Front man for 61 Ghosts talks about his ‘crazy and chaotic’ time in rock icon Johnny Thunders’ band
Front man Mazzari, who currently lives in southern Maine, began his stage career during the Boston rock scene in the early 1980s, playing guitar and singing for The Daughters. The Daughters eventually became the backing band for Johnny Thunders, guitarist and singer-songwriter for the New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers. Mazzari equates this experience to an unlikely stroke of good fortune to spend a few years on the road and recording three albums – “Diary of A Lover,” “In Cold Blood,” and “Internal Possession” – with the cultural rock icon he listened to as a teen. During that time with Thunders, Mazzari played alongside musicians such as Jerry Nolan (New York Dolls) and Walter Lure (The Heartbreakers.) I caught up with Mazzari before he left to begin touring with 61 Ghosts this spring to ask about his time with Thunders and how that influenced his subsequent stage presence.
How did you first connect with Johnny Thunders?
"It’s kind of crazy. When I was in my late teens living in Florida my friend Simon (Ritt) and I would play an 8-track tape of the New York Dolls while driving around. I was always moved hearing “Chatterbox,” especially Johnny’s lead guitar, finding his playing so raw and full of passion, thinking if he can do that, why can’t I? His playing, overall, had so much energy and attitude to me, and made me not only want to play music, but to play that style of rock ‘n’ roll. Fast forward to the early 1980s, when Simon and I played in The Daughters, we asked our manager Jim Nestor if there was any way he could arrange with Johnny’s manager for us to open for him. He made it happen, and we ended up playing a number of opening slots for him. On occasion, Johnny would come up during our set and sing songs such as “Louie, Louie,” “Gloria” and “Chatterbox.” It was always a surreal experience for me to hear Johnny singing “Chatterbox” in my band considering he was one of the reasons I started playing guitar in the first place."
How did the Daughters become Thunders’ backing band?
"As time went on, Johnny enjoyed playing with our band – it was the right fit for him at that time. It was a valuable opportunity for me to watch him play up close. He and his manager saw that we were dependable and passionate about playing with Johnny."
What was it like playing in a band fronted by an artist who was a well-known drug addict?
"It could be frustrating as hell at times. He often said he wouldn’t wish his addiction on his worst enemy. I could go into a lot of stories about the difficulties of playing with a person with an addictive behavior. It took a lot of effort to work with him – he was so unpredictable. I remember Johnny wanted to “get clean” before one of our tours. Our manager Jim (Nestor) decided his basement in Lynn, Mass., would be the best place to keep him away from his sources. What Johnny wasn’t aware of is that he would be under house arrest for a few days. There were a few years of catering to that craziness, but the experience was completely worth it."
That sounds like a hectic time. What did you take from it?
"Here you had this relatively slight guy commanding the stage with a huge presence. He could play wrong chords or sing the wrong lyrics, but still exuded confidence. I once asked him when he met up with David Johansen, one of his former New York Dolls band members, if he’d ever play with him again, and he answered, “Take any opportunity that presents itself to you.” However, I’d like to make it clear here that there was also a nice side to Johnny. He could be generous in many ways as when he gave The Daughters one of his unreleased songs, “Are You Living,” which 61 Ghosts now covers. I also enjoyed talking with Johnny about music, bands and recounting his past experiences. He had an incredibly cutting sense of humor, which I found really entertaining."
How do you think Johnny felt being labeled as one of the original punk rock musicians?
"He despised that description. He considered himself a rock ‘n’ roll musician and his influences were early rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and the blues. I remember the day Johnny mentioned he’d be jamming with Hubert Sumlin who was Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. Johnny didn’t generally show a lot of enthusiasm, but he was definitely thrilled to play with Hubert that day."
Drugs were pretty much considered a given during the music scene in the 1970s and 1980s. How did you manage not to get caught up in it?
"We saw first-hand what drugs could do and we didn’t want to ruin a good opportunity. I’m not going to say we were choirboys, but we knew our limits."
What happened to The Daughters?
"The years playing with Johnny dissolved when he had to leave the country over a legal matter. Johnny whacked a guy over the head with his guitar. I’m guessing the guy probably had it coming to him. There were lots of occasions when people in the front row thought it was okay to toss insults, beer or spit at us on stage without repercussions. Sometimes they found out it wasn’t a good idea. As far as The Daughters, we ended up having an album produced in 1982 at Euphoria Sound Studios in Revere, Massachusetts, with Jimmy Miller who worked with the RolIing Stones, Motorhead and Traffic. It was a real pleasure to work with Jimmy – a very distinguished gentleman – and specially to hear his stories of working with such influential artists of that era. The album we created was finally released a few years ago through Rave Up Records in Italy."
Going forward, what influence did Thunders’ playing have on your subsequent bands?
"I took that experience of just being confident on stage when I co-formed the Boston-based band, Two Saints. The band played up and down the East Coast, did three tours of the United Kingdom, released two albums and a handful of 45s. During the late 1990s, I played guitar in the English band Pussy Crush, contributing a couple of songs to their releases, and appearing with the band on John Peels' BBC radio show."
You also fronted The Joe Mazzari Band and Jacknife Beat as well as recording a solo CD a few years ago, “Chasing 61 Ghosts,” which brings us to the present. Your newest band, 61 Ghosts, is about to hit the road. Looking back at the time you spent with Thunders, is there anything you still carry with you from what you call “crazy and chaotic years?”
"Playing with passion, confidence and conviction. I also learned that it’s okay to chase your dreams – from playing with someone you idolized as a teen driving around in Simon’s Maverick, listening to the New York Dolls 8-track tape, to the present, and I’m still as passionate being on the road and writing and recording new music with Dixie Deadwood."
Suzanne Laurent is a freelance writer/photographer based in Portsmouth, N.H. She is a regular contributor to the Portsmouth Herald and her work has been featured in the Eagle Tribune (No. Andover, Mass.), the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader, New Hampshire Magazine, and Arts around Boston. For more information on this article, contact writer Suzanne Laurent at 603.475.0875 or email@example.com
A road tested powerhouse of tenacious American blues throttled with grit and volume, the 61 Ghosts album, …to the edge, is a collection of half a dozen songs possessing a tradition all their own. Think of it as Mississippi hill country meets streetwise punk, creating a singular guitar-driven brand of music. With Joe Mazzari on lead guitar and vocals, Dixie Deadwood playing drums, percussion and adding backing vocals, get ready for the 61 Ghosts.
The Band’s Spectral Core
Who is your favorite guitar player? Any 61 Ghosts fan will tell you Joe Mazzari and with good reason. Flanked by professionals Dixie and J.D., Mazzari, who recorded and toured with legendary New York Dolls axe slinger Johnny Thunders is clearly the heart and soul of 61 Ghosts. If there is any question, take a listen to “Heartbeat,” the opening track from the album and you can hear how the trio functions as a tightly knit crew with Joe at the helm. In between the guitar leads, rhythmic fretboard fills and lyrics, a Rolling Stones R&B-type of groove sets the pace. But there is more from …to the edge. While “World Gone Crazy” begins with a plugged-in almost stop-time swagger, “Show Me Your Scars” is an aggressively strummed acoustic cut of musical sincerity. “Passion Tipped Arrow,” the only other acoustic song on the album, is no less compelling. “If Tears Were Dirt” delivers a similar expressive edginess. Unplugged or electric, live and in the studio, Joe Mazzari and the Ghosts have the situation well covered. Surely …to the edge is among 2017’s best indie album picks. Available as a download or CD, the Ghosts next release will include vinyl. A Totally Domestic Sound from Joe’s weathered Gibson® and Dixie’s Peridore Custom Sticks drumsticks to the vintage Danelectro basses J.D. often handles, 61 Ghosts truly is an American band. That being said, the group has been likened to “being dragged behind an old Harley through the Americana Badlands.” Even the name makes you think of Bob Dylan’s famous “Highway 61 Revisited,” a street in the US, no doubt. In fact, 61 Ghosts will be bringing its show on the road for a European tour during 2018. We caught up with Joe Mazzari where he talks about the 61 Ghosts and other matters.
Interview with Joe Mazzari of 61 Ghosts
You’ve described the music of 61 Ghosts as “primal” and “indie blues.” How so?
“The indie blues label is coming from a number of people in the blues world who have seen the music going in this direction for quite a while. The newer fans of blues are coming from the indie rock scene, which we’re pleased about since that’s primarily my background. Having been in various rock bands over the years my music has always had blues at the root. Even my acoustics are drawn from the older blues greats and also the Dylans and Lightfoots though with a bit more of a rougher edge. Dixie, who plays drums and sings backup, is very much blues influenced. She plays Mississippi hill country style. I really love the mix of the two styles that we’ve blended together. The primal part of our description is simply not over complicating the music. Strip down the songs; say a lot with a little. Think Howlin Wolf meets Link Wray meets Rory Gallagher with songs that hopefully pull you into the lyrics. The words are not all ‘baby, baby, moon in June, left my girl’ and all that. Instead, they tried to dig into a story and get to the marrow of the subject and paint a picture, but not preach. I really loved how the old blues guys could say so much with a handful of words and a moan or a howl.” With songs like “Heartbeat,” “World Gone Crazy” and “Show Me Your Scars,” the debut album from 61 Ghosts surely is guitar-driven music, both acoustic and electric."
Do you play all of the guitars?
“As far as the guitar playing on our CD, yes, I play the electric and acoustic. I’m the only guitar player in the band. J.D. Sipe plays bass on this album and Dixie plays drums, though she and I are primarily a duo.”
Can you tell us a little about the European tour in 2018? "We’re very fortunate to have folks working with us and a part of the plan in securing a European tour for 2018.
“Our publicist has done a great job getting us air play and press overseas, as well as in the states. We also have our booking agent working on dates, as well as festivals here in the US. Hoping to have everything firmed up before too long.”
Being a bandmate of the legendary Johnny Thunders, do you think he could have reached the same creative highs without his notoriously addictive behavior?
“I feel he would have reached his cult status without drugs. I had the good fortune of playing and recording with Johnny for a few years in the early 80s.Life was definitely in Technicolor for that period of time with lots of stories to be sure. But one thing I can say about the drug use is I firmly believe it held him back. He wasn’t addicted in the New York Dolls and he wouldn’t have had the attitude and great freewheeling style he had if he were messed up. He [Johnny] told me on many occasions he wouldn’t wish his addiction on his worst enemy. The time he spent trying to get healthy he could have put into his music and a normal life. He didn’t need to use to be creative. No doubt it shapes a personality and those times were the toughest to deal with. The drugs were a total waste. Lots of life lessons learned in those days. My bands saw firsthand what the results could be. Too many people learned the hard lessons.”
We have to ask about the blond semi-hollow body guitar you play in several videos. Is that the guitar you used on …to the edge?
“The blond guitar I play is a 73 or 74 Gibson® Les Paul Signature model. I use it on stage and in the studio and have had it for decades. The original pickups rotted out from sweat a few years back. I had them replaced and a few other items, from being worn out, but so lucky to still have it. Definitely been a close friend over the years.”
Is it true the band will release the next album on vinyl? What do you like about wax recordings?
“We’re thinking about vinyl and a download for the next release as well as CDs. Vinyl has that warm sound and I love the old days of looking at the art work and reading the liner notes.”
Where can fans see and hear 61 Ghosts?
“Fans can find us at http://www.61ghosts.com and Facebook. We’re presently on between 100 -200 radio stations and still working on our CD. Dixie and I play quite a bit with lots of time on the road. We’re heading back to Texas in January. We’re just back from Florida, setting up the southern tour, which will end up on the west coast. And of course, there is the overseas trip next year and the festivals. We truly appreciate the interest.” ~ Music Interview Magazine Paul J. Wolfle (Special thanks to Scott Hankosky from Hanks Americana Radio at HanksAmericana.com.)