You don’t hear much talk about working-class rock these days. Occasionally, the genre asserts itself, as with the Drive-By Truckers. But of the old standard-bearers, Bob Seger has long since faded, John Mellencamp has traded in his “Small Town” persona for wordly blues and protest songs (John Edwards’ use of “Small Town” as a campaign theme notwithstanding), and Bruce – well, he has become a voice for all classes, all the time, in Barackian America. As jobs and homes are lost, health coverage fades away, and “bailout” competes for most tagged word, listeners are hard-pressed to find these downward spirals addressed in song.
Joe Grushecky isn’t the chronicler of working-class lives he was in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when, as leader of Pittsburgh’s great Iron City Houserockers, he wrote songs about people he observed up close: disenfranchised steel workers, Vietnam vets and other struggling souls. In recent years, he has turned inward to reflect on home and family and personal history. On “A Good Life”, the title song of his 2006 album, he went so far as to say that, all things considered, things were pretty OK: “I got two kids, two cats/A good dog and a lucky hat/An old house, a fast car/But I don’t go very far/I got a beautiful wife/And I’m leading a good life.”
But more than a quarter-century after writing and recording hardscrabble, bluesified, barroom-charged classics such as “Love So Tough”, “Pumping Iron” and “Blood On The Bricks”, Grushecky is no less an embodiment of working-class pride and determination. As gratifying as his life has been as a family man, he has scuffled more than most rockers who once verged on stardom. Just how much he has scuffled is revealed in the documentary, A Good Life: The Joe Grushecky Story, which receives its Pittsburgh premiere next week.
Fans of Grushecky may be aware of his work as a high school special education teacher. What they may not know is that he has taught special ed, and counseled juvenile delinquents, and trained kids for GED tests, through virtually his entire music career. He has had to work regular hours to pay the bills. Both his son Johnny, who now performs with him, and his daughter Desiree had health problems when they were younger, and his gigs didn’t begin to take care of those expenses.
Though the Iron City Houserockers drew lavish praise – their second effort, Have a Good Time But…Get Out Alive, inspired comparisons to the Clash – they got only token support from their label, MCA, and their albums didn’t sell. They were dropped by MCA after their fourth recording, 1983′s Cracking Under Pressure. As good as Grushecky’s albums as a solo artist and as leader of the revamped Houserockers have been, they have sold even less – even with the generous support of his pal Bruce Springsteen, who not only has contributed to some of the albums as a singer, guitarist, songwriter and producer, but also joined the band for a week of club gigs as guitarist and backup singer.
(We learn in the documentary that Grushecky, who met Springsteen through Steve Van Zandt, a contributor to Have A Good Time, was actually rebuffed by his school when he asked for time off to accept Bruce’s invitation to hang with him on the east coast. He did what any sane man would have done: He quit. Ultimately, his Pittsburgh boss came to his senses and Grushecky got his day job back.)
Why did the Iron City Houserockers fail to transcend their status as critics’ darlings? Why did later recordings Grushecky thought had breakthrough written on them, like End Of The Century (which reflected affectingly on how Joe inherited his musical calling from his father, a country and jazz musician, and passed it down to his own son) and American Babylon, fail to find a wider audience? Perhaps it has been a matter of not getting enough record company support. Or perhaps in an era that didn’t have much use for true grit, he was held back by the Grabowski factor, to use fellow western Pennyslvanian Mike Ditka’s name for hard-nosed, plain-talking, unpretty working stiffs.
“I used to wonder why Have A Good Time never got played,” he said to me during an interview in Pittsburgh in 1981, shortly before the release of the Houserockers’ Blood On The Bricks, which they recorded in Los Angeles with producer Steve Cropper. “After spending six weeks in L.A., I knew. What do they know about factories and foundries and working hard and surviving? It’s all style out there, not substance.”
Los Angeles, of course, has no lock on that imbalance. But perhaps now that so many Americans are facing such hardship, substance will make a comeback. That day won’t come too soon for Grushecky. He may be decades removed from playing for steel workers at Morry’s Speak Easy Lounge in New Brighton, Pennsylvania – “The Rock Capital of Beaver County” to its owners, and Dante’s Inferno to him. He may be a lifetime away from becoming infatuated with such regional hits as the Del-Mars’ “Snacky Poo”, Donnie Elbert’s “Have I Sinned” and Randy & the Californians’ “Bad”. But his passion for pumping iron, rock-style, is undiminished. “This may be the best edition of the Houserockers I’ve ever had,” Grushecky says, his story far from finished.