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Henry Rollins Interviews Frederick Michael St. Jude on His Lost Classic 'Gang War'

A look into the lost and now thankfully released rock opera 'Gang War,' out now via Drag City and rescued from obscurity!
June 3, 2015, 4:22pm

Henry Rollins has been around the world and back, literally, with music. The artist, actor, and personality has been a music fan and collector since before his days slinging ice cream and that now infamous call from Greg Ginn to join his favorite band. His latest obsession is Frederick Michael St. Jude, and his obscure LP Gang War, out now via Drag City.

Frederick Michael St. Jude's story is an interesting one; the Florida-based musician slogged his way through the covers circuit, releasing an LP called Here Am I before crafting an ambitious rock opera called Gang War in 1982. The LP was all but lost in the years since, with a handful of tracks appearing on a self-released seven-inch.

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Now that Drag City have rescued this mammoth LP from purgatory, Henry Rollins has graciously cornered St. Jude to talk about the making of the record in an extensive interview spanning two parts (look for part two next Wednesday, June 10). Check out the beginning of their conversation below.

HENRY ROLLINS: Where were you, what year, what age, and where were you in your life and career when you first came up with the idea for Gang War ?
FREDERICK MICHAEL ST. JUDE: Well, the story there was, my guitar player Joey Christino and I had just left our last club band as far as I was concerned, I don’t know if he was ready, but he was ready to do some original stuff, and we were wandering around thinking about it, I told him, I said, “I’m gonna start writing, I want you to go find a recording studio.” So he went out and about all over South Florida, and he ended up coming back with VRT Studios in Fort Lauderdale, and it was just at that exact time that I had finished writing the title song, Gang War. It’s 1982, early.

Okay, "Here Am I" has come out and done its thing. That came out in 1977. When you wrote this song, did you have the idea of a concept record in mind, what came first, the idea for what would be basically a double album, almost an hour of music, so which came first?

I was directed by a muse, man. I got this monstrous muse that follows me around, and it’s there sometimes and sometimes it’s, like, missing in action. But at the time I wrote Gang War, it all flowed out of me like an unstoppable fountain. There was no idea, it was, the entire concept came at one time.

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At any time before, did you ever think about writing in this way? That is to say conceptually, where the songs would be part of a larger thing.
Yeah I did, way back in the early 70s when I was with a group called The Other Side, I had huge, monstrous ideas, but however I wasn’t very good at writing songs, but I wanted to do a massive concept back then, but these guys were into making money to feed the family. Again, I wasn’t very good at writing back then, so I did walk around most of my life with this thing drum beating in my head, but I just couldn’t get it going until one day I sat down and restrung my 12 string guitar, and bang, out came Gang War.

And so, after that first song, how quickly did the other material come together?
Within about 12 weeks.

Original 'Gang War' art

Original 'Gang War' Art

Wow! Okay, so. Let’s fast forward. Now we’re going into '82 or '83. So you have the songs. And it’s a massive recording project at any time, on any budget. Where are you at financially, to potentially take a bunch of people into a studio for a prolonged period of time, it’s not like you’re cutting two or three songs, this is going to be at least several days in the studio, right?

Oh, it was chronic. We were chronically in the studio. But here’s where that happens, this is where the power of God is, man. Norman Titcomb, the guy who owned the studio was so enraptured, so fascinated with our work that he just jumped in, and the man is a genius, a musical genius. Every time we would cut a basic track, we’d walk out of there and he’d jump on top of it and start laying out stuff. [Laughs] When we’d come back in, we’d be floored, and that’s the way Norman works. Of course we did pay him, whenever we could. We swapped equipment. I traded him old analog stuff which he really wanted to have, and we did all kinds of repair work on his studio, things like that just to make up for the time that we did use in recording. And it worked out perfectly.

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So, let’s talk about the actual making of Gang War. Are you doing two songs at a time? One song at a time, How long? How many days at your longest were you in the studio day after day?
I would have to say four hours, tops. Four hours tops, yeah. There were times when, like when we were doing ‘Chicago’s Burnin’’, Norman had written a track, gave it to me, I went home, and half an hour later I called him on the phone and said, ‘I’m coming back, we’re laying this out.’ And we cut that in 45 minutes but we still didn’t have a drummer. So we got this guy, his name is Larry Dynan, who was the manager of a fast food restaurant who just happened to wander in, and the guy was incredible! So we used him again on ‘ I Was Your Man’, which is from the same LP. And, I can’t say enough about him. My regular drummer, Gary Redente, sometimes he wasn’t available, work and things like that.

So it sounds like just one good thing happening after another. When one drummer isn’t available someone kind of magically walk in through the door, what were you thinking about all of this at the time?
Well, really nothing, Henry, that’s the way my life has been. Every time I open a door, either the door closes, slams in my face, which means don’t go there, or it opens very wide and there’s blessings laid out in front of me. Norman was a great blessing, Joey Christino was a great blessing, great guitar player, and everybody who worked on that LP was a blessing. I really can’t say anything negative about anybody or anything. Yeah, there were setbacks, like when Norman’s board broke down. I want you to know that that entire album was done on a 12 track Scully board. No 24, no 32, no 48. 12 track.

Frederick Michael St. Jude

So the total time, from the first day of tracking to when you walk out with all the final mixes, how many days or weeks are we talking about?
Well, we didn’t do every day of the week, but like I said, within 12 weeks it was done, and then I said to Joey, I said, “We’re taking this stuff to London, none of these American companies want to be bothered with it.” So we went to London, we spent some time there, got hooked up with Vic Flick, the guy who played the Goldfinger theme, and then we got hooked up with an agent by the name of Rosco Dean and went into a bunch of studios. They said we were too American, so that didn’t pan out. So I said to myself “New York, next stop.” Made some appointments, talked to a few people who thought they were interested but when they finally got around to finding out what was, there were just small two time companies. We went to the record company that was owned and operated by The Police, I can’t remember the name of their label. We had an appointment for 1:30PM. There were a bunch of girls sitting at the front desk, so we said to them that we had an appointment to review our material. “You have to go to the office that’s above, where the old Ed Sullivan building is.” Well, we went to the old Ed Sullivan building and to the second floor. Nothing but cobwebs and empty boxes. [Laughs] We went back to their office, and there was a sign on their door: “Out to Lunch.”

Aw! What a bad story. [Laughs] So you tried to get this record released, and it was unsuccessful. So what happens to the tapes for Gang War ?
Well I’m sure there’s still a bunch of tapes laying around somewhere over there in England, but the master tapes are in a warehouse in Miami. Norman has a warehouse down there and thank god he was smart enough to transpose everything over to digital format. So when it came time to press, all I had to do was hand them the digital.

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So you left the tapes with this British guy who was hopefully going to help you out?
Yeah, well, we left the tapes with Rosco, and I don’t know what Rosco did with them. Vic Flick didn’t have too much time for us. Of course, he’s a busy man he did a lot of recording studio work. But, I don’t think he even kept his tapes I think they ended up in the trash.

Oh that’s disappointing. Well let’s talk about the seven-inch, 33 1⁄3 RPM, four song EP that I got from you several months ago. It is basically like the most microscopic overview of Gang War. You got a little bit of the beginning, and a little bit towards the end, on a seven-inch.
Norman and I were sitting around at the studio one time, and I said to him that I’m going to press this thing. ‘Well what do you mean you’re going to press this, the whole thing?’ I said well, no, let’s go ahead and take the theme, and take the intro, and take the piano thing, and put that on a piece of wax and see what happens.

So I went ahead, out of my own pocket pressed 1000 copies, sent them out to all the college stations, got airplay up the Yin Yang, they loved it, they were looking for me to come and tour, I didn’t have a band! So, anyway, got interview after interview, radio show after radio show, and when it came time to finally do a big plunge, I had zero dollars. No way to do it. So basically, we just laid there in limbo together.

So, over the decades, you keep making music, you keep playing…the 80s turn into the 90s, the 2000s, and here we are, 2015. What is your evaluation of Gang War after thirty some years after completion?
Well, if you ask me, it turned out to be troublingly prophetic, a lot of the things that I talk about in the main theme songs are going on right now. People ask me what’s Gang War about, and I gotta tell em, it’s 50 years after monster, monster chaos. America, and all the civilized countries are going through anarchy, it’s people against people and people against the government, just like what’s happening now. And it just ends up where as it all dies out, the anarchists die off, but the gangs take over the streets, everything still remains the same. There’s record companies, there’s radio, there’s supermarkets… it’s not the glory heyday of America or elsewhere but it’s still civilization to a point. And basically, our hero of the story not only is a gang fighter and a street fighter, but he’s also a musician, and he wants to make it. But in between all the chaos, deviation from his chosen path, which is music, and his terrible relations with women, [Laughs] He’s got some heartbreaking songs in there.

When you get to the end song that basically sums it up. I was asked who are the gardens of the talents of men, they’re our inner selves. They’re our emotions. They’re what speak to us, ‘do this’, ‘don’t do that’, ‘watch out for this’, ‘watch out for that’. Those are the gardens of your talents. And, Gang War is basically a homage to persistence, dedication, and fortitude.

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I agree. Several months ago, I got a letter from Neil Hamburger, and he knows I have a radio show. He must listen or at least be aware of it, and he sent me one of your songs, From Here Am I. He said, I know what you like because I listen to your show, you should check this song out. And I went, woah! I’ll play this right now. I immediately wrote him back and said, I’m plugging this into my next show. I raved about you to the listeners and said, I don’t know much about this guy or his history or this song, but I like it.

I got back in touch with Neil, and that took me back to Drag City and they hooked me up with tracks. I eventually went out and bought the vinyl. Then I went on Discogs, the website, and I found an original copy just because I have to have that. Now my listeners are hearing about you from our humble efforts, and so thirty some years later after the completion of Here Am I and Gang War, you and I get in touch. I tried to buy the Gang War seven-inch and you very generously said, “your money’s no good here” and sent it to me. I played it and was pretty blown away.

I think it was Hamburger who told me, that it was part of a bigger thing. We got back in touch and you generously sent me a CDR of the record. I immediately played it and I didn’t know what to expect. I was blown away at how good the songs were. You’ve been sitting on this fantastic secret for decades, and now everyone very easy access to Gang War. I want to know what you think about this journey, with Here Am I and Gang War, through Drag City, back into the world with your music?
Okay! Henry, God bless you man, everything you’ve done for me is deeply appreciated, I couldn’t believe that the lead singer from Black Flag was taking an interest in little old me. [Laughs].I had a magazine way back when, called Zazz, we covered the scene down in South Florida and we did a story on Black Flag.

Back to Mr. Hamburger. One night I get a phone call from one of my old guitar players in Pennsylvania, George Takartrik, he was the lead guitar player for my band Mercy Sake. We were a very popular band, we got on a lot of TV shows. “Fred, there’s some guy trying to find you man, I was just on the internet, and this guy wants to know if I know where you are!” I said OK and got a phone call about three or four days later. “Hi, Fred, you don’t know me but my name’s Neil Hamburger. I’m trying to find you man, because we want to re­release Here Am I.” He and his friend Brandon had a label up in Oregon or Washington, and that’s the label where they wanted to release it.

But that whole thing fell apart, so Neil said to me “I’m working with Drag City, they release my comedy albums. I’m going to see if we can’t get them to release Here Am I. So he worked on it, and God bless him he finally got it. Then I said to him, well what about Gang War? They said, yeah let’s do it, this is a monster. So, because of Neil Hamburger, I got to meet you, I got to get into Drag City, and Gang War got released! And I’ll sum it up with this one little phrase: To everything there is a season.