And the pop metal gods said, "Let there be a band made up of phenomenally successful rock stars, which will be called a supergroup." And there was Damn Yankees. And the critics rejoiced.
At the heart of both of those bands, his pen or guitar in hand, and his brain in perpetual motion, was Jack Blades. It's not very often a single person gets to realize such pivotal roles in the creation of so much musical affluence. So, insatiable curiosity piqued, we stuck our noses in his business – we asked him about Ted Nugent, about his weird nocturnal habits, and what it's like to save a life – and he let us look around.
Shawna Hansen Ortega (Songfacts): You wrote "High Enough" for Damn Yankees. Can you tell me the story of how that came together?
Jack: Yeah, I was downstairs at Tommy Shaw's flat in New York City. We were all sitting around and I'm doing laundry down in the basement, because I had just gotten to his place, and I'm just singing, "I don't want to hear about it anymore, it's a shame I've got to live without you anymore." Tommy's like, "Hey, what's that?" And I said, "I don't know. Just something I'm singing around with." "That sounds great." So I went upstairs and we started banging around on a piano, and then we switched over to guitars, and then in about a half hour we'd written the whole song "High Enough." So in that case the melody and the words came before anything else. That got us to finish the rest of the song. That spurred us on.
Songfacts: It's like the song comes to you from somewhere else and you're just channeling.
Jack: Another guy said that same thing to me, Bruce Byrd. He died in 1992, right before we started our second tour of the Damn Yankees. But Bruce was also with the record company with Night Ranger, and he said, "I gotta hand it to you writers. I can never understand how that stuff just comes to you, and then you just put it down and you do it. I admire you writers more than anything else."
I thought that was interesting, because to me it just happens. It's not something that's really cool, or something that's really a big thing, it's just something that happens that I do. Like I drive a car – except I come up with rhymes. I don't look at it as anything special. It's just how I've been all my life, so I don't see it as something really unique and amazing, because it's just what I do. Half the time it is like you're like channeling something.
When you sit down and write a song, it's almost like you're channeling a higher power, whom I choose, of course, to call God, (laughing) but other people would choose to call it whatever. And I just don't know where else that kind of stuff can come from. But just to be able to sit back and be quiet and muse, and all of the sudden you start writing down things. You've gotta be channeling something from somewhere else.
Songfacts: Yeah, that's really good imagery right there, by the way. Also, in the "making of the video" for that song, there's a girl who looks right into the camera and says, "Because of Tommy Shaw's song 'Crystal Ball,' I did not commit suicide." And I know you've had a similar thing happen. How does something like that make you feel?
Jack: I had a letter that was sent to me, it was some Night Ranger lyrics that I wrote, "Big Life," that this young man said, "because of your lyrics, I ended up not killing myself. Because your words said life is what you make it, you can do anything with your life." And Tommy and I always talked about that, it was kind of like, maybe that was the whole reason that I'm a musician. Maybe that's the whole reason I was on this earth is to save that one person from making probably the worst mistake they could ever make in their life. Maybe that was the whole reason we even exist was to save that one person. It's pretty cool, I think.
It is pretty stunning when you think about it. It makes you sit back and go, Well, okay, I did something right in my life. You know what I mean? I did something good, that's a good thing.
Songfacts: "When You Close Your Eyes" has got to be my all-time favorite Night Ranger song. What was it about for you?
Jack: That was interesting, "When You Close Your Eyes," I remember we were doing the Midnight Madness album. Kelly had written "Sister Christian" before, but we hadn't put that on our first album for some reason or another, I don't know why. So we were doing the second album, we had a bunch of songs done, and I was sitting in the back room of the recording studio, Image Recording, and I started playing this chorus on the piano, which is an instrument I don't usually play - I usually write songs on guitar or something. But I was just sitting in the back room on the piano and I was playing this chord. And I'm not really a good piano player, I play more like ghetto piano – I stretch my fingers out really long and just play the chords. I started singing, (sings) "When you close your eyes, do you dream about me?"
It's the chorus, I'm like, that's kind of a good chorus. And I was just banging it out. And the co-owner of the studio, a guy named Harry Maslin, who produced all the Air Supply records back in the early '80s, came walking in, and I'm like, "Hey, Harry, listen to this." And I started playing it and singing it, and he goes, "Man, that's a great chorus, you should finish that song."
I flew there late Thursday evening, and Friday, Saturday and Sunday I just sat around a pool. It was beautiful sunny days, and I sat around a pool where I could just focus with nobody around me, and no chatter going on, no parties. And I ended up writing, finishing up the lyrics to 3 songs, one of which was "When You Close Your Eyes." And I felt really good about the lyrics on that. It all kind of came to me, just about how you move on in your life. I thought about my old girlfriend, where we split up, and I wonder if she ever thinks about the past, and all these things you went through when you were growing up, and all these things you did when you were together, and your first love, and the first woman that I made love to. And then everybody moves on in their lives, and you just go in separate ways. And I always wondered, "When you close your eyes, do you think about me?"
So I finished the lyrics, flew back on Monday, and sang all the words. And there you have it. So you can thank Scottsdale for that.
Songfacts: And does this girl know that you were thinking about her when you wrote it?
Jack: Um, probably not. (laughs) Probably better that way.
Songfacts: "Don't Tell Me You Love Me." Very simple song. Where did it come from?
Jack: We had already started working on our first album, and I came up with this song. I was just thinking of the idea of how it's really great, and it's really fun, but just don't tell me you love me – let's not go there. Let's just keep it fun and happy and everything like that. And I wrote the chorus first, (singing) "Don't tell me you love me, don't tell me you love me, don't tell me, I don't want to know." And then I wrote these verses, "It ain't the way you move, it ain't the way that you move me," "25 years, I'm a kid on the run," and all that kind of stuff.
And I didn't think I'd written enough lyrics, because it seemed like it was so easy, but there wasn't a lot of words. And I always thought, Man, am I shortchanging the song? Shouldn't there be more lyrics? But my producer goes, "No, man, it's fine the way it is." He said, "What you've succeeded in doing is conveying the whole idea of the song in a minimum amount of words, without having to write four verses, a bunch of choruses, a bridge, and everything like that, and it totally gets what the message is in the song with what you've done." And he says, "Congratulations. A lot of people have a hard time doing that."
Songfacts: "I've lived 25 years, I'm a kid on the run," what do you sing on stage now?
Jack: Same thing. "I've lived 25 years, I'm a kid on the run." I'm not gonna sing, "I've lived 55 years, I'm a kid on the run." (laughs) I mean, I wrote the words back then. It would be like Neil Young singing, (dead-on impersonation of Neil Young singing) "I'm 64 and there's so much more." (laughing) Kind of has a hollow ring to me. I just keep it the way it was. It's the way it is, the way it was.
Songfacts: I sort of look at "You Can Still Rock In America" as almost the anthem for the age. Is that what you were intending with that?
Jack: No, actually, I wasn't intending anything. I was just sitting around in my hotel room in Springfield, Illinois, in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln's house, and we were on tour with Sammy Hagar. We were on tour behind our first album, doing the Dawn Patrol tour, and we were with Sammy, he was out playing his Three Lock Box tour, so it was '83. We were sitting in this bad little Travelodge, that motel that has that sleeping bear with the sleeping hat on top of it.
We had a day or two off, and I went and bought a bunch of rock magazines. And at that time all these magazines were saying, "Rock is dead." Because we were still coming out of the Cars, and Blondie, and A Flock of Seagulls, and Haircut 100, and Boy George, and all this kind of stuff. And all these magazines were saying that basically rock and roll as we know it – Deep Purple, all that kind of stuff – was dead, and all this new music was coming out. At least that's what they were trying to jam down everybody's throat to convince everybody that this is the music you should listen to; the Thompson Twins, the Cure, everything that wasn't like real rock and roll. But everywhere we were playing with Hagar, it was thousands of people out there and everybody was just rocking and rolling and screaming, and we were just jamming. And I'm like, Man, I don't get this. Everybody's saying rock is dead, but as far as I'm concerned, you can still rock in America. Because everywhere we're going we're fucking rocking in America. We're kicking ass.
And I thought, that's kind of cool, "you can still rock in America." So I just sat down and I wrote the song. That line came first, the chorus came first. And I broke it down to the verses about how all these people would come to our shows and go, "Yeah, I snuck out and my dad didn't know, I snuck out and I grabbed my boyfriend, and we got in his car and we peel out of there and my dad's running after us and we came to your show, and you guys just rock out! And I'm gonna catch hell when I get home, but I don't care, man. I don't care, because y'all sure know how to rock!" I mean, I'm down in Missouri and people are talking like that, and I'm like, Okay! (laughing)
So I just took this one girl's idea of what she was telling me, and I wrote that as a commentary on what I was seeing out there when everybody was saying rock was dead. And that ended up being sort of an anthem for Night Ranger, for sure.
Songfacts: Tell me what's so sentimental about "Sentimental Street."
Jack: "Sentimental Street" is one of my favorite songs that I've ever come up with. In 1975 I moved up to San Francisco, and there's this area out there called the Avenues. When you're driving to the airport in San Francisco, you drive through Golden Gate Park on the way, and then you hit the Avenues. And what they are, they're streets, there's Juda, Kirkham, all these streets that are all alphabetical, but then they cross to like 45th Avenue, 35th Avenue, the Avenues. So I always thought when I was driving there, Wouldn't it be fun to walk down the street, just thinking about life and stuff like that, and have a street called Sentimental Street, where you could walk down that street in your life and just talk about your life. And then I thought about it when I was driving in San Francisco one day, I was like, "Sentimental Street in the Avenues." Wouldn't that be fun if that name, Sentimental Street, was one of the names in the Avenues, along with Juda, Kirkham – Sentimental. So that's kind of where the title "Sentimental Street" in the Avenues came about.
Songfacts: What time was it when you wrote "Four in the Morning"?
Jack: Literally, I wrote that song at 4 in the morning. I mean, I woke up, and I had an idea, (singing) "I can't take anymore, I can't fake anymore, it's such a hard time loving you." I had that chorus and it was at 4 in the morning I wrote that. It woke me up, so I thought, well, that's kind of neat. And then I'm thinking, What am I gonna call this song? I really don't want to call it "I Can't Take Anymore, I Can't Fake Anymore," I didn't like that. And so when I was sitting there at 4 in the morning, I was thinking, (singing) "Four in the morning came without a warning," because it just woke me up, and there I was. And so I ended up with that as a verse.
Songfacts: You snapped awake at 4 in the morning, and boom it was there.
Jack: Yeah, I mean, the whole thing was just right there. My wife always laughs at me. My wife who I've been married to for 32 years, so Mollie and I have been together since 1976 or something like that.
Songfacts: She's allowed to laugh at you.
Jack: She laughs about the fact that I always have a song in my head, whether it's a melody, whether it's a song of mine, whether it's a song "California Dreamin'," there's always music in my head. Which is kind of bizarre. There isn't a time when there's not one song floating around in my head, whether it be an old song, a new song, an idea or something. And she always thinks that's really, really funny, because it's hard for me just to be still. (laughs) Because there's chatter, there's music going on my head all the time.
Songfacts: The voices…
Jack: (laughs) Yeah. So that is one of those things, like at 4 in the morning I just woke up and said, All right. All right, dammit, I'm gettin' up! Which I usually don't do. I'm sure there's a lot of songs I should have gotten up and written down the titles for that were bugging me as they came to me in the middle of the night, that I didn't lock onto, and those songs just kind of disappeared in the air again. It always amazes me how if you don't write down a song it just goes away. And then you record a song, and what was once nothing is now this thing you just create out of air. It always blows my mind.
Songfacts: I had an artist tell me once that he woke up, like you did in the middle of the night, and a song was coming to him, and the way he described it was he had to get up and grab his guitar and a tape recorder because the transmission wasn't complete. And he just sat there and waited for it to complete.
Jack: That's basically how it happens. A lot of times I'll even be dreaming about a song, and I wake up in the morning and go, God, what was that? Oh, man! That was such a great melody! And I lost it, it's gone. It was a dream. That is the best chorus I've ever heard in my life! And then I wake up in the morning, and it's gone. Maybe it'll come back someday.
Songfacts: Any other songs that are particularly special to you that you would like to tell me about?
So we went downstairs to the rehearsal room and Tommy grabbed his guitar and started playing that dink dink dink dink dink dink on his guitar. And we started jamming, and then Ted kicked in with his guitar, and rrrrrooooowwrrrr, and then Ted came down with the honky tonk thing, and then Tommy, "Little sister hits the stage," I mean, we just came up with that one. That was another one we just liked. Boom! There was the song. And it was so much fun. And we were like, this is what the Damn Yankees is all about. This is it. That and "High Enough," stuff like that. And that kind of formulated us for the Damn Yankees from that point on, that sort of rhythm and blues feeling, that really set the stage for the rest of the Damn Yankees stuff.
Songfacts: I'm completely intrigued with "Nowhere To Run." What is going on with that song? Ozzy Osbourne. DMX. Really?
Jack: Oh, Rick Rubin called me and had "Nowhere To Run" as a South Park thing. They had this track, and they wanted Ozzy to sing it, and they needed lyrics, and so I'm like, Okay, I'll write you the lyric. It was on "Chef Aid" or something like that. I don't know, they asked me to write the lyrics, so I wrote the lyrics.
Songfacts: Did you write the DMX part?
Jack: No. DMX wrote the DMX part. DMX did the music. It was a cluster fuck. I wrote the lyrics with Ozzy, and so that's what we did. The f-bombs, those guys wrote all the f-bombs. I'm not a big f-bomb thrower in my lyrics.
Songfacts: Okay… you collaborate with a lot of people. Who would be your fantasy collaborator?
Jack: McCartney. Clapton. And Paul Simon is an amazing writer. That's someone I admire. I mean, Tommy and I are huge Paul Simon fans. That would be amazing to me. Paul Simon to me is one of the best writers of all time. Springsteen is brilliant.
Songfacts: Has there been any effort on your part to make any of that happen?
Jack: No, I'd be too afraid. (laughs)
Songfacts: Even after working with "crazy" Ted Nugent? Which, by the way, I have to ask you about the Ted Nugent experience. I had read an article that was written right at the time that Damn Yankees was getting going. And the article said that Ted was getting out-of-control crazy.
Jack: Ted Nugent getting out-of-control and crazy on stage? Never seen that before!
Songfacts: I know, right?
Jack: That's what he does every time he gets on stage. (laughing) That's Ted Nugent. Ted is a blast, he is so much fun. I produced Ted's last album. Ted is Ted, man, you don't want to calm any of that down. With the Damn Yankees, that's really fun, because there were no egos there, nobody was trying to outdo the other guy or anything like that. All we ever wanted to do was be the best that we could be, and we just got together and wrote all those songs, and then got up on stage and started playing, and let Ted do his Ted thing. I wouldn't want Ted to calm down one bit.
Songfacts: All right, Jack. Thank you. I really appreciate your time this morning.
Jack: Now I'm gonna go find some coffee.
A pre-coffee Jack talked to us an hour or two past 4 in the morning on March 15, 2010. Also check out our interview with Night Ranger drummer Kelly Keagy, how has a lot more to say about "Sister Christian."
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