Burtnik: The Wisdom of New Brunswick's Music Man
Jennifer & Mike Doktorski
Burtnik likes to tell people that he didn't go to college --
he went to Beatlemania.
not kidding. After answering an ad for Beatle look-and-sound-alikes
in the Village Voice, the New Brunswick native won the role
of Paul McCartney in the 1970s Broadway show. Like McCartney,
Burtnik is a southpaw guitarist who suffers from, as he puts
it, "big-droopy-sad-eye-disease." Playing McCartney playing
Beatle songs indoctrinated Burtnik in the songwriting skills
of "The Masters," as he puts it. Following his Broadway stint,
Burtnik took off for sunny California where he sang lead and
played guitar on Jan Hammer's 1979 album Hammer. In 1980, he
put out another record as a member of the L.A. new wave band
early 1980s, Burtnik returned to New Jersey and did some time
in shore cover bands Cats On A Smooth Surface and La Bamba &
The Hubcaps. In the mid 80s, he signed with A&M and released
a couple of solo albums -- Talking In Code (1986) and
Heroes & Zeroes (1987). In 1989, Burtnik joined the band
Styx for an album (1990's Edge of the Century) and tour.
He also wrote four songs for the Styx record, including the
hit single "Love Is The Ritual."
these parts, Burtnik is especially well-known for 1991's Slaves
of New Brunswick concept album, recorded by the all-star
band of the same name. Songs like "Exit Number 9," which pay
homage to the HUB city, resonate with local musicians in much
the same way that "I Will Survive" strikes a nerve with every
scorned woman in America. In 1992, Burtnik co-wrote the chart
topper "Sometimes Love Ain't Enough" with Patty Smyth, who recorded
the tune as a vocal duet with Don Henley. In early 1996, Styx
released Greatest Hits Volume 2, featuring two new Burtnik-penned
songs, but in 1995 he left the band in order record two new
solo albums: Palookaville (1996) as well as Retrospectacle
(1997) which combined new material with unreleased original
versions of songs he wrote for others.
this writing, Burtnik has composed well over 200 songs for and
with the likes of John Waite, Roger Daltrey, Meat Loaf, Styx
and of course, himself. (Did we mention he had a song on last
summers's multi-platinum Armageddon soundtrack?) Early
this year, Burtnik's music was introduced to an entirely new
set of fans when crooner Randy Travis took "Spirit of a Boy,
Wisdom of a Man" to #2 on Billboard's country singles chart.
(Burtnik's original version appeared on Palookaville)
was gracious enough to offer The Underground some of his insights
about performing, writing and making a successful career out
of that thing so many of us are passionate about - MUSIC.
start from the beginning. The Underground would like to know
all about Glen Burtnik's "firsts." What was the first instrument
my older brothers used to force me to sing harmony with them
when I was very little. They terrorized me if I didn't sing
my part right. But much later on, I started studying drums.
Rhythm is a great place to start - it's the foundation (at least
of popular music). I'm amazed at how many rock musicians out
there cannot count to four. Anyway, I haven't played drums since
dinosaurs roamed the earth.
album you bought?
mean the first one I didn't nag my parents to buy FOR me? Probably
Axis Bold As Love by Jimi Hendrix -- one of my all time
favorites. I still have that slab of vinyl. Sometimes I think
I prefer it's old worn but warm snap crackle and pop to the
bright digitized CD version.
first time you thought you'd like to pursue a career in music?
GB: I was
ALWAYS very emotional about music, since I was very new, before
I could talk. (There were always songs that made me cry.) By
the time The Beatles entered my consciousness, it was obvious
to me that music had an enormous impact on most of my thinking.
I guess sometime in junior high it dawned on me that all these
personal songs I was making up in my bedroom might lead to something.
first song you wrote?
escapes me. I can tell you this: it had two chords, A minor
and E. These were the first two chords I learned. So right away
I made up some dumb melody to go along on top. Voila! I was
an instant genius. Or so I thought.
first paid gig?
GB: I think
the Coachman Inn. Westfield is it? I believe you might still
be able to see the place right off the Garden State Parkway,
if the trees haven't grown too tall. There might've been some
earlier high school dances. I dunno. Maybe these were so traumatic
I CHOSE to forget them...
first gig, period?
GB: As a
kid I attended a "Be-In" in Johnson's Park. Too much to think
about now! (We're talking late 1967, or maybe spring '68). It
was the local hippie gathering. People with flowers in their
hair walking around saying "wow." Incense and pot. And Park
Police. I brought my guitar and sang my one song to who ever
was generous enough to listen. I'm sure it was some flower child
kinda psychobabble, cuz I was into psychedelia at the time.
As a teenager I played a fraternity or two at Rutgers. By then
I had more songs. Two. (kidding) Also, I played at the N.J.
State Museum Auditorium as part of the N.J. Teen Arts Festival.
At 15 I was certain I was the next Bob Dylan.
you consider yourself more of a songwriter or a performer, or
are you equal parts of both? Did you set out initially to be
a performer and if so, how did you evolve into a songwriter?
GB: I guess
I think of myself as a musician (although some might argue that!)
I realized by the 90s that I was actually making money for writing
songs -- as opposed to all my solo recordings and gigs - from
which there really wasn't any bread. By then I had a couple
of kids. It was a no-brainer. Music can be a hard business.
I simply followed the path of least resistance.
did the whole Beatlemania thing come about? Are you a huge Beatles
fan and was that a thrill for you?
always been a huge Fab Four fan. I saw a classified ad in the
Village Voice seeking Beatle sound-alikes and look-alikes for
the Broadway show Beatlemania, which was a piece about the sixties
really, reflecting behind the soundtrack of the Beatles, portrayed
by four guys on stage performing their music (costumes and hair
length evolving.) I actually had an attitude about the show,
since I thought it was kind of a goofy rip-off fake Elvis kinda
thing. (Now I think being an Elvis impersonator is a high honor...close
to a spiritual calling.) I auditioned anyway... by this point
I was a professional musician always in search of work. You
see, I'm left handed, as is Paul McCartney. And like him, I
suffer from Big-Droopy-Sad-Eye-Disease. They liked my audition
and invited me to see the show. So I went, and freaked. It was
all I ever wanted - to join the goddamn Beatles! I took the
gig. I learned a lot. It was like studying the Masters. The
Masters of Pop. I've always said I didn't go to college, I went
to Beatlemania. I still emulate them. They wind up lurking in
all my music (check out my latest album Palookaville...)
I met many dear friends doing the show, including my buddy Marshall
Beatlemania, you did a couple of albums out of the LA scene
(Jan Hammer and Helmet Boy if I'm not mistaken.) How did you
hook up with those projects?
still in Beatlemania I answered ANOTHER Village Voice ad. Jan
Hammer was looking for a singer for his band "Hammer." I got
the gig. We released an album and toured. As for Helmet Boy…
at that time, The Knack had a monster hit with "My Sharona."
L.A. power pop bands were getting signed left and right. A friend
of mine from Beatlemania got a deal with Elektra with his band
Helmet Boy. He asked me to join. I did. I sang and wrote the
single among other things. Boy, that album is SO trivial, I
can't believe you know about it!
you have any kind of vision of where you wanted your career
to go at the time? Were you living in California then? Did "the
trip to California really make up your mind" that you wanted
to come home to NJ?
GB: I was
having a blast actually living in LA. I didn't have much of
a vision. This was the period in which the word "party" became
a verb. I just kept writing, started toying with the idea of
being a solo artist. After the Helmet Boy record didn't even
register the slightest "blip" on the media radar screen, I discovered
that my old girlfriend from "back home" was planning on getting
married. I freaked out, called her up and told her she wasn't
gonna marry him 'cuz she was gonna marry me. I moved back home
and we went for it. That line you quoted from the Slaves of
New Brunswick song "Exit Number 9" isn't as specific as it seems.
I just felt like MOST people I know who grew up in, then left
New Brunswick ultimately ended up coming back - and I'm no exception.
It's the same in most cases, no matter where you're from. People
end up preferring the familiar.
you write a song, do you let the inspiration take you wherever
it wants or do you have to consciously strike a balance between
what you want to write and what you think people might want
to hear. I ask because you write the type of songs that people
instantly connect to. Some songwriters write great songs musically
but are a bit too self-indulgent to draw a listener (or lots
of listeners) in.
I can be as self indulgent as ANYONE! You obviously haven't
heard all my songs. Seriously, I'm pretty well versed in popular
music. I know more about George Gershwin, Laura Nyro, Trent
Reznor and Stevie Wonder than I do about Bela Bartok, Miles
Davis and Karlheinz Stockhausen. So, I start from the pop reference
point. I've had a lot of those Tin Pan Alley devices drilled
into me; write an interesting verse, a memorable hook, a strong
bridge, and get out. So this is my automatic approach. Beyond
that, I try to let the song take ME where it wants, in hopes
it will write itself, since I'm inherently a lazy man.
all the talented people you've performed with and written songs
with, are there any that you connected with instantly and naturally?
Waite. I consider him to be the Frank Sinatra of our generation,
at least in vocal phrasing and instinctive musicality. He's
really an artist. Phoebe Snow is positively transcending live,
too. When Bruce Hornsby played on my second album, Heroes
& Zeros, it was a memorable thing. He's a powerhouse player
whose work I admire. That was 1987. I had big hair then. He
had very little as I recall.
you have a "proudest" or "most exciting" moment either as a
performer or a songwriter?
incidents come to mind - sorta the first and the last. FIRST..It
was a LONG time ago. Maybe 1979. I was leaving a bar we used
to hang out on Route 27 (used to be the Surrey Inn - now a go-go
joint named Ruffles). I turned on my car radio and heard my
first record being played on WRSU. It was called "I Hate Disco
Music" by The Sides (which was a "band" consisting of Marshall
Crenshaw and myself). It was the first time I ever heard myself
on the radio. Loved that. LAST…I recently went to Nashville.
ASCAP threw a party for the Randy Travis version of my tune
"Spirit Of A Boy, Wisdom Of A Man." There really is a rich history
in country music, and here I was, sort of "invited" into a great
family that includes Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. Not bad
for some guy from the N.J. suburbs.
was it like having "Sometimes Love Ain't Enough" go to number
one? What about your most recent success with "Spirit of a Boy,
Wisdom of a Man," is it just as exciting to have a hit song
in a genre of music you're not really associated with?
Love Ain't Enough" was a nice thing to have happen. It was good
to hear Don Henley (as well as Patty Smyth) singing something
I wrote. It was a very good year. And I consider having a country
music hit something of an honor. I really don't listen to [country]
music very often, so it was a welcome surprise.
a little bit about New Brunswick when you were starting out
in music. Was there much of a scene? It seems that as a performer,
people might associate you more with the Jersey Shore/Stone
was little if anything going on in New Brunswick for most of
the 70s. In the 80s I went to Asbury Park and was a member of
some cool bands. There was definitely a scene going on there.
As that scene died, New Brunswick was coming back up. Now there's
a very cool scene here and Asbury is just about dead.
played for a time with some Jersey shore bands. Were you playing
covers at the time?
we played mostly covers, which I disliked doing mostly, to be
honest. But you do learn from doing covers if you try to learn
them well & pay attention to the audience's reactions...
was the Jersey shore scene like back then? What was the vibe
at the Stone Pony on a packed night when Springsteen was sitting
in with the band?
GB: He came
often. Like EVERY SUNDAY NIGHT. I learned to hate it. The audience
was lame towards the band on nights Bruce was at the Pony. It
was such an EVENT...they'd line up and squeeze in at the front
of the stage and just wait... they had no interest in what we
were doing... just waiting for "The Boss" to get up and sing
"Twist & Shout" or something. It was thrilling but ultimately
weird. One of the bands I was in back then was CATS ON A SMOOTH
SURFACE -- a good group that had a lot of potential. At the
time it was Ray Andersen, who you now know from Blue Van Gogh,
Fran Smith who went on to become bassist in The Hooters, and
Bobby Bandiera who is now both a member of The Jukes and Jon
Bon Jovi's guitar guy on his solo records and tours. I liked
Cats. But we didn't get notoriety very far out of Asbury Park.
We got to jam with Bruce. Yawn.
made a career out of being a performer and a songwriter.
are some of the things that have made a difference in your life
in terms of turning an avocation into a profession?
GB: As a
songwriter I get to stay home more. Get to hang out with my
kids and watch Nick At Nite. I can get fat. I don't concern
myself with image so much. God, when you get into making videos
and appearing on TV it's fun, but you're forced to become such
a poser. I don't miss obsessing over cultivating a mystique.
It's a matter of just being effective at creating music. Less
peripheral nonsense. I like that.
next for you? Are you working on material for a solo album?
continue writing mostly. I just had a good year (I also had
a song on the Armageddon soundtrack), so I wanna keep the writing
thing cooking. Yes, I am threatening to unleash another one
of my musical diatribes upon the unsuspecting world sooner or
later. There's a good chance I'm done for THIS century, though.
I'm saving my swingingest stuff for post Y2K.
there anyone out there that you've always wanted to work with?
convinced I'd dislike most of my heroes. Bob Dylan? Forget it.
Sting? Forget it. Prince? No way. I've always had this theory
that the NICEST GUYS in showbiz are probably the ones who make
the least appealing music (to me). Like maybe Backstreet Boys
would be more fun to have dinner with than say Leonard Cohen.
Or perhaps I'd prefer Jewel's company to that of Ani DiFranco.
No wait, I just realized I'd like to work with Michael Penn,
Jon Brion, Ben Folds, and who's that guy from Jellyfish?
observations on the current state of music?
Miles Davis supposedly said there are only two kinds of music:
good and bad. I think there's usually a lot of good and a lot
of bad. You might have to dig a little to find the true undiscovered
gems. But there really is an ENORMOUS amount of music nowadays.
There are too many recordings out there, really. It's hard to
keep up with the present, much less do research about the past.
There will always be new music worth falling in love with.
advice on songwriting? Is it even possible to give songwriting
advice (i.e. is the creative process too individually wrought?)
GB: I think
it was Dylan who said "writing about music is like dancing about
architecture." Like I said before work hard. Oh, and I suggest
keeping an open mind and listening to ALOTTA different music.
experiences you've had which may have contributed to your success
as a songwriter?
People offered me money. That was it. It had never occurred
to me I could make a living [as a songwriter]. My lawyer came
up with it. I'm a bonehead musician. Ya know, you spend years
learning how to perform in front of an audience, tune your guitar,
talk into a microphone...you become an expert at it. And then,
along comes someone outside yourself who points out how to actually
make money doing one little part of what you know.
you observed any differences in being a songwriter v. a performing
GB: As a
songwriter I sometimes miss having a say in the recording of
my song. Although it can be a thrill to hear someone's interpretation,
I invariably feel something gets missed in the translation.
Usually it's the arrangement or production I feel could be improved.
I'm too close to really be objective, though. AND I've been
spoiled cuz I've made my own records, produced records, and
had my hands on the wheel so to speak. It's hard to give up
control of a piece of your work.
songwriting a harder or easier field to break into than performing?
GB: They are both muy dificile. Songwriting might be harder.
the Slaves of New Brunswick album, you seemed to express
a genuine love for our city. The references to New Brunswick
haunts past and present make it seem like there's something
special about this town. Is there?
there is. I mean, I feel there is probably something special
about almost EVERYONE'S home town...but this is mine. I went
through this phase around the making of the Slaves album where
I got into researching the history of our little city here.
It's a fun thing to do, if you have the interest. I learned
a lot. What I dig about most is this: IT'S HOME. Beyond that,
it's a cool place, perhaps because the college keeps the town's
juices flowing, J&J keeps it financially viable, and it's close
enough to NYC to be quasi-cosmopolitan. There is so much variety
here as well. These are all groovy ingredients. New Brunswick
your favorite guitar? Do you have a home studio?
most players, I am obsessed with guitars and gear in general.
You can never be satisfied with guitars; there'll always be
just ONE more guitar (or synth, or piece of outboard gear...)
you'll be lusting after. Anyway, as I've said, I play left-handed
guitar, but in an unorthodox way. I hold it the opposite way,
but I don't re-string it. I basically take a guitar strung righty,
flip it over & play backwards (and upside down). Wacky to be
sure. All this means is it's difficult for me to shop for guitars.
Which has led me to have some guitars custom built. I have an
acoustic 12- string built by Bill Mitchell (W. Belmar) with
a 50's "TV cowboy" motif I designed (with Bill's help of course).
That's a fave one-of-a-kind guitar. I also have an electric
built by a Dentist named Bear (Freehold). I designed this too.
It looks like the bastard child of a Rickenbacker and an Airline,
morphed with a Paul Reed Smith. It's another fave I use live
a lot. I also love my 70s Gretsch Tennessean, my 70's Gibson
Hummingbird, my Hofner Beatle bass, my Strat...a lot of people
have asked me about my "Cartoon" guitar that was on the cover
of my second A&M album... Do I have a FAVORITE? Nah, I love
'em all. For recording I have an old Teac analogue 8-track,
16 tracks of digital, a couple of Mac computers, a Mackie board,
some old Siemens mic-preamps, a buncha wires & stuff. Also,
I love Vox amps (Beatles again), so of course I gotta have a
few of those.
you achieved everything you set out to do? Are you as famous
as you'd hoped to be?
had enough success now to appease my ego. And I pretty much
see the whole ROCKSTAR thing as being a matter of ego. So, even
though I'm NOT a household name, as I had originally planned
to be, I'm certain I'm better off for it. I can honestly say
-- with a few exceptions – that just about everyone I know (or
have met) who IS famous lives a tortured and miserable life.
I've come to a point where it's the love of music that inspires
me, not the attempts at self-aggrandizement. Does this sound
like a load of rationalization? Perhaps it is, but it's my honest
belief. As far as having done everything I've set out to do,
I always thought I'd get to perform ALL kindsa gigs: from stadiums
to weddings, from folk festivals to Las Vegas, and everything
in between. The one that I still haven't experienced is a gig
in the CATSKILLS! There's a sense of regret here. Ah, but the
evening is still young...perhaps in a few decades I'll get to
wear a toupee (black on top w/ my gray sides sticking out) and
sing a medley of my hits at a Bar Mitzvah reception at The Concord
readership includes a lot of aspiring musicians. Any advice?
hard, believe in yourself, don't think you know it all (even
though you probably already think so), and learn to count to