JOE MAZZARI OF 61 GHOSTS INTERVIEW
Joe Mazzari of 61 Ghosts talks about his ‘crazy and chaotic’ time in rock icon Johnny Thunders’ band by Suzanne Laurent - 61 Ghosts is about to hit the road nationally and abroad to promote their debut recording To the Edge. The three-member band is based in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and also perform as a high-energy duo. 61 Ghosts bills themselves as original rock ‘n’ roll, gritty Americana and garage blues. This trio is far from being new on the music scene. Guitarist and singer-songwriter Joe Mazzari, bass player J.D. Sipe, and drummer Dixie have been working musicians on the road over the last few decades. They bring their own unique experiences of rock, grit, and blues to 61 Ghosts.
Front man Joe Mazzari currently lives in southern Maine, beginning his stage career in the Boston rock scene in the early 1980s, playing guitar and singing for The Daughters. The Daughters eventually became the backing band for Johnny Thunders, guitarist and singer-songwriter for the New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers. Mazzari equates this experience to an unlikely stroke of good fortune to spend a few years on the road and recording three albums, Diary of A Lover, In Cold Blood, and Internal Possession, with a rock icon he listened to as a teen.
During that time with Thunders, Joe Mazzari played alongside musicians such as Jerry Nolan (New York Dolls) and Walter Lure (The Heartbreakers.) I caught up with Joe Mazzari before he left to begin touring with 61 Ghosts this spring to ask about his time with Thunders and how that influenced his subsequent stage presence.
Suzanne Laurent (SL): How did you first connect with Johnny Thunders?
Joe Mazzari (JM): It’s kind of crazy. When I was in my late teens living in Florida my friend Simon (Ritt) and I would play an 8-track tape of the New York Dolls while driving around. I was always moved hearing “Chatterbox,” especially Johnny’s lead guitar, finding his playing so raw and full of passion, thinking if he can do that, why can’t I? His playing, overall, had so much energy and attitude to me, and made me not only want to play music, but to play that style of rock ‘n’ roll.
Fast forward to the early 1980s, when Simon and I played in The Daughters, we asked our manager Jim Nestor if there was any way he could arrange with Johnny’s manager for us to open for him. He made it happen, and we ended up playing a number of opening slots for him. On occasion, Johnny would come up during our set and sing songs such as “Louie, Louie,” “Gloria” and “Chatterbox.” It was always a surreal experience for me to hear Johnny singing “Chatterbox” in my band considering he was one of the reasons I started playing guitar in the first place.
SL: How did the Daughters become Thunders’ backing band?
JM: As time went on, Johnny enjoyed playing with our band – it was the right fit for him at that time. It was a valuable opportunity for me to watch him play up close. He and his manager saw that we were dependable and passionate about playing with Johnny.
SL: What was it like playing in a band fronted by an artist who was a well-known drug addict?
JM: It could be frustrating as hell at times. He often said he wouldn’t wish his addiction on his worst enemy. I could go into a lot of stories about the difficulties of playing with a person with an addictive behavior. It took a lot of effort to work with him – he was so unpredictable. I remember Johnny wanted to “get clean” before one of our tours. Our manager Jim (Nestor) decided his basement in Lynn, Mass., would be the best place to keep him away from his sources. What Johnny wasn’t aware of is that he would be under house arrest for a few days. There were a few years of catering to that craziness, but the experience was completely worth it.
SL: That sounds like a hectic time. What did you take from it?
JM: Here you had this relatively slight guy commanding the stage with a huge presence. He could play wrong chords or sing the wrong lyrics, but still exuded confidence. I once asked him when he met up with David Johansen, one of his former New York Dolls band members, if he’d ever play with him again, and he answered, “Take any opportunity that presents itself to you.”
However, I’d like to make it clear here that there was also a nice side to Johnny. He could be generous in many ways as when he gave The Daughters one of his unreleased songs, “Are You Living,” which 61 Ghosts now covers. I also enjoyed talking with Johnny about music, bands and recounting his past experiences. He had an incredibly cutting sense of humor, which I found really entertaining.
SL: How do you think Johnny felt being labeled as one of the original punk rock musicians?
JM: He despised that description. He considered himself a rock ‘n’ roll musician and his influences were early rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and the blues. I remember the day Johnny mentioned he’d be jamming with Hubert Sumlin who was Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. Johnny didn’t generally show a lot of enthusiasm, but he was definitely thrilled to play with Hubert that day.
SL: Drugs were pretty much considered a given during the music scene in the 1970s and 1980s. How did you manage not to get caught up in it?
JM : We saw first-hand what drugs could do and we didn’t want to ruin a good opportunity. I’m not going to say we were choirboys, but we knew our limits.
SL: What happened to The Daughters?
JM: The years playing with Johnny dissolved when he had to leave the country over a legal matter. Johnny whacked a guy over the head with his guitar. I’m guessing the guy probably had it coming to him. There were lots of occasions when people in the front row thought it was okay to toss insults, beer or spit at us on stage without repercussions. Sometimes they found out it wasn’t a good idea. As far as The Daughters, we ended up having an album produced in 1982 at Euphoria Sound Studios in Revere, Massachusetts, with Jimmy Miller who worked with the RolIing Stones, Motorhead and Traffic. It was a real pleasure to work with Jimmy – a very distinguished gentleman, especially to hear his stories of working with such influential artists of that era. The album we created was finally released a few years ago through Rave Up Records in Italy.
SL: Going forward, what influence did Thunders’ playing have on your subsequent bands?
JM: I took that experience of just being confident on stage when I co-formed the Boston-based band, Two Saints. The band played up and down the East Coast, did three tours of the United Kingdom, released two albums and a handful of 45s. During the late 1990s, I played guitar in the English band Pussy Crush, contributing a couple of songs to their releases, and appearing with the band on John Peels' BBC radio show.
SL: You also fronted The Joe Mazzari Band and Jacknife Beat as well as recording a solo CD a few years ago, “Chasing 61 Ghosts,” which brings us to the present. Your newest band, 61 Ghosts, is about to hit the road. Looking back at the time you spent with Thunders, is there anything you still carry with you from what you call “crazy and chaotic years?”
JM: Playing with passion, confidence and conviction. I also learned that it’s okay to chase your dreams – from playing with someone you idolized as a teen driving around in Simon’s Maverick, listening to the New York Dolls 8-track tape, to the present, and I’m still as passionate being on the road and writing and recording new music with J.D. and Dixie.