Legendary guitarist, businessman, producer, music manger, ex-drug dealer and cancer survivor, Jay Jay French's life and times have been anything but dull.
Longtime guitarist and manager of the iconic Twisted Sister, French has seen the rise, fall and resurrection of his career in made-for-movie style, coming back from hurdles and emotional wallops that would cripple lesser artists.
In what he lovingly calls his 'bizoir' Twisted Business: Lessons from My Life in Rock ‘N’ Roll, French and co-writer Steve Farber outline French’s life from growing up as John Segall on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the ‘60s – using and selling drugs in Central Park West – to quitting cold-turkey after a near-fatal overdose, to creating and cultivating Twisted Sister, turning it into one of the most successful brands in the world.
Metal Injection sat down with French for a deep dive into Twisted Business and the history of Twisted Sister, overcoming his demons, staying relevant, working alongside Sevendust and much more!
I always kind of find it interesting. You see that a lot of click bait headlines asking you or Dee will there ever be a Twisted Sister reunion. Is it sort of a double edged sword where it's probably slightly aggravating always being asked being asked the same question, but on the other hand somewhat humbling and validating that people care enough that Twisted Sister still means something to constantly ask those questions?
Well, it matters a lot that people care. People always ask me what did Dee say? And I always say that Dee means what he says at the moment he says it. So I don't know what that means the next moment, but the moment he says it, he means it. So that's real. But you know, the joke during the reunion was that he quit every September and rejoined every December, and it became like a running joke in a way. And he goes this time for real, this time for real. So the way I look at it is we're not unless we do. That's the best way, and if we don't, we don't because I don't sit there and clamor to do it. So there's an honest response from me. If we never do it again, that's fine. And if we do it again, that's fine.
We're almost five years removed from the final show in Monterrey. Are you happy with that farewell tour and final run with the band? Pretending for a minute Twisted Sister never plays another gig, are you happy with that sendoff?
Yeah, I could have ended it earlier. I was done in my head when AJ died. And Portnoy, of course, is no slouch and it was an honor to have Mike on many levels. But when AJ died it took a bit of me out. I mean, it's kind of like the way I guess Keith Moon dying or John Bonham dying takes a little of the soul out of the band. AJ was just a very important part of it … But anyway, getting to your question, when it was done for me it was done for me. And if it's not done, it's not done. But I don't dream about it any longer. I used to dream about it when the band ended in 88. There was unfinished business. But there's no unfinished business anymore.
One thing I really liked about the time I saw you guys play in 2014, you had stripped away a lot of the presentation, the makeup and the theatrics, and kind of had boiled it down to just fucking rocking. You didn't push new records, you played all the hits that fans wanted. At that stage did you feel you needed to rely on tropes? Instead of cranking out a record for the studio where maybe your heart wouldn't have fully been in it, you guys were just going out there with the staples for the pure enjoyment and love of the band.
Well, the biggest mistake a classic rock band makes is that anybody gives a shit about their new record. And by the way, it doesn't mean they don't make a good record. Just nobody cares. Nobody cares. They want your first five albums, end of story. So what you do is, if you're stupid, this is the mistake you make and you go out and you go we're doing the new record! And the first week you play like six songs on the new album and then the next week you play five songs on the new album. By a month into your tour you're playing one song from the new record because nobody gives a fuck. No one likes to admit that. No bands like to admit that. They want to think that they're current or something, and it's nothing to do with being current. You're an entertainment device. We're an entertainment machine. We're there to make people happy. However they do it.
I mean, that's the dilemma we're all in. And so do I have an opinion about it? Does Dee have strong opinions about it? Yeah. But yet my book, Twisted Business is about the art of reinvention. And you may say, well, what does reinvention have to do with the fact that Twisted Sister is doing the same show all the time? That would be a valid question because it almost flies in the face of reinvention. In fact it's not counter-intuitive. We reinvented the idea that the reason why you go out and see these shows is because of what we stated and you want to make people happy. And what happens is bands are forever on this treadmill. You're in the entertainment business, I'm in the entertainment business, and you know it's a what have you done for me lately business. Back in the day when you're making albums all the time you can have a hit record on the chart and the first question some guy says is what's the next project? Can I just fucking like this? Can I enjoy this shit for five minutes?
I would guess the idea to write a book made too much sense not to do it, what with the promotional tours, all the motivational speaking and all those different types of engagements that you do. It made sense to kind of marry that with your traditional rock bio, a bizoir like you call it. Those two worlds merging makes total sense.
Yeah, well, I'm unusual that way. I know I am unusual in that it's not this drug and alcohol tone. Not sounding like Keith Richards or Ozzy or Lemmy. It was a very clear eyed view, warts and all. When Twisted went out to L.A. for the first time, I met all these guys and saw them like Motley and the Warrant and all that shit. They're all like twenty five years old, we're already thirty four and they're all talking about the drugs they're doing and I'm sitting there going, man, that's so yesterday. Like, I did that shit when I was like 15 years old. Between the age of 15 to 20, I lived in the fucking underworld of New York City. That was like drugs and crime and dealing. If I couldn't get any more fucked up, I went to Amsterdam in the summer 71, which was the drug capital of the world and spent a summer living in a hash dealer hotel and being the house dealer. And fuck it, get the fuck out of here. Everyday everybody was blasted on opium and hash and heroin.
The cost of drugs were handed out like some newspaper on the corner. It was like a stock market report. So I came out of that shit, so when I got to Southern California and they're all partying I'm like man, I did more in one day than you guys ever fucking conceived in a year. And I got sick of it. I hated it at that point and Dee never did it, and Mark never did it. So here we were, a complete straight band. So what happens when you're straight? Nobody wants to hang with you. It's not like I'm going on a party boat getting fucked up, you know? So it allowed for clear eyed analysis of the situation. And that's probably why I remember as much as I did.
Do you think the fact that you got all of that out of your system; the overdose, near death experiences, do you think these things happening early in life, pre-Twisted Sister, helped the band in the long term? If you had still had those vices at the time who knows what could have happened.
Probably. The fact that I survived all that shit and then woke up on one day and went enough was enough. Thank you very much, but enough is enough. There was luck involved in this because I could have been murdered on a number of occasions. It was just by luck that I wasn't murdered, just by luck that someone decided not to slice my throat open. It was by luck that someone decided not to pull a trigger. So it was by luck that I wasn't murdered. It was by luck I didn't die doing stupid other shit, death by misadventure while I was wasted. It's amazing I don't have a police record. Fucking ridiculous. I talked my way out of two drug busts, so that must give you an idea about my ability to talk my way through shit. So hell yeah. I think what happened was when I stopped, I was like, damn guy, you are one lucky motherfucker. Now is enough.
But with Mark and Dee I didn't have to worry about that. But, as you know, because the book chronicles the history of the band, the early versions of the band were fucked up, but they were on alcohol. They weren't on drugs necessarily. There was an alcohol component in the first couple of years and there was a methedrine/coke component the next year. We had one lead singer of the four that we had, one was so fucked up that when I finally spoke to him years later about his history in the band, this guy thought he was in the band for a year and he was in the band for nine weeks. He goes, well, that year was really tough. I said, fuck, what year? You joined in December and you left in February. He said there's no way, man, I said well how fucked up were you?
I love how you you dedicate the book not only to the devoted Twisted Sister fans, but everyone who believes in endless chances.
Well you know, I say in the book we were turned down more times than a bed sheet in a whorehouse and came back more times than Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers and we have. How much rejection can you handle? I mean, the book is about overcoming all that shit. You know, there's all these cliches about rejection. It's not how many times you get knocked down, it's how many times you get back up and if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
You know, I've got my favorites. My two favorites are Joe Lewis, the boxer, the famous heavyweight champion who talks about what it's like to get knocked down in a boxing ring. And when I read his quote, I went wow, he's so right. He said when you get knocked down, you can never get back up so fast that nobody didn't know you got knocked down. So they're giving you a 10 count. Take the fucking ten count and get your shit together. That's why I tell bands if you get rejected there's nothing wrong with it, man. Clear your head first. You know, I don't mind if you mourn rejection. We mourn rejection, and then you reflect on the rejection. That becomes difficult. How realistic are you about it?
The other quote I love is from Duke Ellington. People ask me how hard is it to keep a band together? And I said there's a quote from Duke Ellington which says, to keep a bunch of musicians together you need a gimmick. My gimmick was to pay them. I read that and I was like yeah, of course, that's my gimmick too. Make sure the band was stable enough to earn a living so that we didn't have to worry about other things.
The band was making enough money. I think early on it was how much money do we need to make a salary, so that you don't have to worry about anything else except Twisted Sister. You just need to worry about devoting yourself because the band took 10, 11, 12 years to make it … so the salaciousness in the book is really tempered with business lessons, and it's not really salacious in any way. It's more an optimistic take. And that was a delicate balancing act, because people do want the heroin diaries, don't they? They just want to see you wallow in your own vomit and diarrhea. Some people want that.
Next year, I believe, is the 25th anniversary of Sevendust's debut album, which I know you were instrumental in. What's your take on that period and working with Sevendust and the process for that album?
Well, I'm proud of my involvement with them. I'm proud that they've lasted like Twisted has lasted when Twisted was together, you know, 40 odd years and Sevendust twenty five. We made a great record. I knew at the time it was a great record. Ironically, the band was the seventh version of a band I started working with in 1988, which nobody really knows.
So the thing was that each of these bands, as well-meaning as they were, were chasing something that's already happened. You know, they were either chasing hair bands or they were chasing grunge bands. They weren't a leading band, they were a following band. So when they caught the wave in much the same way Twisted caught the wave, they finally were at the right place at the right time with the right record and the right sound. And at that point that evolution came down.
So at some point, Snake Nation or Stiff Kitty was playing with a band called Body & Soul and Lajon was the lead singer of Body & Soul. And I remember saying something to Morgan going, man, if you ever get that guy, give me a phone call. Like, if you ever get that guy, that guy is great. And so a couple of years later, he got Lajon and he called me. So when I heard them, they were doing like death metal. Lajon is a great singer, but he sounds like Cookie Monster. I said why are you doing that? You got an amazing voice, you know?
So when we sat down to work on the material, you know, the song Bitch, I basically wrote with them and putting Bitch together was one of the greatest joys of my life because that song was so beautifully composed. It was three separate songs and we wove it together and Black, of course.
The irony of Sevendust is that Clint joined and really brought the band up to a path. But when they were Crawlspace they had a different guitar player and they played New York and the guitar player was arrested for drunk driving. He was 17 years old and was traumatized from being stuck in the New York City Police Jail system for four days at 17, and when he got back to Atlanta, he quit the music business and they got Clint. That just shows you how weird things can go. And then they got Clint and he came and was the missing piece. They're a classic band and they're still together.