Joe started in the music business by working at Premier Talent Agency where he typed contracts and collected deposit money for some of the biggest names in the world. A few years later, after leaving the world premiere of U2’s Rattle & Hum film, he began focusing on a music career.
His early shows were at CBGBs in New York City and T-Birds Cafe in Asbury Park. He has been touring and recording new records ever since. Since he releases his records independently, Joe knows that he’s got to earn new fans one at a time through hard work and great live performances. So far it’s worked well in Europe where Joe has built a tremendous following for himself. And, in 2002, his band became the official house band of Harley Davidson’s 100 year anniversary tour taking him all across the country.
I met up with Joe D’Urso at the office of his record label. He brought me to his rehearsal area and sat holding a guitar. Like any great musician, he just doesn’t seem comfortable without one.
Before there was Stone Caravan, the band was known as “Three Chords and the Truth.”
Yeah, I got it from U2’s Rattle & Hum. “All I have is this red guitar, three chords and the truth.” Bono did that. I was at the premiere of that movie in New York with U2. I went down into the subway with my roommate who played drums, and I didn’t play guitar yet, I just looked at him as we’re waiting for a train. We had just come out of this movie, U2 was there. It was this amazing premiere. I just said, ‘You know, we’ve gotta start a band.’ And he looked at me and goes, ‘Hey, I know how to play drums. You’ve got to learn how to play guitar.’ I went home and that winter I learned how to play.
My first guitar was an acoustic knock off. It’s actually on the cover of the Mirrors, Shoestrings record. And there’s a photo of it inside Rock and Roll Station. It doesn’t even play anymore. It’s kind of broken, but I have all my backstage passes I’ve ever gotten on that guitar.
Our first show was November 17th, 1989 in Long Island, City of Queens in the vacant apartment building we took over. We were living upstairs. We took over the downstairs and then December 4th it was either T-Birds or CBGBs and December 18th, either my second or third show, was at T-Birds in Asbury Park.
Before you started playing music, you were on the other side of the business working at Premier Talent Agency. What were you doing over there?
I got out of school in 1986, moved to Manhattan and started working in the music business. I got a job at Premier Talent Agency typing contracts and collecting their deposit money, as we called it. Any contract in the music business they collect 50% of the deposit up front. So I got a chance to work with a lot of really small bands, mid-level bands like the Ramones and Smithereens, Suzanne Vega. I got to work on some great artists, the Leonard Cohens, the Marianne Faithfuls. And I got to work on some big tours.
Back then, I caught the end cusp of the way agencies used to be run and the way that record companies used to think. There used to be a department called artist development. Artist development doesn’t exist anymore. It’s one of those reasons I started SCR Records because I became my own artist development. I’m confident now that I work hard and I make what I consider are records that I’m proud of. I like to listen and look backwards and occasionally see where I came from, but that was the development to get to here. Nowadays, you don’t have
development. You have a record and if you flop you’re gone.
That experience must have helped you to wear all the hats later on, right? You saw the business the way most musicians never see it.
Yeah, and early on I was always embarrassed when I used to go down to Greenwich Village. I didn’t start Caravan really until late 1989. I finally picked up the guitar in 1987 or 1988, somewhere around there. So when I went down to Greenwich Village, probably around 1988, I would go down there and meet with other songwriters but I would never let anybody know where I worked or what I was learning. I was very embarrassed because I thought that to be a great artist you should know nothing about the music business and you should only know about art.
And there’s a part of me that, maybe still believes that a little bit and has held me back at times of trying to be a better businessman. I should probably care a little bit more than I do, but I care enough to keep the ball rolling.
To this day when I walk out on stage, I’m very much the person I always dreamed I could be or wanted to be. I’m really just getting lost in the song and getting lost in the performance. And when I’m in the office I do what I need to do. Fortunately, I can just walk in here and jam for a half hour. It’s one of the ways I can keep going when I get a little tired or frustrated over there. Then it becomes like, “Ok, put it down, make some phone calls.” It keeps it really honest.
I noticed you are definitely hitting Europe a lot with guys like Southside Johnny and Nils Lofgren.
My co-manager is Bob Benjamin and Bob’s tied into the Jersey Shore scene. I guess we have done a bunch of shows over the years. I started supporting Southside on and off when I was first starting out in 1992. I was doing some band dates with him and that was on and off, but on these European shows he didn’t want bands he only wanted solo. So I’ve been doing a lot of solo stuff during the last 5 or 6 years.
Nils is a real nice man. That was supposed to be an evening with Nils. He was doing 30 theatre dates in the UK and he gave me 9 of them. And that was supposed to be just him playing because he plays quite a long show. So it was nice of him to give up 30 minutes of his stage time. It helps that I’ve been around the block a couple more times than say five or seven years ago where as people kind of know me a little bit.
And your following in Europe helps…
Yeah, it sells a few tickets. Certainly my following in Europe has helped. In the UK it really jumped up because of these Southside and Nils tours. In fact, they came out with a fanzine, a full-color, 40 page fanzine of me. Last month they mailed it to me, it’s not bad… “Let The Story Be Told.”
Do you read the reviews? Do you pay attention to that kind of stuff?
Some. Yeah, I read things. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve only read one bad review of me since I started from day one. I’ve been really lucky.
Was that from a college paper?
That was from a college paper in Yale.
I was wondering if you had seen that one.
The funny thing is that on Google or something it’s one of the ones that comes up right away. One of my co-managers, Gord Hunter, just extended an invitation to that reviewer to see me play with Huey Lewis in Connecticut later this month. It’s funny because I said to Gord, “Listen there are people out there who don’t like Elvis or the Beatles.”
This guy really dug in. A friend of mine, we were on the phone together when I found it. I was like you’ve got to go to this page. We read the thing out loud to each other on the phone and we just cracked up. The next review the guy did was a violin concerto that got five stars, so I’m pretty sure this guy’s a classical music fan. I’ve gotten some almost embarrassing good reviews as an independent artist and that’s great, but that’s the one. I don’t mind reading them though.
What’s the hardest thing about being an artist on your own label?
The hard thing for me is that if a kid in Iowa or Minneapolis trips upon my music and doesn’t have access to the Internet he’s not going to find my records. That’s where the Sony’s and the Warner Brother’s come in.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to hold yourself up against the great artists. The odds are slim to almost none, but hopefully if you make that your goal somewhere along the line you’ll become pretty good as an artist. My goal has always been to get somewhere along the line.
Radio stations have been a tough thing. I mean, to actually get them out to radio stations in this Clear Channel/SFX world is almost cost prohibitive as an independent label. As a small independent label, I’d rather take that money and tour on it as well as live on it.
Right now, there’s a part of me that likes how everything’s grown. It’s taken a little while, but nothing in my career at this point is bought and I can’t say that for every major label or even large independent label.
How difficult is it for you being a much bigger name abroad?
It’s a double edged sword. It feels good that anyone likes the music anywhere. The fact is that for years I went to a day job. I’ve worked very hard and now I can just really work on music. As an independent it’s not easy.
Sometimes when I see major label artists or people who have success complaining, it really irks me because I know what I need to get by as an artist on the financial level. That guy who’s sitting in Chestershire UK or Bern, Switzerland who’s hitting my website and putting together an order for 3 CDs and 2 t-shirts is a really important person to me. Because that allows me to continue to write songs and I don’t take that lightly as an artist. That’s why after every show I spend a good amount of time out at the table signing cds and talking to people. Without those people I do not exist as an artist.
There’s also a little part of me that’s absolutely amazed that anybody buys my records. I started off a little late in this game. I was 23-24 picking up the guitar. I had this absolutely foolish belief that I could do this when no one else believed I could. Maybe one or two other people right around me said keep doing it and occasionally you’d meet someone who’d come up to your show and you’d know you got through to one. I’ve always believed if you could get through to one person you can get through to ten, which leads to 100, 1,000, 10,000. So, now it’s down to the point where I get through to thousands of people. Will it ever get to hundreds of thousands or millions? I don’t think so, but maybe. I think if a lot of people are going to know about me it’s going to be from a song that just really takes off from a movie soundtrack.
I grew up on the Grateful Dead and the Dead was a big influence on me. Here’s a band that never got played on MTV, VH1 or radio. And seeing what Phish has done, and Widespread Panic and Government Mule, all these bands that have been able to be quite large without that exposure. So there is a way.
I was wondering about your relation to the Grateful Dead with your bootleg series.
The only artist I’ve seen more than Bruce, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan is the Grateful Dead. I’ve probably seen about 60 Grateful Dead shows, but I don’t own any CDs or cassettes. To me, they were always the live experience. It was the party that went on and the sub-culture that existed and still to the day exists around them. It always amazed me.
The thing I get from the Dead the most is I don’t ever walk on the stage with a set list. The Dead never played with a set list. I usually know what I’m going to close with and, most of the times, what I may open with but I yell out the songs in-between. I just like that looseness.
I’ve always wanted to meld my East Coastness with the Grateful Dead. I’ve been working on it for ten years now. It’s tough because at face value people who like the Dead don’t like Jersey Shore music and people who like Jersey Shore music don’t like the Dead’s music. But the common element between the two of them is Bob Dylan. Bruce is by far the most popular Jersey Shore artist and the Grateful Dead is by far the most popular hippie artist and the biggest influence on both of them is Bob Dylan. So, there is something under that umbrella of both and I’ve been trying for years to merge those.
I did some recording with guys who were really into Phish in the mid-90s. And I kind of wish I would have experimented at the time. I wonder if I would have went down that path if that would have really brought me closer to the marriage I was looking for.
You’ve been very involved with benefits. What drives you with that?
The first song I ever sang on stage was “Taxi” by Harry Chapin. I tend not to believe too much in weird coincidences, but around 1997 I was asked to play the Beacon Theatre on the Springsteen tribute show called, “One Step Up… Two Steps Back,” which was benefiting World Hunger Year. Bruce has certainly been an influence on me, his humanity and how he’s been with charities. So, here I am being pulled into to a show by an artist who’s influenced me on that level and the reason we’re donating this music is because of this artist that I first sang on stage when I was fifteen years old and dreamed of this thing. It was weird.
So then I got to meet some of the World Hunger people and I really liked them. There’s a part of Harry Chapin that I see sometimes as I’m out there on the road. I feel like I’ve met his spirit a few times. The thing I liked about the guy was that he actually believed he could stop world hunger. Now whether he could or not is not the point, the fact that you believe you can is the point. I like fools with a lot of good positive energy. It’s very easy to be cynical. It’s very easy to say no, to say that can’t be done. It’s a lot harder to say why not or even yes.
I’m not on a big label. I don’t sell tons of records so I can honestly say not enough people care about me anyway. I’m a pretty honest guy. But at the same time, if a few people trip upon these CDs and like them they might turn around and get the other records. For one, it’s never been about the money. I didn’t get into music for money. I didn’t get into music for girls. Those weren’t the reasons I got into this.
I dated here and there, but I was just really blinders and focus. I really probably got about eight years of playing my first few years. I still don’t play lead guitar. I’m still just a pure rhythm guitar player. I’m more interested in writing songs and trying to convey whatever it is that’s making me tick. I was writing all these lyrics and I always kind of thought there had to be a reason why. Maybe there is no reason why, but for me that was the motivation.
Along the way, I’d like to see my music get out there and certainly earn a good living. I just had my first child, so now I want to make money to take care of my wife and my family and that comes into play. I’ve always loved the charitable aspect of music. How can I go about trying to do it all at once? Some people say you can’t. They say it hurt Harry Chapin’s career trying to do that. One thing I like about the music business, and maybe life in general, is there are no rules. As long as you can get to the next day and keep a roof above your head, keep everyone fed, and pay the bills there’s always the opportunity for something to happen. Maybe that’s why I get involved with these organizations. At my core I’m definitely a dreamer and certainly an optimistic fool.
You’re sort of an adopted son of the Jersey Shore. What is it about the music of the Jersey Shore?
It pulls you in. It’s almost like when people see movies and move to Hollywood to be in the movie. There is something about playing down at the Jersey Shore. I can’t wait for the day when Asbury’s a healthy environment again, but there is something. It almost seems like the Jersey Shore and the “Asbury Park sound” is more popular other places on the earth than it is in America and along the East Coast, which is a shame.
I remember this one quote with Bruce and Little Steven talking about “play every show like it’s your last show.” Now it may be, career-wise or health wise, who knows? But if it is going to be then you can look back at your last show and say, yeah.
I remember when early on, there would be five people in the crowd. Even now there’s nights now as an independent band when we’ll go out there and some crowds are definitely bigger than others. And we’ll have people come up to us and say, “Wow, I wish there could have been more people but you played as if there was 5,000 people here tonight.” To me, that’s the best compliment I’m gonna get on the night. Don’t waste anybody’s money, don’t waste anybody’s time, just go out there and try to do it. I think it’s probably because I used to go see concerts a lot from working in the business and when I was a kid going to see a lot of shows spending my hard earned money and just seeing some artist that didn’t do it. Either they didn’t have the ability to do it or they just didn’t care, they were just going for the paycheck. Well, I don’t get paid enough to worry about the paycheck.
How do you feel about being part of the Asbury Park scene?
Absolutely honored and love it. It’s a double edged sword to belong to a music scene or to be part of. Now in the mid-90s, I started doing a lot of shows in Milwaukee, Chicago, the Midwest. I wanted to be more associated with the Replacements and the Bodeans, because of the shadow of the Jersey Shore. Bruce’s shadow was quite large and I’d seen other people be overshadowed by it and get very upset by it. So, I wanted to be an Americana band from the East Coast. And I believe we’ve been able to pull that off. As the years have gone by I’ve probably grown more accepted of my Jerseyness.
I live in Rockland County in New York but the end of my street is New Jersey so I have the best of both worlds. If I want to be from New York, I’m from New York. If I want to be from Jersey, I’m from Jersey. I get letters from people saying “musicians such as yourself, Southside Johnny, Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen.” And that means a lot to me.
I’ve seen reviews in Norway where people have said “Bob Seger, Joe D’Urso and John Fogerty.” When I see that, it’s like maybe I did pull off this whole Americana/Jersey thing.
I always wanted to put out a record called, New York, New York only because of Frank but it’s a tough thing, it’s almost the same double-edged sword as the Bruce. Being part of a music scene where you pretty much know that you’re never going to eclipse the top musician from that scene is interesting shoes to stand in.
I think anybody coming out of Memphis after Elvis felt that way and anybody coming out of Liverpool after the Beatles felt that way as well. So those are the rules you’ve got to play with. It’s either going to rip you down or you make it into something more positive. The way I’ve been able to make it more positive is because some fans of Bruce’s music and Jersey Shore music have discovered my music. Then it becomes up to me. Do I stand in this one corner and be considered a derivative artist? Or can I take that and then turn it into who I am as a person? And that’s what I’ve tried to do.
Now when you come out with a new record and you’re working on something and everybody only wants to talk about Bruce’s next record coming out it’s a bit of a thing, but that’s the world you live in. You either live with it or you don’t. Yes it’s a big shadow, but it’s also a shadow I don’t mind standing in because I admire the person. As a kid he was something of a musical hero. As I’ve grown into a man, he’s more of a hero on a humanity level. I like the fact that when we see each other there’s a hello. I was able to hop on stage with the E-Street Band to sing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” I kind of like that. I’m not sure if I ever want to be friends. I think it’s nice to meet your heroes, but it’s probably good to keep a little distance because you might find things you don’t like. Kind of go about your business and do what you need to do...
But remain colleagues?
Yeah, if anybody would ever have told me when I was fifteen years old that I’d walk backstage at the Pony and Bruce Springsteen would turn around and go, “Hey Joey, what’s going on?” I’d say they were nuts! And that’s cool, I love that. The only way I could equate it is when Bruce was a younger artist and Elvis or Dylan acknowledging him. That’s a real cool thing, but my biggest challenge is how do I turn that corner and become that other thing? I’m hoping that it’s gonna be with the mixture of that Jersey Shore and my hippieness. Not that I’m a hippie, but it’s the background with all the Grateful Dead stuff and being much more free and alternative to the music business.
People always say to me, “The music business is in such a sad state right now. How does that affect you?” I say, “It doesn’t.” I don’t exist in the music business, I exist in an independent world that we’ve created. I’m just trying to keep moving up, but whether the music business sells 40 billion records next year or one billion doesn’t affect what I do day to day.
It’s funny because when you’re overseas, a lot of the fans think like on Thursday night everybody has dinner together, which would be great... we should start that. We’ll all go to Bruce’s house for dinner.
Asbury Park is like a mythical place to many music fans around the world. When you see fans after the show that know you are sort of grouped with them, how do they view the area?
I think they look at it as the – the word mecca has religious attributes, but I’ll use it anyway - the mecca of where this style of music that affects them so much comes from. If Bruce was the first artist that they tripped on and then they found out about Southside and then they found out about Bon Jovi later and then they found out about Joe Gruschecky and then they found out about John Eddie and then myself. How? Where? Why is it? How could this one area shoot off so much different music under the rock and roll umbrella.
I mean, Bruce covers a bunch of it. Johnny tends to be more R&B and horns. John Eddie has a little bit more of that Mott the Hoople / Stones kind of thing going on. We tend to be a little more Americana, a little bit harder. Gruschecky tends to be a little more stomp. Everything has its different angle within that thing. Probably one of the things that Bruce does, only because he’s had a bigger career and a longer career, is that his style may have encompassed all of that.
It’s a mythological thing, I think more so than any other. I’m really proud to be part of this Asbury scene. Seattle had a scene and there was some really good bands from there, but it’s almost kind of quickly gone by the wayside or moved around. Liverpool had a scene but that kind of dispersed as did all of the different scenes that have happened around the world. Even though it happened twenty years ago, a lot of those artists from the Asbury scene are still playing. Now if Domenic Santana didn’t reopen the Stone Pony it would have went more by the wayside.
Domenic’s a character on to himself, without a doubt. But the fact is that it’s a hard thing because none of these artists are going to allow themselves to be branded as a commodity like Asbury Park, USA. We did a tour once over in the UK with myself, John Eddie and Joe Gruschecky. The promoters there promoted it as “Greetings from Asbury Park, the Sounds of Asbury Park” to help the ticket sales. The funny thing is none of us are from Asbury, but we’re all associated.
I don’t care if you have the finances of Bruce Springsteen or the hard working sense of a Southside Johnny. They do things for the right reasons. That’s one of the reasons why I like being associated with them on many levels. I’ve certainly learned a lot and some people say I’m trying to emulate what these people are doing. Well, these people played some of the best music I ever heard as a kid and as human beings they do the right thing, so show me where the negative side is.
From the book Beyond The Palace by Gary Wien
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.