Behind The Song Lyrics: “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey

What if I told you the world’s favorite 1:58 AM song—“Don’t Stop Believin’”—came from a conversation between a dejected musician and his supportive parent?

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Well, that’s exactly what happened with the tune and the writer of its famous chorus, Jonathan Cain, the now-71-year-old musician and longtime keyboard player and writer of the American rock band Journey.

Sing it with us now:

Don’t Stop! Believin’!
Hold on to that feelin’
Streetlight, people
Don’t stop, believin’
Hold on
Streetlights, people

The song, which was released on the band’s sophomore album, Escape, in 1981, later hit the Billboard and the U.K. charts at various points in its long lifespan. Later, Rolling Stone named it No. 133 of its best 500 songs.

We caught up with Cain to talk about the origins of the lyrics, which includes a phone call with his father. As Cain says, he remembers writing it like it was yesterday.

American Songwriter: Do you remember writing “Don’t Stop Believin’”?

Jon Cain: Like it was yesterday. Yeah, I remember like it was yesterday. Basically, we had one more song—[former Journey lead singer] Steve Perry said, “I think we need one more, let’s write one more song.” He said, “There must be something in that lyric book.” Because I had several spiral notebooks full of ideas and lyrics. I’m writing lyrics all the time. Even back in those days, I was working on it. I believe you use it or lose it when you’re writing lyrics.

AS: Absolutely.

JC: So, I had this idea. My dad and I had this conversation. In the 70s, I was kind of on my down and out phase. I’d lost my record deal with Warner Bros. and I had a day job and then my dog got hit by a car and I had a $1,000 vet bill. And I had called for money and I said, “Maybe I should give up on this thing dad, and come home to Chicago.” And he said, “No. You stay where you are.”

He said, “Your biggest breakthrough is right around the corner. It seems bad right now but there’s something coming and I feel it and don’t stop believing, Jon. That’s all I can say to you, don’t stop believing.” So, I wrote it and as I was talking to my father, he said, “I’ll send that money, you can pay me back someday, don’t worry about it. But your greatest breakthrough is right around the corner, just stay with it.”

AS: Wow!

JC: So, I did. And I wrote down don’t stop believing. And that was five years before Journey called me to join. So, I had this in my notebook. And we had finished all these songs and when I went home that night, I saw the title, “Don’t Stop Believin’” and I said, “That’s it!” And so, I immediately jumped on my little Wurlitzer and came up with a chorus. I mean, in about 20 minutes I had it.

And I brought it in and all I had was chords. And when I played it for the guys, they were like, “This is a great chorus.” So, we beat it around a little bit, and then Steve said, “I got an idea, why don’t we use your chords for the chorus, same ones.” He said, “Don’t change them. They’re great chords, just change the way you do it. Just do that rolling thing you did in the bass, that eighth note feel.”

And then Neil [Schon] came up with the bassline—doo-doo-doo-doo—and he showed that to Ross [Valory] and then he came up with the B-section, the “strangers waiting up and down…” Interestingly enough, musically there’s a tension and release that is constant. It’s like a theme in the song. It sort of goes to the chorus and then releases. Tension and release, tension and release.

Then we ended up with this musical version of “Don’t Stop Believin’” and interestingly enough, the chorus was introduced by Neal’s guitar. Neal just came right out and played that melody before we sing it. Which breaks all the rules. And I kept saying to Steve in the rehearsal room, are we going to go to the chorus? And he said, “No, we’re going to save it to the end. And we’re going to make them want to play it over and over again. It’s only going to be one time, they’re going to hear it and it’s going to be gone and they’re going to want to play it again.”  

I liked that philosophy, I said that was a good strategy, let’s go with it. So, we did. And we didn’t have the lyric yet for the verse and I went to Steve’s house there and it reminded me—Neal had played that interlude that sounded like a train. It was these little staccato things—diggy-diggy-diggy—it sounded like a train going down the track. And I listened to it. We had a cassette and a little blaster and I said, “This sounds like a train, Steve.”

And I said, “You know that song, ‘Midnight train to Georgia’ [by Gladys Knight & The Pips]? What about a midnight train going anywhere?” And he’s like, “Yeah!” and then he looked at me and he said, “That Jack and Jill song about the guy and a girl, what if we plug that concept in?” I said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” And then “small-town girl living in a lonely world,” you know? And then we had this little movie of these two meeting somewhere.

And I said, “They’re going to meet on Sunset Boulevard.” Because I lived right above Sunset Boulevard in Laurel Canyon and I described what Friday night looked like on Sunset Boulevard in 1974. It was a menagerie of all these people from all walks of life. Rock stars, actresses, hustlers, you name it. They were all meeting on Sunset Boulevard on Friday night to check it out. And it was this big cruise thing where the cars would be there and people would be walking up and down the street, from every different place.

I mean, L.A. in 1974 was the heart of rock and roll, it really was, on Sunset Boulevard. You had the Whiskey-a Go Go. Van Halen playing at Gazzarri’s. You had Aerosmith playing at the Starwood. You had David Bowie with his Diamond Dogs thing. All of that. It was the heart of rock and roll. So, Steve said, “Yeah!” So, strangers waiting up and down the boulevard, their shadows…” That was Sunset Boulevard. And he totally got the movie.

AS: Yeah.

JC: We saw the movie together. Now, he hadn’t been there, but I’d described the movie well enough that he was like, “Let’s do this.” And we wrote about Vegas. Paying anything to roll the dice one more time. That’s it and that’s dreaming. Like, I’m going to win, I’m not stuck where I am. I think we wanted to write that song to say it’s okay to dream, it’s okay to get out. You’re not stuck where you are. You can go somewhere and take that midnight train.

And the “South Detroit” thing I got a lot of flack for. Because there was no South Detroit. And I said, “Because it’s a mystical place, it doesn’t exist!” It’s the city of possibilities in your mind. That’s what South Detroit is. So, leave it alone. And that’s really it.

AS: And how about the chords, the keys part you play?

JC: Oh, that was just kind of leftover from The Babys, I think [Cains band before he joined Journey]. Again, it’s tension and release. So, we’re playing a sort of an augmented 3rd to a 3rd and even the B-section has tension and release to it. So, we broke the rules with the form on that because it’s ABABC, you know?

Very seldom are you going to see a song like that. And that was just the way Steve Perry was wired. When we put the song together in the studio, it was obvious that it was going to open up the Escape album. It was the one that led fans into the new sound of Journey. They hired me to change their sound [in 1980] and I did. I helped them—we all did it together. And they were very brave to take a chance on me and I’ll be forever grateful that I was able to put my signature on that album.

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