Glen Burtnik: The Wisdom of New Brunswick's Music Man
by Jennifer & Mike Doktorski

Glen Burtnik likes to tell people that he didn't go to college -- he went to Beatlemania.

He's 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 Helmet Boy.

In the 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."

Around 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.

As of 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)

Burtnik 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.

UND: Let's start from the beginning. The Underground would like to know all about Glen Burtnik's "firsts." What was the first instrument you played?

GB: Actually, 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.

UND: First album you bought?

GB: You 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.

UND: The 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.

UND: The first song you wrote?

GB: This 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.

UND: Your 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...

UND: Your 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.

UND: Do 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.

UND: How did the whole Beatlemania thing come about? Are you a huge Beatles fan and was that a thrill for you?

GB: I've 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 Crenshaw.

UND: After 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?

GB: While 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!

UND: Did 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.

UND: When 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.

GB: Hey, 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.

UND: Of all the talented people you've performed with and written songs with, are there any that you connected with instantly and naturally?

GB: John 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.

UND: Do you have a "proudest" or "most exciting" moment either as a performer or a songwriter?

GB: Two 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.

UND: What 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?

GB: "Sometimes 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.

UND: Talk 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 Pony scene.

GB: There 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.

UND: You played for a time with some Jersey shore bands. Were you playing covers at the time?

GB: Yeah, 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...

UND: What 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.

UND: You've made a career out of being a performer and a songwriter.

GB: Imagine that...

UND: What 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.

UND: What's next for you? Are you working on material for a solo album?

GB: I'll 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.

UND: Is there anyone out there that you've always wanted to work with?

GB: I'm 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?

UND: Any observations on the current state of music?

GB: Hmmm. 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.

UND: Any 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.

UND: Any experiences you've had which may have contributed to your success as a songwriter?

GB: Experiences? 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 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.

UND: Have you observed any differences in being a songwriter v. a performing artist?

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.

UND: Is songwriting a harder or easier field to break into than performing? GB: They are both muy dificile. Songwriting might be harder.

UND: On 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?

GB: Sure 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 doesn't suck.

UND: What's your favorite guitar? Do you have a home studio?

GB: Like 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.

UND: Have you achieved everything you set out to do? Are you as famous as you'd hoped to be?

GB: I've 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 or Grossinger's.

UND: Our readership includes a lot of aspiring musicians. Any advice?

GB: Work hard, believe in yourself, don't think you know it all (even though you probably already think so), and learn to count to four.

This interview was originally published in Issue #5 of the NBUnderground 'zine, April 1999.

© 1998 Pushing9 Media
All Rights Reserved