Joe Grushecky doesn’t normally look back on his long career, preferring to focus on creating new material and performing dozens of live shows around the Northeast. But with the fortieth anniversary of Have A Good Time (But Get Out Alive), the sophomore record that paired his band, the Iron City Houserockers, with a rock royalty production team of guitar great Mick Ronson (David Bowie) Ian Hunter (Mott The Hoople) and Steven Van Zandt (Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny), the Pittsburgh native felt the time was right.
The noted critic Greil Marcus wrote about the Houserockers in Rolling Stone after their debut record Love’s So Tough was released and said, “this is hard rock with force… I hope they’re around for a long time.” In our conversation, Grushecky revisits the crucial follow up release Have A Good Time (But Get Out Alive), (out now as an expanded reissue on all digital platforms with a physical CD and vinyl release June 19) and discusses the band’s formation, his songwriting evolution and a near disaster that almost ruined the album’s completion. The reissue includes a full bonus CD of demos and rarities which flesh out the evolution of the songs from work tape to final release.
The title track is a tough, in your face declaration of words to live by. “Pumping Iron” chronicles the daily life of a hard-working ‘steel-driving man’ ready for a weekend of good times, complete with a sing-along, fist-in-the-air chorus. “Old Man’s Bar” and “Junior’s Bar” work as a two-sides of the coin observation of life inside the watering hole, where some come to forget, and others look for action.
Steve Popovich, founder of Cleveland International, a small indie label, took notice of the Houserocker’s gritty, anthemic songs, solid work ethic and loyal fan base and scored the band a deal with MCA Records, leading to their debut Love’s So Tough in 1979. Cleveland had recently hit it big with Meatloaf’s certified platinum album 1977 Bat Out of Hell, noted for its big musical arrangements and Springsteen-like novellas (the record even featured Springsteen members Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan). Popovich had also signed New Jersey’s Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, who bought out several critically acclaimed records and were noted for the gritty, horn-driven soul-inspired music coupled with raucous and celebratory live shows.
Have A Good Time (But Get Out Alive) is a forgotten gem of a record, a time capsule of frenetic ‘80s energy and lyrics about home that hit home, performed by the toughest, tightest band from the ‘work hard, play hard’ working-class streets of Pittsburgh.
How important were rock critics to a band when your debut was released in 1979?
I can remember going into the music store and someone said, ‘hey have you seen Rolling Stone?’ Greil Marcus, the dean of rock critics, gave us a good review and that started the ball rolling. That was a couple months after the first record came out. We put it out with very little fanfare. It wasn’t a highly anticipated debut! Greil was an important guy and it snowballed after that, especially when this Have A Good Time record was released.
Do you know how he found out about the band?
I’m guessing it was the record company, Cleveland International and owner Steve Popovich. We had zero to do with it as far as I know. This was back in the heyday of the late ’70s when there were big promo staffs in these big buildings at the labels in New York.
What made you pick each player for your band?
Art Nardini and I had known each other for years. We played together in high school and had a couple bands in college too. We played frat parties and bars. I was playing in an after-hours place in the South Side district of Pittsburgh, from 2 to 5 am after the bars closed. It was a steady once a month gig. Art came in one night and asked if I wanted to get a band together again. I told him ‘not if we’re only going to do covers.’ He knew I was a writer and I said if he wanted to make a record, that would work.
In 1976 I moved downtown into the city. I had a blues-y type band with a guitar player, Gary Scalese, so we brought him in. Slowly, we added the rest of the band. We weren’t looking for the cream of the crop. We wanted people that were dedicated and wanted to do what we did. We rehearsed almost every night for the better part of a year and then started playing out. But we weren’t a very successful club band. We were a terrible cover band. You had to play four sets a night- 40 on, 20 off. We found a bar, the Gazebo, that wasn’t doing too well and would let us play whatever we wanted. We would do one set of covers like the Stones, J. Geils and some blues, and then play originals. Pretty soon we were packing them up. But the club closed up! So, we found another place called the Decade in Oakland, the college district, and soon we were packing them in there twice a week. We were rehearsing, writing originals and doing demos during this time.
We had a good New Jersey connection because Steve Popovich from Cleveland International Records had signed Southside Johnny and had success with Ronnie Spector’s cover of “Say Goodbye To Hollywood,” which featured the E Street Band. I used to buy Billboard every week to see what was going on in the music biz and saw their name. I sent Steve a demo tape and he invited me to Cleveland. There was a party there with Ronnie, Boz Scaggs. Steve gave us money to make a demo tape. I always tell people he sent us back to Pittsburgh with a pocket full of hope.
He signed us and it took about a year and a half to get everything going and put the debut record out through MCA. And, of course, it came out at the worst time. In 1979 the music industry was in flux because there was a massive gas shortage. It was hard to travel. The record came out in April and by October I ended up in the hospital for about a month. I had a tumor in my throat pressing up against my vocal cords, which ended up being benign. By the time I recovered, MCA and Popovich had gotten us all this great press and we were going to do another album very quickly. We had demos and went to New York in February and did a week of rehearsals and a week of basic tracking and then vocals.
Where were the demos on the reissue’s bonus disc recorded?
Those were recorded in Pittsburgh. We recorded in a studio. The tapes I had left in my possession were all cassettes and reel to reels. I had those for years which is what prompted me to include them on this reissue. They were sitting in boxes since I save everything, and we transferred to digital at Nada Recording.
How was the band received when you toured?
We were a smoking band. We played a lot. We played in New Jersey too. We toured with Ian Hunter. We played the Fastlane in Asbury Park and the Stanhope House, Bottom Line, Boston, DC, Chicago, Cleveland, Erie, PA
You’re looped into the heartland rock genre, which is primarily Midwest bands. But did you do well in that area?
No! (laughs) We never went to the heartland. It’s weird. Ohio is so close to me and it’s classic Midwest, but we always considered ourselves a Northeastern band. Our music was a little more R&B, harder-edged, bluesy, a little angrier than the Midwest bands. I think of Cheap Trick, REO Speedwagon, which was more melodic and pop. That wasn’t us. Lyrically, we weren’t in the same ballpark as them. We were writing a little more socially conscious, maybe to our detriment.
What makes Pittsburgh such a tough town?
Well, it was the steel mill and coal miner jobs. They’re tough jobs. Very strong ethnic backgrounds with a strong work ethic. It’s a rough and tumble town. They all went 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s backbreaking work. They worked hard, drank hard and partied hard. Our crowd used to be so over the top wild. I can remember specifically one night getting off stage and saying ‘have a good time but get out alive. You guys are going to kill somebody!’ That was the idea for the song. It came out of the culture we were in. It was the end of the Steel City era. People were starting to panic because we were in the middle of a recession and people were leaving Pittsburgh. We had 450,000 people in the city, and we lost 150,000. A lot of it was our crowd.
That’s why you see Steeler bars all over America. That was our crowd. Everybody scattered. The economy may have been good in other places, but Pittsburgh was dying.
Ian Hunter produced this record. Did that connection happen through your tours with him, or was it through Steve Popovich?
We went to record with Steve Popovich and Marty Mooney, who called themselves the Slimmer Twins. They were enthusiastic record company guys who had great ideas, but they weren’t musicians. They couldn’t translate their ideas and take a song apart and have the vocabulary to guide somebody on how to construct a song. I think they realized that too. I think they had just put out Hunter’s You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic record and were in New York when we came in to rehearse. The first day Steve Popovich showed up at SIR Studios with Mick Ronson and said Mick was going to work with us. Then Mick showed up the next day with Steve Van Zandt. So, Steve would work with us for part of the day and go back to the Power Station and work on what became The River with Springsteen. We’d work on arrangements for about a week or so. Then we went into the studio. For the first couple days it was Steve Van Zandt with Mick Ronson. When Van Zandt left, Ian Hunter started coming more and picked a song or two where he wanted to get involved. “Hypnotized” is one that he produced.
Steven Van Zandt was pretty involved in shaping lyrics, wasn’t he?
He was invaluable. It was like going to college. He asked me specifically about one song. He said it had really good lyrics but there with a couple of iffy lines. I said, ‘ah they’re just a couple throwaway lines.’ He said, ‘no, nothing’s a throwaway in a song. You gotta make every lyric count.’
I understand there was an incident that almost ruined the record.
So we got together one morning and had a couple hour brunch working on lyrics. We went back to the hotel, in the middle of New York City, to finish the songs and the lyrics were gone! I was sure I had misplaced in the room or the lobby somewhere. Couldn’t find them anywhere. I decided I had to go back to the restaurant a few blocks away. I’m walking down one of the streets going toward Central Park. In those days, there were metal, hanging waste receptacle baskets attached to the parking meters which you could see through. I don’t what made me look down, but all my lyrics were in one of the baskets! Someone must have picked them up and put them into the garbage basket! So I went back to the hotel and Steven couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t either! It was one thing to lose them, but then to find them. Steve said this record has to be something special because it’s a miracle to find the lyrics in the middle of a waste basket in New York City!
How influenced were you by New Wave and MTV, both of which were new and popular?
We were more influenced by the punk rock bands because they hated the same bands we hated! We were ten years older than the New Wave bands. We were more of the Stones and Beatles generation. Especially in Pittsburgh, where there is a great musical heritage. A lot of jazz guys came out of here. To play in our day you had to know your music. It was wide open. Everybody knew their Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Stax, Motown. It was very rich, inviting and open to all kinds of music. At the same time, it was very hard edged. Pittsburgh had this thing with AM radio stations. About 6 pm every Friday night til midnight on Saturday all these crazy disc jockeys would come on and play the wildest most obscure, rip-roaring rock ‘n roll and rhythm and blues music you could hear. They wouldn’t touch the Beatles or Stones and even Stax was too mainstream.
You also had these teen nightclubs and they would play these obscure tracks. Spencer Davis had “Gimme Some Lovin’” and “I’m a Man” but the club played “High Time Baby.” And you could see Bo Diddley, Wilson Pickett, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Sam The Sham and the Pharoahs, all from five feet away. Junior Walker and the All-Stars up close and personal every weekend.
Tell us about “Old Man’s Bar” which features your keyboard player singing lead, and the following track, “Junior’s Bar.”
We had a goal to record a certain number of songs with basic tracks before we would start overdubs. At that time, we had about eight or ten but needed a few more. Our keyboard player Gil Snyder and our guitar player Eddie Britt and Bob Boyer our soundman concocted “Old Man’s Bar” one evening and played it for Ronson. He loved it right away. They went for this ethnic, ‘old guys down at the corner bar’ feel. That was their take on it.
Later that day, Steve Van Zandt heard it and said, ‘let’s rock it.’ He came up with basically the same song in a rock and roll tempo. We changed the chord sequence a little bit and Steve came up with that great opening guitar lick. He also worked up the chord change modulation from the five chord, going from B to C. It doesn’t sound like it would work but it does. And it’s a brilliant musical move. When he left the project and I returned to NY to record final vocals and overdubs, I came up with a different set of lyrics and sang it differently than the original. I was singing about a different subject matter than Gil’s song so it worked as a pair. It’s like a matched set, a couplet. We played it back to back like that in our live shows for many years.
Pumping Iron, from this record, is the one you still play out live.
Yeah that’s the one that stuck with me through the years. It’s a good song and it’s fun to play. It’s become a signature song, an identifiable song for us Pittsburghers. It’s one of my mom’s favorite songs too. We were playing four or five nights a week in these bars that were wild every night. We only had eight songs and we needed more rockers. And I always loved that Chuck Berry groove. That was my attempt to write one of those songs.
Your songwriting style started to refine itself and take shape with Have A Good Time.
I started writing about Pittsburgh. I found that if I tried writing about the beach in Malibu or living in a mansion with all these women, it wouldn’t ring true. The songs weren’t even presentable. But when I started writing about what I knew about- the city I live in, my friends and the particular time period- I felt the songs were more true.
Revisiting this record has made you look back on your career hasn’t it?
This is the first time in my career where I’ve spent so much time looking back. I’m always interested in the next record. We were recording a new record when we were shut down due to the Covid-19. I’ve been reminiscing about this particular era. We have three recorded and about six or eight written.
When did Steve’s son, who now runs Cleveland International, decide to reissue this record?
He revived the record company last year. We became friends and started talking about reissuing the Iron City Houserockers catalog. The band was playing in New York last year and I was chatting with one of our old fans about the Love’s So Tough 40th Anniversary record that had just been reissued by Cleveland. He took a look at it and said there was nothing new on it that he didn’t already have. A bug went in my ear and I knew I had to be involved in any other reissue. I discussed with Steve and he was into it. I started getting the bonus tracks together and make it a much more interesting project.
Tell us about your work outside of music.
I’m a special education teacher in Pittsburgh’s inner city and I’ve been doing it on and off a long time. The community I work in has been designated one of the most violent communities in the US. I work with autistic, emotionally distressed and severely handicapped kids- the toughest population.
Were you doing that job while you worked on the Have A Good Time record?
No. At that point I was a full-time musician. I was doing it before the first record and then started doing it back again around the Swimming With The Sharks. I had about twelve years, from 1977 to 89 where I was footloose and fancy free before they put the dog collar back on!
It seems that music helps as a common bond with the types of kids you work with.
It is. Music is a universal language. I always tell people that to me it’s the most important and intimate art form. How many times can you watch a movie or read a book? A couple. How many times can you listen to your favorite song? Hundreds. It’s different with a song. A song is immediate.