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26 September 2018updated 02 Oct 2018 11:13am

Steve Perry of Journey: “Things happened to me as a child. There was nowhere to talk it out, so I sang it out instead”

Journey wrote “Don’t Stop Believin’”, the most downloaded song from the 20th century. When their lead singer quit, the band spent years trying to replace him. Finally out of hibernation, he tells his strange story.

By Kate Mossman

In the small hours of 14 June 2007, the Queen guitarist Brian May sat worrying at his computer. The American rock band Journey had fired another lead singer: 41-year-old Jeff Scott Soto had been erased from the group’s website – shed, Brian observed in his blog, like a used pair of boots.

It wasn’t that Brian didn’t sympathise with the pressures on a middle-aged rock band burdened with touring millions of dollars’ worth of hits when their original frontman was indisposed. He laid out Journey’s options. 1. Throw in the towel. 2. Find a look- and sound-alike. 3. Go out under a different name (“unrewarding”). 4. Find a new frontman who steals a bit of the limelight for himself.

Journey are responsible for “Don’t Stop Believin’”, the most-downloaded song written in the 20th century. They have had five lead singers to date. The single component they’ve spent three decades cyclically seeking to replace is the voice of their frontman, Steve Perry, who came and went, and came and went – then disappeared. Any Journey singer needs to sound exactly like Steve Perry, and that is not easy. He must have a high “tenor altino”, reaching F#2 to A5, with a tone somewhere between Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. The first time Perry quit the band was at the height of their fame, in 1987. He’d been nursing his dying mother, and considered retraining as a neurologist.

The second time he left, ten years later, was because the band were pressing him to have a hip operation, and he refused. The girlfriend of keyboard player Jonathan Cain dimly recalled a guy from another group she thought could hit notes as high as Perry could – so founder member Neal Schon tracked him down, and found him working as a maintenance manager for Gap, enjoying the security of his first pension plan.

The new singer, Steve Augeri, became known as “Steve Perry with a perm”. He took Journey’s hits to the arenas of middle America. As he did so, the real Steve Perry – who’d co-written those hits – rode a Harley Davidson through the San Joaquin Valley in California, back to where he was born.

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Perry has been a virtual recluse for 20 years. He sits before me in a Whitehall hotel, dissecting a chocolate muffin and carefully dabbing crumbs from his lap. He speaks in metaphorical language: he once said that leaving his band was like “re-entering the earth’s atmosphere with no heat tiles on my face”. The San Joaquin valley reached 110°F in the summer, with fields of almond trees, cotton and alfalfa. The alfalfa became a symbol of his escape. “It holds so much moisture that when you come to an area where there’s an alfalfa field on the left and right, the temperature drops 15 degrees. So I’m out on my motorcycle, and those were the days before ‘helmets’ [he makes quote marks in the air] and the wind is in my hair and all of a sudden, well, I cooled off.”

No one knew what Perry did next. There was a rumour he’d invested in a small bovine insemination business in California’s Central Valley, but it turned out to be a rogue edit on Wikipedia. In what some might call a terrible irony, the band he left behind enjoyed an unexpected, international renaissance without him, attracting a new generation of fans. In the 21st century, “Don’t Stop Believin’” was used on the soundtracks of the Oscar-winning 2003 film Monster, Scrubs, Family Guy, Glee and perhaps most memorably, in the final eerie moments of The Sopranos. It inspired long-read journalism on the magic of song craft, and it even formed the plot of the Broadway hair metal musical Rock of Ages.

Talk to my lawyer: Steve Perry and Neal Schon during the height of Journey’s fame in 1983. Credit: Charlyn Zlotnik/Getty

Perry banked the cheques – but he missed the shows, because there was a new lead singer in the band who sounded just like him, and this time everyone was talking about it. Arnel Pineda was a Filipino fan who’d spent two years living homeless on the streets of Manila as a child – Neal Schon had found videos of him singing Journey songs on YouTube. Pineda has enjoyed the most successful stint in the job since the man he is imitating. Find a frontman who steals a bit of the limelight for himself, said Brian May, and “the sky’s the limit”.

When not riding his motorbike through the San Joaquin Valley, Perry attended the local fair, which came to his home town in June as it had done in his childhood. “I was drawn to the circus life, because they’d come into town – it was lights, Ferris wheels, it was moving, it was fantasy – and the next thing you know they’re gone,” he says. The circus was, he admits, not unlike a rock band.

“I saw Pinocchio as a child, and there was something evil about this special place where all the children could go. They’d go on the rides, but their ears would grow – and they turned into asses, actually, I guess.”

Rock bands are a ruthless business, but in Journey it’s hard to say who holds the power – the mutable frontman who forced the band in and out of hibernation for a decade, or the founder member who turned the frontman’s voice into a million-dollar franchise. Perry once claimed that he’d never felt part of the group. Schon replied: “How can you ‘not feel part’ of something you’re almost completely controlling?”

They only communicate through their lawyers now. But their songs play in every sports bar and mall in America, instantly and innocently evoking the pain and passion of ordinary human life.

“It’s like your boyfriend saying to you: drop a few pounds, get your nose fixed at the same time. Fuck off!”

Perry has watched his replacements come and go, but once, he was the replacement himself: in 1977, aged 28, having failed in several bands, he’d returned home to work mending coops on his uncle’s turkey ranch when he got the call from Neal Schon, asking him to join a jazz fusion band who couldn’t get a hit. Perry asked his mother, and she advised him to go for it. Schon tried him out by bringing him on the road and telling everyone he was the roadie’s Portuguese cousin. He sang a song at soundcheck when the official singer was away from the stage.

The clichés – “married to music”, “a band is like a family” – are well worn, but for the generation of men who became millionaire rock stars in the seventies and eighties (for it is men, and it is one generation) they are the only way to understand their motivations, not least because it is a language they invented themselves. Solo albums were referred to by Journey’s manager Herbie Herbert as cheating on your wife (both Schon and Perry cheated). Of the hip operation stand-off, Perry says: “When they told me they checked out some new singers, it’s like your boyfriend saying ‘Look, I really love you, but I need to know if we’re getting married or not because I’ve checked out some other chicks.’”

But it was more than that, wasn’t it? They were telling him they’d only take him back if he underwent major surgery.

“OK,” says Perry. “It’s like saying, ‘By the way, drop a few pounds, too. Get your nose fixed at the same time.’ FUCK OFF.” He then asks if we can talk about his new record, Traces, his first in 25 years.

Arnel Pineda, the new Steve Perry, in 2016. Credit: Michael Hickey/Getty

When Perry was 16 years old, he heard “I Need Youby the Beatles, released on the Help! album, and he felt they could have done better. Why had they done a kind of bossa nova he wondered, when it clearly cried out for R&B? He has reworked the song on his new album, which he wrote and produced on his own – “No one had their foot on my neck saying, ‘Are you done? Are you done?’ FUCK OFF.” he says.

When he was very young, Perry would “mumble hook lines” for potential songs, and it was in Journey that he was able to “apply everything I had ever dreamed of”. Their audience – suddenly full of girls – had a new and emotional relationship to the band via their commercial power ballads.

“You can’t solo for 18 bars,” he recalls telling Neal Schon – who was such a good guitarist that he’d been recruited by Carlos Santana aged 15, in the summer of 1969. “You can have about eight bars. And if it’s going to be eight bars, it has to be something beautiful.”

The first time the pair were put together to write, they finished Perry’s love letter to San Francisco, “Lights, in about ten minutes. He describes a song idea as a “sketch” – a framework of chord changes, a couple of melody ideas and a loop for rhythm. “But my problem is, I hear it completed already.”

Songs, he says, should be “like pancakes – stacked high with layers of feeling”. Modern writing is an “industrial assembly line because everyone’s on the grid. There’s 20 people writing these songs – they’re trying to maximise the individual assignments, like when they’re making a film, to increase the opportunity for a hit. But a song should be all about selling a feeling.”

Selling a feeling – is that the essence of power ballads?

“It’s the essence of music,” he says.

“Songs should be like pancakes, stacked high with layers of feeling”

“Don’t Stop Believin’” has had a lot of analysis in recent years, as interest has grown in the industry’s backroom magic. It is a power ballad with a strange minimalism, full of barely-there figures – “strangers waiting” and “streetlight people”. Unable to sleep in a Detroit hotel room, Perry had looked down to the street and noticed the way in which walkers would pop up suddenly in circles of light. The lyric’s “midnight train” was a musical madeleine, designed to take you back to Gladys Knight. The song was self-consciously cinematic, but states that life is a movie that never ends. Its thin but powerful sense of hope was so abstract, it applied to everyone – from the gambler in the lyric, rolling the dice “one last time”, to the real John Doe hearing “Don’t Stop Believin’” in a bar on a Friday night. It started with a refrain written by Jonathan Cain: what Cain heard as a chorus, Perry heard as a “pre-chorus” – suggesting that a “chorus of choruses” should be held off till the very end. It does not appear until three minutes and 20 seconds, delaying the climax. Perry gets a bit antsy discussing it.

“I don’t want to talk about the music because then you won’t listen, and it won’t be yours,” he says. “Your definition – what the song does to you, and the next person – are totally different. You hear music differently based on your life, your experience, what you are. When something resonates with a massive number of people, that is exactly what is happening.”

In 2007, he was approached by HBO for permission to use the track in the final seconds of The Sopranos. He refused to give it over without knowing what scene it would accompany, concerned that the entire Soprano family were going to “get whacked” to the song. For a few weeks, he was one of the only people in the world who knew how the series ended.

Another, equally effective modern-day licensing of the track was in Patty Jenkins’s Monster, when the serial killer Aileen Wuornos, played by Charlize Theron, meets her lover at a roller rink. A jukebox and a skating rink were just the kind of places you heard Journey every day, growing up, reinforcing the sense of their music as part of the wallpaper of American life. Perry, now 69, loved high school, “a magical time, when innocence is running your life.” Its memories are his songwriting metaphors: a concert venue, he says, rather strangely, is “the backseat of a car”.

“Everything I write comes back to high school. I know it sounds funny, but everything. It all comes from the emotions I grew into during my adolescence. Those moments are not to be tossed away.” He becomes emphatic. “If something means something to you, go back and get it and make it part of your life. And anyone who doesn’t understand how important that is, you tell them to FUCK OFF,” he advises, before breaking off to reveal he is desperate for the bathroom.

He was one of the only people in America who knew how The Sopranos ended

Perry was born to Portuguese parents in 1949. His father, Ray, was a singer – a baritone – who had tried to break into the business, and performed in the local theatres of his hometown. What kind of music did he sing?

“‘Pennies from Heaven,’” Perry replies.

His parents eloped because his mother’s father didn’t approve of a singing career. He tells their story as though music were some kind of hereditary condition or family curse, which in the case of Perry, you kind of feel it might be. His parents split when he was eight years old, and he, an only child, moved with his mother to his grandparents’ dairy farm – which might explain the rumours about his subsequent career. As with many rock stars, from Roger Waters to Lennon, the absent father was significant. I ask him why he became a singer.

“People don’t become performers because they don’t have needs,” he says. “Singing, though it can be very lovely, is essentially a primal scream. And I was screaming pretty loudly – and quite big.”

He was an invisible child, he says, but also a silenced one.

“There was a lot going on but nowhere to take it. Things happened to me as a child that I still can’t talk about – nothing to do with my parents, but things did happen. It happened to a lot of kids, as I find out.”

How old was he?

“About nine. But there was nowhere to take that stuff back then. One of my needs to perform was the need to get myself heard. Now, please, do understand, I’m not complaining – but there was nowhere to talk it out, so I got to sing it out instead.”

He spoke to a professional at the age of 63 about what had happened to him at nine. He was advised to do so by the woman he calls the love of his life, Kellie Nash, a psychology PhD candidate. But like everything else that has happened to Perry, theirs was not a conventional story.

During his mysterious, fallow years, Steve Perry seems to have investigated an alternative career in filmmaking. He was “shadowing” Monster director Patty Jenkins: “I love editing, I love directing. So with Patty I watched and learned a lot.” Jenkins was working on a TV film called Five for the Lifetime Network, exploring the impact of breast cancer. Being a methodical director, she surrounded her cast with real patients in remission. One of them – Nash – caught Perry’s eye. Jenkins then told him that Nash’s cancer had returned, was in her bones and lungs, and that she was fighting for her life. He went ahead anyway.

“I’d lost my mother,” he says. “I’d not reconnected with my father – which was another clean-up waiting to happen. I’d lost the grandparents who raised me. And I’d lost this career that I’d wanted so much, because I’d walked away from it.”

Was he so accustomed to losing things that a date with Nash didn’t scare him?

“I don’t know,” he says. “I justified it by telling myself, well, she’s a PhD psychologist, maybe I need another shrink?”

They had a year and a half together before Nash died in 2012. One night she said, “Promise me you won’t go back into isolation, for I feel that would make this all for naught.” He repeats the strange words, wide-eyed: all for naught. It was then that he decided to return to music.

“Life gets undone,” he says. “You try to come up with a plan, but it’s good for ten minutes a day. Some people have an ability to make belief systems work for a lifetime, but I think they’re hard to keep up.”

In 2014, he made world news when he turned up unannounced at a gig by the indie band Eels and performed their song “It’s a Motherfuckeralong with two of his own. He’d not sung live for 19 years but, explained the band’s Mark Everett, “For some reason only known to him, he feels like tonight in St Paul, Minnesota, it feels right.”

Perry, the once-invisible only child, still talks about Journey as a “nucleus”  he could never break into. It is fair to say that the band didn’t want him at first – it was only under the orders of their manager that he was hired at all. They came to epitomise corporate rock. “There are still things I don’t like about it,” Neal Schon once said, “but this is the way I make my living.”

You suspect that, creatively, both men might have been better off without the band – the jazz rock boy-wonder, and the hit-writing soul mogul who really wanted to be on his own. But you take whatever route to fame is presented to you – and you follow the money: “I’d rather fail at being what I wanted to be,” Perry says, “than be successful being someone I didn’t.” 

“Traces” by Steve Perry is released on 5 October through Hear Music

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This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis