Get Lit: Joe Vitale's Backstage Pass

Give the drummer some!

Over a career spanning decades, Joe Vitale's drumsticks have pounded for a who's who of classic rockers both in the studio and onstage. Ted Nugent, Joe Walsh, Peter Frampton, Neil Young, Dan Fogelberg, The Eagles, Bill Wyman, Ringo Starr and (most lengthily) Crosby, Stills & Nash have all employed his skin thumping services over the years. That's his big beats on FM staples like "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo," "Rocky Mountain Way," "Life's Been Good," and "Southern Cross."

But Vitale is also a pretty busy man these days with his own projects. There's a autobiographical book about his rock and roll history (Backstage Pass, written with wife Susie), new solo CD Speaking in Drums and also son Joe Jr.'s debut CD, Dancing with Shadows, which dad helped write and produce.

The gregarious Vitale spoke to Rocks Off from his home in Ohio just before embarking on the European leg of CSN's 40th anniversary tour.

Rocks Off: You grew up in a very musical family where your father and uncles played instruments and you even worked professionally in a family band. Would you have been that drawn to music if that had not been the case?

Joe Vitale: I doubt it. When you're young you're so impressionable, and music in the house and the records being played - they were 78s then - and being surrounded by it, it had a lot with me starting at an early age. My brother played accordion, but I was not going to play that. Drums seemed a lot cooler!

RO: As a drummer, you've had a career staring at some of classic rock's most famous asses...

JV: I've seen 'em all! And in all shapes!

RO: You played with Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes (right) in the early '70s. Do you recognize the Ted we see on TV today, or is he playing a character?

JV: Oh, no, he is exactly the same. Love him or hate him, he's no phony. He's a real rocker, and he's just the same as when I played with him. I saw his show recently, he has so much fun up there. He's also not persuaded by anything in the world.

RO: You also spent a lot of years with crazy man and noted hotel wrecker Joe Walsh, who in the book comes across as literally the Most Spontaneous Guy in the universe.

JV: I believe that he is. If anyone is more so, I haven't met 'em. He could have had a great life as a comedian. He's really naturally funny, and he thinks of these things that are just so witty. If he can remember everything, he will write a great book.

RO: I recently spoke with Graham Nash, and he's said he's too young to write a book.

JV: He always says that! He's a kid at heart, and he's never lost the whole adventure of this whole thing. He still gets excited. I've done so many tours with Crosby, Stills and Nash and he's always looking at the set list, changing it up, even at the last show of a tour.

RO: Graham has always said that there are so many more songs and tours in CSN, but as the peacemaker, the hardest thing is to get the three of them in a room together and just agree on the same thing.

JV: They're three major artists. They eventually agree on stuff, but it takes time. It's three of everything, and they have to talk it out until it gels. They haven't broken up yet!

RO: Our favorite record you've been on is their CSN. What do you remember about recording that?

JV: I had been in the studio with a lot of artist by then, including Neil Young and Peter Frampton. But that was a serious supergroup. I was a fan. I learned that Stephen Stills really takes control in the studio. He had the crew set all the instruments up, everywhere. You name it. He likes to have all the [options] open to play anything when we're recording. And he knows if it will work or not, right away.

RO: You were also the drummer for the famously ill-fated 1976 Stills/Young Band tour, where Neil quit in the middle of the run. Was Stephen pissed or just resigned?

JV: He never gets pissed at Neil. It was just like "Oh, he quit again!" (laughs). They're like a marriage that keeps divorcing and making up. It's kind of humorous. When Neil comes around it's like "Oh great! Neil's back! Well...maybe!"

RO: One thing I was surprised to read in the book is that you were a participant in the legendary, one-night only, 1986 reunion of the original Buffalo Springfield lineup in Stephen's basement, playing keyboards.

JV: Like I say in the book, I was so excited, and I said "Hey, Neil! Stephen! Does this mean I'm in the Buffalo Springfield now!" And they both go "No!" Dewey [Martin] and Bruce [Palmer] are gone now. And I think Richie Furay is a minister in Colorado.

RO: I also love the story about your debut onstage with Peter Frampton, with not a single rehearsal at the absolute peak of his career.

JV: I just wish we had computers and MP3s back then! I was learning those songs on a cassette the night before at home, then making charts on the airplane! I did okay. What was funny is that he just told me they had a gig in Kansas City. He didn't say it was at Arrowhead Stadium in front of 52,000 people! But the guy I felt bad for was [opening act] Steve Miller. He spent $10,000 on a laser light show, but this show was in the middle of the afternoon! They ran it anyway, but of course it wasn't the same.

RO: You've got a new solo CD out, your first in a very long time. What made you decide to put it out now?

JV: I write all the time, and I ended up with a whole bunch of tunes. So I looked at all my material and just pursued it. In the meantime, my son was doing the same thing with his first record, and I've always liked an artist's first record. There's no time limit. You're done when you're done. That first Barnstorm record I did with Joe Walsh, that's one that some fans love the most out of all we did.

RO: You had a lot of involvement on your son's record. How hard was it to step away from being "Dad" to "Producer?"

JV: Well, there's a picture on the Web site of us choking each other! (laughs). We had a couple of arguments, and I had to just tell him I wasn't his father, I was his producer! I was doing my record, my son was doing his, and my wife was writing the book, all at the same time. We were busy!

RO: You must have scored some points at home with the song "Oh Oh Susie" off your CD.

JV: You bet I did!

RO: Finally, I know that CSN are doing a lot of covers on this tour in preparation for an all-covers album they're going to record with Rick Rubin producing. What's been your favorite to play so far?

JV: Hands down it's "Ruby Tuesday." I love everything about that song, and the guys do it really well, and the crowd loves it and they sing along. Graham sings lead on it, and they all do the choruses. It's just killer!

Joe Vitale's official web site, and to order the book and CD: Crosby, Stills & Nash plays the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion August 28.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero