Journey's Jonathan Cain
You could call it a journey in life. Or a life in Journey. Either way you say it, Jonathan Cain has packed a lot of living into his time on the planet. An integral part of three major bands, The Babys, Bad English and, of course, Journey, Jonathan has written countless songs and none more important than the most downloaded song in rock music history, "Don't Stop Believin'". The piano man has written a newly-released autobiography "Don't Stop Believin': The Man, the Band, and the Song that Inspired Generations" that will be enjoyed by all fans. Find out about the childhood tragedy that nearly killed him, his touching relationship with his father and, of course, many stories about life in one of rock's most successful bands, Journey.
I spoke with Jonathan recently to talk about the book. Here's what he had to say:
antiMusic: Sometimes when revisiting one's past, forgotten events or different perspectives caused by the passing of time tend to put memories in a different light. Were there any revelations like that for you when putting together this book?
Jonathan: There were certainly some, yeah. I think in the end it was just how the fire forged a new hope. It was just like the Bible says, "Out of pain, something new is born." There's many ways to achieve success. You can do it quick and burn out or you can go the long road and have a lasting career. And I prefer the latter where you take your knocks. You learn as you go along and then you have this over 40 years of success in the music business. So I'm glad that the Lord forged me the way he did and prepared me for a great run and that's one of the things that I take away.
antiMusic: How long did it take to put this book together?
Jonathan: You know, I probably started this thing about eight years ago and rewrote it 10 times. I was editor of our newspaper in high school but I had no idea how hard this was going to be getting this book right. And it took the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame experience --- to stand there with all the guys, to put things in the proper perspective. I think from that point on, I knew how the book was going to go. But I needed that introduction to draw the reader in with some monumental thing that they had to read on and I think that was the catalyst for getting it right. So then I knew where the book was going to go and I simply re-organized everything and then edited 200 pages out of it. (laughs)
antiMusic: Well, you originally applied for journalism in college so you were well suited to put this together.
Jonathan: Yes, well I was accepted in the journalism school at Northwestern University which was amazing but I chose music because there was not enough money to go to Northwestern. My parents didn't have it and I was going to need a lot of it. I could afford music college because I could still gig so I put myself through school playing clubs.
antiMusic: The amount of songs that you have written over the years that have had a substantial impact on audiences is simply incredible. It's also amazing the number of ones that start off with a piano riff, "Mother Father", "Open Arms" "Faithfully", and of course, "Don't Stop Believin" just to mention a few. Considering a big part of the band is some guy called Neal, were you surprised to learn when you joined Journey that you could have such an impact with keyboards and your obvious melodic prowess?
Jonathan: Yes in a way and no in that Steve Perry and Neal were fans of mine and they wanted something different. They had been there and done that kind of thing with that sound for Infinity and beyond and they wanted to try something new. I think they gave me their vote of confidence to go ahead and put my signature on the music.
antiMusic: With Gregg, there was an obvious leaning towards B3 and while there was piano involved, but there was more of an old-school sound keyboard-wise. Was it kind of an open road for you to come in and use more synths along with the piano?
Jonathan: Yeah, synthesizers were just getting good right around those days and I had just been in The Baby's working with a modern, edgy sound that we were shooting for. It was pretty wide open and they really wanted to lean towards that thing so we leaned less on the organ and went with more piano-driven motifs and sort of getting the synths to support.
antiMusic: For a guy who has experienced such amazing heights of success, you've also got to taste the other side of the coin with singer situations in Journey, the premature end of Bad English, marriages ending. Were you surprised by these turn of events considering I assume you would have thought the road ahead would have been much easier when you achieved such staggering success with the album Escape.
Jonathan: Well, I take life as it comes and life happens. And I learned as a Christian that you're going to get your curses with your blessings and there's going to be difficult times and burdens that you're going to have to overcome. I wasn't one of those guys to sit back and whine about, "Oh poor me. Why me?" And I used it as a way of saying "Why not me?" and rising about each challenge and moving on. I was game for just about anything that came my way. I certainly didn't welcome various things. Like I said in the book, I didn't welcome getting married to get divorced. I had a father who was married to my mother for over 45 years and it was like, "No, that's not the way we're gong to do it", you know? But it happens and again I have to give all grace to God for getting me through all of that.
antiMusic: We learn in the book that you went through a major tragedy growing up while at school. Can you tell us a bit about it and subsequently what part, if any, this has played in your life.
Jonathan: Well, in the book I go into pretty great detail about a school fire where 92 children died along with three nuns in 1958. The next day, my father tells me that I was saved to create great music and there was a career ahead of me and the reason I wasn't in that fire was there was unfinished business. And that as going to be the music business. So he used it to catapult me into a new desire. Again, if you go back to the Bible, "Take these ashes and make something beautiful." It seemed like that was the plan the Lord had for me and that really was the beginning of my love affair with music.
antiMusic: Something that left you after that tragedy but returned later in life was your faith in a higher power and you turn over a lot of credit to Him in the book. Clearly your faith is an important part of your life. Can you expand on that a bit?
Jonathan: Yeah, I started out as a strong believer in Jesus Christ. My father taught me how to pray at a very early age. He would kneel down and pray for hours in church. I would sit there with him and learn what he was doing and ask him what to pray. He showed me and then the fire hit and you get a little discouraged and distracted. Life can distract a Christian away from God. And we have to be careful that we always keep him online and we always consider God. It's something to consider every day. It's something that you just can't put on hold. God is not one to put on hold. When you do put him on hold, he takes his hand off you.
I've learned that coming back, Paula (his now-wife Pastor Paula White) gave me the good news that he wanted his son back and that it wasn't too late to return to that seven year-old boy. My question to her when I first met her on a plane flight was, "Can I still love God the same way I did?" And she said, "You don't have to run anymore. He wants you to come back." So that was a good word. I became encouraged to try to get in that light again.
antiMusic: You were hardly plucked from obscurity since you were a big part of The Baby's success but were you very intimidated upon joining Journey who were riding a fairly big wave of success at that point and who were a notch ahead of you in terms of public recognition?
Jonathan: No, not really. I think I had felt like I belonged there. I never had a doubt that the album was going to be successful and we were gong to soar and do great things. I knew I had greatness around me. How could I think we would do otherwise, you know? We used to have a saying that "When you're thinking, you're stinking." (laughs) So I prefer not to stink and not to think.
antiMusic: It's a long way from the classrooms of Chicago Music School at Roosevelt University to the stadiums that you play with Journey. How easy was it for you to make the transition from playing for a small circle of contemporaries and teachers to adopting a more showman persona along with keeping your composure in front of thousands?
Jonathan: Yeah, that's a good question. I never felt like I fit in as a virtuoso. Even in front of my piano teacher, I was a little intimidated playing someone else's music, some of the greats like Chopin and Beethoven. This was heady stuff and yet I was excited to learn it and honored to have been there in the Conservatory with the repertoire of some of these great composers underneath my fingers. But it was like when I got to rock & roll I had to sort of break the rules but yet retain some things that I had learned like arranging, orchestration and theory. A lot of the theory that we use in classical music is out the window in rock. But it served me well anyway when it came to string arranging and just arranging in general. I learned that the harmony basics are the same.
antiMusic: Your father casts a large shadow on your career, including a contribution to one of your most popular songs. Can you tell us a bit about his role in your career?
Jonathan: Yeah my dad, the Prophet, the believer, self-made man. The man who loved his family, loved his wife, loved the Lord. He was never got past fifth-grade education yet when he landed in Chicago, got a job in the printers organization and became a superstar in his company. He manned the phones and got all the jobs done and was just one of those guys who got it done. He wanted the same for all of us boys and he was very sharp to recognize what our strengths were and he kept us on track. And he also gave us a sense of belonging and would always grab us and say, "You're my son. Represent me. I want you to learn how to walk and talk like a man. Be a man. Stand up and represent who you are in life and in God.
So we went forth with that and when it came time to return the favor, I was there for him and got him out of Chicago at the right time and relocated him and my mom in Scottsdale, Arizona. His last years were on the golf course in the sun, He loved it. He had some great years. And then my younger brother went there to live his final years out and took care of my mom. It was a great way for them to have at least one of us with them there all the time, with me being gone on the road all the time. But I made sure I was there. I was there the day my father died......it was a good ride.
antiMusic: On paper Bad English looked like a sure-fire bullseye. Tell us what happened to dramatically change fortunes after the first record proved so successful?
Jonathan: Yeah, I don't know. It was a personality conflict I guess. I don't really know. You'd have to ask John that question. At the end, I mean we spent so much money on video, I'd have to blame management on that one. There wasn't leadership and the leadership that we had just kind of failed us as a unit.
antiMusic: Is it safe to say there was a bit of lead singer syndrome involved?
Jonathan: Well, because of decisions made by management....yes. You know, you put pressure in one place and then things escalate and they get blown out of proportion... But then again there were enough record sales and enough success and enough dollars there that we could have done things a lot differently in retrospect.
antiMusic: It's crazy to find out that you've got a $50,000 t-shirt bill after the band is over.
Jonathan: Yeah and they call me back for the t-shirt repo and I'm like "Well, wait a minute. That was five years ago." "Well we want our money." So it cost me money to get out of that. But you live and you learn. We had fun. We made some great records. I still love both those records and I think they were great.
antiMusic: How strange was it at first to perform your set after Arnel joined and I imagine get lost in a song and then look out and see him with the mic instead of Steve Perry considering they sound so remarkably similar?
Jonathan: It was pretty great actually because I felt Arnel really represented well and it was exciting for him. And his respect for Steve and the music and everything we created was obvious as he sang those songs and performed them. He did them justice and there were many nights where I would get chill bumps listening to him sing those songs with such a fresh approach. He brought a new, fresh energy to Journey that we all needed.
antiMusic: One of my favorite solo songs by you is "Back to the Innocence". Can you tell us about writing that?
Jonathan: It was really the answer song to Don Henley's "End of the Innocence." I thought, listen I love Don Henley and I love his music but I thought well you might be wrong Don because you can always go back to the innocence. And I never really lost the kid in me. I can still conjure up the kid and still remember all the things I loved about being a child and I can always go back there. So that was just my little answer to one of his tunes.
antiMusic: One of the things I learned from the book and feel stupid for never knowing, is that you wrote "Working Class Man" for Jimmy Barnes. How did you first get involved with Jimmy?
Jonathan: The record company came to me. The A&R guy at Geffen called me and said, "I love what you're doing with Michael Bolton and I've got an artist, Jimmy Barnes, and he wants you to write a song." And so I took on the project and wrote a couple of songs for him. I was with Warner/Chappell as a writer for three years. I was game so I wrote "American Heartbeat" and "Working Class Man". I wanted to write a song for my dad with all he had done for me in Journey and it seemed like Jimmy could sing that kind of song. So we met at the studio and I had the lyrics and he knew the melody and we went at it.
I had Tony Brock there from The Babys and Randy Jackson on bass and Dave Amato from REO Speedwagon playing guitar and the rest is history. We knocked it out of the park, Then I brought Neal in for the second album Freight Train Heart and did that one too. It was mixed by Mike Stone from Journey. I'll be forever grateful for that great mix because he really mixed it beautifully. That's a great album.
antiMusic: I have to ask you about the writing process for the most downloaded song in music history. What can you tell us about putting together "Don't Stop Believin'"?
Jonathan: I came in with that chorus. I wrote in an evening and brought it into rehearsal. We had a studio in Oakland. He wrote it backwards so Steve Perry loved the chords and the chorus and said, "Let's just do a Motown thing. Just roll that right hand." And Neal put the bass in there and then Steve came up with the amazing part on drums on the chorus and we created this weird structure where is was A-B-A-B-A-B and you don't hear the chorus until the very end, you know - C. In most song choruses you'll hear two or three times but this song is was only once and then it fades off to the silence. Interesting for Steve, he kind of drove that whole day and then the next day it was to put the lyric on it and the guitar that Neal was playing in the interlude sounded like a train going down the tracks and that's where I came up with the "midnight train going anywhere."
And it just sounded like a song about Sunset Boulevard and Steve agreed with me. I explained to him that I had spent years watching the dreamers on Friday nights on Sunset Boulevard and that's who the streetlight people were. And that's really where the song ended up. So it was like us from the outside looking in the music business. Give me permission to dream and telling somebody who was listening to get on that midnight train. And I hope that it continues to inspire. That you're not stuck in life any time. You can always make changes and make decisions to try something new, go somewhere else.
antiMusic: You're busy with a summer tour heading into October but can you foresee new music coming from Journey in the near future?
Jonathan: I'm going to dabble, yeah. I've got some ideas and I know Neal does. We're going to get together and put our heads together and see if we can't come up with something, some cool new places to go with our music.
Morley and antiMusic thanks Jonathan for taking the time for this interview.
Purchase the book here