Peter Wolf: A Hard Drivin' Man

Well, hold on this song has a little introduction to it
It ain't supposed to be sad though you might feel it that way
It's a song about desperation
Every now and then we do get desperate

This is a song about L O V E and if you abuse it you're gon' lose it
And if you lose it you're gon' 'buse and if you 'buse it
You ain't gon' be able to choose it
'Cuz you ain't gon' have it further on down the line

Things ain't gon' be so fine, you're gon' to be sitting there
On your little machine tryin' to look and keep it clean
And you're goin' to be playin' bingo all night all alone
And that's why you're sittin' there by the telephone
And you know that she ain't goin' to call you

So you put on the TV and you're watchin' Johnny Carson
Segueing right into the Tomorrow show but that don't got the go
So you turn it off and turn on the radio
The radio don't seem to get the click so you say
"Hey man, I can't lickety split"

You start to open up a little book
And there's somethin' there you got to overlook
And you say "Baby, you know there's somethin' on my mind"
You say, "Baby there's somethin' on my mind
I know that you're home and I know you ain't all alone"

So you start walkin' over to her house
You get over to her house, you walk over to her door
You start poundin' on her door and you say
"Open up the door bitch
This is Wooba Gooba with the green teeth, let me in"

Well, she opens up the door
And then you just kinda walk up to her and say, "Baby"
You look up way up at her green mascara
And you say "Oh my darlin', you know her and me
Was at the party as friends, do not believe what they say
That's only gossip that they tellin' you down the wise crack of lies"

You say, "Darlin', take your big curls
And just squeeze 'em down, Ratumba"
What's the name of that chick with the long hair? Rapunzel
"Hey Rapunzel, hey Reputa, hey Reputa, Reputa the Buta
Hey Reputa the Beautah flip me down your hair
And let me climb up the ladder of your love

"Because this is the Wooba Gooba sayin' to ya
Love comes once and when it comes
You better grab it fast 'cuz sometimes the love
You grab ain't gon' last and I believe I musta
You know I think I musta, you know, baby, I think I musta
You know I think I musta, I musta got lost"

Intro to "Musta Got Lost," from the J. Geils Band's Blow Your Face Out (1976)

Don't get me wrong—it was a nice surprise. It's always good to find another member of the cult, someone else interested in music and sound, and proud to be called an audiophile. But . . . Peter Wolf? Famously extroverted onstage, a Boston-cum-Bronx character best known the world over for his stream-of-consciousness introduction to the song "Musta Got Lost," from the J. Geils Band's second live album, Blow Your Face Out (see above), Wolf is the man millions of women wanted to have for most of the 1970s, when he fronted the band. I don't know what I was expecting from him—rock-star gibberish, perhaps—but it wasn't this:

"What's John Atkinson like?"

"Here's the $64,000 question: What's in your system?"

Yes—the lean, bearded, gifted scat tawker, who spent five years of the late 1970s married to actress Faye Dunaway, is a longtime Stereophile subscriber who wanted to talk, in calm, measured tones, about power conditioners and turntables (he has a Rega). I'd called to talk to Wolf about his latest solo record, A Cure for Loneliness, but he interviewed me. Peter Wolf has been into high-end gear for many years.

"When I was growing up, I knew a gentleman who founded one of the first audiophile businesses in New York, Thalia Music. It was right underneath the Thalia movie theater, which was a fine-arts theater in the Bronx. As business progressed, he moved to Madison Avenue. He had people like Leonard Bernstein, Itzhak Perlman, and Jascha Heifetz; people from the theater world—Moss Hart. He did all their systems. I remember being in his shop and listening to something, and I asked, 'Where's the Loudness button?' And he looked at me and said, 'We don't have Loudness buttons on this kind of equipment, Peter.' He started to explain to me the world of what became components and parts. But it was my decision to try different equipment to upgrade the listening experience.

"Living in Boston and, at the time, having some—unfortunately, many of them have closed down now—a good amount of audio shops to check out, I got to know a lot of the people in different stores, and they would bring over different kinds of gear that I could test in my room. At first I thought tube equipment would be the answer, but once I had some very fine tube equipment, I realized my ears were used to . . . there was a certain sluggishness about the tubes that worked for certain music very well, but all around, it didn't have a certain sharpness, that certain presence. We went through Conrad-Johnson and different tube things, different cartridges—it was very exciting and very interesting. When you come to the realization that even a cable going from the preamp into the CD player can make so much difference, you start walking into a terrain that's pretty fascinating. But you may need some therapeutic help making sure you don't get in too deep."

Like most gear and music fans who aren't superrich and who live in small urban apartments, Wolf has heard enough gear that he likes to find value: the gear ordinaire that sounds like a grand cru.

"It's so interesting reading your magazine, some of the letters and the different reviews. It's not unlike reading reviews of wine, describing the butternut and the hint of licorice, and they are very deep into it. I'm a bourbon drinker. I enjoy a good glass of bourbon every now and then. I find what's most interesting is having blindfold tests where I don't know what bourbon—single-barrel, 12-year, 20-year—and sometimes the palate gets surprised when what one thinks is a higher quality, in blind tasting doesn't really prove to be true. The same with audiophile equipment. I had one cartridge that was very high-end, and I changed to another which costs, like, $150—and I loved it. It brought everything to life. It's those kind of experiences that are frightening in one way, but really exciting in another."

Does this man get it or what?

To digress from audiophilism for just a moment: From 1967 until 1983, and ever since in fits and starts, Wolf (born Peter Blankenfield), was in a band that flirted with success with its best records, and finally achieved it with its worst. Despite a solid 10-album career on Atlantic Records that included one modest success (Bloodshot, 1973) and a number of underappreciated moments (virtually all their other studio records), the J. Geils Band is perhaps the most deserving act not yet inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After splitting from Atlantic in 1978, following the release of Monkey Island (the album cover was a black-and-white shot of Wolf in profile), the Geils Band turned toward sweet, empty pop and, not surprisingly, scored huge Top 40 radio singles with "Love Stinks" (1980) and "Centerfold" (1981). In 1983, Wolf left the band under less-than-amicable circumstances.

"When the artistic problems started to happen, the band wanted to move in a different direction, get more commercial, poppier, and so it was decided that it might be better for me to sort of venture off on my own. It was an unpleasant period, because bands are very special things. They are unique, like great love affairs, and when they fall apart it's usually very difficult. At least, it was for me.

"The band had been together for 17 years, and I had played a key role in a lot of the developments of it, and it was very heartbreaking when it seemed to run into so many problems. As Springsteen said, I think in his Hall of Fame induction, it's easy to get a band together; the real challenge, and the hard part, is to keep it together."

But what a band it was. No one outside Springsteen and the E Street Band in their prime could out-work, out-energy J. Geils when they hit the stage. Anyone who participated in the madness—a churning sea of fast tempos, a band supremely together, estrogen run amok—will forget seeing the band live. I remember a girlfriend who coerced me into waiting in line for hours before a number of Geils shows, so we could be among the first to run into the theater and belly up to the stage. Other than several other sheepish-looking boyfriends who had been similarly shanghaied, the pit was just a seething mass of hot and bothered females, gnashing their teeth and readily clutching at Wolf's always half-unbuttoned shirt. In the entire history of rock music, the Geils Band may be the best example of a group whose live recordings are so infinitely superior to their studio recordings—hello, Grateful Dead fans!—that it's natural to wonder if the explanation is as simple as: To play at their best, they needed a crowd.

"Atlantic pretty much left us alone, for better or worse. As a matter of fact, our first album was basically done in about 18 hours. It was basically two producers who were very good, but didn't have any understanding of where we were coming from. They would say, 'Play what you got.' And we'd play a song. And they'd say, 'Play another one.' I'd tell them the title, and we'd play that. That's pretty much how the record was made. It happened very fast. I don't even know if we were aware that, you know, they were even recording a lot of what became the first album.

"I really enjoy the live recordings the most. There are several things. A, there's an energy that's captured, and being that it's a performance, you also get a sense of the excitement and interaction between the band and the audience. And I find those to be, for me, most appealing. When you get into the performance, the sound issue is not as prevalent or as meaningful, doesn't play as important a role, because you get caught up in the actual show. There's an abandonment . . . on stage. You're focused—at least, I am—on the audience and other things, and so the live recordings become less inhibited, and have more of an abandonedness and charm for me that I tend to enjoy."

Asked to name a favorite Geils record, Wolf didn't blink. "Oh, Full House. It's probably, in total, my favorite because, for memories' sake, it's like an old photograph that captures a decisive moment of where we were."

One discovery on Wolf's new solo record, though not as unexpected as Wolf's affinity for high-end gear, is the presence, on A Cure for Loneliness, of an acoustic, bluegrass-ized version of "Love Stinks" that really works. In fact, the new record could be called Peter Wolf Goes Country, which isn't such a shock considering this is the co-writer of "Cry One More Time," a tune covered by Gram Parsons on GP, his first solo record. Three tunes on the new record are covers of song-stories from the world of pre-pop country music. "It Was Always So Easy (To Find an Unhappy Woman)" was written by Whitey Shafer and Doodle Owens, and first recorded in 1974, by Moe Bandy. In 1959, Thomas Wayne waxed "Tragedy" (not to be confused with the Bee Gees song of the same title), later cut by Paul McCartney and Wings for Red Rose Speedway in a version that remains unreleased. The closing track on A Cure for Loneliness is "Stranger," a number most closely associated with Lefty Frizzell's recording.

"It always astounds me when people who love blues say they hate country and people who love country say they hate the blues. To me, they're the same. Both are blue-collar music, entertainment for people who have to work. On a Friday night, for country it was the honky-tonks, and for blues it was the juke joints. The lyrical aspects of the stories are so similar. I had the pleasure of knowing Muddy Waters, and I remember him telling me he always listened to the [Grand Ole] Opry, and he used to play Gene Autry songs early on. I think in the south, in the late '40s and '50s, the country singers and the blues singers were really coming from the same place. So many of the great country singers—Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams—were so influenced by the blues artists around them. It was part of the whole landscape. And, of course, Elvis really brought it to a head, because he was totally fixated on R&B and blues and, of course, country."

Most R&B singers don't know country music, and a lot of musicians, who to be fair are more focused on playing than on listening to music, have no idea or seem to care about the sound quality of their recordings. Wolf is an exception to both rules.

"It's important for me that my answer gets in there. I've found that to be the case [that most musicians know little about recorded sound], but Not—and I say that with a capital NNot with the musicians that I work with, who are very focused on what they feel it should be sounding like. When we go into the listening room, each person is listening not only to their performance, but to the sonic sense of what's being captured. Is the snare or the foot having the sound they want? Is the guitar having as lush a sound as they might be wanting?

"It is interesting, in the musical world, what people listen to. I know guitar players and drummers tend to be very particular about the strings and the vintage guitars that they have and the equipment that they use. They are very precise, the ones I really enjoy playing with, but that doesn't follow through in the audio sense of things. I've always been struck by what they use for listening—they seem to compromise in that area. Once you have a system that's really enjoyable, however, it's hard to walk away from that."

Okay, Pete, you're a serious, studious audiophile—we get it. But what about that unhinged rap from "Musta Got Lost," quoted in its entirely above and sometimes credited for being rap before that genre existed?

"Totally unplanned, totally spontaneous. A deejay in Los Angeles, Mary Turner, started playing the rap on the radio, and suddenly crowds [at J. Geils concerts] started screaming for the rap. It became as important as the song."

Wolf snorted and laughed. "Unpredictable things happen."

deckeda's picture

I appreciate learning a little of the history and perspective. As fans, it's frustrating to learn when musicians/producers either don't try to convey all of their music, or have given up because they figure it's pointless or irrelevant to try. Just today I read of someone else who took the effort (and, $$$) to record to 2" tape but I bet you a dollar it got mixed in ProTools and the LP cut from that. "Good enough" is just that, but no more.

Anton's picture

I think that Maurice Chevalier, Isaac Hayes, and Lou Reed were rapping long before Peter came along.

Anyway, I love Peter Wolf and am glad he is still striving.

Did you invite him to any of the audiophile shows?

Anton's picture

I would love to see him open for the Stones at the upcoming Dessert Trip Festival.

Hello, 1981!

RelaxWithPep's picture

.. I've ever seen. I saw many of his shows in the '70s in Detroit and Chicago. These hard-partying, mid-western, R&B-loving, industrial cities, with their great heritages of blues and soul, lit up when the Geils band was in town. But what kind of audio set up does he have, for crying out loud?

Allen Fant's picture

Excellent article- what gear does PW own in his system?