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Behind the Curtain: Neal Schon

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For his latest Behind The Curtain entry, writer Steve rosen recounts a few run-ins with renowned guitarist Neal Schon, of Santana and Journey fame … 

It is 1975 and the Griffith Park Observatory about 20 minutes away from my little cottage pad in the Hollywood Hills is holding a laser light show. The Observatory is an iconic building in the history of Los Angeles — appearing in over 300 films, it was most famously featured in the legendary James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause — and has served variously as a planetarium, exhibition space and staging area for various civic functions. A scientific center for the study of the planets and stars above us, the Observatory is putting on an event called LaserRock with music supplied by Journey.

This is not the kind of place you’d normally associate with rock and roll, and it sounds like an interesting evening.  I give my brother a call to drive up to my place in Laurel Canyon. He arrives about 20 minutes later and then we both jump in my car and make the 15-minute drive to the fabled building.

I know who Journey is because their first self-titled album has just been released. Journey is a pseudo-jazzy, instrumental-oriented record and in all honesty it’s a bit sleep-inducing. There are only seven songs on the album and two of them are six-minute plus instrumentals, and while they may work as background music whilst you zone out and watch a laser light display playing out on the roof of your local observatory, they aren’t the kinds of songs to keep you glued to your radio when they come on and make you want to rush out and buy the album from whence they came.

The LaserRock show is suitably psychedelic and mind-blowing, as the lights move and groove and morph and mutate to the strains of Journey’s music playing in the background. The post-light show party is the real star — free drinks and finger foods — and while the gathered press corps may have been suitably impressed by the dazzling laser display, more than a few of them obviously zonked out on cannabis, none of them are talking about the music they heard that night.

Overheard conversation:

“Dude, I can’t get enough of these chicken wings! Who the fuck was that playing that music?”

That was one of my earliest introductions to Journey and guitarist Neal Schon, but not the first. I had seen the former Santana guitarist play at the Starwood several times previously, and though Schon had always turned in stellar performances on his Les Paul, the music left you cold. Spearheaded by Gregg Rolie’s vocals and Hammond B3 organ, Journey wasn’t quite heavy enough to draw in the real hard rock fans, nor was it jazzy enough to pique the interest of the jazzheads. However, what did draw you in was Schon’s Afro hairstyle. It was a huge corona of hair, so big it deserved its own orbit, which is maybe why the Observatory picked Journey’s music to accompany one of their laser shows … though I don’t believe the size of the guitarist’s hairdo had anything to do with it.

I finally met the ex-Santana guitarist in 1978 when Journey was in Hollywood recording the Infinity album. Since the release of their first album, the band had struggled through two more recordings — Look into the Future [1976] and Next [1977] — and still hadn’t found their true sound or direction. Schon, bassist Ross Valory and drummer Aynsley Dunbar even went so far as to take singing lessons following the release of Look into the Future. It didn’t help.

On Next, the guitarist himself even attempted singing a couple of lead vocals. That really didn’t help. Then in late ’77, the band brought on Steve Perry as vocalist. He made his debut on the Infinity album and with songs like “Patiently,” “Lights” and “Wheel in the Sky,” the band found massive success and ensured their position in the rock pantheon.

The band was recording at Cherokee Studios in West Hollywood, an iconic studio that opened in 1972 and played host to everyone from David Bowie to Frank Sinatra. Schon was right in the middle of cutting guitars for the Infinity album and obviously excited about the new music and the addition of Steve Perry on vocals. Neal was affable and funny and couldn’t wait to show me all the guitars he had been using. There was an insane collection of vintage Les Pauls, 335s Stratocasters, B.C. Rich’s and acoustics that would have made any guitar junkie go crazy. We spoke for well over an hour and it would be the first of multiple interviews I’d conduct with him over the years.

We spoke in 1989 via telephone — at this point, Journey had broken up and Schon was pursuing a solo career — and would finally meet up again in 2004 at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in Dallas, Texas. This was the second in a series of guitar festivals Clapton had put together to benefit the Crossroads Centre, a drug treatment facility in Antigua. Everyone from Jeff Beck, ZZ Top and Eric Johnson had been invited and it was logical that Schon was there because he had actually been asked to join Clapton’s band in 1970.

Following a set that included Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” “Third Stone From the Sun” and “Amazing Grace,” Schon came back to the press area. A tent had been set up alongside the stage and the gathered media waited there for artists to stop by and talk. When the guitarist entered the tent, I was pretty excited. I thought he might remember me and I was looking forward to speaking with him. But the moment he walked into the press area, there were nothing but bad vibes.

He sat down at a table in front where all the reporters and journalists had laid out their recording devices and microphones. I walked up to where he was seated and said, “Hey, Neal. How are you?” He looked at me like I was an alien. He didn’t recognize me, nor did he make any mental attempt to identify who I might have been, not that he had to. He didn’t owe me anything, and certainly he was still pumped full of adrenaline following his performance.

I told him we had met years before at Cherokee Studios in Hollywood and had later spoken on the phone but he acted like I was talking in a foreign language. Worse. Like I was the bringer of plague.

I must admit that it hurt. I know I’ve talked about these kinds of moments in previous stories here. Where I’ve interviewed a musician and then ran into him again years later and there was no recollection on his part of who I was. You want to believe that you have some impact on the people you’ve met, and when that person fails to do so, you feel like shit. Don’t you? I do.

Then I took in the whole situation again and mused that Neal was here at the high-profile Crossroads festival with a lot of other heavy guitar players and maybe he was just caught up in the moment.

The press conference began and I asked him some questions about playing with Clapton and the influence Eric had on his own playing. He answered honestly and openly, though his responses were mechanical.

After the press conference was over — though I was about the only writer asking questions — I again approached him in the hope that he remembered who I was. He didn’t. If anything, he was angrier than before and dismissed me immediately. I don’t know why he was mad or what he was pissed off about but standing there in front of him, I must have made an easy target. I withered beneath his scowl.

About four years later, I did another phone interview with Schon. Revelation had been released — Journey’s first album with singer Arnel Pineda — and the guitarist was doing press. I was only doing the interview because a magazine wanted the story. I had no desire to speak with him. I wasn’t going to mention the Crossroads incident but I couldn’t avoid it. It kept eating at me like a rat chewing on my brain. One side of me was thinking, “Don’t say anything” and the other half countered with, “Ask him why he was so angry.”

He came on the phone and virtually the first words out of my mouth were, “Why were you such an asshole at the Crossroads Festival? You were angry as hell.”

It must have sounded like a non sequitur, and certainly he was taken aback for a moment because there was silence. I was prepared for his counter-response and readied myself for what I thought would be a verbal volley of his own. I hadn’t been very diplomatic about confronting him and figured he’d unload on me again. If he did, I was going to hang up. I didn’t care who the fuck wanted a story, I was not going to be his whipping boy again.

But Neal didn’t attack. In fact, he apologized and admitted not knowing why he was so nasty at the Crossroads show. He sounded very sincere, and his words healed a wound that had been festering in me for a long time. In fact, the guitarist was in a confessional mood. He wanted to talk and open up. Maybe he was sorry for the way he acted years earlier or maybe he just wanted to get some things off his chest. I knew that Schon had fought with alcohol and drugs, and part of me thought that might have been the reason behind his strange behavior when we met previously. He may have been drunk and stoned and just a walking time bomb. Carefully, I asked him about that and the moment I did the words started tumbling out.

“Honest to God, I’ve been sober now for over a year, which really brought a lot of other stuff up front for me. Obviously when you’re not juiced or you’re not drinking, you’re thinking more and so it’s a constant effort for me just to try to don’t think and just go. I think I’m playing better now than I have in the past. A lot of people will probably argue with me though. The consistency of my playing is much more there every night. It’s not as easy going onstage every night when you’re not drinking or slamming down a beer or a shot. I did that for years and so did Ed Van Halen and so did everybody I know.”

His honesty really touched me, and I told him so. He continued. “People go through changes and definitely being in a band, even if you’re sober, is not easy. Drinking and drugs definitely get in the way and it makes things more difficult in the end. You might numb yourself, which is something I did for years for a lot of things that I had that were bothering me in my life. I just put it out of my head. ‘Ah, just have a drink.’ It would seem like it went away and I’d laugh my ass off and I’d have a good time and I’d party. But in the end, it all comes back, and if you don’t deal with it straight on, it kind of never goes away.”

Schon had come a long way from that mean spirited little attack dog I ran into at the Crossroads Show. He had gotten sober in 2007, and that sobriety was reflected in our conversation in 2008. Neal had survived the lethal grip of addiction. He was one of the lucky ones. In fact, as I’m writing this, a commercial comes on the television for State Farm and the music is Journey’s “Any Way You Want It.” Not bad for a band who once played second fiddle to a laser light show.

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