By Patrick Prince
Jay Jay French’s searing guitar riffs anchor some of the world’s most recognizable metal songs.
But inside the memorabilia and award-covered walls of his Manhattan apartment, Twisted Sister’s founder is hiding a little secret. His true love: pop music.
“The song ‘Hey Paula’ is where it started,” French explained. “It was February ’63. I was home from school, sick. I was in bed and asked my mother to plug in the radio to ease the boredom. And what song comes on but “Hey Paula” by Paul and Paula on WABC, which was the big radio station at the time. Bing! A bell gets hit, and they’re No. 1! So I thought, ‘Wow, OK, that’s the No. 1 song in the world. I thought the world voted for No. 1 and they picked this song.”
Fast forward three weeks, and the song ‘Hey Paula” is still at the top of the charts.
“And now I’m absolutely in this fantasyland head of mine. I am really falling in love with the song. Then it gets knocked off by “Walk Like a Man” by The Four Seasons and I thought someone put a dagger in my heart,” he recalled.
French was so distraught that “Hey Paula’” was knocked off the top of the pop charts that he asked his mother to take him to the nearest record store to buy the album and show his support.
“There was this tiny mom-and-pop record store on 107th and Broadway. And there’s this little lady behind the counter with a record player with two quarters taped on top, where they would allow you to listen to the first 30 seconds of a single to make sure it sounded OK and worked well,” he said. “I walked in and said, ‘Do you have “Hey Paula?” She goes, ‘Yes, it’s 49 cents.’ And I said to her, ‘If I buy it, will it go back to No. 1?’ And this must have been the most naïve thing in the world, but her response was equally endearing. She could have said, ‘Are you stupid? It’s all mob run, you idiot.’ But she didn’t. She said, ‘Maybe, sweetheart. Maybe.’”
Somewhere along the way, French and the 7-inch single he bought at that Manhattan record store in 1963 parted ways. Its absence bothered him for years, until French (who also happens to be a Goldmine subscriber), finally ordered the record from one of the magazine’s advertisers.
“For all my collectibles, that one got me the most emotional,” he said. “I was making sure I landed that [again]. I wanted that, because that’s what that record meant to me. However important all my records are — they all have reasons for being here, every one of them — ‘Hey Paula,’ when I hear it, it absolutely, unfailingly takes me back to the very moment I fell in love with whatever the pop scene was. And it’s an inconsequential song. It doesn’t hold the allure. It’s not hip. It’s not like saying, ‘I first heard Chuck Berry on the radio and went crazy.’ But ‘Hey Paula’ was my connecting point to the pop charts, which is why I’m much more a commercial guy than a prog guy or anything else. I like commercial pop music. At the end of the day, peel back all the layers of metal and all the crazy stuff, I’m a pop guy at heart.”
“Hey Paula” fueled French’s love for radio and the music charts. He became addicted to the hit parade, and American pop duo Paul and Paula hold a special place in French’s heart to this day. But in 1964, Beatlemania came to New York, and French was hooked. The Fab Four became a lifetime obsession.
Beatles-related items are the most significant of French’s personal rock memorabilia. Beatles albums and singles in all different releases and pressings are easily accessible, and a pair of framed Beatles “Butcher” covers adorn a wall.
Early on, French was fortunate enough to buy two Second State copies of “Yesterday … and Today,” with the pasted-on trunk cover concealing the infamous Butcher cover beneath.
“There was a bargain bin with two copies that were $1.99,” French said. “My friend thought he saw the Butcher cover underneath. I figured, ‘What the f**k; I’ll buy both and see if he’s right.’ So we boiled water, held the covers over the boiling water, and peeled the corners. The first one didn’t take well. We didn’t do it right. Then we got it down for the second one, and it came off.”
The albums would have been worth more as collectibles had French and his friend left the pasteover alone. But French has built his collection out of love, not money.
“It’s like a religion to me,” he said of The Beatles. “The scary thing about my house is if Paul McCartney were to ever come over, I would have to put all this sh*t in the closet, because I look like a f**king stalker,” he laughed.
“The Beatles may be the most powerful band in the world,” he continued, “but for some reason they speak to me personally. That’s one of the beauties of that band. Well, that’s one of the beauties of fandom: You believe they are ‘just talking to me.’ Listen, I’m not a Bruce Springsteen fan, but I’ll assume there are people who believe Bruce is ‘talking’ to them. I’m not a U2 fan, but I assume people believe Bono’s ‘talking’ to them. I get it. I totally get it. And as much as I’m a fan of AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, (David) Bowie, I think this band [The Beatles] are talking to me. I believe I have a one-to-one relationship with this band, which is totally, irrationally crazy — and, by the way, I’m not irrational, like writing them letters or anything like that.”
At one point, French was as enamored with The Grateful Dead as The Beatles. But it didn’t last.
“I was a huge Deadhead, huge beyond belief,” he said. “I saw the Dead 26 times from 1968 to 1972. I saw them on LSD 25 of those 26 times. On the 26th time, I didn’t do acid, and I thought they sucked. I never saw them again. And from that day forward, I never listened to a Grateful Dead record ever — ever — again.
Which is odd, considering they were as important to me as The Beatles were, and then I didn’t give a sh*t one day.”
With the exception of his old Grateful Dead records, French puts his vinyl collection to good use.
“I enjoy sitting in my room late at night after a crazy day and putting on a favorite record — new or old — it doesn’t matter. And the ritual: Taking the album out, washing it, putting it on the record player, getting a glass of wine or a cup of coffee — depending on what you’re playing. I love it,” he said.
Despite his unwavering devotion to vinyl, French couldn’t resist buying The Beatles’ limited-edition USB box set — the entire Beatles stereo catalog on a green, apple-shaped USB drive. He sat me down in front of his impressive audio system, then played the digital version of “The Night Before” from the USB box set and the vinyl version from a Japanese pressing of “Help!” After offering up this audio taste test, French was curious: Which experience did I prefer?
The choice was easy. The vinyl won, hands down.
But don’t assume that French is some type of vinyl snob or big-ticket archivist whose records never see the business end of a needle.
“If I want to listen to the vinyl, I will put on the vinyl. I have no concern that another play is destroying my vinyl playback,” he said. “I can listen to all my favorite music in a variety of formats and not be bothered. I can listen to MP3s if I want to hear a song; it doesn’t bother me. Listen, I grew up on transistor radio, for chrissake. The speaker was only so big. The transmission was choked to crap. I listened through all sorts of cheap crap, and it made me happy.”
French’s appreciation of the vinyl records in his collection extends beyond the audio experience they provide.
“I think albums are art,” he continued. “I am proud to have all my albums out. Why would I want to hide that stuff?! This makes me a very happy guy. I like looking at the stuff. I like looking at it all day long. I like holding the 45s. I like thinking about when I bought a single. My singles are all pretty much the original singles of when I bought them. I can remember how I felt when I listened to them. They take you back to a certain time in your life.”
As our interview came to an end, I joked that he could easily sell off his extra memorabilia so that another collector may enjoy it — one of The Beatles Butcher albums, perhaps?
French was not amused.
“I’m not interested in selling anything,” French said. “My daughter will get it all, and then she can do whatever she wants with it.” GM