Boz Scaggs Interview - San Francisco Chronicle
[Author: Liz Lufkin - San Francisco Chronicle - May 15, 1988]
IT'S BEEN EIGHT years since he released an album, four years since he talked to the press and two years since he first went into the studio to record a long-awaited comeback LP. But despite the odds, it looks as if Boz Scaggs - the quintessential 1970s' San Francisco rock star - is back in business.
When his wistful, romantic ballad "Heart of Mine" was released a few weeks ago, radio disc jockeys jumped all over it, and the single now is zipping up the charts.
"It's phenomenal," says Dave Sholin, Top 40 editor at the Gavin report, an influential radio trade publication. "It's doing tremendously well."
As for Scaggs, he's in a state of "repressed delight." Sipping a beer at the busy Blue Light Cafe, the Union Street restaurant he opened in 1984, he says he's happy that things are going so well, but still feeling a little cautious. For him, the crucial moment came a few weeks ago, as he was standing in the kitchen of his Pacific Heights home and getting the lowdown from his record company on how "Heart of Mine" was doing.
"I told them, `Just give me the news; just tell me the truth,' " he recalls, gripping an imaginary phone with surprising force before letting go and relaxing his hand. "I just didn't want any bull- - - -."
At 43, Scaggs looks great, even though he's just stepped off a long, grueling flight from New Orleans - where he'd attended a jazz festival and shopped for fixtures for Slim's, a new r&b nightclub he's opening next month with partners Jack Slick, owner of the Balboa Cafe, and Bob Brown, who manages Huey Lewis and the News.
There are a few strands of silver in his fine, light brown hair, but he wears it well. It's just what you'd expect from the man who gave rock and roll a touch of class back in the '70s, posing in a tuxedo for Rolling Stone and putting on black-tie concerts at the Paramount Theater. He's certainly all rested up, he says in a wry Texas drawl. "Eight years 'll do it."
In a rare interview, Scaggs talks about why he stayed away so long, and why he finally decided to record the album "Other Roads," which will be released tomorrow.
This long-awaited LP is a slick, sophisticated collection of songs featuring Scaggs' trademark mix of rock, romance and r&b. Reminiscent of "Silk Degrees" - his best-selling LP from the '70s, which received five Grammy nominations and won the best r&b song award -"Other Roads" has been updated for the '80s with the addition of a tough, urban edge. Even the album cover features Scaggs dressed head to toe in black leather, lounging against a motorcycle.
As usual, he's backed by a crew of stellar session musicians, including Jeff Porcaro, Steve Lukather and David Paich, who are members of Toto, as well as hot-shot singers James Ingram and Siedah Garrett.
Clearly aware of the speculation surrounding his self-imposed exile, Scaggs leads off with "What's Number One?" an intense, introspective song. Co-written with punk poet Jim Carroll, it amounts to a mini-autobiography of a rock star who turned his back on being on top.
"You see even if you hold the key/ the door's locked from behind/ But I left/ I was playing out a lone part/ I was deaf to the whispers of my own heart."
Elsewhere, the album ranges from hard rock ("Crimes of Passion") and tight, r&b-flavored pop songs ("Claudia") to the delicate, pretty sounds of "The Night of Van Gogh." In a sense, "Other Roads" picks up right where he left off, and for Scaggs, the fact that it's finally out is "a great relief."
"It's the most satisfying record I've done since `Silk Degrees,' he says. "I'm very satisfied with what I've come up with. The project has been a joy.
"A long joy," he adds with a laugh. "But a joy."
BACK IN 1984, Scaggs swore he was going to be doing another album in the near future. "It will come about," he insisted. "I'm spending time on my music again. It's always present in me. "
At the time, Scaggs only recently had recovered from a bad case of burnout, the result of a 10-year career push that began in the late '60s when he joined the Steve Miller Band. By 1978, Scaggs was on top, thanks to "Silk Degrees." The album's smooth, soulful sounds had turned him into an international star, but even though he'd gone from Potrero Hill to Pacific Heights, he felt as if he was in rut, trapped by the demands of stardom.
The situation only got worse after a traumatic divorce from his wife, Carmella, who had been a big influence on his career, and the ensuing bitter custody battle over their two sons, Oscar and Austin. Scaggs not only lost interest in the music business, he lost his confidence, too.
"I didn't know if I could ever pick it up again," he says today, looking back at those tough times. And so he decided to take a break. He planned to read, listen to records and play golf. Instead, he says, "I really spent a lot of time doing nothing. I wasn't exactly lazy. I just didn't worry about a lot of things." He did open the Blue Light Cafe, however, and for a while, it seemed as if he'd abandoned rock for the restaurant business.
Still, there was no dramatic story behind his comeback, which began over a quiet dinner with Bill Schnee, producer of his last LP, "Middle Man." Although Scaggs had done some scattered recording in Los Angeles and New York, nothing felt right until that one night in early 1985. "I just lost my apprehensions," he says. "We'd already done it once, and we said, `OK, let's do it again.' "
Surprisingly enough, he says, it wasn't that hard to get back to singing and recording. The big problem was songwriting - after so much time away, Scaggs felt a little rusty. As a result, this album features much more collaboration than in the past, and with a surprising partner.
Jim Carroll is best known for his street-wise books such as "The Basketball Diaries" and bleak songs including "People Who Died." But Scaggs had met him at a club in North Beach back in the '70s, and the two hit it off. "I just considered all the lyricists who were out there, and he was the only one I wanted to contact," he explains.
Musically, Scaggs also was helped out by well-known songwriters Peter Wolf and Marcus Miller. The recording sessions lasted from December 1985 to this February. The delay, he says, resulted from his typically experimental approach in the studio, a sporadic schedule, and the fact that he recorded 16 tracks, almost twice the usual number of songs.
But mainly, he says, "There was no feeling of having a deadline. The attitude was, `We'll put it out when it's finished.' Hour for hour, it probably took less time than anything I've ever done."
At one point, Scaggs actually thought he was done . . . until his record company, fearing the album lacked a strong single, sent him back into the studio, this time with producer Stewart Levine (whose credits include Simply Red and Curiosity Killed the Cat). Levine re-recorded "Heart of Mine," among other things, and now the song looks like a huge hit.
Today, Scaggs says he has no regrets over disappearing from the business for awhile.
"After three or four years, it (not making records) ceased to become an issue. I lost my guilty feelings about not working. I just forgot about it. I didn't feel the necessity.
"I'm really pacing myself, doing what I want to do. I feel strong. I feel healthy. I've recharged my batteries, and I won't let them get run down again."
THE MUSIC business has changed a lot since the last time Scaggs was on the scene. Play lists are tighter, radio stations have become more specialized, and videos are essential. Admittedly camera shy, Scaggs was not exactly looking forward to this last challenge, but after screening more than 60 reels of tape he settled on director Mary Lambert (who has worked with Mick Jagger, Madonna and the Eurythmics) and made a fairly straightforward performance video.
"I'd been dreading it for a long time," Scaggs says of the experience. "But I enjoyed it more than I thought I would."
Other things have turned out differently, too. Scaggs expected to have Slim's open long before now, but found that putting a nightclub together is much harder than it looks. Slim's is now due to debut June 24. The next day, Scaggs hits the road for his first tour in years, and tentatively has scheduled some San Francisco dates for October. He also expects to be back in the recording studio before the end of the year.
This is a lot of activity for someone who kept such a low profile for so long, but Scaggs appears to be thriving on it, subscribing to music trade magazines again and checking out the local music scene more than he has in years.
It doesn't leave much time for a social life, he says, and even if it did, Scaggs probably wouldn't talk about it much. When asked about his love life, he stalls for a moment and says, "Well . . . hmm. Fine." Won't he say anything else? "Nope."
"The process of making music is probably the most dramatic thing that's been going on in my life," he says. "It's been greatly on my mind. A big part of me was missing."
There were times, he admits, when he thought about never making another record again. But now that he's finally back, Boz Scaggs is feeling . . . "great," he says, with a grin. "Everything is in good order. I'm very relieved and excited and happy. I've put a lot of thought into getting this record out. It's only now that I can realize it's really done."
Copyright 1988 San Francisco Chronicle