SAN FRANCISCO — Before he was a heartthrob on General Hospital, pined for “Jessie’s Girl,” wrote 17 Top 40 hits and sold more than 25 million albums, Rick Springfield was an Australian teen performing in blues and rock bands. Blues was the music on which he grew up, and he always admired what his English guitar aficionados had added to Southern and Chicago blues.
One of those bands got a gig playing for American troops in Vietnam. In 1969. In a war zone. GIs wanted to hear music in a language they understood, and Australia was the closest Western country, Springfield explained last week before a Rock Solid podcast taping for SF Sketchfest at Cobb’s Comedy Club.
“As long as you had a couple of girls, that’s what the GIs wanted to see, so we unwisely agreed to go over there and play,” he said. In the more than six months the band members spent in Saigon and Da Nang, they got “rocketed, shot at, mortared.” The band’s singer contracted lung disease in the country and would later die at 25. Oh, and Springfield almost killed himself and the others with a hand grenade.
The bases the band visited had weapons everywhere. Because it was the Wild West, no one cared—it was actually encouraged—for them to shoot guns, rifles, tanks. A Navy man taught Springfield a trick to play on the rest of the band: He pulled the detonating pin—the part that sets off the explosion—out of a grenade, let the pin explode harmlessly, and screwed it back into the grenade.
“I walked around all day resetting it, throwing it at the band members and then laughing when it didn’t blow up, right after they freaked out,” he said. He took the already exploded detonating pin with him when the band was going back to Da Nang, and on the truck, the pin suddenly began to get hot. He dropped it and it exploded for a second time. Had it still been screwed into the shell, the whole band would be dead. “I would have just been holding it in my hand, it would have blown up my face and killed everybody. So we were stupid. Young and stupid.”
Rick Springfield is full of stories, as anyone who’s read his best-selling 2010 autobiography, Late, Late at Night, knows. Those stories began long before the musician moved to Hollywood to pursue acting, where he’d eventually strike gold as Dr. Noah Drake in 1981. This was the beginning of a career that opened many doors, including success as a rock and pop star with numerous other hits: “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” “An Affair of the Heart,” “I’ve Done Everything for You,” “Love Somebody,” “Human Touch” and the aforementioned Grammy-winning “Jessie’s Girl.”
With his 19th studio album, The Snake King, Springfield is finally paying tribute to the music of his youth. What took so long?
“It didn’t fit the flow … with the last bunch of records I’ve done,” Springfield said. “I just finally had something to say that didn’t really suit pop rock music. I’ve always wanted to do a blues record, so I thought this would be the appropriate time.”
Additionally, Springfield had been performing some stripped-down, one-man shows over the previous two years and realized that crowds were connecting with a couple of newer blues songs played on a steel resonator guitar, which are now on the album.
The 12 songs on The Snake King do not comprise a traditional blues album. There are still power pop flourishes here and there, and animal growls between some songs remind listeners that Springfield made his name in glam rock. Still, it leans heavily on roots and blues rock (“Land of the Blind” and the title track).
Lyrically, it’s a heavy album. But it should be noted here that Springfield has often diverted from writing about chasing girls. For every “Jessie’s Girl” and “What’s Victoria’s Secret,” there’s a “Saint Sahara” (written for a close friend who passed from cancer) and an “Angels of the Disappeared,” about runaway and abducted children. The podcast taping Springfield attended in San Francisco, looking back on his career, included nearly as many tearful recollections behind his songs as it did laughs. The Snake King is similarly dark.
“We’re screwing up the planet, and I’m very worried about it,” he said. “I want the planet to win; I don’t want us to win. Because it won’t be good if we win; we’ll go. We’ll go either way, you know? It’s pretty scary; I just see evil everywhere, and I’m wondering where God is now. The whole album is about God, the Devil and sex. I think it says a lot of what I have been thinking for a while.”
A sampling of song titles: “The Devil That You Know,” “Little Demon,” “Judas Tree,” “Jesus Was An Atheist,” “God Don’t Care About You,” which is a straight-up Chicago blues track, “Santa Is An Anagram.”
Also on the album is “Suicide Manifesto,” which details Springfield’s lifelong battles with depression. As he chronicled in his autobiography, he attempted to hang himself for the first time when he was 16. The darkness, to which he’d given the name “Mr. D” in his book, never left him.
“People have said they bought my autobiography for brothers, or sisters, or moms or kids, because [I’m an example of someone who] suffers from that and I have managed to build a life out of it. … With the bullies and kids committing suicide at like 15 and shit; if I can help prevent that, I’ll do whatever. … There is a message in it; stay in the game long enough, and things will change. And I’ve seen that in my own life. It is a lifelong sentence, depression, but you can work with it. I know that’s where my writing comes from. I know that’s where a lot of my drive comes from.”
The original cut of “Suicide Manifesto” was on the longer end of six minutes. Springfield liked the song but couldn’t stand to keep listening to it—“it actually depressed the shit out of me”—so he cut it down to two minutes. His depression resurfaces from time to time. Even at 68, he gets suicidal thoughts, and there’s no rhyme or reason to when or why. He deals with it through meditation, spending time with his family, seeking spirituality or hugging a dog. “Writing really helps me voice it, and that in its way helps lighten the load.”