Preview: Joe Grushecky: A voice for the forgotten

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On his new album, "Somewhere East of Eden," Joe Grushecky has a laugh at himself and his aging rock peers on the song "I Still Look Good (for Sixty)."

It opens with a cute girl approaching him at a show to get an autograph -- for her grandma!

With nearly 40 years in the music scene -- having led the Iron City Houserockers back in 1976 -- Mr. Grushecky is a seasoned vet who has earned the right to mellow out. Instead, he comes out spitting fire on his latest record, belting out songs about corporate greed ("I Can Hear the Devil Knocking"), welfare kids ("Who Cares About Those Kids?") and disenfranchised Iraqi veterans (title track).

Joe Grushecky CD Release Show

With: The Igniters, Wreck Loose.

Where: Altar Bar, Strip.

When: 9 p.m. Saturday.

Admission: $12-$14; www.altarbar.com.

The album, his 10th proper studio record since the Iron City Houserocker days ended in 1983, covers a broader range of moods and topics, ranging from a Latin-flavored tale of the Cuban revolution ("When Castro Came Down From the Hills") to bar-rock burner "I Was Born to Rock." He also does a rugged take on the Blind Willie Johnson gospel blues song "John the Revelator" and a gentle acoustic reading of The Drifters classic "Save the Last Dance for Me."

When Mr. Grushecky sings about troubled kids and cash-strapped families, he brings an authenticity to it that comes from having been in the trenches for decades working with kids who have behavioral issues.

He calls himself "the only special ed teacher in the world who also works with Bruce Springsteen."

During a lunch break from classes at Sto-Rox Area High School, he talked about the new record, produced by Rick Witkowski, that came out Tuesday on Warner Nashville.

Did you set out to make a topical record or did it happen gradually?

The key song for me was "Somewhere East of Eden," the title track. I thought it was one of the more powerful things I've written in a while. It inspired me to write other songs. The first half of the record is basically about conflict. The last half of the record, there's a few angry moments, but it mellows out a little bit and lightens the mood.

What made you want to do that rather than continue in that vein for 10 or 12 songs?

I didn't feel up for it. I felt I needed some release. I didn't want to make it a total downbeat record. I thought, I need to rock out a little bit, and then these rock songs started coming to me. We started playing "I Was Born to Rock" at shows, and people were like, "Oh, is this a cover song?" They thought it was some obscure B-side cover song we were doing. I'd been listening to a lot of obscure rockabilly, that's what prompted that, but I didn't cut it like a rockabilly song. I cut it more like AC/DC.

Does that kind of song come real easy to you?

Eh. They're all different. Like Steve Van Zandt said, "It's harder to write 'Gloria' than 'Dark Side of the Moon.' " I sort of tend to agree with him. Writing a good rockin' simple song that isn't unremittingly stupid is kind of hard to do. That one is sporadically stupid.

"Who Cares About These Kids?" is a powerful song, and it's one we haven't heard a lot. Was that drawn from your teaching experiences?

Yeah, I've worked with these kids every day, and nobody really does care about them. It's not like you're working with a Down syndrome kid or a cerebral palsy kid, and there's instant sympathy for them. A lot of these kids are really the forgotten kids. The whole way down the line, including funding from the state. I've alluded to it in different songs, but this time I came right out and stated it. It's a story that needs to be told. The whole thing gets swept under the rug. With charter schools and the defunding of the public schools, you're left with these kids that are hanging by a thread, with no resources. The thing about special ed, and I've been working with them my whole life, the kids that need the most get the least. And it's been like that. The staff that has to work the hardest with these kids, they're the worst paid, and there's no status to the job. I mean, who cares about them? It's the truth.

"I Still Look Good (for Sixty)" is unlike anything you've written before. You're really having a laugh at yourself.

Yeah, it is really funny. I think our shows have always been more good-humored than our records. I wrote it for Bruce for his 60th birthday as a birthday present and sent it to him. He got a laugh out of it. It's a funny song, especially for guys our age.

Did anyone ever ask you for an autograph for their mom or grandma?

Oh yeah. That's what inspired that first line.

On "Changing of the Guard," you make reference to suffering through a losing team. Was that the Pirates?

Oh yeah. And since then, they're making me eat my words, which I'm happy to do. My son's band, The Composure, plays on that. They're a really good young band. I think they're one of the few young bands that could hang with the bands back in our golden era -- good enough to hold up with the Decade bands. You don't want to become a fossil and get solidified and never change, like I'm not gonna do this. It's about passing the torch.

This is on Warner Nashville. What will that do to you?

Well, we have a publicist and I hope it ramps up the awareness. And it's already on iTunes and Amazon and it's going to be at Best Buy and Kmart and all those places we've been missing for a long time. We're going to play as much as we can: New Jersey, Philly, Washington, Cleveland, maybe Boston -- that corridor where we played with the Iron City Houserockers a lot. I'm pretty much committed to this record for the foreseeable future.

music

Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg. First Published October 9, 2013 8:00 PM


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