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Jonathan Cain (right) during the interview with Michael Laskow at the TAXI Road Rally.
Jonathan Cain (right) during the interview with Michael Laskow at the TAXI Road Rally.

Interviewer: Michael Laskow

Michael: So, I’d like to share a story with you.

On July 2, 2018, my family and I were on vacation, and on that morning, I did what I do every morning—I pulled my laptop out from under the bed— yes, I work on vacations, sadly—and I checked to see who had joined TAXI the night before. I saw the name Jonathan Cain, and I thought, “It can’t be THAT Jonathan Cain.”

A chill ran down my spine! “What if it IS, and he gets a critique from one of our screeners that says, ‘Your intro is too long?’” [audience laughter]

I started hearing music in my head:

"Don’t Stop Believin’," "Who’s Cryin’ Now", "Open Arms", "Any Way You Want It", and "Faithfully". [Audience applause]

My palms began to sweat. I had to know if it was THE Jonathan Cain, so I did some sleuthing, and sure enough, it WAS! I remember thinking, “Please dear God, don’t let any of our A&R people tell him his melodies aren’t memorable enough or his songs aren’t hits.”

When I got back from vacation, I saw that TAXI’s emails to Jonathan were bouncing back, so I looked him up in our database, and I dialed his number to get the correct email address.

A curious voice on the other end said, “Hello?” “Hey Jonathan, it’s Michael Laskow from TAXI, and we noticed that our emails to you are bouncing back. It looks like your email address got messed up.”

Jonathan replied, “Sorry, I probably wasn’t wearing my glasses when I filled out the form.”

We chatted for the next 45 minutes, and I kept thinking, “He’s an incredibly nice guy—very genuine, and most of all, he seems to really appreciate all the good things that have happened in his life.”

When we ended the call, I bought his book, Don’t Stop Believin’, which if you haven’t read his book… It’s not just another, “Oh, yeah, here’s a rock star. Oh, the poor guy has to stand up in front of 50,000 people in packed stadiums every night.” The book is so inspiring, it’s a page-turner, you won’t be able to put it down. Anyway, I bought the book, and as I was reading it, I kept thinking, “The reason that Jonathan Cain is so successful is that no matter what, deep down, he really never stopped believing.” It’s not just the song, it’s a way of life for him. It’s a chain that has gone throughout his entire life.

Jonathan Cain is inspiring, and that’s why I knew he would be a perfect recipient of TAXI’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

When I asked Jon if he would fly out and let us honor him, his response was simply, “I would be honored to be honored.”

Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for TAXI’s Lifetime Achievement Award recipient for 2019, Mr. Jonathan Cain!

[MUSIC PLAYS: "Don’t Stop Believin" from chorus.]

[Jonathan steps on to the stage to a standing ovation.]

Jonathan: My brothers and sisters—brothers and sisters of the song—you are in a movement, and I’m really happy to be here, because this is the kind of thing that we all need for our confidence going forth and for our creativity. We need all the support we can get; we know that songwriting is sometimes the one of the loneliest things you can do in life as a profession. I can't tell you how many songs didn’t quite cut the mustard for me. It wasn’t until I ran into the co-writing idea with a guy named John Waite, back in the ’70s, that God showed me maybe I should write with somebody.

But it’s really an honor. Of course, in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame standing there with Steve Perry and the guys really meant a lot. And know that the fans—people like you—that voted us the #1 band that year was super special…and of course, Nile Rodgers, another great songwriter. And we just found out that Journey has been nominated to the Songwriter Hall of Fame.

Anyway, it’s great to be here. I feel proud of all of you for spending the time to come here and get what you need, and I’m sure you will. I’m really encouraged by this movement, the TAXI Rally.

Michael: On behalf of the people in this room and our members from all over the world, I would like to present you with this Lifetime Achievement Award 2019 to honor your songwriting craft, your performances, and your incredible accomplishments over the last FOUR decades. Congratulations, Jonathan! You richly deserve that. [much applause]

Jonathan: I want to dedicate this to my father, Leonard, who gave me those three immortal words, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” back in the ’70s. My dad is gone now, but I know he is smiling down on the whole thing. Thank you!

When we had another one of our phone conversations a couple of weeks ago, and I thought, “Wow, we have a lot in common—we’ve both spent our entire adult lives in the music business, we’re close in age, we both grew up in Illinois, we’re both passionate about crafting songs in the studio… We were sitting backstage, and all we were talking about was gear. "
I have a great studio in Nashville called Addiction Sound. I built it about 8 years ago, and I’m a gearhead. If you ever get to Nashville, look us up. We’re in Berry Hill. Keith Urban just recorded his last tracks there. And John Oates is a big client of ours. It’s a really serious little project room, if you will.

So I realized that we had all that stuff in common. But then I realized there are a lot of things we don’t have in common: Only one of us has written or co-written a whole bunch of huge, chart-topping hits…wasn’t me. Only one of us has been an integral part of The Babys, Bad English, and Journey. Only one of us has been an integral part of records that have sold more than 75 MILLION copies worldwide—just a staggering number. Only one of us is Grammy-nominated; only one of us is a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee. Only one of us has 2 BMI awards. Only one of us has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Only one of us knows how it feels to play multiple, sold-out stadium tours all over the world. Only one of us has been a part of 18 Top-40 Singles, 2 Gold albums, 8 Multi-Platinum albums, and 2 Diamond albums, and only one of us co-wrote what has to be one of the most licensed songs of all time, “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

As you accepted your Rock & Roll Hall of Fame award, you held up the award and you said, “I’d like to begin by thanking my father and mother for believing in me from the time I was 8 years old and after. Dad later said to me, 'Son, don’t stop believin'', in a phone call in the late ’70s. He is gone now. I miss you, Dad, and I love you.”

Would you…COULD you have become as successful as you are without the support you got from your family, and in particular from your father?
I don’t think so. I think everybody needs a vision-keeper, someone to keep that dream alive for you when you are going through the tough times that you have to overcome. And my father was the keeper of my vision. No matter how much I got my ass kicked when I was here in L.A., I would call my father and he would say, “We have a vision, Jon. I’m going to hold this to be true, and you agree with me.” So having that support when things were looking kinda down…I mean, I could’ve quit and given up, but he wouldn’t let me, because God showed him something…

He was very prophetic. When I was 8 years old, people would ask him, “Len, what are you gonna do with those accordion lessons with this kid of yours?” He’d say, “He’s gonna be a big star and play for 10,000 people a night. That’s what he’s gonna do with them.” And I’d say, “Dad, how many scotches have you had?”

And I started believing him. He said, “I’m gonna help you. Every so often we’re gonna have a meeting and I’m going check in with you and see how you’re doing with your studies, your career. I want you to learn everything there is about music. I want you to dive into it. I’m gonna give you this.”

This was after a horrible school fire. Our Ladies of the Angels burned down. In 1958 we lost 92 children and 3 nuns. My father saw a new path. He said, “Let’s move away from this sadness.” We all had post-traumatic syndrome from that, standing there helplessly watching the school burn down. “Music, Jon. God saved you for music.” [applause] That was my dad.

Jonathan proudly holds up his Lifetime Achievement award.
Jonathan proudly holds up his Lifetime Achievement award.

In your speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, you also thanked God for his guiding hand. Can you give me one more example, because you just gave a great one?
First of all, you have to understand how quick my “suddenly” was. I was here in the Valley selling stereos. I had sort of walked away from the [music] business, because I was a little bit bitter and negative on myself and the whole thing. So I said, “I’m going to get a day job and I’m going to write.” And four or five years later I was in one of the biggest rock ’n’ roll bands of the country, writing songs with Steve Perry. So how does that happen without God? Tell me. [applause]

People said when I lost my record deal at Warner Bros. here, “What are you gonna do now, Jon?” And I looked at them and I said, “I’m gonna find somebody to sing my songs. And boy, did God ever set that up! I could give him all the credit for it, and that’s just one example."

And when Journey broke up in 1987 or something…It wasn’t until, like,1998 that we actually got back on the road again, after Steve had left again—we had an uncertain time. Nobody wanted Journey without Steve Perry. They didn’t. The promoters didn’t want it. We had a lot of sort of resistance, if you will. But God kept saying to me, “Jon, the music is bigger than all of you. And if you put together the right combination, they will come. Build it and they will come.”

Well, in 1998, we went out on a break-even tour and played these little tiny theaters and proved to the promoters that Journey was bigger than one guy. And in 1999 we were headlining with Foreigner for Live Nation. In 2000, we made our album, Arrival, and we were off. And since those 20 years, my band has grossed $2 billion. [applause] Now if that’s not God, I don’t know.

Not bad for a kid with an accordion…
There’s not one day of my life that I don’t praise my Father. I just thank him up and down for that. That’s a gift. Thank you, Lord!

I’ve got to ask, have you ever played the accordion at any of the Journey shows?
You know what? I play it backstage. And when Lover Boy was opening up for us one time, I came into their dressing room and played “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend”, polka. They died. [Jonathan sings the polka melody.] Somebody took a video of it. And of course, it went on the bus for a while, and I was practicing all these old songs. So I bought a new accordion when I was in New York City, because mine had died. And the crew would…Actually, Ross (Valory, Journey’s bass player) really liked me to play, so that he could go to sleep. It put him to sleep. He’d say, “Play those Italian songs, it really makes me sleepy.” And I’m like, “OK.”

Do you remember the songs you used to play as a kid?
I do, and I play them. You know what? Playing that music as a kid gave me the folk music, the fabric of the working class. So playing “The Tarantella,” playing “Hava Nagila,” playing these songs, they made everybody get up and dance. Learning how to play the polka, “Lady of Spain,” you know, these songs are memorable. You name it. We’d play all these Mexican songs, these crazy songs. But they’re happy, they’re fun!

It’s like Sting, when he said in his book that playing all the standards with the band in the park shaped his music. It shaped what he was going to write. And I believe that playing that folk music, the Italian songs…Really, I mean, I did my first concert when I was 8 years old in this delicatessen, and the guy that owned the store upstairs heard me practicing, you know, “Oh, solo mio” and “Funiculì Funiculà,” and “Come Back to Sorrento.” So he said, “You do a concert here on Friday night. I’ll close the store and all my friends will come.” And my father said, “How did the concert go?”— because he came in late that night—and I said, “Dad, you know, I think I really want to be a musician. I love doing this, because I watched the room come alive with this music.”

I think it’s awesome that…I mean, how many in this room have stood on stage in front of 50,000 people night after night? Right? I’m guessing maybe only one of us. There’s that, only one, thing again. And the fact that in so many of our conversations, you talk about your childhood in Chicago…
It shapes who you are. You have to always remember where you came from. And melody was always key for me. You know, I love songs with great melodies. I learned all the standards as a kid, I put myself through college. I went to the Conservatory of Chicago, which is sadly no longer there. I paid for my own tuition; my father couldn’t afford it. But I did it playing standards with this elderly gentleman who played the sax—Jimmy Deljudice. He would come over and pick me up and we’d go do the casuals, we call them. And there I was, this little accordion player.

I learned the whole entire Fake Book. He gave me this thing called the Fake Book. Do you remember those things? I would spend hours playing this unbelievable music, and going, "Wow, this melody." "Stardust," you know, what a melody. I’d swoon over the melodies, and I wanted that. I knew somebody wrote that; I knew these were standards that were loved and approved by millions of people. And I thought "That’s what I want to do." So it put me right in it. But it was always the melody that really attracted me.

And your secret sauce is your melodies. You can put together four or five notes and make them memorable—that’s a talent. So I was going to ask you, at what point did you realize that you had a talent for melody and really put it to work? Because you obviously did it with purpose.
I think when I wrote “Open Arms,” it was a breakthrough for me. I was getting married to this gal down here in L.A., and I wanted to write a song to give to her as a music gift. I remember working it out and I didn’t have the lyrics to the verse, so I just played it on this upright piano, and then I sang the chorus, and everybody was weeping at the wedding. That’s how bad my singing was. No, just kidding. That was my first glimpse into, Wow, that’s a neat song.” And then I showed it to John Waite, and he passed on it. “I don’t like that very much.” [laughter]

But I never gave up on the song. So when Steve Perry asked me in 1981, “Do you have any ballads?” “As a matter of fact, yes, I do.” And I played him “Open Arms,” and we finished the song that afternoon. I finally had my partner to figure out the verses with. And when he sang it, I kept taking the key up. I said, “It still sounds too low. We need to go higher.” I’m a real musician, folks, I can play it in any key. My piano teacher used to do that to me all the time. “Do you know ‘The Shadow of Your Smile’? I want you to learn it in four keys.” So “Open Arms”, was in D, and it went to a whole fourth up. And when he sang it up there, I said, “The world is not going to believe this guy.” It’s just the way he could do it. I don’t think anybody sings “Open Arms” better than Steve, you know. And it went to #1 in Atlanta. I remember playing it live for the first time, and people lost their minds. It was great. I was so proud. I was very proud to have that little song that started on a Wurlitzer piano in a bedroom somewhere, being on the big stage.

You talked in the book quite a bit about patience and persistence, and that really resonated with me because when I first started TAXI in 1992, I wrote a little wallet-size manual for our members, and on the very last page it said, “Don’t forget the three P’s, which are: patience, persistence, and perseverance, and you echo that sentiment throughout the book. I am absolutely convinced that you would have been successful because you were unstoppable. You really were. You were on a mission, and you lived those words even in the face of tragedy, of bad times, the band breakups, all that stuff. So inspire them with something about patience, persistence, and perseverance.
The deal is that you were given a gift. If you have written a song, you are less than 1% of the population that can write a song. People ask me all the time, “How do you do that?” Well, you do it, and all of you out here that have written a song have that gift. And that gift has to be nurtured. It’s like a garden, you’ve got to water it, you gotta use it, keep the weeds out, and never let it die. It’s who you are, it’s part of your identity. I believe that writers have that in their DNA. This is who you are, and so the more you flex that identity, and look for the originality within you. You are different than anybody else. Each one of us has their own identity in this room. We all are different, and we all have a unique something to say about something. And that’s for us to just mine, just constantly mine, farm it, work it, write about anything.

I wrote a song about my dog. I loved my dog, and when he died—Nero, my German Shepard—I wrote a song called “Man’s Best Friend.” It ended up being on…Tony LaRussa has an art foundation, which is the Animal Relief Fund. It ended up being on their video. So, every song you write has a destiny. I don’t care if it’s for somebody’s birthday party and you inspire somebody, or you give it to them as a gift. This is my gift, you know. You are sharing your identity and the gift that God has given you. [applause]

Don’t miss Part Two of this interview in next month’s Transmitter!