Peter Wolf believes in magic. Not the kind that involves top hats and white rabbits or voodoo dolls and pins, but the magic that happens when the stars align and allow artists to reach their creative heights. It's no matter if the flash of brilliance comes from a musician, a painter, a poet, even a bartender, as long as its zap leaves a tangible buzz.
Wolf, a bona fide member of Boston's rock 'n' roll royalty who rose to fame as frontman of the J. Geils Band, has spent much of his life chasing those sparks with the determination of a frontier trapper.
“It's all about capturing what I call 'magic moments,'” explains the wiry, black-clad veteran, surrounded by the LP- and book-covered walls of his Back Bay apartment, a nest for inspiration. Half-finished drawings and paintings are scattered across a small desk. Stereo components overrun the coffee table, with a tidy stack of soul and blues CDs on top of them. Old 45s rest in shoeboxes, waiting to be cracked open like time capsules on the turntable. Guitars abound in various stages of age, distress, and charm. All fuel for Wolf's art.
“It started when I was 10,” Wolf says, “and this magic moment came by with Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Man, I'd never heard anything like that before. The sound was so exciting it made me jump around and kick over the furniture. My parents thought I was nuts. But those records set me on this course, just chasin' those magic moments. That's why you'll see me at the back of the Middle East checking out a band, or at the Plough & Stars at midnight. I'm always looking for that special thing that happens. It's the reason I wanted to be in a band and make records.”
And it's why Wolf's new solo album, Sleepless (Artemis Records), which comes out next month, is so affecting. Interesting things happen the instant he opens his mouth for the first number, “Growing Pain,” and his voice comes out in a raw-velvet texture. As he sings, “Sometimes I don't know what it is I'm looking for / Whatever it is I want, I seem to need a little bit more,” the layers of R&B tradition and rock 'n' roll gusto in which he's wrapped his live-wire musical persona fall away. What we're left with sounds like Wolf speaking from his heart Â— a restless man sharing his experiences and memories, tempered alternately by love, regret, and sadness.
The highly personal songwriting of “Growing Pain,” the heartache ballad “Nothing but the Wheel,” the mourning “A Lot of Good Ones Gone,” and the autobiographical “Sleepless” form a bittersweet suite that seems at odds with the life-of-the-party persona Wolf forged with J. Geils Band hits like “Give It to Me” and “Centerfold.” There's even a song inspired in part by the emotional turbulence of the group's 1983 breakup, “Run Silent, Run Deep,” which Wolf describes as dealing with “fratricide, revenge, retribution.”
But Sleepless is no downer. The warm, confidential tone of Wolf's midnight confessions gives even its thorniest numbers honest beauty. And Wolf still has a way with soulful rave-ups, lighting house fires with the Stax nugget “Never Like This Before,” and growling like a Delta-bred Tom Waits through an acoustic version of the old Geils/Otis Rush favorite “Homework.” Then there's the joy of hearing him duet with friends like Mick Jagger and Steve Earle on country ballads or team with buddy Keith Richards to dig up their dirty roots on blues icon Sonny Boy Williamson's “Too Close Together.”
Few would have expected Wolf to raise his creative bar so high after five solo albums and nearly 40 years' work Â— largely because his last CD, 1998's transitional Fool's Parade, was lost in the disintegration of his previous label, Mercury Records. “I'm a late bloomer, and I feel I was just starting to come into my own with Fool's Parade,” Wolf explains.
But the corporatization that has cramped the music business couldn't keep Wolf from the hunt. His insatiable desire to fan creative fires has provided him a life far more interesting than the typical rock star's. Granted, his bohemian Bronx upbringing, courtesy of his ex-vaudevillian father and lefty-activist mother, gave young Peter Blankfield a head start. By 15, he was living on his own in a Manhattan studio, painting and absorbing as much musical inspiration as possible. Wolf plunged into the '60s folk scene and befriended Bob Dylan before moving to Boston to study painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, where he roomed with future filmmaker and Twin Peaks creator David Lynch. In 1965, Wolf formed his first band, the Hallucinations, before he dropped out of school. He also began to cast enduring friendships with his blues idols, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf.
Wolf recalls those years living out of a loft as “crazy, wild times. . . . On one side there's Linda Kasabian who was with the Manson group, and you got this guy making LSD upstairs. We're rehearsing and in comes Elvin Jones and John Coltrane.
“It was just a heady period. You've got this great jazz coming out, great rock 'n' roll, great country.”
Wolf's rise to fame with the Geils Band gave him access to many worlds. Over the years, he's befriended painters, novelists, actors (he was married to Faye Dunaway for four years), and more musicians, from the Rolling Stones to R&B kingpin Solomon Burke. Poets and playwrights, too, including Tennessee Williams, who gets a sweet tribute in Sleepless's “Five O'Clock Angel.”
They've all played a role in Wolf's search for the experiences that charge him Â— a quest that continued unabated on the night we spoke. After dinner in the South End, we continued to his quarters, where Wolf dove into his record collection and plucked out obscure hits like Roger Collins's soul screamer “She Is Lookin' Good.” Then, on to Somerville's Tir na nog, where guitarist Duke Levine was leading his band through a sweaty set of soul, blues, and rock instrumentals.
The music ricocheted off the walls of the closet-sized pub, mixing with the free-flowing alcohol to send an electric crackle through the audience. Wolf, who nursed a black-and-tan and wore one of the many black hats that typically crown his dark, frazzled hair, eventually rode that current of excitement to the stage and amplified it with a crisp, high-speed plea through “Cry One More Time,” a song he wrote for the second J. Geils Band album. Next, he dove for the soul, overhauling the Walter Price gem “Pack Fair and Square.” It's on songs like these Â— in which the spirits of his blues and soul heroes seem to possess his lean frame as he feints, shouts, and testifies about love, loss, and human triumph Â— that Wolf really breathes fire.
“I'll use a quote that Tennessee Williams and Billie Holiday and John Lee Hooker all used: 'I cover the waterfront,'” the inveterate night owl reflects. “And there is that restlessness, and sometimes it even shocks me, like, 'What the hell am I doing here? It's 4:30 in the morning and, great googli-moogli, the last one in the place is me!'”