Life af­ter Jour­ney

For 20 years, Steve Perry, the for­mer singer of 80s band Jour­ney, shunned mu­sic. Then, he tells Michael Hann, he made a prom­ise to his ter­mi­nally ill part­ner

The Guardian - G2 - - Front Page -

Steve Perry is ex­plain­ing all the ways in which Jour­ney’s Don’t Stop Believin’ can hook a lis­tener. “The quar­ters on the pi­ano – that in­tro’s a hook.” He bursts into song, his alto/coun­tertenor still dis­tinc­tive at 69 years old, and he is so pow­er­ful that it is off­putting: “‘Just a small­town girl’ is a hook. ‘Strangers wait­ing’ is a hook. ‘Up and down the boule­vard’ – hook. [His band­mate] Jon Cain thought the ‘street­lights, peo­ple’ sec­tion was a cho­rus. Then I turned round and said: ‘Now we need to write the cho­rus of cho­ruses.’ No one knew what that meant; nor did I. But I knew we had to take it some­where big­ger and never go back to the song again. Be­cause it had done all these things I had men­tioned and, in my opin­ion, it needed to go one more place.”

Don’t Stop Believin’, a mon­ster hit in the US on its re­lease in 1981 and since cham­pi­oned on the TV show Glee, has been so un­avoid­able in the past few years that you wouldn’t guess Perry has largely been silent for 20 years, since he left Jour­ney once and for all. There were a cou­ple of low-key ap­pear­ances on other peo­ple’s records, the very oc­ca­sional in­ter­view (not a favoured pas­time even when he was with Jour­ney) and that was it. But the ubiq­uity of Don’t Stop Believin’ made it seem as if he was ever-present.

“I would say I was com­pletely burned out, with tour­ing, record­ing, writ­ing mu­sic in­ces­santly,” he says. “I was hav­ing an emo­tional PTSD break­down in mu­sic. I’m not whin­ing, I’m just say­ing there was a lack of con­nec­tion to the pas­sion for mu­sic I had dis­cov­ered when I was seven years old. I walked away with no ideas of re­turn­ing. Then, years later, things started to change.”

Quite how things started to change, lead­ing Perry to record his first al­bum since Jour­ney’s Trial By Fire in 1996, is one of the odd­est, sad­dest sto­ries you will hear a rock star tell.

Perry had never mar­ried. “I was too scared of it af­ter what I watched my par­ents go through,” he says. “And I was around a band that went through sev­eral divorces in the course of our suc­cess. I saw them lose half of ev­ery­thing mul­ti­ple times.” He had se­ri­ous re­la­tion­ships – his 1984 solo hit Oh Sher­rie was in­spired by his then girl­friend Sher­rie Swaf­ford – but he had never been com­pletely swept away by love.

Then, in 2011, his friend Patty Jenk­ins, the di­rec­tor of Won­der Woman, showed him a cut of her TV film about breast can­cer. Perry’s eye was caught by one of the can­cer sur­vivors who ap­peared briefly in the film. The woman was Kel­lie Nash, a psy­chol­o­gist who had un­der­gone treat­ment. “I said to Patty: ‘Do you have her email?’ She said: ‘Why?’ Be­cause she knew me. I’m not like that. I said: ‘I don’t know, but there’s some­thing about her smile that’s killing me right now.

‘I was com­pletely burned out, with tour­ing, record­ing, writ­ing mu­sic. I was hav­ing an emo­tional PTSDPTSD’

Would you send her an email say­ing that your friend Steve would love to take her out to lunch?’ She said: ‘OK, I will, but there’s one thing I should tell you first. She was in re­mis­sion, but it came back, and it’s in her bones and it’s in her lungs and she’s fight­ing for her life.’ So I thought: I’m go­ing to for­get the whole idea. I thought: you walked away from a ca­reer, your mother has passed away, your grand­mother and grand­fa­ther have gone, your dad’s barely hang­ing on … Maybe you should just for­get the whole thing. But then I thought: bull­shit.”

He told Jenk­ins to send the email, the pair met for din­ner and they ended up to­gether for a year and a half.

Perry en­tered the re­la­tion­ship know­ing that doc­tors said Nash would die, sooner rather than later. What did he hope to gain from their brief time to­gether? “You want to know the truth? I’ve not said this to any­body yet: I be­lieved our love would cure her can­cer. I re­ally did. We sat in our tiny apart­ment in New York – a very ex­pen­sive small box – and she said: ‘This might take me, but it’ll never be able to touch our love.’ I never thought about such a truth like that. Not just talk­ing about it, but phys­i­cally feel­ing it and emo­tion­ally see­ing it was new to me.”

Be­fore she died, Nash ex­tracted a com­mit­ment from Perry. “She said: ‘Prom­ise me you won’t go back into iso­la­tion, be­cause I fear it would make this all for naught.’ I said: ‘OK, I prom­ise.’ I lay in bed think­ing about what I’d just promised. She was look­ing at the arc of her whole life and the pos­si­bil­ity that she may not make it had to have some god­damn mean­ing. She was look­ing for pur­pose in all this. I grieved for two years – it was a whole new level of bro­ken heart. It was com­pletely fuck­ing bro­ken. I worked through that and, the next thing I knew, I started writ­ing mu­sic.”

Eigh­teen months af­ter Nash’s death, Perry re­turned to live per­for­mance. He had been a fan of the band Eels, vis­it­ing their re­hearsals, go­ing to their gigs and join­ing in with Mark “E” Everett’s weekly cro­quet game. Fi­nally, Everett asked if Perry might fancy join­ing Eels on stage. “So, we worked up It’s a Mother­fucker – I love singing that – and a cou­ple of Jour­ney songs. And I flew out to St Paul [in Min­nesota] when they were at the Fitzger­ald the­atre in May 2014 and jumped on stage with them. It was re­ally a thrill. I for­got what be­ing in front of peo­ple felt like un­til I went out with the Eels. Look­ing into the eyes of peo­ple and singing for them felt good again.”

Perry had al­ready started writ­ing again be­fore Nash died, but now he started work­ing in earnest: build­ing a stu­dio at his home, fetch­ing co-writ­ers and mu­si­cians. “I wasn’t signed to any­body. I had no man­age­ment. I funded the record en­tirely out of my own pocket. I built my own stu­dio. I had to have the free­dom to suck – no­body was go­ing to put their foot on the back of my neck say­ing: ‘Is it done yet?’” The re­sult is Traces, an al­bum of slick, al­bum-ori­ented rock that sounds as if Perry had not taken 20 years off and for which – keep­ing his prom­ise to Nash – he is putting him­self out into the world, do­ing in­ter­views in num­bers he never did with Jour­ney, when he was zeal­ous about guard­ing his pri­vacy.

So, how does Perry feel about his life now – not only about los­ing the woman he loved, but also about forc­ing him­self to talk about it to ev­ery­one who turns up with a voice recorder? “This has been amaz­ing. Do­ing this has been cathar­tic for me. I guess it’s time to talk, it’s time to be open. It’s time to be hon­est about my feel­ings. I think I’ve been en­joy­ing it, be­cause it’s been a long time com­ing.”

Traces is out now on Hear Mu­sic

‘I grieved for two years. It was a whole new level of bro­ken heart. The next thing I know, I was writ­ing mu­sic’

Steve Perry at 69 (left) and in his time with Jour­ney (right and be­low)

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