Jim Peterik: Rising Up to the Challenge!

By Jeb Wright

Jim Peterik is an amazing songwriter.  Google his name and you will see for yourself. 

From having a huge hit with the song “Vehicle” with the band The Ides of March to penning the theme to Rocky II called “Eye of the Tiger” and many others for his band Survivor, to huge hits for .38 Special and Sammy Hagar and beyond, this guy has done amazing work.

Why then is ‘Jim Peterik’ not a household name?  Unless you are a die-hard fan of Survivor or a totally rock nerd you probably have never heard of him.  Yet his name is all over the credits for some of his era’s greatest hits.  No, it’s not because the man wants his privacy… hell, he wants to be a star!  Short of an unlikely huge solo album at this stage of his career, there is one way left to make sure people understand who-wrote-what… and that’s to write a book about his accomplishments and experiences.

Jim Peterik has done just that.  His book, Through the Eye of the Tiger, is a look back at what he did, and with whom he did it—music, that is.  Along the way, Jim opens up and discusses band assholes (thought he is far too polite to actually use that word) and good guys, like Sylvester Stallone who changed his future with one phone call.

Classic Rock Revisited caught up with Jim and talked about the longevity of “Eye of the Tiger,” as well as what it was like to be in a band where everyone hated you, in addition to co-writing the title track to that goofy cartoon movie titled Heavy Metal.

It’s a good read…this interview, that is… well, and the book, too.  Do yourself a favor and check both of them out! 

Jeb: I am a child of the 1980s, the early ‘80s at that.  Who in my age group didn’t have a copy of “Eye of the Tiger”?

Jim: Man, we have sold a lot of records, tapes, CDs and downloads of that song; it’s crazy. 

Jeb: Even with your success as a songwriter, that has to be surreal… the pure longevity of that tune. 

Jim: It really is.  I have to pinch myself every morning.  When we were doing it in 1982, we kind of knew it was going to be a hit record because it had a fifty-million dollar video for the song called Rocky II.  We knew it had the DNA to be a hit, but no one knew it had the DNA to still be talking about the song in 2014. 

Jeb: Let me talk about your book.  You have not been in the public eye like some of your peers.  For you to open up and write a book makes this an interesting opportunity.  What was it that pushed you over the edge to do this?

Jim: I think it is precisely just that, Jeb.  Jim Peterik is not exactly a household name.  My songs are still on the radio today.  I guess it is sort of an egotistical thing, in a certain sense.  I wanted people to be able to connect the dots that the guy who wrote “Eye of the Tiger” also wrote “Hold On Loosely” and a bunch of other songs.  I thought I had a story to tell. 

Jeb: I like how you stayed away from the debauchery and drugs and booze and the obvious stuff a lot of these type of books contain.  You allude to seeing some crazy stuff, but you actually take us into your world as you were going through it.  It is almost like you are a fly on the wall in your own life.

Jim: Wow, is that a good way of putting it… in a way, I was.  As a songwriter, I think a fly on the wall is the best seat in the house.  I was not famous enough to be mauled at malls.  I could observe, and I would take reconnaissance on life. 

I remember being on the road with Survivor and nobody liked me.  I gave songs to .38 Special, or so they say, I actually co-wrote those songs with that band.  Because of that I was shunned. 

After a show I would go to a restaurant all alone.  I didn’t mind that as I am a loner.  A part of me loves to be alone.  I would be watching a couple across the room and they would be fighting, or maybe they were talking lovey-dovey.  Whatever the situation, I would have my notebook and I would be documenting these scenarios.  I used that fly on the wall, as you say, as a good vantage point. 

Jeb: People who write books do this with characters all the time.  Anyone who says their characters are not at least partially influenced by real life is either a liar, or…

Jim: Or the book sucks. 

Jeb: That’s it.  We draw experiences from real life.  That role of the observer is very important when you create from that base. 

Jim: That’s right.  This book is just a starting point for interviews like this as you can’t put it all in a few hundred pages.  You open up topics, and then guys like you can ask me to expand on that.  I have so much more to say.  You can’t just put it all in, or there would be 800 pages. 

It’s been great doing these interviews and I’ve been doing in-store signings.  I’ve been doing Q &A stuff.  I am not like Chelsea Handler where you get up to the table and get a whiff of her perfume and you’re gone.  It is a warm and fuzzy thing for me.  I will play a few songs and I will take questions and I will talk about the book.  I get to answer a lot of questions and go deeper than I went in the book. 

Jeb: I thought the reason that more people didn’t know about you was because you wanted your privacy, but now I am thinking I am wrong about that. 

Jim: It’s not at all that way.  In The Ides of March, I was the star.  I was the guy that got the press.  I was the lead singer and the lead guitar player and I wanted to be the star.  In Survivor, I wanted to share that spotlight, but Frankie [Sullivan] marginalized me and wouldn’t let it happen.  Because I wanted peace, and because I felt this was a very successful venture for me as a songwriter, I kind of cowed down to it and I have paid a price. 

Jeb: After reading this, you realize that you’re saying that Frankie was an asshole, but you’re classy enough that you don’t come out and say it that way. 

Jim: I give the devil his due.  It wouldn’t have been the same band without him.  If nothing else about Frankie, he knew the brand.  He knew what Survivor was and what they weren’t, at least to his specifications. 

As a co-writer, he wasn’t very good, but he was a good editor.  If I would throw out a chord and it was too jazzy, or the lyric was too flowery, then he would go, “Ehhhh, Peterik… come on.”  I give him full credit for keeping me on track so it didn’t come out sounding like a Broadway album, and that was very important. 

Jeb: Like it or not, the way you went in and out of that band, you realize that as dysfunctional as the relationship was, you were still functioning at a high level.  Does that make sense?

Jim: Yes, totally.  I hated the lack of freedom.  The day that Frankie drew the line down the middle of the stage and told me not to cross it again—and I never did—I felt like a free man.  That was a pivotal point.  I have been flexing that freedom ever since, as there is nothing as sweet as freedom. 

Jeb: Did that strained relationship help the success of Survivor?

Jim: You hear things about conflicts between Jagger and Richards, and Lennon and McCartney, and there is that grain of sand that creates the pearl.  I guess that did exist in Survivor.  If everything is copasetic, then you have a bunch of Yes Men and it ain’t going to work.  The conflict actually helped. 

Jeb: When you look back at that now, is it a good feeling or a bad feeling?

Jim: It’s a bad feeling.  It’s bad, but it makes ‘now’ even more precious.  The contrast is intense, and I draw energy from that.  There is something to say about that bit of vengeance that allows you to prove yourself.  I like to prove myself and show people what I can do.  It is not a mean vengeance, but it’s like Madonna was always trying to prove her father wrong, and he gave her energy. 

Jeb:  You’re talking about that driving emotion. 

Jim: You rebel and you go, “Okay, watch this fucker.” .

Jeb: Does it bother you that your reputation in the industry is that Jim Peterik is ‘a heck of a nice guy’?

Jim:  It’s crazy, but that is the way I am.  I give it all to the fans.  I will stay there to the end of everything to sign autographs and to talk to people.  I get energy from that. 

I believe in a thing called Karma.  If life is a pond and you put a pebble into it, the pebble will go all the way across to the other side.  I believe that good will bring good. 

Jeb: When you were done with the book, were there any moments that you thought, “Maybe I should not have put that in there…”

Jim: The lawyer did that.  The publisher has a legal team and they had to drop a bunch of stuff.  It was not about Frankie, but it was about naming names. 

I have some stories where I named some names and they told me that if the person is still alive then you can’t do it.  If you take the name off, then it becomes generic. 

I really didn’t go back and read it because it was done.  It was like the second verse of “The Search is Over.”  I was changing that lyric when it was in the racks; that’s how much I didn’t like that second verse. 

Jeb: Was the goal to allow the fans to see the process of how a songwriter works?

Jim: Everybody thinks it’s magic, you know.  I wrote a book called Songwriting for Dummy’s that became a best seller.  I didn’t want to do it at first.  I thought if I analyzed this too much it might disappear. 

A lot of writing is instinctual and you don’t want to know the inner workings of it; you just want it to be magic.  I had to write this book and it really unraveled the threads of what I do.  I did it, but it was painful, as I didn’t want it to be cut and dried and that terrestrial. 

Jeb:  It is almost like you didn’t want to give away the secrets and lose the magic. 

Jim: Lucky it didn’t destroy it, but that book actually helped me a lot.  I think it helped a lot of people, as I got a lot of good reviews from a lot of songwriters.  I tried to keep it simple. 

Jeb: Does it bother you that once this book was over, it is finality? I mean, the end is the end…   

Jim:  No, not at all.  I mean, I’ve got this naïve ridiculous hope that there will be a sequel to this book in a few years. 

I am an eternal optimist and that is how I live.  Sometimes the dream doesn’t come true, so I spend one day in a bathrobe and then I am tapping my toes again.  You’ve just got to pick yourself up. 

Jeb: Is that a natural ability of yours, or is it something that you’ve learned over time?

Jim:  I think you’re born with it.  I really think that.  I think you can nurture it, but I didn’t have to.  It is not like I don’t go through depressions, but my default is positive. 

I was a happy kid and I had a blissful childhood.  I think a lot of that joy was just built in.  When I got depressed it was like, “Who is this person?”  There are some people that come out of the womb depressed.  I think it is chemical or genetic more than anything else. 

Jeb: Do you have a hard time dealing with those people?

Jim: Well, yeah, like Frankie.  If I would say ‘red’ then he would say ‘blue.’  If I said a note was flat, then he would say it was sharp.  It was really crazy. 

Jeb: It is hard to fathom being in a successful band and being shunned by your band members.  That really happened?

Jim: It really did.  Frankie kind of rallied the troops.  I stayed friends with both of our lead singers, Dave [Bickler] and Jimi [Jamison] very well.  I was friends with Jimi until the day he died.  Anyone who was a bit weaker than they were would cow down to Frankie.  He has this kind of a ‘negative power’ over people. 

He was the classic passive aggressive.  It was what he didn’t say that was more powerful than what he did say. You would even imagine it to be worse than what he was actually thinking, because he had this sinister thing going on.  He was always walking out of rooms.  I knew his backside better than his front side, as he was always walking out in disgust over whatever was being discussed.  It was weird. 

Jeb: I came away after reading the book, wondering if Survivor would have been better off without him. 

Jim: It is really hard to say and I’m not just being allusive, I really don’t know.  I do think that a lot of the stuff was shaped by his certain sensibilities about what this band should be.  Let’s just say that it would have been a different band without him.  Would it have been more or less successful? That’s up to the public. 

Jeb: The name of the band was apropos. 

Jim: Oh man, that name has so many deep meanings.  I was almost on a plane that went down.  It was the lead off sentence from my solo album and then just surviving Survivor—I almost called the book Surviving Survivor. 

Jeb: I loved the parts of the book where you talk about your songwriting collaborations.  I had even forgotten that you co-wrote “Hold on Loosely.” 

Jim: Well, that’s what this book is there for… 

Jeb:  What was it like working with .38 Special?

Jim: We created something unique with my melodic rock sensibility and their southern rock sensibilities.  The closest thing to their sound before them was the Atlanta Rhythm Section.  Other than that, I don’t know another band that sounded even vaguely like .38 Special. 

“Rockin’ Into the Night” was their first big hit and that was supposed to be a Survivor song.  I tell the story in the book that [Ron] Nevison gave it to [John] Kalodner and then he gave it to Mark Spector, and the next thing that you know, we were hearing it in the car.  The guys are looking at me like a traitor.

For their next record, Kalodner brought Jeff Carlisi and Don Barnes to Chicago and we sat around my kitchen counter—the same counter where I wrote “Eye of the Tiger” and the magic happened. 

Don went “Well, I’ve got a title called ‘Hold On Loosely.’”  I said, “But don’t let go.”  Carlisi said, “I’ve got this riff that is kind of a Cars rip-off…”  He plays it and I go, “Okay, we’ve got our song.” 

Jeb: That is kind of a Cars rip-off lick.  You know it is.  They made it .38 Special, but I can hear what you are saying. 

Jim: He’d be the first to admit it.  Frankie and the band didn’t realize that those songs wouldn’t exist without Don and Jeff.  They were a big part of those songs.  It is not like I came in with all of those ideas.  They generally would bring the seeds and I would develop those seeds and add words or melodies.  A lot of those riffs were there.  “Caught Up in You” is all Jeff’s riffs. 

Don and Jeff are both great guys, but it is another case of they don’t get along with each other.  I was like Switzerland in-between, as I am friends with both of them.  They are both great. 

Jeb:  You were having hits with them before Survivor was having hits.

Jim: That was the rub.  “Hold On Loosely” and “Rockin’ Into the Night” were both successful before we were.  One day we were on our way to a video shoot in the vineyards of California in Marin County and on the radio we hear, “New from .38 Special it’s ‘Hold On Loosely.’”  I am thinking, “Oh God, don’t play that now.”  Frankie turns the radio off and everyone hates me.  It was not fun. 

Jeb: If you were having success, and you were in their band, then it goes to reason your band will have success.  Sounds like a good thing…

Jim: That is the way I looked at it, but that was not the way Frankie looked at it.  He looked at it just the opposite. 

Jeb: You had success with The Ides of March and the song “Vehicle,” then you had success with .38 Special.  It sounds like they were jealous. 

Jim: Oh you think?  Well, it was jealousy, but it was also that Frankie wanted to keep me in his cage, because he knew that I was crucial to his success.  He didn’t want to share me with anybody.  It is a backhanded compliment.  He knew that I was his meal ticket. 

Jeb:  This was so toxic that it affected your marriage. 

Jim: Karen was ready to divorce me because I was more married to him, in a sense, than I was to her.  I was drinking his Kool-Aid.  It wasn’t cool, man. 

Jeb: Last one:  Tell me what it was like to work with The Red Rocker. 

Jim: Oh man, I could talk for an hour about Sammy Hagar.  He’s one of my heroes.  He was one of my heroes before I wrote with him.  I loved his image and I loved his voice.  He has the archetypal rock voice.  I loved him in Montrose. 

John Kalodner, who is pretty much my mentor, put me together with Sammy.  Hagar picks me up in his Ferrari at the airport.  Sammy is the archetypal cool guy.  I go, “Nice car.”  Sammy goes, “Yeah, nice country, America.”  I said, “You’re living the dream.”  He says, “Pretty much, yeah.” 

We are driving down the freeway and he stops in Mill Valley and buys this coffee that we ground at his house.  His house overlooked acres of redwood forest.  I can still smell it.  It was so quiet.  All you could hear was the rustling of the redwoods.  That was the atmosphere that we wrote the song “Heavy Metal.” 

Co-writing songs is always awkward until someone breaks the ice.  It is like making love without kissing.  We are like strangers, and he is afraid to throw out a dumb line and I am afraid to throw out a dumb line.  I finally say, “Sammy, we are getting nowhere.  Let’s throw out some dumb lines.  What is the dumbest line you’ve got?” 

We both just laughed.  I said, “Say anything.  It doesn’t matter.”  I said, “What are we writing about?”  Sammy says, “Eddie Leffler, my manager, said this is for a movie that is animated and it’s called ‘Heavy Metal.’  They are looking for that title cut. You want to write that?”

Here is something that is not in the book, Jeb.  You’re going to get an exclusive.  Sammy was writing this song called “There’s Only One Way to Rock.”  Before we wrote “Heavy Metal” the way you heard it, we were trying to transform that song into “Heavy Metal.” 

You really have an exclusive here as Sammy will probably kill me.  Sammy was going, “There’s only one way…there’s only one way to rock…. Heavy Metal.”  Honest to God, Sammy goes, “You know, it’s cool, but I kind of like that song the way it is.  Let’s start from scratch.”  

I had this guitar and we just started jamming.  You know how magic happens; suddenly this huge riff comes out.  We started just throwing out the lines. 

I told Sammy, “We are really not heavy metal artists.  Let’s talk about sitting out in the audience of a show.  To me, the most exciting part of a rock concert is not when the band is three songs in, it is when you’re waiting for the band to come on.  The lights go down and the laser beams hit, and then the band hits the stage.  Let’s capture that lightening.” 

I go, “Head bangers in leather, sparks flying in the dead of the night.”  Sammy goes, “It all comes together when they shoot out the lights.”  We just started playing tennis back and forth with the lyrics.  “Fifty thousand watts of power and it’s pushing overload.  The beast is ready to devour all the metal it can hold.”  That last one was my line, it’s my favorite line.  It worked, man. 

There is a venue in Chicago right on Lake Michigan and Sammy invited me to come and do “Heavy Metal” with him onstage.  I’ve done it with him before, but this was the biggest audience we’ve ever played for together.  We rocked the joint, and it was such a thrill to be up there with him.  He always puts on a great show.  Michael Anthony was there and he has the magic bell-like voice that he takes for granted, but it is amazing. 

We partied.  He had a new brand of rum and we were getting sloshed.  I have to say that he is the guy that turned me on to Tequila… drinking it straight.  This is before he had Cabo Wabo.  We were at D’Angelo’s in Mill Valley and he said, “Order some Tequila.”  I said, “You mean a Margarita?”  He said, “No, Tequila.  Drink it straight.”  I said, “What?”  He taught me how to drink that, and now he’s taught me how to drink rum.  It’s all Sammy’s fault!