Portrait of an Artist: Shelly Harris travels to far-flung Chung Fow for a sketching of John Waite
...And these new days drag on
Through the long afternoon
I'm smashed and Flintstones are on TV
And I'm looking for something
that's real in my life--something true--yeah!
And I'm looking for something to hold on to
But I guess it won't be you.....
This song is not for you---
From "Thinking About You," off John Waite's
just released latest solo album, Figure in a Landscape.
"It only took ten minutes to write that one!" enthuses the mercurial John
Waite, erstwhile rock vocalist/frontman extraordinaire, when asked about
"Thinking About You," the headswiveling and ultra-contemporary mid-tempo rock
tune off his latest, recently released solo album, Figure in a Landscape.
Certainly, that song, above all the other effervescent and atmospheric
potential hits on the record (and there are many) most definitely should turn
a new generation on to the distinctive, often compelling talents of this
enduring Lancaster (England) native who more recently has shone even more
brightly in the role of "confessional" singer/songwriter.
Although, at 49, he has been living, with varying degrees of intensity, in
the rock 'n roll limelight his entire adult life, as we sit chatting in
the Oriental ambience surrounding our booth at Chung Fow--an "abandoned
Chinese restaurant" in a far flung Chicago suburb--so open, unpretentious,
and seemingly...familiar is Waite, that the repartee is effortless.
Still, I can't help but be taken aback at his uncanny knack for completing
many of my questions and comments with dead-on accuracy. Like when I tell
him that "Thinking About You," gets my vote for strongest cut on the album,
and--even before I can spit the thought out myself--he chimes in, "I actually
mention the Flintstones in that one...!" Yes, yes! John . . . And that's
really a great little slice of modern life, a concise snapshot of what it's
actually like... "Being drunk in the afternoon?" he offers with a grin.
"Opening that third beer and the Flintstones were on...?" Well, yes! Exactly
...(but make that a bit of Chardonnay if it's me).
But--it also becomes obvious--such Amazing Kreskin-like conversational
abilities are really part and parcel of Waite's highly attuned sensibilities
in general, not to mention his incisive and literate mind. In fact, it is
precisely such keen perception which enables him to so adeptly capture the
idiosyncrasies of the small joys or the moments of "quiet desperation" (that
so often weave in and out of everyday life) in poignant lyrical freeze
And, with Figure in a Landscape (a guitar-driven, lyrically and melodically
powerful, must-have chunk of diverse soul food in a vein similar to Henley's
End of the Innocence), Waite has further refined his renown, "tell it like it
is" simple eloquence, especially when examining such modern life
vulnerabilities as alienation, a search for deeper meaning in life, reckoning
with all manner of disillusionment, and, of course, both romantic
Oh, did I forget frustration? Though he has experienced his fair share of
career highs, including the classic rock ballad (and international
chart-topper) "Missing You," as well as numerous other major commercial hits
like "Change," "When I See You Smile," and "Back On My Feet Again," that
emotion, especially with reference to his career "blue highway," is something
Waite himself has been all-too familiar with in the latter part of the '90s.
During that period he found two of his best-ever albums (from an artistic,
singer/songwriter perspective), the stark and utterly self-revelatory Temple
Bar and the roots flavored, storytelling When You Were Mine, basically frozen
in their tracks due to major label business troubles and/or misappropriated
priorities that coincided with their respective releases.
But Waite, by turns deeply reflective and lighthearted witty this late
summer evening, is also one not to take anything about himself too seriously.
"Disillusioned?! Me, disillusioned?" he quips when you get him going on his
current attitude towards the mega-corporation/big-label music business BS
he's witnessed firsthand during his 25 year career that first began in the US
with The Babys, extended through his solo heyday in the '80s, and then on
past his stint with Bad English.
For a start, though he seems to shrug it off, he also notes "they don't
pay me for those" when I mention certain past albums that are now released as
twofer type CD compilations by one of his former record companies. (Gasp!
That justifies the uneasy gut feeling I had when I bought one of those babys
at Borders a year or so back!) No wonder, then, that Waite seems absolutely
adamant about one thing: "I've no tolerance at all for being dominated by
some corporate entity--none whatsoever." Conversely, he says that he and his
new "indie" label, Gold Circle, "were really kind of meant for each other,"
and he enthuses that since one of his "dearest friends in the world," Rob
Dillman, was recently made head of the company, "it's kind of like Christmas!"
Moreover, somewhere in between bites of sweet and sour shrimp and sips of
ginger ale, Waite does give off an overarching vibe that he's come to terms
with most of his past disappointments, whether concerning his personal life
(often laid bare in his lyrics) or his career. This is partly a result of
his ongoing search for a deeper truth and meaning in life in general-- a
quest which touches the core of all of his songs--and one that led him to
further develop and study his longtime interest in Zen.
Part of that philosophy is the age old (but too often forgotten) axiom that
when you have everything materially, you really have nothing, and when you
seem to have nothing, you may already have everything that really matters.
And that mindset, in particular, is often subtly or overtly referenced in
much of his work (especially in the double-entendred "Godhead," an absolutely
scorching, full-on blues/rock number on the current album), but you can also
infer its impact on his view of the world relating to many other worthwhile
For a start, though he still elegantly looks the part, Waite's attitude
since at least the late '80s has been ultra anti-rockstar (in fact, his
artistic integrity and aversion to "arena rock" led to the demise of
"supergroup" Bad English just as it was creating major commercial waves). In
actuality, he still thinks of himself as an underground artist ("I never
really went mainstream") and he confesses that he has "always been very, very
uncomfortable with very successful, nouveau riche people---just the bullshit
of it, you know?"
Underscoring this intrinsic rebel/anti-establishment/anti-materialistic
nature, he adds, "Honestly, even with the early Babys, I never wanted to make
a billion dollars and give it away to the waiter. I can't understand that
crap! I'm from a working class family. . . So, when I was down on my luck,
running out of money and stuff, the world was almost a better place for me,
because I knew what I was dealing with, you know? I wasn't like somebody who
had a million dollars and lost it--I never had a million dollars. So, fine
for me, really. It made me spiritually aware....It opened up doors for me
spiritually, where I really did start to examine Zen Buddhism and stuff. I
started to do some in depth study--reading and going to lectures. I travel
with a book at the moment. It's fantastic stuff! ...It gives you a sense of
value when you live in this society....."
And a sense of not feeling so....empty, I wonder aloud. "Yeah...Yeah!
Absolutely!" Waite affirms. Humm...Certainly, this couldn't be a bad thing
at all for a guy who once lived an admittedly "edgy" lifestyle, as depicted
with a compelling, darkly poetic realism on the Temple Bar album, or for a
guy whose search for less alienation and "More" of anything
authentic--anything real--has also been a dominant lyrical theme. After all,
whatever its benefits, that artistic angst should only have to go so far....
Not surprisingly, Waite does allow that his life is "very" different kind
of experience these days: "I don't even drink! . . . Everything's in focus
now, so it's a lot more fun. And I can remember what I did when I wake up in
the morning; I'm not sort of like...with a hangover. It got to the point,
honestly, where---and I wouldn't mind being... Well, I was married for a
long time, and I'm divorced now, right? And at some point I just saw myself
clearly as some guy who was just on his way to being drunk, or with a
hangover...And who could fall in love with that?. . .And at some point I was
pretty truthful. I looked in the mirror--I must have been shaving one
morning--and going, 'How the Hell did I get here?!' You know? And the only
way I knew was to just stop drinking. So, I stopped."
And that clean living flatters him in other respects, too. First off, his
immediately recognizable vocal purity, dexterity, and interpretive
phrasing--evident on the soulful ballads as well as on the wailing, bluesy
rockers--has never been more stunning, as could be witnessed not only on the
current album, but also during the solo-date set he played previously in the
evening at an outdoor festival. Moreover, despite his oft-austere press
photos, there's a certain vitality to him that is even more evident offstage.
In a nutshell, with that aura of perpetual innocence and sprite-like
enthusiasm whirling around him, Waite continually evokes a disarming and
ageless Peter Pan.
Still, when I truthfully blurt out that he's looking great--looking healthy
, and still...well....youthful, Mr. John Waite, for better or worse often
terminally perceived as major female "heartthrob" material since his Babys
era, still momentarily startles and blushes. But, seeing a great segue to
talk about his new band (all first-rate musicians who have chemistry onstage
as well as an au currant energy and visual appeal), he recovers quickly
enough to say, "Well, thank you!..Well, my band's nice and young. I mean I
try to play with musicians who are fiery. . .And they're a great band, you
know? It's funny! We really enjoy playing!"
No, this is not exactly the same hotheaded (but already charismatic) John
Waite I first saw in the late '70s at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago while he
was fronting The Babys in the middle of a mismatched bill with (what he
calls) "full-on country and western, southern rock" bands Molly Hatchet and
38 Special. (Recalling that show, he laughs now, "Oh, God! I threatened to
fight the audience! Yeah, I did!")
But, judging from his other comments, Waite (an art school graduate who,
over the years, has also been known to deftly draw caricatures of himself
along with his signature) still might be the same guy in some respects that
he was when he painted yet another fearless, introspective self-portrait with
the new album's final cut, "Masterpiece of Loneliness."
That song, which spawned the album's title in its lyrics, was actually
written several years back for the When You Were Mine album, but, as John
explains, "I just couldn't get the keyboard player to play it the right way.
And this time around, I had the same keyboard player, and he got it right!
And I also had Shane [Fontayne] for the six string bass, which I didn't
really think of last time 'round... and that gives it that kind of country,
dark edge. It gave it ambience, it gave it a room sound, like a sadness. . .
I can't listen to that, you know. It is the one song I've written that
really upsets me; everything else I can just go--Yeah! But that one is
too...it's too....it's too me."
Although these days some of his work now displays a more upbeat sense of
acceptance, redemption, closure, and renewed hope ("Always Be Your Man,"
"Touch," "New York City Girl," "New Thing"), cut-to-the-bone songs like
"Masterpiece of Loneliness" and "Thinking About You" are the kind of utterly
beautiful, "sweet sorrow" vignettes that may still hit the most universal
chord--especially for many of us who don't have the wherewithal--not to
mention the guts--to express such inner, "day-in-the-life" scenes so
poetically and personally ourselves. But then artistic courage--whatever the
consequences--is something Waite has never been short on.
For example, as Waite himself recounts, "When I left Bad English, I was
absolutely determined that I wouldn't just cop out and be a rocker. Because
it is a cop out. I mean, everyone sounds the same at a certain level;
they're desperately trying to play the same lick. So, I moved back to my
roots, which were blues and country, but I tried to do it with a New York
consciousness. Nobody's gonna take me seriously making a country record--I'm
English. But I tried to make Temple Bar--like [Bob Dylan's] Blonde On Blonde
, but the John Waite Blonde on Blonde. The way I was living, there was no
other way to go. I mean, it's so personal. And, it was a huge departure
from what people expected, and yet it was me a thousand percent. And, even
though it suffered a pretty miserable fate [the label went bankrupt after the
album was released], when I got to the Mercury record [When You Were Mine], I
was still feisty, and strong, and clear, and I wanted to really....I mean
that is an unbelievable record too. That was something to write! It was
real--I don't want to say poetry--but it's a real sense of using the language
without having to use...big words, you know?"
And many would say that the rare and commendable risk-taking that he lets
loose in his songwriting also extends to his career perseverance and
resilience, especially in light of the more recent let downs, but Waite
eschews that idea. He looks at it this way: "Being an artist, a writer, or
whatever--there's no choice in what you do. You might go and get a job
parking cars or whatever, but in the back of your mind, you'll always be
writing songs or writing words down. You have no choice in it! People
always say to me, 'How the Hell did you hang in after all of that?! God bless
you!' like I've done something marvelous. But, it's like, 'Thanks for the
compliment, but there's no choice!'"
In any event, he's much more "clear about the choices" in all respects
these days: "I've been run over a few times, but you just can't let the world
come at you without dodging or moving or ducking, or whatever...or you will
get run over. It's a very Zen thing, isn't it? Like Zen and Judo. It's how
you move through these things, and you can coexist with these things, and
they don't effect you. And you can't let it get you angry. People are
people, and they're all wonderful things. They're all separate, and they're
But one of the fortune cookies laying on the table may tell the real tale
here. "What does it say?" he wants to know, as I crack it open and scan the
message. Hummn, "Don't Let Doubt And Suspicion Bar Your Progress." Of
course, the relevance of its meaning isn't lost on John, who raises an
eyebrow and remarks earnestly, "Oh! Now that's really a good one."
And it might also be inferred that Waite practices what he preaches about
a fundamental respect for life in general. (Not that I'm the judge and jury,
but Waite had already passed the musician's numero uno litmus test for
character when I observed his personal, affectionate touch in interacting
with his ardent, long-standing core fan base earlier in the evening.) But
then you might expect that from a guy who makes sure you remember to bring
some of his shrimp home to treat your cat, and one who goes around to each of
the Chung Fow wait-staff to thank them "very, very much for the service"
But most insightful of all--and maybe it's part of the good Karma in the
air concerning the new album and forthcoming solo tour--is that, whether up
or down, for Waite things such as career and other life stuff authentically
seem to be much more about the adventure and the journey, than about the
"I've been the long way around," he reckons, "but I feel very justified in
my career, and I'm just thrilled to be working, you know? It's just a
wonderful thing! You know, the times that I've had that were at the very,
very top--with everything going right--were good fun, but also the opposite
of those times have been just as much fun--it truly has! I've enjoyed it
enormously. It's almost better to take the long way around. . . I mean, I'm
the kind of guy who would join the Merchant Marine. Have you ever read
Conrad? Lord Jim?"
Well, yes! And Heart of Darkness, too...
"Heart of Darkness---Exactly! But, I have that spirit in me that would
probably just like to set off right to the South Seas and have a look!...Oh!
And explore the China coast or something like that..."
Well, Waite as the perpetual, curious wanderer isn't exactly a shocking
concept when you consider some of his lyrics, and the fact that after 15
years of living in and around New York City, he's spent the last three years
either "living out of a suitcase" or in "a rented house with rented
furniture." Just this August he's finally made a commitment of sorts to stay
in Santa Monica (home base of his record label) long enough to buy a 2000
square foot "loft" type abode, have all his "stuff" sent from NY, and finally
aquaint himself with modern gadgets like a computer. (Right now, he admits,
"I don't even know how to switch one on," and claims he still "can't really
work" the tape recorder that tour manager Jeff Van Duyn recently bought him
for songwriting, either.)
Yet even California sounds iffy when he adds, "The music business is
there...but I much prefer New York, or Seattle, or something that's more like
a city, and LA's so spread out. And the people there are all famous, so it's
kind of pointless, you know. I mean, I absolutely do not fit into that city!
I just really don't like the sunshine all the time; I like the seasons and
stuff." (No surprise, as he often uses artfully placed seasonal references in
his songs, too.)
In fact, beyond the immediate and optimistic future with this new album,
you do get the distinct feeling that even John Waite can't predict what he'll
do next himself, either artistically or geographically. On one hand he says
if he ever walks away from the music business, he "fully intends to retire"
back home in England where his immediate family still lives. But, on the
other hand, he muses, "I've spent so much time in America now, maybe I'll
head to Tennessee....It's got snow and stuff, doesn't it.....?"
Well, yes, John, it does....But, you know, there's still the Congo. . . and
don't forget that China Sea out there. . . .
Find out more about John Waite at www.johnwaite.com and www.netwaite.com
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