Posted January, 2012
Among the many artists and bands who dominated the soundtrack of my youth in the seventies, two on my short list of favorites were Alice Cooper and Thin Lizzy. Songs like I’m Eighteen and The Boys Are Back in Town struck the chord of teenage angst and confusion or elicited a sense of bravado that defied any real explanation.
But, then, why did there need to be an explanation?
Last year, when I interviewed then - Alice Cooper guitarist, Damon Johnson, it was (and still is) a personal thrill to be able to interview, a) such a great guitarist and, b) one who is connected to one of my childhood heroes. Little did I know at the time that Damon would be making a seismic shift in his career that would fulfill a huge dream from his youth and connect yet again with a band from the soundtrack of mine.
In August of last year, Damon announced that he was leaving Alice Cooper’s band and joining Thin Lizzy. The news was met with both excitement and expressions of “what the heck?!” (or some variation of it). Then, earlier this month, Damon announced a few dates with his musical love child, Brother Cane.
With all of these developments in Damon’s career in such a compressed period of time, I thought I’d better get off my ample butt and have a chat with the boy to find out what the heck is going on.
Damon gave me a call from his Alabama home as he was resting up in preparation for Thin Lizzy’s European tour in just a few short days. If you read my last interview with Johnson (here), you’ll recall that a horrific tornado had just devastated the town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, very near where Damon lives. I started our chat by asking him how the area’s recovery was coming along.
“It’s recovered really well. We were fortunate. We live south of town so we didn’t get all the damage that some of the areas did. It was devastating in parts. But Tuscaloosa, which really got hammered – the biggest and the broadest – there’s still recover there and rebuilding but everybody’s good. You know, man, you live out there in Texas, so you know what it’s all about. We’re not technically in the tornado belt but I don’t see why not. I mean, we should be with as many as we have. We’ve lived with that stuff our whole lives and nobody gets more freaked out about them than I do. I’m just as scared of them now as I was when I was eight years old. It’s serious stuff. It’s no fun, brother!”
We shifted gears to more pleasant subjects like Damon’s upcoming dates with Brother Cane. I asked if this was the seminal start of a lot more work from the band.
“I definitely want to build up something with Brother Cane, Randy. You know, the band broke up in the late 90’s – 1999. We had faced so much apathy from MTV, from even our record label, we had so much overhead when we would tour, it was just hard to make a living. So we really just ran out of gas and said, ‘uncle!’ and went off to do other things. But the band had so much exposure on the radio and so many people did get to see us through the years – particularly from all the opening slots that we did with Aerosmith, Van Halen, Robert Plant and tours like that. Everywhere I’ve been over the last decade I’ve been inundated with questions about Brother Cane or people commenting about how they love the songs or why I don’t do this or that. That’s because I’ve started no less than four other projects in the last ten years – definitely in an effort to try and get some kind of success with one of my own original music project. More specifically, bands that I had some ownership of and not just be a side guy.
“My plan for this year – last summer, I pretty much started putting a plan together to work almost exclusively with Brother Cane and start putting together some solo acoustic stuff for this year. I had told Alice about it and I was going to transition out of Alice’s band and, in his words, just take a break for awhile. He and I love each other, man! We love working together so I knew that there was a security blanket there – of a place that I could go back to after working on Brother Cane.
“But, of course, the Thin Lizzy thing changed everything. I didn’t want to just bail out completely on the Brother Cane activity particularly because I had talked about it so much and have been putting some energy in that direction. Thin Lizzy is my number one priority for obvious reasons. But, whenever it makes sense and whenever I can put it together, I absolutely want to book some Brother Cane stuff – as many as 20 or 30 dates, if possible, maybe more, depending on the schedule.”
Because Brother Cane performed at last year’s Dallas International Guitar Festival (as well as a solo acoustic performance by Damon), I asked Johnson if he was bringing Brother Cane to it again this year.
“I so wish that we could do that again, man! Jimmy (Wallace) and all of the guys at the guitar show basically invited us the week after we played last year. They said, ‘Man, we want Brother Cane back and we want to do this again.’ I’m afraid there are going to be Thin Lizzy dates. We’re slated to go back to Europe, doing some more package dates with Judas Priest over there. We just did that run in the U.S. with them in October and November. It’s an incredible tour and was very well received. Nothing has been posted, Randy, but, from what I know, that’s kind of what’s gonna be the plan. I’ve got word from the head office to count on Thin Lizzy work starting on the first week of April.”
After I tightly crossed my arms, stuck out my lower lip and pouted with all my strength, Damon added, “Like I said earlier when we were talking about ownership, I would’ve probably jumped at the Thin Lizzy thing – when I did jump at the Thin Lizzy opportunity anyway – and it started out as just another side man thing similar to what I had done with Alice. But what I wasn’t expecting – or even thinking about – was for those guys to have a meeting with me and offer for me to become a partner in the band – in the touring company. That kind of thing is so unheard of these days and particularly for a heritage act like that that’s been around for awhile, I was floored.
“As anyone who I’ve done interviews with knows, I’ve blown the Thin Lizzy horn loud and proud my entire twenty-plus year professional career. That band has massively influenced me as a writer and a guitar player. I’ve said before that I feel like Mark Wahlberg in that movie, Rock Star. You get to join your favorite band. That’s my life, man!
“The Brother Cane fans are so cool. I wish that there were more of them. Again, that’s why the band ran out of steam in the first place. We just didn’t quite reach critical mass like a lot of other acts. But the people that loved the band are die-hard and very vocal about it. They’ve been real supportive and they get the Thin Lizzy thing because we used to do Lizzy covers! So, they get it and out of a commitment to the fans I wanted to go ahead and book this first run of dates, Randy.
“The first show we’re doing is going to be March 2nd (2012) up in Flint, Michigan. We’re going to try to squeeze in five or six shows in the month of March and we’ll go from there. We’ll see.”
When I responded by saying that perhaps Brother Cane will be to him what Black Country Communion is to Joe Bonamassa, Johnson responded, “I would love to do that, man. I would SO love to do that. I’m thinkin’ down the road, too, it’s not always a lot of fun for a lot of my friends who are side men, as well, to be a slave to waiting on the phone to ring. Sometimes, it doesn’t ring, man. It can be frightening, particularly in this day and age. I feel so blessed, so lucky that I’ve had some of the accomplishments that I’ve had- specifically, a situation like Brother Cane.
“Another thing, I held off forever on doing any work with Brother Cane because I felt for so long that it had to be the original guys and it took me awhile for me to get over that. Now I’m over it. I hear it from old radio friends, from people in the business who say, ‘Look, Damon, we don’t know what the band looks like. You guys weren’t on MTV. All I know is that you sang those songs; you wrote those songs and that’s your guitar playing that’s featured on there.’
“So, I called up my drummer, Scott, and said, ‘What do you think?’ and he said, ‘Yeah!’ That’s the plan. If we can work with the other original guys, if the schedule permits, absolutely, man! It’s just hard to get everybody together because everyone has lives and commitments and other things happening. But, for Scott and I to go ahead and book some dates and not have to wait on the perfect line-up, it means that we’ll get to do more shows and that’s what we really want to do.”
Putting a nice little bow on the Brother Cane discussion package, I asked Johnson if there were any plans for a new Brother Cane CD in the future.
“I’m definitely writing and would love to do another CD, Randy. Absolutely. I mean, really and truly, we weren’t a big enough band that we could go out there and play the hits like Alice Cooper can or like Thin Lizzy can. We just didn’t have that big of a catalog so I think it would be almost vital – if we’re going to tour, if we’re going to crank up that machine again, then we’re going to have to have some new music to be talking about, playing and be promoting and mix that into the catalog, as well.”
To shift gears over to begin discussing Damon’s move to Thin Lizzy, I led into the subject by mentioning what some of the chatter about his move was like among Boomerocity readers and fans. I asked Johnson what he had heard from his fans about the move.
“The people that really know me and the people who have followed my website and come to my acoustic shows and have really been a Damon Johnson fan, you could’ve asked any of them, ‘Hey, what would Damon decide to do’ and they would say, ‘Thin Lizzy without a question’. Yes, Alice is a bigger name in many countries – certainly in the United States.
“Alice has had 20-something guitar players in his line-up which blows a lot of peoples’ minds. They don’t even believe me when I tell them that but it’s a fact! Alice is a solo artist and that’s his band, it’s his entity, it’s his trademark. Essentially, for a guy like myself who has a big family and has a lot of people counting on him – it’s almost like a professional athlete. You go and play for a team. They bring you on, you work out a deal and say, ‘This is what I’m going to work for’. Then, another team will call you and say, ‘Hey, we can move some things around and we can draft you on this team and we can pay you twice as much money.’ Hey, man, it’s like getting a promotion in any other job. That’s the reality of life and I really laugh sometimes when I see people criticizing any band that’s out playing and go, ‘Oh, these guys are just out there for the money!’ That’s just life! You’re born. You go to school. You get a job, make money and then you die! That’s the whole gig! So, if your craft is guitar playing, then you’ve got to look for work as a guitar player.
“Alice has been such an amazing employer beyond being one of my best friends in the world. I always feel a little uncomfortable talking so much specifics about what’s up with it but I probably would’ve taking the Thin Lizzy job just on the sheer terms of the financials of it. But, like I said, anybody that knows me they know that it’s way beyond that. I would’ve taken a pay cut, Randy, to play with Thin Lizzy! That’s how much that it means to me, man! I would! That stuff changed my life.
“Was I a fan of Alice Cooper as a kid? Yes. I was a fan of some songs. But, bro, I can tell you, out of eleven studio records that Thin Lizzy made, I can tell you the song order on eight of them – what’s on side a and what’s on side b and who’s playing what guitar solo, what the lyrics are, what key it’s in. It’s just a different passion for me as a fan, as a guitar player and as a songwriter being associated with Thin Lizzy. This is actually fun for me to talk to you about this in such terms because, in a way, I can’t really say it any better than that. And, yeah, Alice is amazing and he’s a legend and an icon. The Thin Lizzy opportunity would’ve never happened for me had it not been for Alice. I owe him nothing but gratitude, love and support. I just saw him over New Year’s Eve and I know that I’ve got a home there – playing guitar for that guy for as long as he wants to keep doing it. And, I assure you, man, Alice Cooper is NOT going to retire at sixty-five. He’s gonna be doing this for a long, long time, as he should!
“When I used to listen to Thin Lizzy songs as a kid, it would bring me to tears or it would motivate me in some relationship I was in. I have countless stories about it, man! You know die-hard Beatles fans or die-hard Zeppelin fans? That’s the kind of fan I am of Thin Lizzy. And now I’m their guitar player! It’s unbelievable! That stuff just doesn’t happen!
“I went to see Ted Nugent in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1979 at the Vaun Braun Civic Center and we didn’t know who the opening act was until we walked in the building. One of the ushers or security people said, ‘Yeah, it’s this band, Thin Lizzy’. All I knew was The Boys Are Back In Town and those guys came out and just crushed my face! I was fifteen or sixteen and I hit the streets the next day looking for as much Thin Lizzy as I could get my hands on. It’s been almost an obsession for almost thirty years!
“Eric Bell. Brian Robertson. Gary Moore. Snowy White. John Sykes. And, now, Damon Johnson. Wow! Come on, man! Come on! Maybe I have done it for egotistical reasons, too. I mean what a list of names to be associated with! Every one of those guys are world class, amazing guitar players. And, ever since I’ve officially joined the band, I’m a part of every business meeting. I’m a part of every conversation about the set list, about new material, about the tour, about these dates. That’s incredible, man! That’s what I had with Brother Cane and I haven’t had that kind of thing since then. So, I feel a lot of pride and a lot of gratitude, man.
“It’s tough to compartmentalize that answer when someone says, ‘Hey! What was that guy thinking, man?! Alice is so much bigger!’ I’ll let you tell ‘em. You can explain it!” Damon says with a laugh.
“And I’ll tell you this, too, Randy, when I leave Sunday to go to London, we’ve got three days of production rehearsals and then we’re doing a four week run. We’re playing many of the exact same venues that I play with Alice and, in some cases, we’ve already sold those out. Not everybody can sell out 2,000, 3,000 seat venues. Thin Lizzy meant a great deal to European fans, much more than they did over here in the States. Then, I talk to fans in the U.K. and they don’t have a clue who Brother Cane is. They don’t have a clue, man, and we were a staple on rock radio for seven years. You couldn’t turn on rock radio and not hear a Brother Cane song. It just depends on timing and a lot of factors that are obviously out of your control.”
I had read recently that Johnson had a pretty sweet gig in Hawaii during the New Year’s celebrations. Among the rock and roll dignitaries who Damon performed with were Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Michael McDonald and Pat Simmons from the Doobie Brothers, and Mike Meyers. I asked him to tell me about that. With a laugh that reflected his “can you believe my luck” feelings, he responded by saying, “Yeah, man, that supports my statement earlier that I’m a part of the Alice Cooper family and, hopefully, will be for years to come. Yeah, it worked out that the band guys – Chuck (Garric), Tommy (Henriksen) and Glen (Sobel) – were going to come and work with Coop, who was going to be the featured act at this charity event that Alice’s manager has there in Maui every year.
“When the other artists that were going to be involved - when the guys found out who they were going to be backing up, they called me and said, ‘Dude! You need to be here for this, man!’ I had already played with Steven (Tyler) before and they knew that I was a big Doobie Brothers fan and played a lot of those songs throughout my life in the clubs and that kind of stuff. I was so excited that they called me. Steve Hunter couldn’t be there and (Damon’s replacement in Alice’s band) Orianthi was already booked doing her solo tour for her new record. So, yeah, man, I just went down there and had a blast! It was a great, great night and a great 3 ½ - 4 days. It was a lot of fun!”
Since you can hardly turn the TV on without seeing Steven Tyler on it, I asked if Damon had any plans to work with Tyler or, for that matter, with the Doobie Brothers again.
“Those things just kinda happen. I’ve got mutual friends in Steven’s camp. I’ve got mutual friends in the Doobie Brother’s camp so you just never know. But it’s cool man – you can see it in their body language that they get really comfortable really fast because they’ve all had to jam some of their classic material with a group of sidemen or some thrown together group for some charity event or some function, whatever. We really brought the ‘A Game’. We blew up those Aerosmith songs and the Doobie Brothers songs. It wasn’t even work, Randy. That was a labor of love right there, man!
Again reflecting his true humility and gratitude for the fruits of his musical labor, Damon, tells of the mind-blowing line-up for another charity event rock-out a few months ago.
“I’ve just had an incredible year. I played with Steven back in September in Vegas for that iHeartRadio event. So, on Sweet Emotion the band was myself, my friend, Marti Fredrickson, on drums, Steven on vocals, Jeff Beck on guitar, Sting on bass! That’s my bucket list band! I betcha if you could dig up old interviews, you’d say, ‘Who’s the best guitar player?’ I would’ve said, ‘Beck’. ‘Who’s the best bass player?’ I’ve said ‘Sting’ forever because I was such a fan of his songwriting. And, Tyler, he’s my top three – him, Paul Rodgers and - hell, I don’t know who the third guy is. Maybe it’s the top two!” Damon said, laughing.
Whenever I can, I like to poll you Boomerocity readers for questions that you would like to see asked of the people I interview. I don’t always get to use them but I do try to ask for suggestions from y’all. When I knew that I was going to chat with Damon again, I asked for question ideas. While I couldn’t use most of them (“Is Thin Lizzy anorexic?”), a musician friend of mine wanted to know what would Damon call his greatest career moment and which group did it come with.
“That’s a great question. I’d have to roll the clock back. Probably my biggest moment – my biggest gig ever – was when Brother Cane played Madison Square Garden, opening for Aerosmith. A year and a half before, we were still in a development deal with the label and I was looking for a singer. We had been through three singers already because I wanted to be a guitar player and just a guitar player. The label guy heard me sing in a bar one night, singing a couple of covers – ironically, a Thin Lizzy cover and a Doobie Brothers cover, thank you very much – and he shoved me behind the mic the next day in the studio. A year and a half later, we’re opening for Aerosmith at Madison Square Garden. We’ve got the number one rock track in America with Got No Shame. Wow! Hard to top that, man.
“There’s a couple of huge shows with Alice Cooper. We played that giant Wacken Festival in Germany in 2010 and it was 75,000 people. That’s a feeling you won’t ever forget. Walking on stage with Thin Lizzy for the first time in San Antonio, Texas, on October the 14th, 2011, that was a big one, too, man!”
Like some of you, I’ve never had the privilege of attending a Thin Lizzy gig so I asked Doman what people expect from a current Thin Lizzy show.
“You can expect a massive commitment to the great sound – the classic sound – that the band had. They’ve had a couple of different guitar players in recent years that were amazing but were also influenced by newer hard rock, metal guitar players – kind of the ‘post-Eddie Van Halen’ school. I’m a huge Eddie fan – huge fan – but we’ve had specific discussions about getting great guitar tone and, as Scott Gorham says, ‘that classic Lizzy sound’. We’re committed to doing that.
“They can expect that and they can expect to get their minds blown, Randy, at what an amazing front man Ricky Warwick is. Ricky is from Belfast. He grew up a Thin Lizzy fan his entire life and he’s had – I don’t want to say ‘a similar career as mine’ – he used to front a band called ‘The Almighty’ that was actually quite bigger than Brother Cane ever became. They did well in Europe and in Japan but weren’t able to keep it together. He’s done solo records and a lot of people in the industry knows Ricky and are very aware of his talent.
“Ricky’s a lot like Phil (Lynott). He’s a punk from the streets. He’s not Mr. Crooning Songsmith as Phil was not, either. There’s such a common ground in their spirit and their work ethic and their commitment to live performance. Ricky’s very inclusive of the audience. He brings everybody kind of inside, spiritually when we do these songs. Phil was always like that. I’m as excited about getting to work with Ricky as I am the other guys in the band and who are the original guys. It’s really special, man.”
So, what’s on the Thin Lizzy radar as far as projects and activities are concerned?
“These guys absolutely want to make a new record. Again, it’s such an honor for me, and really flattering, that they would now say, ‘okay, we’re ready to do this’ because there’s been facsimile out there, off and on, for the last ten years. But Scott and Brian never felt like they had the will or the energy to. It took them both a long, long time to get over Phil’s passing. They were thick as thieves, as they say. And, of course, Phil is a one-of-a-kind artist. He’s like Freddie Mercury or David Bowie. He’s just an icon, man! He wrote most of those songs.
“I know that they have so much confidence in Ricky’s position now as the singer. He’s a super talented songwriter. He’s not only got the songwriting chops, he’s also got the respect and commitment and he takes great pride in the Thin Lizzy name that they would want a guy take into the studio and make a new record. I certainly would be proud to add that to my list of accomplishments - that I co-wrote and performed on a Thin Lizzy record. Come on, man!
“Look, man, I get any and every naysayer that says, ‘um, you guys go out there and play the songs and it’s cool. I get it. But we gotta draw the line at new music because Phil was one of a kind.’ I don’t disagree with that. Phil was one of a kind. But Brian Downey went to high school with the guy and he played on every single record that that band ever made. When you’ve been a part of something that big and that successful, where’s the rule book that says you can’t carry the legacy on with some other guys. Queen did it. If Queen can do it, there’s no greater argument that I can come up with. Everything moves forward. We can’t go back. None of us can go back. We wish we could. We wish that we could’ve saved Phil. We wish that we could’ve done things differently – all of us in our lives and our careers.
“But Thin Lizzy is alive and well in 2012. It’s a six member band and it’s a band full of guys who are songwriters. It’s never been a band like that, you know? So, if we’re getting the green light from Brian, Scott and from Darren – Darren was the keyboard player on four of those studio records – to have their support and their enthusiasm to move forward, I’m gonna work as hard as I can to come up with great ideas and make a great record.”
To keep up with all things Thin Lizzy, Damon Johnson and Brother Cane, be sure and visit the links provided below. Trust me when I say that catching any gig that Damon Johnson is a part of promises to be a very good time for everyone. So, whether it’s with the great Thin Lizzy, Brother Cane or one of Damon’s solo acoustic gigs, you’ll definitely be in for a real treat.
Thin Lizzy Damon Johnson