December , 2011
By Vinny Cecolini
From Raising Hell to Raising Kids
An Open Conversation With Founder & Guitarist Jay Jay French
Promo Photos Courtsey TwistedSister.com / Facebook
Homepage Banner Photo Courtsey of DiMarzo.com
For most people, Twister Sister are a New York Dolls inspired hard rock band that helped define the music videos of the '80s and became the poster child for the villainous PMRC. They crashed and burned after an intense five years in which they released four albums, leaving behind a youthful yet heavily made up, if not good looking, corpse. For this writer - a New York teen during the late '70s - they were something entirely different. Twisted Sister were THE leaders of the local club scene in New York City. Their shows were a rite of passage that needed to be experienced as often as possible.
Fans were ecstatic when Dee Snyder, Jay Jay French, Mark Mendoza, Eddie Ojeda and A.J. Pero finally achieved international stardom. They were equally heartbroken when they acrimoniously split, assuming they’d never reunite. Twisted Sister did get back together in late 2001 for the New York Steel benefit and, though the band member's wounds were still healing at the time, there bond has remained permanent since then. At first they performed locally, sans makeup and theatrics as Bent Brother, before returning to the international stage in front of large, adoring audiences in Europe. In 2006, the band briefly discussed splitting again, but the surprising success of their tongue-in-cheek holiday record, A Twisted Christmas (Eagle Rock), and renewed popularity around the world quickly put an end to those conversations.
Although they have only released an album of new music in more almost 25 years, the band has been busy emptying their vaults - releasing DVDs, live recordings and re-mastered packages of their platinum-selling albums. Now, they've released From the Bars to the Stars, SMF '82-'09, a fan’s treasure trove that includes five DVDs of live performances spanning the band’s nearly 40-year career. The set also includes such unique treats as a Christmas ornament, a classic-logo button and a reprint of the band’s first fan club letter.
Band founder and guitarist Jay Jay French apologizes for calling late. He’s been reading Keith Richard’s recent biography and has been trying to imitate him. "The autobiography is so well written,’ says French, "Keith could not have written this himself. It’s actually cogent, sensible and practical."
The guitarist adds that he will eventually write a biography because his anecdotes, he says, are frigging ridiculous. "I'm going to do it from a business perspective," he explains, "Because I’ve managed Twisted Sister for years. When you’re a manager-artist, your perspective is really interesting. You’re both asshole and the problem solver."
• New Yorkers who want to get rid of their heroin habit would do well to find a private heroin rehab in New York that will give them exactly the treatment help that they need.
JAM: Are you managing anyone other than Twisted Sister?
Jay Jay French - There’s no music industry anymore. So, I’m only working with Twisted Sister.
JAM: Sevendust is the other act you’re best known for managing.
And when we parted company they never recovered. The band asked me to work with them again. They said I was the only guy who understood them. I said, "You shouldn’t have fired me." But we had a philosophical difference. I don’t like drugs and alcohol. They love drugs and alcohol. They did so much cocaine that Keith Richards wasn’t safe on [their tour] bus.
JAM: It has been noted that Twisted Sister are staunchly anti-drugs and alcohol.
I don't think we were anti-drugs or alcohol. Our work ethic made it impossible for us to do that stuff. We mentioned to our record label that we didn’t get high and they gave us grief. They didn’t want us to admit it. I’m in the only business where snorting blow and cheating on your wife is not only allowed, but encouraged. If you don’t do those things, you’re perceived to be a dysfunctional moron. You’re allowed to stunt your emotional and behavioral development in exchange for profit. We were annoyed we couldn’t be more open about it. We weren’t saying that if you got high you’d die; we just thought that if you indulged in drugs and alcohol, you’d limit your options for success.
JAM: Is it true that you had a drug past?
I was involved in everything, including heroin. Then, my friends started dying in their early 70s. I made the decision to stop using six months before I formed Twisted Sister. I’m a '60s hippie whose drug experimentation started by smoking pot. Our parents told us it would lead to heroin and we laughed, but they were right. I woke up one morning and realized I was going to die. The last day I got fucked up was Easter Sunday, 1972. Then I had to leave New York to find a band, because I had this reputation for being this crazy hippie. I reinvented myself and introduced myself to this band in New Jersey who had no idea who I was. So I didn't get any pressure from them. I was able to reshape my life.
JAM: And 40 years later...
...I’m able to talk about this drug-taking guy in the third person. Dee and I did smoke a joint in 1976. I told him we should do it, so if anyone asked if we ever did drugs, we could say "yes." It was a joke. One of the members of our road crew gave it to us. The road crew gets everything we don’t want - drugs, groupies, etc. But that was the only time we did anything like that
JAM: Do you look at Twisted Sister as a band that has had three phases: the club years, the international success of the '80s and the reunion?
There are actually four phases. We also have to include the decade where the band’s members didn’t speak with each other. I look back on all it with a feeling of mystery and gratefulness. There is also some sadness, because the band that made it wasn’t the band that started. And the band that made it did so from the lessons learned by the band that started. Twisted Sister left behind a trail of tragedy from which I learned a lot about life. I cannot state emphatically enough this phrase, "There but for the grace of God go I." There are 11 ex-members of this band. The band that made it was, and remains, an extraordinary organization of professionals who learned how to survive. The proof is that we’re here today, eight years into a reunion which, by all accounts, should have ended seven years ago.
JAM: Success took you by surprise
Today, we’re more popular around the world than we’ve ever been. At our peak during the '80s, even though we had hit records, we were always special guests on most bills. We were never higher than seventh on a festival bill. Today, we’re one of the biggest festival headliners in the world. That’s a testament to the band’s professionalism. We learned it in the bars. We were like the vaudeville acts that became famous movie stars. When asked how they learned their craft, they said they got their asses kicked in the Catskills. We got our asses kicked all over the tri-state area. Then we became predatory. We knew that the only way to succeed was to blow away other bands. If you blew away bands, you got paid more. We learned how to create controlled riots. To this day, the techniques learned back then is what makes this band so formidable. When we can't do it anymore, we’ll hang it up.
JAM: Before the 2006 release of A Twisted Christmas, Dee had an end day in site. He saw the band ending in less than six months. Did the album’s success save Twisted Sister?
It played a small part. It helped our popularity in the U.S., but we seldom play in the States. Most people in Europe and Asia don’t care about the record. Twisted Sister has two distinct personalities. In the U.S., we remain a rock band with a gimmick. Throughout Europe and South America, we’re a fire-breathing, hell-raising heavy metal band that performs at these massive festivals and stands toe to toe with the Slayer’s of the world.
JAM: In all seriousness, that’s really great to hear.
During the last 12 months, we’ve performed in 13 countries. When we arrived in South America, it felt like "Beatlemania." It wasn’t 45-year-old people who were coming to see the band, but 17-year old kids, who were losing their fucking minds, singing along with the songs and playing air guitar during solos. If I didn’t play in Argentina, I would not have experienced the most insane audience I have ever played to. How insane is that country’s music fans? Look where AC/DC recorded their last DVD. When we played Brazil - as proud as Brazilians are - they told us, "Wait until you get to Argentina."
JAM: Was Bent Brother, aka Twisted Sister performing sans makeup, costumes and theatrics, invented to get away from being "a gimmick"?
We wanted to keep our chops up for the summer European festival season. It was our chance to practice and get our live show together in front of an audience.
JAM: What was the reaction to the band playing without makeup?
When Twisted Sister decided to take the makeup off two summers ago, we thought it could turn out to be a big mistake, but we received the best reviews of our career. I sat at home waiting for the fallout. I checked the e-mail and got exactly one negative message which read, "I went to see Twisted Sister. I heard you guys wear makeup. You weren’t wearing any. Great show!" Nobody cared. We didn’t lose any existing fans and people who didn’t like the makeup now liked us.
JAM: Was taking off the makeup a way of subconsciously trying to end the group?
Everything we’ve done to try and end the group - record a Christmas CD, take off the makeup -has only made us stronger. So, when people ask, "How long are you going to continue?" I say, "When Greece and Spain cals and makes us an offer, we’d be dumb not to take it." We usually only do one show a year in a given country, and we only do 12 countries a year, so you cannot say that we’re burning ourselves out.
JAM: Despite Twisted Sister’s resurgence, the band has no plans to record a new album?
It doesn’t matter if you compose a new song. People are paying to see and hear 17 other songs. For any band that has been around 30 years or more - if they don’t understand that the public could not give a fuck about a new track – they are delusional. Even if you have a stupid desire to record a new album, because you think someone might care and you dare to announce you’re playing a song from it, most of the crowd will leave to go to the bathroom. We recorded a new song called "30," which we’ve nicknamed "The Bathroom Song." Dee has made such a point about it that it’s embarrassed people into staying in their seats when we play it. He’ll say, "In 15 minutes, we’re playing our new song. Get ready to go buy your drink. In 10 minutes, we’re playing our new song. Get ready to go and take a piss. The new song is coming up in five minutes. Get ready to leave." When you go to see a veteran band, what’s going to make you happier, hearing a classic or hearing a new song?
JAM: You are sounding cynical about aging rock and roll bands
I’m just being realistic. For instance, I went to see The Rolling Stones in 2002. I was interested in seeing an aging band perform in front of aging fans. I made a couple of observations. One, their fans are so old they don’t clap because they’re afraid the lights will go on in the arena. The second, I saw the Stones do a 15-minute version of "Love Train." I like the song, but The Stones didn’t write and record it. That’s not what I spent $315 to sit and listen to. I wanted to see and hear them play their hits. Twisted Sister has learned the art of audience fulfillment - play exactly what the audience wants to hear, exactly how it sounds on the record, and you’ll never go wrong. I hate when these bands say, "We can’t go backwards. We’re not a nostalgia band." Fuck those bands! Yes, they are nostalgia. Why is 'nostalgia’ such a bad word? It’s entertainment. Musicians are paid to entertain.
JAM: Why did you decided to release the five-DVD box set From the Bars to the Stars, Three Decades Live, SMF 82-90, now?
We released the re-mastered versions of our albums. We released our debut, Under the Blade, packaged with the live show. We released a double-live DVD. Warner Bros. released the Live at the Marque CD. It’s the last five minutes of a fireworks display. This is everything we have in the vault. Why are we doing it now? Because we’re not releasing new material and we are trying to keep our fan base excited.
JAM: Why a DVD Box Set?
Every band of value has released a box set. When we resigned with Eagle Rock Entertainment, it was predicated on the release of a box set. A box set mean a group has a past that is worthy of acknowledgement. Also, if you don’t own the other stuff already, you now have the chance to own all of it along with the bonus Christmas show and the collectibles.
JAM: When you look back at the early performances included in this set, what immediately comes to mind?
How much Jenny Craig would it take to get back there? How fast we played. How fast we talked. The older a band gets the slower they speak on stage. Not because they’re older, but because they’ve been around the world and know the PA systems don’t function well and many people don’t speak English. During the first couple of tours it was "Heymuthafuckershowyadoing, blah, blah, blah." Now, it’s "Hello. Holland. How - Are - You - Doing - Tonight?" We were a pretty powerful band back then. The North Stage Theater show (from 1982 and featured on box set’s first DVD), was the final refinement of the club days. It was a powerful presentation of what a bar band could be. We were a machine. But look at the Live at Wacken, 2003 DVD. That’s a huge machine. But it could not have existed without the bar band version. The confidence we built during the bar years helped us build the confidence to do what we do now. We are an iceberg. Presentation is the top one percent. Underneath it is the entire history of this band. And it includes every club that existed in the Tri-State area.
JAM: Twisted Sister played three hour-long sets of music each night in the clubs.
Do you know the 10,000 hour theory? If you do anything for 10,000 hours you become a pro at it. We put our 10,000 hours in at the bars. We played three hours a night doing about 2500 shows before we signed our record deal. That’s 7500 hours. Then you throw in the rehearsal and recording time and we were around 10,000 hours. How many bands today still do that?
JAM: I miss the thriving New York / New Jersey / Connecticut bar scene of the '70s and early '80s.
The bar scene has created a number of great performers including Springsteen and Southside Johnny. Great musical performers learn their chops in the bars. When I look at Springsteen today, I say, "Okay, that’s Bar 101." I can’t look at him any other way. I know where he came from.
JAM: Despite Twisted Sister’s clean living habits, the band became the poster child for the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Committee).
Laws were passed to keep us out of certain towns.
JAM: Today, the band is embraced as "family friendly."
All hell raisers eventually become pleasers. Elvis wound up in Las Vegas. Eminem will wind up in Las Vegas someday. "When you’re 25, you’re raising hell. When you’re 50, you’re raising kids!" Another example of how society has changed? During the '50s, white conservative men thought rock and roll was music played by black men and full of sex and violence. When John McCain - a white moderate Republican - ran for president, however, his theme song was Chuck Berry’s "Johnny B. Goode." That would have never happened 40 years ago. Everything is less dangerous as time goes on. Twisted Sister is no longer perceived to be as dangerous as we were once perceived to be. But are we really any different than we once were? No. All we did back then was work hard. We’ve always been true to who we are.
JAM: Is it ironic that political parties want to use "We’re Not Gonna Take It" as their theme song?
I don’t know if it is ironic. "We’re Not Gonna Take It" has become a folk song. The Tea Party wants it and so does Occupy Wall Street. The song speaks to people. That song and "I Wanna Rock" are two of the reasons why the band remains so successful today. Another reason why we are successful today? We’re touring with the same lineup that recorded all but one of the albums (the band’s last album of original music, '87’s Love is for Suckers features session drummer Joey Franco in place of A.J. Pero). How many bands can say that? ZZ Top and Aerosmith are among the few bands currently touring with their most popular lineups.
JAM: Aerosmith remains a remarkable story, losing both their guitarists for a spell only to reunite with them and enjoy greater success.
Early on, Aerosmith recorded great albums, but were horrible live. During the '70s, the joke on Long Island was that the cover bands played Aerosmith songs better than Aerosmith. That all changed when they got back together with Joe Perry and Brad Whitford. Eddie (Ojeda) and I went to see the Aerosmith in ’75 and they were the pits. They were worse live than the New York Dolls and it takes a lot to suck worse than that live. I went to see The New York Dolls throughout the summer of ’72 when they played at the Mercer Arts Center in New York. They looked great, but sounded horrible. I thought if a band could look good and play, that would be a winning combination.
JAM: The New York Dolls were so horrible live they are credited with helping to create Punk.
You can’t discount The Dictators and the Ramones. Punk was created when a bunch of Jewish kids from the Bronx and Queens, New York had a funny idea about the music business and they took it to an extreme. The British thought it was for real.
JAM: And Twisted Sister’s bassist, Mark "The Animal" Mendoza was once a member of The Dictators.
Actually three members of The Dictators were one-time members of Twisted Sister - Mark, Ritchie Teeter and Mel Anderson, who was Twisted Sister’s very first drummer. He became The Dictator’s drummer many years later.
JAM: I’ve always believed that Twisted Sister play a role in the death of disco. Weren’t you the first rock band to perform at 2001, the famed Brooklyn disco, where most of the Saturday Night Fever dance scenes were filmed?
We defrocked it. Twisted Sister became known as the band that could help destroy a club. It was done for insurance purposes. It happened first at Hammerheads. The club’s owner was having a fight with the landlord, so he told me to announce that people could take whatever they wanted. People in the audience started ripping toilets out of the floor and the payphones out of the wall. At four in the morning, someone pulled the false ceiling down and the entire air conditioning system cracked open, flooding the room. Emmitt’s owner called soon after and said, "I’m going out of business, tell your fans to take what they want." When we played there, the same thing happened. Our fans wrecked the place. Then we played 2001 and people destroyed the John Travolta wallpaper and the disco ball. Some people didn’t understand that there was a side to Twisted Sister that was purely performance art.
In ’77 we’d play The Velvet Underground’s "Sweet Jane" for 45 minutes and the crowd would sing along. It started as a joke. The crowd started drinking more and more during the song, so we started giving alcohol away. I didn’t drink, so I didn’t realize just how much alcohol we were giving away. People started throwing up on stage. So we developed the Drink to You Vomit Gong Show. We had garbage cans on stage where people could throw up. We started drawing huge amounts of people who would come to just see it. At the end of the summer, we had the Drink to You Die Gong Show. That was when one club’s owner said, "Someone could actually die doing this." The winner of that gong show got a case of beer.
JAM: The Live at Reading, 1982 DVD features the show that marked the turning point for Twisted Sister throughout Europe.
It was the band’s coming out performance following the recording of our debut Under the Blade. It was the Reading Jazz and Blues festival and it featured a weird bill that included Iron Maiden and Dave Edmunds. We went on at three in the afternoon and the audience wasn’t exactly accommodating. Dee worked his ass off, the band played its ass off and eventually Motorhead’s Lemmy and Fast Eddie Clarke as well as UFO’s Pete Way joined us on stage and we won the crowd over.
JAM: Another important show included in the box set is New York Steel, 2001: The Reunion Show
In August 2001, MTV / VH1 did an episode of "Behind the Music" featuring Twisted Sister. It was edited in a horrific way. After seeing it I thought no one in the band would talk with anyone again. We had recorded "Heroes are Hard to Find" for the Strangeland soundtrack (a film written and starring Dee Snider). We were trying to get back together, but the song was written and recorded separately, because no one wanted to be in the same room. Then 9/11 happened.
JAM: Wasn’t Classic Rock DJ and "That Metal Show" host Eddie Trunk instrumental in getting the band back together?
Eddie wanted us to reunite for a 9/11 benefit show. I told him I’d call people, but I thought everyone would just hang up on me. Everyone in the band said, "Whatever needs to be done, let’s do it." It was a very mature thing to say. We were going to put aside our differences because the aftermath of 9/11 was way more important. We did the show, but we didn’t want the show to bring attention to Twisted Sister and a reunion and money. We were there to honor the New York City police and fire departments and New Yorkers. It was not about advancing our career. We didn’t do any press leading up to the event. It was just "Let’s play the show and go home."
JAM: And that’s exactly what the band did. A full-blown reunion was still not in the cards?
The next day, someone said to me, "You must have had a great time hanging out after the show." As soon as the show ended, I took my daughter by the hand, stepped outside of the Hammerstein Ballroom, headed to Eighth Avenue, hailed a cab and went home. Mendoza called me a few days later and asked if I had heard from any of the other guys in the band and I said no. There was nothing. I figured the show did exactly what it was supposed to do - raise money for the police and fire department’s widow’s funds. That’s why the video was so poorly shot. Filming it was done as an afterthought; just to document the show.
JAM: How did the reunion finally come together?
The offers started coming in. Derek Oliver, from Kerrang Magazine, wrote me and said that he attended the show figuring Twisted Sister would be sad and pathetic. But by the end he was crying it was so good. So we knew we still had the chops and that was what gave us the confidence to consider doing something. We were offered record deals the next day. I told them, "It’s not going to happen." That is why I enjoy watching the show on DVD. I know it was done purely for altruistic reasons.
JAM: How much have things changed for the band during the 30 years covered on the DVD box set?
Thirty years ago, our weekend would be Poughkeepsie on Thursday, Stony Brook, Long Island on Friday and Asbury Park, New Jersey on Saturday. Now it’s Bulgaria on Thursday, the Czec Republic on Friday and Spain on Saturday. It’s just a lot more travel.
JAM: Sadly the club scenes have died throughout most of States.
When young bands ask me for advice, I tell them they should be so lucky because no one gave me advice. I tell them, when I was 20, the drinking age was 18. Gasoline was 39 cents a gallon. Hotels were $19 a night. Truck rentals were $25 a week. There were thousands of clubs to play. You made $150 dollars a night. And there was a record industry. Now, the drinking age is 21, gas is four dollars a gallon, there are no clubs to play and there is no record industry. My advice - stay in school! Most kids got into rock and roll because they had stardom in their eyes. There was the dream of selling millions of records and becoming a millionaire. Now that dream is over.