J Geils and the Death of the American Band

To name a band after one member is to plant the seed of that band’s demise.  The J Geils Band—one of the most phenomenal live acts in the history of rock-and-roll—was a classic example.  Geils himself, while a gifted and tasteful guitar player, was arguably the least charismatic member of the band, which was fronted by Peter Wolf, a masterful entertainer who put the Pan back in panache, and which featured one of the greatest harp players of all time in Magic Dick.  Any band has a shot at success if it has a bare minimum of two things–a powerful drummer and an ethos—and the Geils band had both; the drummer in the snare-punishing Stephen Jo Bladd, and the ethos in a hip, blues-drenched party vibe that was streaked and haunted by an R&B sense of the darkness at the far edge of the footlights.  The Geils band married the ace musicianship of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band—the fertile crescent from which all American blues bands emerged—with a playful hey-kids-let’s-put-on-the-show-right-here inclusiveness that got everyone up and dancing.  And all that before they even released an album.  The hits came long after they had perfected their craft.

And I do mean they got everyone up and dancing. In the late 90s I was invited to see the band play outdoors at Jones Beach; my friends and erstwhile bandmates The Uptown Horns had joined the band for its live appearances, complementing the original blues-band lineup with all the power of their majestic brass.  My wife and I brought along my then 70-ish mother, and before the first tune was over, this wispy little gentile lady was standing up and doing some kind of wispy gentile version of the Mashed Potatoes, some Presbyterian Funky Chicken—I don’t know what it was, but the band liberated something within her.  The show was astonishing.  The band tore the roof of the joint that day—and at an outdoors venue!  When we went backstage after the show, the bass player, Danny Klein, came up to my mother and thanked her for dancing; he said that he keys on one audience member at every show to gauge how the set is going, and she was his barometer that afternoon.  Such are the tricks a performer used to learn in the days when performing was a craft as well as an art.

Like Butterfield, the Geils Band made the whole can-a-white-man-sing-the-blues debate seem tired and obsolete.  But in order to do so, the performers had to acquire true proficiency, and they also had to honor their forebears.  And what gifts those forebears gave to us!  I remember what it felt like to stand in front of a microphone at 16 and sing lyrics I was absurdly unqualified to sing:

I have had my fun
If I don’t get well no more;
You see my health is failin’
And I’m goin’ down slow…

I had to laugh at myself, as any white speedfreak punk with an ounce of self-awareness had to do, but I understood why those lyrics meant so much to me: they allowed me to say things that were wiser than what I knew.  To learn things far deeper than I would have learned  in college.

Inspired by the first Butterfield record, and by Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and by lesser-known R&B artists like Dyke and the Blazers and The Fantastic Johnny C, bands like mine were springing up all over America.  (I am not counting the teen surf bands we all joined, playing “Little Deuce Coupe” and “409,” many of which were called, for some reason, The Living End; at one point there must have been 300 Living Ends in America.)  We played funky bars for $50 a night, if that, and we schlepped our own amps on and off six-inch-high bandstands that were covered with ragged old bits of condemned carpeting stained with dog urine and blood, and we left the wiring of the instruments up to the bass player.  We played for the dancers, and like Danny Klein that day at Jones Beach, we gauged our success or failure by the number of those dancers, and the degree of their euphoria.

And in the process, our bands became tight social units.  In the words of one of my favorite gospel groups:  “We are The Spirit of Memphis Quartet; a band of young men, all of one accord, singin’ praises to our Lord…”  A band of young men, all of one accord—has anyone ever said it better?  And though we were not singing to any Lord in particular, there was something spiritual in our bond.  We were like gangs of Old West outlaws, learning to tolerate each other’s most annoying habits and to pretend we’d never heard the same old stories told the same old way.  We learned tolerance.  We had to.  We were a band of young men, all of one accord.

And out of all this sprang the J Geils Band, the Wild Bunch of American rock-and-roll.

Joseph Heller defined success and failure for American artists in roughly these words: with success comes alcohol, drugs, money trouble, divorce, and insanity; with failure come failure.  Take your pick.  Geils was a roaring success, with their fair share of its rewards, including Heller’s booby-prizes.  Imagine being Peter Wolf, the indispensable frontman of a band with another man’s name.  They broke up; there were lawsuits; they reunited, broke up, reunited.  No Wild Bunch can ride forever; the West is closing down, as Sam Peckinpah told us.

Rest in peace, J Geils, or better yet: rest in furor.  Rest in the roar of that show at Jones Beach, rest in the beat that catapulted my mother out of her seat and dancing with no self-consciousness.

A band of young men, all of one accord.

John Eskow is a writer and musician. He wrote or co-wrote the movies Air America, The Mask of Zorro, and Pink Cadillac, as well as the novel Smokestack Lightning. He is a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence. He can be reached at: johneskow@yahoo.com