Peter Wolf: Searching for A Cure for Loneliness
By Jim Farber
Last year, Peter Wolf and the J. Geils Band played a set so fast and fleet, it could make a thrash band sound slack. Opening for Bob Seger’s Madison Square Garden show, the group proved they could still muster the bluster and jive of their earliest incarnation.
“When it’s in you, it’s gotta come out,” Wolf jokes, reflecting on the show.
But there’s another side to him, one only revealed on solo works like the new A Cure For Loneliness. Both musically and lyrically, Loneliness showcases the near-inverse of Wolf’s Geils guise, stressing rumination and regret, loss and hard-won acceptance.
“When you’re not dealing with a group, then you can really focus,” he says, in a speaking voice notably more nuanced than his trademark stage growl. “It’s not unlike writing a one-man play. Emotionally, it has a deeper resonance.”
It has a greater sense of consequence too. The album’s opening song, “Rolling On,” finds the now 70-year-old Wolf facing down his mortality, and potential irrelevance, with defiance. “You can lay down and die/you can lay up and count the tears you cry,” he sings. “But baby that’s not me/There’s a big, wide world I was born to see.”
Wolf says the inspiration for the song has as much to do with business matters as existential ones. “As a musician who’s been doing this as long as I have, you see the changing landscape,” he says. “Changes are constant, but some are more radical than others. Having your work initially done on vinyl, and sharing it with people that way, to the point where, with a click, you can now share it with 16 million people is a big leap.”
The adjustment hasn’t been easy. “I still get many newspapers delivered every day,” Wolf says. “They get thinner and thinner—and that’s sadder and sadder for me.”
At the same time, the honesty of Loneliness has made Wolf sound more stalwart than ever. The album makes commanding use of every one of his influences: R&B, soul, rock, jazz, even bluegrass. “In my apartment, the playlist jumps from Hank Williams to Thelonious Monk to Sinatra to The Troggs,” he says.
Yet ‘60s soul retains the deepest pull on him. In talking to Wolf, stories spill out of his encounters with genre icons like King Curtis, Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and more. He shared a label with them all, Atlantic, which provided the greatest cross-over home of ‘60s R&B and soul. In fact, when his band got signed in 1969, their producers asked Wolf who among the label greats he’d like to meet. “I said ‘Don Covay,’” Wolf recalls. “They thought that was such a odd choice because he was not as well-known. But if you listen to his song ‘Mercy, Mercy,’ you hear the template for a lot of what The Stones did. The production of his records had a great impact on them—and on me.”
In fact, The Stones’ cut Covay’s “Mercy” in 1965, a year after its author recorded it. Covay also wrote “Chain of Fools,” made classic by Aretha Franklin. Much later, Wolf introduced Covay to The Stones, who gave the soul star a cameo on their 1985 album, Dirty Work. Wolf wrote a few songs with Covay over the years, one of which, “It’s Raining,” ended up on the new album. (Covay died in 2015 at the age of 78). Wolf opens the song with a shout-out to another soul icon, Bobby Womack. That singer was scheduled to duet with Wolf on the album before his death in 2014. Amazingly, right after Wolf cut the backing track for “It’s Raining,” he got news of Womack’s passing.
Another soul touchstone proved crucial to the very survival of J. Geils, Wolf reveals. After Atlantic inked the band, they promptly forgot about them. In order to decide if they would keep them or not, label honcho Jerry Wexler asked the band play a showcase at the old New York club Unganos. “Jerry was there with King Curtis and Dr. John,” Wolf recalls. “After we finished, Jerry turned to King Curtis and said ‘what do you think?’ He said ‘keep ‘em.’ That’s how we got to stay on Atlantic.”
Just two years after that, the group looked like the next big thing. In 1971, Bill Graham chose Geils, along with The Allman Brothers and Edgar Winter, to close The Fillmore East, positioning those three young acts as music’s future. The sound J. Geils minted on albums like 1971’s The Morning After and their defining live release Full House treated ‘60s R&B like a cocaine snort to the head, speeding it up exponentially. “The template was James Brown’s Live At The Apollo Vol. 1,” Wolf says. “I got to see that show because I went to high school just 10 blocks away, at the School of Music and Art, which was in Harlem at the time. Witnessing James was a religious experience for me. The sound was supersonic.”
As amped-up and creative as Geils’ Atlantic years had been, they had signed a rotten contract and longed to leave the label. They got their wish in ’78, when EMI inked them to a far more favorable deal, with much more enthusiastic backing from their A&R team. That, combined with the flash of their videos on a new medium (MTV), made Geils a much bigger band in their EMI years than in their Atlantic days. They had pervasive hits, like “Love Stinks,” “Freeze Frame” and “Centerfold.” At the same time, the songs were becoming more gimmicky and slick. By ’83, Wolf left the band, starting his solo career the next year. His debut album, Lights Out, featured a co-writing credit for Covay, as well as guest appearances from Mick Jagger, Maurice Starr and the P-Funk horns.
Even so, Wolf didn’t begin to bore deep inside his soul until the 1998 album Fools Parade. Aided by producer/collaborator Kenny White, the music took on a more vulnerable tone, told in added ballads, delivered with softer vocals. Parade coalesced into a concept album about the consequences of following a wandering eye for too long. “My love just keeps turning on and off/like a flashing neon sign,” Wolf sang.
The star continued to go deeper into himself over a quartet of solo works, culminating in his latest, and most moving release, to date. The new songs run from a wistful Springsteen-esque contemplation of lost youth (“Fun For A While”), to a Stones-like country honk (“Stranger”) to a whimsical take on “Love Stinks,” recast as an Appalachian hoe-down. True to the album’s title, many songs contemplate loneliness: In real life, Wolf was married just once, to Faye Dunaway, back in the ‘70s. He has no children. The title of the album asserts music itself as a redemptive force. “For me, music and painting have been the greatest cures,” Wolf says. “They’ve been constant companions. They give my life meaning, and dispel any dread.”