Pittsburgh’s own Joe Grushecky is one of the most genuine, authentic artists in rock and roll. He is also arguably the most honest. Grushecky first became known in the late 1970s as a member of the Iron City Houserockers (later the Houserockers), before forming Joe Grushecky & the Houserockers in 1989, and then striking out as a solo artist, Over the past few years, I have been fortunate to speak with him many times about his career. In each moment, Joe has been remarkably candid about his career wins and losses, and in a recent exchange about the re-release of Joe Grushecky & The Houserockers’ 1995 masterpiece, American Babylon, he was as open as ever. An expanded 25th Anniversary edition of the album is set for digital and streaming release on October 29, with a vinyl LP set to follow early in 2022.
American Babylon was produced by Bruce Springsteen, whose friendship with Grushecky predates the album’s sessions and has continued since, often marked by live guest shots in each other’s shows. That friendship first took musical root in this great record, where the best of both artists finds a seat at the table. The record has roots-rock appeal and a sense of style and grace that began to appear regularly in Bruce Springsteen’s music starting with 1987’s Tunnel of Love. It’s a stunning collaborative achievement.
As solid as American Babylon’s sound may be, the stories behind making of the record reflect a sense of daring, commitment, and grace that underscore why Joe Grushecky has become such a beloved fixture among the people his songs celebrate. His music honors grit, perseverance, and pride in the people and places we call home.
We spoke to Joe about this record and the role it has continued to play in his career. But what we talked about most was the enduring friendship he enjoys with one of rock’s best and the way that Grushecky’s friendship with Springsteen continues to help chart his unconventional rock path.
Ray Chelstowski: How did your relationship with Bruce Springsteen begin?
Joe Grushecky: Well, Steve Van Zandt had worked on [the 1980 album] Have a Good Time But Get Out Alive! and we were recording that at the same time that Bruce was recording The River. In the course of the recording, I came home from New York for a couple weeks. When I returned, I headed to meet with Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter, who were working on Have a Good Time, got into town the night before we supposed to start work in the studio. Mick was working on [a] Meat Loaf record. He had a super band. Meat Loaf was singing, Gary (Tallent), Max (Weinberg) [both from the E Street Band], [session pianist] Nicky Hopkins, and Davey Johnston [from Elton John’s band] were the band, and they were recording down at the Power Station. I was invited to hang out and ran into Steve, and he introduced me to Bruce. That was our first meeting. When Blood On The Bricks had come out a year later, I was talking to one of the guys from MCA. He said, “you’re friends with Bruce Springsteen, right?” I [answered], “Well I’m a fan of his but I can’t say we’re friends.” He told me that Bruce had said in a magazine interview that we were one of his favorite bands. That opened the door a little bit.
RC: Why did it take so long after first meeting Bruce to collaborate together like this?
JG: Well, I had my own career to focus on. I was working with really good people. At that point Bruce had reached superstar status. In 1992 I put out the album End of the Century. We were getting great press for the record but I couldn’t get arrested. The gigs were terrible and I had fallen off the radar here in Pittsburgh, probably because we weren’t [called] The Iron City Houserockers anymore. We also had just gone through that terrible phase in Pittsburgh’s history where we had lost a third of our population due to the slowdown at the steel mills. That had completely transformed the entire town. So, I went back to teaching, working in a school with really poorly behaved, emotionally distressed students. We had a school for students with the worst behavioral problems in western Pennsylvania. It was very stressful working there. Then two nights a week I was teaching people to get their GED [diplomas]. I had a steady Wednesday night gig and I played every Friday and Saturday. I was burning myself out.
RC: Where was your music during this time?
JG: After End Of The Century, I wasn’t coming up with anything really great musically. So, my wife suggested that I give Bruce a call to see if he would play guitar on one song. I got in touch with Jon Landau (Springsteen’s manager). I was playing an acoustic gig one night in a Mexican restaurant, which was rare because I don’t do covers and few people knew my music. During a break, the manager of the restaurant comes up and tells me that my wife had just called and that she wanted me to call her back. I went back into the kitchen, [standing next to] all of the pots and pans, and called her back. She said, “Bruce Springsteen just called. You should try him back right now.” I called Bruce and he invited me out to Los Angeles. So, by hook or crook, meaning I probably had to borrow the money from my mom and dad, I headed to Los Angeles and we started working.
Things were going well and Bruce said, “when I’m back East let’s finish these songs up.” The first two demos [we did] are on the reissue. He was having fun, I was having fun, and he suggested that we finish [the record] off at The Hit Factory in New York. So that’s what we did. I played him a few other songs that I had with me on a cassette and he said, “man these songs aren’t very good. You can do better than that.”
So, I got home from Los Angeles knowing that I was going to finish things in New York with Bruce, and one of my buddies handed me a book called Homestead. Homestead was a quintessential steel mill town in western Pennsylvania. There was a bus stop for us to go to high school, and [another] for the grown men to go to the steel mills. In the summertime my friends’ dads would take us to the steel mills. At the time my Dad was fixing cars. He had had enough of the mills and the mines, but everybody else in my town was working at Homestead.
The guys a couple of years older than me would get out of high school and go work at Homestead and be swimming in money. This was during the Vietnam War and these mills went twenty-four hours a day. Back in the early 1980s The Houserockers, with a couple of other bands, helped establish the first food bank for the unemployed, I think [the first one] in the country, because Dan Rather had us on CBS News. And of course, when Bruce became huge, one of the things he always did was make people aware of the food banks. He too established a relationship with the people at Homestead. Over the years I grew to know these guys. So, when my friend ,Richard Green, gave me this book it inspired me to write a song about that town.
I basically had the lyrics as they are now with the song, but I couldn’t come up with any good music. I was in my batter’s slump of songwriting, battling the Mendoza Line. During the sessions I handed the lyrics to Bruce and said, “if you can do something with this, be my guest.” Personally, I thought I was going out on a limb because he is one of the best lyricists of all time. It [was] like handing Bob Dylan lyrics.
RC: What happened next?
JG: I get back to the school I was teaching at and my supervisor comes up to me she says, “I don’t know how to say this to you but the principal of the school told me that if you take off to work with Bruce Springsteen again he’s going to fire you.” I said, “WHAT?!” This blew my mind because I was at a school where they couldn’t get people to work. People would work two days and quit. It was a sh*tty job, sh*tty pay, sh*tty conditions. I showed up every day to do my job. I took time off without pay to work with Bruce Springsteen and now they wanted to fire me for it? Why I don’t know to this day.
I told her that I thought we were done with the project, but she warned me to be careful. This was on a Friday, and that night I got a call from Bruce and he plays me “Homestead” on the phone. I said, “that’s great!”. He said, “let’s record this.” I said, “When?” He said, “Tuesday.” I went, “oh sh*t.” So, I called in sick to work and we flew out Monday night to Bruce’s house. We were working in his study on this song and Patti (Scialfa, Bruce’s wife) comes in with the phone and she says, “your mom called and she wants you to call her back right away,” My mom and dad were watching the kids and immediately [my] mind goes to something being wrong with them. I called home and my mom told me that the principal had just called and if I didn’t call them back in fifteen minutes I’d be fired. So, Bruce is playing the song, and I ask him to be quiet for just a minute. I called work and the principal gets on and says, “you’re not with Bruce Springsteen, are you?” I [answered] no, I’m sick. Why would I be with Bruce Springsteen?” He told me to not come back [to work] unless I had a doctor’s excuse. Luckily one of my good friends was a doctor and wrote me an excuse. When it came time to promote the record the principal wouldn’t give me the time off so I ended up quitting – true story.
RC: This record has a lot more varied stylistic elements that anything you had done previously.
JG: Well, you’re playing with Bruce Springsteen, and he’s bringing all of his years of experience to the music. I was probably more straight ahead than Bruce was. Pittsburgh [music] has a bluesy, dirtier sound. But I was really open to all of his ideas. We didn’t even [really] finish “Talk Show” and “Coming Down Maria” but I put them on the record anyway.
RC: This was your last major label release, correct?
JG: Razor & Tie dropped me after End Of The Century. They had a change of heart when they heard American Babylon. [At first] we couldn’t get anyone to put it out. Most people were saying that I was too old. Then they dropped me again and basically I‘ve been independent ever since. I thought I had found a home at Razor & Tie, but apparently they didn’t feel the same way (laughs).
RC: How long has this project been in the works?
JG: A friend of mine who is a blogger told me that his favorite album of the 1990s was American Babylon. He was interviewing me and asked if I was going to re-release American Babylon for [its 25th] anniversary, just as I had [done] for Have A Good Time But Get Out Alive! I hadn’t even thought of it to tell you the truth. We had these live tracks, and I decided to go through some of the demos that we had done [and add them to the reissue]. But it all took a lot longer this time because of the pandemic.
RC: What are you hoping for with this re-release?
JG: I’m hoping more Bruce Springsteen fans get turned on to it this time. When it came out originally, I was like this character from left field. I don’t think people really knew how to receive it back then. Hopefully people will listen to it with open ears because I think it’s a really good record.
Header image from www.joegrushecky.com.