For more than 30 years Joe McGinty has been a fixture on the New York rock & roll scene. Born in Atlantic City, NJ, he cut his teeth with Philadelphia’s Robert Hazard and the Heroes before spending five years as the keyboardist for the Psychedelic Furs. Since then he has played with everyone from Nada Surf to the Ramones, Ryan Adams, Debbie Harry, Stew, Moby, Jewel, Jill Sobule, Conor Oberst, Devandra Banhart, La La Brooks, Space Hog, Justin Vivian Bond, and many others. Twenty-five years ago Joe founded the fabled revue the Losers Lounge, featuring the Joe McGinty Seven, a New York City institution currently in residence bimonthly at Joe’s Pub.
The hardest working man in the East Village, Joe also plays with the Duchess and the Fox (with Andrea Diaz), Polyvox (with Alyson Greenfield), McGinty and White (with Ward White), and is the longtime touring keyboardist for the legendary Ronnie Spector. He is also the co-owner with Paul Devitt and main attraction of Sid Gold’s Request Room, a piano karaoke bar on West 26th Street where you are apt to see everyone from Tony winners to Bill Murray to people who have no business singing in public ever, but have a damned good time doing it anyway.
Joe has also worked as musical director for a variety of New York theaters, including the Vineyard Theatre and the New York Theater Workshop, and composed music for independent films and TV shows, including the 2016 Christopher Walken/Amber Heard film When I Live My Life Over Again (aka One More Time). His musical “Upping My Numbers,” co-written with Hally McGehean, will be at Pangea on May 16.
THE KING’S NECKTIE: Joe, I want this to be like that Quincy Jones interview in Vulture recently. Did you read that?
JOE McGINTY: (laughs) Yeah yeah, everybody’s been talking about that. The Beatles couldn’t play and Marlon Brando would fuck a mailbox…..
TKN: So that’s our benchmark.
JM: OK, I’ll try to rise to that occasion.
TKN: When did you start playing piano?
JM: I started pretty late; my freshman year in high school. I loved music and it was just a lucky coincidence that one of my best friends was taking up drums and another was playing bass, and we knew some guitar players. My family moved into a bigger house and the people selling it said they could include this upright piano, so I started learning and a year later played my first gig. (laughs)
TKN: Wow. Just a year later?
JM: I just wanted to do it so bad. It’s funny, because a lot of pop culture references to TV shows and stuff like that I am not as up on as people would think, because I would just be in the living room, practicing every night, and the family TV was in a different room. Because when you’re a freshman in high school and you’re playing nursery rhymes, you want to get good quickly.
TKN: What kind of music were you guys playing?
JM: We were prog rock fans—Yes, ELP, Genesis, and we got a little deeper into it, like Gentle Giant and stuff like that. We couldn’t quite pull that off, but we basically just played at the local rec center and high school dances and things like that, so we were playing whatever was on the radio, because we knew we had to play what was popular. We’d play KC and Sunshine Band, or “I Shot the Sheriff,” and some heavier stuff like “Smoke on the Water” which I guess every teenager probably played around that time.
TKN: It’s funny: in the mid ‘90s I saw Patti Smith at the Warfield in San Francisco, and she had Tom Verlaine on guitar, and at one point she brought out her son Jackson, who was 14 at the time, and he played “Smoke On the Water.” Which, as you say, every 14-year-old can play….it’s just that most don’t get to play it with Tom Verlaine at the Warfield. So what happened with that first band?
JM: We pretty much did that throughout high school and college. Then there was a plan to move to LA that fell apart, but at that time the Jersey shore bar scene appeared to be very lucrative. We’d heard tales of bands just raking it in playing in Wildwood or places like that. So that was our plan. But it was hard to break in because the bands that had those gigs didn’t give them up.
TKN: What was the name of that band?
JM: A couple different things. We were called Legacy at one point, which was a very typical Jersey shore bar band sounding name.
What sort of made us professional musicians is that after a couple years of doing that and not really getting anywhere, we got an offer to go on the road with this casino act called Franco and Mary Jane, which was exciting because it was like running away and joining the circus. The casinos were trying to be more hip. We were playing stuff the younger crowd would like: Pointer Sisters, Lionel Richie, Journey, some Police, whatever was on the radio and popular in the clubs. We have some video from back then.
Originally we were playing in West Palm Beach for the winter and then coming back to play in Atlantic City for the summer, and we were like, “We’ll just do it up until the Atlantic City gig and then we’ll get back to our own stuff.” But then we ended up doing it for a little over two years: Vegas, Tahoe, Reno. It was pretty easy because even though we were playing four sets a night our days were free, we could go to the beach or ski during the day, just as long as you showed up for the first set at 8 o’clock. It was a lot of partying. We started out being very serious and drinking club soda, and then a beer before every set, and by the end we were doing shots.
TKN: Classic rock & roll debauchery story.
JM: (laughs) Right. We were under the mistaken impression that you could play covers for a living and also work on original music. But really, those two worlds very rarely overlap. The Police were never a cover band. Bands that did original music….I mean, some of them did, but they weren’t like six nights a week on the Jersey shore playing covers.
So it’s funny, Losers Lounge in a way sort of combined my Atlantic City experience with my New York experience. In a weird way it’s sort of how those worlds have come together.
WE COULD BE HEROES
TKN: Interesting transition to go from prog rock to punk. A 180, almost.
JM: We were all a little bit late to punk rock. It took me a while to appreciate it. I think what kind of helped turn me around inspirationally was the artier stuff out of New York, like “Remain in Light” and Laurie Anderson, even Phillip Glass and Steve Reich—that kind of led me back into that kind of stuff when I eventually moved to New York.
Part of that transition was playing in Robert Hazard’s band, which was the next step after the casino bands. That scene in Philly around that time still had that kind of punk rock energy.
TKN: How did you end up with Hazard? Because he was a big local hero—so to speak—when I was in college outside Philly.
(NB: Robert Hazard’s band was called the Heroes. He was best known for the regional hits “Escalator of Life” and “Change Reaction,” and for having written “Girls Just Want to Have Fun, which became Cyndi Lauper’s signature mega-hit.)
JM: Well, I have to say, it’s that thing of one or two events that change your whole life, and for me, both of them were just overheard conversations. I’d moved back to New Jersey and was living with my parents and was hanging out at a bar with a a friend of mine who told me, “Robert Hazard is looking for a keyboard player.” And I auditioned and got the gig.
Not to speak ill of the dead—Robert passed away a few years ago, sadly—but he was a very temperamental bandleader. (Hazard died of pancreatic cancer at age 59.) We went through several guitar players in the year that I was with them, we went through several drummers. He was always chewing us out: we weren’t good enough, you know, like that. He was really manic depressive.
TKN: When you say he chewed you guys out, do you mean like Buddy Rich level?
JM: Kind of. Yeah.
TKN: He’d already sold “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” by then? So he had a lot of money?
JM: Oh yeah, he definitely had money. He had bought a farm in Mount Holly and had antiques and a new wife. He’d had a record deal but got dropped, “Escalator of Life” didn’t take off the way they had hoped, so he was trying to get back into the game and prove himself. He was a good songwriter, but just very hard to work for.
It’s a another similarly random thing about me ending up with the Furs. The image when I started with Hazard was kind of like this punk rockabilly look—black jeans and cowboy shirts. And we’d been doing this for a while and one day Hazard said, “You’ve got to check out the Psychedelic Furs: their sound, their look.” So we had a complete image makeover where he sent us to a stylist and we went shopping for stage clothes because he was like, “You guys suck! You’ve got to listen to this Furs record!“
I spent a year with Hazard’s band, not really getting anywhere, and to be honest, I was thinking, “Maybe I’ll go back to school,” you know? I really didn’t know what I was going to do next. And then we played this almost Spinal Tap-level gig at Dorney Park, which is an amusement park in Pennsylvania. It was raining, and Robert just chewed us out afterwards. So we’re in this van in the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch country and Charlie Hanson, who was running sound for us, had a band called the Vels that had an MTV hit at the time and had opened for the Furs, and he said to me, “You know, I saw the Furs a couple nights ago, they’re looking for a keyboard player.” And I was like, “Yeah, right. How am I gonna get that gig?” And he said, “The only thing I know is their tour manager is named Martin and they’re staying at the Mayflower Hotel.” So I call the Mayflower Hotel and say, “Can you put me through to Martin who works with the Psychedelic Furs?” And they put me through and he picked up the phone!
If that hadn’t happened, who knows? I wouldn’t be here. I don’t know where I’d be.
TKN: Very ironic that Robert Hazard’s bad behavior and insistence that you check out the Furs made him lose you.
JM: Yeah. It was really great to call him up and say, “I’m leaving the band. I got a gig with the Psychedelic Furs.”
TKN: Did he flip out?
JM: Yeah, he tried to prevent it, because he was just an egomaniac. He was like, “You can’t do that!” I think eventually he did mellow out a little bit, but it was certainly satisfying to quit and join the Furs.
QUE PASA NEW YORK
JM: The first record I made with the Furs I spent a lot of time in England working on that, and that was great, to go from playing rock & roll bars and clubs to a nice tour bus, nice hotel rooms, and pretty big venues like the Beacon Theatre. We had a road crew, everything would be set up, that kind of stuff. So it was great. I spent five years with them, and basically moved to New York after my first Furs tour.
TKN: Since then you’ve worked with some of the cream of New York’s rock & roll scene.
JM: In a sense I’ve just been lucky. There’s a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time and being accessible and available. The music community in New York can be a small world. And there are some people that it was just such a thrill….like, you’ve seen their names on records and you get to work with them. Joey Ramone was super sweet; I wish I had saved the answering machine message when he called to ask me to play with him.
TKN: How did you end up working with Justin Vivian Bond?
JM: Justin had just moved to New York and had a falling out with Herb, and somehow I was recommended by a mutual friend. So basically for about a summer we were Kiki and the Man, instead of Kiki and Herb. And then Herb came back. This would have been like ‘96, ’97. We did shows at 88’s, which is a cabaret that’s not around anymore. We did Cowgirl Hall of Fame, Meow Mix, places like that, and it was great, it was super fun.
TKN: What about Ronnie Spector?
JM: That was actually through Joey Ramone. He was working with her at the time, he had produced one of her EPs. That was obviously a thrill. With the Ramones, there’s a whole world of people that I met by being associated with them. It sort of opened the door to people in their universe. It’s like a family.
TKN: Is there anybody you almost worked with and wish you had?
JM: I’ve had a few near misses. I’ve worked with Debbie Harry, not in a while but before Blondie got back together I did some shows with her. They had actually called to see if I would go on tour to Russia and Eastern Europe, but I had to say no because it was one of our first Losers Lounge disco shows at Lincoln Center and I couldn’t cancel that. There’s always cool people that you want to work with.
TKN: Did you work with Yoko Ono, or you almost worked with her?
JM: I did rehearsals with her. Obviously that was great. Her regular keyboard player was on tour and could do the gig but not the rehearsals. So in that sense, while I wish I was on the gig, it was still great to be able to do the rehearsals and be in her presence. She definitely has a vibe about her. You know, she was married to a Beatle.
TKN: I heard.
JM: (laughs) Again, I feel I’ve just lucky in some ways. I had to have a day job for a lot of years, and you have to take all that with a grain of salt and be persistent. I liked when Conan O’Brien signed off after he basically got canned, and he said if you’re good at what you do and you’re nice, good things will come to you. So that’s kind of been my MO. Because there are a lot of musicians in this town, there are a lot of great keyboard players, and if you’re somebody that people like to work with, and you’re good, you’ll get work.
TKN: I couldn’t agree more. First of all, I think being a decent person is its own reward. But I also think, like we used to say in the Army, “You can be incompetent or you can be an asshole but you can’t be both.” If you’re an asshole you better be such a genius at whatever it is you do that people will tolerate that. And that’s rare. But for the most part, it doesn’t pay to work with shitty human beings in any field.
JM: Yeah, and you know the longer you’re in this business you kind of weed them out. There have been some people that I have worked with that have been difficult and it’s just kind of unbelievable…..like, how do you get away with this? But you eventually figure it out.
BORN TO LOUNGE
TKN: How did the Losers Lounge start?
(NB: The Losers Lounge is a tribute revue held every other month at Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street, part of the Public Theater. Each show is devoted to a single artist, chosen by Joe, with the Joe McGinty Seven performing two hours plus of material—hits, rarities, deep cuts, radical rearrangements, and eveything in between—with each song featuring a different guest singer. All of whom blow the house down.)
JM: It really started in a pretty informal way. It actually goes back to Nick Danger, in the early ‘90s. We had mutual friends, and I had seen Nick play with a piano player at a benefit for Cucaracha Theatre. He was standing on a milk crate doing “Do You Feel Like We Do” by Peter Frampton with the voicebox thing, and I was like, “I have to work with this guy!”
I also have to give my friend Lisa Petrucci credit; she’s an artist who runs Something Weird Video. She had an art opening and there was a piano at this little East Village bar called the ST Bar, which isn’t around anymore, but she asked me if I would be up for singing something. So Nick and I did something. It was the same summer that the Pink Pony opened, so we did a series of Wednesdays there, and started asking other people to sing. It was just piano and vocal. And it was definitely guilty pleasures.
Around that same time my friends and I had been going to thrift stores and the cheap record bins and finding Mancini records and Burt Bacharach records for 99 cents. We were like, “Oh, this Richard Harris record is actually cool, and this Mancini record is actually really cool.” You have to put it in the context of 1992, ’93, when grunge was really popular, Sonic Youth, the New York scene was kind of all about noise rock, but there was a small contingent of people that appreciated melodic stuff. So we just started thinking, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do a night of this kind of stuff, like Bacharach and Jimmy Webb and Scott Walker?” So after we’d done the Pink Pony, I thought well, this could work in a bigger venue, maybe with a band, so I approached Ellen Cavalina who was booking Fez at the time. She was great. Basically she said, “We’ll give you a Monday night.”
At first it wasn’t even gonna be a series, and it wasn’t a specific theme for that first show either. But then people started picking Burt Bacharach songs, and we said, “Let’s just make it a Burt Bacharach night.” And it was just my small circle of musician friends. But then singers I didn’t know were calling up and saying, “Hey, I hear there’s this Burt Bacharach thing. I’d really like to be a part of it.” And it almost sold out and it got a pick in the New York Press, and we were like, “Really?” (laughs) So we did another one, devoted to Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood, and we just kept doing them. It just seemed like there was this underbelly of appreciation for this kind of stuff. Johan Kugelberg had a WFMU show called Space Age Bachelor Pad, so that scene kind of started to happen too, with Combustible Edison and that kind of Bachelor Pad thing.
TKN: And was it the same format as now, of a different singer on each song?
JM: Actually, at the first couple of Losers shows Nick Danger and I would do a whole 15-20 minute set just by ourselves. It was really unorganized. There was no stage manager. I’d call people up and they wouldn’t be there. The first four or five shows had a pickup band: in fact, for the Bacharach show we didn’t even have a guitarist, it was just me and a bass player and drummer, just xeroxing sheet music. So it was pretty loose.
TKN: So how did the current band come together?
JM: Around that time I had been playing Farfisa organ in David Terhune’s band the Kustard Kings, which focused on ’60s R&B instrumentals and surf music. Clem Waldmann was a member along with David. Kris Woolsey of the Kustard Kings was a long time guitarist for Losers Lounge until he moved out of town in the early ’00s. When we did the Henry Mancini show back in 1994, I asked David if the Kustard Kings could be the house band, and they’ve been the core of it ever since. It’s sort of evolved into the Joe McGinty Seven over the years, since the lineup sometimes varies a bit.
TKN: Was Burt Bacharach and that kind of music something you began to appreciate then, or had you always liked it going way back?
JM: I sort of had been rediscovering it. I guess it was intriguing because it was different than what was out there. I grew up with it, my parents listened to a lot of Bacharach and Glen Campbell, and all that. Of course when I was a teenager I rebelled against it, with prog and hard rock and stuff. So it was kind of like appreciating it in an adult way, or as a musician, and hearing the complexity of the arrangements and things like that.
TKN: That is a twisty journey, from ELP to punk and New Wave and then all the way around again to Jimmy Webb.
JM: Yeah. I still like ELP. You definitely couldn’t admit to liking ELP in the punk era. What I find encouraging these days is that people are open to everything. It’s OK to like both the Ramones and ELP and Miles Davis.
What the Quincy Jones interview reminded me is how sharply divided it was between jazz and rock back then. When I was in high school and college, all the jazz musicians looked down their nose at rock, like, “That’s not real music. It’s not complex.” And of course, the rock musicians were like, “All you need is three chords.”
Buddy Rich famously hated country music and he was on the Mike Douglas Show and he was asked, “What about somebody like Chet Atkins? He’s a masterful guitar player.” And Buddy said, “Oh no. He only plays three or four chords. You’ve got to listen to Django Reinhardt.” So there was definitely this divide between the serious jazz musicians and rock musicians. It was beneath them. Now it seems like people are more open to everything, at least in my experience.
TKN: Of all the Losers Lounge shows that you’ve done, which were the shows you’ve enjoyed the most?
JM: Well, Bacharach, because that’s like the spiritual reason for Losers Lounge. And recently the Philly Soul one was a favorite, maybe it’s from growing up in sort of the suburbs of Philly, but that was refreshing because it was new, we had never done anything like that before. Abba’s always really fun. Nilsson always. The John Barry James Bond show was a really fun one. We did Mancini many years ago—that was a fun one, though I don’t know when or how we could do it again, because you need to sell six shows’ worth of tickets for it.
Which is the other thing that’s a little bit of a tradeoff these days: we can’t really go as obscure as we used to because we need to pay a lot of people. So you want to do the shows that will sell a lot of tickets, but it’s harder to do the Lee Hazelwood or XTC or things like that.
TKN: XTC, that’d be a good one.
JM: I know. Years ago we did Randy Newman, but some of those are a little bit harder to pull off now. I mean, I’d love to do Paul Williams again. So we’ll see.
Sometimes when you do a show it is a little bit about the discovery. Like Barbra Streisand: I didn’t really know a lot of Streisand material and I didn’t know if we could actually pull it off, because there were so many songs I listened to and thought, “This is impossible.” Every song seemed like a showstopper, like a big vocal extravaganza, until I started finding songs that I knew we could do well.
TKN: Well, to me as a fan of Losers Lounge, and having been to a lot of them, that’s one of the things that’s so fantastic: the reinterpretation of the material. I mean, there are always deep cuts I never heard before, at least a couple in every show. And then each singer brings something to it, and the arrangements are interesting and not carbon copies of the records, so all that is fresh and exciting to me.
JM: Right, that’s part of the fun of it. There’s a website called Second Hand Songs— it’s not really a secret—but you can put in any song and it’ll list every cover version and it’s often surprising. Sometimes they’ll be like eighty different covers and you can click through and check them out. That’s how we found the swinging version of “People” that Vic Damone did in the ‘70s. So I always like dig around try to find different things like that.
TKN: So what is your process for compiling a set list? Do you put 200 songs on your iPod on shuffle and walk around town?
JM: Yeah. Then people make suggestions or they have requests. It’s a combination of trying to have people sing they song they want to sing, and me trying to convince somebody that they should sing a song. Sometimes I’ll suggest a song and the person will be like, “Oh, that’s not for me.” And I’ll say, “Really? You’d be perfect for this song.” So it’s definitely a logistical puzzle that gradually starts to come together.
Then sometimes you hold a song because you’re waiting to hear from this person, but this person asked for it too, and if the first person can’t do it then the second person can do it…..Sometimes it’s a week before the show and it’s still coming together.
TKN: Wow. I can imagine the politics and the diplomacy of that. And you’re a victim of your own success, because the more popular it gets, the more people want to sing. The veterans want to do it, and then you get new people to keep it fresh…..I can imagine it’s a real challenge.
JM: Yeah, I like getting new people in, but there only so many slots and you want to make sure the regulars are in there. What’s funny is, the first time ever did two nights, which is going back a long time now, I thought, “Geez, nobody’s gonna want to sing the second night.” And people were like, “I’m offended you didn’t ask me for the second night!” I don’t know why. I just didn’t realize how much people appreciate doing the show.
TKN: Ferne and I always try to come to the last show, the Saturday late show. Over the course of those three days of each show, it must feel like there’s an arc.
JM: Yeah, we’re definitely tightest by the last show. It’s about maybe 75% the same, from show to show. So if you’re somebody like Tom Hall (head of Montclair Film, who frequently partners with Losers Lounge) and you come multiple nights, you’ll see some different singers. That’s the advantage too of having multiple nights is you can slot more people in. It’s similar for the singers, because they feel like they can nail it better the more shows they do. If you do one night that’s your one shot. You want to keep everybody happy. It’s hard.
TKN: Well, audience wise, nobody I know ever comes out of the show unhappy. To me it’s one of the most pure, joyous things in New York. I really look forward to it every other month because it’s just pure joy to hear this music and shut out the world for two hours.
TKN: It’s funny you said the piano was your first and only instrument, because actually it’s a pretty versatile thing to be a keyboard player. How many vintage or exotic keyboards do you think you have?
JM: I’ve probably lost track. At a very early age I was fascinated with synthesizers. My friends and I were nerds and we would hang out at our local library, which had a small record collection, most of which was classical and show tunes. But they had “Switched on Bach” and I took it home and was like, “What’s this instrument with all the patch cables and dials?”
There was also the Franklin Institute in Philly that had an electronic music exhibit, with one of those like synthesizers that takes up a whole wall and theremins you could play, and that stuck in my brain. And then of course I got interested in Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman and Moog synthesizers. So I’ve always been interested in electronic music and had accumulated synthesizers, organs, electric pianos, and things like that over the years, when I had the money for them. Luckily they went out of fashion for a long time so I got a lot of them when they were cheap, but now all that stuff is very expensive, like any antique.
Now I basically have all the keyboards together in my space in Greenpoint, Carousel Vintage Recording Studios, which I share with a couple other people. That’s been a great experience. Will from Okkervil River recorded tracks for his record there, I’ve done a lot of stuff for Nada Surf there. People come in and just really appreciate the vintage instruments.
TKN: It’s funny, because back in the day that sort of stuff was scorned as not being “natural”—it was “electronic,” which was a dirty word. And now it feels very warm and analog compared to everything that’s sampled and digital.
JM: That’s true. Miles Davis was criticized for using the Fender Rhodes in his band, which is an electric piano but it has actual hammers hitting tines. The digital world has created these recreations that are just not as satisfying. You can buy virtual versions of all these instruments, but there’s still nothing like the energy of physically playing and getting a physical response.
TKN: I’ve been reading David Byrne’s book How Music Works….
JM: Oh, you know, somebody gave me that but I haven’t read it yet….
TKN: I’m just in the beginning but he talks about that—which many others have written about, too, of course—how everything is so clockwork perfect ever since Pro Tools, and really even before that. The human factor of mistakes—like, maybe your time is a little off, but it feels real—is gone in a lot of contemporary pop.
JM: Yeah. If you were to put Beatles records through Pro Tools they would not sound anywhere near as exciting, if you re-tuned stuff or made the timing exact, and all that. So it’s a mixed blessing, because I could not have a studio if I had to actually have a big tape machine, and a big mixing board. So the fact that I have a computer that can be a recording studio has been great.
It’s funny, with keyboards, in the early ‘90s, when synthesizers were sort of out of fashion, a friend of mine had a band that was playing at CB’s and he said, “Why don’t you sit in with us?” So I went to rehearsal and the bass player was like, “No keyboards in this band!” (laughs) So I was like, “OK, then I won’t do the gig.”
TKN: It’s so weird, that reverse snobbery. But all the bands that you went through were pretty keyboard heavy, right? Prog rock is super keyboard heavy, of course. Even the Furs are more keyboard-prominent than a lot of other bands of that ilk.
JM: Yeah. There was definitely a little bit of the punk rock attitude still around. But the Ramones had me play (laughs), so it’s not this thing in all punk rock that you can’t have keyboards. There nothing I like more than running a keyboard through a fuzzbox and being all distorted.
WALKEN IN RHYTHM
JM: I know Woody Allen’s maybe not the best person to bring up right now, but he was talking about directing and he said, “You get people that are good at what they do and let them be good at it.” What’s best is when I’ve worked with producers or musicians that bring me in to do what I do. And it seems like it’s the same in any kind of creative field. When you’re restricted, you don’t really do your best work. But if people just say, “Do your thing,” and then maybe there’s some tweaks or some refinements, that’s the best. And that’s kind of how I run Losers Lounge. I bring in good singers, and I say, “Just do what you do.”
TKN: It makes perfect sense. Why would you hire somebody who’s good at a certain thing and then not to let them do it? It’s different if they’re crazy, of course.
When you and I worked with Walken is the perfect example. He came in and changed some of his dialogue in that movie, and sometimes he took stuff out that I was attached to, and I couldn’t stop him, because he was nuts. But he also brought new stuff that I really never thought of. So as the director, what am I gonna do? Tell Walken not to be Walken? That would be stupid.
JM: (laughs) Right.
(In 2014-15 Joe composed the music for a film I wrote and directed called When I Live My Life Over Again, also known as One More Time, in which Christopher Walken played an aging crooner—a kind of poor man’s Sinatra. The film also stars Amber Heard as his punk rock daughter, along with Kelli Garner, Hamish Linklater, Oliver Platt, Henry Keleman, and the great Ann Magnuson, another of Joe’s old friends and collaborators.
Joe wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics for the title track and for a song called “You Temptress You,” sung by Sean Altman, and he arranged and recorded my song “Montreal,” sung by Amber Heard. We also collaborated on a pair of fake radio jingles that are in the movie.)
TKN: It must have been an interesting thing for you as a musician to see this guy doing the material when we recorded him for that movie .
JM: He actually did fine, even though he was very critical of himself. He was good. He has a style. He’s not Sinatra, but he has a vibe, you know.
TKN: Yeah, he was so hard on himself: he just would refuse to acknowledge when something was good. It’s the same thing with his acting, but especially the singing. When I was first wooing him he told me, “You need a real singer and I can’t sing.” I said, “Are you kidding me? You’ve been on Broadway, you’ve been in all these musicals….This character is supposed to be a little bit past his prime, so you don’t have to be Sinatra. But you’re being way too hard on yourself.”
With the acting he was a little more objective. He would look at a take on playback occasionally, and even though he kept a pokerface, you could tell when he knew he’d nailed it. But with the musical performances, he was much more self-critical and found it harder to see when he’d been great.
JM: It was definitely surreal to be in a recording studio with “Bruce Dickinson.” Not Iron Maiden’s lead singer….the “more cowbell” Bruce Dickinson.
TKN (laughs): Yeah, he’s a very cagey guy, Walken. Super smart, but so eccentric that sometimes you don’t know if he’s sandbagging you or genuinely out of it. For instance, people make “cowbell” jokes to him all the time and he’s just totally blank…..not because he’s sick of them—at least I don’t think that’s why—but because he truly doesn’t seem to know what they’re talking about.
There’s a random reference in the movie to “Behind the Music,” having nothing to do with “SNL,” and at one point in filming he asked me, “What’s ‘Behind the Music?’” I was floored. Along with “The Deer Hunter” and that Fatboy Slim video (“Weapon of Choice”) that sketch is probably one of the most famous things he’s done, and he’s kind of unaware of it.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: JOE McGINTY
TKN: It was fun for me to watch you do multiple versions of the title song for When I Live My Life. There was the solo one where Walken sings with just your piano. And then there’s the big band one you and the great sax player Mike McGinnis arranged….
JM: Right. And then there’s the sad, jazzy piano version that Amber Heard sings. It was fun; I love doing that kind of stuff. it doesn’t come up that often and I would certainly like to do more. It was great to have lyrics to work to, because I’m a reluctant lyricist.
TKN: Well, you shouldn’t be. I love your lyrics. For example in When I Live, we have your song “Vice President of Love,” which has great lyrics, and is a play on Fela. And we have you actually on camera performing a live version of your song, “This Song Is Three Days Old,” which lyrically is very witty and inventive and fun and smart.
JM: Yeah, I’ve had projects where I was the singer and lyricist, but I kind of like having other people do that job in a way.
TKN: Let’s talk about some of those solo projects, because we had some of them in that movie also. We have Circuit Parade, we have Baby Steps. And it wasn’t in the movie but your collaboration with Ward White is also interesting, and the Duchess and the Fox with Andrea Diaz and Polyvox with Alyson Greenfield. You clearly are a collaborator—somebody who feeds off working with fellow artists.
JM: Yeah, that’s helpful for me, collaborating, because left to my own devices things might not get finished, or it’s easy to get distracted, or other things take priority. So I appreciate that. I need deadlines, so if somebody said, “I need this by this day,” I would certainly make it happen.
TKN: What I would love is a new Joe McGinty solo album: original songs, music and lyrics by Joe McGinty, and you playing and singing. So maybe—if collaboration is the key for you—what you need is a producer. Because normally you’re the producer. You’re the taskmaster….
JM: That’s a good idea. I do have some unfinished songs that could work like that. Maybe it could be rearrangements of songs I’ve already done…..or some combination, like the Randy Newman songbook thing, where it’s just him and the piano. But it’s true: I should rope somebody in to do that. It’s definitely in the back of my mind and it would be kind of fun to work with somebody. You know, just pick ten songs and see what happens.
TKN: Right. And then do a residence at Joe’s Pub. I think there would be a lot of interest in that, because your profile in New York is so big and your reach is so huge. So I’m just putting in my vote that when you get some free time maybe….
JM: Well, that’s another thing. You’re a writer, so you know, but having the discipline to set aside the time to write is hard.
There’s a great John Cleese speech which is really inspirational, where he talks about some of his first experiences at college where suddenly he was in charge of having to write sketches, and he said, “I just sit myself in a room, with no idea at all, but maybe by the end of two hours I’d have something.” But nowadays you’ve got your phone, you’ve got to respond to emails, and to have the discipline to cut yourself off from that is hard.
I get so busy that when I finally get a free day sometimes I just want to rest. Or it’s hard to figure out what to do when you get unstructured time. I know I’ve got a lot of things I could be working on but what should I be working on?
TKN: I remember reading where Frank Zappa said that just because you’re an artist you can’t just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. You have to go in every day like you’re a plumber and just do the job. It’s hard enough to focus and do the work, but when you’ve got other obligations and you’re so busy doing so many things, it becomes even harder. It’s not a matter putting in the time if you have no time. I can’t believe we even have an hour for this interview on your day off, so I apologize. I appreciate you doing it.
IT’S NINE O’CLOCK ON A SATURDAY
TKN: And then on top of it all you’ve got Sid’s. (Sid Gold’s Request Room, Joe’s piano karaoke bar, at 165 West 26th St, between 6th and 7th Avenues.)
JM: That was something that I’d always dreamed of. I’d always been a fan of piano bars, like Nye’s Polonaise, I’d try to seek them out. I’ve always enjoyed playing the piano for other people to sing songs that I like. I used to get fakebooks and invite people to sing, going all the way back to a night I did at Fez in the mid ‘90s, for J. Masics’s birthday. He and Evan Dando and Mike Watt were signing Carole King and James Taylor songs (laughs). And I was like, “This is really fun!”
I did it sporadically in these underground partes called Rubulad that would go on till six in the morning. Then this bar called the Lucky Cat opened in Williamsburg, and I was friends with the owner, and I asked, “Could I do a weekly thing here?“ And that grew, and then when they closed, I ended up at the Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint. Both of those happened at times when a lot of musicians were in those neighborhoods; at the Lucky Cat it was a lot of the Daptone people, and TV on the Radio; in Greenpoint it was Nicole Atkins and Sharon Van Etten and people like that.
Actually, I had pitched the idea to people that I knew that were in the bar business and nobody ever really took me up on it. And then finally Paul Devitt, who I had met when I used to DJ at Barmacy, which later became Otto’s Shrunken Head, came up to me one night at the Manhattan Inn and said, “I want to open a piano bar. Are you interested?” And I said, “Sure.” That was something I’ve always wanted to, and I never knew anybody in the business that would take me up on it. So we opened Sid’s.
TKN: Where did that name come from?
JM: Naming a bar is as hard as naming a band. We had a shared document with tons of names. I liked Request Room, but it seemed like it wasn’t enough, or it was too formal. We wanted a name that matched the decor and feel of the room; something that felt like it was from an earlier era, and Sid Gold’s Request Room felt right. Sid Gold is the father of one of the investors. People walk in and are surprised that we’ve only been open a few years, they think it’s some old school New York bar that has been rediscovered, and that’s exactly what we’re going for. And the real Sid Gold comes in from time to time to sing some show tunes. It’s always a hoot!
TKN: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you found some Losers Lounge singers doing karaoke at Sid Gold’s, didn’t you?
JM: Yeah, well going back further, Mike Fornatale did karaoke at the Lucky Cat. It’s a combination of talent and personality. Sid’s has fostered a community of kindred spirits, other piano players, other musicians. I’ve met other singers and musicians there, and again, I think that goes back to just being accessible and amenable to meeting and working with people: seeing somebody you want to work with, or you’re impressed by.
TKN: What’s amazing to me about Sid’s is you can go in and hear a Tony Award-winning Broadway singer like your friend Michael Cerveris or whoever happens to be there that night, followed by somebody who has absolutely no business singing even in the shower. But it’s all cool and fun. And the piano players—youself and the other regulars—are very generous in saving somebody who gets in over their head.
JM: Yeah, that’s part of the adventure. I used to say that I enjoyed accompanying bad singers as much as good singers. I don’t know if that’s still the case; it depends on how bad. (laughs) You could really do a psychological case study. You get people that are really shy and sweet and you really want to help them. Then you get people that are just obnoxious and you want to do the opposite, you want to sabotage them, because they won’t even care, you know? I probably shouldn’t say this for any potential customers out there. I love everybody. (laughs)
TKN: Sometimes just as a spectator, you’ll see somebody get up and you know right away they don’t know how hard that song is until they get into it.
JM: Oh yeah. And there songs where they get to the bridge, and they don’t know that there was a bridge, and they’re just looking at you like, you know….lost.
TKN: The bridge is out.
JM: (laughs) And there’s some songs that I don’t play that often, that I don’t really know that well, and I’m kind of thinking, “How’s this go?” as I’m doing it. But it always works out.
TKN: Oh, I’ve seen you do that for sure. Even at the Manhattan Inn, I remember being there one night and somebody wanted you to play some obscure song by the National and he was just humming it to you, like, “It goes like this, da da da da da.” And you played it. You vamped—it was great. And this guy could sing too.
JM: Some of the more recent songs, there are like three or four chords that just repeat over and over. So you can kind of fake your way through those.
TKN: As Quincy says, music today’s terrible.
JM: (laughs) Oh yeah, of course!
TKN: And you’ve taken Sid’s on the road and played some out of town shows?
JM: Yeah, we’ve done some pop-ups, which is fun and we’re looking at expanding. We’re looking at opening a place in Detroit. There’s a whole revitalization of the downtown area, there’s incentives and a lot of excitement there. So we’ll see. It’s a little too early to say for sure, but we feel like it’s a thing that will work anywhere. People love to sing. If there could be a Shake Shack everywhere why can’t there be a Sid Gold’s everywhere?
TKN: Lastly, let me give a shout-out to Chris Dell’Ollio, your manager, because he’s been so central to everything, and his terrific assistant Nicole Bonelli.
JM: Yeah, he kind of took over as manager in the early thousands, and that’s really helped things along. Having him take care of all that stuff has been great.
TKN: I go to see Chris and Connie (Petruk, his wife and one of the backup singers in the Joe McGinty Seven) play a lot as the Tall Pines. They’re awesome. Chris is a smoking hot guitar player in his own right.
I’m gonna have a word with Chris about finding a producer and putting you in the studio doing that solo album. Because I don’t want you to have any spare time.
Mastermind Artist Management / Chris Dell’Ollio
The Losers Lounge
Featuring the Joe McGinty Seven, every other month at Joe’s Pub: Joe McGinty—keyboards / Julian Maile—guitar / David Terhune—guitar / Jeremy Chatzky—bass / Clem Waldmann—drums / Eddie Zweiback—percussion / Connie Petruk, Tricia Scotti, Katia Floreska, Sean Altman—backing vocals
Sid Gold’s Request Room – 165 W26th St (b/w 6th and 7th Aves), New York, NY 10001 / (212) 229-1948
Carousel Vintage Recording Studios – Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Diving Horse Records
Transcription: Sherry Alwell