“I had just been given a death sentence at the ripe old age of 46,” Lou Gramm writes in the introduction to his new book, Juke Box Hero: My Five Decades In Rock N Roll, which came out last week on May 1. “I was returning home to die.” Not knowing what was happening to him, Gramm sought out an answer and discovered his brain contained a tumor the size of an egg. Although it was benign, doctors considered it inoperable. After all his years of partying and playing music throughout the 70’s and 80’s, he wondered if his wild oats had sown this seed of death.
Thousands of young men and women dream of becoming rock stars but only a few actually succeed in fulfilling those starry-eyed daydreams. Lou Gramm is one of those young boys who made it a reality. After joining Mick Jones in creating the band that would become known as Foreigner, they were the kings of arena rock, packing in thousands of fans for two decades, their first eight singles going top 20 in Billboard’s charts – hitting #1 with the power ballad “I Want To Know What Love Is” – and recording the iconic 4 album in 1981, which spawned some of their most popular songs, “Juke Box Hero” and “Urgent.”
Gramm would leave Foreigner in 1990 following some solo success with Ready Or Not and a tantalizing track, “Lost In The Shadows,” for the film The Lost Boys. He formed Shadow King with his former Black Sheep bandmate Bruce Turgon, and which included future Def Leppard guitar player Vivian Campbell. He would reunite with Foreigner two years later but after a change-of-life reaffirmation to Christianity, Gramm found the rock & roll lifestyle no longer appetizing and he bowed out again in 2003. But not before discovering that nasty invader, which eerily had been residing near his frontal lobe since birth and “hadn’t really started growing at an alarming rate until I was in my 40’s,” Gramm wrote. The resulting surgery was successful yet damaged his pituitary gland and his recovery was lengthy. But it never stopped Gramm; it only slowed him down for a while.
Today, Gramm is healthy and feeling good. He fronts the Lou Gramm Band, that also includes his brother Ben, and they are currently touring. Plus, he has his autobiography just hitting shelves. An entertaining read, with fun stories and interesting tidbits about life in a super-successful rock band at the height of its popularity, Gramm has left the dirt and gossip to other rockers and has instead provided a Dorothy-like skip through the land of Oz. Juke Box Hero is a delightful memoir and one that Gramm recently took some time out on his birthday last week to talk with us about.
What made you decide to even write about your life?
I’ve been thinking about it for maybe a half a dozen years. I had my doubts whether I had enough interesting anecdotes and facts to hold anyone’s interest, until I had lunch one day with Scott Pitoniak, who co-wrote the book with me. He writes books about sports’ figures, that’s his forte, and we talked and he said he’d love to help me with the book. I expressed my concerns about not having enough, and he said, “You have enough for two books.” (laughs)
How long did it take to write once you got started working on it?
It took probably a little over a year and we were working one day a week for about four or four and a half hours. He would ask me questions and I would answer his questions and during the process of answering the questions, it would bring about another story or another anecdote or expand on the answer. He would ask the questions out of chronological order. Then after our four hour sessions, he would take the answers and begin to put them in a chronological file, you know. At a certain point, he would start aiming the questions to fill in gaps in time. And as you can see, it flows quite nicely.
Were you comfortable talking about yourself so openly?
Yeah, I felt I could be open without getting into so much that people would think, “He didn’t have to be THAT personal.” So I felt I was able to open up but just to the point of keeping it interesting.
Did you have things that you started to put in the book but then decided you’d rather not?
Maybe a couple. I recall there might have been a couple of personal things with family that I may have started to talk about and caught myself and realized that it had no business in the book.
When you finished writing, what do you think surprised you the most about your life?
The amount of time I was away from home. I loved being a husband and I just adore being a father to my children. And my career choice would keep me away from both of those things for long stretches of time.
What is your first memory of music?
Being about three and a half or four years old, sitting in the back seat of my dad’s car. He would turn the knob on the radio trying to find a music that he liked to hear. And I remember as he was scanning, I remember hearing “Hound Dog.” He listened to about ten seconds of that before he kept going, looking for something else, and eventually found a station that played Big Band Jazz, which was his love, because he was a trumpet player and had his own Big Band at one time.
You mention in your book that you used to do little doo wop concerts in the neighborhood when you were young.
Just among the few friends of mine who loved listening to that stuff. We would start singing it a little bit. We would start singing parts that we had heard and it was fun.
You also reveal in your book that your first act of like real teenage rebellion was going to see the Rolling Stones when your parents said no.
That’s correct, yeah. That was a very bold move for me and there was a certain excitement to defying my dad (laughs). I brought it up during supper and was very insistent on it and after supper he sent me up to my room, which was perfect because I went up to my room and changed into my clothes that I was going to go out with, you know. Then at a certain minute I ran down the stairs and ran out the front door so fast that I think I caught the whole family off-guard. I was down the street almost to the main road that our street was off of before I heard my dad screaming, “Louis, get back here. I’m going to kill you.”
When you went into the studio for the first time to record the first Foreigner album, you had already been in a studio with Black Sheep. So this wasn’t all new to you.
Not at all. I actually recorded a single for Chrysalis Records with Black Sheep and recorded two full albums for Capitol Records.
What do you remember most about going in to record the first Foreigner album?
We knew that we didn’t have a real big budget and we knew we had the songs already written and prepared; most of them anyways. But one that threw us was “Cold As Ice.” We recorded the song and all those intricate harmonies that are in the song, they weren’t there when we originally recorded it. We realized that while it was a good song, it really lacked something to make it a little more listenable. As it turned out, we tried those harmonies and in the breakdown where it turns into a cappella, it took about six hours and we started it at about 11:00 at night. We would work till we just couldn’t work anymore and we’d all go down the elevator, down to the ground floor, and walk around the block just to get some fresh air. Well, not fresh air but to get some air and get our sensibilities back. Then it would be back up to the eighth floor where the studio was and back in the studio and try again. And I’ll be a son of a gun, we did nail it after about four or five times of trying different ideas. We finally realized what the best approach was and we worked on it and really got it. When we left the studio that night, it wasn’t night anymore. It was light out.
Was that hard on your voice?
It was more hard on the rest of my body. Only when I was doing my lead vocals would I sing a lot and when I felt my voice was starting to tire, or they could tell it was getting tired in the control room, starting to sound a little tired on tape, we would call it a night or do something else. Not vocals, you know, and that way I’d have twelve or fifteen hours to rest and then go back at it again.
When you left Foreigner and you formed Shadow King, why do you think that band didn’t make it? Because the music is not bad at all.
I think it’s very good and I know for a fact that Atlantic Records did not give it the promotional push that it could have used because they were trying to make sure it wasn’t successful so that I would go back to Foreigner.
That’s a shame
It is, isn’t it. That’s the kind of executive decisions that would be made.
Do you like the direction the music business is going in nowadays?
I’m not sure what the direction is. I hear a lot of music that I like, I’ve got to tell you that, but there really are no big record companies anymore. There’s a lot of independents and a lot of people who just put their music online and sell it that way so that people can hear it. It’s like a free-for-all. Is that good or bad? I’m honestly not sure.
Are you going to make some more original music?
I would love to because I still love to write and record and I think I’m still a viable artist. But the problem is that when the corporations started taking over radio stations, they pretty much took bands and artists that had been together for over fifteen or twenty years and relegated them to like a classic rock station, which only plays the hits. When we came out with the Mr Moonlight album, we had two or three really strong singles and we couldn’t get them on radio because radio was only playing new artists and we were a veteran act that had been together for a while. They wouldn’t play our new material but they would play the old songs. So what’s the point of making a new album if no one is going to hear it.
Have you seen the new version of Foreigner?
I haven’t gone to see them but I’ve seen them on TV a number of times. Good musicians definitely and Kelly is a good singer too.
Are you going to be working with the Lou Gramm Band this year?
We’re touring. We’ve already got about twenty-five shows. And that’s basically what we’ll be doing. We’ve started already and I’m doing my book promotions too. So it’s a busy, busy year for me and I’m looking forward to it.
In regards to the tumor, what were the first signs that something might be really wrong?
I had had drug and alcohol problems on and off for a few years and in 1991, I went to Hazelden and completed my thirty days. By the time that the tumor made itself known, I already had five years of sobriety. First thing I noticed was that I was waking up with a headache that reminded me of the hangovers I used to have. I’m like, “Dear God, what’s going on here? I don’t drink but I’m still getting the hangovers.” The other thing was occasionally my eyes would cross. And the last, most telling thing was that I was having spotty problems with my short and long-term memory. Like my mom and dad had this same phone number for about thirty years and I would go to call it and I’d get the prefix and I couldn’t remember the last four numbers, to the point where I had to get my little phone index and look up my mom and dad’s number. I thought to myself, “Oh God, something is really wrong here.” That’s when I went to my doctor and had an MRI and they found the tumor.
But you’re doing good now.
Yeah, I’m feeling real good. I still take quite an array of medication to compensate for the damage that the tumor did but I’m feeling better than I have in the last twelve years for sure.