After helping revive the career of Big Star at a rock writers convention he helped organize (more on that later), Jon formed a band called The Yankees before turning to session work and producing Delbert McClinton, Nick Lowe, Frank Black, Graham Parker and Wilson Pickett. He has published over 400 songs, including the 1991 Huey Lewis & the News single "He Don't Know," and tracks recorded by Leslie West, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray.
Along with the lyricist Stephen Kalinich (who wrote the words for several Beach Boys songs), Jon released the albums Symptomology and Shortcuts to Infinity in 2012. The 30 songs draw on their combined musical and spiritual journeys (they traveled to India together), and are sprinkled with guest appearances by Brian May and Steve Cropper.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I am, yeah.
Jon: I was born in Connecticut.
Songfacts: I understand you went to Yale.
Jon: I probably spent more time at Yale when I was a teenager hanging out at the radio station. I went for a year, then I transferred to Sarah Lawrence, then I came back for a semester and that was it. That was the end of my college experience.
Songfacts: What were you studying when you went there?
Jon: Well, there wasn't really much for me to study there. I was taking English and psychology and sociology courses, but there was no music program there for me whatsoever. So it was out of the question.
Songfacts: Is that what you wanted to do, though?
Jon: Oh, yeah. I was writing for Rolling Stone in my senior year of high school, and I've been writing for music magazines since I was like 13. I knew that that was my path. I didn't know exactly how it would manifest itself, whether it was going to be a producer, whether I would be working for a record company, or whether my musical talent as a composer and performer and stuff like that would be strong enough to sustain me. But I knew that I was going to be doing something not too far from what I was doing then, which was writing about music and showing my enthusiasm for music.
Songfacts: And, of course, you don't start your music career writing for Rolling Stone. You had more of a self starter publication. Tell me about that.
Jon: Well, yeah. I started a magazine called The New Haven Rock Press in 1967. I was 12. And it was if not the first fanzine, certainly one of the first fanzines. I think we started around the same time as Who Put The Bomp, maybe a little after Crawdaddy, but Crawdaddy quickly turned into a regular magazine, and we didn't have that kind of intention. We wanted to stay as a fan's magazine covering as much of the musical turf that we thought the major magazines were ignoring. A lot of records were coming out that I thought were really good and were getting ignored. So I figured, well, if they're not going to write about them, I'll write about them in my magazine.
The first issue I think we had Paul Butterfield with Steve Miller Band on the cover, and then John Hammond. A lot of blues based rock kind of things. It wasn't long before I started getting calls from the regular magazines saying, "Hey, we want someone your age writing for us because we're about 5 or 10 years older than the people who are reading us, and you're about their age. So why don't you write for us?"
So I started writing for Fusion, Rolling Stone, Melody Maker, just doing my thing. And part of that process was I would go into New York every once in a while and visit the record companies and see what was going on. Getting a real taste of what the music business was all about, at least from that perspective, from a quick hit and run kind of a perspective. I wasn't really in the trenches on a daily basis, but I got enough of a taste of it to figure out how the game was played.
The 18-year-old Jon Tiven helped organize the event, which by most accounts was dominated by drunken revelry and horndoggery. Jon convinced Big Star to close the convention. The group had lost their guitarist Chris Bell, and their future was in question when the band - now the trio of frontman Alex Chilton, bass player Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens - took the stage and wowed the critical mass. The rejuvenated Big Star released their album Radio City the next year; Rolling Stone later named it one of the top 500 albums ever made.
Jon: Yeah, that was not my ambition. John King was the guy who really started that thing. But I helped put it together. No question about it. I helped them figure out who would be the appropriate people to put there and I convinced everybody that we had to get Big Star playing there if it was going to really serve its purpose for everybody. I was a big supporter of Big Star back then and I think we prevailed upon the powers that be, and they decided to get back together and play on that occasion. They had broken up for all intents and purposes at that point. Alex was doing a solo record and there was no Big Star - he had already started with him and Richard Rosebrough. He had done a couple of tracks. But when they played that convention, the reaction was just so overwhelming that Alex decided that the brand name was worth more than he originally had figured. He had just figured, Well, we don't have Chris (Bell) in the group anymore, may as well just do a solo thing. Because the music that he was making was not exactly on the same artistic plane as Big Star. He and Chris had very different ideas of what that band should sound like.
Songfacts: And you must have had Alex Chilton in your Rolodex from interviewing him or having some association with him in the past.
Jon: Well, Alex and I were friends from like '72, when the first Big Star record came out. I wrote a review for Fusion magazine, and I got a call from John King, who was running Ardent Records. He put Alex on the line and we became friendly. He flew me down to Memphis several times and I hung out with Alex, and we became pretty good friends.
Songfacts: Was your ability to actually play music and understand it helpful in your interactions with these guys?
Jon: Yeah. It helps if you know the vocabulary. At that point I played a couple of different instruments. I played piano, saxophone and guitar. I was just developing as a guitar player at that point when I met Alex. I knew my way around the instrument, but I was much more skilled on the other instruments. See, I was like this star saxophone player. I was getting all these awards and stuff, first chair in the band and playing with all these jazz groups.
And then one day I had a brilliant idea: I was playing baseball and I was the catcher and I didn't wear the catcher's helmet. The bat came back and 21 stitches later I became a guitar player. It was in 1970.
Songfacts: So is that you playing sax on the new albums?
Jon: Oh, yeah. All the records I make I try to play saxophone. Well, what happened was I couldn't play saxophone. I mean, it ruined my embouchere. I was an alto player and it's a very tight embouchere with an alto. Whenever I tried to build my embouchere back up after that, I would get really twisted scar tissue that made it impossible for me to play.
So I pretty much gave up the saxophone for about 30 years. I would touch it every once in a while, but I didn't feel like I really could play it much anymore. And then when I moved to Nashville, which was about 10 years ago, I decided I was going to go chase that saxophone thing once again. So I got a tenor. I figured a tenor had a wider embouchere, and I might be able to get around it. And sure enough, it was so different from where the scar tissue had healed that I was able to build up an embouchere for the tenor saxophone that allowed me to play and enjoy the instrument and feel like I was fairly proficient on the instrument. And now I feel like I can really wail.
But saxophone was the first instrument that I really loved playing, and it was very crushing to not be able to play it because of a physical accident. And now I can play it again, so it's really a wonderful thing that I've been able to do that.
Songfacts: One of the things that's really interesting about this early '70s scene, and even this Rock Writers Convention, you actually had musicians coming to see writers. So it was a whole different dynamic. It's like what you see in Almost Famous. What are your thought on that whole scene and how it's changed?
Jon: Well, look at the people who were writing. It was like Nick Tosches and Lester Bangs. People who were sort of stars unto themselves as writers and proved so over time that they were greatly talented. The musicians had greater appreciation for the writers, and with a lot of them, like Richard Meltzer, who was writing lyrics for the Blue Oyster Cult, there was an interaction. Patti Smith had her foot in both camps. Chrissie Hynde got her foot in both camps. It wasn't so delineated.
I don't think a musician coming up now would think, I'm going to write about music and really get into the music business by writing about music and playing my instrument. I think there's much more clearly delineated path towards a career in music for a musician than writing about it. But back then, there were no rules and it was wide open. And hey, I just felt like as a musician and as a 13, 14 year old, I felt like I had a perspective on music that was unique, but shared by enough people that were not being catered to by the regular rock press. So it's a whole different thing.
Songfacts: Did you ever fall into the trappings of fame?
Jon: Well, what would those trappings be?
Songfacts: That would be typical rock and roll excess, ego, things like that that make you an unpleasant person.
Jon: Some people might think I'm an unpleasant person, but I've tried to maintain my pleasantness. I stay away from the opiates because I know that they are destructive to the personality. So I don't do any hard drugs or anything like that. I feel like I've been able to maintain myself and develop myself without becoming that person. I've never really been that person who chases celebrity or anything like that. I've had my name in the paper since I was 13 years old. I know how meaningless that is.
Songfacts: So it never went to your head in the way that many of the people you've covered probably have seen it.
Jon: Well, most of my friends who are musicians don't have big egos. Steve Cropper doesn't have a big ego. He knows what his talent is and he knows what it's worth in the general scheme of things. But he's not an egotist or an egomaniac. The great artists usually aren't. Brian May is not an egomaniac. He's a sweet, down to earth person.
Songfacts: When you talk about a producer, that could mean a lot of things. When you are producing, what are you doing?
Jon: Well, my case is very unusual, because on a lot of the records that I produce, I play on, which most producers generally speaking don't. And a lot of them I ended up playing just about everything except for the rhythm section. The only guys that I know that did that were Todd Rundgren and Roy Wood. And on top of that, I'm usually writing the songs and I'm doing the engineering on most of the recording. So for me, it's the biggest hat you could possibly wear. I'm doing most records as if I was totally in control, because a lot of the records I do are with singers.
Then again, there are people that I produce that just want my perspective, that just want to know what I think of what they're doing. I rarely play on my Frank Black records that I produce. I threw in a couple of saxophone licks on the record I produced with Reid Paley and him, and I played harmonica on I think it was Fast Man Raider Man, maybe a little on Honeycomb or something. But generally speaking he just wants me to be the guy overseeing the project and making sure that the trucks don't go into the ravine. And with his records, I've usually got a world of musicians who are just incredible A-list guys, and it's all I can do to just make sure that all the parts fit together. So I save my playing for the overdubs and those sort of situations.
But I'm fairly flexible. I can produce with whatever hat needs to be worn at that particular session. I can play everything and write everything, or I can play nothing and just lord over the session.
Songfacts: What are some of the examples of the ones that you were particularly involved in playing the instruments?
Jon: Obviously the record I did with Stevie Kalinich. It's my wife on bass - Sally Tiven - mostly Cody Dickinson on drums, but there's a couple of other drummers, guest drummers on the record, Chester Thompson, Billy Block, Steve Ferrone. And then everything else is me.
So that was very challenging, because I was writing all the music, and I also had to sing. And I wasn't really engaged in the singing process for the past 30 years. I've been avoiding that because I convinced myself that my voice was not a particularly commercial one and I was fortunate enough so that other people were singing my songs by covering them. I guess Rick Derringer picked the song off the Yankees record, "Take It Like A Man," and that let me know that my songs were worth covering.
Although I'd had a song stolen by Kim Fowley a couple of years earlier and put on the first Runaways album. I had submitted some songs to him for the Runaways, and he really liked one of them. I was working for Chess Records in 1975, so I had to fly out to California, and he had me come to the rehearsal session. They were a three piece band with Joan (Jett) and Michael (Steele), who later joined the Bangles, and Sandy West was the drummer. I showed them the song and helped Joan with the guitar part. Then lo and behold the album came out and I looked at the titles and I didn't see my song title on it. So I had went to see the group when they did their CBGB debut, and for their encore they did a song called "Blackmail." My hair stood up when they played it because it was my song with different lyrics.
So I went backstage afterwards and I said, "Joan, you ended up doing my song after all and you changed the lyrics. Did you put my name on the song? Did you put it on the record?" She said, "Oh, Kim took care of all the publishing credits." I looked on the record and, of course, my name wasn't on it.
I ran into Kim Fowley years later after I'd had some more serious success as a songwriter. I reintroduced myself, and he backed away as if I was going to hit him or something. I said, "No, Kim, I want to thank you. Because by stealing my song, you let me know that it had worth. And I figured if my song was worth stealing, then I should do more of them and just protect myself better, because I could make some money doing this and have a career. This'll be great." And he was like, "Oh, that song was just generic. That could have been anybody's." I'm like, "Well, I'm not going after you, Kim. I'm not suing you, I'm not insulting you. I'm thanking you for showing me that my song had worth." And he just harumphed and did his Frankenstein impersonation and walked away.
But that was a very informative experience. Even though it would have been nicer if they'd given me credit, it let me know that, yes, I had talent as a songwriter. And really that's what a songwriter was, they want to know that their songs are worth singing and recording. So that was good.
But back on track to your original question, about the records that I take pride in where I really played everything. The Wilson Pickett record that I produced (It's Harder Now, 1999), I wrote every song and played all the guitars on and some of the keyboards on and really did everything with Wilson. He was a great partner. That was a tremendous experience, because Wilson Pickett, I mean, once you're around a talent like that, you know you can get away with just about anything on the track, because once he puts his voice on it, it's a smash. The guy had one of the most iconic voices and he kept it in tremendous shape up until the very end. So I knew that any song he put himself to singing that he liked, that he'd get into, he would be great on. We had a tremendous time. That was a wonderful experience, and he was very encouraging to me to play more and more on the record, and that was a great thing to hear when you have somebody who's one of the best singers in the world. I mean, hands down, one of the most incredible vocalists, incredible range, stupendous personality. Just great experience to work with somebody like that.
Songfacts: What was the name of the Runaways song before it became "Blackmail"?
Jon: It was called "Gonna Have A Party."
Songfacts: So explain to me about how you go about writing a song and how often you do it.
Jon: That was the first song I ever wrote, so my process was a little different then. I would basically be hit by inspiration and just try to find a way to get it down on tape or something so I could remember it the next day or whenever I had the chance to make a real recording of it. The initial germ, you may just have a couple of lines musically, or musically and lyrically, whatever. And as you work with it, if you don't have a good record of what your original inspiration was, you tend to lose it, because you get involved in the next thing that you're writing, and the next lyric that you're coming up with for the song, and you sort of remember the chord that you played, but you don't remember the timing of it and you don't remember exactly how you put the notes.
So it's important to get something down of your initial inspiration, and I still do that. When I first come up with an idea I think it's really important for me to get some record of it down. But now I've got a fully equipped studio in my house, so I could do it. It's set up in a way that I could just run in and throw something down very quickly, so that's a very important part of the process.
Sometimes when I write it's lyrics first, sometimes it's music first. Sometimes I just get a lyric and I send it off to a friend of mine, like Leslie West, who I'm writing with right now and I'm strictly writing lyrics for Leslie. He's writing the music. Or Syl Johnson, same thing. Which is very pleasant for me, because I get to use just one side of my brain and really apply that.
So Keith came over my house, and said, "Play me some music." So I played him some music. He said, "No. Play me some more music." I played him some more. "Nah." Then I finally played him something that he liked, and he went to get a briefcase. He pulled out a typed sheet of paper. He said, "I did this as a translation of a French lyric. It wasn't a translation, it was just something that fit into the same phrasing as the French lyric, but it was rejected. So I think this will fit with that music that you had." So we tried it, and took all of 15 minutes to get the thing together. It fit perfectly except for one line. And the song was called "River of No Return." Went on the first Jeff Healey record and sold about three million copies.
So at that point I said, "Oh, words and music. Keeping them separate. That might be a good thing." So then I started doing that more often, and I had a friend, Mack Rice, who I had met when I lived in Memphis. He told me he wanted to do some writing with me. I said, "Great. I'll send you some music." So I sent him a music track. He put my cassette on in his bathroom and he had one of the boom boxes that you could sing into. So he was in his bathroom singing into one boombox as he's playing it on the other, and it sounded great. It was "24-7 Man." It was cut by Robert Cray and went to #1 on the AAA charts. So I said, "Okay. That's two for two.
Then I started writing with a guy named Ian Moss. An Australian guy. He came here and we wrote a bunch of songs where my wife and I strictly wrote lyrics to his music. And again, that one ("Mr. Rain") went to the top of the charts there as a single, and also the album won five ARIA awards, which is the Australian equivalent of the Grammy. And it was I think triple platinum. So I was getting all this reinforcement that words and music should be kept separate as much as possible. So that's how my path got there.
Songfacts: Is there any formula to when the inspiration strikes?
Jon: No. I really don't think that you can scientifically quantify your creativity. I think it just comes, sometimes you don't know it's great. Some of the songs I wrote with Stevie, music was written probably three years before I put his lyrics to them. And at the time I thought they were nice pieces of music. But I didn't think, Oh, yeah, this is going to shake the world. Or, Oh, this is going to be the first cut on the first side. I just do the music that sounds good to me, that feels good to me, and at the end of it, I hope I like it.
But sometimes I can't tell if it's bound for greatness or not. I just carry forth with it. People say I'm like the antenna and the music comes through me and sometimes it is like that. And sometimes it is like that and you really don't have any choice in how the song is going to go. It just goes. So when you feel the song is revealing itself to you, then the last thing you want to do is overthink it. So if I have any kind of a trick, it's not to overthink inspiration. You just let it come through and nurture it.
Songfacts: How did your Huey Lewis cut, "He Don't Know," come about?
Then I started writing with Don Covay, and I started sending her those songs, and she really liked those. The next thing I heard from her she says, "Well, I'm in California now. Love will do crazy things. I'm helping Huey Lewis find songs for his record. Send me what you got."
So I sent her a cassette tape with five songs that I wrote with Don Covay that I liked. And the last one on the cassette was "He Don't Know What To Do For You." The reason it was last is because Don and Sally and I originally had worked on that and we really thought it was great, but Don was not 100% on the lyrics. He felt we still might have to do some more work on it. We tried demoing it again. And nothing was really setting fire to him to the point where he said, "Yeah, this is ready to go."
But when Angela asked me for songs for Huey, I figured, Well, I've got to send this one to him. Even though it may not be something that Don is 100% on yet, I think he should hear this. And I sent the very first version that we did. We had done at least two more lyric and one musical rewrite on it, but none of them for me had the impact of the very first version we did.
So that's what I sent. And next thing I know I get a call from Angela saying, "I think they really like your song a lot." "Really? Which one?" "He Don't Know What To Do For You." "Great." So I told Don and he was thrilled, because at that point in time he had just finished making a record for Island Records that Island was giving him a real hard time about whether it was finished or not. They ended up not putting it out. It was a shame, because he made a record, it wasn't consistently an A+ record, but there were definitely three or four A+ songs on it. So I felt like, Well, they've got to get behind this.
That was unfortunate, but it still got a tremendous amount of exposure, made a good amount of money for us and for Don, and I think it was a real confidence builder for all of us. Don, my wife, and myself went out when Huey did that tour; we spent some time with him, and he couldn't have been nicer. He's just really great.
Songfacts: Are songs like that often inspired by personal experience or are they more universal themes that you guys are observing?
Jon: I don't write as an observer usually. I write as a participant. That particular idea was Don's. It was not mine or Sally's. He had the line, "he don't know what to do for you." I mean, if I wrote it, it probably would have been "he doesn't know what to do for you." Or something like that.
When I write a lyric, it's usually because of something that happened to me, because that's what inspires me. Just watching other people live their lives is interesting, but I need to be personally engaged with the subject matter in order to provide some wisdom and knowledge.
Songfacts: What's an example of one of your songs that came from a direct personal experience?
Jon: Well, "Midnight Train" was the one that I wrote with Roger Reale, that Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang did. I was waiting at the station, waiting for the midnight train, and it seemed like it never was going to come. I didn't know if that was a great song idea, but Roger and I, we just did this one chord jam, couple of riffs in it, and I said, "I have this lyric that I wrote a couple of days ago that I didn't have any place for. Maybe this'll fit." So I sang it and it seemed to have resonance with that music, and worked out great.
Songfacts: The last thing I wanted to get into, Jon, your trip to India and the yoga inspiration. How did that come about and how has it affected your music?
Jon: Well, not sure about the yoga inspiration. I do hot yoga, but I don't think that's really a big part of my music. It's just something that allows me to focus and clear my mind. But the trip to India was something else again. I mean, that was way before hot yoga or any of that.
I've been a devotee of Sai Baba since 1975. A friend of mine in college came into his room and he had this picture of this dark skinned man with an afro. I said, "What's the deal with the guy who looks like Jimi Hendrix?" And he's like, "That's Sai Baba, that's my guru." A guru that looks like Jimi Hendrix, that sounds good to me. So he gave me some books and I started reading into it and I became very, very taken with his words and his path and I've been basically a follower since then. Although I don't go to Temple every week or anything like that. I just practice in my home, I read and I meditate and I do my mantra, stuff like that.
And I really didn't know too many people who were Sai Baba devotees other than myself. I mean, there's a couple in the music business, I guess Danny Goldberg is one, Rosemary Carroll, there's a couple, but not a whole lot. And then in the early '90s a friend of mine, my upstairs neighbor, was a producer for The Geraldo Rivera Show. Her name was Krista Bradford, she's married to Crispin Cioe of the Uptown Horns. She was living upstairs form me and she said, "I've got to do this show on protest singers. Who should I get?"
So I said, Krista, why don't you get PF Sloan on your show to do "Eve Of Destruction"? And she said, "How do I get in touch with him?" I said, "I don't know. But you've got to research that. I'm sure you could find a way." So they finally chased him down, they got him. And she said, "I'm flying him to New York before our show, and because you suggested him to me, I want to put you guys together. I'm going take you guys all out to dinner."
So we all went out to dinner. And I'm sitting there with my pregnant wife and Krista and Phil comes into the restaurant and he's all sort of disheveled. And he's like apologetic, says, "Sorry, I'm a little verklempt because I just recently flew in from India. I'm still recovering from that."
I let it go and we just had a regular conversation. And then later in the meal I said, "So what part of India did you go?" And he said, "Down in the southern tip, I've got some friends there." And I looked at him and I said, "You wouldn't have been going to Puttaparthi, would you?" And I mean his jaw dropped, his eyes got wide, and I said, "Because I'm a Sai Baba devotee." And I showed him the ring that I wear that Sai Baba materialized. And at that point we pretty much became spiritual brothers and we've become very good friends. We've worked together on many projects. And you really have Phil to thank or to hold responsible for, however way you want to put it, for bringing me and Stevie together. Because he's the one who introduced us. And after he introduced me to Stevie, we journeyed to India right after we finished making Phil's record, Stevie, Phil and myself, and we had a profound spiritual experience in Puttaparthi in Prasanthi Nilayam, which was Sai Baba's ashram, just being there and being filled with the spirit of divinity. It was just wonderful.
And I carry it through with me to this day.
Songfacts: Interesting. I had no idea you were a devotee since the '70s. That was where I was going with that question of if you had fallen into some kind of excess, because I have noticed that pattern with a lot of people who follow that path.
Jon: Well, maybe being a Sai Baba devotee has kept my ego in check. I mean, there are a lot of people who think I'm a tremendous egotist, but they don't know me very well. I have great respect for the talents that I have been entrusted with, but I in no way find myself to be necessarily responsible for it. So I enjoy my talent, this talent that is mine. I think it's mine on loan, I don't think I own it. But I'm certainly sharing it in as much as I can.
September 5, 2012. Get more at jontiven.com.
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