TOM KEIFER – Beyond Dead-End Street

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is best known as the vocalist and songwriter on a series of four studio albums performed by a band called Cinderella that have achieved sales of around 15 million to date.  In this article you’ll read about why it’s taken so long for his latest album of original material to surface, what he thinks makes a good song and we get an opportunity to follow the timeline of his band by refreshing the memory over albums like Night Songs, Long Cold Winter and Heartbreak Station.  If this wasn’t enough, you get a real insight into The Way Life Goes and discover how the original producer of the first two Cinderella albums was intended to be the producer for their 1994 album Still Climbing as well.  You’ll find out how not only luck and the meeting of another successful rocker played a part in how Cinderella inked their deal, but more importantly what started the road of musical creativity and what eventually blossomed into a successful career for Keifer.  Welcome to the world according to Keifer.

Tom Keifer - ThomasPetilloIt has been said, Keifer had the best start on the road to becoming a rock star due to coming from a musical family.  “My Mom played piano and my Dad played trumpet, although I never really heard them play them much–but they did play instruments so, it’s not something that I really grew up in the house with, but the talent I guess existed genetically so to speak.”  With genetics acknowledged, Keifer needed some luck or invaluable assistance from another source in order for his songwriting and the band he fronted, to progress up the notorious ladder of the music industry.

This next step came from a fellow rocker who was in town working on his second studio album; Jon Bon Jovi.  “We barely knew who he was because this was before Slippery When Wet.  He was in Philadelphia making the 7800° Fahrenheit record, their second record, so we had no idea he was going to be there” stated Keifer.  “He came back to the dressing room afterwards and introduced himself, Runaway was a hit, and he had a video on MTV so we knew who he was and for us at that point in our career, it felt like a big deal.”

Before continuing, he mimics the recognition the band shared in that moment, then Keifer shares, “He was very complimentary, he really liked the band and enjoyed the show, nice to meet you and on his way he went.  And we had no idea that he was  y’know gonna get back to Polygram and he put in some very nice words to his A&R guy Derek Shulman who signed him.  Derek had already had our demo tape as our manager had given it to him; and he was riding the fence.  I don’t blame him because our demos were just god awful.  We were pretty young and green and didn’t know how to record music.  We didn’t really have much guidance.  It’s a whole different thing to walk into rehearsal room or onto a live stage and blast out what you do, and then it’s another thing to walk in a recording studio and try to capture it!”

At this point Keifer lets out a knowing chuckle before proceeding with his thread of recollection.  “So Derek’s riding the fence and basically what Jon did was, he said forget the demo tape, I just saw them live, and you should go down check them out.”  Eventually after a little work and some new songwriting sessions, Shulman was convinced by Keifer and his band, Cinderella.  And the contract?  It was a done deal.  By the tone used at the end of this reflection of his past, it is clear to all how much this moment meant to him.  Even today, many decades later, Keifer still appreciates what Jon Bon Jovi did.

There were so many great hard rock and rock bands but what all those had in common was that the root; at the root of their melodies and their guitar riffs and lyrics was a heavy blues influence.

With their debut album ready, Night Songs saw the light of day in 1986 harboring the underlying influences of various classic rock bands.  “Being the writer on that record, I can tell you where the writing inspiration came from and that’s the stuff that I grew up on in the seventies, like Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Humble Pie and Janis Joplin and y’know, god what else, everything back then–Deep Purple and Bad Company.  There were so many great hard rock and rock bands but what all those had in common was that the root; at the root of their melodies and their guitar riffs and lyrics was a heavy blues influence.  The lyrics were about real things, just like American roots music are.  The melodies on the guitar riffs and vocals were all blues based and that’s what Night Songs is really when you get right down to it with the exception of a riff or two here and there.”  This insight into the bands that provided inspiration made perfect sense when you recall how Cinderella covered Move Over, originally recorded by Janis Joplin and the Full Tilt Boogie Band, for a compilation called Make A Difference Foundation: Stairway To Heaven, Highway To Hell which saw the light of day in 1989 amongst other songs covered by Skid Row, Ozzy Osbourne and Bon Jovi.

MTV loomed over the rock scene at that time with its influential prowess and wasn’t a monster to be feared, but a creature to be embraced as bands craved commercial appeal.  The singles Nobody’s Fool and Somebody Save Me both made an impact.  Who could forget the video for Nobody’s Fool which showed us a pink car decorated with black polka dots and the two females within, dressed very much to reflect the era with such extravagant outfits?  It wasn’t merely the videos that made Cinderella the force that they were, it was the songs.  Shake Me with its testosterone charged energy and lyrical play and Hell on Wheels with its smell of grease paint and revved up guitar riff capturing the ears with an unmistakable imprint of the times.

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In 1988, Cinderella built on their constantly evolving recording experience by presenting Long Cold Winter to an audience wanting more, which proceeded to propel them further into the hearts of commercial success thanks to singles like Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Till It’s Gone), Coming Home and Gypsy Road.  Noting how the well-respected Cozy Powell (drummer at various stages of his career for bands like Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, Gary Moore and Brian May, the Queen guitarist, plus many others) had appeared as a guest musician on Long Cold Winter and not Fred Coury at this stage of Cinderella’s journey, Keifer enlightened the situation.  “When we did Night Songs, Andy Johns used a session drummer.  We hired Fred for the Night Songs tour, and Fred was very young and he came in to do the Long Cold Winter album and he had a reputation for y’know, having a keen ear for rhythm, to put it mildly” at which point Keifer smiles as his thoughts reach back to those days.  “Spotted a bit of, shall we say inexperience in Fred, fair enough, he was pretty young and he’s working with, probably one of the world-class producers around and so he wanted to use different drummers, so Cozy came in and did some of the tracks and Denny Carmassi did some of the tracks.”  To conclude, he then clarified the Coury situation.  “Fred took that experience and learned from it and he toured with me y’know, obviously he stayed in the band and he toured on Long Cold Winter, worked really hard and ended up drumming on Heartbreak Station and did a fine job on it.”

“I think we moved our production again, a little bit further trying to push it away from the more effected vibe of like Night Songs, y’know, I think Night Songs was a little more flavour of the day, effects or slick, and I think Long Cold Winter we tried to get away from that a little bit and with Heartbreak Station a little bit more” was Keifer’s response when asked about their third album from 1990, which then revealed a similar thinking regarding The Way Life Goes.  “I remember consciously walking into the control room,” Keifer continued “and just literally grabbing the faders where all the effects returns were and pulling them down, because I just wanted that record to be a little more honest and dry, and raw, and that’s probably the biggest difference.”  Keifer then explains further about the overall approach to Heartbreak Station and clarifies his perspective on the evolution through these three albums.  “The writing was approached the same.  We took the instrumentation in terms of pianos and horns and stuff a little bit further than Long Cold Winter, and all this is a learning process y’know, a lot of people perceive Night Songs to Heartbreak Station as this big, and I’ve heard people, say like a big change in our style–I wouldn’t say a change in the style of music but definitely a change in style of production and instrumentation, and that was a learning process for us because honestly looking back, I think a lot of Night Songs could’ve, would’ve benefited from some of the things we learned down the road y’know, in terms of how to get the sound we wanted in the studio.”

IMG_6265With the remarkable clarity that comes with hindsight, and the many lessons that one can learn as they move forward through life, Keifer provided his thoughts on the quality that can be found when he listens to Heartbreak Station now.  “At the end of the day to me, that kind of sound and production is a little more timeless like, if I listen to the Heartbreak Station record, to me now it’s hard to put a time stamp on it.”  He then pushes the point further by making comparisons.  “Night Songs is very easy to put a timestamp on, it sounds like the eighties and that’s just the style of mixing and effects.”

The Road’s Still Long from their 1994 album Still Climbing was co-written with Andy Johns, and with his recent sad passing and a collection of work that he’s left behind including engineering albums by Led Zeppelin, Free, Rolling stones and Mott The Hoople, plus his production work with Van Halen, House of Lords, L.A. Guns and Joe Satriani, it seemed appropriate to ask how this song writing collaboration came to be.  “He produced our first two records; he had produced and engineered them, and he didn’t do the third record Heartbreak Station, and then he came back to do Still Climbing.  Ultimately he didn’t produce that record.  We had a little, a little skirmish there that didn’t– it wasn’t working out, but in the pre-production of that, I had that song The Road’s Still Long that I brought in on and he added some bits to it.”

As has previously been documented in various places, from 1991 onwards Keifer battled issues with his singing, which began with surgeries to resolve a partially paralysed left vocal cord.  After attending appointments with various vocal coaches and speech pathologists over many years,  he is sounding better than ever despite acknowledging these therapies are an ongoing concern.

In 1997, the first of what was to be a string of compilations featuring highlights from the Cinderella back catalogue began to appear.  Once Upon a… showcased many classics and also introduced Cinderella fans to a newer song called War Stories.  “It was the first time I wrote with Desmond (Child), I remember going down to his place down in Florida and we’re just sitting around knocking around a bunch of different ideas and that title was his idea and I loved that idea of kinda talking, almost like talking about the glory days, that kinda vibe y’know.”

In these days of deluxe versions and remastered versions of albums that were initially recorded during the seventies and eighties, what were his thoughts on such a concept regarding his bands back catalogue?  “It’s not something that we really control, the record company controls it.  Certainly, I probably wouldn’t mind revisiting the first record, I think it would be cool to be able to go back and remix that record but, it’s not really in our control right now.”

IMG_6134Since 1997, there have been tours and changes in Keifer’s family dynamics including moving home to a new location.  But the good news is that this year is an important year for Keifer, his debut solo album The Way Life Goes is finally unleashed.  “We started cutting tracks for it in 2003 and all the writing for it really took place between 1995 and 2002, because 1995 is when I first started thinking about a solo record; when Cinderella had broken up there for a while.  I moved to Nashville and started writing songs and it kept getting put on the back-burner.  So there was years of writing that went into it prior to actually starting the record, but we actually physically started cutting tracks and producing and recording the record in 2003, so from that point, yeah, it’s been about ten years.”  When Keifer thinks about the way the album sounds, he assembles the ingredients.  “A lot of that sound has to do with production and, certainly the energy comes from the players and the parts and stuff I, I was fortunate y’know being in Nashville here, there’s some amazing musicians that I got to work with on the record that, I don’t know if I was really thinking particularly about the sound of the record when I chose them, I just chose them because they were incredible musicians.”

Recognising that Nashville has played a significant part in how his solo effort, The Way Life Goes sounds, one wonders if that’s the reason why he had relocated to Nashville?  “Cinderella had split up in the mid nineties, and I was looking for a shot in the arm; maybe some fresh blood, and a move somewhere, cos that’s when I started to think about doing a record on my own.”  Keifer then finds himself on a roll as he thinks about the duration the album has taken, “And I never dreamed in a million years we’d take ten years to make the record!  But the fact that we produced it independently of a label, contributed to that because we had no deadlines or budgets or release dates or anything we had to live up to.”  Through a wry smile he went with the flow of his recollections, “One thing led to another and we kept messing around and pushing the faders and the knobs around, and taking breaks from it for months at a time and coming back to it and listening to it fresh, and going on the road with Cinderella because we had reformed since the nineties and I did a lot of tours with them.”

“It was kinda cool to work in the pro-tools format because that allows you to just close the session, y’know, hit save, close session and go on the road for five months and not listen to it and come back and hear it all fresh.  So a lot of that happened over a period of ten years. I wasn’t sitting like in a control room for ten years straight, I would’ve gone insane probably!”

Tom Keifer - The Way Life GoesThe Way Life Goes was shaped by three creative minds.  “My wife Savannah produced it with me, and a good friend of ours here in Nashville Named Chuck Turner, was the other producer; there were three of us who worked on it.”  The songs cover a lot of ground with different styles creeping in creating a personality for each and every individual track.  “Savannah wrote a bunch of the songs with me and also produced it.  Once it was like finished and we had the 14 songs, we recorded them, and they’d been produced and mixed and remixed and rearranged and edited over the last ten years and it was y’know, really getting down to the wire.  Trying to figure out that sequencing was not an easy task!”

The songs on The Way Life Goes range from a dark rocker called Mood Elevator, to ballads like Thick And Thin with its piano beginning to the slow melodic song You Showed Me; to the lazy, hazy sunny Sunday afternoon jaunt of The Flower Song with its subtle country vibe; to the underlying funk factor of Ain’t That a Bitch to the instant pop appeal of A Different Light.  This album showcases the many different sides of Keifer and should please Cinderella fans.

From his songwriting perspective, Keifer had this to say about what makes a good song.  “The first thing that inspires me is the lyric.  I try to work off y’know, like a, a real inspiration or something that hits me or pops into my head and that usually can happen anywhere.  Y’know, you can be out doing something and not even thinking about writing a song and you get this idea in your head, a line or a chorus line or a title and you start hearing melody and phrasing of that line, and almost immediately, for me anyway, I hear what kind of song it is going to be and  try and to get it on an instrument y’know.  If it’s like a ballad or something I might pick up an acoustic or piano and start trying to figure out what I’m hearing in my head, and if it’s a rocker y’know I’m gonna pick up an electric guitar and start doing that.”  Then he adds, “I think the lyrics are something maybe that help it stand the test of time at the end of the day.”

IMG_6462Knowing that a lot of time has gone by, it would seem logical to presume a lot of songs were written?   “Oh man, from when I started writing to a lot more than what are on the record.  I don’t really know, probably 30 or 40 maybe, maybe more?”  Pondering over whether these excess songs might get a new home in the future, Keifer kept his cards close to his chest.  “There’s a lot of good songs left.  We’ll see, certainly they could make it to another release but there may be a bunch of new songs written before the next release, so you never know.”

This article is ultimately about an individual who came to a crossroads and recognised he had the opportunity to turn a negative into a positive.  There wouldn’t be an album called The Way Life Goes if Keifer decided to continue sinking in a quicksand of drug and alcohol abuse.  “Prior to forming Cinderella, when I was coming up, y’know the latter part of my high school years, when I was playing the club scene and stuff around Philadelphia and Jersey, I had some issues and it was something that I viewed as at one point, the epiphany or whatever you wanna call it, viewed as a dead-end street.  I moved on from there and that’s when I started writing my own music and started forming Cinderella and y’know, that’s when good things started happening.”  Keifer elaborates, “That was probably the catalyst that helped me to move on from where I was, I felt like I was stuck in the club scene playing other people’s music and I just felt like I needed to pull my act together a little bit and do better for myself.”  He has unquestionably achieved that.

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