Jay Jay French: Twisted Business: Lessons from My Life in Rock'n'Roll Page 2

"When it starts to impact your ability to get to gigs, play gigs, get to rehearsals, meet with producers, get forward momentum to your career, it's not good. The band had fits and starts and fits and starts. Within two years, the singer and the drummer got in a fight, and the singer had brought a rifle ... because we were playing in upstate Massachusetts and there was a family of hunters who lived in the same building that the band was staying in and they said to Michael [O'Neill, the founding lead vocalist], "Next time you come up, we'll go hunting.

"I walked in and watched this potential murder. I thought to myself, my life is over. I'm watching a murder. I'll be a witness at a murder trial and my career in rock'n'roll was done. Michael threw the gun down, and they had a fist fight, and we broke up that band." Jay Jay's girlfriend left him. His mother died. It was 1974. French then fell into an extended, deep depression. "Stopped eating, stopped sleeping. I should have gotten professional help. I did not." On the day of his mother's funeral, he started keeping a diary. In time it became his special form of self-therapy. "I was able to go back through these diaries and see my mental state and see where I overcame all these problems and how they were really big problems at the time, but they all worked themselves out. ... Some people will say, 'I prayed to God. God got me through.' Some people will say, 'I just drank myself through it.' ... All I ever said was 'Man, I got to figure this shit out.'"

French gradually emerged from his depression, and the band reinvented itself several times. They were still a bar band, doing covers. As singers changed, the music did, too, from glam David Bowie to Rod Stewart to Led Zeppelin. During one stage, they played Percy Sledge—picture Twisted Sister covering "When a Man Loves a Woman." For a while, Jay Jay took over vocals.


'52 Gibson Les Paul

Classic rock'n'roll road story: Mel, who was the drummer and the founder of Silver Star, "conspired to screw me and the bass player and take the truck." It would be their last gambit with the band. "They took the truck from us and held it for ransom." They asked for $2500 but settled for $1000. "We paid them off and then got the truck back and the gear was destroyed."

The two remaining members of Twisted Sister, Jay Jay and bassist Kenny Harrison Neill, took regular jobs for a while: Jay Jay was working as a waiter for a catering company. Then things started to take shape. Jay Jay invited his old friend Eddie Ojeda to join the band. Dannie "Dee" Snider was hired as singer: Dee could sing Led Zeppelin covers. They hired a new drummer, but he wasn't the last.

By this time, the band had a strict policy: no drinking or drugs. Kenny, a closet alcoholic, joined AA, which led him to the church, which alienated him from the band. Kenny was replaced by Mark "The Animal" Mendoza, formerly of seminal punk band The Dictators.

"We went through a succession of drummers. Drugs and alcohol issues, just ridiculous, stupid, one after the other, like Spinal Tap." Like Spinal Tap, in which the drummer spontaneously combusts, or anyway that's the story. Finally, A. J. Pero joined the band. It was that version of the band—the 11th iteration—that hit it big.


'54 Les Paul Junior.

Cue the money, cocaine, wild parties, women. Not.

This wasn't that kind of band. Jay Jay French wasn't that kind of rock star. For one thing, he was too busy managing the band. "As much as I would love to have become a rock star, I'm too busy fighting with the trucking company and the lighting company, and my road crew is fucking up, and you don't get any rest from this. In a way it's good, because it keeps you grounded at all times. Because you can't really lose yourself in this rock stardom, because you're too busy dealing with the bullshit that you have to deal with for business."

For another thing, by the time the band hit the bigtime, Jay Jay was a seasoned pro; he knew better than to take success too seriously. "I never believed that when we made it, we were going to make it forever, so I never altered my lifestyle. I lived exactly the same way. ... I just always said to myself that fame is rented and it's bullshit anyway. They'll love you for a while, and then they won't love you anymore. Why get sucked into it?

"I was 34 when the band broke really big. At that point, I was so tired and cynical that I just wanted a check. I didn't give a shit about the fame, and besides, who wants to be famous?"


'56 Les Paul Junior.

Jay Jay French, audiophile
Soon after I arrived at his apartment, Jay Jay put a record on his VPI 40th Anniversary HW-40 Direct Drive turntable with the gimbaled (not unipivot) version of the Fat Boy tonearm. The cartridge was—is—Ortofon's MC A95.

Jay Jay uses Pass Laboratories amplification: the XP-32 preamplifier and XA30.8 stereo amplifier. His speakers are Magico A3s, the smaller brothers of the A5 I reviewed a few months back. He has a PS Audio PerfectWave SACD Transport and DirectStream DAC, and his phono preamplifier is the Simaudio Moon 810. He uses Wireworld, AudioQuest, and Triode Wire Labs cabling and a Chord English Electric network switch. The room's walls are QuietRock over cinderblock. A whole-room rug covers the wood-on-concrete floor. It's a lovely system, ideally suited for the smallish room it occupies. It's the latest iteration of a decades-long quest for better reproduced sound.


1962 Gibson ES-345.

"The first stereo I bought was a Sony receiver, a pair of KLH 6 speakers, an AR XA manual turntable, and a Shure M91 cartridge. ... You bring it home, you get the zip cord, and you plug it in.

"Oh my God, all of a sudden, life opened up. I think within a month, I bought a copy of Stereo Review, and an advertisement in one of the side panels was for a Rabco arm. I thought, 'That looks cool. A Rabco arm. It tracks the way a record is cut. Wow. That's kind of cool.' I bought it. It came with a C-cell battery. I ripped out the tonearm, I drilled the base, I mounted the arm, and it worked. That was the beginning of the whole fucked-up, never-ending search of upgrades."

At first he was a modder: He'd buy a new turntable and rip out the tonearm, put in a linear-tracking arm. He'd do the same thing with guitars: buy a Gibson Les Paul and immediately replace the pickups, gouging a hole.

He and a friend had the same Dynaco amplification components—but his friend had built his, while Jay Jay had bought his already built. His friend's sounded better. "I thought, "Wow. Same gear can sound better? Same company, same stuff, but it sounds better because maybe he took more time to wire it? I was curious about why, sonically, it sounded better."


The defaced original fretboard from Jay Jay's '52 Gibson Les Paul.

Jay Jay has always had a special love for turntables—he loves their mechanical nature. He bought a Garrard Zero 100 with the tangential arm. Then he bought an Empire 598 Troubadour, "because it was gold and it looked like King Tut's tomb." He replaced the 598 with a Dual 1019, the Dual with a Thorens TD-124. And so on. "This is a path that cannot be unusual to any of the people who read your magazine, of a certain age."

At this point, our discussion digressed to Jay Jay's guitar collection. He showed me a 1952 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top. A 1953 Martin 00-18. Several Les Paul Juniors from various years. "They're my favorite. They were only $99 new, but they're what Leslie West played. They're just tone machines." A "dead-mint" 1956 Fender Telecaster. A '54 Les Paul Junior—Jay Jay's "holy grail" guitar.

For years, while touring, he didn't have much time for hi-fi. But then one day he had a little more time, and he picked up a copy of Stereophile. "I moved back here to this apartment. I picked up my first copy of Stereophile and my first copy of [The] Absolute Sound, and that just fucked me up completely."

He bought a Klyne preamp. He bought Acoustat 2+2 speakers and put them in a small room. He bought an Audio Research SP-11. And on and on.

After so many years playing loud rock music, Jay Jay admits to some hearing loss, but he can still hear the subtleties of a good hi-fi system. "I cannot hear my wife talk to me," he told me, "but I can tell you the cables were changed and this changed and that changed."


Jay Jay French today.

Not too many rock stars, I'm thinking, go into retail sales. Jay Jay did: He took a job at Lyric Hi-Fi, one of the country's most prestigious dealers. For four years, he sold equipment and hung out with the sales staff and learned their secrets. He took home the finest equipment and listened to it in his own system. He described some of his experiences in a My Back Pages essay he wrote for Stereophile on the occasion of Lyric's closing..

A lifetime of experience—but especially his experience at Lyric—have left him a little bit cynical about the hi-fi scene.

For one thing, he isn't happy with the increasing prices of luxury gear. He visited Michael Fremer's place recently, at a time when Mikey had three 'tables on hand that together cost more than a million dollars. "I realized, I've reached the mountaintop of crazy," he said to me. "I have reached the fucking last stop in Crazyville."

And yet, he remains a serious and committed audiophile. "I'm fascinated by the ongoing technical desires of companies to get better and better and better. To get closer to the mixing console. Because at the end of the day, that's as close as you're going to get. ... I don't care how much bullshit someone tries to feed you, you don't get any closer than the mixing console." I'd say that's Jay Jay's audiophile philosophy in a nutshell, and it's a good one. "How many layers of reproduction take you away?"


Aja1's picture

While I don't particularly enjoy his music, I found this to be an enjoyable read. I respect a musician who is able to listen enough to be an audiophile. More often than not I find that musicians need you to listen to them, not the other way around.

Michael David's picture

"Twisted Sister was playing five shows a night, six days a week. They played thousands of shows."

As far as the content is concerned i have two thoughts. JJ has written that Twisted Sister played over 9000 shows. 5 sets a night are sets, not shows. And you can get closer than the mixing console, they’re called instruments and microphones.

Twisted Sister music never grabbed me either, that said, i do respect anyone with the courage to get up on stage and perform music.

Allen Fant's picture

Another +vote for great article- JA2.

bhkat's picture

....when you can't hear your wife but can still hear the audio equipment. :)

teched58's picture

"Transvestite metal band." Really? Aside from the provincialism of this characterization, it's not really correct. The New York Dolls are a good example of a band which engaged in gender-bending dress. Twisted Sister was merely flamboyant. Dee Snider always looks like a guy, face paint notwithstanding.

Vocalion's picture

Jay Jay French has a podcast called the Jay Jay French Connection. In June of last year he devoted two podcasts to interviews with Michael Fremer and Ken Kessler together. They’re absolutely worth hearing.