There are certain things you can always count on occurring with each season. And when it comes to summer, you can expect to see REO Speedwagon rocking a nearby amphitheater - if you live in the USA.
Since 1967, the band has been playing in one configuration or another. Keyboardist Neal Doughty is the sole remaining original member, but singer/pianist/guitarist Kevin Cronin has been there since 1972 (except for a spell between 1973-1976), and bassist Bruce Hall has been present since 1977.
And with the dawn of the '80s came breakthrough commercial success - resulting in such hit albums as 1980's Hi Infidelity, 1982's Good Trouble, and 1984's Wheels Are Turnin', as well as the singles "Keep On Loving You" (a #1 hit), "Take It on the Run" (#5), "Keep the Fire Burnin'" (#7), and "Can't Fight This Feeling" (#1).
Although REO Speedwagon (named after a truck introduced in 1915 by Ransom Eli Olds) has not issued an album full of new material since 2007's Find Your Own Way Home, they remain road warriors, and the summer of 2017 is no different: They're hitting the tour trail once again with their old pals Styx, plus ex-Eagles guitarist Don Felder. Cronin spoke with Songfacts prior to the launch of the tour, chatting about the stories behind several hits, MTV's golden age, and their late/great guitarist, Gary Richrath.
Kevin Cronin: The new song is called "Whipping Boy." It's a song about our belief that people have a natural desire to be treated as equals. Every human being wants that, and if someone isn't being treated that way, they will do what it takes to gain that equality for themselves - it's been shown throughout history.
I feel like it's true in society, it's true in personal relationships. It's one of those things that is just real, and that's really what the song is about: Nobody wants to be anybody else's whipping boy. It's a lot of fun to sing, and it's a song that everyone in the band really gets to play. Bruce gets to play some Entwistle-type licks and Dave [Amato] does a wah-wah solo that's awesome and Bryan [Hitt] does this tribal drum thing and there's a little bit of a blues thing in there, so I get to show that side of my singing.
It's just a fun song to play and there's this chant thing that happens that the audience responds to. You can see how that would invigorate the whole set. When you're playing something new and you're playing a couple of songs you haven't played in a long time, that energy is contagious and it infects the songs that you play every night. It brings the energy level of the whole concert up, so it's pretty cool.
Songfacts: Was there a real-life relationship that inspired "Can't Fight This Feeling"?
Kevin: Yeah, there was actually. There was actually more than one, as there are in many of my songs. It's a little bit of an amalgamation. A song usually is sparked by something that I have an emotional response to. But there is actually more than one person that that song was inspired by.
But really, what the song is about was about my inability to have the courage to express myself. I was brought up in an Irish-Catholic family, and you were taught to always keep a bright face, always act like everything was OK, even if maybe everything on the inside wasn't so OK. So that's something I've struggled with, and over the years have gotten better at.
At that time, the only way I knew to express those feelings was to write songs about them. I've learned over the years that it works better to talk to people! You can actually become closer to other human beings when you are vulnerable and express yourself and are free to tell the truth and to be honest and to be up front with your feelings. It does work. Back in those days, the best that I could do was write a song about it.
Kevin: It's funny, because a lot of people over the years have told me how they played that song at their wedding and it was the first dance at their wedding, or it's "their song" with their boyfriend or girlfriend. My first thought is always, "Wait. Did you listen to the verses of the song?!"
That song is a yin-yang thing, where there is obviously trouble in paradise in the verses, but I always believed that people are capable of changing, and that if your life runs into a tough spot, it doesn't mean that you necessarily have to run from it. You can also look it in the eye, and if there is enough worthwhile in the relationship to keep it going, then you give it all you've got, and that's what I did. Even in giving it all I got, at some point, we realized that it just wasn't going to work. So when I wrote that line, I meant it. I tried my best, but it just didn't happen.
Songfacts: The song was used in key scenes in one of my favorite '80s teen drama/comedies, The Last American Virgin.
Kevin: You know, I remember it, but I can't remember it that well. It's just such an awesome compliment when another artist records one of your songs or when a TV show or movie script comes up and someone asks me for permission to use one of my songs in it. There have been times I had to say no for one reason or another, but in general, I feel totally honored when someone wants to use a song that I wrote to propel their script or embellish upon the emotion that they're trying to portray in the script, and the song comes in and just kind of hammers it home. I like that synergy.
Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration for "Time for Me to Fly"?
Kevin: I had been in love with my first love - a girl that I met in high school. But there was a point where I knew that I had to move on, but didn't want to, because I was attached to her. I knew that it wasn't working, so I went to Colorado to put some distance between me and her, even though that wasn't what I consciously did.
When I got there, a friend of mine had a guitar sitting on his porch. I went to play it, and it sounded horrible. I realized that it was in some kind of different tuning, so I just messed around with it. I remembered Richie Havens at Woodstock. When he played, he wrapped his thumb around the top of the neck, and I thought, "I'll try that." I did, and sure enough, it sounded good.
A lot of times, that's what happens: you find something on the guitar that you like, and then the things that you're feeling become attached to that music, and that's what the songs are hatched from.
What's wild is that I literally just got a call from this mystery TV show - kind of a reality TV show - that the girl that I wrote "Time for Me to Fly" about went missing. Literally, went missing like, 30 years ago. And they were calling me. I declined to be filmed for the show, but the girl that was interviewing me was really cool. She was kind of a detective, but she was also a psychotherapist - really interesting. So the girl that I wrote "Time for Me to Fly" about mysteriously disappeared, and has not been heard from since.
Songfacts: REO was one of the few '70s bands to successfully make the transition to MTV, and I find that era of the channel interesting - I even wrote a book about it, MTV Ruled the World. What were your thoughts on video making at the time?
Kevin: It just kind of started happening to us. During the Tuna Fish album [full title: You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can't Tuna Fish], the record company sent a film crew out, and they wanted to film us in soundcheck, doing "Roll with Changes," "Time for Me to Fly," and a couple of songs from that album. And we didn't really know why, because back in those days, we would do TV shows like Midnight Special and Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. That was really how rock bands got on TV.
But we were fortunate. Talk about being in the right place at the right time - the Hi Infidelity album was #1 on the Billboard chart when MTV went on the air. So, it was just a no-brainer that our videos were going to get played on MTV, because we had pretty big hits on the radio.
I always thought it was cool. When people came to concerts back in those days, there were no video screens, so if somebody was up in front they could really see the band and really see what was going on, but the majority of people in an arena are so far away that you can barely even see what the band looks like. Well, this was a way to come into people's living rooms and connect with them more. To me, that's kind of what it's all about: finding ways to connect with people through the music. I always thought MTV was pretty cool.
Songfacts: One of my favorite REO videos was for the song "I Do' Wanna Know." What do you remember about that, and who is the gentleman that played the main character in that video?
He had made some commercials - I don't think he had made any videos yet. It was pretty innovative what he did. As a matter of fact, I had dinner with him recently. Our daughters go to the same college, and his daughter is an amazing girl, as is my daughter. We were both reminiscing about that video, and my feeling was it's a shame that that song, "I Do' Wanna Know," didn't really do too much. I think if the song would have been more of a hit, that video would have gotten a lot more attention.
We worked hard on that video. A lot of time in make-up, different locations - those pixelated scenes take a long time to film. In those days, you had to do it analog. You had to literally take a step, stop, take another step, stop, and then he would speed up the film. Things that people can do on their phones now were very difficult to do back in those days.
Kevin: Gary was so underappreciated. He was unique. He was the real deal. He walked the rock n' roll walk, talked the rock n' roll talk. He lived it. He was one of the sweetest souls I've ever met. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say this: I learned everything I know about being in a rock n' roll band from Gary. And even though he's passed away, he is on stage every night, because I channel his energy. Every time we play. I'm not ashamed to say it. Gary was amazing.
We didn't always agree on things. We locked horns on a lot of things and we'd fight it out, and what we came up with was probably better than what either one of us would have done by ourselves. Gary lived a tough life.
We hadn't seen one another since our Behind the Music special, which didn't go as planned. I hadn't heard from him in a long time, and I was like, "This is not good." So about a year before he died, we got together: Gary, Alan [Gratzer, REO's drummer from 1967-1988], and our manager, Tommy, who was our tour manager - he's basically a band member - and we had lunch together. I was able to just tell Gary, "Anything you've been wanting to say to me and haven't had a chance to, just fucking lay it out there. Let's get it out. There's got to be things that you're angry about." And we had an amazing, soulful connection.
And then about six months later, Gary came to a benefit concert that we played together - with Styx, as a matter of fact - and sat in on "Riding the Storm Out" and hung out in the dressing room with us. He seemed to be in a really good place. He was thinking about moving back to Illinois, which I thought would probably be a good thing for him, because it was kind of back home. So I really thought that things were turning around for him, and I was really happy for him. Then he had some stomach problem or something, and he went in the hospital to get treated for a stomach ailment, and there were complications and he didn't make it.
We're lucky that we found Dave Amato, who has been with us for the past 30 years, and is an amazing talent. He has some big shoes to fill. But I miss Gary. I owe my career to him. Hopefully, he's up there somewhere, because every night when we play, we dedicate "Ridin' the Storm Out" to his memory.
Songfacts: I used to enjoy when you'd appear on the The Howard Stern Show back in the '80s. What do you recall about appearing on it?
Kevin: I'll never forget the first time I did Howard. He was out in California on one of those big radio junkets where they'd set up 25 radio stations in a ballroom of a hotel somewhere, and the band would come and just go station to station to station. They'd all record it and play it back later. This was before Howard was Howard. He might have been well-known in New York or Washington at that time, but I didn't really know who he was. At the time, I had a hair thing going on and Howard had his hair thing going on, and they were kind of similar. You could say there was a little physical resemblance between us. So, the first thing he says to me is, "People tell me that I look like you all the time. But I've got this anal fissure, and I was just wondering if you have the same thing in your asshole?"
This was his opening line! It was like, "Oh man, this is going to be fun!"
I've always liked Howard. I haven't done his show in a while. I guess the guests he's bringing in now are a little more legendary or something, but I have fond memories of doing Howard. I did his show a number of times.
What I always liked about Howard is, back in the pre-Sirius days, where everyone considered him a "shock jock" or whatever, his radio presence was one thing, and then as soon as he'd go to commercial, we would start talking about our kids and what was going on at home. Just kind of real, human interaction. Most people back in those days never saw that side of Howard, and I really saw the kind of person he was and still is. Now, it shows a little more in his interviewing style. You can tell he really gets into it and really wants to make an emotional connection with people, and he did that during the commercials back in the day. Then as soon as the mics were on, all hell would break loose again. But I always saw that side of Howard. I like the guy.
June 16, 2017.
For tour dates and more REO, visit speedwagon.com.
Vintage photos courtesy of Richard Galbraith. He took them at a show in Oklahoma in 1978.
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