XII. Steve Perry And The Miracle Of Voice

Feeling nostalgic, I bought Journey: The Escape Tour Live In Houston 1981 on DVD. In shock, I watched it with my jaw dropped from how great it was. I’m not sure whether it’s because I was a kid when that album came out, or the fact that they were a bona fide monster rock and roll band, or both, but whatever it was, watching Journey captured at the height of their fame and collective power was a transcendent musical experience, something that has become more and more rare the longer I listen. I have dim memories of this concert airing on MTV at the time (the reason they have this precious footage in the first place) and I was a big enough fan to ask and wait with baited breath for a copy of Escape as a Hanukah gift that December. But twenty-five years later, with several generations of shifting pop music in between, I had forgotten just how great this band was; how great their songs were, how great they played and sang, and especially how amazingly powerful their lead singer was.

In this beautiful time capsule of a video, Steve Perry is dressed in tight blue jeans, a funny yellow shirt with black leopard dots and a tuxedo jacket with tails. It’s absurd. And yet, when he opens his mouth and that voice comes tumbling out, he not only sounds perfect, he looks perfect, the personification of the early-’80’s. The rest of the band are dressed in kind, and they all look rightly of their time in their skin-tight Jordache. Guitarist Neal Schon’s ripped MTV t-shirt says it all. Drummer extraordinaire Steve Smith actually has his t-shirt tucked in. No, it does not date well, but then again, it does. There’s a humility to the way they look. You can tell they were down-to-earth guys letting their music do the talking, having the time of their lives playing to this sold-out crowd in Houston, their latest album selling millions, their songs all over the radio. Reliving this innocent moment in time and of my life, I got the chills over and over.

The band came racing out of the gate with the title track of the new album and proceeded to tear through no less than seven more from it, also treating the audience along the way to by-then-classics like “Lights,” “Wheel In The Sky,” and “Any Way You Want It.” Steve Perry was a physical dynamo, running and jumping for ecstatic joy back and forth across the stage the entire show, leading his band through a barrage of one great song after another, singing with such peerless effortlessness, I began to feel dizzy from disbelief. Now everybody knows he was and still is one of the great singers, but to watch him do what he could do with a melody in a live setting above a full-throttle rock band defies description. Aside from Stevie Wonder, I don’t think I’ve seen another vocalist so in control of his gift or his craft, choosing any note he wanted at any time, reaching for and achieving whatever emotional effect the moment called for. He could croon like a breeze straight out of heaven at the end of “Mother, Father” or open it wide and pour out such pure and sustained vocal power, it made my knees weak and my head swoon. I can only imagine what young girls of the time must have felt listening to this man sing. No wonder they sold millions.

Which got me thinking about what a miracle it is when someone can sing like that. The effect it had on me (and every person in that Houston crowd that night as well) was one of inspiration, excitement and healing. You can’t help but feel euphoric from it. This guy had it all: power like that of a bright shining light in your eyes, a one of a kind sound - sweet, elastic and round, like taffy or fudge to the ear, and on top of this, a seemingly endless vocal range. Steve Perry could sing any note he wanted and every one of them was pure and dead on. It’s the same feeling you get from watching Michael Jordan play basketball. Shock and awe. Glee. Disbelief. Like watching a great gymnast or figure skater nail a perfect score in The Olympics. Watching Prince play lead guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame show a few years ago gave the same buzz. Witnessing limitless natural ability combined with years of diligent work and practice to produce a miracle of humanity is a humbling and wonderful thing.

And I might just be an old softie now, longing for something all-but-gone from current pop music, but it’s tough to beat the dynamic melodic sweep of jewels like “Open Arms,” “Who’s Cryin’ Now,” “Stone In Love,” and the all-time butt-kicker that is “Don’t Stop Believin’”. It could be the greatest song ever. When Steve sings “Steetlight - people - oh-oh-ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…” and hits and holds that note, there are few emotional rushes like it. You know the one I’m talking about, right? That real high one? I’m pretty sure it’s a B natural. Unbelievable. Euphoria and joy. Romance and elation. Rock and Roll. I was eleven again. And glad to be alive.

And Neal Schon, by the way, is one hell of a great guitar player. Wow.

March '06

It's OK, it's alright, it's OK, it's alright, it's OK
And if it makes you want to jump and shout, go ahead.