Glen Burtnick is a singer songwriter from the New Brunswick area that has been entertaining fans along the Jersey Shore since the early 80s. His first big break was when he auditioned and got the role of Paul McCartney in the West Coast production of Beatlemania alongside Marshall Crenshaw as John Lennon. From there he went on to stints in the Jan Hammer Band and Helmet Boy before returning to New Jersey where he married his high school sweetheart.
He joined the popular Stone Pony house band, Cats on a Smooth Surface and became a favorite of the Asbury Park crowd. After Cats, he played with La Bamba & the Hubcaps and then started a solo career which led to a record deal with A&M Records. Years later he joined Styx replacing Tommy Shaw and organized a bunch of musicians in the New Brunswick area into an all-star band called Slaves of New Brunswick.
Glen currently performs and records records both solo and with Styx. The year 2003 should see the release of the latest Styx record and a solo record by Burtnick. I caught up with Glen after one of his solo shows at the Stone Pony and he agreed to be interviewed via email. Apparently, the look at his past was therapeutic because he continued to examine his career in an issue of an online newsletter sent to his mailing list.
Many people still remember when you opened for Southside at the Garden State Arts Center and you lit your guitar on fire.
Growing up with Jimi Hendrix as my all time favorite rock performer, I used to be prone to occasionally pulling some of his stunts (I still do, actually, although on a much less risky level). The fire bit was one such wacky exercise. I used to buy cheap guitars and set them ablaze before smashing ‘em up on stage. What a nut. It was probably more fun for me than it was for the audience…
I was always honored to open for the Jukes anytime I was asked. Being a Jersey boy, I feel a certain admiration for and loyalty to Johnny and his music. It ain’t punk, it ain’t super original, but it’s full of heart. Besides, he’s got a bit of an “underdog” appeal. I dig that too.
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Years later, you returned to the Arts Center performing with Styx and rattled off a rather bitter monologue directed at the place.
The rant I gave at the 2001 Styx show wasn’t as much bitter as an opportunity to rile up my hometown audience about the annoying currently popular habit of renaming familiar beloved venues (like the Garden State Arts Center) with some corporation’s moniker (like PNC Bank) for a price. I also got to let off a little steam about the lies of politicians in the past regarding the Garden State Parkway.
And on top off all that, the PNC bank was actually giving me a hard time over something stupid that very week. Here’s exactly what I said: Anybody remember when this used to be called the Garden State Arts Center? This building was built and operated by the Garden State Parkway... Have you heard of that road?
It’s kind of a little ironic…I gotta tell you a story - when I was a little kid my father told me about the Garden State Parkway…We got on the Parkway and we were tossing our nickels or something into the thing and he told me this was paying for the building of the Garden State Parkway and eventually the day would come when there would be no more tolls. That’s what my father told me, way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Like I said, so this is built and operated by the Garden State Parkway...but now, it’s the PNC Arts Center, ladies and gentlemen. You know, I have a PNC bank account, right? I swear to God, three days ago I wanted to get some money out of this account, the man said you can take this money out of the account any time you want, it’s your money, you can take it out any time you want. So three days ago I wanted to take money out of the PNC bank, I had to wait - he told me I had to wait like a week or something.
I said, “Wait - it’s my money” and he says, “Well…you gotta wait a week to get it.” I said, “Yeah, but I’m playing at the PNC Arts Center on Saturday night!”
I said, “Dude!”
Alright, so I got screwed by PNC. It’s ok. It’s alright. Just like I got screwed by the PNC bank, I got screwed by the Garden State Parkway, cause I keep putting quarters in the damn thing. The way I see it, you and I pay for this house every time we throw quarters in the goddamn machine! You know what I’m saying? Am I right? Is it me? It’s time to take this place back!
I hereby declare that the name of this house is the Garden State Arts Center! At which point the audience was cheering, pretty explosively as I recall, and I felt somewhat vindicated.
Is it true that the Arts Center banned you after the guitar incident?
As much as I’m tickled by such a myth, the Arts Center never “banned” me. I’m not sure they ever noticed me at all!
How did you get involved with Styx? Were you a fan?
We were introduced through A&M Records, our shared label. I wasn’t a fan, Tommy and I shared a manager and most Styx fans accepted me.
Let’s go back in time... It’s been written that your first gig was a “Be-In” in Johnson’s Park. What do you remember about that day?
Wow! Your research is frightening! It was around 1967. I was such a teeny bopper. It was cold. Sunny. I showed up wearing denim and flowers, with an acoustic guitar. I sang a song I’d written to whoever would listen. I’m sure it was psychedelic and sucked.
What were some of your early bands like?
My list of bands runs long. In elementary school I was in the Ultra Reds. It was a very odd 4 man group - trumpet, accordion, clarinet and myself on drums! In junior high I was in Creeping Fungus Blues Band. In high school I was in Green Spit, Bonji and Otto. Out of high school it was Albatross, Phlyte Ensemble and Source.
Albatross had a rock opera called Walls of Walden. Was this based on Thoreau? Who did you think you were Pete Townshend?
I wrote it with Dusty Micale. We only performed it once. It was a story about cryonics and a family’s dealing with it in the future. It was probably God awful. Yes, I was aware of Thoreau and probably did think I was Pete Townshend or something at the time.
Who were some of your favorite musicians and early influences?
Yikes! The small list of heroes is Hendrix, Dylan and the Beatles. The long list is from Aaron Copeland to Stevie Wonder to Pete Seeger to Aretha Franklin to Todd Rundgren to Oscar Peterson to Yes to Nirvana.
The first show I remember caring about was when my folks took me to the Latin Casino to see Ray Charles. Also, they took me to see Freddy and the Dreamers and the Supremes early on. The first concert I paid and made my own way to was Richie Havens.
How did you become part of Beatlemania? In pictures, you really did look like McCartney. What was that experience like for you?
I had seen advertisements in the Village Voice, looking for Beatle look alikes. Then a guy I knew (Joe Vadala, later of Joey and the Works) persuaded me to go audition. I had droopy eyes, a Wings era McCartney mullet and was left handed. For that, I passed the audition as Paul and began going to “Beatle College” - learning the music and the parts, particularly McCartney’s. What a thing.
Having grown up under the profound influence of the Beatle phenomenon, putting on the clothes, strapping on the Hofner and becoming a fake Beatle was kind of a dream come true for me.
The two best things about the show were closely studying some of that ridiculously fantastic music’s construction and meeting some wonderful people, many who I still consider dear friends.
You met Marshall Crenshaw through Beatlemania. Together, you guys recorded the single, “I Hate Disco Music.”
That rare little chestnut was Marshall’s song, filled with funny lines. We called ourselves the Sides. I wrote the B Side (it stunk). It was 1978. By then, many musicians our age had had it with the previous five or so years of that annoying, incessant bass drum rhythm shoved down our throats. Little did we realize that disco was a style that will probably outlive all of us.
And then you got involved with the Jan Hammer Band. How did that come about?
After Beatlemania, I answered yet another Village Voice ad. It went something like this: “Jan Hammer is looking for a lead singer/rhythm keyboardist.” Having been an admirer of Jan’s, I answered the ad and got the gig in the band called Hammer. We put out an album on Elektra‘s Asylum Records and toured a little.
A few years later, after having done a record as a member of Helmet Boy, Jan asked me to come work with him and Neal Schon on their second record for Columbia as a duo. In addition to work on other tracks on the album, I co-wrote the single with them “No More Lies” and played bass and sang back-up. It was great fun working with those two cats and it was the certainly most successful release I had been involved with up to that point in my career which ain’t saying so much. They didn’t tour to promote that record, and I didn’t appear in the video, but my solo voice could clearly be heard at one or two points in the song.
Speaking of Helmet Boy, whatever happened to that band?
David Leon, another friend of mine from Beatlemania, called and asked if I wanted to join his band. They were managed by Freddy DeMann (who went on to manage Madonna). I enjoyed the short lived experience. We put out one album on Elektra/Asylum. Never got played. We musta been a tax write off for the label.
What was the first song of yours that you ever heard on the radio?
I live near New Brunswick, New Jersey, home of Rutgers University. One night I heard “I Hate Disco Music” being played on the Rutgers student radio station WRSU while in my car driving on Route 27, pulling into the Surrey Inn. It was a thrill, but I was all alone.
Now that I think of it, I had heard a recording of Otto, a trio which played my songs, on local AM station WCTC and I’d appeared on a Public TV show “New Art By Now People” both while in high school. But I knew when they were scheduled to be broadcast, whereas I bumped into “I Hate Disco Music” accidentally.
Is it true that you once turned down an offer to join Bon Jovi...
Jon and Richie came to the Stone Pony one night to inquire about me joining the band. They musta cut “Runaway” by then cuz they already had the record deal. I declined because A) I was stupid or B) I thought John was doing an impersonation of Springsteen.
After Cats, you joined La Bamba & the Hubcaps, another popular Stone Pony house band.
A while after leaving Cats, I wound up in LaBamba and the Hubcaps. Another great band. And another group Bruce sat in with. Richie LaBamba is a prince of a guy and very talented. I worked with a lotta cool players in that band, including Mark “The Love Man” Pender, Stan Harrison and Ed Manion.
Whatever happened to the band Manville?
It was a group of good friends of mine I threw together when I was going for my record deal at A&M Records. We never recorded, just played a few gigs and an audition (for A&M).
You had your first taste of solo success with “Follow You” from your second album. It wasn’t long after that it appeared A&M had lost interest in promoting you. Did the falling out with A&M begin then?
My “falling out with A&M” began when the A&R staff was turned over. It’s not an uncommon occurrence actually... What can I say? What happened, or didn’t happen, is in the past. Perhaps I woulda been a household name given another situation. I’ve lived a good life. I’d rather not whine about it...
As with many of the New Jersey artists, you’ve been very involved with benefit shows. Tell me about your Xmas Xtravaganzas. Originally they were held at the Stone Pony but now they’re in NY.
I think of New York as being more Christmasy than an old beach resort town, so I moved it. Musicians are suckers for charities. Usually entertainers enjoy getting up in front an audience, and even more so when it’s for a good cause, which in this case is feeding the local hungry.
How did the Slaves of New Brunswick get started?
I approached Tony Shanahan about doing a weekly jam at the infamous and now defunct Melody Bar in New Brunswick... It was fun and it blossomed into this ambitious concept I had about writing an album about New Brunswick. It actually didn’t come off horrible (no matter what the critic wrote in the local paper). It was named Album Of The Month in Guitar World magazine. We keep threatening to get back together and make a sequel.
When Patty Smyth took “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” to number one, what did it mean to you personally and as an artist?
It felt great. There’s nothing like achievement. I finally felt like my work was paying off. Not to mention what an honor it was having Don Henley and Patty Smyth singing a song of mine.
Here’s something you may not know... the first time “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” was performed before an audience was New Years Eve 1988/89 when Patty got up on stage to sing with me at the Pony.
Randy Travis had a hit with his cover of “Spirit of a Boy, Wisdom of a Man.” Did you ever think you would top the country charts? What was that experience like for you?
I was blown away by the whole thing. When I think country, I think of a long line of rich music. To be awarded by that culture was an unexpected thrill for me.
I think that “Perfect World” just might be one of the best love songs ever written. It’s been covered many times by various artists, but never really became a hit.
I dunno that it’s one of the best love songs ever written, but thanks for the compliment. Yes, that’s been probably the most covered of my tunes (6 or 7 times I think), and no, it’s never really made it on the charts. Oh well!
In your opinion, what’s the best song you’ve ever written?
The best song I’ve ever written is usually the last song I wrote (at this writing it’s “Kiss Your Ass Goodbye”). But I’m extremely proud of “Liars Club”, “Spirit Of A Boy, Wisdom Of A Man,” “Watching The World Go By...”
What song of yours did you think had the best shot of being a hit?
The song I think that coulda/woulda/shoulda had the best shot? Maybe “Spinning My Wheels” or “I Should Be Laughing.” I don’t know... that’s hard for me.
Your last few albums have been released on indie labels. Does it feel better not having the pressure you had on you while signed to A&M?
Each situation has its advantages and disadvantages. My solo albums on A&M were fun cuz the label spent some money on videos and got me time on TV and radio. But it was often a frustrating drag, to be honest. Not only were my records dead before I ever released a note of music, but I had to face direction and opinions from a million different departments - all clueless know-it-alls. In hindsight, it seems it was an exercise in obscuring my own vision.
As an indie, I am afforded control of my music, which is all I know, really. I don’t understand promotion and image and advertising and marketing and positioning. Now I am free, in a sense, to do what I know how, without answering to the politics of a zillion different department heads. Of course, I do miss that support at times. Palookaville was probably my best hour, and worst distributed.
Ageism in the music industry is pretty much a given, so I have no delusions about becoming the next Britney Spears at this point.
Your son, Beau, has grown up and plays in his own band called Dibs. A few months back they opened for you at the Stone Pony. What was it like seeing Styx fans in one area, long-time Glen Burtnick fans in another area and Dibs fans in another area?
I think it’s awesome. I’m happy to have any audience at all! And to see my son’s band get attention is a good thing. And just like Beau’s better looking than his old man, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn his audience is probably more attractive than mine.
What’s it like to have your son join you on stage?
It has to be privately one of my life’s landmark moments, to be honest.
You really belong to both the New Brunswick and Asbury Park music scenes. How does it feel to have two musical homes?
Hell, I feel like I have my foot in many more doors! There are Styx fans out there who think of me as only a member of that band. There are Marshall Crenshaw fans who consider me his backup musician. I have a giant closet at home filled with hats. I wear a million of ‘em.
The community of Asbury Park related musicians is working musicians. I see something noble in that (of course, there’s something a little shoddy about it too, but no more than any other careers). There’s somewhat a bit of comradeship among us. I’m proud to have played some part, however small, in any such noteworthy musical scene.
From the book Beyond The Palace by Gary Wien