Life Lessons with John Waite: ‘It’s OK to Be Ambitious and Get to the Top of the Mountain, but What Are You Going to Do When You Get There?’

Ken SharpCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

Anything, a new four-song EP from John Waite, demonstrates why he remains one of the most dynamic and authentic rock and roll singers of all time. With his stellar work with The Babys, Bad English and as a solo artist, there’s nothing false, nothing fake about John Waite, the singer, songwriter and artist.

A rebel with a cause, an outlier, Waite’s passion and resolve, quest for purity and truth serves as the touchstone of his storied four-decade-plus career.

Rock Cellar: You hail from Lancaster, England. What is it about Lancaster that you carry with you as part of your heritage?

John Waite: Well, it’s definitely through and through. I think it’s the character of the people and the music and the smartness and the working class ethic. Blue collar, but it wasn’t considered blue collar, which is considered regular. Everybody came from a different place, but the school systems were firing on a high level and there was a lot of music. But nobody had anything. It was a working class town before the University came and everybody had a job.

The art school was full of beatniks. It was just finding its feet. I mean, coming out of the ’50s into the 60s, Britain was hardcore and the weather was very changeable, but the summers were beautiful. Lancaster is a beautiful city, and there’s a feeling of everything being in focus there. Everything’s right. The people are great.

Rock Cellar: You go back to visit your mom frequently when you get back there. Does it put you in a special head space?

John Waite: Oh yeah. It’s an hour’s ride from the airport, so when the car picks me up with a driver and you got out of the airport, it’s just green fields and spires and mountains over the top of the fields. You’re just coming down the motorway into Lancaster and everything suddenly becomes from a different world.

I mean, it’s like going back in time, and yet all the colors are more intense and the edges of things are so sharp. The architecture is really great and there a lot of fields around Lancaster, so you come into it like you’re coming in from the country. But the trees go right into the city and since we got a University, there’s been a lot of rebuilding and attention paid to the downtown area.

It’s got a canal going through it and a river and an art school that was built to be an art school and massive parks that were built by industrialists for the people. Lancaster is laid out beautifully. It’s like really going back in time to sort of Dickensian version of the Northwest.

Rock Cellar: Let’s jump into the new EP, Anything.

John Waite: On the back of the Wooden Heart release, which was three CDs — it was 22 songs over three CDs — I listened to that twice and I thought it was dark, with songs like “In God’s Shadow,” “Masterpiece of Loneliness,” “Missing You” and “More.” They were dark songs.

They were written at a time in my life when I was solitary or up against a lot of things, and really like the Lone Ranger. They were very introspective songs, and I thought with the world being what it is right now, I wanted to move into something that was about being positive. Because as a person, I really am positive.

I wanted to bring something to music right now that would make somebody half an inch taller and not be carrying the weight of the world.

I wanted to do something that would make people smile or feel better about things for having heard it. I thought that was a higher target to shoot for than looking in the mirror.

Rock Cellar: What’s the significance of all these really cool relics on the cover of the EP? 

John Waite: Everywhere I go since I was a kid, I collect things. I remember walking across a piece of waste on the ground next to a hotel in Dallas, Texas. I looked down and I was in a kind of like a strange part of town with small rundown houses, and on the ground was a Coke top from a bottle, a metal cap, and it looked beautiful to me. It was all smashed up, but it had its own thing, so I kept it.

But small things, like badges, buttons, things that I got when I was a kid.

Rock Cellar: What’s the oldest thing of yours on the cover?

John WaiteGood question. Well, there’s a Mickey Mouse watch underneath the Napoleon statue. It didn’t make it to its full mouse-ness, but that would probably be the oldest thing. There’s a small red plastic Monopoly piece of a dog. I was working with my brother in construction after The Babys ended, just helping out with his building company. We’re knocking down this wall, and that fell out of the wall and he said, “Look at this,” and I knew what it was and put it in my back pocket and kept it.

People have given me small things and they’re so beautiful, you wouldn’t want to cast them away. So I’ve got this box full of stuff and it’s just bits and pieces. We needed a cover so I ran to the back room, got the shoe box out, threw it all on a table, took a picture and sent it off to the guy doing the layout and that was the cover. Then I did another one with a switchblade and a harmonica for the advert.

But it was just like throwing things down on a piece of paper and then moving them around and then taking a picture. It was that simple.

Rock Cellar: On the EP you’re working on the most of the tracks with Anthony Krizan.

John Waite: He’s a guitar player. He was in the Spin Doctors for a while. I’ve known Anthony for about 20-odd years. We wrote some songs for Temple Bar, When You Were Mine and I think there’s even a song on Figure in A Landscape. We’ve been friends for a long time. He has a studio in Plainfield, New Jersey. He’s an extremely musical guy.

We wrote “Anything,” “Lifeguard” and “Grenadine” in the same weekend. We just had them sitting around, and every time I would think about doing something, I’d look at those songs. When we were shooting the documentary, the director was going through some old stuff from the files, and he heard “Anything” and said, “Wow, that’s really good. Can you sing that down the mic?” So I sang it down the mic, and I told Anthony that it’s probably going to be in the movie. So he started remixing it and so that’s how the EP came about.

Rock Cellar: “Anything” is the first single.

John Waite: It’s a very positive song. The world is so dark. Everybody’s trying to kill everybody. I mean, every time you pick up the paper, it’s just bad news. And if we only go around once, it’s time to lighten up.

I think once you establish that with people, everything moves forward. I did not want to repeat anything that was dark that I was writing about. I really did want to bring something that was pure, that would make somebody smile. “Anything” is just an admission of falling in love, but it’s just a very direct, sweet song.

Rock Cellar: “Darling” features Neil Geraldo on keyboards.

John WaiteWith “Darling,” I was going through some DAT tapes and I found “Darling” sandwiched between “Downtown” and another song. So the basic song came from ’97 and I thought, “That’s a good song.” So I brought it to the Doghouse Studio and recut it and rearranged it and wrote an entirely new melody. I kept going back in and rewriting it. I’ve never spent as much time on one song as “Darling.” I must have cut it ten times with different guitar players.

Neil Geraldo, my old friend, came down here to just say hi and I said, “Man, I’m drowning. I can’t get this song right.” And he went home and thought up a keyboard part, which is pretty much like something Nicky Hopkins, who played with the Stones, would have played. It’s got a lot of compression on it and it’s a big, grand sound. But I was going for ’60s pop.

There’s a song called “Where Do You Go To My Lovely?” by Peter Sarstedt and it was a song about the Riviera and a model girl from London. I was looking back at that time, like with the Stones being mobile and being busted and in Morocco. I was thinking about North Africa and some of those trips hippies used to make and that really rare atmosphere of the fashion world. And you see these girls now, they’re about 16, 17 and they’re thrown into this cauldron, and I was trying to write a song about them.

Rock Cellar: In the lyrics to “Darling,” you mention “15 minutes of fame.” You had that intense 15 minutes of white-hot fame for a period of time with your No. 1 single “Missing You,” and the No Brakes album during that period of time. Looking back at that, what was your greatest takeaway?

John Waite: It seems the odd thing to go all your life from being 14, when you pick up your first guitar and you’re trying to get to the top of this mountain. And it took me, God knows, like 15 to 20 years of some real detours and hard times, but it was always fun.

But when you get it … I think Ian Hunter said he had this epiphany outside Hammersmith Odeon. Like so what? And when I hit No. 1, I was living in New York City and I was at the top of my game. I knew a lot of the locals, the girls I knew, the guys that I was playing with were all New Yorkers. It was a very hip scene and it was enough.

I felt like I ticked that box and I spent maybe six months there and I had fun with it, but after that I wanted my life back. I mean, I really did.

It’s okay to be ambitious and get to the top of the mountain, but what are you going to do when you get there?

You’re just going to stand on top of the mountain and beat your chest. Yeah, King Kong. There’s a thing about it, it’s trite. You see it with the Kardashians and you see all these people in the press. It’s a full-time job being famous, and I’m a pretty serious musician and writer. I don’t particularly want to be flavor of the month, and you’re expected to be there. I know that a lot of people have been able to step back and write albums and put them out every two or three years, and that was my ambition. Yes, I’ve achieved it. Thank you very much. It means an incredible amount to me.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart, but I’m going to be over here with a guitar writing a song. I don’t really want to be going to receptions and trying to keep that game going, because it’s only a game and it’s only happening for that moment. There’s no life in it.

Rock Cellar: “Grenadine”‘ is another co-write with Anthony Krizan.

John Waite: That was just me and Anthony after a long day jamming. I’ve only heard it a couple of times since it’s been mastered, but the lyric is good. It just buttoned together and it was no more than two takes. It’s just one of those lazy, slightly stoned or two glasses of wine and it’s been a very long day type of songs, one of those things that finishes off a session, and it works.

Rock Cellar: “Lifeguard” caught my ear with its slinky  nod to “Sweet Jane” by Lou Reed. The sparsesness in the song works beautifully.

John Waite: Well, that’s the thing about being solo, if you’re in a band everybody’s going to say, “Well, I could put something in there,” and then when there’s a two-bar rest somebody wants to sing a note. Even if it’s me, you know somebody’s always guilty of putting in too much, but when you’re playing with the right people and the mood is right, you don’t really do that.

I had the title, and I think it was my idea to use the Lou Reed thing. I’ve always been fascinated with Velvet Underground. White Light, White Heat was a big album for me, and on the road that’s what we listen to in the van. So I think maybe it’s just a nod to Lou. I think that we wrote it he had just passed recently, but it’s a sexy sunshine cartoon. It’s like the Sheryl Crow song “Soak Up The Sun.” It’s time to lighten up.

I think the world is just in a dark, dark place, and was trying to bring something other than myself and the sides of myself. I wanted to make a statement that would maybe elevate people.

Rock Cellar: 40 years ago, your first solo album, Ignition, was released. 

John Waite: I’d moved to New York by myself. I had a Telecaster and a bag of clothes. That was it. I arrived with no band. I’d had a knee injury with The Babys that knocked me out for three or four months. I was married and I was living in the Lake District and then I wanted to come back to New York City and make a record in Manhattan and I got introduced to Ivan Kral. There’s only like ten musicians in Manhattan that were on it like Bruce Brody, the keyboard player, Richie Fliegler, Frankie La Rocka. There was only a handful of guys and a handful of rock clubs. There really wasn’t anything going on.

There was Harrah’s, there was the Peppermint Lounge. There was CBGB’s, Trax — which I got thrown out of once. [laughs

Rock Cellar: Is that where you jammed with Pete Townshend and Stevie Wonder?

John Waite: I jammed with Pete there, but I jammed with Stevie Wonder in the China Club. But, I mean, this is how it used to be. It was Village-y. The Who would talk about having 100 faces, a “face” is a mod. So if they played the Marquee Club in London, a 100 faces would show up. They were like a club, and I always look back at that as maybe there were 100 people in New York City that interconnected, who were falling in and out of love with each other. They were creating music or they were writing or painting or whatever. But it was really only 100 people.

And if you’re walking down the street, you might bump into any one of them. It just wasn’t a busy city like it is now. I was living on 72nd street at Lincoln Terrace Towers. I had a crash pad, a little bed sit about 300 feet going west from the Dakota, away from the park. So that was mind-blowing, too, because John Lennon had been assassinated maybe four, five or six months before. I arrived in winter going into spring.

So some of the time it was very dark and gloomy and really full-on Manhattan. And you’d look up the street and there was, unbelievably, the Dakota. And after about three or four weeks of trying to do anything and pull it together — I hadn’t met Ivan Kral yet — I went to Trax to have a beer, meet a couple of friends I’d made and Townshend walked in with Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall.

I always idolized Townsend. He was like a God to me, and I’d seen the Who play when I was about 17 or 18 and I’ve listened to them since I was about 13. But Townshend’s Empty Glass was a miraculous record, and he walked in and I’ve got a Budweiser in one hand wondering what I’m going to be doing for the next hour or two and he goes on stage, borrows this guitar from some kid, plugs in and starts tuning up.

And I thought, “Fuck.”

I walked up and said, “Can I sing one?” And he said, “Yeah.” He had this big black suit on like in “Rough Boys,” just like he stepped out the video, and we kicked off a couple of songs. We were up there for a half an hour. We didn’t do any specific songs; we were just making them up. It was just jamming. I’ve got a picture somebody gave me, and I’m on the mic with a bottle of Budweiser in one hand with my eyes closed thinking and he’s behind me with his eyes closed on this Les Paul. It’s a great shot.

That was a moment that turned my life upside down. I don’t think I would have stayed in New York without that. That was just like somebody throwing sugar across the picture.

Rock Cellar: And the songs on Ignition are songs of the street. 

John WaiteYeah. With things like “Desperate Love” and “Wildlife.” All of that was written about really skidding along at night, sleep as much of the day away as you could, and go out about five ‘o clock.

“White Heat.” Eighth Avenue. It was a very sordid part of town. It felt reckless and dangerous, like some other world. The East Village was dangerous at that point. You wouldn’t go down there alone if you could help it. That was the great thing about Manhattan. It had every walk of life, like a single part of a jigsaw. Everything in humanity was on this island. It’s like being in a living zoo of humanity. It’s great.

Rock Cellar: What do you think is the difference between being a good and a great singer?

John Waite: Well, I think not singing. You have singers, and there’s a lot of them, and you can tell they could be session singers if they weren’t artists. They can sing perfectly on pitch, but it’s not really singing. Singing is just extended talk. Singing is something else that’s unrehearsed, unexpected and underappreciated. You just don’t know where it’s coming from, but it’s like the voice of your muse. It’s something else.

And you get all these singers trying to sound like they could have been opera singers and tuneful singers where you don’t believe a fucking word they’re singing. But it’s in tune, and I think I can spot it a mile off but I don’t know if the public does.

But when I sing, I have no idea what I’m doing. I really, honestly don’t. I don’t warm up. If something’s faulted, like your voice cracks, that’s singing. But having this perfectly in tune, “Look at me, I’m singing,” is such bollocks. It really is.

Rock Cellar: What do you think are the greatest traits you carry with you from both your mother and your father?

John Waite: Well, my dad was extremely bright. He was a chess champion. He was an auto didact. He was self-educated, knew everything about classical literature. He was a nice guy, very practical. I loved my dad, still do. My mom could sing and dance through life, very upbeat and very very strong. But he was strong, too. When they got married, they moved into this tiny little house facing into the countryside.

We had an outside toilet, a little stone building with it, but it was in the country. It was the last row of houses in Lancaster. You faced into trees and lanes and it was a fucking serious place for a kid to grow up. But they came up with nothing, and they had this work ethic and honesty and the ambition and decency. So I feel very blessed to be working class and yet still have had an education that a working class guy doesn’t often get.

Rock Cellar: In many ways, you’ve been an outlier your whole life and career. You’ve always taken the road less traveled in a way, and certainly rebelled against a lot of things. Where do you think that comes from? 

John Waite: Somebody said you should never sound like anybody else and you should never repeat yourself. I mean, that’s the basis of all that. That’s why Bad English was rough. It didn’t matter if it sounded like Phil Collins or like AC/DC. It was just like, “let’s get it.”

And I’d be saying, “Fucking hell, man, you can’t steal that.” But that didn’t seem to bother them at all. But I think not to repeat yourself is incredibly important, and I probably got that from art school. People would say, “Don’t draw the same thing twice, don’t do that, and don’t sound like anybody else.” I’m pretty hard to deal with in the studio because I know what I want. But I’m just as hard on myself as a rule.

I say to people, “You tell me who I am because I haven’t got a clue, really.” You see me from the outside, and it’s probably more accurate than how I see myself.

Rock Cellar: As you roll through life, you dealt with a lot of darkness. What do you think are the things that you’ve learned about happiness?

John Waite: Well, I am very positive. I mean, surely my life could have been smoother, but I was always so restless. I want to get to the next point. I want to write the next song, make the next record, form the next band and it was something that I couldn’t put on the backburner and say, “Okay, I’m going to take a year off.” Life’s too short.

I was very driven to come up with something new that I could believe in, and it gave me a whole reason to get up in the morning and go about something. But what is happiness? A friend of mine once said that the whole point of life is to be happy. But I think if you keep your life simple and you don’t put yourself out there too much and you can control your immediate circle, you might get through the whole thing without being beaten up.

Rock Cellar: What’s the last song you heard where you said, “Goddamn, I wish I wrote that one”?

John Waite: That’s a great question.  I was in a shop, and I heard the wildest thing. It was by MIA and a song called “Bird Flu.” Have you heard that? Fucking insane. MIA is British, I think she’s from the colonies. But this song, there’s drums playing, and it’s out of control and it’s just really passionate. She’s on top of it with this thing. It’s like the Sex Pistols meets PIL through a woman’s view. It’s really impressive.

I was in this secondhand shop looking for old clothes and boots and that was playing. That’s how I get new music. Sometimes they’re playing something and I want to hide underneath the nearest table. [laughs] Country music. Whatever happened to country? I feel like I should go down to Nashville and say prayer for it.

Rock Cellar: There’s a new documentary, The Hard Way, coming out about your life. What’s the status of the documentary and what was that experience like for you? 

John Waite: I think when you’re making something like that, you shouldn’t ever try and be involved in the edit. I just said, “If I say fuck or fall over or I look bad, keep it in.” I haven’t got the right and I don’t want to have any input, I gave them carte blanche, I don’t give a fuck.

But I finally saw it about three months ago. They sent me a copy about six months ago, and I just wouldn’t watch it. But one night I watched it. It was shot during the pandemic and it’s in the middle of that lockdown consciousness and I’m almost snarling. It’s like, “What do you think of the world, John? Fuck.” I think it could have been happier.

But maybe it’s a side of me that people might find interesting. But left to my own devices, maybe I said more about myself in this interview.

Rock Cellar: When is it coming out?

John WaiteWell, they’re looking for a distribution deal with a major company that’s going to put it on a major cable chain and get it to the film festivals.

Rock Cellar: Watching it back must have been strange. 

John Waite: It was really weird. I think I probably said things that were more meaningful and had more edge today, but it’s somebody’s version of me. It’s like I said before, you tell me because I don’t know who the fuck I am.

At some point we all have an image of ourselves and how we like to be seen. But you see me differently to how somebody else sees me. But at the same time, I’m shape-shifting almost as I come up against things, because that’s how we survive.

Who the fuck are we behind the mask? That’s probably the biggest question.

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