It hard to fathom in a time when the push of a button can send the music of an album to the entire country at the same time. But from the ‘60s through the early ‘80s, local rock scenes thrived around the country. Midwest and East Coast towns like Boston, Detroit, New York City, Cleveland, and a certain Asbury Park could ferment their own bands and clubs with live, original, and regular rock and roll. Some acts stayed local heroes, others exploded nationally, and more fell somewhere in between.
Perhaps no musician is more identifiable with the steel town of Pittsburgh than Joe Grushecky. First as lead singer/guitarist with the Iron City Houserockers, then Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, and as a solo artist, he’s been putting out music and gigging live for more than 40 years with his gritty, blue collar, and beer sodden party music.
1980 saw the release of the Iron City Houserockers’ well-reviewed Have a Good Time…But Get Out Alive! A new 40th anniversary reissue includes the original album, along with a second bonus disc of demos, alternate versions, and rarities.
And when Grushecky calls from Pittsburgh, he’s actually in his car listening to the reissue for the first time. “My CD player wasn’t working, so I just downloaded it!” he offers. The reissue came about because Steve Popovich, Jr. is reviving his late father’s Cleveland International label on which it originally appeared. It has already released the band’s debut Love So Tough, albeit with no bonus material. That sent Grushecky digging through his archives to find cassette and reel-to-reel tapes that were decades old to add to this one.
“This record was a life changer musically in the national press. We got a lot of hardcore followers that are still with us today from it. It was a real experience in the studio, first class all the way,” he says. “It was our first shot at the big time.”
In addition to Grushecky on lead vocals and guitar, the Iron City Houserockers included Gil Snyder (piano), Ned E. Rankin (drums), Art Nardini (bass), Marc Reisman (harmonica), and Eddie Britt (guitar). But it’s the presence of some high-profile guests that also set this project apart, including Steven Van Zandt. Mott the Hoople leader Ian Hunter, and Mick Ronson (David Bowie, Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople) on various guitar, arranger, and producer credits. It gives the whole record a sort of Pittsburgh/New Jersey/London amalgamation vibe.
“Those were some diverse musical minds. On paper, it should have never worked! But it’s a tribute to [original co-producer] Steve Popovich that it did,” Grushecky recalls. “He had everyone working together. He was an ‘anything goes’ type of guy. He was a character, and he loved his music.”
Music trivia geeks and liner note readers will also note the presence of singer Ellen Foley, most famous for dueting with Meat Loaf on record (but not in the video) for the horny teenage anthem “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” Grushecky also has a longtime friend and admirer in Bruce Springsteen, who produced a 1995 Grushecky album and has appeared with him on stage many times over the years.
The term “bar band” often gets a dismissive connotation. But it’s descriptive of another time long gone when rock fans in the ‘70s and ‘80s had their favorite groups that they would go see at area clubs time and time again at their go-to watering holes/pick up joints. That communal feeling and culture of locality is pretty much dead in 2020. And in the Age of Coronavirus, the stake has been driven even deeper.
“So many of the little clubs left, they probably won’t survive this. And live music in general is not what it used to be. People just aren’t into music bars anymore,” Grushecky reflects. “It used to be about how many clubs you could hit and how many bands you could hear in one night. We still have local favorites here that the city rallies around. But they’re a bit of an anomaly.”
As for growing up in his home city of Pittsburgh, Grushecky credits the thriving AM radio stations with big-personality disc jockeys for influencing him, as well as the music they chose to play (yes, children – there was a time when DJs actually got to pick and play their own choices).
For instance, while most radio stations across the country might play the hit “Gimme Some Lovin’” by the Spencer Davis Group, Grushecky says Pittsburgh stations would spin “High Time Baby” instead – which would then find exposure in the dance clubs.
“And you’d see playing in those little clubs on the circuit acts like Junior Walker and the All Stars and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, all this gritty rock and R&B. We had a complete different spin on things,” he offers. “Even me, I used to play four or five nights a week!”
Despite his impeccable rock and roll credentials, people might be surprised to find out that music is actually not Joe Grushecky’s main gig. He’s been a special education teacher in Pittsburgh-area high schools for decades, and still holds that position today.
That means if Joe the Rocker stepped offstage at some bar at 1 or 2 am during school nights…Joe the Teacher had to be in class and ready to go just a few hours later.
“You never get used to it. And it wasn’t the late nights that killed me – it was the early mornings!” he laughs. “I had to support my family. Health issues have always been a big thing in our family, and I needed the insurance. And my dad – he dropped out of school at 12 to go work in the coal mines – always guided me to go to school. He was a musician too. And he told me ‘I don’t care what you do after you go to college…but you’re going to college.’ He was very big on education.”
Grushecky had planned to celebrate the reissue of Have a Good Time…But Get Out Alive! with some live shows, playing the record in its entirety. The Age of Coronavirus has scuttled those plans, they have afforded a new opportunity: doing solo acoustic shows via his Facebook page. He and the current version of the Houserockers (which includes Joffo Simmons on drums, Danny Gochnour on guitar, Jeff Garrison on bass, and his son Johnny Grushecky on guitar and drums), were actually in the midst of recording a new album when everything shut down.
“We can’t do anything now,” he sums up. “But I can’t wait to get back out there and play.”
For more information on the reissue and Joe Grushecky visit JoeGrushecky.com