JAY JAY FRENCH HAS A BOOK OUT, BUT IT’S NOT WHAT YOU MIGHT THINK, OR NOT EXACTLY.
FRENCH EARNED FAME IN THE 1980S AS THE LEAD GUITARIST FOR TRANSVESTITE METAL BAND TWISTED SISTER, WHICH PRODUCED SOME OF THE MOST RECOGNIZABLE—AND WIDELY LICENSED—ROCK MUSIC IN HISTORY: “WE’RE NOT GONNA TAKE IT.” “I WANNA ROCK.”
These days, French stays busy in other ways. He has a podcast in which he chats with other musicians, members of the music industry, and miscellaneous folks. He’s a Beatles scholar with an impressive cache of Beatles records and memorabilia—he seems to have kept everything, in pristine condition—and writes a column about the Beatles for Goldmine magazine. He’s also a passionate audiophile.
The book—Twisted Business: Lessons from My Life in Rock’n’Roll—is not just another rock’n’roll memoir. It’s a business book, co-written with business guru Steve Farber. The bulk of the book, chapters 4–10, presents Jay Jay’s formula for success in words that spell out “T-W-I-S-T-E-D”—“T” for tenacity, “W” for wisdom, and so on, each element illustrated by stories from French’s life. I am not a regular reader of business books and have little interest in the topic, but this one strikes me as unusual for the genre, and in my opinion it does add up to something real and useful.
Really, though, that’s beside the point. What matters is that Jay Jay is busy promoting the book, which means he’s doing interviews and telling stories. I had the opportunity to sit down with him for several hours over two days in his modest (though very nice) apartment—which, it turns out, is just a 25-minute walk from my Manhattan one. I also got to listen to his excellent hi-fi system.
My exposure to Jay Jay convinced me that he’s one of those rare people who are born at the right time in the right place and then make decisions, even if unwittingly, that put them at the center of things and keep them there for a while. In some ways, his story is the story of his place and time.
Did I mention that he’s an audiophile?
Listening to records
Jay Jay French—born John French Segall—was born in New York City in 1952. The apartment he lives in now is the one he grew up in. He attended his first concert—The Weavers at Carnegie Hall—in 1963, and over the next few years would attend many, many more.
Here’s a story from the book, which Jay Jay repeated in our interview: In February 1963, Segall was home sick from school. His mother gave him a table radio to keep him entertained. He was listening to WABC AM, the biggest radio station in the US. The number one song was “Hey Paula” by Paul and Paula. (“I’ve waited so long for school to be through …”) “In those days, they played those songs every hour on the hour. ‘Hey Paula’ was number one, and when I hear that refrain, ‘Hey, Hey Paula,’ it takes me right back to when I was 11 years old.”
Of course, “Hey Paula” was soon dethroned—knocked off by the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” and when it happened, 11-year-old Segall was indignant. Hoping to restore his first sonic infatuation to its rightful place, he went to a record store—Only Records on Broadway—and bought the single. The record never made it back to number one, but now Segall was a record collector.
In 1964, the Beatles arrived. When he saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, Segall knew what he wanted to do with his life.
Segall sold Boy Scout cookies on commission to earn money to buy a bass guitar. He had been a happy Boy Scout until the year before, and the previous year he’d set cookie-sales records. He liked the scouts—he liked earning merit badges and was working toward becoming an Eagle Scout. But then he got thrown out for having long hair. In need of revenue for the scouts, his former scoutmaster approached him about selling cookies on commission: 10 cents/box.
That entrepreneurial impulse proved enduring. At age 15—about 1967—he tried smoking marijuana. He liked it. He started selling it. He made a little money. He bought more. He sold more. He made more money. He sold other things, too— other drugs. He used the money to buy guitars.
At the Fillmore, he saw big amplifiers. He wanted one. He bought one. He became a regular there. $3 to get in. He saw all the big acts. The first time he saw Led Zeppelin, the Woody Herman Orchestra was the opening act. “Bill Graham did that sort of thing,” French told me.
He showed me the program for that concert. He showed me other programs. He seems to have saved all of them, in amazing condition. His apartment is not cluttered, but somehow it contains a lot of things. During our time together, he showed me lots of collectibles—records, documents, guitars, portable transistor radios, an original Marconi transistor in a small plastic bag—almost all in great condition. French is the consummate collector—an archivist.
Here’s a story anyone who writes about French and this book is likely to repeat: One day, after he’d bought that big amplifier, he got high, put that amplifier in his apartment window—the same apartment, the very same room we were sitting in— and turned it up to 11.
“A woman is knocking on the door,” he told me. “I thought it was the cops. I opened the door. She said, ‘You son of a bitch. Do you know how fucking loud you are?’” “I said, ‘What apartment you live in? I don’t recognize you.’ She said, ‘I live on …’ and gave an address five blocks away. “‘You heard me on Columbus Avenue?’”
Jay Jay liked it.
The hippie years
“I’m dealing, and playing in bands, and I’m going to the Fillmore, and at this point, I’m also involved in antiwar activities at my school. … I brought the SDS from Columbia”—that’s Students for a Democratic Society—“down to my high school, and I saw H. Rap Brown give a speech.1 That led to a riot, and then I got thrown out of my high school.” They let him back in and then threw him out again. “Then I sued them for violating my constitutional rights.” Due to a series of favorable coincidences, the school system wanted to settle. He requested a transfer to another high school where his friends went, and it was granted. That’s where he met Eddie Ojeda. They started playing together. “We formed a band almost immediately and played at a talent show and got knocked off the stage by a Jackson 5 wannabe; they killed us.”
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