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Articles Home » 2012 Articles » Roberts, Rick (Firefall) - 2012 Interview
Roberts, Rick (Firefall) - 2012 Interview
In the late 1970's the music landscape was dotted with bands and artists with ties to the Country rock movement which proliferated a few short years earlier. While groundbreaking outfits like The Band and The Byrds moment in the spotlight had come and gone, the commercial success of The Eagles and the momentum of AOR radio found Firefall in the right place at the right time with a brace of hit singles and a wall of Gold and Platinum albums in part due to the talents of singer/ songwriter Rick Roberts. A veteran of the influential The Flying Burrito Brothers as well as a solo artist in his own right, Rick penned the bulk of Firefall's biggest songs including 'You are the Woman' and 'Strange Way' and was kind enough to share his time and insight on the band and its colourful history with Eric Abrahamsen...

EA: With two excellent solo albums under your belt, you put together a live band and toured as Rick Roberts and Firefall. What were the early days like and why did you drop your name?
RR: After the second album 'She is a Song' was released and didn't even get close to charting, A&M Records dropped me from their roster. I had pretty much seen it coming so long before the official parting of the ways; I had started to think about where to go from there. When I was trying to land my first contract, the people who auditioned me at the various labels kept saying I needed a band. My solo contract with A&M was as much a result of having been in the Flying Burrito Brothers as anything, and I don't know if they would have been interested in me alone otherwise. With that in mind, and having toured totally solo most of the time during '72-'73, I decided that it was time for a change. My plan was to form a backing group before I started shopping for a new deal.

A good friend of mine in Washington, DC had introduced me to a singer-songwriter named Larry Burnett when I was in town performing in 1973. Larry played me several of his songs, and immediately was on my short list of people to approach when I got around to putting a group together. Not long after that, I was playing a date in New York City and went to see Gram Parsons and The Fallen Angels play on one of my nights off. Their guitar player was Jock Bartley and he told me after the show that he lived in Boulder, Colorado and had heard that I had recently moved there. When I said that was right, he suggested that we get together and play sometime. To be honest, his skills with Gram's band hadn't really knocked me out, so I sort of vaguely said that we could do that 'sometime'. A few months later, he somehow got my phone number and called to invite me to a show he was doing with a local band. By that time, I was no longer with A&M, so I'd been thinking more seriously about going ahead with the idea of putting together a back-up group. Ironically, I had heard good things about the guy he was playing with, so I went in order to check that man out. When I walked in they were already on stage and Jock was in the middle of a solo. I literally never got to my seat. Jock was an awesome rock guitarist. He was out of his element when I heard him with Gram, and so I didn't get a real idea of just how good he was. I asked him if he was committed to the group he was playing with, and when he said he wasn't, I offered him a job.

From there, I started to give my total attention to forming a group. I had heard that Mark Andes, with his history of playing with Spirit and JoJo Gunne, was living in the area, so I tracked him down and asked him to get together with Jock and I and see what happened. He accepted, and the three of us liked what we sounded like when we sat down and played together. Boulder was overflowing with high quality musicians at that point, so it wasn't hard to find good drummers and audition them. We went through a couple, and at the same time, I thought I'd like to add someone to play 2nd lead guitar and sing. I hadn't forgotten about Larry, but he was 2,000 miles away and there were so many hot prospects in the area that I thought I'd try close to home first. Mark had been playing with a band called Navarro, who went on to become Carole King's backing group, and they had a singer-songwriter-guitarist named Mark Hollman (I also had plans to make the group a little more than just my supporting cast. I would just be the front man and lead name.

With other guys like Mark and Jock with their abilities and history, it would have been stupid not to capitalize on their whole range of talent). I approached Mark H., but Navarro was his baby and he didn't want to give it up. At that point, I played a tape for Jock and Mark that Larry had given me, and they said we should get him out to Boulder. I called him, and when he said he'd like to come, I sent him a ticket. We still hadn't entirely settled on a drummer when I got a call from Michael Clarke. After the Burritos he had supposedly retired to Hawaii, but he was back on the mainland and looking for a job. I asked him how fast he could get from Washington State (where he called from) to Colorado, and he said he'd be there in three days. He made it in two. That gave us a band.

The name originated with something they used to do in Yosemite National Park in California. They have a natural phenomenon there 2 weeks a year. When the setting sun hits one of the many waterfalls there from a certain angle, the falling water looks like a stream of liquid fire. Starting in 1872 and continuing through 1968, I guess they decided they could make a buck by helping nature out a little. A man named James McCauley had built a little hotel at Glacier Point in the park, and just by accident used to kick embers of their campfire over a very high cliff. Someone noticed it, and soon it became an official nightly ritual. They discontinued because it got so popular that it was bringing too many people and ecologically doing damage to the area. I had heard of it and liked the sound of the word and the image of our music that it portrayed.I ran it by the band and they liked it too, so we became Rick Roberts and Firefall and played gigs around the state and the region for about a year. We stayed with that name while my manager was shopping for a record deal. When the label who was most interested decided to take a pass, we had to make some choices. The whole project had been predicated on getting a deal, and now that that was off the table, it changed everything. I suggested that it was too good a band to give up on just because I wasn't marketable enough as a name to get us a deal. Up to then, we hadn't even done any demos to send out. We had been trying to get by on name value alone. Since that didn't work, it was time for plan B. We dropped my name and made it a full scale band, and went in the studio and cut some songs to send around and try to get a contract that way.

EA: How did Firefall land a major deal? Other than Atlantic, did any other labels show interest?
RR: Once we dropped my name from the group, we did the standard routine of making some three song demos and circulating them around among the various record labels. They created some interest but nobody wanted to make a commitment. After the band had been together for a little over a year, we found that although we were working regularly, we were not getting enough gigs to support ourselves without finding some additional stuff. Chris Hillman (Byrds, Burritos) had quit Stephen Stills Manassas band and was interested in fronting his own group. Since he and I were long-time friends and musical associates (The Burritos and Chris playing on both my solo albums and producing the second one), he asked me to join his group on a part time basis. He knew that Firefall was still my number one priority, but he thought we could work around it. That was doubly true because he also invited Jock and Mark to be in the band too. We happily accepted, knowing that Chris was a straight shooter and wasn't trying to break up our group. We trusted that he meant what he said and would structure his work for us around our primary commitment. The other two guys in the band, Larry and Michael, involved themselves with some outside projects too, so everybody was kept busy.

In the spring of 1975, Chris booked a national tour consisting of about three weeks on the road. We headed out and were doing pretty well and having a great time, in spite of the fact that some of the business aspects were kind of loose. I'm not talking about money or anything. I just mean that somebody in the background was evidently not paying complete attention. For instance, we pulled up to the club we were playing in St. Louis one night, and the marquee said: 'Tonight Only: The Chris Williams Band!'. We got about a week's worth of laughs out of that. Anyway, when we got to New York City to play three nights at The Other End, Chris was feeling really terrible. We convinced him to go and see a doctor, and the doctor told him to go home immediately. He was diagnosed as having contracted Hepatitis (Not the needle kind. The kind normal people get.). Chris managed to get permission to play that night if he promised to get on a plane the next day. That left Paul Colby (The Bitter End owner) without a band for the weekend. The Burritos had played there two or three times before that, so I knew Paul. I went to him and asked if, since three of us were already there, I could fly Larry and Michael out from Colorado and do the two nights as Firefall. He was kind enough to let me do it.

I don't know whether it was by accident or design, but on the first of the two nights we played, a couple of guys from Atlantic Records were in the audience. They evidently were blown away by the band, because on the second night, a few of the label's big shots were there. They approached us on the spot, and before we knew it, negotiations were underway. I already knew Ahmet Ertegun from the time when Chris, Al Perkins and I did some sessions on the first Manassas album, so I really wanted to sign with them. The funny thing is that in spite of that, I was the last one to sign the contract. While negotiations were going on, Stephen Stills asked me to do a tour with his band for the whole summer of 1975. While I was out on the road, the deal was made and everybody else signed but me. I was kept informed of everything, so my actual signing was only a formality, but officially, I was the last guy to okay the contract.

In answer to the other part of your question, I heard later from guys at several labels that they had been very interested in the band, but I think that's probably a crock. It's easy to say things like that after the fact. All I know is, I never heard a word from anybody before Atlantic approached us. And they definitely believed in us. They had a young up and coming executive named John Kolodner who was a Hassidic Jew. He later went to work with David Geffen at Asylum Records and was instrumental in a lot of their best acquisitions. Anyway, due to his faith, he had never shaved his beard in his life. That notwithstanding, he bet his beard on us and Foreigner. He wagered that if both the Firefall and Foreigner debut albums didn't go gold within the first year they were out, he would shave his face clean.

EA: Were you surprised by the success of the first album and 'You are the Woman'?
RR: We knew the first record was a good piece of work. We also knew that Atlantic was firmly behind us. The thing is several of us had made some very good albums before in other bands and nothing much had ever come of them. That's not to say none of what we'd done before did well. Certainly Michael had seen just about the top level of success with The Byrds, and Spirit had several hits while the Burritos had almost a cult following, but we had all learned that making a great album doesn't automatically translate into success. So we were holding our collective breath to see what happened when the record hit the stores. The first single we released was 'Livin' Ain't Livin' ', and that actually cracked the top 50 and went as high as 42. That opened a lot of doors and meanwhile the whole album was getting wide spread FM airplay, so we were feeling pretty good about things. Those were the days when FM radio still had a modicum of independence instead of almost every station in the country being programmed by a couple of companies in New York. Back when people chose what station to listen to based on which DJ they liked and what he (or she) chose to play.

With that freedom, a lot of the jocks would play several of the lesser known cuts from an album they liked, so we had four or five of the songs getting a fair amount of play. But to get back to answering your question, what happened with 'You are the Woman' was definitely a big surprise. The song was never a favourite of either mine or the band's. When I wrote it, I knew I had a viable commercial vehicle on my hands, but I liked a whole lot of my other songs a lot better. I didn't exactly set out to write a pop hit, but once it was written, I could see its potential. The thing is that song was not at all representative of the kind of music we did. 'Livin Ain't Livin', 'Cinderella' and 'Mexico' were much more our style. As it turns out, I will probably never have the good fortune to write another song that will have such major and lasting popularity. From what they tell me, the song has been played well over 5,000,000 times world-wide, and they still play it about 100,000 times a year out there somewhere if I'm reading my BMI radio statements correctly.

One of the major transitional moments in my life came the first time I heard it while I was in an elevator. I never planned on writing elevator music! You can also catch it at your local supermarket or next time you go to the doctor's office. That was all kind of a rude awakening, but I realize I'm not 25 anymore, so I suppose I can live with it and count my blessings. The band actually stopped playing it for a while after we had four or five other hit songs, but the audiences pretty much made us reinstate it to the set. And all in all, I guess we (and I) were pretty arrogant to start playing the role of the great artists who were so cool that we couldn't lower ourselves to play a teeny-bopper song. The funny thing is, as time has passed, some people whose opinions I really respect have told me they think it is a really good song. Who'd a thunk it?

And last, I'll leave with two stories about the song. First, there is the fact that people have been asking me the same question since the song became a hit. Who did I write it for or about? The answer is - No one. I was still dreaming. I have since met and married the woman I wrote it for, but I didn't know her then. Second is the best comment I ever got about it. For years people have been telling me it was 'their special song' or that they had proposed to their girlfriends with it as the background music, or any of the other romantic things that music is often used for. I thought I'd heard it all, but one day someone hit me with a new one. One day in early spring, I was in a neighborhood grocery store where I knew most of the personnel. The manager was a forty or so year old woman named Terry that I had spoken with on numerous occasions and when I saw her bouncing around the store, obviously very happy about something, I thought I'd ask what had her in such a good mood. Here's the way the conversation went:

Me: What are you so happy about?
Terry: I got a guitar for Christmas and today I'm getting my first lesson.
Me: 'Really? I play a little music myself. (I was kidding her. Most of the people in the store knew my background.)
Terry: You do? What kind of music? (I realized she wasn't one of the people who knew.)
Me: Well, you hear it every day on the store background music.
Terry: What song?
Me: You Are The Woman.

To me, that came under the heading of 'too much information' and I think she was a little embarrassed about blurting out her personal story, because she did hasten to add 'It's all right. He married me'.

EA: Firefall's first major tour found the band on some unusual bills with everyone from Tom Waits and Roy Buchanan to ELO and Lynyrd Skynyrd..
RR: Even though those first shows bundled us in with acts like the ones you named, I don't really think of that as a tour as much as a bunch of unrelated dates that happened together. My definition of a tour is a string of dates all done with the same bill intact. Therefore, as far as I'm concerned, our first real tour was just after that and it was a total mismatch. Whoever the buyer was for the trip must have looked at Michael's and my Burrito credits and Jock's run with Gram Parsons and assumed we must be a country band. Obviously as our music showed, we weren't anything close to country. But they booked us anyway on a tour in the deep southwest with Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Asleep at the Wheel. We were playing in cities like Tucson, Albuquerque, El Paso, Phoenix and other smaller towns in the same general area. And they had us billed above Asleep at the Wheel which means we went on after them. When those hard-core cowboys came in a little late to the sound of us wailing on something like 'Mexico' or 'Do What You Want' (another rocker), they were not pleased. Especially the Wheel fans, when they found out they had missed their guys. After about four shows when the audience was less than impressed with a rock band who dared to intrude on their turf, we asked the promoters at the rest of the shows to reverse the order a little and put us on first. We did it for our own personal safety.

Meanwhile, as far as those first dates, they were really interesting because it was a chance to see a lot of different styles of music being presented from an insider's angle. Many of them were people that were far removed from our style and that we weren't going to be paired with again, once the buyers got a good idea of just who our audience was. Promoters are usually interested in putting shows together with a couple of acts who complement each other, and will make the show even more attractive to a given fan base. As it was, we got to be backstage with really diverse artists and get a feel for them and how they approached their music. Not to mention some really cool venues. We even got to play at Carnegie Hall with Roy Buchanan. That was something I could tell my parents when they started to wonder where they had gone wrong, bringing up a son with no more far reaching desire than to play in a rock and roll band. We also got a look at the kind of artist who really experiences their art. One example of that was Tom Waits. When we did a gig in Cleveland, Ohio, the promoter had booked us all rooms in a nearby Holiday Inn. Tom checked himself out and went down to skid row and checked into a ratty little flea ridden hotel there, because he said he liked to live his music. As for me, I'd been to Cleveland before and was quite happy to experience the Holiday Inn, thank you.

EA: 'Luna Sea' was the follow-up and featured 'Just Remember I Love You' with Timothy B. Schmit on background vocals. Personally, I think it's one of the great singles the 1970's..
RR: Thanks for the kind words. Timothy B. and I knew one another from some singing we had done for a mutual friend named Robbin Thompson up in Richmond, Virginia. Robbin and his producer Jim Mason put together a dynamite chorus of Timothy, Melissa Manchester and I to sing background for him on his first album. Anyway, we did the first version of 'Luna Sea' in Miami but when we turned it in to the label, they didn't think it was strong enough. They were looking for something that they weren't hearing. We couldn't get back into Criteria Recording, the studio we had been cutting in down in Florida, so after we took stock of what was available in new material since we started the album, we booked time in an LA studio. We worked up two new songs of mine 'So Long' and 'Only a Fool' and a song that the whole band wrote together in a rehearsal jam one day 'Just Think' and went back to work. While we were there, the producer, Jim Mason again and I thought we might add some answering vocals at the end of 'Just Remember I Love You'. Jim was the one who had introduced me to Timothy B. in the first place, so when the idea of answering vocals on the song came up, and we knew how high the parts would be, and we were in LA anyway, Timothy was the first name that came to mind.

Timothy and I sang them in about an hour of recording time, and that was it. We had what we were looking for. When Firefall resubmitted 'Luna Sea', Atlantic said they thought that 'Just Remember..' was a smash hit, but would never get played with 'those lyrics'. When I asked what they were talking about, they said 'you know.' I had no idea what they meant, so I pressed for an explanation. They finally broke down and provided me with the information about what they objected to. It turns out that in the first verse where the lyric is 'Starin' at your ceilin', thinkin' of your blues', their ear specialists were hearing 'Starin' at your semen, thinkin' of your bruise'. I tried to tell the man in charge that their guy had made a mistake, but he wouldn't even let me talk. I said 'You don't understand' and before I could get any further, he answered 'I don't want to hear it. Either you change the words, or that song is off the album!' So we waited about two weeks and then resubmitted the song, unchanged, but this time with a written lyric sheet. The guy called and said 'See. That wasn't so hard, was it?' I told him it was even easier than he thought.

EA: 'So Long' was the second hit single and a great rocker as well as somewhat dark lyrically. What was the story behind this classic?
RR: 'So Long' was the first single that Atlantic put out here in the States. It only got to #48 on the charts, and for a little while, the label was concerned that the band might be a one hit wonder. Luckily the next single was 'Just Remember…' which went into the top ten (actually #11 and #1 on Adult Contemporary). There had already been a bit of controversy when we released 'Cinderella' as the third single from the first album. The song was jumping up the charts at about ten spots a week, but the week after it hit #34, it simply disappeared from sight. That's not the way it normally goes with rising songs. They generally go as high as they are going to and then linger there for a week or two and then gradually fade down the list. 'Cinderella' just vanished from one week to the next. We were at a loss to figure out what the deal was and thought it might have something to do with the fact that part of the lyric says 'God damn girl, can't you see', but it turned out that that wasn't the problem. The trouble was that a whole lot of women were outraged by the subject matter of the song, which is about a boy who gets his girlfriend pregnant and then dumps her. When we were in New York, we went to the offices of the record label to ask what the problem was and what had caused the song to disappear overnight, and they literally brought in a couple of mailbags full of letters from irate women saying they would never buy another Atlantic record album if they were going to support this kind of trash. The ironic thing is that if those women had listened all the way through the song, they would have heard the second verse telling about how miserable the guy is years later and how he realizes the terrible mistake he made and the awful thing he did.

But to get back to 'So Long', you asked about the dark nature of the lyrics. I meant them to be dark. I wrote the song when I was in the final stages of a two year relationship that just kept lingering on and didn't seem to have the decency to end. Both of us kept making excuses for what was wrong and blaming it on everything else but what was really lacking in the affair. I had finally gotten tired of the merry-go-round that we were on and decided to stop trying to analyze things and just call it a day. No reasons or explanations necessary. Some of the lyrics talk about offering to let the woman save face by blaming it on me. Another version of the timeless end line for a lot of relationships 'It's not you, dear. It's me.' The woman I was involved attached a lot of importance to being able to tell people it wasn't her fault, so I said to tell people whatever she wanted to. I just wanted out of it. There's an odd similarity between this song and 'Cinderella' or more accurately, between 'Cinderella' and this song connected to one other song. In 'Cinderella' Larry Burnett wrote about his regrets in the last verse of the same song. I divided my emotions into two tunes. The other half of my response is in the song 'Only a Fool', which is also on 'Luna Sea'. In that one, I talk about what an idiot I was to let a good thing get away, but I think I must have been high when I wrote it, because I know I made the right decision in the first place. Don't get me wrong, as a song, I really like 'Only a Fool' a lot, but I'm glad they were separate pieces, less confusion that way.

EA: The third record 'Elan' was Firefall's biggest seller with two major hits. All the pieces seemed to fit with this album and I think it's the band at their creative peak. Do you agree and how do look back at this album now?
RR: This was definitely the crest of the wave for the band. We were coming off two straight gold albums, and we knew we had a wealth of strong material just waiting to be recorded. By the way, I say two 'gold' albums only because Atlantic had not yet certified the first album as platinum. We knew that it had gone platinum the first year it was out because we hired a guy whose previous job had been in tracking album sales and when he quit the label to go to work for us, he brought the official sales run documentation with him. We had already sold 1.1 million copies of the Firefall album before 'Luna Sea' was even released. Atlantic finally certified it about 20 years later when we started asking questions. They said it had been an oversight, but there's always the possibility that they were worried about us wanting to renegotiate our contract. Anyway, we went back to Criteria Studios in Miami where we had cut the first two albums as a very confident band. This time, we had a new producer in Tom Dowd who was a legend in his own time. He had produced everybody body from Ornette Coleman to John Coltrane in jazz, Aretha Franklin to Otis Redding in soul, and The Eagles, Eric Clapton and Chicago to Derek and the Dominos in rock. And that's just a small sample. He was also a rocket scientist- literally.

He lost his teeth when he was working on 'The Manhattan Project' during WWII. Atlantic had wanted him to produce originally, but we went with Jim Mason instead for the first two records. Tom was a real perfectionist and after dealing with our band, who was fairly free spirited (by that I mean we had our dealings with a lot of drugs and alcohol issues with some of the members), he had second thoughts about the project. He stuck with it for about half the album and then decided that maybe it wasn't worth the trouble. We parted on good terms, but he just thought it might be better to let someone else take over at that point. We finished the record with Ronnie and Howie Albert, two brothers I had known from working with them when I did some singing on the first Manassas album. They were quite inured to a free form artist mentality, having done several records with Stephen Stills. The album cost a bit more to make because we reworked part of what Tom had done, and replaced a couple of the songs we had finished with newer material that had been written while we were in the studio. 'Strange Way' is my favourite of all the singles I wrote for the band and one of my favourite songs of mine overall. Generally, I tend to lean towards songs that don't have as much commercial appeal as the ones that end up getting released as singles. But I definitely liked that one.

The funny thing is, I got the idea for it from one line in a poem that a lady friend of mine wrote. She read me a piece she had written one day and it had the line 'Didn't I hear you cry this morning, didn't I feel you weep'. The imagery of the phrase 'feel you weep' was so neat that I asked her on the spot if I could use it in a song. She consented and I built the whole song starting from that. A funny thing happened during the recording of the basic track for the song. Michael Clarke just couldn't seem to keep the tempo in check no matter how he tried. Every take just kept speeding up by the time we got to the end. So either Ron or Howie (I don't remember which) went out into the room and promised him that if he could stay in time through the vocal part, that the band could take it into an instrumental jam and go wild at the end of the song. I don't know why, but that seemed to steady Mike down, and on the very next take the time was perfect right through, and when the vocals finish, the song kicks up about two notches into a semi-Latin jam that really cooks. Unfortunately, it made the song too long to be included on the single, and I think that the later releases of the album have removed it too. I think that sucks, because it was a happening jam!

I presume the other hit you're talking about is 'Goodbye, I Love You'. That was Tom Dowd's premier contribution to the album. We all thought, including Tom that the song would be a smash hit, but it didn't do nearly as well as 'Strange Way'. I wrote that song around the same time I wrote 'So Long', but when I wrote it, I hadn't yet quite reached the point of no return with the relationship, almost, but not quite. In the end, 'Elan' did what we had hoped it would. It was our first certified platinum album, and led to some of the best tours we ever did. We suddenly found ourselves in demand to open the shows of some of the hottest acts who were out at that time including Fleetwood Mac, Doobie BrothersThe Beach Boys, and several other groups who were selling out the arenas wherever we went.

EA: Mick Fleetwood came into the picture around this time, but that didn't quite work out?
RR: Mick came onto the scene during the time we were recording the 'Elan' album. There was a certain amount of confusion at that time because of our having changed producers from Tom to Ronnie and Howie, and there was also a little bit more going on behind the scenes than we realized. Our business managers at that time were Dottie Ross and Mick Schneider, who operated as D&M Management. Although we didn't know it, it would appear that Mick Schneider had his own designs on managing the band. I can't really prove that, but he had been filling the gap as our defacto manager ever since we had parted company with our last official guy, and he was getting pretty comfortable calling the shots. Mick got interested in taking over after we had been touring as an opening act for Fleetwood Mac on their 'Rumours' tour. We entered into a spoken agreement with him, and he went to work restructuring our recording contract with Atlantic Records. A few things happened during that time that made it an unworkable arrangement. The first thing was fairly innocent but still is a very funny story and probably went a good way towards undermining any chance of a healthy working relationship with Mick. The band went to his house in Bel Air, California one day to try and hash out a written agreement. It was summertime, so we all went out and sat down around the pool. Present were all the members of the band as well as Mick, his road manager and confidant John Courage, and his lawyer, Nick (I think that was his first name) Shapiro. As we started to go through the proposed contract, the band started to function in their usual fashion; disputing every second word and generally being impossible to deal with. We had a very bad habit of that in almost all our business dealings. We also seemed to find a way to make the very worst possible decision at every opportunity.

It took us about two hours of haggling to get through the first seven or so paragraphs. Mick's lawyer was obviously getting frustrated by the nit picking and we were all getting a little short tempered. The only one who was apparently having a good time was Michael. He had turned over his vote on band matters to me many months before that, so he was just relaxing next to the pool and sucking down a whole bunch of Heineken beers. Finally, just when we had finished a long discussion of paragraph seven, Mr. Shapiro said 'Okay. I think that's covered. Does anyone have anything to add before we go on to paragraph eight?' Suddenly, Michael jumped up from the chaise lounge where he had been reclining and said 'Yeah! I got something to say, and it's really important.' we said 'What is it Mike?' He answered (and he was dead serious) 'From now on, I want everybody to call me Miguel!' If you could have seen the looks that passed between Mick and his partners, you wouldn't have been willing to bet much on our chances of a healthy relationship between them and us. The second thing that happened was a lot more serious and probably dealt the killing blow. After Mick had gotten Atlantic to agree to restructure our contract with a sizable cash advance ($500,000 I think) and an increase in the percentage points, Mick Schneider rejected it as not being satisfactory. At that point Mick decided that maybe managing Firefall was not in his best interests. As a result, we went for about another year and a half without an official manager and Mick Schneider stayed in nominal control.

EA: While I think it's a great album, 'Undertow' wasn't as successful and the band began to show signs of discontent. What was the Firefall dynamic in 1979?
RR: Thanks. I like that album a lot, too. But to answer the question, the band had been touring almost nonstop for the entire time since 'Elan' came out, although actually, our almost continuous touring schedule had been going on for much longer than that. We were all pretty fried and the personal relationships in the band were definitely showing the strain. It seemed like one of us was always winding up as the asshole of the day and everyone else's least favourite band member until the next guy took over for his turn in the barrel. I think you could safely say that each of us was operating with an extremely short fuse. When we went back in the studio to cut 'Undertow', we were again pretty confident that we had plenty of strong material, but as it turned out, it didn't end up communicating to the record. We ended up having to do a large part of the album over before we were satisfied with the finished product. The Albert brothers produced the first attempt, and then we switched to Kyle Lehning for the remake. I don't recall there being any dissatisfaction with Ronnie and Howie, so it may be that there was a scheduling problem. On the other hand, it was a long time ago, and as I said, everybody (including me) was pretty frazzled, so I may simply not be remembering clearly. It also may have been that they weren't satisfied with us. We were not the easiest band to work with at any time, and considering the fatigue factor, we were probably raging jerks. Our management situation was still up in the air and for all the chart success we had achieved, we were hardly making a decent living. We were mostly serving as an opening act on a lot of 'A' list tours, and as such, we weren't being paid like a band with an unbroken string of gold and platinum albums and more than a half dozen straight top fifty singles. It was nice to be doing shows in sold out arenas every night, but going home after the tour was over with hardly anything in your pocket dulled the thrill a little. That only increased the tension in the band.

Even though there were no 'significant' hits on 'Undertow', both singles from the album, 'Headed for a Fall' and 'Love That Got Away' made it into the Top 50, and 'Got Away' made it to #9 on the Adult Contemporary chart. That should have been enough to maintain some momentum, but with no competent management, we got very good at making the least of every opportunity. Way back when we dropped the Rick Roberts from the name of the band, we decided to run it as a democracy. That turned out to be a big mistake. Somebody needed to be driving the boat. I'm not talking about one individual calling all the shots, but we did need to have someone with the final say in matters, somebody who would listen to all opinions and then make a decision based on what seemed to be best for the band. Instead, we had gradually turned into a six headed monster where everybody had his own pet opinion, until it had reached a point where it was almost impossible to agree on anything. I think I had expected that there would be a manager to mediate the infighting that often develops in a band, but since we didn't have anyone in that position, things got pretty chaotic. By that time, the members had devolved into two distinct groups. I'm not talking about two separate gangs at war with one another; I just mean two personality types. On one side there were those of us who were major drug or alcohol users. That would be Larry, Michael, and me. On the other side were the three guys who might do some partying, but were not all out stoners. That was Jock, Mark, and David. We usually managed to keep our excesses apart from our performances, and we had a reputation as a top notch band, but there were occasional stumbles and as a result there was always a running issue about whether this might be one of those nights when one of us was going to screw up a show. All in all, we were a train wreck waiting to happen.

EA: 'Clouds Across The Sun' was your last album with Firefall and some of the soft/ country rock magic was missing on the record with a noticeably harder edge than previous offerings as well as the 'Staying With It' single with vocalist Lisa Nemzo which wasn't exactly what it seemed?
RR: By the time we got around to doing 'Clouds Across The Sun', the band was all but finished, at least as far as being the band I formed in 1974. Both Mark Andes and Michael Clarke had left, and even though we replaced them with top quality players, it wasn't the same. Our new rhythm section was George Hawkins on bass and vocals, and Tris Imboden on drums. We had hired them together from the Kenny Loggins band, and they were great musicians and great guys, but that special sense of camaraderie that you form with the original guys is almost always lost when you start changing people. With all due respect to Michael, Tris was a much steadier drummer and when you compare George and Mark, it's a wash, because they are both 'A' list bassists, but even there, George was also a top flight vocalist and Mark hadn't started to sing too much yet. He has more recently improved his chops and is a pretty good voice to have in your bag of tricks, but we didn't know that then. In spite of the fact that our musical quality hadn't suffered, a lot of the magic was gone. The band was getting along better than we had in years, but it seems like when the tension disappeared, so did the artistic tension that brought out the edge to the music. On top of that, I had been in a writing slump and Larry was never all that prolific. That's not a knock on his writing; it's just that he was more interested in quality than quantity. And I don't mean that I was in the habit of just tossing off songs to meet some kind of numerical quota either.

I just naturally tended to write more songs than he did. In the end, we contributed less material to the project than on any other album prior to that. I only had three songs on the record, and one of those was an old one. Larry was ill and did not even come to Nashville (where we cut the album) for the basic sessions. He was in the hospital in Boulder and his only writing contribution was the lyric for a song he co-wrote with Jock called 'No Class'. Jock sent him the basic track and he wrote the words while he was bed. I wrote the title song as well as a tune called 'Don't It Feel Empty' and an old one named 'I Don't Want to Hear It Anymore'. When your two main songwriters only come up with 3-1/2 songs for an album, you know you're in trouble. As a result, Jock and David got a chance to have some more material on the record, and that was fine except it created a noticeably different sound for the group than what we were known for. It was also the first time we had ever gone outside the band for material. The final makeup of the record was three songs of mine, two of Jock's and one co-written with Larry, one co-written by David and George, and three from outside the band, including the single 'Staying With It' so it's not hard to understand why the record did not have the signature Firefall sound.

As for the duet on 'Staying With It', that was a whole other situation. We recorded the song with me doing the lead vocal and submitted it to Atlantic with the rest of the record. Actually, we put the tapes into our manager's hands (yes, we had finally chosen a manager named Ken Kinnear) to deliver to the label. The next thing we knew, our manager called us and informed us that he had added a woman singer to the song and made it a duet. The band was very surprised and I was furious. I asked him why he had done something that major to our record without even consulting us. I told him that it wasn't so much the idea of sharing the vocal as the fact that singing a song alone and trading lines with another singer call for two very different readings of the song. I wanted to go back in and tailor my vocal to the situation, but he said it was too late because he had already turned the record in and they had started pressing it. He said it sounded fine and he would send us the finished product. In fairness to Lisa Nemzo, the female vocalist, she did a good job on her part and is not to blame for what happened, but it didn't help matters later when we found out that she was another client of Ken's who needed a break; we didn't really relish the idea that we had just been used as the unsolicited vehicle for her advancement.

EA: You left Firefall after a gig in Hawaii..
RR: The gig in La Heina, Maui, Hawaii was the last show of our summer 1981 tour, so that was why I chose that moment to leave. I had made up my mind that it was time to go a month or two before that. My reasons were pretty basic. First of all, the band wasn't any fun anymore and we had started into the phase I had watched happen to numerous other groups over the years. After Michael and Mark were replaced by George and Tris, there was still some semblance of stability within the ranks. But then George bolted to join Mick Fleetwood's Zoo, and his place was taken by Kim Stone. Kim was another top flight musician who was later an integral part of Spyro Gyra, so once again there was no fall off in player quality, but a familiar pattern was beginning to emerge. A band loses a couple of its founding members and the initial generation of replacements come in and often gives the group a breath of new life. But after that, with each departure the band loses more of its original identity and pretty soon everybody from the root band is either gone or just going through the motions and riding on the value of the name.

The second reason was that it was obvious to me that the band had shot its shot and wasn't likely to be making any more big advances in its collective career. That was intertwined with the personnel changes and the loss of the artistic tension I talked about before. The lack of progress was also directly related to our group's lack of ability to find good management, and that by the way, was no one's fault but our own. We had settled into the role of being everyone's favourite opening act and had never successfully made the jump to headlining our own shows. I didn't tell anybody my plans until I actually gave my notice because I wasn't interested in lingering through a lame duck period between saying I was going and actually taking my leave. After Hawaii, we were scheduled to take a break anyway, so I figured I could leave then with the least amount of impact on the band if they chose to continue as Firefall. What happened was that the band ceased to exist at that point, but it didn't stay extinct.

About six or eight months later there was communication between Jock Bartley and Atlantic channeled through Alan Jacobi, a lawyer who had a relationship with the label. Jock assembled another good group of musicians and set out to resurrect the band's career. He has carried on through the time from 1982 to now (30 yrs.) with an incredible number of changes in membership including my own re-affiliation with the group between 1989-1992. He's done a remarkable job of keeping the group alive through something like 25 musicians being members between then and now. There has been a stable group of players since the turn of the century, with only one or two of the sidemen changing. The current drummer, Sandy Ficca and the bass player, Bill Hopkins, have been with the group since the middle 1980's, and now David Muse has come back following a serious bout with cancer. The one thing that has remained consistent is the music they play. Even now, they're on stage set contains about twelve of my songs and two or three of Larry Burnett's. They're still a damn good band and Jock is just as spectacular a guitarist as ever. But it's definitely his band now, and even though the music demands a large vocal contribution to do the songs justice, it's his playing which dominates the show.

EA: Looking back at the highs and lows, do you have any final thoughts on the band and is there anything you would have done differently?
RR: For the most part, it was a wonderful ride. To have the first album go gold and then platinum, yield a top ten and two other top fifty tunes, and then follow it up with additional gold and platinum albums and multiple hit singles was a first for everyone in the band except Michael, who had The Byrds in his resume. I know it sounds crass to mention the commercial success of the band first, but that success was what opened the many doors necessary for us to experience all the other highlights that came our way. My dearest memories are centered on the many wonderful artists we got to share the stage with and listen to and the places we got to see. Even more important than that were the audiences we got to share our music with. We were lucky enough to come along at a very special point in musical history. We were there in the latter part of the musical era that started with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and twenty or so other phenomenal bands that constituted the 'British Invasion' in the mid '60s and carried over to The Byrds and all the rest of America's answer to it. That was just the beginning of a unique time for pop music. Artists were writing their own songs and the creative brilliance that was uncovered was an explosion in rock and roll.

From those roots came all the San Francisco sound of the hippie generation and an audience that was more interested in music that had some content than they were in whether they could dance to it. By the '70s when we came along, pop music had grown up a lot, and there were so many amazingly talented artists around that it was easy to get lost in the shuffle. The fact that we didn't get lost and had a chance to become a part of all that is something I regard as a gift from God especially since we were as a group, almost without equal at making terrible decisions about the best course of action for the band. We shot ourselves in the foot more times than I can count, and still managed to stick around for longer than anyone expected. I've talked about a couple of those bad choices, but what I've said is the barest tip of the iceberg. We were really stupid about a whole lot of things. One of my own biggest mistakes was to make the band a total and complete democracy. I've mentioned that before, but it may well have been the main source of most of the other problems that happened along the way. If we'd been able to agree on most things, it might have worked with everyone having an equal say, but it didn't happen that way. We were constantly going in several directions at once and cancelling out any forward motion made on the one hand by going backward somewhere else.

If what I'm saying sounds confusing, it's because that was how it was with the band, a constant state of turmoil. You asked if there is anything I would have done differently. What I've just talked about is one big thing. I'm not saying I should have maintained it as my band, with me as some kind of demagogue. I just mean that I should have kept some amount of control as opposed to being one vote out of six; especially six very stubborn and opinionated artistic types. And it didn't even have to be me. If any of us had taken that role, we would have been better off. I also would have put a little tighter rein on my partying. I did an immense amount of cocaine during that period and used the fact that I did most of my songwriting under the influence as my excuse. I know that those two things, leading the band and doing massive amounts of drugs are mutually exclusive, so maybe if I'd kept my hand in on being a leader, I would have lightened up on my coke intake. You never know. But since I was just one of the guys, I didn't have to live up to any higher standards. Overall though, the most memorable thing for me is that Firefall was part of a musical generation that many people say we won't be seeing again.

If you don't mind, I'd like to add a little plug for myself. I've got some new music out on iTunes that people tell me still sounds a lot like the music I used to make. There are three collections named 'Phases', 'Full Bloom', and 'Same Mirror', 'Different Reflections'. You can just look for my name.


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#1 | dangerzone on July 01 2012 18:36:22
Great job Eric. The information here is staggering and it took a while to get through! Great band whose music has stood the test of time, one of the best of the 70's. I've been listening to Firefall a lot lately so the timing of this is ideal.
#2 | Eric on July 01 2012 20:26:42
Thanks Alun. It's lengthy, but I like that kind of thing, the inside glimpses of how a band worked, when it didn't and why.
#3 | AOR Lee on July 04 2012 06:31:25
This piece reminded me of the website's halcyon early era. Interviews that were informative, anecdotal, humorous and richly entertaining to read. I thoroughly enjoyed this, didn't even notice how long it was until scrolling back to the top!
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