Interview by: Robert Cavuoto
Photos by © Robert Cavuoto
Twisted Sister was one of the wildest and most outrageous acts you could ever see in the club scene during the early 80’s. I can remember seeing them play smoke filled New Jersey clubs like The Soap Factory and Hole in the Wall. They would hit the stage wearing ladies make-up, black spandex, playing cover tunes, originals, and cursing. They were an innovative band doing things that no one had ever done. The band was comprised of one of rocks premier front men, Dee Snider on vocals and insults, on dueling guitars was Jay Jay French and Eddie Ojeda, the pounding rhythm section was Mark “Animal” Mendoza on bass and A.J. Pero on drums. Together they produced such anthems as “Were Not Gonna Take it,” “I Wanna Rock,” “Shoot ‘em Down, “and “The Bad Boys of Rock n Roll” just to name a few. Throughout their long career from the clubs to the arena they had their series of setbacks which caused their untimely break up in 1987.
We Are Twisted Fucking Sister! is a new 134-minute documentary by Andrew Horn which chronicles the band’s challenges and heartbreaks from bar band to international stardom, a truly unique story that you have never heard before by any band. On February 23rd, the film will be released on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, and digital formats, with an included 2 hours of bonus material and director commentary.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jay Jay French to talk about the documentary, the resilience of the band, and their Farewell Tour; 40 and Fuck It!
Robert Cavuoto: I think the underlying tone in the film is about the band’s perseverance, strength, and resilience in getting through all the hardships and becoming successful.
Jay Jay French: I’m proud of the movie and it’s a story like no other. I think it’s the best rock documentary ever made. It tells a story that is so different than everyone else’s. This wasn’t about how band’s fame, fortune, and success destroyed everyone’s lives but somehow in the end they were redeemed. That’s such an overplayed and cliché story. It’s like MTV Cribs and MTV Foreclosures all in one episode. Our story is about what we had to do to make it! That’s what separates us from every other band. If you look at the top bands like The Beatles, The Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who, Queen, and Sabbath all of those bands were signed within six months to a year. Maybe the exception to that is The Beatles as they played clubs for three years, but we played the clubs five times longer.[laughing]. Put up with that for 10 years and then see if they can survive it! I doubt they would have. It was an extraordinary time never to be replicated again because the drinking age was 18 years old and rock n roll was the premier music of the youth in America. It has now been overtaken by Hip Hop and Country. Rock is a genre that is “as gone, as gone could ever be” and I don’t know when it will ever come back.
I knew our story was important to tell, but how it was going to transpire and how the director was going to tell it, I didn’t know. The truth is that failure weeds out the weak. The strongest ones will continue to come back. The longer failure continues, it will continue to weed out the weak as time goes on until you lose your energy and passion for success. It’s really a measure of passion and intellect; you must have the desire and the brains. We had both and they paid off in the end.
Robert: The movie chronicles all the hardships but there had to be fun aspects and successes along the way?
Jay Jay French: There were the learnings of how to be performers which we will have with us until the day we die. We are world class performers and those techniques were developed and forged in the fires of the bar scene. Also make no mistake we were well paid. Other bands were typically making only $100-150 per night. So we targeted economic sign posts and we learned how to do climb the ladder to bigger clubs. We loved blowing other bands off the stage. We didn’t approach it in a lovey hippie way, my goal was to demoralize them and in the process, steal their following to become even more popular. It was kill or be killed atmosphere in the bars. A handful of bands emerged, you saw us at the Soap Factory and Hole in the Wall in NJ. I’m sure you read the Aquarian [local bar paper] that advertised hundreds of bands playing in hundreds of clubs, so you had to be better than everyone else. You had to be forceful and great. There were little clicks of cover bands that excelled at copying bands perfectly. The best of the best of them became huge, like Crystal Ship who was a Doors cover band and Zebra who did Zeppelin. These bands did the music better than the bands they were coping! I hate to sound like my Dad talking about the old days, but when going to see the big bands at MSG or Nassau Coliseum bands like Zeppelin were awful towards the end and Aerosmith at the end of the 70’s was awful as well. The cover bands cared more about playing the songs correctly. We separated ourselves from the pack. We did metal and we entertained! We learned how to do it and that was the greatest gift they gave us – the rules of entertainment.
Robert: Did you ever feel the need to audition for other bands or consider putting another band together when things weren’t going well?
Jay Jay French: Never thought of it. I can’t speak for anyone else but it never entered my mind!
Robert: For a period of time you fronted Twisted Sister, any regrets for not continuing with that?
Jay Jay French: I only fronted the band after the first two years because I couldn’t find anyone with talent. I don’t write songs and don’t sing. Lou Reed writes but can’t sing and he succeed and that’s great. Dylan writes great songs and I’m not sure what you call style of singing as it’s not really singing. I’m a huge fan of both. They can’t sing but yet they found an amazingly authentic voice for the songs they wrote. I didn’t write so I knew I needed to hitch my star up to someone else. In Dee, I found someone that had the same work ethic which was hard to find, a guy who wants to work 24/7 and not drink or do drugs. That’s not common in the rock world.
Robert: The song “Were Gonna Make It” symbolizes the bands struggle and desire for fame, what do you consider to be the bands “big break”?
Jay Jay French: There were several sign posts along the way. I like to tell people that I knew we were really famous when Blackwell put us on his list of Wort Dressed Women in 1987. He said we looked like a car crash at a whore house. [laughing] Along the way we accomplished getting the Secret Record’s deal, ascending the ladder at the clubs to play the biggest rooms, to be able to say that you were headlining Hammerheads in Islip LI or Fountain Casio in Jersey as they held 3,000 people. Or just to say that you were the kings of the bar scene! First we wanted to become the biggest band in the bar scene and we became it; next we wanted a record deal so we can get out of the bars and we got it. We did an outdoor show that drew 22,000 people and nobody believed it was going to happen, that was a huge milestone too. Getting the production deal with Eddie Kramer, another huge milestone. Getting on network TV with Flo & Eddie, another big thing. When we played the festival in Wales and Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead took us under his wing and told the crowd that Twisted Sister was a cool band.
Climbing through the ashes of the disaster of Secret Records deal was the last straw. If that didn’t work out I’m convinced it would have been over. There was nothing left for us to accomplish. We are in that same position now, there is nothing left for us to accomplish! We headline massive festivals around the world; we recorded everything we wanted to record. There is not much left to do that is why we are ending it this year. We have reached the end of the line on what there is to accomplish, we have always been a goal oriented band. We made the Christmas CD; A Twisted Christmas, which was a goal that everyone thought we were out of our minds! “What metal band would do a Christmas CD?” Now everyone is doing Christmas songs and I rest my case. If someone really wants to analyze this band, the best way I can explain it is that we set goals and then once we hit them we get bored and turn on each other which is exactly what most bands do. Bands break up because at first they fight the world and then they fight each other! That is what happened with us, we are no different. We were mature enough to come back which I didn’t think would happened but we did.
Robert: At what point in your career did you feel that you became a “rock star” and how did you reward yourself?
Jay Jay French: In 1984 with my first big royalty check I did something really gross! I went out and bought a Cadillac which is so unlike a New York Jew. I walked into Potemkin Cadillac on the West Side, cocky as hell, wearing ripped jeans. The Salesman came up to me and asked if he could help me. I said, “Don’t you want to know what I do for a living?” He said, “You’re either a rock star or a coke dealer and either way I don’t care.” [laughing]
The day Stay Hungry went platinum, my father died. It kind of tempered the enthusiasm of that day. I knew he was sick and getting sicker as the tour was going on. I would fly home every week to be with him and the week before he died I had the record label send him an advanced platinum award. My wife at the time took a photo of him with it [which I didn’t realize] and two weeks later, I got the photo of him holding the record.
The documentary really does such a great job of capturing the day-to-day grind with all of the ups & downs and the elations & defeats. I was robbed of my rock stardom as I was managing the band. It kept me more grounded as I couldn’t exalt in the luxury of being a rock star as I was busy making calls to trucking or lighting companies, breaking up fights with the roadies or the band, dealing with agents and record companies. It was near impossible to get your head out of that in and into the rock star mode. There was a window where I thought I lived it and dressed it, but that only lasted a very short time.
Robert: Do you still have the classic costumes and guitars?
Jay Jay French: I have the guitars, the costumes are somewhere in a box in a storage room. I haven’t looked at them in 30 years.
Robert: They should be on display in a Hard Rock Café.
Jay Jay French: We did have a display in Florida which they just dismantled the end of January. If somebody wanted them I guess, but nobody has called for them.
Robert: Lightning struck twice with Twisted Sister but the movie only chronicles the first part of the band’s history. Do you see a second movie in your future?
Jay Jay French: That’s an interesting question. I spoke with our director Andy about it and we laughed saying maybe there is a part two? I don’t know if I want to relive all of it again. Going through the first portion of it was tough enough. It took years to make. I started talking with Andy about nine years ago on this documentary.
Robert: Was there anything in the film that surprised you?
Jay Jay French: The majority of the narrative was told by me and Dee. In general the frustrations were there. I didn’t see what Dee said before I taped my part. Andy wanted to keep it that way. He wanted to show the group’s collective frustration. Mendoza came in 2/3 of the way through and AJ came in at the end so we already had our vision. The only person who didn’t fully express every inch of frustration was Eddie. Maybe he didn’t want to get into it. For me I kept a diary and reflected on it daily and knew exactly what was going on. When Andy was brought in to do the film, I didn’t say, “I want you to see Twisted Sister from my perspective.” I said, “Good Luck!” If you are really going to be honest, you have to let them find their own reality. It’s not fair to listen to my version of it alone or Dee’s version. That’s what makes it so refreshing and good. The one thing that stuck out for me more than anything else, other than the rise and fall of the band, was how Dee hated it all to the extent that he did. I knew there was frustration but not the mental despair that he suffered through.
Robert: In 1976-1978 Kiss was one of the biggest rock bands; did their success impact Twisted Sister in any way?
Jay Jay French: I have no idea, I never thought about it for a second. They had their life to lead and we had ours. They succeeded early on and had their own share of problems. They tell their story about how financially bad off they were and how close they came to ending it a number of times. They had their own identity crisis and had to change their image. It never mattered to me. In 1976 or 1977 Dee took me to see Kiss at Nassau Coliseum and I remember thinking it was a great show. I had auditioned for Wicked Lester at some point very early on which became Kiss. I knew they could make it and was really impressed by the show. I thought it was phenomenal, I thought that they really have their shit together. We would sometimes get comments from the record labels like, “Alice Cooper has already done it,” “Kiss has already done it,” or “Been there, done that already.” The press hated Kiss so anytime the record label could find an excuse to say No to us they would say something like; “You suck like Kiss.”
Robert: What does the future hold for you and the band?
Jay Jay French: I write a business column for Inc Magazine [which can be viewed here www.inc.com/author/jay-jay-French]. The movie will be out on DVD February 23rd; we have a bunch of other projects and music things coming out this year too. Twisted is celebrating a 40th Anniversary and we will be ending our career with a tour called 40 and Fuck It! Nothing is schedule yet for the US but hopefully they will be scheduled so we can say goodbye before we call it a day! I just want to thank our fans for all the years of support!
Robert: Will you be putting the make-up back on for this farewell tour?
Jay Jay French: No way, there isn’t enough ibuprofen to have me dressed up as a lady transvestite! [laughing]