Hall of Fame-bound Lou Gramm looks back, keeps moving forward

05:00 AM, Apr 28, 2013

Lead singer of the band Foreigner and avid car collector, Lou Gramm, sits on his favorite muscle car, a 1967 Oldsmobile 442. (MARIE DE JESUS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)/

Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

2013 Rochester Music Hall of Fame induction and concert
When: 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St.
Cost: $20 to $65.
For tickets: Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra box office, (585) 454-2100, rpo.org, rochestermusic.org and Wegmans.
Event information: Besides Gramm, other inductees this year are Son House, Bat McGrath, Don Potter, George Eastman, Mitch Miller, Nick Nickson and Jack Palvino. Naomi Judd will be in attendance to induct Potter.
An Evening with Lou Gramm
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Auditorium in Building 4 of Monroe Community College’s Brighton campus, 1000 East Henrietta Road (free parking in lots E and F).
Cost: $40 (some proceeds go to MCC Foundation for scholarship funds).
For tickets: monroetickets.com.
Event information: Gramm will tell stories, perform acoustically and answer questions from the audience. Participants will receive a signed copy of Gramm’s book.

Sitting in his downtown Rochester studio next to a vast, vintage sound board, Lou Gramm is his familiar relaxed, genial self as he patiently answers questions for a series of videos.

Now 62, he is not a rocker in repose. He joins the Rochester Music Hall of Fame Sunday night. On June 13 he’ll be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame with his songwriting partner, Mick Jones. Many interviews have yet to be done. And Gramm has gigs throughout the summer, from Utah to his home town of Gates. It’s been 18 years since he was sentenced to death by his doctors, and 10 since he’s officially been associated with Foreigner. But what goes around comes around, and here comes Foreigner, Gramm and Jones again.

Gramm is now an author. He celebrates the release of his autobiography, Juke Box Hero: My Five Decades in Rock ‘N’ Roll, with a talk, book signing and a few acoustic versions of the old hits next Saturday at his alma mater, Monroe Community College. Gramm’s co-author sits on a nearby couch in the studio. Juke Box Hero is the 16th book by Scott Pitoniak, a former sports columnist at the Democrat and Chronicle, but it’s his first beyond the realm of sports. Comparisons are easily drawn between sports teams and rock bands, Pitoniak says. Teamwork. And egos.

Stories and cars

Gramm surrounds himself with things that comfort him. His collection of 1970s muscle cars. He once owned nine, but has trimmed the fleet to five. Three are in the garage connected to the studio, shimmering beauties of polished fenders and chrome, carefully tucked beneath white sheets. He searches the Internet for the hard-to-find bias tires that sit a little flatter than more-modern radials. But the cars are not museum pieces. Gramm can frequently be seen behind the wheel of one of them at the summertime vintage car cruises around the city and in the suburbs.

Gramm also takes comfort in many of the memories that he has resurrected for Juke Box Hero. Shooting pool with John Lennon. Lennon won, Gramm concedes while re-telling the story in his studio, although Pitoniak is quick to point out that it is Gramm’s fervent belief that he would have annihilated Lennon in Foosball.

Yet Gramm does not wear all of the stories comfortably. Memoirs can be perilous undertakings.

Juke Box Hero is different from Bob Dylan’s poetically eccentric Chronicles: Volume One, or Keith Richards’ Life, in which the Stones’ guitarist includes details such as the dimensions of Mick Jagger’s Significant Other. That’s to be expected of those authors. Juke Box Hero is what those who know Gramm expect of him.

He tells some marvelous stories, but other tales proceed with caution. Yes, Gramm fell victim to rock and roll excesses that eventually led him to the renowned Hazelden addiction treatment center, but he spares us the redundantly exhausting details to be found in Nikki Sixx’s The Heroin Diaries. In the holy triumvirate of Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, Juke Box Hero rates a 0 for sex (unless you’re turned on by the idea of Foreigner playing at a nudist camp), a 5 for drugs and a 10 for rock and roll.

Growing up in Rochester

The arc of Juke Box Hero is the classic rock and roll story. Kid from a small town loves rock and roll, works his way up from the bottom rung, leaves home for the Big City, becomes an overnight sensation, crashes and burns, rediscovers what he’s lost when he returns home, and recovers.

Gramm was born in Rochester and lived in the 19th Ward. It was a happy childhood, he says, until his beloved Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. His home was filled with music. But it was his parents’ music — Ben Grammatico was a well-known big-band jazz musician here who, Gramm says with some respect, did not spare a leather belt to the butt when one of his kids misbehaved. When Lou and his older brother discovered “Hound Dog” on the radio, Ben Grammatico’s reaction to Elvis Presley was the familiar, obscenity-laced comment of many parents of that era.

Gramm recalls a time when a kid could buy 45 rpm records at a downtown department store for 29 cents. And, after the family moved to Gates, he offers a priceless tale of rebellion, growing out his hair and defying his father to see the Stones play at the War Memorial. The concert ended abruptly in a riot, but Lou Gramm had seen the future, and it was rock and roll. Rock and roll always won, unless you were growing up in Pat Boone’s house.

Gramm worked his way up the ladder, from a local band named PHFTT (“which didn’t stand for anything but was so distinctive that people remembered it”) to The St. James Infirmary, Poor Heart, Black Sheep and, finally, this new, decibel-hungry group that the English guitarist Mick Jones was assembling, Foreigner.

Trivia and real-life drama

Juke Box Hero opens with Gramm’s diagnosis of a life-threatening brain tumor, but generally remains chronologically true, with Gramm spinning off into occasional tangents. Over the course of 1 1/2 pages, a discussion on the genesis of “Cold as Ice” bounces from the song being inspired by a Bette Davis film to its use behind a Saturday Night Live skit featuring John Belushi and then an episode of the adult cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force, in which the magic powers of a Foreigner belt buckle are activated only when the titles of Foreigner songs are shouted out by the show’s characters, who look like fast food items.

Then, “Speaking of French fries…” — how’s that for a transition? — the story veers off again to a 1997 Burger King commercial that uses the hit “Double Vision,” with Gramm recalling how “they took some photos of me chomping on a burger, which was kind of funny because by that point, I had cut out fast foods.”

It’s all amusing trivia compared to the drama of Gramm’s illness. He was told that he had an inoperable tumor that, while benign, was strangling his brain and he had mere months to live. But after watching a TV news feature describing a new form of laser surgery, the next morning Gramm called the office of the Boston surgeon featured in the show. Not only did Gramm discover that he was a likely candidate, but if he could get to Boston the next morning the doctor would see him because there had been a cancellation. “In other words,” Gramm says, “someone had died.”

I firmly believed that God had intervened.”

Relationships on the rocky road

Gramm writes that when he was touring, he suppressed the guilt of being away from his family by drinking heavily, and became addicted to vodka and cocaine. Two marriages crumbled. He had two children with his first wife and twins with his second wife, who helped him through his harrowing recovery from brain surgery. Neither woman’s name appears in the book. Younger brother Richard Grammatico is never mentioned at all. These are failed personal relationships that Gramm keeps to himself. But he does give us the name of one of the horses on the farm that he once owned in Westchester County: Stella Dallas Star.

Jones does not get off so lucky as to go nameless. Juke Box Hero is at its best when depicting the increasing tension in Foreigner, a hugely successful band but, Gramm says, dismissed by critics as a “corporate arena rock band.”

The creative differences are downright painful: The acerbic Jones ducked a punch thrown by drummer Dennis Elliott, who instead hit a door and broke his hand.

Likewise, the rift between Gramm and Jones widened. Gramm wanted Foreigner to be a rock band; Jones was increasingly set on booming ballads such as “I Want to Know What Love Is.” Gramm confesses to sabotaging the recording of “I Don’t Want to Live Without You” by under-singing on the ballad, yet it still became a minor hit.

Gramm found Jones to be increasingly condescending. Like Lennon and Paul McCartney, Gramm and Jones divided the royalty percentages song by song, based on each man’s contribution, and arguments ensued. Gramm would estimate 60 percent Jones, 40 percent Gramm; Jones would estimate 95 percent Jones, 5 percent Gramm. As with the two men’s marriages, there were breakups and reconciliations, leading to one night in 1991 when, after “a buzz buffet” of drugs and alcohol, Gramm had had enough and, instead of returning to Rochester, booked a flight to the Hazelden clinic.

One last reconciliation produced new music and a tour, but was doomed. Uncertain as to Foreigner’s audience, Gramm and Jones turned up on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee one day, and Howard Stern’s radio show the next. The now-sober Gramm was performing in venues where he could smell the marijuana, see fans drinking beer from plastic cups and passing flasks of whiskey. And Jones, despite his own public claims of sobriety, Gramm says, was actually an unrepentant drunk.

Foreigner was not done, but by 2005 it was playing the casino and classic-rock memory circuit with a lead singer who sounded like Gramm, but was not. Kelly Hansen, the new Gramm, actually looked more like Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. It was, Gramm says, “a charade.”

After Foreigner

Gramm was done with the band, but not the music. These days, “Hot Blooded” frequently shares the stage with a handful of Gramm’s Christian rock songs, leaving him to reconcile “the sexual nature of my old songs with the more thoughtful tone of the new stuff.” And there are the rock and roll fantasy camps, where he sings duets with pharmacists.

Is this a sad end to Foreigner? No, it is the predictable end in the music’s volatile chemistry. He is married for the third time — her name is Robyn, also his manager. Sitting in his studio, wrapping up the video shoot, Gramm concedes it has been a while since he has written a song.

He has time for the kids now, or to disappear beneath the hood of one of his muscle cars.

And now, like one of those cars, the tarp is coming off Foreigner, and it is once again rolling out of the garage. Cautiously, beginning with Sunday night’s Rochester Music Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Both of the men who were the band’s driving forces are damaged goods. Gramm remains on steroids, his once-lithe frame now stocky, and he tires easily. Jones had a heart attack last year, requiring surgery.

Yet — and we’ve been here before — the healing process has begun anew. Both men will be in New York City in June for the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction.

When he got news of the honor, Gramm called Jones and offered his congratulations. Jones congratulated Gramm. They hadn’t spoken in 10 years. The silence had been deafening. But perhaps not nearly so deafening as the night of June 13 at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Manhattan, when they will perform “Hot Blooded” and “I Want to Know What Love Is” once again.