Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Very Candid Conversation with James Bruner

In the 1980s, Chuck Norris did a series of films for Cannon Films, an Israeli film company founded  by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Some of the films include Missing in Action, Invasion USA, and The Delta Force. The low-budget films were filled with action and became a huge success at the box office. The screenwriter behind the films was James Bruner. James had worked with Norris previously in An Eye for An Eye. While Chuck moved on to TV with Walker, Texas Ranger, and Cannon Films went bankrupt in the late 80s, Bruner’s work with Chuck and Cannon Films has not been forgotten. His films would continue to be watched on video and television. Most recently, James Bruner appeared in two documentaries as himself where the filmmakers interviewed him about his work : Electric Boogaloo, a documentary about Cannon Films, and Chuck Norris vs. Communism, a documentary about the impact Chuck Norris films had in then-Communist Romania.

These days, James stays busy with his wife, Elizabeth Stevens. They have written and produced several features for the Hallmark Channel including Ice Dreams and Looking for Mr. Right. In addition, they have a blog and a Facebook page that is detailed about their current work.

In this candid conversation, James discusses the work he did with Cannon Films and Chuck Norris. He also talks about teaching film school in Jordan, his documentary appearances, and his work for the Hallmark Channel. I want to thank James for taking the time to do this interview.

Jeff Cramer: All right, James. What encouraged you to write movies in the first place?

James Bruner: I grew up in Wisconsin. I had polio when I was a kid, so I couldn’t really do any athletics or sports or anything, and my mom got me into reading. I read a lot. I really loved history and I constantly read. I always liked movies and TV, but back then there was no Internet. It was pre-DVD even, or pre-VHS. I went to school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and I took some film courses, but it was really just watching old Ingmar Bergman movies like Wild Strawberries and Virgin Spring, and talking about them. We made movies on super 8, but I did that as a side thing. 

I wrote some articles for war-gaming magazines, such as Wargamer’s Digest and Little Wars, and I wrote about different historical battles. I also wrote some articles for Dungeons and Dragons. I never really thought anything about it. I got a degree in history and couldn’t get a job. I applied to like five hundred places all over the world, but got nothing.

So I thought, Oh, man, what am I going to do?  I ended up in Seattle hanging Sheetrock for my cousin-in-law. Even though I grew up in Wisconsin, the rain was too much, so I moved down to Los Angeles near another cousin-in-law, who had an audio/visual business doing presentations for corporations on how to operate machinery, how to sell different products, and so on. My cousin knew I wrote the articles and I liked taking pictures. He wanted to expand his business, so he asked me to come down to LA.

So, I went to LA, worked for a couple months, but we didn’t really get along. I was living in Hermosa Beach and was thinking, Wow, I don’t really want to go back to Wisconsin, back to the snow, and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I was working construction jobs, and I met this girl who said, “You know, you wrote these articles, and I have a cousin who works at Warner Brothers. Why don’t you write a screenplay and I’ll give it to them?”

I thought, Wow, I love movies, but I don’t know how to write a screenplay. I had never even seen a screenplay. Back in the day, there were no books, videos, nothing, so I went back to see my dad in Wisconsin. I found a book in the library at the University of Wisconsin, Madison that was written during World War II on how to write a screenplay. I don’t think anyone had ever taken it out, because when I took it off the shelf, pages fell out of the book. But the format for writing a screenplay back then is still basically the same today. 

JC: So it was the same back then as it is now? 

JB: Yeah. I now knew what a screenplay looked like. I went back to LA. I was working construction during the day and writing at night, and I finally finished the screenplay. But when I finished it, I lost track of this girl, so I didn’t know anybody in the business. I had heard somewhere or I saw on TV that there are people who have agents and agents are in Beverly Hills.

So I drove to Beverly Hills, and I found a phone booth in a parking lot in Beverly Hills that had a Yellow Pages. I looked up agencies. Again, I knew nothing about anything. I just started cold calling, saying, “Hi, I’ve got a screenplay.” I got hung up on, and hung up on.

I made it down to the B’s of the agencies when I finally reached somebody who said they would read my screenplay. I sent it off and went back to the construction work.  I got a nice rejection letter that said I did pretty good for my first time, but it was a Western, and at that time, Westerns were a kiss of death.

The agent said, “Well, write something contemporary.” I had a background in martial arts, and I had an idea for an action movie that combined martial arts. Basically, Chow Yon Fat ended up doing these kind of movies ten or fifteen years later in Hong Kong. But I wrote a script really quick and called it An Eye for an Eye, and it combined martial arts, guns, and everything.

By that time, I had met a couple people who were also trying to break into the business. One guy was a cameraman, and he had a friend who was character actor named Mel Novak, and Mel had actually been in a real movie. So I called Mel up and said, “I wrote this script, and you’ve been in a movie and you’re an actor. Can you read it and tell me what you think?”

Mel read the movie, and he had just done a film with Chuck Norris called A Force of One. He said, “Well, I know Chuck is looking for projects, and if it’s okay with you, I’m going to give him the script.” So he did. This was in January of 1981, and I didn’t hear anything until March.

In March, I got a call from Mel. He said, “Chuck read it, and he liked it, but it’s short.” It was only around seventy-five pages. In the meantime, I had written another twenty-five pages, and so I sent the revised script along. I didn’t hear anything, and it was June. I was still doing the construction. I had $8.43 in the bank.

I got a call on a Sunday night from Mel. He said, “We’ve sent the script to a company called AVCO Embassy, and they’re buying the script. They’re gonna make the movie.” Holy moly.

An Eye for an Eye poster

That was my first sale, and I got a good deal. I was paid to do another rewrite. This was my Hollywood baptism by fire. Once I sent in the rewrite, I called the company one day, and they said, “The rewrite is already done.” They had hired someone else even though they paid me to do it.  [To watch the An Eye for An Eye trailer, click here.]

That’s basically how I got started. Besides it being the first sale, the movie was successful, and one of the best things about it was I somehow ended up meeting some of the stunt men who worked on a movie at the cast and crew screening, and they set me up on a blind date with Elizabeth Stevens, a friend of theirs. They used to mow her lawn and play penny poker and everything. From there, we got married. My wife and I have been together ever since. That was the biggest benefit to come out of that whole thing. That was how I got started writing.

JC: Even though you wouldn’t be called back to rewrite, you did work with Chuck on several projects later.

JB: Yeah. Because the movie was successful, and I knew nothing about Hollywood, I thought, The phone is going to ring. The movie was successful, and people are going to want me to write stuff. I was writing spec scripts too.

So that went on for about two years, and, of course, I ran through the money from An Eye for an Eye. Elizabeth knew Chuck because her daughter, Jennifer, my stepdaughter, was taking karate from one of Chuck’s senior black belts who had a studio in Tarzana, California, and Chuck lived a few blocks away. Elizabeth always saw Chuck at black belt testing or different testing for different belts, and they always chatted.

Elizabeth also knew the director for An Eye for an Eye. He did another movie with Chuck called Lone Wolf McQuade, and the director invited Elizabeth. Elizabeth took her mom to a preview screening of an extended trailer for Lone Wolf. After the screening, Chuck saw Elizabeth and said, “Are you still going out with that guy James Bruner who wrote An Eye for an Eye?” She said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Can I have his phone number? I want him to write something else.”

So, Chuck called me up. He had an idea to do a movie on Americans missing in action from the Vietnam War, because he had lost his brother, Wieland, who had been killed in Vietnam. He wanted to do something to honor his brother, and he gave me a book. This somewhat convoluted, but I think it’s an interesting story. Chuck had read a book called Mission MIA by J.C. Pollock. Elizabeth and I became friends with Jim Pollock later on.

Anyway, I wrote a screenplay, Missing in Action. James Monaghan, who was a Special Forces guy in Vietnam, a Green Beret, and served a number of tours, was kind of my tactical advisor. And with James’s input, I wrote a screenplay, and Chuck wanted to get it produced independently. We took the project around town and tried to get attachments and financing, and it was slow going.

One day, Chuck said, “This producer called me, and he wants to have a meeting. He’s heard about Missing in Action and he’s interested. I don’t have time to meet with him. Can you go out to Malibu and meet with him?” I said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll go to the meeting.”

I went to Malibu and met Lance Hool. Lance had read the script and he loved it, and we had a good meeting. He talked to Chuck after that, and Chuck called me up and said, “This is great. There is a new company called Cannon Films, and they’re interested in doing Missing in Action, and they want to work with me. So Lance and I are going into the meeting, and I’ll call you right after.”

The meeting was at ten in the morning, and I didn’t hear anything until four or five in the afternoon. Chuck finally called, and he was kind of down. He said, “I went in and I sat down and they said we’re going to finance this movie, Missing in Action. And they gave me a script, but it wasn’t the script you wrote. It was another script called Missing in Action. And, you know, I’m going to do the movie.” Then he said, “I got them to buy your script, so at least you’ll get paid something.” I was disappointed. They went off to St. Kitts, down in the Caribbean, to make this movie, Missing in Action. Lance was going to direct the movie, and so on.

JC: This is the movie that became Missing in Action 2: The Beginning.

JB: Well, what happened is that Lance found out before he had the meeting at Cannon with Chuck that there was another Missing in Action script that Cannon wanted to do, but they hadn’t optioned it. They had read it and liked it, because it was well budgeted, and they hadn’t optioned it. So before his meeting with Chuck, Lance optioned the script. He owned it, so he was able to attach himself as the director and producer.

That’s how that movie got started. They were shooting the film, and I got a call one day from Aaron Norris, Chuck’s brother, who was also working on a film, and he was back in Los Angeles for a few days. He said, “The company wants to do a sequel to this movie, and Chuck and the company wants you to write it. You need to go down to St. Kitts tomorrow and start writing material for a trailer. We’re going to shoot a trailer when we’re done shooting Lance’s movie, and use that to promote the new one.”

So I went down to St. Kitts. I basically took the end of my script and wrote it up as a trailer. Someone with a wiser business sense decided it probably wasn’t a good idea to shoot a trailer for a movie that didn’t exist, so we ended up not shooting it. I just reworked my original script for Missing in Action, and they immediately went to the Philippines. Joe Zito was the director, and they made the movie. It wasn’t my original script, but it was pretty close because the budget was really low.

They came back, and I found out later that Cannon had a deal with MGM for theatrical releases of their pictures, and they had given MGM a bunch of movies that bombed at the box office. So MGM ended their deal, but they had a deal with Warner Brothers for Missing in Action. They showed Warner Brothers Lance Hool’s Missing in Action movie (the one that is Missing in Action 2: The Beginning), and Warner Brothers said, “We don’t want to release this.”

Cannon looked at the Joe Zito footage, and they liked it much better. They said, “If we put this out first, then we can put Lance’s movie out as a sequel.” They put the Zito film out first, and it was very successful. That’s kind of how that whole thing happened. Crazy. [To watch the trailer for Missing in Action, click here.]

Missing in Action poster

JC: What is also interesting is that not only did your Missing in Action came out before Lance Hool’s Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, but it also came out before Rambo, which would have a similar plot to Missing in Action.

JB: You have to remember that this was in the eighties and there was no Internet. You know, there’s communication here and there, but it’s not like today where you instantly know everything everyone is doing. At the time, Jim Pollock’s book, Mission MIA, was a huge hit, and there were a lot of screenplays at that time about MIAs. And Cannon was able to jump on it quickly. Luckily, they did the sequel fast so it could come out first.

I didn’t even know about the Rambo movie at the time. I had written the original Missing in Action a few years before that. It took a couple years—Chuck and I were trying to get it made for at least a year before the last full version was out there. It was one of those things that happens in Hollywood—some things in the wind or the atmosphere or something. I saw something recently where there were like six or seven Robin Hood movies in development.

JC: When I thought about interviewing you, I thought about the recent box office success of American Sniper, because Iraq, like Vietnam, didn’t have the happiest ending. It wasn’t an ending like there was in World War II, where it was clean and decisive and we got the bad guys. Nevertheless, American audiences have a deep connection with our veterans. I think our country’s connection with our veterans is what helps make both American Sniper and Missing in Action a box-office success.

JB: Oh, absolutely. At the end of Missing in Action, when at the conference, Vietnamese politicians are denying to American politicians that there are no American soldiers being held hostage and then Chuck bursts into the conference with the MIA.

JC: Right.

JB: People were jumping up and cheering and everything. It was a satisfying conclusion. Vietnam veterans were treated so disgracefully when they came back, and the movie was not a vindication, but more that someone was doing the right thing and helping these guys.

I think the same thing with American Sniper, which was such a huge hit, because it was basically one man’s story, and it was realistically done, like Hurt Locker. I think it is always a satisfying thing for an audience.

Joe Zito was in South Korea in the nineties. Some guy who had been the distributor for Missing in Action in South Korea said, “I want to show you something.” And he drove Joe up to this big mansion and said,  “I bought this house from what I made on Missing in Action.”

JC: Joe directed one of the Friday the 13th movies, and he has shown up on the Friday the 13th documentaries. Curiously enough, he didn’t participate in the Cannon documentary. Do you know why that is?

JB: Joe has been working overseas for quite a while. I know they wanted him to be in it, and he was actually out of the country when they were filming here. He has a lot of good insight from what happened there.

JC: Missing in Action was such a success that Cannon would ask you, Joe, and Chuck to do Invasion U.S.A.

JB: Yeah. That was even crazier. Working for Cannon was my version of going to film school but doing it in real life, because I would get a call for either a rewrite or writing a script, and told, “We’re shooting at eight. We need a script, we don’t have one.” Or, “We shot this movie, it doesn’t make any sense. Can you come in and look at the footage and write whatever additional scenes we need to shoot in order to make it make sense so we can release it?”

I got to do all this hands-on stuff, and Elizabeth was in the background the whole time helping and giving suggestions and coming up with ideas, which was great, so we started collaborating. With Invasion U.S.A., Menahem Golan wanted Chuck to do a movie called American Ninja, and there was no script. It was just a title, and he wanted to Chuck to wear a ninja outfit. Chuck did not want to be a ninja, because he was doing the regular action incorporating martial arts and didn’t want to go back to straight martial arts. So they hired me to write the script, and I said, “I have an idea. Let me run with it. We’ll do this.”

It will still be called American Ninja, and I came up with the story for Invasion U.S.A. The kind of trick in there was that Chuck was a covert CIA operative code-named American Ninja. The first draft is actually titled American Ninja, but it was the Invasion U.S.A. story.

Menahem read it, called us into the office, and said, “I liked the script, but unfortunately we cannot call it American Ninja.” We were all relieved, and I came up with the Invasion U.S.A. title based on the fifties sci-fi movie kind of thing. That’s how American Ninja transformed into Invasion U.S.A.

JC: In the Cannon documentary, you said there was a lot that seemed to be cut from that movie.

JB: Yeah. I finished the script, and Joe Zito and I went on location scout, which was terrific, because during that scout, we found out that this whole neighborhood in Atlanta was going to be bulldozed to extend the runway. It was a really beautiful suburban neighborhood, and we could literally go in and blow up all of these homes and everything—millions and millions of dollars of production value, and the same thing with the shopping mall that was going to be renovated. So I came up with the action sequences. It turned out really terrific to use those locations.

They were off making the movie when I got a call that said, “You have to go to Atlanta tomorrow.” I said, “Why?” They said, “Well, they changed the end of the movie, and now it doesn’t make any sense. You have to fix it.” I was like, “Oh, my gosh, really?”

So Elizabeth and I went to Atlanta and looked at what they had. They only had a short amount of shooting time left, and they couldn’t go to other locations. I actually don’t remember what the original ending was, but it was much better than the one that ended up being shot. But it was really the only thing to come up with the time and the budget, and how they had changed the story. However, that wasn’t the worst part. While we were down there and they were filming, we were on the set, and Melissa Prophet, who was the female lead, was a really nice woman.

JC: In that movie, Melissa seems very angry at everybody, even Chuck.

JB: We watched her do fifteen takes. Her line was, “Hey, Cowboy.” She couldn’t say, “Hey, Cowboy,” and it took fifteen takes.

So in the script, because Chuck is an action guy and not an actor, the story was really told through this female reporter, who is covering the story. When we went to the screening of the rough cut, the whole story was there, but her delivery of her performance was just so off that they ended up cutting it. It’s like a half an hour of the film that really tells the story. It became very disjointed, unfortunately. [To watch the trailer for Invasion U.S.A., click here.]

Invasion USA trailer

The action pieces are great. Before shooting, Chuck called me from New York, and he had just seen a play. There was a woman who was an extra in A Force of One or Good Guys Wear Black, or something had a one-woman show off Broadway, and she had left tickets for him in his hotel room. He didn’t have anything to do, so he went to see the play, and it was terrific. Whoopi Goldberg starred in the play.

Chuck said, “I saw this play and this woman, her name is Whoopi Goldberg.” No one had heard of Whoopi Goldberg at that point. He said, “Wouldn’t she be great to play the reporter?” I thought, Wow, that would be a terrific casting. Cannon and Joe Zito shot that down, which is unfortunate, because it would have really worked in the film. But that’s one of those things that happens.

JC: I remember Norris saying that in a few interviews about Whoopi Goldberg.

JB: Yeah.

JC: Then came the movie Delta Force.

JB: That was originally a pretty terrific project. I had mentioned the technical advisor on the original Missing in Action, James Monaghan, and he helped train the original Delta Force that went into Iran to rescue the hostages. He told me when we were working on the Missing in Action screenplay that the army has this top-secret unit called the Delta Force, and they did this and that, and it was cool stuff.

I pitched it to Menahem at Cannon. I said, “Look, there’s this army unit, the Delta Force, and they do all this great covert stuff, and they have all these cool weapons.” And he was like, “No, no, I don’t care.”

A couple years later, he saw a little, two-paragraph mention of Delta Force in either Time or Newsweek. He called me up and said, “Jimmy, we’re doing the movie The Delta Force. Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, The Delta Force. You want to write it?” I said, “Yeah, I want to write it. Are you kidding?”

I was really excited because I thought Norris and Bronson together would be fantastic. So I wrote a big action picture. It originally took place in Egypt. I used a completely fictional event. I took some of the declassified stuff my friend Monaghan told me about, the tactics and so on of Delta, were public—not public as far as the general public knew, and I came up with a whole story with these two guys against a bazillion terrorists. You know, tourists held hostage and so on.

It was going ahead, and then for some reason—I don’t know if they couldn’t make a deal with Bronson or something happened. Bronson was out, and before I started the script, the TWA hijacking to Beirut happened. Menahem told us to stop everything and we were going to base the movie on the Beirut hijacking, even though we didn’t know how it was going to end. So I started to change things around, and then Lee Marvin came in, who was terrific. That was one of the best things about working at Cannon was getting to meet Lee and spend some time with him.

I was writing the script, and then Menahem said, “We’re going to make it in Israel. You need to come to Israel and finish the screenplay.” Elizabeth and I went to Israel, and I literally went to his office every day for about twelve hours, sat next to him, and wrote the script. He would rewrite it, I’d rewrite his rewrite. I’d leave at the end of the day thinking, Okay, we’ve got some pretty good pages. I’d come back the next morning, and he’d stayed up most of the night changing it again. So I spent half that day trying to fix the improvements that he’d made. I finally said to him, “You know, why don’t we share the credit on this?”

As we were getting to the end of the script, there was on resolution, and he said, “I want you to go to Beirut, go to the Beirut airport, and find out what’s going on so we can write the final act.” I was like, “I’m an American, I look like an American. I don’t speak Arabic.”. I didn’t think it was a good idea. And luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

But there was some really good moments in the movie that I’m proud of, things that actually happened and so on. Then there was the silly stuff, you know, missiles on the motorcycle. The conclusion was the hostages were released safely, so in real life, that was great. It didn’t help the film, because there was no real life story of the Delta Force coming to rescue the hostages.  That’s kind of the story of how that whole thing happened. James Monaghan was the technical advisor on it, so he had some run-ins with Menahem, trying to say, “Well, the Delta Force would do this and not that,” and we’d get overruled.

One of the things was actually pretty amusing. Menahem and I went to a school that was going to be demolished that ended up being used as the terrorists’ hideout where they were holding the hostages.  The Delta in the movie comes in through the basement, and then they have to get up into the room where the hostages are. So we to the school’s basement, and we looked up at the ceilings, about ten feet high. I had told him how Delta actually does this, but he had forgotten. So he said, “Well, I’m trying to figure out if we should have a trampoline.” There was a little hole in the ceiling. The Delta Force would run, they’d jump on the trampoline, and they would coming flying up into the room where the terrorists are. I said, “Oh, my gosh, this is going to look silly.”

He said, “Or they have a teeter totter, like the circus.” He said, “I can’t figure it out—there’s no one to jump on it, so the last guy is stuck in the basement.” You know, another crazy thing. So Menahem finally does to shoot the scene the way that the Delta Force actually does in real life. So there was some kind of close calls to some pretty silly stuff that he considered.  [To watch The Delta Force trailer, click here.]

The Delta Force movie

JC: After Invasion U.S.A., there were two more movies you would do. One of them was POW, The Escape, which starred David Carradine, and then you did Braddock: Missing in Action III with Norris.

JB: POW was a rewrite. That was a rewrite situation for me, and then I was called in after the finished principal photography to figure out some additional scenes to help the story flow better.

Braddock: Missing in Action III started out, and Joe Zito was originally going to direct that. I was kind of excited about that, and we all thought the original script was the best script of the whole group. Unfortunately, let’s just say Menahem got into a battle with me, and for some reason, Aaron Norris’s deal in Braddock: Missing in Action III was tied to mine for some reason. So whatever I got paid, Aaron’s pay was somehow tied to that, in some escalator or some type of clause.

After I finished doing a number of drafts, the film was ready to go. Menahem called me and said, “I want you to take fifty percent off your contract for this script.” I was like, “What?” And he said, “If I pay you this, I have to pay Aaron Norris that, and I don’t want to pay him that much.” It was very funny. He said, “With all due respect, if you don’t take the less money, you’ll never work at Cannon again.” Well, I guess I’d never work here again, because they never paid that great to begin with.

After that, there were some other rewrites. They went through a lot of different directors, and I read some of the drafts. In one of the drafts, Chuck finds out he has a—

JC: A son.

JB: A son from this Vietnamese girlfriend, and he goes back to rescue him. The boy is an orphan and he’s treated poorly because he’s the son of an American. Yet, the kid lives in a really nice house, and he’s fixing his brand new ten-speed bicycle, and Chuck is supposed to come in and whisk him away from this horrible life, this depravation. And I was like, something doesn’t quite work with having a brand new ten-speed bike and needing to be rescued. Anyway, the movie did not do well at all, and the final version was a disappointment.

JC:  remember from the movie that Chuck’s son and a bunch of other Vietnamese-American children were running across the Vietnamese border at the ending.

JB: The final version was kind of a mishmash of the original script, and then some of the stuff was for budgetary reasons—things were cut. It was really an emotional story about a father and son, with all the action stuff going on, and it ended up being the comic book bad guys, you know?

JC: Of course, then as we all know, Cannon eventually fell apart.

JB: Yeah.

JC: From what you just told me about Braddock: Missing in Action III, it sounds like your time at Cannon was shortly over before it fell apart.

JB: Elizabeth and I were there for the golden year period, where Cannon was doing really well, and they actually had a very smart business plan on doing the pre-sales, making the movies for what they got in pre-sales, and then anything else was just extra. They had plenty of misses, but Chuck’s movies were all successful and they made a lot of money.

They would say really smart things, and then they decided that they also wanted to compete with the majors, and then they started doing these really expensive movies that were less than stellar. They did Over the Top with Stallone, and they were just spending tons and tons of money. They built a headquarters in Beverly Hills. Before, they were in the CNN building and had three floors and funky offices, but it wasn’t not very Hollywood, which was great, because they were spending the money on the pictures. Then things kind of got carried away.

JC: Did you have any contact with Chuck after you were done with Cannon?

JB: Here and there, but I didn’t work on Walker, Texas Ranger. He used to live in Tarzana, California, and he didn’t live too far away, so we’d see each other once in a while. But we haven’t really been in touch since he’s been in Texas. We stay in touch with Eric Norris, one of his sons, who is a top stunt coordinator.

JC: What did you do after you were done with Cannon?

JB: My wife was involved behind the scenes with the different Cannon films. We had run across a story about a husband and wife who’d rescued kidnapped kids, and we started pitching that around town. Dick Clark’s company optioned it, but they couldn’t get it set up. I said to Elizabeth, “Let’s write a screenplay.” And she said, “Oh, I don’t know if I can write it.” I said, “Yeah, you’ve been helping me for years, and you have good story sense.”

We wrote a first draft screenplay. Richard Zanuck (the producer of Jaws and Driving Miss Daisy) read it, and called us in. He said, “I love the writing, but I don’t want to do this film. It’s pretty controversial. I don’t want to do something like this right now, but what else do you have?” We pitched him some other ideas, and he loved a take we had on the Pretty Boy Floyd, the 1930’s outlaw, based on original research that I had done. Since he was active in parts of Wisconsin, where I was growing up, I had been to the places where Pretty Boy Floyd had a showdown with the FBI, so I had done a lot of research based on original sources.

We pitched that to Zanuck. He loved it. He hired Elizabeth and me to write that screenplay for him. And I thought, Wow, this is pretty good. I’m working with her, and I’m going from Chuck Norris number-one movies, Cannon, to Richard Zanuck. That was pretty good. So, we did that. He passed away a couple of years ago, but hopefully it will still get made one of these days.

Elizabeth and I have been working together on different television and film projects. We wrote a movie for the Hallmark Channel, a romantic drama called Ice Dreams.

Ice Dreams poster

We executive produced one for Hallmark last year, called Looking for Mr. Right, a romantic comedy. We just kind of fell into the Hallmark thing. Now, we have a reality show we just sold to a major reality show producer that hopefully will get set up soon. We also have a big historical feature and a new action series that are both kind of in the works right now.

JC:I was looking at your Facebook page and it says that you taught at film school in Jordan.

JB: Yeah, I taught in Jordan. That was really quite an experience. I saw an ad in the Writer’s Guild magazine, and so I sent in an application.  I got a reply that they just hired someone. Then a couple years later, I got an e-mail from the school saying that they remembered me from my original application and if I was still interested in teaching.

I went on an adventure to Jordan for a year. It was quite an excellent school. Unfortunately, due to the war in Syria and just worldwide economic problems, the school went out of business a year ago. But it turned out some really excellent students from all over the area that have won different film competitions and internationally. Almost all of them are working in the film and television business from the Middle East and Europe.

James on a camel in Jordan

JC: It seems the Cannon documentary filmmakers and myself were not the only ones curious about your Chuck Norris writing days. You got a request to do another documentary called Chuck Norris vs. Communism.

JB: Oh, yeah. This was the amazing thing that’s ever happened. A couple of years ago, I received an e-mail from a Romanian woman and she said, “I’m doing this documentary called Chuck Norris vs. Communism. I’d like to interview you on Skype.” I thought it was a joke, but I decided to do the Skype call.

These two Romanian sisters were living in London, and they were deadly serious. So, I did the interview. They said that in the eighties, Chuck’s films, and other American films, were smuggled into Romania, because I guess it was against the law. You’d go to prison for even seeing an American movie.

There was one woman who worked for a Romanian television station, and she was secretly dubbing the movies into Romania. They were passing out VHS copies underground, and people would have viewing parties in their cellar and so on. They’d see Missing in Action and Invasion U.S.A., and a lot of other movies. The information over there was so tightly controlled. People saw what America looked like, and the movies actually helped inspire Romanian people to rise up and overthrow the dictator, Ceausescu.

To this day, they use the poster from Invasion U.S.A. in their protests. They put a different slogan on it, but it’s Chuck with his two Uzis in front of the capitol. It’s a really great image, and it really helped inspire them to get their freedom. That was amazing, to say the least. That was true.

JC: Chuck Norris’s popularity continues to this day. On the Internet, there are all these flattering jokes of Chuck Norris, like his tears cure cancer, or he doesn’t fish, he just stares at the water and the lake drowns the fish he wants. Bibi Netanyahu used him as a campaign ad in his successful reelection in Israel. Having worked with him, what do you think has really caused all this appeal for Chuck Norris that continues to this day?

JB: Well, there are a lot of people who claimed to have martial arts backgrounds that turned out to be false. You know, they’d supposedly been an assassin for the CIA, or they supposedly had done this or that.

Chuck was really a world champion. Bruce Lee, just in the martial arts arena, literally gave Chuck tremendous credibility, and he plays the not-complicated, straightforward kind of guy who’s going to do the right thing. Portraying that has a lot of appeal. I think to this day, John Wayne is still one of the top movie stars in the world, because of that same kind of thing. The thing that kind of amazes me to this day is that Missing in Action and The Delta Force still play all the time on television, and there are not many films from that period or any period that have that kind of longevity.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Very Candid Conversation with Mike Pinera

Mike Pinera is a guitarist who has played with some big names such as Iron Butterfly and Alice Cooper. His career got off to a start with the band Blues Image. In  1970, Blues Image would score a #4 hit, “Ride Captain Ride.” To this day, “Ride Captain Ride” is frequently played on classic rock radio stations, and the song also appeared in the Will Ferrell comedy Anchorman. Shortly after  “Ride Captain Ride” hit the charts, Blues Image broke up, and Pinera would go on to join Iron Butterfly. He helped co-wrote and sang songs on Iron Butterfly’s Metamorphosis album. Iron Butterfly broke up shortly after touring the Metamorphosis album.

Mike then joined a band called Ramatam, which showcased a female Jimi Hendrix-inspired guitarist, April Lawton, and Jimi Hendrix’s drummer, Mitch Mitchell, on drums. In both Ramatam and Iron Butterfly, Mike was using the talk box on his guitar (an effects unit that can shape and modify the sound of a musical instrument to apply speech sounds such as singing) before Peter Frampton and Joe Walsh would later popularize the item. Like classic guitarist Pete Townsend, Mike claims to have invented his own version of the talk box. In the late 1970s, he had a brief solo career and a #70 hit, “Goodnight My Love.”

After his solo career, Mike joined Alice Cooper on the album Special Forces and toured with him. He would also play on Alice’s Cooper’s Zipper Catches Skin. In the 90s, Mike formed the Classic Rock All-Stars, which is composed of members of the Monkees, Rare Earth, Steppenwolf, and Blue Oyster Cult. The group played some of their classic hits from the 60s and 70s. In addition, he has currently reunited with both his former bands, Blues Image and Iron Butterfly.

In this candid conversation, we talk about Mike’s time with Blues Image, Iron Butterfly, and Alice Cooper. We also talk about what he is up to currently. I want give thanks to Paul Guzzo from the Tampa Tribune who helped me contact Mike, as well as Mike’s wife Valerie who helped set up the interview. But most of all, I want to thank Mike.

Jeff Cramer:  What encouraged you to play guitar?

Mike Pinera:    In the 50s, I listened to Chuck Berry. Elvis Presley had a great guitar player who played with him by the name of James Burton. They also had a great lead sound from “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” That really inspired me. I liked the sound of blues mixed with rock and roll. That really got me going.

JC:      Tell me about the period of playing guitar that led up to Blues Image.

MP:     I put together a band while I was still in elementary school called the Impalas. We played cover material and stuff we liked. We kept leaning over to R&B. All of the other bands in Tampa, Florida—my hometown—were playing a lot more “bubble gum material.” We started playing some deep stuff. We got so good so quickly that we became one of the most popular bands in Tampa. That got me looking around to try to see how we could evolve.

The best place to play in Clearwater, Florida, is at a show called The Clearwater Star Spectacular, which happens every weekend during the summer at a the Clearwater Beach Auditorium, a big auditorium. The biggest stars in rock, pop, and R&B played there. One time in the 60s[Mike was born in 1948], I walked in there  and said to the gentleman who was promoting it, “You’re doing this wrong.” He said, “What do you mean I’m doing this wrong? This is the biggest show of its kind on the East Coast.” I said, “You’re paying too much for the bands.” He said, “How would you know that?” I said, “I’m a musician who plays in a band, but I’m also in the musicians union. I’m in the American Federation of Musicians. I look at my books to see these backup musicians who come with these stars from New York City. I look to see how much they get per hour, and these guys get triple scale, and then the star has to fly in the players. That’s additional expensing. Then, there’s their hotel.” I continued, “You could get us to back-up all the stars who want to be backed up, and we’ll play the parts at a fraction of the cost.”

The guy started laughing. He said, “That sounds good in theory, but how do I know you can handle the parts?” I said, “I’ll give you an example. I know you have Gene Pitney coming in a couple of weeks. He’s a great writer. He tends to write movie things and anthems, and they’re very difficult to play. It’s not like the normal rock and roll.” I said, “Why don’t you let my band make a cassette of us playing his biggest hits. I’ll bring it to you tomorrow. You can send it to him in New York City and ask him if he’d like to have us back him instead of bringing all those people with him at a higher price.” He said, “All right. That sounds good.”

We worked really hard and we got some of Gene’s biggest songs down, like “Town Without Pity” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” He sent it to him. Lo and behold, Gene got back and said, “These guys are perfect. I’ll use them. That will save me the expense of bringing all these people with me.” The promoter said, “Good. That passes off the savings to me. I don’t have to pay you so much.” They started laughing.

That summer, we played every weekend, backing some of the biggest stars in rock and pop and R&B. Some of them wouldn’t budge. They had to have their guys—like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. They didn’t want a pick-up band. After the other bands heard that we could play their songs so well, we ended up becoming very, very popular in the whole state of Florida. We learned a lot being with these stars and watching how they handled themselves and their managers.

After a while of playing in Tampa as the Impalas, the following summer I decided to go on the road. So, I called the band Mike West and the Motions. We went out. It was a four-piece band. We went out and played in Reno, Nevada. We got very good very fast. We spent the summer playing some big casinos in Nevada. We came back and started playing the number-one nightclub in Tampa at that time. It was called Deano’s. We were very popular. We were packing them in. We finally looked at each other and said, “If we want to really progress, we have to go to Miami,” because that’s where people were coming in from New York and a lot of the record industry. So, we just packed up our car and went to Miami. We went to the biggest place there and said, “Can we audition for you?” We did, and we got hired. Within a short amount of time, we were not only the most popular band in town, but we were drawing huge crowds. We started thinking about it and said, “Why play for other people, especially with the dock holding? I didn’t like luring little kids into a big showroom where they had to use fake IDs to come watch us play because they liked the band so much. They were getting drunk, and you could tell that they had never really drank that way before. I felt bad. I felt like I was leading people the wrong way. 

We went to Miami Beach on Collins Avenue. That’s the beach. We rented a bowling alley that was owned by some motorcycle guys. It was a very big bowling alley, and the business was for lease. So, we brought in all of our hippie friends and tore out the lanes and just made it one big concert theater with a big, concrete floor. We brought in PA equipment. We changed the name of the band to Blues Image.  We called that place Thee Image. We had some other partners. They handled the finances like sending the deposits for the groups. On opening night, we had Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention play. Then, we had the Yardbirds with Jimmy Page, and Cream with Eric Clapton play. Every weekend there was a really big group there—the Grateful Dead with Jerry Garcia. We would open for them, so we got to be friends with them and jam with them. Eric Burdon from the Animals, had said, “You guys are so good. If you ever come to LA—and you should because you’d get signed—come by my offices and I’ll introduce you to my manager, and maybe we can get you guys going with a record deal.” By this time, we were playing original material. It was good. It was blues. It was definitely blues. It wasn't pop, but we were the Blues Image.

The Blues Images's group photo

JC:      So when did you take up Eric’s offer to go to LA?

MP:     We played for another year at Thee Image. We were having record crowds, but that didn't go well with the city. Collins is only one strip. There’s only one way in and one way out in the area where we were. Traffic was backing up over the causeway. Hotel owners, who had big nightclubs and big shows, were getting mad because these hippies drew another two thousand people to the beach. It somehow spilled over to the police, and they started harassing our clients and our customers with unprovoked attacks on people—they were looking for drugs and weed and all of that stuff. Eventually, we just got disinterested and said, “You know what? We've played with just about every major band that we like in the industry. Let’s take our chances and go to LA.” We went there not knowing what we were facing. We found some friends there who were from Miami, and they let us sleep on their floor. We’d get up every morning and go down to the Sunset Strip and visit the different managers from the different groups. Eventually, there would be one who would say, “We’ll help you.” Sure enough, we went to Eric Burdon’s offices. His manager was there. Eric said, “I’d like you to take good care of these guys. They’re really good, and they’re friends of mine.” We played them our demo. It was a little 45-RPM single called “Can’t You Believe in Forever,” which I wrote. They booked us at the Whiskey a Go Go.

That night, at the Whiskey a Go Go, the bass player from Iron Butterfly was there. He heard me playing. He said, “You guys need a manager. I can bring in our manager, and there’s no doubt that he can get you guys signed into a deal with the same label that we’re on.” I said, “Wow! Great!” We booked another show at the Whiskey. The managers came, and we were signed to the management office in about a month. About a month after that, the managers called the labels, and the labels came to our house. We were way up in the mountains outside of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. It was Granada Hills. We saw a limousine come up the side of the road. They got out, and it was all the executives and producers from Atlantic Records. They walked  into our garage. We played for about an hour, and they said, “Okay. You’ll be hearing from us.” They signed us. Now, we were signed to ATCO, which was really a subsidiary of Atlantic around 1968. They put a great producer with us. He was an engineer. His name was Bill Halverson. He was doing Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first album at the same time that he was producing us. We would run across the hall and listen to them play. We became friends. They would come over and listen to us play. Stephen Stills and David Crosby and I became good friends.

What happened was that the album ended up becoming what we were. We were a blues band. The record label said, “We don’t hear anything commercial here.” We said, “Who said we are commercial? We’re what you heard in the garage.” They said, “Okay. We’ll give it a try, and maybe something will happen.” They put out the first Blues Image album in 1969. It didn't sell because it wasn't getting radio airplay—radio wasn't really friendly to blues at that time. We didn't really get a lot of airplay, but the critics loved the band. We got tours with Santana, Jimi Hendrix, and the Doors. It was people like that whom we were appearing with, and we were doing quite well.

 So, we got back to LA after that series of tours, and our partners from Miami Beach that had Thee Image with us now wanted to open a new club on Sunset Strip and call it Thee Experience. They wanted us to be the house band again. We said, “Sure.” We got that, and Jimi Hendrix would come in and jam with us. He would tell us, “I didn't even go home. I just got in from the airport from my tour and I came right here to jam with you guys. We were jamming with Hendrix and Jim Morrison and the Who. There were a lot of great players who were stopping by to jam with us.

JC:      How did you come up with the song “Ride Captain Ride”?

MP:     It was time to do the next album. The managers got together with the record label and said, “We’re going to need a commercial producer who has hits out right now and knows how to take a band like this and turn them into something commercial.” We didn't even like that word—“commercial.” So, they found a producer by the name of Richard Podolor. At that time, Richard was doing Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night. He was a little too much of a pop producer for Blues Image, but we stuck with it. We had been in the studio for about a month or so, and it was getting toward the end of the time that had been allotted for us. The record company came in and listened to what we had. They said, “This is not hit music. It’s better than it was. It’s not blues, but we need to hear a hit, or we’re going to pull the plug and there won’t be another Blues Image album.”

We got a little hysterical. Our keyboard player, Skip Konte, came up to me and played and few lines of something. I said, “That sounds really good. Let me see if I can do something with it.” The producer came up and said, “You’ve got until the end of the afternoon. If you don’t play me something that sounds like it could be a commercial hit, I’m going to have to pull the studio time away and give it to one of my other bands that’s doing really well.” Within ten or fifteen minutes, we had written “Ride Captain Ride.” [To hear “Ride Captain Ride” click here.] I sat in front of a Rhodes piano that said, “Model-73.” It had seventy-three keys. I just started singing “73.” The whole story just started coming on by itself about an imaginary journey, with people who were on a boat going from coast to coast and pull into marinas and say, “Does anybody want to go somewhere where we can have our own place and be free and get away from all of this pollution and traffic?” That was what the song was supposed to be about. The producer heard the song and said, “This is the hit. Let’s work on this. Drop everything else.” So, we worked all day on “Ride Captain Ride.” At the end of the day, everybody listened to it and said, “This is the most commercial thing we have. This could be a hit.” The record label heard it and said, “Okay, we’re back on track. We’ll give this serious promotion.” They did. We went out on tour. Now, we were playing with the Who at eighty-thousand-seat stadiums. We had gone up quite a bit from halls and theaters to stadiums. We were doing quite well.

Then, as fate would have it, I got a call from the Pentagon. They wanted to know how I knew about a secret spy ship called the USS Pueblo. I said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” They said, “Don’t give us that. There were seventy-three men. They sailed out of San Francisco. They got captured by a Korean destroyer out in international waters and were taken to Korea. It almost started an incident. The Koreans are saying that it was a spy ship, so we’re having some serious problems. Meanwhile, your song is out telling the whole story. It was exactly seventy-three men and exactly San Francisco.” I said, “It’s just a coincidence.” They didn't believe it. I assured them that the song was written about two months before it was recorded. I said, “How could I know about it four months before it happened, because that’s when I wrote the song.” They agreed with me. As it turns out, when I was on tour, sometimes people would come up to me who were on the crew of the Pueblo and say, “Thanks for writing that song for us. That’s really great.” I said, “I wrote it for you, but I wrote it for everybody else, too.”

JC:   Yet, with a successful hit from Blues Image, you would join Iron Butterfly in the same year.

The band now had a top hit. We were out on tour, and we were getting a lot of airplay. We started having some internal problems. It’s the basic problem that hits most bands, especially in that time period. Managers believed that a rock band had a life of about three years before they started arguing and would break up anyway. They said, “We’re going to just work to death and make any penny we can before you guys break up.” We would be out on tour. We would come back and they’d say, “Go right  into the studio and start working on your next album.” We said, “Are you kidding? Mike’s the main writer. He hasn't had a chance to write anything. He’s been doing one-nighters for the last few months.” I didn't have a problem when we got home. I just said, “I need a little time to write.” The other guys who had families with kids and wives said, “No. We want to take some time off here. We’re burnt out.” The record label wouldn't hear it, and neither would the managers. We got overworked and over-stressed. Now, we were bickering and arguing. My parents were back in Tampa and they were older. They were on their own and they needed help. I said, “If we don’t fix this problem with the band, I’m going to have to go somewhere else where there’s no arguing. I’m a Libra. I like harmony.”

 As it turns out, Iron Butterfly came to me and said, “We’re getting ready to let our guitar player go, and we want to offer you the gig first.” I said, “I can’t really leave Blues Image.” Things weren't getting better. They were getting worse, and my parents needed money. I said, “You know what? I’ll do it.” I left Blues Image. I joined Iron Butterfly and went right into an astronomical salary. With the records from royalties and all of that, I was able to go home to my parents. I said to my father, “What’s your biggest worry?” He said, “I’m going to lose the house. I won’t be able to give it to you. My pension is just not enough to pay this.” I said, “Guess what? You don’t have to worry. I just paid off your house for you.” He was shocked. He said with a laugh, “You mean all of that noise you used to make in the garage finally paid off?” I said, “Yeah.” That was the first thing that happened that I felt really good about. Secondly, we bonded in Iron Butterfly. We were out there on tour. Our opening band was Led Zeppelin. I had met Jimmy Page back at our club in Miami at Thee Image. He said, “Good to see you again.” I said, “Good to see you.” We were both in different bands. Then, the group Yes became our opening band. We were international now that Iron Butterfly had jumped up and had a worldwide audience where before it was kind of just limited to America. I started writing some stuff like “Butterfly Bleu” and “Easy Rider” and things like that for the Metamorphosis album.

Concert flyer of Mike (corner, 1st left) in Iron Butterfly

JC:      Yeah. Doug Ingle used to write everything and was the lead singer. Now you were writing and were also a lead singer on that album.

MP:     Yes. That’s right. That did cause a little bit of friction in the band mostly because the producer, Richard Podolor, was doing the production. He was trying to make the band sound commercial. I had recording equipment in my home, so when I would write a song for the Metamorphosis album, I wouldn't just present it through the guitar. I would actually record it in my house, play all the parts myself, and bring it in. It almost sounded like a finished master. The guitar sound was very big—it was huge. When we’d get it into the studio, the band would say, “Let’s do that one. Let’s do that one.” The producer would somehow homogenize the guitars, and they would sound a lot thinner than they sounded on my demos. If you listened to the album as compared to demos on YouTube or some of the live stuff of Butterfly, you can hear the difference right away. [To hear a live version of “Stone Believer,” where Doug and Mike trade vocals, click here.] The guitars are much bigger.

We made a mistake. The mistake was that the sound of the band drastically changed too quickly. So, when people bought the Metamorphosis album, they were expecting to hear more of the psychedelic rock of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and hippie stuff like “Flowers and Beads” and stuff. They heard a much more sophisticated sound and in-depth songwriting. This caused a little bit of a hassle. Had I known better, I would have slowed everything down and said, “Hey, guys, let’s not abruptly change our style. Let’s blend our fans and our friends into the new sound little by little.” Doug was writing folk songs on the acoustic guitar. He had brought in a co-writer. I didn't understand why he needed that, but he liked it. It got to the point that while we were recording Metamorphosis, the producer would come to me and say, “We really need to give Doug somewhat of an identity in your songs.” I said, “Fine. He’s invited to my house. I’ll go to his house, and we can write together.” Doug didn't have time to write. He was with his family, which I respected him for.

What happened  was that, I would write the songs, and I would ask if anybody wanted to participate. Nobody had a whole lot of time, so the song would end up being written and sung by me. Very weird things were happening. We would finish a session, and when we came in the next day, the producer had stayed in with Doug after we had left and stuck his voice into the song and put his lyrics to a song that really didn't need any more put into it. It was just being put in to patronize him a little bit. I would say, “What is this?” Richard would say, “We've got to get Doug in there.” I said, “Yeah. You could have asked me what I thought about it before you recorded it in there. You've actually made it part of the master recording already.” So, the band wasn't getting into it. They were kind of staying away a little bit. I wasn't mad. I said, “Doug, if you had time to write it in the studio, you could have just come to my house.” It didn't happen that way. It happened the way it happened. That happened on several of my songs. I would come in, and they were different songs. Doug was now singing in places that didn't need vocals. There would be twenty-four bars of something that had his voice, and then my voice would start. It was strictly done out of politics. That was okay. Again, it did not lend itself to the band evolving higher than it had gone.

 Even though the critics were talking about how this was the best Iron Butterfly album ever and were getting letters from fans saying they loved the styles and that we were much more mature, the majority of the fans did not go for it. The record company did not promote it very hard. They were saying, “This is a band that can promote itself. Just give the record to the DJs.” By that time, the record industry was such that you didn’t just give your record to the DJ. The record label had to get involved with promotion. What happened was when the band came into a particular town to play a gig, the  local  radio station that was playing the band a lot would get tickets from the label  and would be the presenter of the band. There were a lot of promotional tactics that were not used with making Butterfly strong enough. As a result, a couple of my songs made it to the charts as singles, but the album didn’t do so well.

I discovered the band Black Oak Arkansas. Lee Dorman, who was the bass player of Iron Butterfly, and I produced them. We got them a deal with Atlantic Records. A new part of my career had opened up. I was now a producer and engineer, as well as a composer and recording artist and singer.

JC:      So what caused Iron Butterfly to break up?

MP:     Tragedy fell to the band. Apparently, the managers were not paying the taxes and were keeping the money for investments. Some of the investments didn’t pan out. At the end of the year when we would audit, the accountants would say, “There are hundreds of thousands of dollars missing here.” The taxes were not being paid. So, the IRS came in. For instance, Lee Dorman had a multi-million dollar business selling exotic cars in Beverly Hills—the Ferraris and Lamborghinis and all of that. They took away all of that because he didn’t pay the taxes. He thought they had been paying them the whole time. It was the same thing with all of the guys in the band. They had mansions, and they took away their homes. I was living at Lee Dorman’s, but I had a motor home, and that’s where my recording studio was. It didn’t phase me at all. I didn’t have much to lose except the money that was in the accounts. The band had a big meeting, and we found out that legally we could not prosecute these managers to get out of our management contract and get new managers. What we could do was file criminal charges against them, but that wouldn’t do anything. We would still be managed by the very guys who we were suing. So, somebody in the band had a bright idea and said, “Why don’t we break up. It might take a year, it might take two years. Let’s just take a hiatus. We can then get back together, and the management contracts will have run out.” Everybody said, “Yeah. Let’s do that.”

So, I got a call from Jimi Hendrix’s drummer Mitch Mitchell. Jimi had just passed away, and Mitch wanted to know if I wanted to do a band with him. He found some girl guitar player who played just like Hendrix. Her name was April Lawton. The group was called Ramatam. Me, Mitch, and April went and did an album for Atlantic. It was way too progressive. It was really far out. By that time, we all had a bit of money. The critics loved it and loved Ramatam. We were on tour with some very big bands. April was very fragile. She had never been on tours like this before.

JC:      You used the talk box with Iron Butterfly with “Butterfly Bleu” and you used the talk box a lot on the Ramatam album.

MP:     Right.

JC:      That was before Frampton and Joe Walsh starting using the talk box.

MP:     That’s true. I used it on the Iron Butterfly Metamorphosis album on “Butterfly Bleu.” I used it a little bit more in Ramatam; I used it differently than the guys who came after me. They were doing it by phrasing words, where I was making psychedelic sounds as well as phrasing words. I was having conversations with myself saying, “Help me,” in a high octave, and then in a low octave, I would say, “No. I can’t help you, baby.” People were laughing and were kind of shocked when we went on the road and did that stuff live. I was the co-inventor of that. The other guys—Frampton and Joe Walsh and everybody—starting using it. They got the notoriety for it. I got the royalties. It was a time when I wish I had a PR agent who would have said, “Hey! Mike’s got this invention that everybody is using.” I wasn’t into that part of business. I just wanted to make songs. First, the talk box was called the “magic bag.” It hung on my shoulder with fringe. It was sold to a big music company, and then they put it on the floor with the tube up to the mic. Of course, that limited the area that the guitarist could walk around because that tube that had to be in your mouth was taped to the mic. You had to stand there with that mic, whereas I was standing there running around the stage with a wireless mic and the bag. Thank you for noting that. That did happen.

JC:      Ramatam has two distinct music styles throughout the album. There was music similar to what you were doing with Iron Butterfly, and then there was music written by Tommy Sullivan (who was in the Brooklyn Bridge) doing numbers that were much more mellow. Was there ever any friction over the musical direction of Ramatam?

MP:     Not really. We worked together as a team. We worked together on our guitar harmony part. I wrote most of the songs on the album. I really encouraged the other members to write. The bass player wrote one. April and Tommy wrote the rest. As a matter of fact, Mitch Mitchell and I and our families—my wife Valerie and his wife—had a big house. It was a fifteen-room mansion on Long Island. One of the rooms was a ballroom. The people who were there before us who built the house apparently liked to party. So, there was a ballroom with a stage. It was all wood. It just sounded like a really cool theater. We would rehearse the band there. April would come over and she’d have some ideas of how the guitar part would go. We worked together harmoniously. If there was any competition, I wasn't even aware of it. In the end, Ramatam broke up as good friends. We just weren't getting any airplay. The record label wasn't going to promote it because it was just too far out. It was too much progressive rock. We all said, “It’s better that we do other things that are more friendly to airplay.” We broke up as friends. We would work out our parts diligently. I would listen to April if she wanted a lead to be a certain way. I would say, “Let’s go that way. I’m not stuck on anything.” We had a whole different style than the Ramatam’s second album (which I didn't play on) because it was a bit more of funk psychedelic influence in that first album [You can hear the funk psychedelic style in Ramatam’s “Whiskey Place”, click here.] The next album didn't quite have that. I think April liked Styx and groups like REO Speedwagon.

JC:      At the time, people could not believe that a female could play the guitar well. I know this is a sensitive subject, but there was some rumors as to whether April was a man or not.

Ramatam (Mike in Middle)

MP:     I heard that one too. We heard that one many times. I've never seen or heard anything to the contrary. It once got to a peak where I was getting letters and people saying to me, “Do you know that’s a guy?” I said, “Prove it. Show me some pictures of her before and after.” Nobody would ever prove anything. I went up to her one day and said, “April, I really feel bad about asking you this, but I have to just for my own piece of mind. Are you a guy?” She says, “No! Of course I’m not.” I said, “Okay. That’s it. You’ll never hear that from me again.” That’s how it ended.

After Ramatam, I joined a band that Carmine Appice had called Cactus. As I joined the band, Jeff Beck came to one of our rehearsals and asked Carmine if he wanted to do an album with him with Timmy Bogart, the bass player from Cactus. They called it Beck, Bogart, and Appice—BBA. Carmine left the band with me and Duane Hitchings, the keyboard player in Cactus. He said, “When we finish with that, we’ll come back and play with you guys and we’ll join Cactus again.” I didn't feel good about calling it Cactus because I knew they had a lot of fans. So, we called it the New Cactus Band, and the album was called Son of Cactus. That was in the mid-70s. I can go on and on about the bands that I was in and the stories. While there are so many good memories, some not-so-good memories was that I was started losing a lot of my friends to drug overdoses and stuff. That hurt a lot to see people who you were very close to. You wanted to say, “Hey, man. Don’t get so stoned. Don’t take stuff that you don’t even know what you’re taking.” One by one, the guys I was jamming with on a weekly basis, who were the top artists in the world, were dying all around us. I felt really bad about that.

By the end of the 70s, I got a solo album deal. I got a call from the record label. They asked if I would do a Mike Pinera album. I got signed to Capricorn, which was the Allman Brothers and a lot of the Southern rock bands. I did the first Mike Pinera album, which was called Isla. I made another solo album called Forever. [One of Mike’s solo songs “Goodnight, My Love” can be heard by clicking here.]  That one was distributed by Capital Records. At that time, I got a call from Alice Cooper wanting to know if I wanted to become the lead guitar player in the Alice Cooper Band.

Mike Pinera's Forever

JC:      Talk about your time with Alice Cooper.

MP:     Initially, I said that I couldn't join Alice Cooper because I had contractual problems. I had to go out and promote my album. I couldn't be doing something else. They said, “Why don’t you do open for Alice as Mike Pinera and promote your album. That satisfies the responsibility. Plus, you’ll be promoting your album. Then, you can take a break, throw on some different clothes, and you can come out with Alice and be in the Alice Cooper Band.” I did that from the late 70s to the early 80s. I was in the Alice Cooper Band with Alice.

I had known Alice way back when we had our club Thee Experience on Sunset Boulevard. Alice was the house band there along with Blues Image. It was a really good vibe. The music was a little bit too weird for people, especially for the record company. That was Alice. Alice said, “When everybody else was normal, I was weird. A lot of people are weird, so I’ve got to get weirder.” We were all trying to write songs for Alice that he liked but that didn’t sound too much like anything else that was out there. We had a great time for three of four years touring. We made two albums.

Mike (center) on tour with Alice

JC:      Alice Cooper refers to the two albums you did with him, Special Forces and Zipper Catches Skin as his “blackout” period. What were your memories of Alice at the time?

MP:     When I joined the band, I was told by the management that Alice had been through rehab and was not drinking anymore, and he would really appreciate it if all of the new band members were not drinking around him. I said, “You won’t have a problem with me because I don’t drink period.” They were really concerned with that. When I got there for the first rehearsals of the new band in ’79, it was great. Alice looked so good. He was so wholesome and was smiling and laughing a lot, and he was very healthy. We talked at length about the old days when we used to play together at Thee Experience. Everybody in the band knew each other. We were all good friends. It was a tight band. It was a good rock band. We went out there and got on that tour bus, and Alice got on that tour bus with us. He had the money to fly in a Learjet to the different shows, but he wanted to be part of the band camaraderie. He was on the bus. We were all on the bus. We would travel during one-nighters all up and down the United States.

One hairy story in particular was that we were booked at the Toronto Sports Stadium. There were eighty thousand people there. They were very emotional and very passionate Alice Cooper fans. Alice had gotten some kind of food poisoning or something. He was really sick, and he said, “I’m not going to be able to go on.” The promoter said, “Great. I’m going to go out there and tell them.” He said, “No. I want Mike to tell them. I don’t want you to tell them. I want it to come from somebody in the band, and Mike is like a spokesman for the band, so he’ll go out there.” I said, “Are you sure you want me to go out there in front of eighty thousand people and say we’re not playing?” He said, “Yeah. You do it.” The doctors came and said, “He’s really sick. We better take him back to the hotel.” They left. There I was onstage. I said, “How’s everybody doing? I’m Mike Pinera from Alice Cooper.” They went crazy. I said, “I’m sorry to say that we’re not going to be able to play tonight. Alice is very sick.” They were politely quiet for a minute. Then, the promoter came onstage and grabbed the mic from me. I knew what pissed them off. I had said to the audience, “Don’t worry. We’ll work with the promoter to get a back-up date. We’ll have a make-up date and hold on to your ticket stubs.” I probably shouldn’t have gone there, but I thought it was the right thing to do, and that was what Alice would have wanted me to do. So, the promoter said into the mic, “I’m not doing any make-up date. You guys have blown the can. I’ll never hire you again.” The crowd got agitated. There was a riot. They were overturning police cars and setting them on fire. We got out of there. When we got to the hotel room, every channel was coming live from the Toronto Sports Stadium from what they were calling the Alice Cooper Riot. In the morning, may be five or six, hours later, we were at the airport getting ready to fly out, and on the magazine stands there were T-shirts that read,  “I survived the Alice Cooper Riot at the Toronto Sports Stadium.” That was quite hairy. That’s not too easy to do, especially when you get to your hotel room and you see that your roadie is on stage trying to clean up your guitar and put them in the cases and there are Molotov cocktails flying and stuff like that. I had not seen that side of the rock industry before. That was about it. We didn’t miss any shows other than that one.

We went all over the world. We did a one-hour TV special in France called Alice Cooper in Paris. They let Alice produce it and write it. Alice and I would sit down and come up with weird locations to go to. We were in underground subway stations, abandoned subway stations, junk yards, and all kinds of weird places. There’s actually a DVD out right now called Alice Cooper in Paris. It was the band’s special. It was our band. It’s quite good. It’s very tight. [“Vicious Rumors” from Alice Cooper in Paris can be heard by clicking here.] There’s another guitar player in the band—John Nitzinger and myself. We were doing a lot of lead harmonies. It was pretty out there. It was a good experience playing with Alice. I see him from time to time now. We reminisce. There will be people in his hotel room, because they do those VIP greet-and-meet things. They’re sitting there with Alice. There are maybe twenty people with Alice. I’ll walk in and he’ll go, “Oh my God. There’s Mike Pinera—the only guy that I’ve ever had in my band that I was truly afraid of. I call him the Mr. Rogers of rock and roll because he’s so quiet and so polite when you talk to him in person. Then, he goes on stage and becomes this monster.”  It’s nice to see Coop down. I almost saw Cooper at Johnny Depp’s house.

JC:      How did you almost see him at Depp’s house?

MP:     We were recording at Johnny Depp’s in the Hollywood Hills. He’s got a big house there and a studio. He was out making a movie, so we were invited to come in. I was in there with a couple of musicians and we were jamming. We were there for about a week, actually. What a house and collection of memorabilia. We left, and then I got a call that Alice had just gotten there right after we left. He was there with Paul McCartney, Slash, and David Grohl from Foo Fighters. They had just gotten there to do some jamming and recording. We had just missed them by a few minutes.

JC:      It doesn't get any better than Paul McCartney!

MP:     Yeah. Next time I see him I’ll be like, “You know I just missed you at Depp’s house?” Of course, he’ll know. We’ll have something else to talk about.

JC:      What did you do after Alice?

MP:      I took a break and resurfaced in 1988 with a compilation tour of artists of bands who were from bands that were well known. Each guy would come up and play a few songs.  Micky Dolenz would come up and play three Monkees songs. Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night would come out and play Three Dog Night songs with a great backup band. I did that for a couple of years. We were playing big fairs and festivals. I started noticing how the younger kids were getting more and more into classic rock. It wasn’t just the older baby boomers coming to the shows anymore. By the early 90s, I formed my own band called the Classic Rock All-Stars, which was that same formula. It was lead singers and players from well-known bands all in one band. We would take the stage together. There was no backup band. We would back up each other and play each other’s songs. The very first Classic Rock All-Stars in 1992 was Pete Rivera, the singer and drummer of Rare Earth, Jerry Corbetta, the singer and keyboardist of Sugarloaf, bass player Dennis Noda from Cannibal and the Headhunters, and Micky Dolenz, who was in the first Classic Rock All-Stars. Micky left after about a year. He was replaced by Spencer Davis. We just kept the band going. Eventually, it ended up being the four guys—Jerry, Pete, Dennis, and myself. We kept that band going all through the 90s playing big fair and festivals all summer. We did very well with that. [To hear the Classic Rock All-Stars perform “Ride Captain Ride,” click here.]

We had a lot of our veterans who came home from Desert Storm and Vietnam say that our music kept them alive, motivated, and encouraged. These days, it seems that the only thing parents and kids really have in common is classic rock. Dad likes the Rolling Stones and so does the kid. We found that a lot of the families came together to the concerts, where there were not too many other acts that they could enjoy together or afford. There are some great bands out there. They’re from the classic rock period. Somehow the tickets have sky rocketed up to $200 to $300 a seat, and so a lot of families cannot afford that anymore. They go to one concert a month as to where they used to go to one every weekend. I do have parents who come up to me and say, “I’m so glad you guys are here for free.” In a lot of cases we find sponsors. Sponsors say, “We can afford to sponsor you. I wish more groups would do this because this is the only time we get to see our kids.”

 When I was a teenager and I started to play music, most of my friends were in gangs in Tampa and they were on drugs and all of that. My dad pulled me aside and said, “Son, we’ve got to spend some time together.” I said, “Well, I don’t feel like going fishing. I don’t feel like working with you in the garden.” He said, “I’ll tell you what. Let’s make it a point that when I get home from work at four o’clock every day we’ll watch American Bandstand  together.” I said, “I can groove with that.” My dad was so wise. He found something that we both liked. We’d sit on the couch and watch the show together. He’d pat me or give me some noogies on the head with his elbow and say, “See? That’s music. The Supremes. Baby Baby.  Where did our love go?” I’d say, “Yeah, Dad. Watch this next band. They’re called Eric Burdon and the Animals. Watch this. This is real music.” So, we bonded.

 But back to the band . . . there was no real motivation about the band. A few individuals like myself wanted to record new originals and do what we always did—write some new stuff and go record it. The band as a whole said, “This is not the kind of band that the audience want to hear new material from. They just want to hear us doing each other’s hits.” That kind of kept the band at an even keel.

JC:      Did you anything else besides the Classic Rock All-Stars?

MP:     At the end of the 90s, I said, “I’m going to go ahead and start a record company myself. I’m going to start a television company, too.” I noticed that MTV, which once played great music videos, was now starting to get a little decadent with drugs, violent music, death metal, and all of that. I started a company. It was called The Music and Entertainment Network. It got so big so quickly that some Wall Street traders came up and said, “We’d like to take you public. We want you to be the CEO of the company.” The company went public and did very well. When I went public, the stock was at 10¢. About six months later, it was at $8.00 a share. A lot of people were doing very well.

 I didn't want to use MTV’s early videos because everybody had seen them already. I wanted to start shooting classic rock bands that we were on tour with—really big ones. I asked them if they had any vintage footage that nobody had ever seen before. Every one of them had some. Pretty soon, I had five hundred hours of never-before-seen performances—live interviews, in the studios, on tour buses—of well-known classic performers. It was all clean. It was really good. We went back to Wall Street. We had several offers from some very big companies like Time Warner to take us under their wings. We didn't want to be owned by another company. We just wanted somebody to say, “Here’s your channel. Put up your classic rock network.” It doesn't happen like that. You have to buy the time and all of that. As it turns out, the classic rock network and all of that footage got out on a few test runs. We tested it in Florida for about a year on a network there. It was all testing totally positive. The people who have the power of the pen were still not content to give us a channel. We didn't have anywhere near the amount of money to take that to a 24/7 channel. So, after knowing that it worked, VH1 Classic came out, and now there was already a 24/7 channel that played classic rock.

 I was very grateful that part of it happened, but I wasn't really fit for that kind of life. It was starting to take away from my time from producing and writing and all of that. When you’re the CEO of a public company that was doing as well as we were, there were a lot of things you had to process. You had to watch that nobody in your company was doing any insider trading and all of that, because there are a lot of ways to mess things up if you’re into that. Eventually, I just walked away from it. I still have the public company. It’s not active. Who knows? Maybe I’ll do it again.

 At the same time, VH1 Classic started playing “Ride Captain Ride”;  it was spreading the word of Blues Image. It revived a certain thirst for that kind of sound. So, we started playing some gigs as Blues Image. I called all of the original members. One member had passed away, but other than that, we had everybody else. The result was fantastic. Everybody wanted a total reunion and not just for about a month or so, but I couldn't do it longer than that. I already had too many obligations. But it did show me that classic rock was back, and the young kids were coming to shows wearing tie-dye T-shirts and peace symbols.

Speaking of reunions, I’ll let you in on a little scoop.

JC:      What’s that?

MP:     We just reformed Iron Butterfly with some original members. A lot of the guys died. Ron Bushy, the original drummer and founder of the band, and myself, and Doug Ingle, Jr.

JC:      Doug Ingle, Jr. You mean Doug Ingle’s son?

MP:     He sounds just like Doug and looks just like Doug.

JC:      Is he playing keyboard and singing like his father?

MP:     Yeah. We've got a new bass player. We've got some shows that we’re going to do. Where do you live?

JC:      I live in Philadelphia.

MP:     Oh! Well, Philadelphia is a bit far. We plan to tour a lot as Iron Butterfly and we’re making a new album. It’s the same thing with the occasional reunion with Blues Image. I’ll be sure to give you a call if we’re ever in your area. I’ll invite you to come down on our guest list.

JC:      That would be awesome. Thanks, Mike.

MP:     Thank you, Jeff.

Mike Pinera today