Joe Grushecky released his first album in 1979, with his Pittsburgh-based band the Iron City Houserockers, but relaunched his career in a big way in 1995, with his American Babylon album. Bruce Springsteen, a friend and occasional jamming partner of Grushecky’s since 1982, produced it, played guitar and sang backing vocals on it, and co-wrote two songs. He also joined the Houserockers for a mini-tour — six shows in eight days, including one at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. That’s a level of commitment that Springsteen has never shown for another artist, before or since.
Grushecky and the Houserockers, with Eddie Manion on saxophone, will perform American Babylon in its entirety, as well as other songs, Oct. 23 and 24 at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. They will also record the shows for a live CD. (Springsteen, incidentally, has announced that he will be out of town and not be able to make it). John Eddie and the band Milly (featuring Grushecky’s son Johnny on guitar) will open on Oct. 23; Garland Jeffreys and Milly will open on Oct. 24. For information, visit stoneponyonline.com.
I talked to Grushecky recently about American Babylon and the two upcoming shows.
Q: When you look back, is American Babylon your favorite among your albums?
A: I have several favorites. But I think that the album has really held up through the years, and passed the test of time. It was a bit of a game-changer for us. The two game-changers for me were Have a Good Time But Get Out Alive! with the Iron City Houserockers (in 1980), and we were pretty much dead in the water before Bruce helped us out with American Babylon.
It’s a very dear record to me, let’s put it that way.
Q: And it’s a very dark record, of course. Do you still feel that way about the world, 20 years later?
A: I think I’ve mellowed a little bit with age. At the time of that record, I was working at a private school in Pittsburgh where we took the worst behavioral problems and juvenile delinquents from 80 different school districts, so there was a lot of gang activity, and criminality, mental health issues. That part of my life, it was in my face, every day, day in and day out. So it probably rubbed off on me.
I write my best stuff from experience. I never caught my stride, writing, until I started writing about what was going on around me, in my life, and my friends. I’m that type of writer. I needed to live it a little bit. And that was my experience, at that time.
Q: Are you still doing that kind of work?
A: Similar, but not as intense. I’m in a regular high school now. My kids are nowhere near as bad. But I still work with the most difficult kids in the high school. And it’s inner city: It’s a distressed area. It’s very, very poor.
Q: I know the sessions for the album were kind of scattered. There were some in California, and some in New Jersey. Some with Springsteen’s studio guys at that time, some with the Houserockers. From the start, were you thinking about an album, or was it just some scattered sessions that turned into an album?
A: Originally, I had contacted Bruce, at my wife’s suggestion. And he invited me to California. We were going to do “Chain Smokin’.” We worked on that for a couple of days. And then we did “Never Be Enough Time (To Forget About You).” I thought that was going to be the extent of it. But we sort of bonded, I’d like to think, while doing this stuff, and he sort of wanted to continue it. So we continued it.
I was persistent myself, and he was very gracious about doing it, but he’s a busy guy, so it took us a while to finish it off. Once he made a commitment to finish it, we did it, I think, in less than two weeks. So even though it was drawn out over a long period of time … we did about 17 days (of recording), I guess, all told. It wasn’t like long, drawn-out 10, 12 hour days, like I was used to working in the studio. It was much more relaxed.
Q: Preparing for these shows, do you have to relearn any of the songs? Are there some songs that you just haven’t done in a long time?
A: There are some songs we haven’t played in a while, but we’re pretty familiar with that record. About three years ago, we played it twice. My band, we’ve been together for a while, so it didn’t take much to relearn most of it. We don’t play it exactly like the record; we stretch out quite a bit.
It’s one of my favorite records to play. There are some really terrific songs to play on it: “Dark and Bloody Ground,” and “Chain Smokin’,” and “Never Be Enough Time” and “Homestead.” “Labor of Love.” We play those quite regularly. They’ve been sort of part of our current repertoire for the last 20 years.
Q: At the shows, will you start with the album and then do some other songs? How will that work?
A: We’re not quite sure. We’re planning on recording, so I would imagine we’ll play one or two songs just to make sure the levels are right before we go into American Babylon.
Q: Are there any memories that stand out for you from the tour you did in ’95, when the album came out? I saw the Pony show; that was something.
A: To have someone of Bruce’s caliber join the band for even that small period of time, it’s like getting Joe Montana or Roberto Clemente or Mickey Mantle on your team. How can you not be better? He’s such a powerful player.
Q: People may not realize, but it was very different from when he joins you at something like Light of Day. At Light of Day, he does some of his songs and you do some of your songs. But it was really like he became a member of the band, and just played guitar and did backing vocals for most of the show.
A: He pretty much became a member of our band, and we were playing our own songs. But we did do “Murder Incorporated” and “Light of Day”‘ those were the two Bruce Springsteen songs we did. Plus, we wrote two songs together, too (“Homestead” and “Dark and Bloody Ground”). He basically did the music to them and I did the lyrics. … Here’s one of the greatest lyricist of time, and he’s doing my lyrics!
Q: You’ve been working a lot with (saxophonist) Eddie Manion lately. He’s basically a band member at this point, right?
A: I like to think he is. He married a Pittsburgh girl. I think Bruce’s last date (on his last tour, which ended in March 2014) was on a Sunday, and Ed (who was part of that tour) was playing with us by Wednesday. And he hasn’t missed a gig since. He’s a terrific player, and the saxophone adds a different dimension to our band.
We played with harmonica players for a long time. We never found — not that we were looking — but we never came across a really a strong sax player here in Pittsburgh. I had played with a sax guy in different bands, but they just weren’t rock guys. They were more jazz, so it didn’t work out for us.
NOTE: Also this weekend, Manion will preview his upcoming album Night Life at Where Music Lives in Asbury Park, Oct. 23 and 24 from noon to 3 p.m. and Oct. 25 from 7 to 10 p.m.; visit asburyparkmusiclives.org. And Grushecky and Manion will perform at a memorial/benefit celebration for the late bassist Lou DeMartino (best known as a member of Joe D’Urso and Stone Caravan) at the Pony, Oct. 25 from noon to 5 p.m.; visit stoneponyonline.com.