San Francisco rock legends, The Tubes, set out on their journey of musical excellence 40 years ago. The legendary trek began with their debut self-titled album, released in June of 1975. The album was produced by Al Kooper and included the unforgettable song, “White Punks on Dope.” The band quickly became known for live performances that combine lewd quasi-pornography and wild satires of media, consumerism and politics. Most of all, it was their classic songwriting which allowed The Tubes to etch a unique place in rock music history.
The Tubes are best remembered for their 1983 single “She’s a Beauty,” a top three U.S. hit single bolstered by a frequently-played music video in the early days of MTV. Other classic hits include: “Talk To Ya Later,” “Don’t Touch Me There,” “Young and Rich,” “White Punks on Dope,” “Mondo Bondage,” “Sushi Girl,” “Prime Time,” “The Monkey Time,” “Piece by Piece” and “What Do You Want From Life?” The band is currently the midst of their 40th anniversary tour with the current five-man lineup featuring four original members – Fee Waybill (lead vocals), Roger Steen (guitar), Rick Anderson (bass) and Prairie Prince (drums), plus David Medd (keyboards.).
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with The Tubes’ Fee Waybill to discuss his unique career, the longevity of band, his songwriting process and what we can expect from one of rock’s legendary personalities in the years to come!
Let’s start by going back to the beginning. How did music enter your life and what drove you to pursue it as a career?
I will tell you, my mother was a singer. She grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. When she was a kid, she was terrific and she used to sing with the big bands that would come through town. A lot of time they didn’t carry a singer and they would have an audition when they came to town. She sang with Tex Beneke and a lot of these big orchestras. They would do standards and everyone knew these songs. There was always music in our house. When I was a kid, we always had a record player, we were always playing records and she was singing all the time. It was instilled in me through her. I was always singing, as well. I remember the first record I ever bought was Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill.” That is dating me! [laughs] I used to work and spend all my money on records. Another thing my mother always did was get Broadway musical soundtracks like “Funny Girl,” “Redhead” and “Can-Can.” We used to sing all the time. Everybody sang! When The Beatles came out, it changed everything. I was just going into high school and The Beatles were it for me! I said, “OK. I want to be in a band. I want to be a singer in a band.”
When I moved to San Fransisco with Roger [Steen] and Prairie [Prince], I was the roadie. I drove the truck and carried their equipment around in San Francisco! It was just by chance that I found the position I did. They began merging with another band from Phoenix, who had moved to San Fransisco, where there were two guitar players and two drummers. The bass player kind of disappeared. The other band already had three guys who were roadies. I just said, “I will sing background vocals.” It wasn’t like anybody was getting paid back then! [laughs] We were lucky to have enough money to buy a 25-pound bag of brown rice at the farmer’s market! So, I got my start as a background singer when the two bands merged! This is before The Tubes. Roger had a band called The Red, White and Blues Band and Bill Spooner had a band called The Beans. We ended up having to change the name of the band because, before we got a record deal or had any real popularity, there was another band from New York called The Beans. They had an album in the early ‘70s. We had to come up with another name. We were really visual and all obsessed with television. One of the first characters was that of a TV game show host, who was kind of like Gene Rayburn or whatever. We were originally going to call ourselves The Boob Tubes because that is what they called television at the time. We decided not to because we didn’t want to make fun of ourselves. That led us to using the name The Tubes.
Here we are 40 years later! To what do you attribute your longevity as an artist?
That is a good question. First of all I think, because we were so theatrical, it gave us an advantage. Every time we do a show, we do something new. When we do these venues over and over again, it is a new show every time. People who have seen us before know that if they come back to see us again, they are going to see something different. They might not see a bunch of completely different songs but they will see a whole new show with me doing different characters and so on. It’s not like Cheap Trick who have been doing the same set for 30 years and you pretty much know what you are going to get! I think it is that coupled with the fact the songs are great! These songs still stand up 40 years later. We just played in Ottawa, Canada at the first night of The Ottawa Blues Festival. We played to 10,000 people! It was a big outdoor show and 10,000 people sang “White Punks On Dope.” It was unbelievable! I was stunned and I couldn’t believe it! Everybody sang “White Punks On Dope.” People sang along with me on “Amnesia,” “Talk To You Later” and “She’s A Beauty.” The songs stand up! They are high quality songs. I was talking to someone recently and I was saying there are no Tubes tribute bands because they can’t play the songs! [laughs] They are not easy songs to play. They are Bon Jovi 1, 4, 5 chords that anybody on Earth can play. I’m sorry if you are a Bon Jovi fan. I’m just jealous. He has billions! [laughs] I’m not really … [laughs] I think the quality of the songs allows them to stand the test of time.
You have been very successful as a songwriter and I know you have also been busy writing poetry. How has the songwriting evolved through the years and how does it compare and contrast to your poetry work?
It’s funny. When I was a kid, when The Beatles first came out, I used to change the lyrics to songs I liked just to write lyrics. I have always been writing in some way. When we first got together as a band, when Roger’s band and Bill’s band merged, we had a lot of material. I was the roadie, so I didn’t have a lot of input into songwriting. After the second album, we had used up the song reserve that we had. I started wanting to contribute to lyric writing with the other guys. That is when I started, on the third album and the live album. Then for “Remote Control,” the fifth album, it was a concept I came up with completely.
A very good friend of mine is a guy named Richard Marx, who I am sure you have heard of, and he has been my best friend for 35 years. When he first came out to L.A., he was from Chicago, he was starting out as a songwriter and was trying to pitch songs. He has songs with Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Keith Urban, N*Sync and all kinds of people. When he first came out to L.A., he wanted to meet David Foster because he thought he was a great producer, which he is. Richard came to the studio and we were doing a record with David Foster, which I believe was “The Completion Backward Principle.” Richard heard these songs and read the lyrics and said, “Wow!” He asked me if I would write with him. He said, “I think your lyrics are really great. I am kind of a ballad singer and write love songs but I think your lyrics are great. I want to write with you. I want you to teach me how you put songs together and how you write.” I said, “Yeah. Sure! No problem!” He was like 18 years old or something at the time. We started writing together and we have probably written 30 or 40 songs together. I have had songs on all of his records.
Like I was saying before, one of the things I truly believe about songwriting is to never second guess yourself. Write what comes out. I used to smoke pot. I don’t anymore but I used to smoke to get to the right side of my brain, so I would stop thinking about the rent and all the other bullshit. I would smoke pot and just write. I would never push it. If I got out a verse and a chorus and then I started thinking, “Is this right? Is this the best thing I could say here or the most clever thing I could say?” If I got to that point, I would stop. Don’t second guess yourself because it never works. There is a phrase in recording: “You can’t beat the demo.” Don’t even try to beat the demo. If you go into the studio and try to make it better and better and better and try this and that and this and that, you will go in a big circle. Ultimately, you will come back to the fucking demo! [laughs] You can’t beat the demo! I don’t second guess myself and I write what comes out. I do the same thing in poetry. Poetry, for me, is just song lyrics without structure. There is not necessarily a first verse, a pre-chorus, a second versus, a chorus, a bridge, repeat the chorus and so on. Obviously, songwriting is formulaic but poetry is not like that. You don’t have to figure out how you are going to sing it, if a word doesn’t sing well or roll off the tongue well or if there are too many consonants.
I remember singing a song with David Foster on my solo record called “Nobody’s Perfect.” Every time I would sing the word perfect, I would pop the mic and it would distort. David said, “P’s are not good! They just aren’t good consonants to sing.” I didn’t want to change it so we did it again and I turned my head sideways a little bit when I said the word so I didn’t pop the mic. In poetry, you don’t have to think about any of that! A lot of times I write with Steve Lukather of Toto and it is so different than writing with Richard because I can write anything with Steve. He doesn’t care! He doesn’t care if it is four letters! We just wrote a song together called “Creep Motel.” That isn’t something Richard Marx would ever sing! [laughs] Not a chance but Steve loved it. With that said, there is the aspect of who you are you writing for. Are you writing for The Tubes? We can pretty much get away with anything or am I writing for Richard or Steve? Then I have to couch it in their kind of genres. That is what I love about writing poetry. You can have any kind of rhyme scheme. You don’t have to have a specific structure. You have artistic license, go nuts!
You have an amazing body of work behind you. Where do you see yourself headed in the future? What are you anxious to tackle?
I want to go on Broadway. That is what I really want to do. I want to act on Broadway. Before I die, I’m going to fucking make it to Broadway, if it is the last thing I ever do! I know everybody wants to go to Broadway and it is nothing new. I am sure with the plethora of reality shows on TV, a lot of actors who might normally be doing movies or TV dramas are filling those spots? What are you going to do on “Duck Dynasty?” [laughs] They are looking at the theatrical stage and Broadway. I have done a lot of theater in the past. I work at a theater in Michigan. It is the oldest, for profit, Summer Stock theater in the United States. It is called The Barn Theatre in Augusta, Michigan, which is right outside of Kalamazoo. This year was the 69th year of Summer Stock theater. The son of the patriarch of theatre, his name is Brendan Ragotzy, went to San Jose State University and was a Tubes fan. He got a hold of me in 1998. From strange circumstances he had taken over from his father as the director of The Barn Theatre. He said, “I want you to come to The Barn and do ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ I want you to play Frank N. Furter. I know you can do it!” I said, “Are you kidding me? In a heartbeat I can do this!” I started working there in 1998 and pretty much every other year since then I have done something there. They are all musicals pretty much. The last time I was there I played King Arthur in “Spamalot,” which I feel is the greatest musical comedy ever written. It is more fun than you can ever imagine! I could not wait to get on that stage every night! So, when it comes to Broadway, I know I can do it. I know if someone will give me a shot, I can definitely do it! It is inevitable I think! It’s going to happen and I am staying very positive about it! That is one goal I haven’t achieved yet that I will continue to work on until I can’t work on it anymore!
Since we are talking acting, I have to ask, how did you end up as one of the Three Most Important People In The World in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure?”
Yes! I was in that movie and they cut all my lines out! [laughs] There were a whole lot of lines and they cut them all out in post! [laughs] A good friend of mine is Martha Davis. She is the singer from The Motels. Martha has a couple of gorgeous daughters and one of her daughters is married to someone who was involved in the production of “Bill and Ted.” I guess they had Clarence Clemons, the sax player for Bruce Springsteen, and Martha and they needed one more rock type person. They were shooting it in Phoenix, Arizona. Martha said, “I know Fee. I know his number and he can act! He is an hour away in L.A.” They said, “OK! Call him up!” She did and said, “Come on over to Phoenix. I want you to do a movie with me, Clarence and Keanu Reeves.” I had no idea who the hell that was! It was his first movie! [laughs] I said OK and cruised over. We filmed it at Dick Van Dyke’s studio. I actually got to meet Dick Van Dyke, which was pretty cool! That is how it happened! I am still friends with Martha to this day. We just did a show together in Las Vegas on a big rock of the ‘80s package show with The Smithereens, Berlin, The Tubes, The Romantics and The Motels. I reconnected with Martha. She is a great singer and a very cool girl!
You have lived quite a life, Fee. What is the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?
That is a good question. Ya know, when we all moved to San Francisco, we were all hippies. Naturally, we would sit around all day and smoke pot. We would get really stoned and then we would think about the universe. We actually painted the universe on the ceiling of our house! [laughs] Whenever we had some conundrum or had a question that we didn’t quite know how to proceed with, we would throw the “I Ching,” the Chinese Book of Changes. I will never forget it. We were whacked out. We used to take LSD all the time too and I think I was high out of my mind. I wanted to know what was my purpose on the planet. I threw the “I Ching” and said, “The ‘I Ching’ will tell me what it is.” It came up that my purpose on the planet was “The Taming of The Small.” Basically, it translates to mean that I am supposed to bring joy to people. I thought, “Wow. Really? That is kind of what I do.” I think that is a noble pursuit for anyone in this day and age. I can’t tell you how much fulfillment I get when I am on stage singing, we are in a small club and I can see people in the front row smiling with a gleam of joy in their eye. There is nothing better! I know I am achieving my purpose. It is hard sometimes to keep that perspective, especially living in L.A. and still being in this business. Sometimes it is really hard. It all fades away when I get on the stage that night and we are playing to a packed house who are pushed right up to the stage and looking at me with a big smile while I am doing one psychotic character after another! When they are laughing and think it is great, that is what does it for me! That is what keeps me going!
I want to thank you for sending some joy my way today, Fee! It has been great to get a glimpse into your past, present and future!
Thank you so much!