure how these two got together in the first place.
Dunaway had gone to Boston University in her younger days so maybe she was hanging around here, don’t know. In any event, that lasted about as long as you’d expect, then it was over. Apparently, they still speak fondly of each other. Dunaway was supposedly the model for the cover of their Ladies Invited album.
But, you’re saying, what about Magic Dick and his lickin’ stick? Well, any self-respecting ode to the mighty Geils must – must – include a song written by Juke Joint Jimmy called “Whammer Jammer.” (I don’t know who the fuck Juke Joint was but he sure sounds like he should have been a Springsteen character:)
As mentioned, the band hit the heights in the ’80’s with the tunes I noted at the top. Those weren’t bad songs I guess. I don’t hate them. But I don’t love them either. I give credit to the band for hanging in there. Tough to make a living in music much less doing it playing the blues, a genre that approximately a hundred thirty-seven people (counting me) seem to even like.
But alas, those Eighties tunes were, I think, the seeds of their demise. Near as I can tell, that was the direction Seth Justman wanted to go. Wolf wanted to keep it real. So in 1983, he split. The band put out one more album but the house party was, for all intents and purposes, over.
Coda: Sort of over. Every now and again the band still got together and played. We saw them a couple of times over the years: at an outdoor amphitheater in the Boston area and at Fenway Park (2010) with Aerosmith, a once-in-a-lifetime show that I mentioned in Part 3 of my Aerosmith series. My daughter was part of the Boston University marching band and played “Centerfold” from out in the bleachers. I forget how that happened exactly.
Jay Geils later put together a band with Magic Dick and then a more traditional, more low-key blues and jazz band. We saw them play a couple years ago at a local theater. Good, but certainly not at – or intended to be at – that same level of intensity.
Peter Wolf knows every single rock and roller on the planet and shows up at gigs routinely. He hangs out with the Stones when they come to town and I saw him at the Bruce Springsteen concert I went to last year. He still puts out solo albums and just does his thing. Why I don’t run into him and/or Joe Perry on the street sometimes is beyond me. But again, I veer off track into my own private Idaho.
For my money, you could do worse than to seek out and listen to those early ’70’s albums – The J. Geils Band, The Morning After, Full House, Bloodshot. I still have the vinyl version of Bloodshot whose disc was totally blood red.
BTW, in the list of things you must do before you die, if you haven’t heard it you really should listen to “Must Of Got Lost” if only for Wolf’s rap on the intro. This is a song about L-O-V-E. And Desperation. Classic:
I played in blues bands around Boston in the late ’70’s, early ’80’s. In one of those bands we had a harmonica player who loved blues and Geils in particular. We played “Purse,” “Whammer Jammer,” “Homework,” all that shit. We weren’t their equal but it sure was fun to play.
I had to go into Boston the other day. On driving back out, I passed an electronic billboard. I saw this (it was red, if I recall correctly, on a black background):
J. Geils – 1946 – 2017. Next to it was a picture of Jay. Don’t know who paid for it but hey, nice touch for one of our own, Beantown.
The J. Geils Band has been nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame several times, most recently in 2016. Their day will come.