Journey's Steve Perry scribbles inside a matchbook cover as he considers the line of questioning. With the other four members of the group, Perry is in town to chat up Journey's latest Columbia LP, Frontiers, but his mind seems to be elsewhere. Maybe it's on Sherrie Swafford, his achingly cute blond girlfriend. Or maybe Steve is drafting lyrics for a sequel to "Lights", the song he wrote about Los Angeles:
"When the lights go down in the City
..and the sun shines on LA
..I want to be there in my city"
When Journey recorded "Lights" for the Infinity album, Perry explains, "L.A." was changed to "the bay" so that the group could exploit the chauvinistic advantages of a song set in San Francisco Journey's long-time base of operations. Still, Los Angeles remains a sort of second home to Journey: It's the West Coast record capital and the city whose warm sun and teasing neon lifted the anonymous quintet onto the radio airwaves, where it's floated happily ever since 1978.
It's hard to believe that just six years ago Steve Perry was flying by the seat of his pants in L.A., while Neal Schon, Ross Valory, Gregg Rolie and Aynsley Dunbar were eking out a living on the road in order to bankroll the next Journey album release.
"I was starving in Los Angeles," says a shorter-haired, suede-and-denim-clad Perry. "I was eating a lot of pork and beans, and having no money for anything else. I went back to my hometown with my gums bleeding. One dentist said I had some strange disease; that I ought to have all my teeth out." A second dentist rescued Steve from that fate.
Empty stomachs and incipient pyorrhea aren't the kind of problems Journey faces these days. The group, which now included Steve Smith and Jonathan Cain in place of Dunbar and Rolie, has sold 5.3 million U.S. copies of its 1981 Escape album, and Frontiers will probably be one of 83's best sellers. The current five-month tour of North America, comprising a tentative 77 dates, could gross $10 million. Journey will augment its income this year with a plethora of publishing deals, solo albums, individual sessions and soundtracks. The group has tie-ins with an equipment leasing firm, a burgeoning management company, and even a travel agency.
But it wasn't so much big business as it was the desire of its members to make up for the lost time that brought Journey together in 1973. Gregg Rolie (pronounced "Raleigh") and Neal Schon (read "Shahn") had worked together in Santana as lead singer and second lead guitarist, while sessioneer George Tickner and bassist Ross Valory had been highly visible Bay area musicians; in Valory's case, ever since a 1966 stint with Fruminous Bandersnatch. After a switch of drummers to Aynsler Dunbar at the beginning of 1974, the group signed with Columbia and set out down the endless road.
"When we started in 1973, we were playing free-form rock," explains Valory. "There wasn't much response to that format. We'd thought that we could play the music of the first album and have it accepted, but we were too early." Journey's first records included some standout writing and playing such as Rolie's "In My Lonely Feeling" and Valory's "Conversations" but they were undermined by a hippie Frisco ethos that preferred such lames subjects for songs as Kohutek, the comet that never came.
Despite discouraging business, the members of Journey (minus road-weary George Tickner) chose to stick together because their musical mix was tight and promising. "Ours was no "Get up and play' idiot approach," recalls Rolie, who had no desire to play in another loosely knit unit like Santana. ("There was too little direction, too much garbage and too many foreign influences," he says.) But besides Journey's lack of media personality, the trouble with the new group was that Rolie's voice had nearly been shot from years of stage abuse. So the group sent out a call for a permanent lead singer, with Gregg remaining to back him up and play keyboards. The second vocalist Journey tried was Steve Perry.
Stephen Ray Perry was born in Hanford, California in January 1949, the son of big band singer Ray Perry. "My mom had a great voice, too" says Steve, "until they took her tonsils out." Steve's parents divorced when he was eight. A loner as a boy, Perry listened to the radio hit of Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington and Chuck Berry and later, the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Janis Joplin, and Cream.
Perry's fascination with rhythm & blues was driven home by a frustrating childhood experience. "When I was young," he remembers, "the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars came to the San Joaquin Valley. It was James Brown, the Drifters everybody. I was so little that my mother wouldn't let me go, and she wouldn't take me." But Steve did get a drum kit and a set of dark Portuguese features from his bookkeeper mother, and his obsession with music continued.
After two years at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Perry split for Fresno and Los Angeles, where he searched for the right rock band to front. "When I was down and couldn't find work, I was a second engineer at L.A.'s Crystal Studios for a long time. But," he says, "I was spinning my wheels there." He hooked up first with ex-Cactus bassist Tim Bogert and, soon after, with what seemed to be the perfect group, Alien (Project).
On the eve of a '77 signing to CBS Records, Perry nearly renounced rock forever when Alien (Project's) bassist was killed in a car crash. Then a record company executive informed Steve that Journey was scouting for a singer. A tape of Alien (Project) and a phone call to band manager Herie Herbert were all that was needed. As Herbert described Perry's "discovery" to People Weekly's David Sheff: "I listened for fifteen seconds, turned the tape off and said, 'Oh shit. This is the guy.'"
Through an exhausting succession of roadwork, rehearsals, writing preening, pruning and discarding, Journey built itself up to become the most popular recording group in North America. Personnel changes and bickering within the group seem to have had little effect upon Journey's probable lifespan. "We're good for at least three more albums," says veteran Ross Valory, the self-styled "old glue" that helps keep Journey together.
Given the calculating craftsmanship of Frontiers, Valory needn't worry. The 10 new songs of the LP, long on catchy changes but short on incisive lyrics, are sure to reap bumper sales for Journey in the nation's shopping malls. "After The Fall" finds Perry doing the smokiest vocal of his career as he lets loose with a series of black blues turns. "Send Her My Love," also penned by Steve with Jon Cain, shows a silkier side to the group's playing and features the Portuguese thrush warbling as if he's been shipped tearfully out of Marin County in a cage.
Although the extravagantly mounted Frontiers tour is taking the better part of the band-member's time, the five musicians have also been seeking sidelines to bolster their morale at those moments when being in Journey feels too much like a fishbowl existence. Steve Smith has completed and LP, Vital Information, with his New England-based jazz-rock group of the same name. This past winter Neal Schon and Jan Hammer released Here to Stay, and Schon expects to form yet another group with Sammy Hagar. That outfit reportedly has received a $1 million offer from Geffen Records without naming the other personnel or playing a note.
Multi-instrumentalist Valory (guitar, bass, clarinet, drums) is preparing his own album, as is former partner Gregg Rolie. Ross is also directing a full-length backstage videotape, The New Avocado Revue, which includes a comedy sketch about a fly-by-night reporter for a rock monthly. This fictitious periodical, "Cirrus: The Magazine of Cloudy Rock Journalism" is the brainchild of your correspondent and his skanky brother. One-time Circus Magazine editor Carl Arrington plays the writer.
Jonathan Cain has recorded and written for Sammy Hagar; he has a lucrative international deal for his songwriting; and he's installed a studio in his Marin music room, where he plans to demo songs for his next solo LP and for his wife, singer Tane' Cain. ("He's got a certain touch I like," she says.)
And Steve Perry?
"I'd give anything to sing with a symphony," he has said; "to pick some melodic contemporary songs and to them with a lot of strings." While Perry may not restrict his album to easy-listening material, ballads will probably form the commercial bridge to a solo career when Journey decides to go its separate ways.
But Perry is no doomsday prophet when it comes to the band's longevity. "Journey is and will remain the mothership," he claims. "It'll go on and on. Journey is ready to rock its brains away and make a lot of people happy."
Journey Turns On The L.A. Lights