The Ballad of a Mad Fan
Bart Steele wrote a love song to the Red Sox that changed his life—until, he says, Jon Bon Jovi (allegedly!) ripped it off, and changed his life all over again.
From the beginning, he was thinking of how to market his song. Bart Steele—struggling musician, former stockbroker, lifelong Red Sox fan—wanted a universal tune, one that reached well beyond Fenway Park. So, early in that September of 2004, he decided to distinguish his ditty from every other Sox tribute by giving it a Nashville sensibility and thus, he figured, even broader appeal. A few hours into his first recording session, he found his hook: “Get up off your seats/Everybody scream/Man, I really love this team.” But Steele’s engineer, an old friend and former Black Crowes soundman named Gypsy, working with him in a moldy Hyannis basement, thought the verses weren’t descriptive enough. That evening Steele drove back to his Chelsea condo, where the handsome, scruffy rocker restlessly scribbled Sox-relevant lyrics. “Word is out on Yawkey Way/Our boys in red have come to play.” The next morning he returned to Gypsy, the rallying cry complete. It was silly stuff, but this was no lark. For Steele, who would later that year burn a Yankees hat at his grandfather’s gravesite, “Man, I Really Love This Team” was his way to write a love song for the Sox. That, and with any luck, get himself paid.
On October 8, the date of the American League Division Series closer against the Angels (and also Steele’s 33rd birthday), he and friend Peter Bellomo seized Fenway’s perimeter three hours before the game, guitars in hand. By the ninth inning, their anthem and self-styled spectacle—Steele dressed as a Johnny Damon caricature in a giant foam cowboy hat and strap-on beard, Bellomo playing Pedro Martinez in a wig and sunglasses—had attracted a small crowd. The next week, during the American League Championship Series against the Yankees, Steele and five buddies handed out more than 1,000 “Man, I Really Love This Team” singles, complete with lyric sheets, at the games (see a video sample featuring Bart Steele and his song, here). Bellomo and Steele played the last homestand, drawing a few hundred people every time they launched into the song.
When the Sox headed to St. Louis for the World Series, Channel 7 invited the duo to perform live. DJs at Boston Beer Works and the Cask ‘n Flagon began encouraging regular “Man, I Really Love This Team” sing-alongs. Just after the Sox swept the Cardinals, Steele says, he found a clip on Major League Baseball’s website of two polluted coeds slurring his chorus in the shadow of the Green Monster. Over at FenwayNation.com, where the song was available for free download, traffic had kicked up threefold to 180,000 daily visits. Like his Red Sox, Steele had made history.
But three seasons later, as the Sox muscled past the Angels and Indians to face the Rockies in the 2007 World Series, Steele couldn’t bring himself to watch a single game. Instead, he stewed in his condo, plotting revenge against, of all people, Jon Bon Jovi. Unbelievably, blatantly—cruelly—the pretty rocker from Jersey had taken his song and repackaged it as his own. Steele was sure of it. Now he just had to get the world to see things his way.
Bart Steele was voted “Most Likely to Host All of the Reunion Parties” by his classmates at Noble and Greenough. By his own measure, he holds the Dedham prep school’s record for consecutive weekend flings: a three-month streak he pulled off during his senior year while his mother, Claudia Woods (a former model who’d graced the box of the board game Life), spent time in Vermont. She and Bart’s father, Chum Steele (a U.S. Tennis Association New England Hall of Fame inductee who worked as a stockbroker at Prudential Securities), had divorced when Bart was three. Woods introduced her son to the piano as a child and paid for his drum and guitar lessons through high school—pursuits he says his father, who remarried when Bart was six, tolerated only because he consistently made the honor roll and played varsity soccer, hockey, and lacrosse. But the rock-star dreams had already taken hold, and Bart couldn’t be swayed from them.
“Bart always wanted to be a musician,” his mother says. “He used to sit for his baby brother, who is 13 years younger than him. When I would come home, instead of watching TV, Bart would be playing piano with his brother on his lap.”
In 1991 Steele enrolled at the University of Vermont, majoring in history and spending most of his time playing guitar in dorm rooms and chasing jam bands like Moe and Phish. After graduating in five years—because “leaving UVM after only four years is like leaving a cool party at 10 p.m.,” he says—he was unwilling to go corporate, as his dad had begged. Instead, he embarked on a prolonged globetrot, performing with street musicians on the sidewalks of New Zealand, Australia, China, Russia, Tibet, and India for the next four years.
Sporadically, Steele would come home to bartend and save up money for subsequent voyages. During one of these stays, in 1998, his father enrolled him in a training program at the Prudential office in Hyannis. Thinking he could play music at night, Steele reluctantly agreed, and later moved on to a broker job with Morgan Stanley. He had a place in West Yarmouth, and—from the outside, at least—what was looking like a nice, tidy suburban life. But he deplored the paper-pushing and 80-hour workweeks. His only thrill came from gigging with Cape bands.
After his daughter, Corinthia, was born in 2001, to an ex-girlfriend who lived in Haverhill, Steele reshuffled his priorities. By 2003 he had quit the firm and bought a duplex in Chelsea. Soon after, he sold his house in West Yarmouth for a $170,000 profit. With that and tenants on the top floor of his Chelsea pad, Steele was able to spend days with his daughter and nights playing Boston clubs. At the suggestion of his stepmother, he also earned his real estate license and began selling residential properties for a small Chelsea firm.
He wasn’t very good at it, though, and soon was living largely on his dwindling savings. His lot worsened in January 2004, when his closest friend, Mackey Abernethy, froze to death in Vermont’s Lake Champlain, assumed to have committed suicide. Abernethy, Steele’s eternal concert copilot, had been the only one to unconditionally endorse Steele’s rock fantasies.
In June 2004, Steele drove solo to Mohegan Sun. He played the Wingo sweepstakes and lost on every ticket. On his way to the exit, he dropped his last token into a slot machine, pulled the lever, and started to walk away. That’s when bells rang. He’d won $6,000.
Steele took it as a sign to extend his rock-and-roll grind. He called Gypsy, told him to clear his schedule, and spent the next three months recording in Hyannis. They finished nine songs that summer and early fall, but it took just one to provide Steele’s artistic salvation.
“It rescued me,” he says.
In late 2004, with friends and coworkers telling him how much they loved “Man, I Really Love This Team,” Steele says, he sent letters and e-mails to Red Sox management asking them to consider playing the song at home games. He also says he pitched it to Major League Baseball, touting it as being wholesome enough for any market. Though he no longer has a copy of the letter he sent, he says it urged MLB to use the song at ballparks nationwide by replacing the Sox-specific lyrics with references to Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, and so on.
Steele was all-in now. He scaled back his sputtering real estate work, grew thick, messy sideburns, and enrolled in a two-year certificate program in production at Berklee College of Music, financing it by tending bar. In a music business class, he learned it would be wise to register the copyright for “Man, I Really Love This Team” with the Library of Congress; on June 30, 2006, he filed the paperwork. At that time, he also submitted the song to the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), a membership association that registers performing rights. Finally, he says, he sent another round of letters to Major League Baseball and the Red Sox.
Steele graduated from Berklee in December 2006. The next fall his new band, the Chelsea City Council—named for its frontman’s near-maniacal commitment to his adopted hometown—released its debut CD, Everything at Once. In advance of it, on August 14, the Boston Globe‘s Living/Arts section ran a front-page piece on Steele, quoting him saying, “I just love this town,” beneath a Springsteen-esque portrait showing him sporting rolled-up sleeves and a tattoo. As the group caught further publicity, it began booking enough paying gigs to cover Steele’s basic expenses.
The man had almost made it.
October 4, 2007, Steele’s friend Chadbyrne Dickens, who lived in New York, was watching the Yankees on TBS when he saw an MLB advertisement featuring Bon Jovi. “I was like, ‘Holy fuck. It’s Bart’s song,'” says Dickens, a former executive at Paramount and Miramax. “Not like, ‘They stole it,’ but like, ‘Bart’s song is on TV. They must have bought it.'” Dickens found a clip of the Bon Jovi spot on YouTube and forwarded it to Steele. Two hours later Steele called him back, almost crying. Major League Baseball had licensed nothing, and to Steele the lyrical likeness seemed too blatant for coincidence. “I felt raped,” Steele says.
His song goes “Have you heard the news that’s goin’ round?/Our hometown team is series-bound,” while the Bon Jovi track goes “Let the world keep spinning ’round and ’round/This is where it all goes down/That’s why I love this town.” It didn’t matter to Steele that Bon Jovi’s track was country-pop glossy and his was hoedown gritty; it didn’t matter that few of the lyrics were the same. “If somebody kidnapped my daughter and gave her a nose job and dyed her hair yellow and I saw her 20 years down the line, I’d know that was my baby,” he says. “I knew this was my song.”
It got worse. TBS, in a move that paralleled Steele’s marketing concept, aired team-specific versions of the commercial in different cities. Furthermore, it appeared to Steele that the spot was edited not to fit Bon Jovi’s song, but rather to line up with “Man, I Really Love This Team.” At two minutes and 30 seconds, the original Bon Jovi promotion was nearly the exact length of Steele’s recording. And despite the spot’s putative purpose of advertising postseason coverage of National League and American League teams, Steele believes there was a disproportionate amount of Red Sox footage in the montage. He had a Berklee friend lay down “Man, I Really Love This Team” over Bon Jovi’s video.
When Steele sings, “Word is out on Yawkey Way,” the TBS video cuts to the intersection of Brookline Avenue and Yawkey Way. When he belts, “The Tigers, Rangers, and the Jays,” it cuts to shots of Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez running and an unidentifiable Ranger crossing home plate. This thing was the advertising equivalent of Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz.
Steele says he sent letters to Major League Baseball, the Red Sox, TBS, and Bon Jovi, but to no avail. (The Red Sox and Bon Jovi did not respond to requests for comment for this article. MLB’s publicists deny any involvement with the production of the “I Love This Town” campaign. Turner Sports, which produced the ad, denies all malfeasance.)
In January, Steele became further enraged when Bon Jovi Tours announced the “Bon Jovi Loves My Town” contest, in which fans were given opportunities to have their homemade “I Love This Town” videos played at concerts. Later that month, after earning $95 in bartending tips but getting a $75 parking ticket in the same night, Steele returned home and slipped on a patch of ice. Lying there, staring at the moon, he contemplated walking to the Tobin Bridge and jumping off. In the days that followed, he saw conspiracies everywhere. When Bon Jovi backed out of planned July 2008 Fenway shows, Steele figured it was out of shame.
And then Steele found someone willing to hear him out. In January, he had brought his evidence to ASCAP, requesting a review of potential conflicts, and on March 25 he received a letter from the organization’s repertory services department. It stated that ASCAP had “received multiple claims for the composition” from several parties. This was huge: ASCAP only seldom acknowledged an aggrieved songwriter’s claim. The letter was copied to management firms representing Jon Bon Jovi, bandmate Richie Sambora, and songwriter Billy Falcon, who split credit for their song three ways. (Their lawyers could not be reached for comment on Steele’s claims.)
In a follow-up phone conversation with ASCAP’s Andrew Rodriguez, Steele says, he was informed the group’s next move would be to “get all parties together” and reach a compromise. (Rodriguez declined to confirm Steele’s account of the conversation.) Steele assumed that would happen in April in L.A., when Jon Bon Jovi and Sambora were to commemorate their band’s 25th anniversary with a Q&A session at ASCAP’s “I Create Music” Expo. Perfect: Steele had planned to attend the expo anyway.
He was sure Bon Jovi would understand his plight. He even packed his mandolin in case the rocker needed backup for some West Coast dates. “If this goes right,” Steele told me, “we’ll be best friends.”
Three days before the expo, he received a promising e-mail from Universal Music Publishing Group. “We will be working on [Bon Jovi’s] behalf to resolve this matter with you,” it said. The day the expo got under way, however, Steele found the involved parties changing their postures. He says ASCAP was now reluctant to connect him with Jon Bon Jovi. He also got an e-mail from the singer’s attorney rejecting his claim “to any interest whatsoever in the composition, whether as songwriter or publisher.” That afternoon, as he was waiting for Bon Jovi’s Q&A to begin, Steele talked to ASCAP staffers, who, he claims, told him Bon Jovi’s management had said to keep him at a distance.
Upset, Steele decided to skip the event to drain Heinekens in the hotel bar. “The gloves are coming off,” he fumed. “My whole strategy has changed. This has to get messy immediately.” He began composing a cease-and-desist letter.
By his last day in Los Angeles, having gotten nowhere near Bon Jovi, Steele was determined the “shit fight” would resume back home. On a TV in the hotel bar, the Red Sox were playing the Yankees in their second 2008 face-off. He was still too angry to watch.
[sidebar]Two weeks later, Steele is onstage in the Middle East’s corner room, setting up for his band’s weekly Thursday gig at the Cambridge nightclub. He’s optimistic: A lawyer friend tells him that she might have convinced a major Boston firm (he can’t say which one yet) to take his case on contingency. Steele seems more confident than ever that rock stardom is looming, notwithstanding the threatening letter from Bon Jovi’s attorneys and the sudden, absolute silence from ASCAP.
His cell phone rings, blaring the same ringtone he’s had since last October: a digitized snippet of Bon Jovi’s “I Love This Town.” “I’ll be collecting royalties on that one of these days,” he says.