The Savatage Saga

From: RIP 5/92

By: Judy Weider

Title: "The Savatage Saga"

Transcribed and HTMLized by: Tracy Wrona

     How can I tell this story? Where does it really start? On the road with Savatage through Washington, D.C., Georgetown, Annapolis and Baltimore, I had to ask myself: What is it about these respectable towns that makes them such perfect settings for colliding values? Can it really be that quintessential America is this unaware her sons and daughters are putting serious dents in the system as they headbang their hearts out in sweaty little underground clubs that book revolutionaries like Savatage?

     Wait a minute-Savatage revolutionary? The same band that's been around since 1985, recording first for Combat, then Atlantic Records? Seven albums and still no major attention? Savatage-Tampa, Florida's Jon Oliva, Criss Oliva, Johnny Lee Middleton and Steve "Doc" Wacholz-revolutionaries?

     Yes, if you consider it revolutionary to write and record a hard-rock opera (Streets) about a burned-out drug dealer ("D. T. Jesus") who becomes a huge rock star, only to lose it all to his drug habit and then get it back again through painful self-examination. And if current negotiations between the band and off-Broadway producers go well, you may get a chance to see it all played out onstage next year. That's right, in one crashing, distorted chord, the American musical will reinvent itself as lyrics somewhat harder than, "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" shake the walls of the theater, announcing, "Jesus was a talker/Out of place New Yorker/Hung out on the boulevard/Started playing bars..."

     And, yes, there's definitely something revolutionary going on behind the personal hardness of Savatage as well. You can see it in bassist Johnny Lee Middleton's face at three in the freezing-cold morning, when he stops to take pictures of the Vietnam Memorial. The wall that seems to go on forever, name after name carved into the black stone, leaves Johnny more chilled than the weather.

     "I've got to get back in the bus," he whispers, red-faced. "This is too heavy, too heavy. I didn't realize there were so many. All these people...dead."

     Even the sledgehammer assault of "Doctor Killdrums," drummer Steve Wacholz, belies a softer side. His concern for the environment and animals is your first clue; his thoughtful approach to almost everything else is another. Nothing, however, prepares you for his nonjudgmental kindness towards the transvestite Atlanta, Georgia, band (the impotent sea snakes) he accidentally invites to open for Savatage in Baltimore.

     "Their stuff is kinda out there, but interesting," he says about the band before they go onstage and nearly get killed by the rowdy, super-macho rockers who've packed the town's good ol' boy club, Hammerjacks. Later on, after they've been battered by flying beer cans, Steve asks me to do an interview with them, so they "won't feel bad about being thrown off-stage buck naked," and then says, "I guess it wasn't the right crowd for what they do," ignoring the shrieks of "Who brought these freaks in here?!" that whirl around him.

     Johnny Lee and Steve are not the only unpredictable members of Savatage. Dealing lyrically with themes way beyond those of most bands (sex and partying) are the two Oliva brothers, Jon (vocalist/keyboards) and Criss (guitar), along with producer/cowriter Paul O'Neill. The three have been lifting Savatage's albums far above the ordinary for years with records like Hall of the Mountain King and Gutter Ballet. Streets is simply a natural progression of their work, with the personal crisis of bandleader Jon adding great resonance to the story of D. T. Jesus: Drugs and rock stardom are things Jon struggles with every day of his well-lived life.

     "I had a very, very, very, very serious drug problem after our Hall of the Mountain King tour," the husky, amiable singer confides between bites of meat loaf backstage at D. C.'s Bayou club. "We were touring with Ronnie James Dio and Megadeth, and Dave Mustaine and I just got caught up in it. We became very fast party buddies for the whole tour, and I ended up in rehab after that. I had a real problem, a big problem, so I had to go to this place and recover. I met Eric Clapton there, and Ben Vereen was my roommate. Ben is a very talented man, and we had some long talks that really helped me. He made me realize that I could live without drugs if I had to, but I couldn't live without my music. I don't say that I walk around with a halo over my head, but I don't do what I used to do. I used to have a very serious cocaine problem. I still find it very difficult to fight to stay free from it, because it's offered to me every night for free. That's hard. So if I have a couple of drinks every now and then, that's a lot for me. I can't do anything else, because then I can't sing. I lose my voice. I'm more worried about looking like an asshole onstage, not being able to sing, than I am about partying. I've partued all my life, so it's like okay, forget it! Cocaine is an evil, evil substance, because it only takes one line, and you're done, you're back where you were. I loved it, but I can't go back there."

     Although drugs cost him his marriage and mental health, Jon admits that recovering gave him the tools to dig deep into his own creative soil.

     "There's a lot on the Streets album that's about my drug problem, my own search," he says. "'Tonight He Grins Again' was actually written back in that period. A lot of lyrics I'd written worked well with my brother Criss' music. It says: 'Once again I played the clown/I used my friends and let them down/But no one seems to be around/Except this monkey that I've found/Still he is my only friend/And tonight he grins again.' It's so true," he sighs uncomfortably. "When you're in that place, you don't care about anyone else but that friend, that monkey on your back. You just use people to get that. Yeah, I've dabbled with it, but that's reality. That's my reality. This band was very young when we first started, and I guess it was kind of a game to me. I never did figure out why I started doing it. I just wanted to be cool. Today, travelling around, I see it's all over the U.S., in every city. It's really disgusting to me."

     Although Johnny Lee admits to a past dalliance with substances, Jon says no one but him in the band has had a problem.

     "Steve doesn't do any drugs, and never did. My brother Criss never had a problem. They're lucky. I did enough for all of them, believe me. I did enough for everybody in the state of Florida. I used to drive those poor guys crazy. There were some bad times, because I would lose my mind occasionally. I used to become violent-and I'm a very mellow guy, a nice person. But that stuff will just ruin you. I'll give this band credit: They stuck it out. They believed in me enough to help me get through it."

     According to Criss Oliva, Streets may reflect some of his brother's personal experiences, but the story itself came from a script producer Paul O'Neill had written.

     "It deals with a lot of everyday life decisions," he says with typical deadpan delivery. "The whole thing was a big risk for us to take. We decided to take it a step further and try something that hasn't been done before with a hard-rock band like us. Yeah, you've had the traditional rock operas, but Streets is more revolutionary. It was a big challenge. It's definitely different. We stuck our necks out, but we still have our heads, so everything is going good!"

     Not opposed to using sawed-off golf club handles for drumsticks, "Doc" Wacholz reminisces about Savatage'e early days while meditatively wrapping red tape around his fingers as some nameless opening band plays the usual, uninspired warm-up set. His current partnership in a custom-drum company (Falcon Design) seems light years away (actually nearly 15) from the dreary days he and the Oliva brothers used to practice in a smelly chicken coop.

     "We all met in 1977," he explains, his dark eyes never leaving the tape-winding ritual. "We were still in high school, and we used to practice in their backyard. They had a chicken coop that was all fenced in. The dog used to come out and attack us. The dog really hated me, because once he scared me so bad, I freaked and hit him over the head with a vacuum cleaner. Anyway, the dog was nothing compared to the rats. They were huge! These rats were so intense, they used to eat rat poison right out of the box...and never die! I used to keep my gloves on top of my cymbals, and the rats used to crawl up and eat my gloves. They used to eat the vinyl off of the cabinets.

     "For one album we moved out of the chicken coop," he continues, mesmerized. "But we missed that certain atmosphere. We used to call it The Pit, and people from our New York record company used to come down and take pieces of the building because they believed it possesed a power. It was not 500 yards from a place called The Fountain Of Youth. When the Oliva family sold the property, the fire department used it as a place to hold practice fires. They set fire to it, rats and all. We heard they were scampering like crazy out of the coop. Funny, but I think I miss it. It's been a long journey, and we're still on it."

     "It is a journey," Johnny Lee agrees, shivering at the chicken coop story. "As you go further and further into musical experimentation, you still take it all with you wherever you go. This world is changing, and it's ridiculous not to admit that. The kids out there in the audience, they can hear it in our show. Jon sings with such theatrical fire. He has one of those voices that is larger than life; it kinda drives the truth home. It was risky to jump in and do a record like this, but we were ready. I think they are too," he concludes, looking out the window at all the fans lined up in the freezing cold to hear their first, full-blown, hard-rock opera live. "I think most people can relate to it. It's not one of those concept albums that takes a while to sink in. It's the truth, and people always recognize that pretty quickly."