About eight years ago, Peter Frampton started to notice that his ankles felt a little tight in the morning. He initially dismissed it as one of the many pains that comes with getting older, but as time passed, his legs began feeling weak as well. He tried to ignore the signs that something was wrong until four years ago when a fan kicked a beach ball onto the stage at one of his concerts and he fell over when he tried to kick it back. “My legs just gave out,” he says. “We all joked, ‘He’s fallen and he can’t get up.’ But I was embarrassed.”
Two weeks after the beach ball incident, he tripped over a guitar cord on his stage and collapsed again. He was also noticing that his arms were getting so weak that loading heavy objects onto the overhead compartments of planes was becoming extremely difficult. When his tour had some time off, he finally booked an appointment with a neurologist to see what was happening. He was diagnosed with the inflammatory muscle disease Inclusion-Body Myositis (IBM) and sent to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland where he was teamed up with Dr. Lisa Christopher-Stine, the director of their myositis clinic.
“I inherited this incredible team of doctors who are so passionate about what they do that it’s ridiculous,” says Frampton. “Then it was revealed to me that it wouldn’t just affect my legs and my arms, but it’s going to affect my fingers. That was the most troubling thing, obviously, for me.” He is still able to play guitar without any difficulty, but with the window now beginning to possibly close forever, he booked a farewell tour that will keep him on the road this summer and possibly a bit longer.
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We spoke to Frampton about coming to terms with IBM, what fans can expect from the tour, the secret albums he’s been frantically recording in Nashville, how the huge success of Frampton Comes Alive! doomed the rest of his career, touring with David Bowie in the Eighties and much more.
You managed to keep this all very secret for the past four years. Nobody knew a thing.
It wasn’t at a place where it was necessary to tell anybody. My children and my band knew. That was it, literally. My crew didn’t even know. At the beginning of the next tour, I fell one more time. “Wow, he must be getting old!” I guess they just thought that. Yes, we did keep it to ourselves until there was a need to bring it up. The need is now because right now I can play great guitar and we are recording like maniacs at my studio in Nashville. We’ve done two albums already. I want to record as much as I can in the shortest space of time. We’re actually working on three projects. I’m very much feeling that I’m playing like always. Some people are saying even better, but I’d let them say that.
In a year’s time, I might not be able to play. Right now, it’s progressing but I’m still at the top of my game. We decided to do a farewell tour now since I don’t want to go out and not be able to play well. If I’m going to do a farewell tour, I want to play good. I want to rock it. I know that this tour, I will be able to do everything I did last year and the year before. That’s the most important thing to me. I want to go out screaming as opposed to, “He can’t play anymore.” I’m not going to do that. I’m a perfectionist and I can’t do that. I want to obviously go out there playing my best at all times until I can’t. That’s why this is the farewell tour. We might be able to do the same thing on a limited basis in Europe in the spring of the following year, but I don’t know that yet.
What sort of setlist are going to put together for these shows?
A bit of everything, I guess. It’s got to be. The fans are hoping we’ll do some stuff we haven’t done in a long time or have never done. We will be digging deep as well as doing the familiar and the needed ones for those who are coming. But we will be diving deep. I have no idea what the setlist will be yet, but it will definitely be different than the last couple of tours.
Are you thinking yet about where the last show might happen?
I’m not because they are still adding them. But I can’t say. I don’t know.
After the last show, might you continue to play select shows and just not tour?
I can’t say at this point. Beyond my fingers, which is the guitar-playing part, there’s my legs too. Getting around is getting more difficult. I don’t want to stop playing. That’s the last thing I want to stop doing. I’m going to be playing as long as I can play, but this will be the last extended tour. I can’t say what I’ll be doing next year.
Does the disease have any impact on your singing voice?
No. There is another part to the disease that can affect swallowing, but it’s only 50 percent of the people that have it. I don’t have it, thank goodness. I’ve been lucky. And that wouldn’t affect my singing voice either. That’s all good.
What sort of treatment are you getting for it?
There’s no specific treatment for IBM. They have traditional medicine that is working. They are coming out with some drug trials. I’m hoping to be involved with those. That is something that is in the future. Right now, the only thing that works for me is exercise. I work out like a maniac all the time. It’s strengthening the muscle that I have. It seems to be the best possible thing for IBM is to work out every day.
Tell me about these two new albums you’re working on.
I can’t! [Laughs] There’s actually three projects. There’s a double album, but I can’t tell you what it’s about since that would spoil the surprise. We’re working on sorting out the release. Hopefully that will come out in June when the tour starts. There’s that and another single album that we’re finishing off tracking next week and then after, if I can muster it, we’re going to do yet another project. They’re all different. As I say, I can’t really say what they are since it’s not time.
How are you doing emotionally in the light of all this?
Obviously it’s not the best thing to wake up to every morning, but I’m a very positive person. I always have been. I’m a resilient person too. If you look at my career, you’d go, “Yes, this guy is pretty resilient.” You can’t really knock me down too far before I brush myself off, pick myself up and move on. Maybe a huge door is closing in my life, but then there’s lots of other doors that open. The first thing we’ve already started with Johns Hopkins is the Peter Frampton Myositis Research Fund. One dollar from every ticket on the tour is going to go straight to Johns Hopkins, that fund. I’m going to obviously do some work with John Hopkins. It’s a very boutique – I hate to use that word, but it is – disease. Only 24,000 people in this country know they have it. But I’m sure there’s a lot more that just think they are getting old like I did.
When you think about raising money for a drug company to do all these trials, that’s why it has taken time. There’s not a lot of return there, so I understand the situation. That’s another reason why now is a good time to announce this so we can start raising some awareness for it.
Might you play Frampton Comes Alive! straight through at some point on the tour?
I don’t think so. I think it will be all-encompassing of what we do in the final setlist that we put together. It’ll probably change along the way. I did that for nearly two years, which was highly successful, but I’ve done that. This will be something different.
Do you think in hindsight that album became so successful that it was almost damaging to your career?
[Laughs] Damaging? Damaging squared! It’s a phenomenon that if something gets so big, for whatever reason, and it is worldwide, it becomes in your face until you get to the point where you can’t stand to listen to it anymore. [Laughs] I truly believe we got to that point. And hey, I was dying to hear myself on the radio and then it got to the point where I thought, “I wish they wouldn’t play me so much.” And then instead of the guitar, it’s the face on the cover of everything. The combination of how big it was and the way I looked, that gave it the “squared.” If I hadn’t been so damn good looking…[laughs]…I wouldn’t have been on the cover of all the magazines, but I would have retained my credibility.
But my credibility has always been there amongst those who know. That’s the beauty of my career as far as I’m concerned. Thanks to David Bowie, myself and a few other people and a Grammy for my instrumental album, my career got turned around. I’ve had a very long, successful career since the beginning of the 2000s when things really started turning around again. I’ve even seen people putting the public down for putting me down in the Seventies. I’ve seen people, at this point, still coming to my defense. I’m taking partial blame for the satin pants, okay? I take responsibility for the satin pants. That’s it! [laughs]
And for being shirtless on the album cover?
Well, they pushed…let’s not go there. [laughs]
I like I’m In You.
Thanks. It could have been a lot better had I been in a better mental state at that point, but my head exploded just before we went in the studio there. It was a vast change in lifestyle or affect on my lifestyle.
What did you learn by playing guitar on the Bowie tour in 1987?
This was a dream that I had ever since we went to school together. We got to know each other and played guitar together at school. And then he went and did his career and I did my career. When Humble Pie had their first package tour in Europe, David was our special guest. That was great to see him again on that. He’d just released “Space Oddity” as that tour happened. He went straight to Number One and Humble Pie were at Number Three or Number Four or whatever it was. It was a great tour, but it was just David and a twelve-string. No makeup. No nothing. And he killed.
The next thing is that he becomes huge and my live album happens. He saw exactly what was happening to me as far as where the image had got misconstrued, let’s put it that way, and knew me as a guitar player. So when he invited me to play guitar on Never Let Me Down and then the Glass Spider tour, he had an agenda for me. He’s always been there on the other end of the phone to talk about stuff, kind of like an older brother. That was the best thing that could have happened to me at that particular moment. He saw what had happened and phoned me up and said, “Hey, do this. Will you come on the road with me?” It was the most fantastic thing.
I’ve been on the same stage, but not at the same time, as David so many times in an evening. Now we’re actually going to be onstage together. It was the biggest thrill of my life. What could be bigger? I remember seeing David playing in a local band before I even went to the school since my dad was David’s art teacher. I remember seeing this band play on the school steps and this thing with hair sticking straight up and playing the saxophone doing Elvis Presley songs. I looked at my dad and said, “Dad, who is that?” He said, “Oh, that’s Jones.” I said, “I want to be him.” I was 11 at the time. That was how it started, so you can imagine what a huge thrill it was to eventually be brought on stage and playing with David. There is nothing better.
To play “Heroes” right by the Berlin Wall must have been unreal.
Yeah. And then my part of the piece where I got to display a really lovely solo was “Loving The Alien.” That was so phenomenal. The whole tour was, for me, kind of circus-like since there were so many people, but the effect was phenomenal. He took it to the limit for that tour. I was very glad to be on it.
To wrap on your farewell tour, how do you think it will feel when you step offstage at the end of the last show?
I’ve thought about that, but I know that all my kids will be there. My ex-wives will be there. [Laughs] I hope not. No, they probably will. It’s going to be a party and a celebration of what’s going to come. We’re going to celebrate. We’re not going to look backwards. We’re going to go forward. I know I’ve got so much more to do. It will be an emotional evening, obviously. I have such a great support group. My kids. My ex-wives. [Laughs] I’m very lucky.
And you’re a fighter. You fought through the Eighties. You fought through the Sgt. Pepper movie. You fought though everything and you can fight through this too.
Thank you! You said that! I didn’t say that! Well, I echo your feelings.