Ricky Byrd: In It for Life

By Jeb Wright

Ricky Byrd, most famous for being the “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” guitar player for Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, has had a lifetime love affair with his hometown of New York City.  Now, on his new solo album, his first studio album ever, Byrd pays homage to the city that doesn’t sleep with an incredible back to basics rock record titled Lifer.

Byrd, who also has played with such high profile artists as Roger Daltrey, Ian Hunter and Southside Johnny, has made an endearing album that brings the true meaning of rock and roll back to the forefront.

While Ricky does not reinvent the wheel on Lifer, there is no need to.  That said, the tunes are fresh and vibrant. 

This is a special record made by an exceptional songwriter and a special human being.  

Jeb: Let’s talk about Lifer.  This album is a real, honest to goodness rock and roll record. This is a very authentic album. 

Ricky: What do you think about that?  It’s a dirty job, but somebody had to do it!  I just did what I do.  There was no thought to trying to be anything other than me.  I had some ground rules.  I wanted to make it playable live.  I picked certain grooves that I’ve always been in love with.  Whether they were grooves from the Faces, the Stones, or Al Green, they were beats that I felt like I would have a good time playing live.  The other path I followed was to not edit myself and to do exactly what I wanted since I was paying the check. 

Jeb:  A lot of artists can’t self-edit themselves. 

Ricky: When I started the record, back when we talked a few times, back in 2001, I did some work with Ray Kennedy in Nashville.  The only song from those sessions that is on this record is “Turnstile ‘01” because it’s just too good. There are five other tracks that will hopefully wind up on another record.  For me, emotionally, when I did the rest of the songs over the last two years, I was so definitive that there wasn’t any kind of second guessing, or self-doubt.  I knew exactly what I wanted.  I knew when a guitar solo was right, or I knew if it needed to be changed a little bit.  If a solo was a little sour, then if it was rock and roll sour, I would leave it.

The killer thing musicians do is to doubt themselves and then start asking everyone what they think about things.  I didn’t really play it for anybody, not even Carol [Kaye, Ricky’s wife].  I didn’t want anyone’s opinion because then I might change things and go, “Oh, maybe you’re right.” 

It’s been mixed and mastered now for three, or four months.  I go to the gym and I throw it on and I don’t hear one thing I would change.  I am talking down to the running order.  I took a lot of time on the order of the songs.  I had 17 songs and I had to take a switchblade to this thing and really decide what was going to go on the record. 

There are a couple of great songs that didn’t make the record.  I wrote a song with Richie Supa called “Justine” and one I co-wrote with Southside Johnny called “Anna Lee.”  They were great songs, but they just didn’t wind up on this record.  It is a head start for the next one.  I just could not put the puzzle together with them, as they pushed the album in another direction.  I really gave this album a lot of thought. 

Jeb:  You really took a lot of time on Lifer.  What took so long?

Ricky: It’s really simple, the first batch I started in November of 2001, right after September 11th.  I went to Nashville where Ray produced the first bit.  I was making trips—I made about a half dozen trips and it was stressful.  I would know I had a plane to catch in fifteen hours and I had to get a lot of stuff done.  It was expensive too. 

The times in-between trips started getting further and further, as he was making album after album and I was busy.  It started out great, but then it was just dragging on.  I got lost a little bit.  Other stuff in life started taking over like when I played with Southside Johnny for a year and a half. 

I didn’t know if I was ever going to finish this fricking thing.  I ran into an old friend of mine, Bob Stander, on Facebook.  We used to do a lot of recording in the ‘80’s, back when I was with [Joan] Jett.   I asked him if he would come over and learn me this stuff in my studio.  He came over and I happened to have written “Foolish Kind,” that was the first song from this new batch.  We did the song and it sounded amazing.  I said, “You know what, this is exactly how I want my record to sound.”  We mixed it and sent it down to Ray in Nashville.  He became the executive producer, but Bob and I produced everything but “Turnstile ‘01.”  We mixed it and sent it to Nashville to have it mastered. 

Jeb:  The songs do not sound like they were written over a long period of time.

Ricky: This collection of songs was not written over that long a period of time.  “Turnstile” was older and “Wide Open” I wrote 15 years ago.  I must have made four recordings of that over the years.  I never quite hit it on the head.  That was even one of the six I did with Ray in Nashville.  Maybe I will put that version out as a bonus track, as it was on acoustic.

When I was doing the second batch of songs up here in New York everything started sounding really great.  I decided we should try “Wide Open.”  I always heard that song as sort of an Otis Redding song.  This time, I hit it on the head.  I did those kind of mournful slide guitars and they had never been on any version of the song. 

All of the other songs were written from scratch.  I wrote some with Southside, with Richie, or just by myself. 

Jeb: What is Southside Johnny like?

Ricky: He is a funny cranky old guy, but in a good way.  He plays the cranky guy.  He is great to write with.  He lives all the way down in Asbury Park and I live all the way on the other side of

New York and he came to my house four times and we co-wrote three songs, of which two songs made the record. 

Jeb: The record seems to have a theme.

Ricky: When I came up with the blueprint for the record, I said to myself that I wanted to make a record that led with the truth.   There is no use trying to compete with the market and trying to be some guy that I’m not.  I wanted to make a record that had the same kind of heart and soul that the music that I listened to when I was thirteen and heard it for the first time and gave me chills up my spine.  This is the kind of music that made me want to be that kind of guy.  

There have to be a lot of people in my age group that are dying to hear this kind of music again that have been listening to “Maggie May’ for the last thirty years.  They must want to hear some new stuff.  I wore my influences on my sleeve and this is what makes Ricky Byrd; Ricky Byrd. 

Jeb:  You can really tell that sentiment in “Rock ‘N’ Roll Boys.”

Ricky: That one was really obvious.  Here is the deal…every time I pick up an acoustic guitar, I write a new song.  I got to the end of the record and that song was not yet written.  I said, “That’s it; I am done with the record.” 

At Christmas, someone got me the DVD of the Mott the Hoople reunion that they did a couple of years ago in England.  I watched that.  I had played with Ian [Hunter].  After watching that, I realized that I had forgotten that type of groove, which was the “Rock ‘N’ Roll Boys” groove.  I had to have this groove on my record.  I wrote the riff and I started fiddling around.  I turned on this tiny handheld digital machine and I played the riff and I started mumbling shit.   When I do that sort of thing, I am hoping I will fall onto a phrase, which this time was ‘rock and roll boys.’  I started writing the lyrics and it was really me as a teenager.  “Seventeen, ready to play, rock and roll is in my veins, I ain’t too worried about the future, and I’m going to be a big deal one day.”  That is really me at age 13, or 14 years old sitting on my bed in my parents’ apartment in the Bronx. 

To continue in this business, which is not for the faint of heart, you have to have this bravado like I say in the song.  If you don’t have this, then it is really hard to continue in this business.  I can’t think of one other person I played with when I was that age that ever became anything else.  They eventually put it down, or they played bars and had a real job.  You’ve got to have this one extra little gene that says, “No matter what happens to me, no matter if I have a dime in my pocket or not, this is who I am.”  The key line of the song is at the end where I go, “I’m always going to be one of the rock and roll boys.”  That says it all. 

In the body of the song I talk about Max’s Kansas City. That was a famous rock club in the ‘70’s.  It actually started in the ‘60’s, but it was more of an artist’s club.  The guy that owned the place, Mickey Ruskin, was sort of a real mangy looking dude.  All of these painters and poets and writers would come in there.  Nobody had any money, so he would let them run tabs.

As the ‘60’s became the ‘70’s, slowly but surely, it became the club to go to.  Andy Warhol would be there and Peter Max would be there.  In the early ‘70’s, any band that was playing in town would end up at Max’s. 

Aerosmith got their deal there.  Iggy Pop cut his chest there.  There was a little room upstairs and downstairs there was a long bar.  In the back there was this famous round table.  If the Stones, or the Who played at the Garden, everybody wound up there after the gig.  If the Stones were at the club, then who else was there?  Hot slutty girls.  If there are hot girls there then who shows up?  Guys like us.  That is where I learned about rock and roll.

I was playing in bands at age 16.  We brought our band into the city and we played Max’s.  In other words, that is what that song is about.  It is a very New York song. 

Jeb:  And New York is a recurring theme on Lifer

Ricky:  When I started recording that song, the beginning of it…I wanted to make it like my beginning.  They turned the machine on and I came walking down the steps and you could hear me coming down the steps.  It is like I went down to the basement. Then you hear me switch the amp on and you hear the buzzing of the chord going in and I start the song.  Once I did that, then I knew it was the beginning of the album.  Once I did that then it all started becoming very natural. 

“Let’s Get Gone,” the next song, is about being an adult and going to a club in New York; I even mention the East Village.  When I did the album, and it was all done, ending with “Turnstile” then I discovered it was a New York record.  That is all I wanted; to make a New York record.  I have a song called “Harlem Rose.”  This is my version of New York.

On the beginning of “Turnstile”…it was two weeks after September 11th and I was down at the Union Square Park on 14th Street with a little Sony cassette recorder taping just what was going on in the city right after the attacks.  You hear sirens on there and people talking and you hear a train going beneath me. 

“Turnstile” was the only song that was recorded at a different session, which is not unheard of.  Everybody does that…the Stones do that.  It did sound a little different than the rest of the stuff, so I decided to put it at the end so there would be nothing following it.  When I listened to the whole album, from beginning to end, I was like, “Wow, this is like a Beatle ending”; the song just kind of ends. 

Jeb: So you actually recorded those sounds. 

Ricky:  I am telling you that is two weeks after September 11th.  Nobody knows that, but when I tell them that then it gives them chills.  I am standing over a subway grating and you can hear the train go by underground and then the acoustic guitar starts and I say, “I can’t get enough of this city/with all my complaining, my feet hit the concrete, its home.”  What a great way to end the album.  It has a great vibe. 

Jeb: Talk about the song “Dream Big.” 

Ricky: There is no room for self-doubt in this business; you’ve got to have some swagger.  I had no doubt from the time I saw the Stones on The Ed Sullivan Show.  I mean, it’s all bullshit because who knows what’s going to happen to you.  What I’m saying is this: People who don’t have that one track mind usually fall off the cart.  You’ve got to put all of your real life aside and say, “I really don’t care what happens.” 

At a very early age I was playing at hotels up in the mountains in the Catskills.  I was only 16.  At that point, I was getting in a van and wreaking havoc on hotels.  It was just about playing to the teens.  Their parents would come up for ski vacations and you would play these gigs and then try to get their daughters to come back up to your room.

“Dream Big” is a song with a great groove.  At the end of the song I throw everything but the kitchen sink into that song.  I wanted a big anthem on the album and “Dream Big” is it.  I wanted it still to be cool with cool guitar bits.  I think it could be big on the radio.  There is no beating around the bush on that song.  

Jeb:  Talk about the CD sleeve where you talk about the bands you loved.

Ricky: That little dedication was to Ian and all the bands that I loved.  I really took a lot of time writing the liner notes. 

When I was a kid, every weekend, me and my friends would get on the train and go into the City and we would hang out in front of Manny’s Music, which is a famous music store.  On the way home, there was a little newsstand there and I would pick up copies of Melody Maker and Sounds.  I was very into English music and that is where I learned about the Who and the Stones and this and that.  There were a lot of other cool bands like Spooky Tooth, Chicken Shack and Slade.  I wouldn’t have known about them if I didn’t pick up Melody Maker. 

I would read about my heroes and they would talk about how they discovered these American blues artists.  Keith Richards met Mick Jigger on a train station, or something like that.  Keith was carrying a bunch of records.  In post war England they would send away for mail order albums in America.  They were much more open to race music and they got all of the great blues and soul tours over there.  They would send away for their records. 

Through their interviews, I learned about Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Muddy Waters.  You never heard those artists on American radio.  I learned about them through the interviews.  The first Who records were soul covers.  I went back and I figured out who Muddy was and Freddie King, Albert King and Sam Cooke.  You read that Rod Stewart loves Sam Cooke’s vocals and you go, “Hmm, who is this Sam Cooke?” 

This stuff has got to be passed on.  Somewhere along the line, when it was traveling down, there was a cutoff point where people stopped talking about their influences.  I remember Kiss being this huge band, but they never talked about their influences.  Lord knows I am sure Ace grew up on the same stuff I grew up on.  Kids that grew up on Ace didn’t know about Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. 

I took the torch and I am shouting it out.  It is okay to like the bands that are out now, but come on over to my place and let me play you some stuff.  People can make their own choices, but they should know about this stuff in order to make them.  History is very important. 

I was lucky enough to be a part of New York radio.  I remember going to the beach in the Bronx and having my little transistor radio and listening to all kinds of music.  Everything now is separated. Sirius radio has great stuff on it, but it is all separated.  I remember hearing “The Last Time” by the Stones, to “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks to “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime” by Dean Martin to “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis to Sinatra singing “Winchester Cathedral” and it was all on one station.  You could really pick and choose what you wanted to listen to and the type of music that you like. 

My first two physical record albums were “Are You Experienced” by Jimi Hendrix and the first Monkees album.  Could you hear that same stuff on one station today?  No, but you could hear “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Purple Haze” on one station back then and I liked both of them. 

Jeb:  You have been staying busy, but I want to know what you’re going to do to support Lifer

Ricky:  I play with Rockers in Recovery.  I have been sober 25 years now, so I put together this thing with Richie Supa and John Hollis.  I played with them last night.  It is for people who are officially sober like I am and doing the 12 Step thing, as well as for people who don’t have a problem, but support the rest of us, emotionally and believe in us.  My job is to show people that you can still be a pirate and not use drugs.  I am also in a band called the NYC Hit Squad.  I have this band that plays at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame every year, too. 

I am talking to some people about putting a band together to go play this record.  The whole point was to make an album I could play live, so now I’ve got to go play it live. 

It is economics.  The album just came out last week.  I need to get it out there.  I am very anal about where people are buying records.  If I sell x amount in Kansas City, then I put a dot on the map and think about playing a club in Kansas City.  It is too expensive to put a band together these days, so you really have to know where your crowd is going to be. 

Jeb:  I love “Married Man.” 

Ricky: Musically, I wanted that song to have an old Stax feel.  Lyrically, there was a period of time when I wrote that song, that there were a few very public indiscretions made by very public politicians.  Basically, what that song is about is that blow jobs don’t count.  Rock and Roll is supposed to be funny and fun and that is what that song is about. 

Jeb: When did you know the title of the album would be Lifer?

Ricky: That is an interesting question.  I can show you about 35 titles that I jotted down.  There was one title that made it right to the end. 

I do a lot of reading and I was reading this Damon Runyon book from the 1940’s and I was also reading an Anthony Bourdain book at the same time period.  The world “lifer” came up in both of those books.  Anthony was talking about anyone who works in a restaurant had to be a lifer.  Runyon made the reference to gamblers and gangsters.  A light went off in my head that I am a rock and roll lifer.  I wrote it down and I liked it.  It’s just one word. Once again, there’s no beating around the bush. 

Jeb: I love the cover shot. 

Ricky: That photo was taken by Dina Regine, who is a great photographer.  I wanted something that said something about the record and that is why I am holding an Elmore James record in my hands.  My 1953 Gibson ES-295 is in the background.  It is just me on a freaking barstool, its simple. It just screams out rock and roll.  One look at that and you can tell what that guy does. 

Jeb: You are pretty happy where you are at in life.

Ricky:  Yes.  I am not even unhappy about the music business.  It is very exciting to do a lot of hands on things.  I did about 250 pre-orders of the record.  From my website I said that the first 250 people to buy would get signed copies.  I loved taking them all to the post office.  I love that shit; I know where every dollar goes.

Everything is profit at this point, as I’ve paid for the record already.  You can’t sell as many records as you used to, but you spend so much less.  If you keep your overhead low, then you can actually make a living at this.  The question is how I get the word out, so that is where social media comes in. 

Jeb:  Last one: There are two children in a picture in the CD sleeve.  Tell me about that photo.  

Ricky: That is my daughter and her friend.  On “Ways of a Woman” that is her and her friend who say “Dad” on the song.  I was recording the vocals and they kept coming into the studio and screwing around.   I was like, “I’m trying to record.”  A light went on and I said, “Come over here.  You’ve got to earn your dinner.”  I put them on stools and I said, “When I say this, then you say ‘dad.’  Then you say it and you laugh.”  We did it in one take.  Then I said to my kid, “Just so you know, you’re not getting paid for this.”  To her friend she said, ‘Welcome to showbiz.”