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Steve Perry Still Believes

The Journey frontman disappeared for 20 years — then heartbreak led him back to music

steve perry

Steve Perry discusses life after Journey, what led him back to music and what inspired "Don't Stop Believin'."

Erik Tanner for Rolling Stone

It’s a Monday afternoon in August, and Steve Perry is cheerfully belting out the Backstreet Boys’ “As Long As You Love Me.” Perry is visiting a buddy at his house in San Francisco, and the singer — who grew up on Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and the Kingston Trio, and doesn’t listen to much current pop — is giving an example of a relatively modern song that caught his ear. “I love songs like this,” he says of the tune, a Max Martin–penned ballad from 1997. “I’m a sappy guy.”

It’s somewhat surprising to hear Perry, 69, sing a hit by a boy band a generation behind him. What’s really surprising, though, is that Perry is singing at all. Virtually nobody has seen him do this since he parted ways with his band, Journey, 20 years ago. Perry and Journey became famous in the Seventies and Eighties for big, soaring arena-rock hits about devotion, passion and seizing the moment, some of them a little sappy indeed, all of them driven by Perry’s skyscraping vocals, which exerted a massive influence on generations of wasted karaoke warriors. In the process, Journey basically invented the power ballad. Critics often dismissed the band as cheeseballs, but that wasn’t fair; songs like “Faithfully” and “Lights” stand up as beautiful and plainspoken showcases for Perry’s remarkable voice. “We certainly were part of pioneering [the power ballad],” Perry says. “I didn’t care what the critics thought about the band. I really didn’t. All I knew is every night we would get at least one to two encores. That was my critical review for me every night.”

Perry left Journey in 1987, but he never had sustained success as a solo artist. After the commercial failure of his second solo album, he got back together with his former bandmates in the mid-Nineties. They made a comeback album, scored a radio hit with the romantic ballad “When You Love a Woman” and earned a Grammy nomination. Irving Azoff, who had just made the Eagles a fortune for their reunion album, was brought in to manage the band. The future looked bright.

Everything changed when Perry took a long hike in Hawaii and felt a horrible pain in his hip as he reached the top of a mountain. He was just in his mid-forties but discovered he had a degenerative bone condition that would require hip-replacement surgery. Terrified at that prospect, Perry experimented with alternative treatments that did little to address the problem.

Eventually, Perry’s bandmates started getting restless. “They wanted me to make a decision on the surgery,” Perry says. “But I didn’t feel it was a group decision. Then I was told on the phone that they needed to know when I was gonna do it ’cause they had checked out some new singers.” Perry begged them to reconsider, but then postponed the date of his big surgery. “I said to them, ‘Do what you need to do, but don’t call it Journey,’” he says. “If you fracture the stone, I don’t know how I could come back to it.”

They didn’t listen. Journey found a Perry soundalike named Steve Augeri and launched a tour that continues to this day. In 2008, Arnel Pineda — a Filipino singer they found on YouTube — took over on vocals, and the group began selling as many tickets as it did in its Eighties heyday, quite possibly thanks to Pineda’s uncanny ability to sound more or less exactly like Perry, whom he grew up worshipping. Understandably, Perry is a little uneasy talking about all of this, but he’s never made any attempt to reunite with his former mates. He showed up for Journey’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017 and made an acceptance speech, though he didn’t perform with the band. “What they do is none of my business,” he says. “When I walked away from it, I did not go to any of the shows, nor did I listen to any of it.”

While his former bandmates were making millions on the road, Perry was doing, well, not all that much. He rode around aimlessly on his motorcycle and moved from the Bay Area to San Diego, though he routinely flew back for San Francisco Giants games. Perry lived off his royalties (he says he carefully tucked away money from his Journey days) and avoided the spotlight, rarely giving interviews and politely turning away fans who begged for a photo. Basically, he became the J.D. Salinger of arena rock. “I didn’t sing in those years,” he says. “I didn’t write music. I must have gained 50 or 60 pounds. I got a butch haircut. I just said, ‘I’m going to just become a plump kid in my hometown again.’ I’d already lived the dream of dreams and didn’t know how I could come close to being anything like what I was before.”

Rumors about Perry began to pile up. “They say I’m a recluse with long nails saving my urine in jars and living on an island with a morphine drip,” he says. “They think I’m in a hospital somewhere with cancer. And they say I can’t sing anymore.”

That last one stings the most, and as he sings the Backstreet Boys song it’s clear it’s not true. Perry’s voice is certainly deeper than in his Journey days, when his upper register could rival any rock singer’s, but it’s still unmistakably Steve Perry: rich, raspy, expressive and overflowing with the sort of pulsating emotion that caused even Journey’s fiercest critics to compare him to his idol, Sam Cooke.

Perry hasn’t lost his voice, but he has lost a lot over the years: his grandparents, who had helped raise him in rural Northern California after his mom and dad split; both of his parents; and his stepfather, who gave Perry work in his construction business to help him make ends meet in the pre-Journey days. “You want to know what I did after I left the band?” he says. “I visited my mom’s grave a lot.”

Loneliness could creep in quickly. “One time I parked my car in front of the house I was raised in,” Perry says. “It was raining like crazy, the wipers were going and I was facing the house where I was raised, with my grandfather’s house to the right. I just started crying like a baby. I cried for the times we could have had together. I cried for the times that I took for granted. And they were all gone, and here I am, an only child, just missing them all. I used to think that if I became a performer and everybody loved me, that I wouldn’t have to go through these things. But guess what? There’s nowhere to run. If you’re alive, you have to walk through this eventually.”

All of the loss may explain why the frontman who radiated such passion in his Journey days no longer felt much like singing. There was another big loss to come, but this one would lead him back to music, and, eventually, to his new solo album, Traces. It’s a story about devotion, tragedy and a promise to a dying loved one. It’s so intense and heartfelt, it could be a Journey song.

Much of what happened to Perry in the past decade can be traced back to his most famous song. Perry wrote “Don’t Stop Believin’” with Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain and guitarist Neal Schon in 1981. The title phrase came from Cain’s father, something he’d say to encourage his son to keep going when he was a young musician eking out an existence in L.A.

Cain said he drew inspiration from characters he knew in the Sunset Strip rock scene of the early 1970s: These were the “streetlight people living just to find emotion” of the song’s lyrics. Perry has a different memory. “Jonathan and I scrawled out the lyrics about things that I had seen in Detroit one night after a show, looking way down to the street and seeing the streetlights light the streets,” he says. “I couldn’t see the lights, but could just see the glow of the lights facing down from about the 10th floor. I see people walking around at two, three in the morning. I thought, ‘Wow, streetlight people. That’s so cool.’” (He and Cain do agree on one thing: There’s no such place as South Detroit. They just needed an extra syllable before “Detroit” and weren’t familiar with the city’s geography.)

“Don’t Stop Believin’” hit Number Nine in 1981, though by the turn of the millennium, it was just one of Journey’s many hits, not even important enough to be mentioned by name in the band’s Behind the Music episode. But the song had one very important fan. Today, Patty Jenkins is one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, thanks to the Wonder Woman franchise. Back in 2003, though, she was just a fledgling filmmaker who needed the perfect song for a scene in her low-budget movie Monster, about the life of serial killer Aileen Wuornos. During a key scene early in the film, Wuornos (played by Charlize Theron) roller-skates with her girlfriend. Jenkins figured that “Don’t Stop Believin’” would be the ideal song to punctuate the moment with a sense of unbridled optimism (before things went very, very bad, that is).

Jenkins had one big hurdle to getting “Don’t Stop Believin’” in her movie: persuading Perry to let her use the song. “Everyone told us the worst things about Steve,” says Jenkins. “They said he had disappeared, said no to everything, would never say yes and was all about the money.” Still, she sent him a rough cut of the scene along with her phone number. Much to her shock, he called her the next day and raved about the clip. “He gave us the song for practically nothing,” she says. “He just laughed at the rumors [I had heard]. The truth was, he said no to everything because he didn’t want the money. People weren’t understanding the song, and he didn’t want it to be sold out in that way.”

Monster became a surprise hit and won Theron a Best Actress Oscar. It also helped kick off the amazing second life of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” All of a sudden, the song was everywhere: On TV (Glee used it six different times), on Broadway (it was the closing number in the musical Rock of Ages), and even in the clubhouse of the 2005 Chicago White Sox, who made “Don’t Stop Believin’” their unofficial anthem on the way to winning the World Series. The song’s renaissance went into overdrive when The Sopranos used it in the show’s last-ever scene, in 2007.

There was something weirdly profound in the song’s sudden universal popularity: This slightly goofy Eighties anthem seemed to hit all of America in an emotional sweet spot that went way beyond mere “ironic” nostalgia, wiping out cultural barriers in an avalanche of cheesy optimism. It’s no wonder people literally sang it in the streets the night of Barack Obama’s election. The tune Perry was happy to sell for next to nothing had become the new national anthem. “It’s amazing to me,” says Perry. “All of my songs are like children to me. Once you send them out to the world you hope they’re strong enough to survive out there. All of them got the same attention, but the world decides which ones become the ‘Don’t Stop Believin’s,’ not me.”

For Perry, the song’s rebirth was important in another way. He and Jenkins became friends while she was working on Monster, and with plenty of spare time on his hands in the following years, Perry liked to lounge around the director’s editing suite and watch her work. One day in 2011, she was editing a Lifetime movie about breast-cancer patients when Perry saw a face on the screen that caught his eye. It was Kellie Nash, a Los Angeles psychologist. She was two decades Perry’s junior, and she was battling breast cancer. “I went, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, can you spool back to … stop right there. … Who’s that?’” Perry remembers. “Her smile killed me. I felt like I knew her somehow, and I never met her before.”

Perry asked for her e-mail address, but Jenkins said he should understand her condition before reaching out. Nash’s cancer had spread to her lungs and her bones. There was no exact timetable for how long she had left, but the prognosis was grim. “At that moment I had the opportunity to send no e-mail, pull back, no harm, no foul,” he says. “It just would all die at that moment. I would just go back to my safe life. Instead, I said, ‘Send the e-mail.’”

It placed him in a vulnerable position. “I didn’t want to go through another loss,” he says. “I was trying to continue moving through life on my own. But there was a simple gorgeousness about her that was just stunning.”

They met up at a restaurant near Nash’s house and talked for six hours. Before long, they were living together. For a few months, it was bliss. “Then one horrible day she said she was having headaches,” Perry says. “We got an MRI, and then later the oncologist called the house and said she had brain metastases. She fell apart right there in front of me, screaming and crying. It was the most difficult day in my life because she just melted in my arms in fear.”

Perry and Nash moved to New York so she could have access to an experimental treatment in the Bronx. His favorite time of day came in the evening, when he held Nash as she tried to fall asleep. One evening, she turned toward him with something very serious on her mind. “She said, ‘If something ever happens to me, I want you to make one promise,’” he recalls. “ ‘Promise me you won’t go back into isolation. If you do, I fear this would all be for naught.’” She urged him to make music again.

Nash died on December 14th, 2012. “Ever since I was a kid, and especially since I became successful in the music industry, I just wanted people to love me,” Perry says. “I never knew when someone did for real. I always had a reluctance to believe it. I think it comes out of my youth when my parents split up, but something inside me always had doubts.

“But let me tell you how I know. When you’re in love with someone like Kellie Nash and she looks you right in the eyes and says, ‘I love you.’ That’s how you know. She made me the luckiest man in the world.”

What Perry really wants to talk about — the reason he’s willing to sit down and revisit these parts of his life — is Traces. It’s the result of five years of work (though there was an extended break in the middle for another hip-replacement surgery). He cut it at his home studio without any record label paying the bills or making him sweat out a deadline. The songs, many of them ballads, reflect on love, loss and the difficult moments in between. Some are directly about Nash, like “October in New York,” where he looks back at their final weeks together, while others are character-driven. The sound is a little more subdued than classic Journey: elegant, tasteful, soulfully autumnal. (Backstreet Boys aside, he avoids modern pop and has a particular aversion to drum machines; when a Top 40 station comes on one day over lunch, he insists on bolting from the restaurant to talk outside.)

Perry’s collaborators were delighted to find out he still had his voice. “When I first heard his demos, I was like, ‘Wow, there’s the voice!’” says guitarist Thom Flowers, a co-producer on the album. “But then in the studio, I got to see it myself. He likes to record in the control room, so we’d both put headphones on and he’d be two feet away from me. Without any warm-up, it just came out of him. It reminded me of watching a thoroughbred horse work.”

Perry almost couldn’t believe it himself when work on the album wrapped. “I told some friends of mine that I actually did something I said I’d never do again,” he says. “I made that commitment to Kellie and then a commitment to myself to actually complete it.”

“I always hoped that he would do this one day,” says Jenkins. “All along he’d been playing me these stunning tracks. I was always like, ‘Steve! What the hell? That’s a masterpiece!’ Hearing him give this to the world again is so moving.”

Perry may be willing to sit down for a series of extensive interviews, but there’s still an aura of mystery surrounding him. For example, his buddy Steve, whose home Perry is visiting. Steve — tall, kind, bald — lives in Mill Valley, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the Bay Area. After answering the door, he offers us coffee. There are photos on the wall of this Steve fellow with the pope. “He’s just a friend of mine,” says Perry, refusing to say anything about him. “An old friend of mine. Keep him anonymous.”

Perry says he’s had a number of serious relationships in his life, but besides Nash and his 1980s girlfriend Sherrie Swafford (immortalized in Perry’s 1984 solo hit “Oh Sherrie”), he won’t talk about any of them. Perry concedes that he has never been married and is-currently single, but goes quiet when the subject of children comes up. (Internet sleuths theorize that a woman he’s often photographed with named Shamila is his daughter. She bears a striking resemblance to him.) “I don’t want to talk about [kids],” he says. “There’s a private part of my life that I won’t have if I talk about it.”

I notice a gold pendant in the shape of a musical eighth-note around his neck. This gets him talking. “My mom gave it to me when I was 12,” he says. “She always believed in me. I wore it for years and years, but hung it up in May of 1998, just after the band and I legally split and I had a complete contractual release from all my obligations to the band and label. I put it back on about 10 years ago.”

As we spoke, Journey were hours away from taking the stage at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans — on a double bill with Def Leppard — one of 60 shows they played this summer. As they do every night, they’ll dedicate “Lights” to Perry. It’s a gesture of gratitude, and for good reason. When Perry joined Journey in 1977, none of the group’s albums had sold well, and the band was pumping out anonymous jazz fusion. Perry changed everything. In him, Journey found a singer who not only wrote big, concise, catchy songs, but also belted them to the cheap seats. Without him, Journey might well have been a prog-rock footnote.

Perry claims to feel no bitterness toward anyone in the band, even though he’s seen the members only twice, and briefly at that, in the past 20 years, and has rebuffed attempts to reconnect on a social level. Guitarist Neal Schon seems desperate for some sort of reconciliation and often tells interviewers he wants to create new music with Perry — not even necessarily for Journey. Schon has heard that Perry frequents his favorite coffee shop, and the guitarist hopes to run into the singer there. Pressed on this, Perry says he can’t imagine working with Schon in any capacity or even re-establishing the friendship.

“I’m not sure that’s possible without stirring up hopes of a reunion,” he says. “Please listen to me. I left the band 31 fucking years ago, my friend. You can still love someone, but not want to work with them. And if they only love you because they want to work with you, that doesn’t feel good to me.”

When I bring up Cain’s new memoir, Don’t Stop Believin’ — an innocuous, uncontroversial book where he looks back on his life and heaps endless praise onto his bandmates, past and present — a look of disgust comes across Perry’s face. “I don’t really care to read Jonathan’s book,” he says. “And I’d appreciate if you didn’t tell me about it. I don’t need to know. It’s none of my business.”

But his mind is also on the future. Plans are still unclear, but Perry wants to launch a tour of some sort to promote Traces. He says he’ll sing the Journey hits again, meaning that “Faithfully,” “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” and, yes, “Don’t Stop Believin’” will come out of his mouth for the first time in nearly a quarter century. He clutches the eighth-note his mother gave him, the one he put back on around the time Nash came into his life, and tries to make sense of it all. “I’m not the only one that goes through life,” he says with a deep sigh. “We’re all going through it, and I’m tolerating it the best I can.”

In This Article: Journey, Steve Perry

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