Jim Sullivan digs into his archives for a career-spanning 2018 interview with the vibrant frontman for the J. Geils Band
The J. Geils Band was pretty much my house band growing in a college town outside Bangor, Maine.
The city’s lone rock venue was the Bangor Auditorium and it was where all us party-hearty teenagers went for everything, be it Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull or Alice Cooper. But mostly it was the J. Geils Band, which, even then, I thought of as America’ s Rolling Stones and, later in life, also, (when I became aware of their ethnicity) as the Jewish Rolling Stones.
Bangor was part of the Boston sextet’s circuit and I’m sure I saw them half a dozen times as a young teen going into college (same town). It was my first real taste of amplified blues-rock and I didn’t need to know (or care) songs like “First I Look at the Purse,” “Homework” and “Serves You Right to Suffer” were covers. They Geil-ed ‘em up right! When they sang “House Party,” I’m pretty sure everyone in the auditorium felt they were invited and, in theory, could hang with band at some point having some level of semi-debauched fun. A rock ‘n’ roll fantasy.
I was also among the first to learn that J. Geils was the guitarist, not the singer and the singer was Peter Wolf. And Geils was never spelled Giels, contrary to many a story, post or comment (to this day). Because I was one of those kids who read liner notes and back cover credits, I knew that the originals were all co-writes: Wolf and keyboardist Seth Justman. And, before all this Geils stuff, Wolf had been a speed-rapping DJ at Boston’s powerhouse progressive rock station, WBCN-FM.
How good was the J. Geils Band of the early ‘70s? I’ll hand it over to Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry who told me, “I mean, man, if you saw that band when they were in their prime, you were spoiled; you probably expected that that’s how rock is. Well, no. They’re a cut above. They definitely were like Sly and the Family Stone and two or three other bands had that thing. They knew how to take a whole arena and just tear it up. They could stand toe-to-toe with any band in the world. And they did.”
VIDEO: J. Geils Band at Holy Cross College 1972
Wolf, who turns 75 March 7, is still, believe me, a very active performer and jive-talking (when he wants to be) frontman. In the before days, he played with the ace band Midnight Travelers (and I’m sure will again when pandemic restrictions ease). But in those early days he was a positively kinetic, a human jumping frog. I swear to god he out-Jaggered (his later in life friend and tour-mate) Jagger.
Since my early fanboy days – and my entrance into the world of rock journalism in 1975 – I’ve had many an encounter with Wolf and other members of the J. Geils Band. We did one interview in his Boston Back Bay apartment – he’s since moved – and it was a lot to do with taking in his massive record collection, talking about those blues and Americana artists, and more than a shot or two of Maker’s Mark. He was (before the pandemic of course) a frequent presence in Boston’s clubland, as a fan. I remember one night he sidled up to me and said, “I’m looking for the next ex-Mrs. Wolf.” (He has had a steady girlfriend for a while now.)
The first interview I did with him – and the whole band – was in Maine, in 1977. We talked tons of music, but then, at the end, I couldn’t help but ask: He and his wife of four years Faye Dunaway were on the rocks, I’d heard, so I asked, as innocently as possible: “How are things with Faye?” He shot me this look – the interview had been so good, so all about music, and now I’d brought it into the land of celebrity gossip. I felt like a shithead for that.
But that was a blip. There’ve been many more enjoyable chinwags over the years, within the Geils Band and outside it. Geils, of course, became hugely popular, finally, in the early ‘80s MTV age with a poppier sound – “Freeze Frame,” “Centerfold” and “Love Stinks” – and, just as that was cresting, they splintered, Wolf going solo and the band continuing on with one more album – Justman on lead vocals – before dissolving. A rift between Wolf and Justman, apparently, over musical direction. Yet, there were reunion gigs over the years – good ones, too. Maybe there was tension off-stage, but on-stage, in their element, they still clicked.
Wolf carved out a rootsier solo career. What follows come mainly from a talk we had in 2018. Wolf considers himself “fortunate and privileged.” His career continued to build, albeit on a smaller scale, as he wrote songs and released albums while many peers retired or rested on laurels. His “fortunate” comment referred to what he’s his backing band, the Midnight Travelers, the five musicians led by ace guitarist and music director Duke Levine.
Wolf puts his fortune and privilege in the context of Muddy Waters and his great backing bands. Also: “It’s very much like a great play – everybody in the cast is important. The stronger the cast the better the play will be. I feel the same is true with the Midnight Travelers – that it’s an A-team, top shelf. And as I always say on stage ‘There might be some as good but I’m certain that there’s none better.’
It’s great to have the camaraderie and the brotherhood. Because being out on a bus or being out on tour, it’s that friendship and that intoxication – not just playing but also hanging together – it’s the grandest way of getting through it all.”
Let me take you back a spell. The J. Geils Band played Cape Cod a lot back in the day. What are some of your favorite memories?
Wolf: The Cod Coliseum [in South Yarmouth, MA] was a real stronghold, a place that we sort of developed from. Many people referred to it as The Old Sweatbox. On our last tour I did with Tom Petty, we were reminiscing about the Cape Cod Coliseum, because they opened for the Geils band and many artists did. It was a special place, it was hardcore. You really had to love what you were going to see and be able to withstand the heat.
One of the last Geils shows I saw before its breakup was in 1978 when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers opened for you. You also played the Cape Cod Coliseum with them. I saw shows there. It was like listening to a band inside a cement mixer.
Wolf: [laughs] The diehard fans for sure! Once in the ‘70s, I was doing an interview at WBCN [in Boston] and the band was down at the Coliseum. The record company said “If you do the interview, we can set up a car to get you down to the Coliseum,” so I did the interview and went outside to the radio station – I didn’t know how to drive at the time – and there was a stretch limousine. I got in it and it was enormously long, it seemed like you could fit a boat-load of people and we started going down the Cape. There were all these people on the side of the road with signs saying “GEILS CAPE COD COLISEUM” so I’d say to the driver, “Pull over” and the door would open and in would jump fans. We’d drive another couple of miles and there’d be a bunch more and by the time we got to the Coliseum we had a full load. And it was great. Some of the fans couldn’t believe it. Plus, a stretch limousine was so unusual at the time, something you rarely saw.
Key question: Did you open up the limo bar for them, too?
I will say this: That was a car that partied hard before we got to the Cape Cod Coliseum.
Before the Geils Band you fronted the Hallucinations.
We played Cape Cod quite a lot. There were two clubs called Piggy’s and the Pilgrim House. One very memorable one for me was Muddy Waters was playing on the Cape at a place called O.D.’s Plantation. He was doing a couple of nights and we played with him. I remember me and the lead guitarist from the Hallucinations, Paul Shapiro, we were such fans we stayed overnight in the woods and we stayed up all night talking with those guys. Dawn started coming and we were too tired to go anywhere so we just fell down in the woods and slept there. Then [the next night], we stayed with Muddy. He had a little cabin, him and his whole band. It was great to see Muddy in that kind of atmosphere where the band was relaxed and it was just talking about gigs, about Chicago and the different players. It was an important experience for me, a true roadhouse.
In concert, these days you mix solo material with Geils stuff, albeit with different arrangements.
The Geils music has been an important part of my life and those songs are still part of me. I helped create a lot of that and brought in a lot of the songs we ended up recording, some classic ones.
You’ve released eight solo albums, the last one being A Cure for Loneliness. What’s up on the recording front?
We’ve been messing around in the studio, figuring out the pluses and minuses. It’s in the works, work in progress. Some songs might stand the test of time.
Of course, with the new paradigm artists don’t make money on recording as much as touring.
Some people feel there’s no there there, but recording and having new things to play, it’s part of job, part of what a musician does. Though the landscape has certainly changed, I still consider it part of what I do. To be continued …
And what about a memoir? You’re practically Zelig and have had this incredibly long and varied career and are friends with everyone from Mick Jagger to Van Morrison.
People keep mentioning [a book] to me. It’s what’s become in vogue. To me, what got me interested in music was that it was an opportunity to meet musicians. In the ‘60s between things like “Blow Up” and the British invasion, the Stones were pumping and Van Morrison and Them were pumping, the Beatles and Motown was pumping and Stax was pumping. It was a deliriously glorious time to be a music fan. I’ve somewhat started to put together a book. It would just be my admiration and stories of the people I admire and love and had the privilege to work with and get to know behind closed doors.
Nothing salacious, not a tell-all?
No, just hopefully being able to capture the character of not only why the music was great but why the artists themselves were so unique and great. I think the key is to do it without being salacious and to make it interesting and still true and pure at the same time.
So, there’d be interest in that kind of book?
Christopher Hitchens once said in an interview and I always keep this in mind: “Everybody has a book within them, but it doesn’t mean anybody would want to read it.” Well, I don’t care if there’d be interest in it. It’s like making a record, I just care in making something that I would be interested in reading.
People – especially people in these parts – talk about the J. Geils Band not being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Does that matter to you?
I’ve attended many of the ceremonies and inducted many people there – songwriters Jackie Wilson one of my favorites, The Paul Butterfield Band – and I’ve performed at the Hall of Fame Induction. It would be an honor, but if it happens it happens and if it don’t, you still do what you do. It’s nice to receive, but it’s all involved with the work
VIDEO: Peter Wolf “Lights Out”