Until a few weeks ago, David Bowie seemed like the most reliably retired major rock star. It turned out he was faking us all out, having been working on a new album under a veil of sworn secrecy and non-disclosure agreements.
So now the mantle of hardest-retiring man in show business may fall to ex-Journey singer Steve Perry, who continues to show few visible signs of coming out of his shell as he turns 64. If you want to see Perry out on the road, it may be time to… you know… stop believin’.
Perry hasn’t released any fresh music since his 1996 swan song with Journey… or done concert dates since his last solo tour wrapped up in early 1995. Fans will recall that, prior to that brief period of mid-‘90s activity, he’d disappeared from the music scene for seven years, while at the height of his fame. Clearly, this homebody was a Journey-man in name only.
No wonder he’s been called “the Howard Hughes of rock.” The analogy falls down only when Perry resurfaces to do interviews—as he did in late 2011, when he did phone interviews with the press to promote the release of Journey’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2—and comes off as a fairly well-adjusted fellow whose fingernails probably aren’t even five inches long.
If or when he does come back, the chances of it being with Journey are about the same as a Beatles reunion that includes John and George. Their second breakup in the late ‘90s was apparently one of the more toxic singer/band splits of all time, with a nuclear half-life that may extend well into the next millennium.
Perry does intend to release a third solo album someday or some year, to follow up his sophomore effort, 1994’s For the Love of Strange Medicine. He’s said he has more than 50 original compositions waiting to be recorded in his home studio in Del Mar, California. His problem, he suggests, is perfectionism on the inside and the lofty expectations from the outside that would attend a comeback.
"I don't want (any new album) to have pressure," Perry told Billboard in a late 2011 interview, "because I'll worry about it sucking, and then what am I gonna do? I've got all this pressure... that I just don't want on me, so I've allowed myself the ability to sketch and write as I go, and I'll do it at my own pace." Talking to the Associated Press around the same time, he said, “"I'm so hard on myself. I play these sketches in my computer for friends and they say 'Gee whiz, the vocal's beautiful.' I hear, 'It needs to be better.'"
That album, if it ever comes, may be all you’ll get out of him as a comeback. As unlikely as a Journey reunion tour is, he makes any theoretical solo dates sound nearly as improbable. “I'm no spring chicken,” he told Billboard. “The same arthritis that ate up my left hip that finally got replaced hasn't stopped there... And touring is a lot of work. I'm impressed when I see people like Eric Clapton out there. Gee whiz, Eric, give me a break! I know it's gotta hurt somewhere."
Clearly, the (shared) royalties from “Don’t Stop Believin’” alone would ensure that Perry need never work another day in his life. And for a rocker who spent most of his late 30s and early 40s out of the music scene, having every day be Casual Friday now that he’s in his 60s must be particularly appealing. But it would be wrong to underestimate just how severely the acrimony of Journey’s final coming apart may have affected his attitude toward his music career in general.
For anyone who can’t imagine why there isn’t enough money in the world to make Perry reunite with Journey for a tour, it may be useful to note that the last time he did tour with the band was way back in 1987. That road jaunt supported a troubled album called Raised on Radio, the production of which had become tense because Perry frequently took time off to be with his dying mother. It would be another nine years before he got back together with Journey for one last swan song of an album… and no tour.
Perry was particularly proud of the 1996 reunion album he made with Journey, Trial By Fire, which came together at his instigation after the protracted initial breakup. But the project was aptly named, particularly when it came an aftermath that found the singer and his cohorts in deep disagreement about a tour. A hip injury required that Perry have surgery before he could tour, but he was in no particular hurry to undergo it, and the others got tired of waiting with no end goal in sight. Two years after the release of the album, a Journey tour began, with Steve Augeri—the first of three Perry ringers to come—fronting the group.
“When my hip crashed and I had to have a hip replacement,” Perry said in a revealing interview with MelodicRock.com’s Andrew McNeice in 2011, “I never had anything stop me like that. I was a pit bull... All of a sudden, guess what? I was fighting and resisting and pushing harder and it was just killing me. It really got my attention, and I had to grow up a bit into the fact that I had to slow down. I had to have a hip replacement, and the band was telling me when they thought I should do it. And I said ‘Major surgery like this is not a band decision.’… I said that I would get it done, but I didn't get it done quickly enough. They just wanted to get on the road, and there was an ultimatum given to me. And I don't respond well to ultimatums.”
Jonathan Cain, Perry’s closest writing partner in the band, explained their side of the stand-off in a Huffington Post interview last year. “We kept calling, ‘How are you doing? How are you doing?’ And then it was no reply and we sort of lost touch with the guy. It was almost two years that went by. A platinum record and we're not going to do anything? So we were like, let's just call him and do another album. Maybe we can just be in the studio. We called him, ‘Nah, I can't do that either.’ We had nothing.”
Over time, Perry said, he’d gained a better understanding of the band’s impatience and willingness to move on without him. “At some level, I had to respect it. At the time, I f---in’ hated it! I hated them for giving me an ultimatum. But now I can look back with clear eyes, you know. I can't blame them; they just wanted to get going. I was going to go to surgery, and I did. But not on their timetable. So I had my hip replacement and the rest is history. They've gone on and I'm where I'm at.”
Perry admitted in the MelodicRock.com interview that he’d suffered bouts of depression in his many years away from recording and touring. For a time, he’d even considered the idea that never making music again was the only way to ward off bad feelings.
“When we got back together and ended up breaking up again and breaking each other's hearts again… I think it damaged all of us again... I just went away and tried to figure out how to live life on life's terms and just come off the ride. Just put my feet on the ground. I think that has been the challenge and also to allow myself to start dreaming again, because the dreaming is where the music is. But the trick of the dreamer is keeping yourself from the blues.”
That’s a line from a song he co-wrote with lyricist John Bettis called “Running Alone,” which he said was a touchstone he’s come back to in warding off bad feelings. “Do you know how much recently I have been using the lyrics in that song to keep me from depression? I have my own ups and downs because I'm an emotional person. I'm not on medication or anything, but I have my highs and lows like anybody else. But what helps me go through the lows lately has been the lyrics in ‘Running Alone.’ ‘The trick of the dreamer is keeping yourself from the blues.’ And ‘I don't mind running alone.’”
He conceded that he’d made a retreat out of fear of getting back into an unfortunate cycle. “You can't embrace your whole life if you're shut down. I found out that I can't just run away and shut down. I'm losing the rest of my life doing that,” he told McNeice. “So I started giving myself a chance to write music again. And that meant that I had to dream again. And if I get into the fantasy of dreaming again I'm going to have the blues again. And if I'm going to feel the blues, then I'm going to be depressed. And then if I'm going to be depressed, I'm going to write music. And if I write music, then I'm going to feel good again. And if I feel good again, I'm now back again on the roller coaster. So I thought in my mind it was better just to run away and not feel any of it.”
Shutting off any ambition to make music was effective in the short term, he decided, but not the long. “That worked for quite a few years but it certainly isn't a way to live life and I do not recommend it! I do not recommend running from life, though I needed to. Because the break-up was so painful for all of us. And I'm not saying just for me, goddamit. I'm saying for all of us.”
Perry is apparently still blocked from completing the songs he’s been working on by his perfectionism. He said a year and a half ago that he’d put down dozens of tunes on his laptop in demo form, but “they’re just sketches.” Though he’d like to finish them with other musicians, “the only thing that would stop you from hearing it would be me because I'm my own worst enemy... If I don't give myself the right to suck, I won't write music… I'll say, ‘Gee, my voice is a little out of tune here. I've got to sing this again. This bugs me, that bugs me.’ And (friends) say, ‘I'm sorry, I don't hear that.’... I have been known to walk past some emotional moments reaching for things that I think could be better… I have to be careful because some of this stuff might be good enough as it is and I don't even know it.”
As for forgiveness between Journey factions, that may still be a while in coming, too. They don't talk, although remaining members of the band have said they were grateful when Perry showed up and posed for photos with them when Journey received a star on the Hollywood walk of fame in 2005.
Guitarist Neil Schon, who from some reports would appear to be the member Perry battled with the most, recently expressed hope of at least achieving cordiality. "I hope that someday we can get to the point to where I can pick up the telephone and I can talk to him without talking through management and attorneys," Schon told Ultimate Classic Rock last year. "I still don’t quite realize why we can’t just talk one on one, for whatever reason, just to say hello—not to pressure anybody to do anything, or anything like that; it wouldn’t be like that—(but) just in a friendly manner.”
News out of Perry's own camp has been limited since he came out of seclusion to promote the Greatest Hits release in 2011. But signs of a solo comeback picked up this past September when Universal Music Publishing Group announced it had signed a deal to handle Perry's publishing. The singer didn't say anything about a new album in his statement about the deal. But there was this: "We look forward to working with him on both his iconic catalog and his new songs," Zach Horowitz, the publishing company's chairman, was quoted as saying in a press release. Maybe Horowitz can be the one to listen to Perry's latest demos and tell him he's not singing out of tune.