The sold-out Oct. 18 Sundays on St. John’s concert in Asbury Park will feature Glen Burtnik & Friends. Not The Weeklings, or Glen Burtnik’s Summer of Love, or any of the other ensembles he has worked with over the years.
In other words, the show (which will also feature an opening set by Emily Grove) will offer Burtnik a rare opportunity to focus on his own songwriting. There is a lot to choose from … songs that were released on his Talking in Code and Heroes & Zeros solo albums, released on the A&M label in 1986 and 1987, respectively … songs he recorded for other projects … songs he wrote for other artists.
Credits throughout Burtnik’s long and varied career include playing in and writing songs for the band Styx; joining former members of Electric Light Orchestra in the band, The Orchestra; playing Max Weinberg’s Jukebox shows with the E Street Band drummer and his own Weeklings bandmates; and co-writing songs that were hits for artists such as Patty Smyth & Don Henley (“Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough”), Randy Travis (“Spirit of a Boy, Wisdom of a Man”) and Jo Dee Messina (“Delicious Surprise”).
I recently talked to Burtnik about this show, his history, performing for socially distanced crowds, and more. (He and The Weeklings, incidentally, will perform at the Concerts in the Garden series at the Blu Grotto at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, Oct. 17 at 2 p.m.; visit ticketmaster.com.)
Q: Did you go to them (the Sunday on St. John’s series) with this idea, or did they go to you?
A: They came to me. They just asked for a Glen Burtnik & Friends show. I was surprised, because I’m not really doing that kind of thing. I haven’t done it in, I think, seven years. I could have done anything. In fact, some of the people who are involved in that — it’s the Asbury Park Music Foundation, who asked — know me, I think, from my Summer of Love thing, or the Weeklings. But it was interesting that they asked me to do it.
Often my knee-jerk reaction is, “Well, why don’t I just ask The Weeklings to do this with me.” But, I don’t know, it was interesting to me, so it turned into, “Why don’t I just do my own music.” I am aware that, in recent years, I just don’t do that anymore. The older I get, the further my (original) music gets from an audience.
The thing always is — and always has been, since the beginning of music — is that people like familiar music. Especially older audiences. I think younger audiences are more open to discover what’s theirs, what’s for their generation. But I am simultaneously thrilled and horrified by how classic-rock isn’t going away. Like, when I was a kid, growing up, my dad was like a musical historian, almost, and I was exposed to lots of music from the past, and always loved it. To this day, I love looking backward. But the equivalent of classic-rock being played today, back when I was a kid, would have been something like Al Jolson, or … like, it’s so ancient, some of these songs that people just aren’t letting go of … which is great, because it’s great music …
I’m getting off on a tangent. But I figured, “Well, they’re asking me to play a show. I can play anything I want. Why don’t I just play a bunch of songs that I’ve written.” So I’m trying to say, that’s a novel thing for me now. (laughs) What a thought! I’ve made a living … much of my career has been writing songs, selling them, having them recorded. You know, being a songwriter is really how I’ve gotten through a lot of my life. But at this point, it’s an experiment: I have to learn these songs, ’cause they’re not on the tip of my tongue as much as Beatles songs, or what I’m doing with Max Weinberg, or whatever. Styx songs.
Q: So will this be all stuff from your solo albums? It wouldn’t include original songs you’ve written for The Weeklings?
A: No, I’m going to stay away from Weeklings material I’ve written with (bandmate) Bob (Burger). So it will be stuff that was on my albums — and not. There’s a lot of material that’s not on my albums. I’m very fortunate to have enough people … that know my music, that even if it wasn’t on an album, people ask for it. On social media, I said, “What songs would you want to hear if you went to a Glen Burtnik concert?,” and it was quite a list. And it was lovely. It was a sweet surprise.
I’m not a huge songwriter. I’ve had success, but I haven’t had that many hits, so it was really nice to hear that there’s actually an audience out there who wants to hear these little ditties that I blasted out.
Q: I guess in a lot of cases, they not only like the song but they also haven’t had an opportunity to hear you do it.
A: Yeah, it’s really nice for me. It’s been a real gift, this idea that we’ll do this, I’ll play my own music — with (guitarist) Jimmy Leahey and (multi-instrumentalist) Gary Oleyar. It will be predominantly acoustic approaches to these things, and Emily Grove will be on the bill … she’s gonna sing her own songs, and we’re good friends, so I’ve asked her to join me on a few things, as well.
Q: Would you consider doing more of these kinds of shows, if it goes well?
A: Sure. All they have to do is ask.
I was getting disappointed, 10 years ago, because my audiences were dwindling. I did this one show, I had a small orchestra with me, we worked very hard … I hired arrangers to arrange my music so I could be accompanied by strings, percussionists, and all this stuff, and not a whole lot of people showed up, and I felt like, “Wow, okay.” It was a big ambition in my mind, but it just didn’t turn out well. I also now know that it probably just wasn’t promoted well, and not enough people knew about it. And a lot of my concepts are highfalutin, I guess. It was really important, to me, to have a string section, and half the time, the audience … that’s not what they’re looking for. But I’ve also been fortunate enough to just try things, you know. Why not? Try these concepts of mine, and sometimes they work. And I’ve managed to eke out an existence. I’m very lucky.
Q: You have done a fair amount of performing, at this point, during the pandemic. Has that been weird, to do these socially distanced shows, and drive-in shows, and things where people have to stay in their little space?
A: So far, fine. Really great. I’ve done a couple of these shows, drive-in style, however so far I have not experienced a show where people stayed in their cars. When that happens, I would think that’s going to be a weird thing: Standing on a stage, staring at a parking lot. But because of the weather, so far I’ve been lucky. I see faces, I see humans out there. So that’s cool. But here comes the questionable weather. So right now, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that everything is bright and sunny this coming weekend.
Q: You have been able to do some recording, too, during the pandemic, and you’ve made some videos with The Weeklings, so you’ve really been able to stay pretty busy through it all.
A: I have, and I’m shocked at how busy I am. Luckily, this has happened when everybody has a home computer or an iPhone or something. We’ve reached this Tech Age where it’s possible for me to record, all by my lonesome, in my house, and send an email, that file, to my drummer, who will do the same, and email those … The Weeklings have done a number of recordings and videos, now, in isolation from each other. And the crazy thing is, I really like it. (laughs) I like working at home, you know.
Q: Yeah. There are some positives to it. Honestly, I’ve been to a number of socially distanced concerts, and I kind of like it. There’s no one sitting right behind you talking, there’s no one spilling beer on you. I kind of like having my own little space, and being able to concentrate on the music.
A: Crazy, I know. The good news is, we’re all adjusting, and we’re using our creative minds to find new ways to do things that we enjoy. Yeah, there’s some perks like that, where, “Maybe this is a good way …,” and it’s not too crowded, or whatever. I know that for some of the things that I do, it helps that you have to have a small audience. The Blu Grotto, I don’t think they have more than 450 seats available for every show, so that they stay under the 500 limit, legally, in New Jersey. So that’s kind of cool. I like that. I like not trying to compete, as an opening act, with a huge audience, or whatever. There’s moments where that’s actually helpful.
Q: Going back to your early albums … a lot of artists who got signed to major labels, you hear these horror stories about recording companies losing interest or changing management, or whatever the thing is. Is that what happened to you, to some extent? Were there problems with the record company?
A: I think that every artist … when you get signed to a project, you’re hoping for — or, worse, expecting — success. So you’re disappointed if it doesn’t go that way. But the majority of recordings don’t go that way. The majority of artists don’t become household names. And there are reasons why things don’t take off and records just don’t click with the audience.
I remember I was at A&M Records putting out an album, and Janet Jackson was there at the same time, and she was exploding. A&M Records was all about Janet Jackson that month my record came out. And, so be it. I used to take it personal. Now, in hindsight, it’s like, “Hey, if it were my record label, I’d be thrilled about Janet Jackson exploding as well.”
So, yes, I do believe that it could have been handled better. My records in the past should have been given a better chance. But that was then. And then is so different from now. It was a matter of how many times you could get your record heard on the radio. And that would make people want to buy your record, or come to see your show. Now radio barely exists. And the internet is so different, and record labels are so different. I’m still very proud of all of the music that I’ve put out, and I think it’s as good or better than other things that have been very successful. But that doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be successful. It’s art. It’s music. It’s pop music. I’m okay with it.
I’m pleased. My wife reminds me that it’s a good thing that I’m not as popular as Bruce Springsteen or Jon Bon Jovi or whatever, because my life … I can go to a store, I can walk anywhere. I don’t have stalkers. (laughs)
Q: I guess, to some extent, too, it’s also a matter of changing musical tastes. You were recording at a time when the hair-metal thing became really big, and then grunge, and you never fit in with what was the prevailing musical trend of the time.
A: Yeah. I’ve got my feet in a lot of different doors, I guess, and I don’t see why I should limit myself.
Q: No, it’s worked out. I mean, The Weeklings thing is a great outlet because you get to do Beatles songs but also your own songs, and you get to work with Max (Weinberg). A lot of people would like to be in your position.
A: Yeah, that’s true. Whenever I get a little cranky, I remind myself. It’s funny how The Weeklings … we’ve found this little niche. We’re half a tribute band, half an original band, and we seem to be getting away with it!
For more on Burtnik, visit facebook.com/gburtnik.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of $20, or any other amount, to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.