AFROPUNK INTERVIEW: JEAN BEAUVOIR IS ORIGINAL PUNK
By Nathan Leigh
September 7, 2018
Jean Beauvoir is an originator. From his tenure as the bass player for legendary punk band, The Plasmatics, to his time writing and producing with The Ramones, to his solo career, Jean spent a lifetime ahead of the curve. Known almost as much for his iconic blond mohawk as for his music, Jean has helped define and redefine punk. We recently got a rare opportunity to talk with Jean about his long career, opening up for the first time about his time with The Ramones, as well as the past, present, and future of the movement he helped kick off.
So AFROPUNK and The Afro-Punk meet!
You’re pretty much the original, right? We’ve been wanting to talk to you for years!
I know I know! Well, I’m touring, I’m actually working on a new punk album. I won’t get into full details, because it’s a little under the cover right now, but it’s something that’ll feature old and new friends. It’s gonna be something great. Plus I’m working on a new “my life as a Plasmatic” book. It’s just a good time. A lot of my roots are coming back. The Ramones—a lot of the stuff I did for them believe it or not—is making a lot more noise now than when we did it.
Well it’s kind of awesome that the later Ramones era is finally getting a second look. Suddenly people are turning around like “actually, they had some great fucking songs then!”
Oh yeah, it’s classic. You know I produced a lot of Ramones stuff, and wrote a lot of Ramones stuff, and worked with them for some years on and off. And my manager at the time and I were like “It’s amazing how when they were alive, they were big, but nothing like this.” But people really recognized them after they passed away. They really became an iconic thing, which has also happened with The Plasmatics. It’s just an interesting time.
It’s funny the way that happens with punk, with bands like DEATH as well, where they were really only a band in their original run for like a year and a half, but now people are remembering. Luckily enough of them are still alive, that they’re out there again playing festivals.
They’re still going out, exactly. When I tour, I kind of do a combination show now, because I’ve done a lot of different things. So in my tour I do a couple things from The Plasmatics, I do some of The Ramones stuff that I did, I do some KISS stuff that I wrote, I do some stuff that I did for soundtracks, I do some of my solo hits, and I combine it all into one show.
When you do that, do you try to figure out what’s your version of a KISS song? Or are you finding your own versions? Because I was going through your catalog, and I didn’t realize some of the acts you worked with. Like you worked with NSYNC?!
I did yeah. It’s crazy right?
Right, like you worked with the punkest of the punks to the poppiest of the pop!
Who are all punks! Because it’s interesting. I saw that you guys had an interesting definition of punk. For me, it’s really a rebel; it’s somebody who gets out and does something on their own, you know? So I was involved with punk, and then you know KISS is a whole different thing, but also they’re very extreme in that era. And Lionel Richie couldn’t be more extreme in his thing. Matter of fact, I had a couple of hits two, three years ago with a K-pop artist. Believe it or not.
Yeah I know! And I’m so psyched about the K-pop movement. There’s so much cool shit happening.
You know it! That’s great, it’s amazing. And it was just a great thing. My publisher from Universal at the time told me “you know the American records are great to write for Jean, but you should really do some K-pop. They’re really selling a lot of albums and all this stuff is happening.” So I’m like “yeah okay fine!” So I got involved. I went over there and wrote some stuff.
Then one of the songs we did was for this guy Jonghyun from Shinee, and Shinee as you probably know is one of the biggest K-pop bands. And then I wrote his single, and that single blew up! It was #1 on Billboard. It was #1 all over the world. The number one iTunes download and then he died. So all of a sudden K-pop gets more press than it’s ever gotten because this guy dies, and he’s got all these Fortune 500 magazines and CNN and all that stuff, I don’t know if that’s a good thing, cause like I’m involved with the guy that died, unfortunately.
It seems like that’s sort of your curse.
It seems like everybody I work with dies! [Laughs] No, I’m only kidding. I don’t mean that!
Right? You do great shit and then it gets recognized after the fact.
I know it’s kind of weird actually. You know maybe it’s a voodoo thing.
Well, the flipside is that you have this knack for being somewhere right before it pops off. Is that a conscious thing? Are you looking for what’s next? Or is that just what happens?
I end up there. It’s an instinct, you know. It’s funny. I realized over probably the past year speaking to a lot of people, that a lot of people are always looking to jump on the bandwagon. And me, I have very specific ideas of things that I like, and I think are good regardless of what other people think about it. So it doesn’t matter. I brought a bunch of background singers from Sweden on my record. And two of the girls became really famous and did all this stuff afterwards, not because they worked with me, but just because they were talented. And everybody would try to get you to use everybody that everybody is using. I would never go down that road.
I think about that single with The Ramones, “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down.” The song has become iconic. I saw that it was just mentioned on CNN, NBC, and they’re relating it to politics, since the song was written about Reagan going into Germany, and visiting the cemetery and the controversy that surrounded that. And so now they’re relating that back to Trump going to see Putin.
Well they’re not wrong to. What both makes it a great song, and a great Ramones song, is that, at their best, Ramones music has a certain simplicity. And the message of “Bonzo Goes To Bitburg” really just boils down to “what the fuck is wrong with these people?” So it’s a great song, but in this day and age when we’re dealing with the same kind of kleptocracy, it sums up a feeling we’re all carrying around pretty much all the time.
That’s right. You know, and when we did that song, I got a lot of pushback. When I produce something, when I get involved with the Ramones, I want to bring out certain things out of them, and try to also give them a certain substance. So we do this song, and the record company Warner Brothers at the time didn’t want to release it. Matter of fact they didn’t release it.
And I said “I don’t care. I want it on the record. I think it’s a great song, and we’re gonna go for it and people will see in the future.” And then the next thing you know they come back they ask us for it, they pay for it. It wins the New York Music Awards. And then from what I’m reading in Rolling Stone and different magazines; they’re calling it the most important Ramones song ever written. But it took 20 years, 30 years for people to recognize that.
It’s also funny because I feel like The Ramones are a band that at their core—and I don’t mean this as a dig—but they’re at their core a pretty apolitical band. Maybe even an anti-political band. “Bonzo” is unique, in that it’s one of the few times where they said something more substantive than “everything’s fucked up and I want to get high.” And I’m not dragging that. That’s a universal sentiment too, and God knows I love those first few Ramones records with every inch of my heart, but it did take them to a place where suddenly they had something to say, in a way that previously they just hadn’t. Was there pushback from the band?
I mean Johnny was a little here or there. He gave a little pushback actually, to the point where the title got changed to “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down.” Joey was a little bit of a deeper guy when it came to stuff like that and Dee Dee was really deep. So Dee Dee always wanted to say things, and being the producer and good friend and co-writer, you know, I got to spend a lot of time with all of them all the time. And so I had to listen to each one of them bitch, because they all go “oh I don’t want piano on records” and “I don’t want this.” “I don’t want that kind of subject.” And then Joey would call you saying “I love strings! I love piano! Can’t we do this, Jean?” And Dee Dee would call and say something else. And the record company would be like, “It’s your gig, dude. You figure that out. Just get the record out.”
Right. “Your deadline is October 30th just go!”
That’s right. “Do whatever you got to do with them, with their girlfriends and everything else. That’s why you’re here.”
Well that makes you a better producer than Phil Spector shouting “fuck you,” and pulling a gun on them, saying “get to work”
That’s true! So I really listen, and I’d spend time. And I think that’s what I really enjoy about producing: you get to get into the band, and try to get things out of them, out of each member, try to archive it all in your brain, and try to figure out, “Okay, what can we do here.” And also since they had such a big voice in the world, I thought it was important that they use that voice to maybe say something as well.
Absolutely. And it’s funny, well not funny “ha ha,” but we’re suddenly in a place again where we’re talking about fascism. And there’s a lot of controversy about artists who aren’t using their voices, who aren’t using the platforms they have, to speak up about injustice.
That’s kind of why I became an artist, to say things, to be a reflection for people. To try to help people make it through their everyday lives, talking about subjects that were important to people. Yeah you could write a pop song every once in a while. You know, “I’m in the club / Courvoisier.” That’s nice, you know what I mean? [Laughs]
Right, and I strongly believe there’s nothing wrong with that. I love a lot of pop. Every song doesn’t have to be all “fuck the system!” all the time.
No, I don’t think that either. You know I’m not really that much of a political guy. I just I like to speak about life in general. And it could be anything it could be political, what you’re going through, it could be, “I don’t like to go to work on Monday.” It could be “why is my girlfriend always cheating on me?” It could be just subjects that people can relate to. I get my information from everyday life, from people. Everyday people living life. And I kind of look to reflect those things and try to give some kind of an answer, or show that you understand and maybe give a different point of view. You know that’s it. That could be very simple, or it could be deep.
And at the same that you’re putting out this song—and I agree when people call it the most important Ramones song—you’re also doing a Sylvester Stallone soundtrack, and those two things are contained in the same artist simultaneously.
That just kind of happened by luck, because that song, “Feel the Heat,” it’s a lot deeper than you might think. There’s lyrics in there—if you listen to it—it’s about feeling the pressures of life. It was a tough time for me after The Plasmatics. I couldn’t get a solo deal; nobody would sign me, because they thought that all I could do was blow up cars! And I was feeling the heat. I was feeling the pressures of life; I was feeling financial pressures, I was feeling all kind of pressure. So that song talks about you and talks about what you’re going through in life which a lot of people feel. Whether it’s a recession, whether it be this or that, but in the way I wrote the lyrics and it’s “feel the heat.” So you could just hear it as, “Oh, it’s hot outside!” [Laughs] It could be something simple, but at the same time it did have a deeper meaning.
And then Stallone just happened to be at Warner Brothers studio where my video was being shot. He walked into the studio and just saw the video being edited. He called the office and said, “Listen this is the song for my new campaign.” At the time, Cobra was the biggest release of any film in the history of film. It [was on] 2300 screens; I believe it opened two times Top Gun. It was a gigantic film. So it was a big break for me. And he used it for every commercial, he used it for the film. It was a real collaboration. We did a video where it had footage of the film. It was a big break and it came out of nowhere.
At the time when you’re doing that, that was the era where Bad Religion adds a fifth chord to their songs, and suddenly people are screaming at them. What was the response like from the punk scene to have this big radio hit in a giant movie?
You know I was stuck in the middle of an era where blacks weren’t being played on radio. The head of Columbia was running around giving vacations to radio people and to his promotion people to get the song played, because people were sitting at Columbia going, “Wait a minute, this guy doesn’t fit anywhere. He doesn’t fit on the black floor. It’s not R&B enough, but yet it’s rocking, but he’s black so he can’t play rock. So what what’s going on? Where is he? He’s just like in the middle of these in the abyss somewhere.” So that maybe was good at the end of the day for your credibility, but not great for you just fitting into a mold where people just accept it.
Right not necessarily better for your career prospects if you can’t fit into the mold, when the mold is how they market music.
Exactly, but it was on the edge. You know I’ve done stuff with and spent a lot of time with folks like Prince. Michael Jackson paid a great compliment to me once. Lionel Richie did a show in Sweden, and they pulled me out of the audience—I went and did some pictures with him, and then he told me, “Listen, I’ve got a message from Michael, and also from me, that we really appreciate that as a black artist that you’re carrying this flag and you’re just doing what you want to do. Bravo just keep doing it!” Prince told me something like that too. So that was an amazing compliment.
That’s a blessing from royalty right there.
And then he asked me. Then I got a call that Michael had asked me, I think that was the “Bad” or “Dirty Diana” video he wanted me to join. We said no, because we just felt that it would pigeonhole me as a bass player. So my manager was like, “Nah, don’t do that. It’s not a good idea.” Same thing with Prince, who made offers throughout the years and he really loved rock. Prince is a rock guitarist. That’s his thing. And he used to tell me “I really admire that you’re going that way. I wouldn’t do it” he said, “because I know I wouldn’t make any money!” [Laughs]
Right! I mean Prince’s business acumen was always almost even on the same level as his musicianship, right?
Exactly. It’s like, “Let me do the stuff I have to do, so I can get to do the stuff I want to do.” And I mean, an amazingly talented guy. I was so sad when he passed away. But yeah. I just found it interesting lately, that it’s just kind of all going back. And I think it took me some years to actually realize the importance of the beginning of my career, because I had such a hard time after I left The Plasmatics, trying to be respected. Like I said, nobody would sign me, No One. I was dead in the water, and then all of a sudden I ended up meeting Little Steven Van Zandt. And I had said no to different people. Prince had made the first offer as soon as I left The Plasmatics. Prince was the first offer.
Cause that was right around when Andre Cymone left his band, right?
Exactly. And so he offered me a bass playing gig. But he also offered to produce a solo record. But at that time we were going to a period where it was really tough at radio. They’d play like one black person on the radio. So I was like if I join his team I’ll be dead in the water! I wasn’t sure if he was trying to knock me out of the competition or if he actually wanted to sign me. I now think about that in retrospect, I kind of feel bad that I didn’t do more with him; because I think that he was really interested in finding somebody who was maybe in the same headspace, and understood what he really was into. And I think I misread it. But you know, we’re young, we’re paranoid. You know how it is.
But this beginning opened so many doors. And you got to remember, when I was in The Plasmatics, I had a blonde mohawk, and I got nothing but abuse. I lived in New York City. I couldn’t get a taxi. I’d go to a movie theater, I’d have people yelling and screaming. I couldn’t go anywhere without getting abuse. I’d get in fights in Times Square. I mean black people’d be like, “How dare you have blond hair? I can’t believe it! You’re going against the roots of our people!” People thought I was crazy, and now I look and every basketball player’s got like blond mohawks, every football player. Cardi B. Janet Jackson.
So you kind of opened that space up.
Back in those days, MTV would not play one black artist. Not one. I think that I was probably the first black artist on MTV with Little Steven Van Zandt, riding that bicycle in that video. Michael Jackson couldn’t get play on MTV, to the point where where the president of Columbia just said, “Enough already. We’re going to pull everybody on MTV if you don’t play Michael Jackson.” And then after that, before you knew it, there were nothing but black people on! [Laughs] You know, that hip-hop thing came, and forget it! So it’s funny, to this era from the beginning of my career—which is pretty long, you know—the things that I’ve experienced and seen; it’s pretty significant. I’ve seen the changes in the industry. From the very beginning, from touring with The Plasmatics, that was tough. I mean I’d have to stay on the bus. I couldn’t even go out of the bus to go get breakfast. We used to go to driving through America. Ritchie the guitar player, or Wendy would go get me eggs and bring them back to me so I wouldn’t get lynched at the truck stop. And I’m not joking, I’m serious!
And the needle’s still only moved a fraction to where it needs to be. But that’s the thing about punk—right?—it is changing the world by being yourself.
That’s it, that’s what it’s all about. You know, the one thing I’ve been consistent with from the beginning—from The Plasmatics—was about self-expression, and being able to be who you want to be. That’s what we expressed right from the very beginning. The Plasmatics, I think at its core and high point that’s really what we were expressing. Whether it be me doing what I was doing, Wendy doing what she was doing, Ritchie being seven foot tall wearing a tutu. It was for the misfits; for people who needed a home to be able to be what they wanted to be, and didn’t want to just stick to the status quo. So I think that you need that; that’s what makes the world colorful and beautiful.
Jean Beauvoir‘s latest record is Rock Masterpieces: Vol. 1 featuring songs from across his career. Look for Vol 2. soon.