Peter Wolf and the J. Geils Band

The world's greatest party band finally makes it to the top – with its love for fast times, fine women and that fabulous Thunderbird wine intact

The J. Geils Band performs at the Oakland Auditorium on March 24, 1979 in Oakland, California. Credit: Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty

A lady approaches. The Wolf is instantly alert. Blond, beautiful, long-legging her way down the aisle toward the restroom at the rear of the bus. The Wolf slyly eyes her over the top of his shades, his lips pursed in appreciation as she passes: ooohhh. The Wolf is inspired. He twists slowly around in his seat, his black beret clutched in an earnest wad over his heart. He rolls his eyes roofward. "I have to say my grace when a beauty walks by," he croons, like some backwoods Bible-beater striving to testify above the tinkle of coins in the collection plate. "Because my heart" –– he thunks his chest, right on cue – "my heart starts flickerin', but I know the good Lord will see after me if she lingers too long."

The object of these effusions is actually a familiar member of the J. Geils Band's small, closely knit tour party. She is wise to the Wolf's raps. She flips him an amiable "Oh, Peter" look, and the Wolf settles back in his seat with a contented cackle.

The rented Greyhound scuds on through the icy Rhode Island night, bound for Providence. Another sold-out headlining gig. Another incremental indication that, at long, long last, the year of the J. Geils Band is finally at hand. At a time when fewer and fewer rock fans can afford to buy records, and many bands are afraid even to venture out on the road, the Geils group –– keyboardist Seth Justman, guitarist J. Geils, harmonica virtuoso Magic Dick, bassist Danny Klein, drummer Stephen Bladd and, on mouth and mike, the irrepressible Peter Wolf himself –– are selling out big halls and arenas around the country. They're riding the commercial and artistic crest of Freeze-Frame, their 12th and most ambitious album, which is already perched on the brink of platinum just a few weeks out of the box.

This must be the big one: Fifteen years after first hooking up in their hometown of Boston, the J. Geils Band has finally blossomed. It's been a long, traumatic haul, and some of the personal wreckage they've left bobbling behind them –– Wolf's broken marriage to Faye Dunaway, the band's busted bank accounts – is still painful to contemplate. But even at their financial nadir (not so long ago), they never lost the rock & roll faith –– that touching belief in the music's transcendent magic, so common at the outset of careers, so rare among older rockers. Geils never entertained outside options –– never went disco, for instance. And so now it is with no little elation that the world's greatest party band realizes that the ultimate payoff –– not just big bucks, but major stardom –– is within their unwavering grasp.

And yet, even as Geils attains that elusive pinnacle, Peter Wolf looks around and wonders: where's the party? Inflation, recession, depression –– what a time to finally grab the brass ring, just as the merry-go-round seems to be clanking to a halt.

The public Peter Wolf wouldn't worry about such things. The public Peter Wolf hangs out in bars drinking dark beer and double shots and buying rounds, while spinning out the world's longest-running line of syncopated jive. But there is also a private Peter Wolf, a man of many travels, a connoisseur of art and food and fine wines. The public Wolf, with his man-in-black persona and finger-popping patois, dates back to the beatnik days and is firmly rooted in Fifties rock & roll. But the private Wolf is brainier, even has a political bent, and it's pure Sixties save-the-world. And on this tour, the private Wolf is starting to go public.

"There are two directions America could go in now," he says. "One is fascism. The other would be a real collective sense of community, almost like what happened with the New Deal. It's madness out there – libraries are goin' bankrupt, the cities are goin' bankrupt. It's insane. They got their fuckin' bomb, they're startin' the war drums goin' again. It's got to come to an end, man. But it don't look good –– there're no major leaders out there."

Uh-oh. In the Sixties, you'll recall, rock stars were also going to lead a revolution. The return of the political lectern as a stage prop does not seem a particularly zingy idea.

The Wolf can dig, but he's undeterred. "It's just that there are a lot of people that are interested in us now," he says. "So maybe we can... guide them. We're not a band that really comes on like preachers. All we gotta do is say, 'Tune in and get involved. Don't tune out and drop out, man –– tune in.' If a lot of young people will get involved, there's hope. If they don't, we're fucked."

Wolf's serious air is suddenly shivered by the mock-obnoxious bray of Danny Klein, the mad bassist. Sensing a non-party vibe in the back of the bus, he is wending his way down the aisle to whip up any sagging spirits.

"Well, this is wonderful," he cracks, descending upon the sober-faced Wolf. "Let's wrap some bandages, okay? Am I interrupting something? Am I being obnoxious enough? Medic! Medic!"

Klein halts in mid-rant and cocks an eye at my tape recorder. "Say, if I gave you my new diet, could you put it in the Star?" he inquires. "Oh, well, when you wanna know my influences, call me. I've never played upright bass, in case you're wondering – I've never played bass upright. What gauge strings do I use? H.O. My favorite color is gray."

"To match the personality," Wolf ripostes, brightening under Klein's bilious harangue. "D.K.," he says, addressing the mustachioed bassist. "You wanna do some press after the show tonight, meet some radio people?"

"Only if they're holding," Klein replies, citing his general criterion for initiating new friendships. "And no call letters. I can't remember call letters. I can't remember anything before 1975, really. The cells get soggy."

Klein –– known alternately to his band mates as the Ambassador of Funk and the Don Rickles of Rock & Roll –– is fully Wolf's equal when it comes to ebullient excess.

"We played in Missoula, Montana, one time," Wolf recalls. "Never played there before. And so after the show, we went out to this bar. D.K. went struttin' in in his pink hat, and we're all drinkin' and drinkin'. After a while, I was talkin' to these two cowboys, and they're sayin', 'Yeah, we had one dude out here got fucked up and they took him out in the alley and just shot him.' And all of a sudden I said, 'Man, let's get outta this place, it's startin' to turn.' You could feel everybody gettin' a little too drunk, you know? So I looked around for D.K. – and he's gone. Nowhere to be had. So I asked the bartender: 'Did you see the guy in the pink hat?' He said no. I said, 'Is there another way out of here?' He said, 'Well, yeah –– there's the back alley.' So I go into this back alley, and I'm looking around –– no D.K., man. And I'm goin', 'Should we call the cops or what?' So we're out in the street, and all of a sudden I hear this car door slam. I hear D.K.'s voice. And he's sayin', 'Hey, thank you, man. That was pretty good shit.' "

"But they actually wanted me to pay," Klein adds indignantly. "I said, 'Don't you know who I am?' "

Seth Justman approaches, drawn by the honks of hilarity at the back of the bus, and slips into a seat across the aisle. The conversation lurches affably from the social problems posed by cocaine etiquette ("No problem," Klein says reasonably. "Offer it to the bass player, right?") to Wolf's perennial difficulty falling asleep in airplanes.

"Well," says Klein with an obscene chortle, "you used to fall asleep next to me all the time."

"Yeah," Wolf shoots back, "but you were talkin', motherfucker –– it was real easy." The Wolf is roaring. "Fuck off, fuckface," he hoots triumphantly.

"Mister Fuckface," Klein sniffs. Lost for a topper –– temporarily, at least –– he launches into one of his favorite screeds: the appalling lack of respect accorded bass players in some rock bands. "When're we gonna get the bass riser, Peter?" he whines. "Anything –– a baby spot, a little wash –– anything'll be fine. I'm the only person onstage who gets blacked out on every song."

"You don't get blacked out, Danny," Wolf patiently explains. "You are having blackouts."

Klein looks wounded.

"You're gangin' up on me."

"It only takes one," Wolf says, lobbing the final zinger.

"Anybody can read cuffs, Wolf," Klein snaps. "You wouldn't treat Stanley Clarke like this –– he gets paid." D.K. turns and ambles back toward the front of the bus. "I'm gonna check on the driver," he mumbles. "Make sure he's still awake."

"And suddenly... he was gone." The Wolf sighs, weak from laughter. Across the aisle, Justman, the band's soft-spoken secret weapon –– a first-rate producer, arranger and, in frequent tandem with Wolf, songwriter –– wags his head affectionately at the bassist's retreating back. If Klein seems the perfect match for the public Peter Wolf, Justman, who shares an apartment with Peter, reflects his private side. The conversation soon returns to weightier subjects.

"Freeze-Frame definitely has to do with the state of the world, in our interpretation of it," Justman says. "We felt we had to deal with issues now –– especially now. The world is so fucked up –– the nuclear bullshit, the economic state. I think what an artist has to do is interpret in his own way where things are, at a particular time. That's the best thing."

Wolf murmurs his assent. That forum is important to him, almost as important as the buzz –– the initial bezang! –– that drew him into rock & roll in the first place. Well, almost. Wolf started out to be a painter –– special schools, scholarships, the whole shot. But then, one night...

"I remember the instant," he exclaims, reeling in the years. "I was in this place, and there was a guy singin': 'There's a man down there, might be your man, I don't know' –– by G.L. Crockett? I remember hearin' it, and from that moment on, I had a marker on me. I never painted again."

Ah, those "freeze-frame moments" –– like finding the perfect girl, the perfect friend, a life's vocation. "It's like, click –– there it is," Wolf says.

"And for us," Justman adds, "freeze frame is also the point at which, as you're going forward..." He pauses, squinting out the window at the black nightscape. "It's what you see as you go forward and look back."

After 15 years, the J. Geils Band has a lot to look back on. The group started as the J. Geils Blues Band, an acoustic trio –– Geils, Klein and Magic Dick –– that flowered with the Cambridge-based folk-blues boom of the mid-Sixties.

Meanwhile, young Peter Wolf had just arrived in Boston, fresh out of high school and intent on studying at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. He also fancied himself quite a hot harp player, and one night he stopped into a little club for a local-talent hootenanny. "There were about 35 other performers there, and I just couldn't wait to get my harp goin'. I finally got up there and I was blowin' my harmonica –– I said, oh man, I'm tough. And then these guys came on. J. was on acoustic guitar with a slide, Dick on acoustic harp, D.K. on one of those old washtub basses. They did 'Sail On' and 'Down in Louisiana,' and when Dick broke into this Little Walter thing –– Jesus God, man, I thought I'd die. My face fell to the ground."

In 1967, the J. Geils Blues Band had gone electric, and Wolf and Stephen Bladd, a fellow art student, were blowing out local clubs with the Hallucinations, a wild show band. About the time the Hallucinations fell apart, the Geils lineup was looking for a singer and a drummer to round out its act. Wolf and Bladd were the perfect fit.

Launching its career out of town –– way out, at a seedy Toronto gin mill –– the newly aligned quintet slowly slammed together a loud, raw, blues-fueled R&B sound that, for its time, was startling to hear. When Atlantic Records beckoned in 1968, they signed; but before recording, they sought out a sixth member to beef up their studio sound. Seth Justman, an organist from Atlantic City, New Jersey, who had moved north to study at Boston University, bugged the band for so long that they finally took him aboard.

The J. Geils Band's eponymously titled debut album, released in 1970, immediately set critics yapping about "America's answer to the Rolling Stones." They consolidated that smash with The Morning After, in 1972 –– the year that Peter Wolf first met Faye Dunaway, the actress, backstage at one of the band's gigs.

In the beginning, the group's primary strength lay in its full-throttle covers of various semi-obscure blues and R&B classics –– everything from John Lee Hooker's "Serve You Right to Suffer" to the Contours' frantic "First I Look at the Purse." This aspect of their appeal was aptly showcased on the raucous live album Full House. But Wolf and Justman had also discovered a mutual affinity for songwriting, and the group scored its first original hit single in 1973 with a reggae-conscious original called "Give It to Me," from its fourth album, Bloodshot.

Up to that point, high old times had been the defining characteristic of the group's lifestyle, and its various communal lofts in Boston were a magnet for such visiting musicians as Paul Butterfield, the Electric Flag and the brothers Allman. Naturally, given the temper of those times, there were occasional encounters with the local constabulary. One day, two of Wolf's jazz idols, saxophonist John Coltrane and drummer Elvin Jones, stopped by the loft just in time to get busted.

"We had been packing our station wagon for a gig in Vermont," says Wolf. "We didn't know it at the time, but upstairs from our loft, there was this guy who was like the largest LSD dealer in the country. He was making the shit there, and the feds found out. But they got the lofts confused, and they came busting into our loft –– literally with a sledgehammer. Wham! Broke down the door. And they're lookin' around for the fuckin' test tubes, and Elvin Jones is tryin' to say, 'Well, listen, I was just up here visitin' these people, and I gotta be goin' now, you see, 'cause I have a concert...' It was really intense. There was all this grass on the table, but they didn't give a fuck about that.

"Finally, one guy realized that they had the wrong place. And what they had done was against the law, 'cause they did a lot of damage. So, you have to dig, man: An hour later, they all come down, and it's like, 'Oh, yeah, John Coltrane. How are you? Love your music, man. Say, you want us to help you guys carry your equipment to the car?'"

But by 1974, the high, crazy times were beginning to abate. Wolf married Faye Dunaway, and the J. Geils Band released its fifth LP, Ladies Invited. The album bombed. Before long, Atlantic seemed to lose enthusiasm for pushing the group's records, and the band was forced to tour constantly just to stay above water. Whenever they had to leave the road to make an album, they lost crucial income. And while Wolf was out touring, or flying off to Europe to do press, his wife was equally busy with her film career and was often away on location. The strains created by this unsettled domestic situation, Wolf says, deepened into a schism, and his marriage to Dunaway ultimately disintegrated. The memory still stings.

"It was a real thing with Faye and me," he says quietly. "There was great love involved. But the problem was that she was so dedicated, and we were so dedicated, and it was just so hard when that shit went down."

The J. Geils Band slowly tumbled back down to the bottom of the hill. Taking stock of their situation, they realized they were half a million dollars in debt and couldn't get arrested.

But the band refused to quit. Wolf channeled all of his energies back into the group. He and Justman got serious about their songwriting. Monkey Island, their final album for Atlantic, revealed a new emotional depth and range. In 1978, they signed with EMI-America and kept slugging: Sanctuary became their first gold album in five years. The title track of Love Stinks, released in 1980, was a huge stomp-along hit and boosted sales of the album to near-platinum status. The J. Geils Band was building up to a major move. Freeze-Frame was it.

Painstakingly recorded over the better part of a year, Freeze-Frame consolidates all of the band's musical strengths –– hot, funky rhythms and ear-creasing riffs –– in a manic meditation on lost love, American madness and the possibility of rock & roll redemption. Meticulously produced by Justman, the album is distinguished by a big, radio-ready sound; and aside from such uncharacteristic though strikingly successful tracks as "River Blindness" (a dark, haunting third world lament that partakes somewhat of the current pop fashion for ambient Africanisms) and the schizzed-out "Insane, Insane Again," there are enough straight-ahead hits here –– the get-happy title tune, the resounding "Do You Remember When," the bittersweet "Angel in Blue" (with its near-Dylanesque metaphorical acuity) –– to conceivably keep Freeze-Frame nailed to the charts for months to come. The only question the J. Geils Band need entertain now is: what next?

The 13,000 fans packed into the Providence Civic Center are about to find out. Backstage, J. Geils is preparing to begin his ritual warm-up on a practice amp in an alcove off the dressing room. Standing at the buffet table provided by the promoter, he is searching the tubs full of iced soft drinks, juices, wines and Dom Perignon for –– yep, there it is, exactly as specified in each and every J. Geils Band concert contract: one well-chilled bottle of Thunderbird wine. A notoriously vile beverage best suited to blowing out carburetors, the redoubtable T-bird has for years been Geils' preferred pre-concert liftoff, much as Kools have remained his favorite brand of smokes.

"And this is good Thunderbird," he says, knocking back a belt and savoring the putrid bouquet. "It's about 19, 20 percent alcohol. In states where they're not allowed to sell this, you get something that's 14 percent, and it has a little bit of carbonation –– and it's the pits. You think this is bad..."

"You know it's the good Thunderbird," says Stephen Bladd, pulling on a pair of Spandex stage tights, "when it comes with a free ballpoint pen."

Showtime is nearing. Danny Klein appears, decked out in black fedora, black patent-leather dance pumps and a screaming-red tuxedo with tails. "Yeah, you can buy these off the rack," he says, fondly fingering the fabric "Of course, you have to buy the rack, too."

Searching, as always, for serious stimulation, Klein steps out into the backstage corridor, where various well-connected local well-wishers are milling about. Scanning the hallway, he suddenly spots a familiar face. "Peruvian hills!" he cries. "Papaya incumbent!" And suddenly, as the Wolf says, he is gone.

Back in the instrument room, Magic Dick, who may well be the most innovative harmonica player of his generation, has just cracked open a fresh consignment of Hohner Marine Band harps. The box, which is not all that big, has set him back nearly a grand. In his scholarly way, he is grumbling about the harp player's frustrating lot.

"I am constantly having to deal with tools that are becoming more and more inferior," he says, shaking his woolly head in glum resignation. "Hohner is the only remaining company that makes a decent harmonica that I know of." Like the rest of the band, Dick is particularly proud of Freeze-Frame. "I think this album hints more at what the future possibilities are for us than anything we've done before. At the same time, it's fulfilling many of the things that were hinted at earlier."

The band's current surge –– headlining places like New York's Madison Square Garden and the 15,509-seat Boston Garden (where Geils became the first rock act to completely sell out three nights in the hall's 53-year history) –– is only appropriate, Dick feels. "There's almost a feeling of justice."

Peter Wolf and Seth Justman are daubing on last-minute touches of makeup in the dressing room. "We're really excited about where we're at now," says Justman earnestly. "As a band, as musicians and as people. I think we've developed a totally unique sound. Any band that sounds this way now is either the J. Geils Band or somebody who sounds like the J. Geils Band."

Wolf and Justman and Magic Dick drift out into the corridor to join J. Geils, who's waiting for the countdown signal from the stage. Danny Klein comes strutting down the hallway with his bass strapped on, looking extremely happy. "Could we go on now, please?" he asks. "I think I'm peaking."

It's a rare show these days that can get 13,000 people leaping up and cheering virtually nonstop, but that's just what the J. Geils Band did in Providence. They whipped out all the hits and had the crowd singing along with both new and old. Their sound was a hot, vivid blast of rock & roll, a timeless paean to partying up. And Wolf was a marvel: double-jiving across the stage like a crazed shoe-shine boy on "Detroit Breakdown," merrily spraying the audience with champagne during a riotous rendition of "Where Did Our Love Go" that had kids jumping up onstage to dance along in a loose, loving way that the Rolling Stones, for instance, could never countenance. And then, midway through the show, the private Peter Wolf suddenly made an appearance.

"You know," he said, as a hush washed over the breathless hall, "I was readin' the papers today, and things just goin' crazy. Everybody outta work. People sayin' you can't drink, you can't even smoke a cigarette."

It's a classic Wolf rap –– but this time there's a message buried beneath the jive. The world is so fucked up, he says. Things are so bad. He wrote to his congressman. He asked, what's happenin'? His congressman never wrote back.

"The rich're gettin' richer," he shouts –– and the crowd is with him now, hurrahing him on. "The poor're gettin' poorer." Yaaahhh! 'And that pisses me off!" Ten thousand boot heels whomp the boards. Shrieks of assent from the far rear bleachers.

"And so you know what I'm gonna do?"

Nooo...!

"Do you know what I'm gonna do?"

Wooolff...!

"I am gonna piss... right on this here wall!"

Boom –– the band tears right into the song of the same name, goosing the crowd up to a level of rabble-roused enthusiasm that might well be the envy –– or perhaps the secret nightmare –– of any politician. Get angry, Wolf told them, get involved –– then fill in the rest of the message for yourself.

And when their set was done, the J. Geils Band all stepped out to center stage and clambered up into a human pyramid, all sweaty and breathless and beaming with a kind of winded wonder at the surging mob still roaring before them. And as Seth Justman, perched atop the pile, shot out a hand in salute to the great, wide audience that Geils had always known could one day be theirs, you could see Peter Wolf smiling and thinking, well, it's a start –– after 15 years, it's a start.