Jay Jay French of Twisted Sister Answers Questions Never Asked & Talks Lifetime of Hustlin’ & Rockin’ (INTERVIEW)

“I became a rock star but I’m also a real musician who changed my focus in order to succeed.”

Twisted Sister guitar player Jay Jay French had announced to his family one day that he was going to be a rock star. After spending years as a drug dealer in New York City in his youth, after running off to Amsterdam with his friend and selling drugs there, getting written about in Time Magazine, inciting a riot at his high school and spending his money on concerts, he wanted to be one of them. It took years to finally reap the rewards of hard work but Twisted Sister ended up being heavy metal icons amongst a legion of other bands that either petered out once grunge hit or have stayed the course without ever reaching the highest of heights. Twisted Sister lasted. Kids today know who they are and their biggest hits blast out during commercials daily. It’s quite a tale and French is telling his … but with a twist (pardon the pun).

Knowing that he wanted to write about his life and career, French didn’t want to just say, hey, I did drugs, played rock & roll & made money. He wanted to put more meat on the old timeless story’s bones. He wanted to give something to the reader that could carry into their personal lives to help them be better, be smarter, be more intuitive to the possibilities of what life and business can offer. He might not have intentionally set out to change someone’s life but that may end up being the case.

Twisted Business, French’s new book, starts at the beginning with his childhood of selling cookies in boy scouts, witnessing violence in his New York neighborhood, being rebellious and an activist at the same time and discovering rock & roll and drugs. In the early seventies he went from a hippie to a glam rock worshiper and played his first gig with the band that would evolve into Twisted Sister. In 1975, he met Dee Snider and by 1985, they were the third biggest band in the world after the back-to-back releases of Stay Hungry and Come Out & Play. The PMRC didn’t like their look, their lyrics or their songs, calling them up for Senate hearings saying they were causing the degeneration of America’s innocent youth. They messed with the wrong band, who turned out to be clean and sober. That just made their hit, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” even more of an anthem for the kids, and anyone else feeling bullied by authority figures.

Although Twisted Sister ended up disbanding, they came back together for concerts and a Christmas album. For French, who managed the band, he took his lessons learned and built for himself a new career writing and speaking about business. And Twisted Business embodies everything he knows. So from here, I will let French tell you about all that. He likes to talk and doesn’t hold back. 

How long had you been thinking about writing this book and what got you to actually sit down and do it?

Well, the idea came to me in 1988 and I started it and then aborted it. I’m glad I did because there were so many more stories and lessons to be learned that I couldn’t even have imagined had I had a book in 1988, because so much happened after that. Then about ten years ago, I was approached by someone who got me a co-writer and a book publisher and an agent but that didn’t work out. Then through a variety of circumstances in my speaking engagements, I ran into Steve Farber, who is my mentor in the speaking engagement world and also a best-selling business author. I like collaborating with people. I think collaborations are very important. It allows for objectivity. Someone has to say, Enough! The stories are so big that if I was to write the book myself it would have been a nineteen volume history. So Steve was able to say to me, “Look, it’s going to be 240 pages,” and it helped to kind of crystallize the concept.

So how long did it take you to actually write Twisted Business?

It took four years. I’m a professional writer but I brought a professional writer in because I felt, like I said, I needed another perspective in here. So we did thousands of hours of interviews and analysis and stories for the whole concept to take shape and we wound up with something totally unique, which is the world’s first bizoir, which I am really proud of.

Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to incorporate your business/motivational side so strongly in the text?

I don’t know how you can separate it, really. I think if you’re going to do a business book, a business book is a memoir anyway because your rules of business are defined by your experiences in life. But I’ve been a manager for forty of the fifty years of the band’s existence so there was no way I could take the managerial side out. Plus, it’s the managerial side that gives it an objective view of the business and I wanted it to be a cautionary tale. I didn’t want to scare people out of the business, I wanted to scare them smart. I didn’t want to scare them straight, I wanted to scare them smart. I wanted to basically give people a roadmap to succeed with the Twisted Method. Twisted Business is basically a memoir and then the Twisted Method Of Reinvention, which I am very proud to have come up with that concept.

Did you find the book world as crazy as the music world? 

Well, it was painful to a degree but nothing is as bad as the record business. The record business is a bunch of garbage and it’s always been a thug-oriented world of legal criminality. And to get into it and to understand it and to really fully understand the legal criminality of the business is something to behold. Musicians have no idea. 

I always swore to myself as I grew up that there were three kinds of people in the world: the people who make it happen, the people who watch it happen and the people who go, what happened? And I was never going to be the person who said, what happened? That makes up 99% of the world. I was either going to make it happen or watch it happen. I was going to be aware of everything that happened. So as I started learning how the business functions, the mind boggles as to the insanity of this business. 

By the way, most of the real horrible people in the business are not the musicians, they’re the executives in the ivory towers of these buildings whose narcissism is designed to make musicians feel like crap. So in a way the book is a warning shot and a lesson to be taught on what to expect as you’re climbing – how to handle the rejection that’s going to be inflicted upon you. As I like to say, we were turned down more times than a bedsheet and we’ve come back more times than Freddy Krueger. And that’s important to understand. The way you survive it is to reinvent yourself and come back and come back until you control the scene. Then you have the power and that takes time.

But haven’t you always been that way since you were a kid? A take charge person. It doesn’t seem like you falter at all?

No, I falter a lot. The key is to come back after you’ve fallen. That’s really the key. And I take you through a process of understanding how we came back from rejection after rejection. I give real tools in the book. It’s the Twisted Method Of Reinvention. I take the letters of Twisted Sister and turn it into a learning program: Tenacity, Wisdom, Inspiration, Stability, Trust, Excellence and Discipline. And I take people through a step-by-step process of how we overcame the rejections that were constantly in our path, where the whole thing exploded and blew up in our face. 

As smart as we were, we lost everything. Dee and I had to file for bankruptcy and then we started our lives all over again. Dee found a salvation through writing a hit song for Celine Dion; I found salvation through producing a hit record for Sevendust. And eventually we came back together, which I detail in the book, which is a template towards maturity, which doesn’t exist in the entertainment world too much, and when we came back in 2003, we then had a fourteen-year career as one of the biggest headliners in all of the festival world circuit, in Europe and South America; came back with a Christmas record and it really was vindication for all the hard work we put in. And speaking of hard work, I put all the thousands of shows we ever played in the back of the book to give people an idea of how much you have to work in order to be successful.

Of these letters, is there one in particular that you think is the most important?

I would say they’re all interrelated but the T for Tenacity is the most important because if you have no tenacity you will never survive. So you have to pretty much have an unbending approach to success, that you’re going to get it no matter what. And I’ll tell you, when you see a Gold medal skier, it’s because they’re up at 4:00 in the morning skiing. Now you and I aren’t going to be getting up at 4:00 in the morning skiing but the one who wins the Gold medal will. And the person who wins the marathon, they’re up at 4:00 training every day cause they’re going to do it and you’re not going to do it. 

The difference between those who do it and those who don’t do it is the tenacity one has to reach a goal. And our goal is to be the best live rock band in the world, so we’ve worked really hard at doing it when most people would never do what we did. I mean, it was insane to do this many shows. We’d already done thousands of shows before we ever had a record deal. That’s why we were so prepared for life. But in the first three years of the band, we had done 4500 performances. These days you ask a young person and they go, “Man, I play once a month.” That doesn’t do it, unfortunately. We sacrificed everything to get it. So I would say the T for Tenacity. Without that, none of the other pieces will fall into place.

What about T for Trust?

There are two levels of Trust. One is the trust that your partners have to have in you to trust a vision so that they’re willing to go the distance with you. The other is the trust that people have that you can deliver what you say you’re going to deliver. You know, Twisted Sister has always been one of these kinds of bands where when the contract says we’re onstage at 9:15, we’re onstage at 9:15, because we learned to do that and the promoters can expect us to do it. When a promoter hires us to play in front of a hundred thousand people, he knows we’re going to blow away a hundred thousand people. There are not that many artists that can play to a hundred thousand people. There are very few and they’re the best that exist in the world because a promoter has to trust that the band is going to deliver and they do what they say they’re going to do. And Twisted Sister is proud of the fact that we can deliver that and we can be that headliner and we can make sure that that festival when it’s headlined by Twisted Sister, that that hundred thousand people will walk out going, “That’s the best show we’ve ever seen.” That’s what makes it happen. So it’s the trust that people put into your work ethic that allows you to be as excellent as possible and the trust that the partners that you have in your business trust your vision that you’re going to be able to take them to that promise land.

Did you realize something about yourself, or your past self, that you hadn’t realized before writing this?

Well, I hate to use that word to be perfectly honest cause sometimes the words right after that are the biggest lies on the planet Earth. But I knew that I had an enormous capacity for self-discipline, cause I ran two marathons basically on a bet; like I never ran one before. Someone said, “Can you run a marathon?” and I ran two marathons. The guy said the first time, “Can you do a marathon in under four hours?” That’s even crazier but I did it. I ran it in 3:50. So I always knew my capacity for discipline was strong but what happened was, and in the course of the book I explain the process, I kept diaries for years and years and years, and unbeknownst to me, I mean, I was doing these things just organically, but keeping a diary was an extraordinary tool cause I was able to reflect back on the worst times of my life and I saw that I got through them. 

By doing the book, it became clear to me that there was a process by which we succeeded over and over again, and the process was this process of being rejected, mourning the rejection, reflecting on the rejection and retooling and reapplying our new approach. So by researching the book, it brought home to me that we didn’t know at the time that we were doing this but we did it. That was the most startling part of the book, that there was absolutely a structure and a reason. It wasn’t just sex, drugs, rock & roll and fairy dust. That’s the myth, right. “Oh man, that band has a hit record; right place, right time.” No, it’s not. Life is not American Idol, life is not The Voice, life is not a twenty-year old kid wins one of these awards shows and says tearfully into the camera, “I want to thank all my fans for sticking with me for fifteen weeks.” I mean, you have to fall off your chair in hysterics when you hear that shit. It’s like mind-blowing. “I want to thank my fans, my Instagram fans, for sticking with me for fifteen weeks.” I’m sitting there throwing up, you know, because that’s not how it works. 

The biggest mistake that really young people make is that they think success is permanent. Fame is rented, it’s never owned. And people don’t understand that. The public rents you fame and it’s your responsibility to protect it and to try to maintain it. Most people don’t. And when you’re younger and successful, it falls apart. Twisted didn’t make it until we were in our thirties and here we are, seventy years old and possessing two of the most famous songs in heavy metal – “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock,” which are the two most licensed songs in the history of heavy metal. Whether you like the band, you don’t like the band, doesn’t matter. The fact is, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is probably the most universally sung song around the world. 

Just yesterday, I got a video from Ecuador. The president of Ecuador was using it as a campaign song. I’m not getting into the legality of it, I’m just saying the point is he was using it. We got another video from Spain and a guy running for president of Spain was using “We’re Not Gonna Take It” as his campaign song. When Brexit was happening in England, someone sent me a video and they were singing “We’re Not Gonna Brexit” at the Parliament. The song was listed as the third most popular song of the Top 30 songs that unite Americans during 4th of July. Not “This Land Is Your Land,” not “We Shall Overcome,” not “Born In The USA,” not “Blowin’ In The Wind.” So we have a worldwide anthem. Did I think it was going to be this back in 1984? Rationally, no. I don’t think anybody could have foreseen it. But here we are in 2021 and if you look at the four big bands that came out in 1973 – KISS, Judas Priest, AC/DC and Twisted Sister – all four of us are still standing here in 2021, which says an awful lot to the tenacity of these four bands.

You write in your book about growing up in a so-called political household. What was it like growing up in New York during that time?

Well, my parents were very progressive and you know New York City is a very unique place to be born in and the speed that New York travels in, if this doesn’t freak you out then nothing will ever freak you out, cause it’s the craziest place in the world to grow up in. So I grew up in the sixties, I grew up in the heyday of the hippie movement, the heyday of the drug movement, the heyday of the rock & roll movement, when you could go to the Fillmore East on a weekend and see Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin or Jethro Tull or the Allman Brothers or the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane or Janis Joplin or Jeff Beck or Rod Stewart and you could see them every single night for $2 or $3. If you couldn’t afford it, you saw them at Central Park for $1 at the Schaefer Festival in the park. So we were inundated with rock & roll, we were inundated with drugs, and I get into the whole drug scene. 

The drug scene started out as a hippie-dippie flower power thing in 1967. By 1972, the whole scene in New York had gotten very dark and ugly and people were doing heroin and being murdered and that was the scene that I grew up in. I was a drug dealer, I was a drug addict, I was a high school dropout. I was a high school activist and I got thrown out of one high school for starting a riot and I sued the Board Of Education for violating my constitutional rights at the time. It was a heady time to be all of those things. To be able to deal drugs, take drugs, be politically active and practice rock & roll, I was multi-tasking, I guess (laughs). I had a deep propensity for multi-tasking at an early age but I didn’t think I was anything special. A lot of people were doing the exact same thing, not just me, but I was, however, the only one that became as successful as I did that came out of that particular scene. 

But it was a very unique scene. However, the scene that deteriorated the drug scene is what scared me out of the drug scene and got me straight because I came close to death on a number of occasions, whether it was being murdered, death by misadventure or OD’ing and I pulled myself out just as I was about to go over a cliff. I did it on my own. And this was my survival instinct, which I have a very strong survival instinct. I pulled myself out at the last minute and I said to my mother, “Here’s the good news and the bad news. The good news is, Mom, guess what, I’m no longer dealing and doing drugs. The bad news is that I’m going to join a transvestite rock band.” (laughs) I don’t know which one she would have thought was the worst choice to make but she was like, “Really? Is that what you’re doing?” I said, “Yeah, David Bowie and everyone is wearing women’s clothing.” And she was like, “Oh great, okay. Well at least he’s not doing drugs.” (laughs) 

That band, of course, became Twisted Sister and that band had some severe drinking problems, which I had never been involved with. I don’t like drinking, I never drank really. I’ve had five beers in my life. I just don’t like the taste of alcohol. So I watched that version of the band struggle for two years and then alcohol destroyed that version of the band and the next version of the band was destroyed by methadrine and cocaine and that really was horrible. I took over management at that point and said, you know what, that’s it for this shit. Enough, I’ve had it, I’m going to build a straight band cause I can’t handle drugs and alcohol. It’s not good for rock & roll, it’s not good for any business. Now, I know that sounds like exactly the wrong thing to say in rock & roll, right, cause it’s all sex, drugs, rock & roll and fairy dust. I don’t care. It didn’t work for me and therefore I wasn’t going to allow myself to be destroyed by it and when I met Dee, Dee goes, “I hate drugs and alcohol.” The difference between me and Dee was that Dee never did it, which was even more astonishing. He never did drugs and alcohol. At least I was reformed. Then Mendoza joined the band and he hated drugs and alcohol. So we had a straight band and that’s how come we could work as hard as we could, because we were disciplined. 

People say to me, “Well, this band got high and that band got high,” and I say, “I can’t speak for those bands.” I can tell you that KISS didn’t. Gene and Paul didn’t. Ace and Peter did and they’re not in KISS anymore. That story is famous. Gene and Paul had a singular mind. Ted Nugent, you can hate his politics but he was a business guy, he’s straight-ahead. That’s how you survive in this business for long periods of time and as I tell the story in the book, when you’re straight in this business, the record companies freak out because they don’t want you to tell people that you’re not getting high because the people think you do. That’s the whole image, a crazy rock musician, so whatever you do don’t tell people you don’t do drugs. I said I’m not going to tell them that I do drugs and they said, “You don’t have to tell them anything, just don’t tell them you don’t, just avoid the subject.” I went, okay, but after a couple of years, I was like, this is stupid. If somebody asks me, I’m not going to say I do because of your warped version of the fact you think it’s going to destroy your reputation. 

The truth is, if you’re a politician and you’re found in a hotel room with an underage person and cocaine, you’re out of a job. If you’re a pro athlete and you’re found in a hotel room with someone underage and drugs, you’re out of a gig. But if you’re a rock & roll musician and you’re found in a hotel room with underage girls and drugs, they make a record and name an album after you and you get a Grammy. All of a sudden, you’re Keith Richards, because we live in a world of stunted emotional development and you can tell the way I’m talking, I’m not stunted emotionally (laughs). So I don’t want to play the game. I’m a New York kid, I come from a tough New York background so I don’t really give a fuck, honestly, if that’s what people thought. I eventually said, screw you, I don’t play that game. 

And Dee said it too. They accused us of destroying the morality of American youth and they dragged my singer up. My singer said, “Hey Dude, I’m probably straighter than half you idiots on the podium. You congressmen and senators probably are drinking and doing blow and screwing your interns. Meanwhile, we don’t drink, we don’t smoke, we’re happily married. God forbid, it sounds like a Jehovah’s Witness retreat, doesn’t it.” (laughs) So the irony of it is that we got accused of all this crap and we’re probably straighter than 99% of the people accusing us of all this wacky stuff. 

So again, do what you do, that’s fine, I don’t pass moral judgement on people. But the book, I believe, is a roadmap to success regardless of the business you’re in, whether it’s rock & roll or selling shoes, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a roadmap for success and I’m proud of it and people are calling it the Business Book of the Year now. Inc Magazine is doing a story on me, so it’s being taken seriously and I want people to take it seriously. It’s a true story, it’s not bullshit. We tell you all the good stuff that happened and all the bad stuff that happened. We tell you that the bad stuff happened because we made bad decisions. We’re not perfect, right. We got screwed up, we got screwed, but we always kept our eyes open and this is the result of all that learning. So if it winds up being a learning tool, then so be it, I’m happy about that, because the typical story of a band – band makes it and then drugs and alcohol destroys the band and then they get ripped off by their managers – that’s not what our story is. It’s a very different story than that. It’s a story truly of tenacity, because here we are. This December is going to be the 49th anniversary of the band. Are you kidding? I need Ibuprofen just to tell you that (laughs). My motto at my age is sex, prescription drugs and rock & roll (laughs). 

Speaking of rock & roll, when you first started learning to play guitar, what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?

Oh God, the F chord was impossible. I learned all the chords but I couldn’t make the F cause you had to hold two strings down with one finger and I swear I probably destroyed my hand trying to learn how to play an F chord. But you know what, could I just tell you, you’re the first person to ever ask me that question. I have done thousands of interviews and nobody has ever asked me that question. So you get a gold star for asking me a question nobody ever asked me.

So yeah, the F chord was the most difficult. I learned when I was ten and then I kind of like messed around and didn’t really play again. When I was fifteen, and I tell the story how I got the guitar in the book by selling cookies and I wound up playing bass guitar, but when I finally bought my first electric guitar with the money I made from dealing weed – I was a weed dealer when I was fifteen and I told people weed was going to be a future thing and I was right. I was ahead of my time by fifty-five freaking years (laughs). But when I bought my first real electric guitar, a Fender Telecaster, I got really sick with mononucleosis and I was home in bed for six weeks. I told my father to buy me three record albums: an album by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, an album with Eric Clapton and John Mayall called The Bluesbreakers and an album by Albert King called Born Under A Bad Sign. And I really, really, really, really kind of woodshedded, cause I was in bed for six weeks. I had like the old record player with a nickel taped on the arm because it skipped. These kids today have no freaking idea what this is all about but you know what I’m talking about (laughs).

So I had like a quarter or two nickels taped on cause the whole damn thing would skip. I probably destroyed more freaking records but I didn’t care, you know. In those days you can’t just push a button and play it again like you can on YouTube. You had to pick the damn arm up (laughs). So I’m sitting by the record player and I’m picking up the arm and playing the part and picking up the arm and playing the part. Oh my God, you’re really kind of bringing this all back to me now. It’s traumatic! (laughs) So essentially, when I came out of my sick bed six weeks later, I had actually figured out guitar parts and then I immediately went to Central Park where I was hanging out with other guitar players and I had the fundamental understanding of where the notes would go so then we all would kind of like share leads; like, show me how this one goes or how that one goes. That was how I learned. 

But I really wanted to learn so it wasn’t painful. You know, I talk about inspiration in the book, the I in Twisted, and inspiration fuels you when you don’t have money. All businesses run on inspiration, because you’ve got nothing but inspiration, but hopefully you can turn this inspiration into money before the inspiration runs out. Inspiration is basically a can of fuel – it only lasts for so freaking long, you know, before it runs out. I was inspired by Eric Clapton, by Albert King, by Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page; these guys inspired me and drove me to want to be able to play like them. Then I’d go to the Fillmore East every weekend and then I’d come home at 4:00 in the morning and put my guitar on my shoulder and pretend I was Duane Allman or Jeff Beck or Jimi Hendrix.

Did you see any of the blues guys?

I saw my first concert ever at the Fillmore and it was BB King and Johnny Winter. That was my first show. And also I can tell you that Muddy Waters played a little restaurant on the Upper West Side in 1969 and I went to the club and there were no seats left and it was like a small club and the club owner let me sit on his amplifier on the stage. So I sat on Muddy Waters Fender Twin. It was hot but I sat on his amplifier the whole night.

Which song in your catalog do you feel you really reached a pinnacle with your playing?

Oh God, no one has ever asked me that question. They’ve asked me what my favorite song is but they never asked me what song is the pinnacle of my guitar playing. Okay, alight, let me think. First of all, “Can’t Stop Rock N Roll” is my favorite solo on You Can’t Stop Rock N Roll. And I like my solo on “Don’t Let Me Down.” Those are my favorites.

Are you still striving today?

No, I concentrate on writing and speaking. I don’t play guitar much anymore.

But you still have guitars

I have many. I have sixty of them. They’re like my wife’s shoes, they have sex at night and there’s more of them the next morning (laughs).

What are the oldest ones you have?

A 1952 Les Paul, a 1953 Les Paul, a 1953 Martin, a 1954 Junior, a 1956 Junior, a 1958 Junior; that’s some of the older ones. But I’ve owned hundreds of them and I have about sixty left right now. They’re like the endless pasta bowl. I keep selling them and more just show up the next day (laughs).

What was the best advice you received and how have you modified it to what advice you give out now?

Wow, that’s another great question. Okay, two things. I only asked two people for advice. One was Tommy James from Tommy James & The Shondells. I met him once when we were playing with him. We had opened for him and for him it must have been a horrible gig cause it was a little bar, a corner bar in Long Island, 300 people. He was a superstar in the sixties and we were coming up so for us it was fun to be on a bill with him. But I’m sure he was humiliated to play in this corner bar. But as I passed him in the staircase, I looked at him and I said, “Do you have any advice for me?” And he goes, “Yeah, you meet the same people on the way up as you do on the way down so treat everybody well.” That’s exactly what he said to me. And I live that. 

Then Ahmet Ertegun from Atlantic Records, I said to him, “You’ve had such an amazing career. How do you go from John Coltrane and all these amazing Jazz guys to like Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills & Nash and AC/DC and on and on? How do you keep a successful business going?” And he said, “Success is easier if you don’t mind who gets the credit.” And I went, wow, that’s pretty incredible. 

And one last thing, which I describe in the book. Ronnie Altman owned a lighting company and we didn’t have a light show and I had no money and I was introduced to him and he owned one of the biggest lighting companies in the world. He talked to me for a while and he said, “Listen, can you afford $25 a week to rent a light show?” And I said, “Yes, I can.” He said, “Good. I’m going to give you a light show that costs about $10,000 and it’s just going to cost you $25 a week. Just make sure I get that $25 a week. I don’t care how you get it to me, I don’t care if it’s carrier pigeon, personally send it to me, put it in the mail, because the day you stop paying me that $25 a week, you will have lost the greatest friend you have ever had in your life. So don’t ever take this favor for granted.” And I made sure he got his $25 every week and he kept giving me more and more and more stuff. And one day I said, “Ronnie, you’re the most generous guy I’ve ever met. Why do you do this?” And he said, “Cause you proved to me you were a man of your word.” And that meant more to me than anything else in the world.

Photographs courtesy of Adrenaline PR

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