An exclusive interview with Joe Grushecky about the classic second album from Pittsburgh’s Iron City Houserockers
By the end of the 1960s, it was rockcrit shorthand to label any aspiring young singer-songwriter who had a way with words as the “New Dylan,” the practice conveniently forgetting that the original Bob Dylan was still alive and making great music.
This legion of mini-Zimmermans included artists like David Blue, Eric Andersen and even John Prine, all of whom forged careers of varying success. When Bruce Springsteen hit the national stage with his debut album in 1973, he joined the ranks of “New Dylans” but, just a couple years later, in the wake of his breakthrough with Born To Run, the rules of the game changed and now rockin’ songwriters like Willie Nile, D.L. Byron, and Carolyne Mas were tagged with the albatross of being the “New Springsteen.”
Joe Grushecky, frontman of Pittsburgh’s Iron City Houserockers, earned his “New Springsteen” label early, with the band’s 1979 debut album, Love’s So Tough, a fierce collection of no-frills, blue collar rock ‘n’ roll that had more in common with Bob Seger’s ‘Rust Belt’ ethos than the Jersey Shore. While the Iron City Houserockers’ first effort was marred somewhat by the band’s lack of studio experience and sonically-flat production courtesy of “The Slimmer Twins,” a/k/a Steve Popovich, Sr. and Marty Mooney, their sophomore effort, 1980’s Have A Good Time…But Get Out Alive!, roared out of the gate with a dynamic sound, finely-honed lyrics, and a group of musicians whose chemistry transcended their bar band roots in the creation of a timeless slab of classic heartland rock ‘n’ roll.
Popovich, the founder of Cleveland International Records (which struck gold, literally and figuratively, with the overwhelming success of Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell album in 1977), brought in British musician and producer Mick Ronson to help shape Have A Good Time, and Ronson in turn brought his friend and fellow legend Ian Hunter (Mott the Hoople). The E Street Band’s Steve Van Zandt showed up, Meatloaf backing singer Ellen Foley dropped by, and various other musical guests contributed bits and pieces to the album’s overall sound. In honor of the 40th anniversary of its original release, Have A Good Time has been reissued on CD and vinyl (with download card) by Cleveland International, the label revived by Steve Popovich, Jr.
Recorded at Media Studios in New York City, the band was walking on strange new turf but somehow managed to sound comfortable as they ripped through a dozen original songs. The title track opens Have A Good Time…But Get Out Alive, the song hitting the door like a S.W.A.T. team’s battering ram. An unbridled rocker with screaming guitars and a slight boogie-rock undercurrent, the band’s high-octane performance here sets the stage for the album to follow. “Don’t Let Them Push You Around” bookends the opening track, the Houserockers displaying street-smart, snarling punk-rock attitude with a mosh-pit worthy cyclone of sound and a defiant lyrical stance that Grushecky would revisit more than once throughout his career.
After blazing through a pair of up-tempo rockers, “Pumping Iron” – an ode to Grushecky’s hometown of Pittsburgh – is a more deliberate, slightly bluesy mid-tempo tune that leans heavily on Marc Reisman’s impressive harmonica playing and Gil Snyder’s honky-tonk piano riffs. A longtime fan favorite, the song’s energy translates well to the stage. Taking it down a notch, the slower-rolling “Hypnotized” showcases the band’s growing musical chemistry with a more complex arrangement, Grushecky’s dusky vocals matched by a cool swamp-rock vibe with tortured guitars and harmonica. “Price of Love” is as close as the Houserockers come to an actual ballad on Have A Good Time, the band’s nuanced, emotional performance matched by Grushecky’s soulful vocals singing of the lyrics’ ill-fated romance.
The Houserockers crank it back up with “Angela,” a strutting tale of unrequited love that benefits from another fine Grushecky vocal performance, perfectly timed blasts of harmonica, and a rich musical soundtrack that rocks right up to the edge without falling into chaos. The hard-edged “We’re Not Dead Yet” is another defiant lyrical statement, this one accompanied by gang vocal harmonies, denser instrumentation, and an electrifying vocal performance that matches punk stalwarts like the Clash or Sex Pistols for sheer intensity. In a similar vein, “Blondie” is a story-song about the pitfalls of idol worship featuring plenty of Ned Rankin’s big drumbeats and an unrelenting instrumental pace.
Personally, I’ve felt that the heartbeat of Have A Good Time has always been the pairing of “Old Man Bar” and “Junior’s Bar.” Pittsburgh is my hometown, and I spent a large portion of my young life in the Rust Belt, so I’m quite familiar with the status of the neighborhood bar in working class culture. Gil Snyder’s melancholy vocals on “Old Man Bar” are accompanied by haunting, lingering strains of mandolin and accordion. The song’s protagonist is caught between fleeting youth and impending adulthood, drinking with the old men in the bar, hearing their stories, listening to a “jukebox full of memories,” knowing full well that, as embarrassed as he might be (“I hope no one sees me here tonight”), he’s seeing his future under the neon lights.
By contrast, “Junior’s Bar” is a raging rocker, Grushecky taking the microphone for a song where hope endures, the Houserockers are playing on stage, and the protagonist is forever young. Hoping to get lucky (“I hope I don’t go home alone tonight”), the band is playing a song for just his ears (“they play real loud, they move the crowd, it’s a poor boy’s symphony”), but the young man ends up alone once more. It’s a master-class in songwriting and performance, and it takes the talents of the entire band to pull off. With crackling electricity, “Runnin’ Scared” is the story of a desperate man, bad luck, and worse decisions told above a rollicking soundtrack of boozy piano-play, crashing rhythms, and jagged guitars. Have A Good Time closes with “Rock Ola,” another personal favorite, a piano-driven blue-collar torch-song that Grushecky nails with his soulful vocals, lyrics speaking of the power of rock ‘n’ roll to transcend an ephemeral existence.
The Cleveland International Records CD reissue of Have A Good Time includes a bonus disc comprised of 16 demo tracks and studio outtakes, a goldmine for longtime IC Houserockers fans. Demo recordings are typically interesting, providing insight into a band’s creative process, and it’s no different here. Of particular note are the extended version of “Rock Ola,” which emphasizes the vocal pacing, and the tentative “work in progress” version of “Hypnotized,” which includes studio chatter. The unreleased “Struggle & Die” failed to make the final cut but is a strong song nonetheless that could have been fleshed out while “Charlena” would evolve into the much sharper “Blondie.” Performances of “Rooster Blues” and “Do Wah Diddy” are just two of many rowdy cover songs the band performed in numerous Rust Belt bars, the former a blustery R&B romp with bluesy emphasis while the latter is a new wavish take on a British Invasion classic.
In an email interview with Rock and Roll Globe, Grushecky explains the difference in the recording of the Houserockers’ first two albums. “Love’s So Tough was recorded piecemeal,” Joe says. “We would sometimes play on a Thursday night and then drive to Cleveland on Friday morning, record all day, then drive back home to play at night. We just basically tightened up our stage show at the time and recorded it. Steve Popovich and Marty Mooney were great guys to work with, but they did not have the musical chops to translate their ideas to the band. We never recorded as a band more than one day at a time. Have A Good Time, on the other hand, was a much more cohesive endeavor. We camped out at the Barbizon Hotel in NYC for the duration of the project. We had a week of pre-production and rehearsal and a buyout at Media Sound. Plus, we were working with world class musicians and arrangers in Mick Ronson, Ian Hunter, and Steven Van Zandt.”
In the press release for the Have A Good Time reissue, Grushecky credits Little Steven for “making him a better writer by encouraging him to make every lyric of every song count.” Was there a specific story that Joe wanted to express with the songs on the album? Grushecky tells Rock and Roll Globe, “I was telling the story of my hometown environment at the time. Our club gigs were intense. Pittsburgh was still swaggering about being the ‘City of Champions’ from the ‘70s, but at the same time the steel industry was going down and a whole way of life was collapsing. There was an underlying sense of anger and desperation in the air. You could feel that we were going down but not without a fight.”
Grushecky further credits Ronson, Hunter, and Van Zandt with helping the band find its sound. Considering Ronson and Hunter’s rock star status, how were they to work with in the studio, and what did they bring to the sessions? “Both Mick and Ian were great guys to work with,” Joe remembers. “They both made significant contributions to the record. On the demos, “Rock Ola” was an up-tempo rocker that we just could not get right. Mick sat down at the piano and played that slow intro that completely transformed the song into something much more meaningful. You can hear Ian meticulously working on creating “Hypnotized” with us.”
How did the Houserockers get Little Steven in on the sessions? “Van Zandt, as well as both Mick and Ian, were close friends and business associates with Steve Popovich. Pop and Marty brought all of them into our orbit. Steven was great in arranging songs and directing the band. His mentoring with me on songwriting stays with me to this day. I should add that all three of them were great musicians and arrangers. They were all studio savvy and they were all great fun to be around.”
What’s the story behind bonus tracks like “Hypnotized” and “Charlena” and cover tunes like “Do Wah Diddy?” Says Joe, “the demos are our versions of the songs that we brought to NYC as our album prep. “Hypnotized” was basically written in the studio with the guiding hand of Ian Hunter. We were writing about complacency and how easy it was to get sucked in by all the hype, even in those early years of media saturation. “Charlena” was my attempt to not go all in on the Blondie references by masking the name. “Do Wah Diddy” was something we were doing in the clubs at breakneck speed. We recorded a lot of old songs that we never released. I found this version on an old reel-to-reel tape and it struck me as something our fans would enjoy.”
Have A Good Time…But Get Out Alive enjoyed widespread critical acclaim at the time of its 1980 release. Writing in Rolling Stone magazine, Tom Carson said “the Iron City Houserockers’ second album is amazing: a blunt, bitter, often overpowering story about how it feels to grow up blue-collar and desperate in America. It’s tale that few rock & rollers have even tried to tell, and usually those that have did it by revisiting the scene artistically after having escaped it in life. But the Houserockers, six working-class musicians from Pittsburgh, are still caught, and their honest, passionate message is that escape is no longer an option. If you want to get out, you’ll have to fight. And even then, the best you can hope for is a draw.”
The New Rolling Stone Record Guide would give the album four stars (“excellent”), with critic Wayne King writing “the strength of this gutsy Pittsburgh bar band resides in the songwriting ability of lead singer Joe Grushecky. Working the same (dark) side of the street as Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen at their most blue-collar, Grushecky musters a lot more anger than those two ever do.” In The Village Voice, early band supporter Greil Marcus called Have A Good Time “the strongest album an American band had made this year” while Robot Hull, writing for Creem magazine, declared that the album earned the Iron City Houserockers “a permanent place in the hallowed hall of the immortals.”
What is Joe’s favorite memory of recording the album? “I enjoyed the whole process,” he says. “Working in a world class studio in the middle of NYC was a dream come true. I was honored to be working with Steven, Ian, and Mick. I stressed out occasionally, but I was able to keep it to myself. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Considering that the album continues to find a new audience some four decades after its original release, why does Joe think that Have A Good Time has endured? “The songs and performances have held up,” he says. “The lyrics could have been written today. It captures a particular time and place really well. And last but not least, it sounds fucking great!”