If I claimed that I would like not to bury John Tesh but to praise him, I would not be entirely truthful. But I do have to give him at least a modicum of credit for grace under fire. He knows as well as anyone that the most prominent items on his resume--his work on Entertainment Tonight, his widely disliked gymnastics analysis and his easily ridiculed music--make him an irresistible target. But rather than attacking cultural commentators such as Howard Stern and Jay Leno for having turned his name into a surefire punchline, he has guested on their programs and laughed along with their gags. It takes big balls to respond to assaults like these so well. So does being married to Connie Sellecca, whom he calls "Concetta" (shudder).
Tesh doubts that reviewers who slam his recordings actually go to the trouble of listening to them anymore; as he puts it, "They just keep hitting the track-change buttons until they get to one of the simpler romantic pieces and then they say, 'This is repetitive,' or whatever. They don't listen to the tunes that are in 12/4 or the tunes that are in 7/8." So to prove my dedication to my craft, I sat down and spun Tesh's latest disc, Avalon, from beginning to end. To save you the same trouble, you should know that the title track, "L'Aquila" and "Seven Fourty Seven" sound like theme songs to television shows you'd never consider watching; "Spanish Steps" is jaunty in a special-price-on-cat-food-in-aisle-seven kind of way; and "The Inn on Mt. Ada" and "Avalon Shores" are so mellow that they hardly exist at all. The only cut that might qualify as rousing is "Destiny," a faux-gospel showcase inspired by Tesh's religious beliefs--which are epitomized by the infomercial Tesh made with Bill McCartney intimate Gary Smalley. The first person he thanks on his liner notes is "Lord Jesus Christ," about whom he says, "I am broken and lifted up by your presence." Sounds painful.
In conversation, Tesh comes across as pleasantly thick-skinned and extremely talkative on a wide range of subjects. He also got in a few zingers of his own. At the conclusion of the interview, he said, with an unmistakable sprinkling of sarcasm, "Thanks--that was very cathartic for me."
ON THE ROCKS
JT (in reference to the risks of recording a 1995 live album and video-companion project at Red Rocks): I didn't have a commitment from anyone. It was like, "Let's just do this thing."
WW: So you did it on spec?
JT: Spec with a capital S. Which is also in the word "ass"--which is pretty much what I was going to be if it didn't work.
BABY, THE RAIN MUST FALL
JT: When we got to the business-manager stage, they had a meeting with me and said, "You can't do this. It's just absolutely impossible. The orchestra's going to be too expensive and there's a chance of rain--and you can't get rain insurance." But I had seen U2's Under a Blood Red Sky video and had visited and had totally fallen in love with the place--I was sold. Fortunately, my wife was really cool with it--it really was a family decision--so I took my TV money and borrowed money to do it. And of course, in the middle of the concert, it started pouring...Then, on the second night, the temperature dropped to, like, twenty degrees and everything went out of tune. Trying to mix that thing afterward was ridiculous. Let's put it this way: I won't be doing another TV special there anytime soon.
THE HOUSE THAT TESH BUILT
WW: You mentioned Under a Blood Red Sky. As soon as that video was made, people started associating Red Rocks with U2. But not anymore. Last year I was at a show there by the Sex Pistols, and Christopher Hall, the lead singer of Stabbing Westward, one of the opening bands, announced at one point, "I feel just like John Tesh." How does it feel to have supplanted Bono?
JT: I heard another story--that Bonnie Raitt said once, "It's nice to be in John Tesh's house"...It's really crazy, but we had almost the same thing happen with Avalon. There was a report in one of the tabloids that said, "Barbra Streisand and James Brolin reportedly got married this weekend on the island of Santa Catalina in Avalon, the city that John Tesh made famous." And I'm like, "I did not."
IF YOU'VE GOT THE MONEY, HE'S GOT THE TIME
JT (when asked about the gobs of dough raised by PBS stations nationwide via repeated airings of Live at Red Rocks): Don't you think they should give me a piece of the action?
THE JOKE'S ON HIM
WW: Is having a sense of humor important to you in dealing with some of the ribbing you've received from people like Howard Stern and Jay Leno?
JT: Well, I make fun of other people, too--I threw out some pretty sharp lines on ET, for example. So if you're going to do that, you sure as hell had better be big enough to take it. And if Howard Stern is the king of all media, then I'm the most maligned of all media. But the Leno stuff is pretty funny, because he's a very calculating guy. He will call me and say, "Hey, this stuff is getting pretty rough over here. Are you okay with it? Are you watching the show?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I'm fine." So then they orchestrated this whole thing where they came to this show in Detroit via live remote and interrupted it to give me a peace offering--which ended up being Wonder Bread. I'm not sure what that was supposed to mean. (Note: Hear Tesh's excellent Jay Leno impression online, at www.westword.com)
TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK
JT: One of the things I learned on ET is that it doesn't pay to fight back, because it just makes things worse. If you're angry, you just need to put your head down, because no matter what you say, it's not going to make any difference. It's what you do, not what you say--and I know that it sounds a little corny, but what I do is go out and play before between 5,000 and 10,000 people a night.
WW: Do the attacks make you angry sometimes?
JT: The only thing that makes me angry is when a reviewer takes a review from another city off of the Internet or off of Nexus and plagiarizes that or uses the headline without referencing it. That, I think, is just lame, because I'm a writer. I can write: I've written reviews and I've written television copy, and I got an A in creative writing. So I can do it--and I can appreciate it even when the reviews are negative. I've called some of these guys and said, "You know what? I can tell that you hated the concert. But at least you described what the audience's reaction was." If they do that, then it's fine...Then again, the fact of the matter is, if an alternative-music reviewer returned to the newsroom with a good review of a John Tesh concert, he'd be drummed out of the business.
THE MUSIC THAT MADE THE MAN, OR YET ANOTHER REASON TO HATE YES
JT: I was a concert hog. I saw 36 Jethro Tull concerts in a two-year period when I was in college. I drove all the way from North Carolina State, where I was going, to Stowe, Vermont, to see them once. And Yes--I've gone even further to see them.
JT: We've got people who do follow us around, too. There's one couple in particular: Sam and Judy. Sam is an applied-physics director at Johns Hopkins and she's a schoolteacher, and they've seen six concerts already this year and a total of eighteen the past two years. It's really wild.
"...AND WE NAMED HER JOHNETTA"
WW: What are some of the things you've been told that people have done to your music over the years?
JT: Once, there was a woman who showed up backstage with, like, a one-year-old in a carriage. And she said, "Hi, Mr. Tesh, my name is Melissa. Do you see this baby?" And I'm like, "Um, yes." And she said, "You were very important in this baby's life." And I said, "I don't even know you, lady." But she said, "No, I don't mean anything like that. This baby was conceived to one of your songs, and then we played that song when she was born." And I was like, "Phew. Thanks."
JT: We were in Atlantic City, and these kids--they were about nine or ten--rushed the stage and started beating on the stage in the middle of this one song. And I was like, "Oh, no, these kids are goofing on me." But we got them backstage with their mom, and we found out that they'd already been to two concerts and they were really into the music.
WW: You don't get any moshing, do you?
JT: No, but in Atlanta, we got some people who stood on the tables and started dancing during this Spanish tune we do. I think they'd had a little to drink.
BUT THE LITTLE GIRLS UNDERSTAND
WW: You took a lot of hits for supposedly pumping up the drama when you hosted the gymnastics coverage at the Atlanta Olympics. Did you think any of those complaints were justified?
JT: I think I got caught with my drama up. I'm a dramatic person, and I like that quality. But the problem was, there were dramatic things happening at every other venue at the same time. So it got to be sort of a drama overload, and even Bob Costas was very public about how much he didn't like my commentary--which I felt was really lousy. But the just deserts in all this were that I got a call from Dick Ebersol [head of NBC Sports] last week, and he wants me to do two prime-time gymno shows in August and then Sydney in 2000. And I'm going to do it--and maybe I will temper the drama a little bit more next time. But through it all, Ebersol's been great. During the games, he would call me every night and say, "Do not read the reviews. The focus groups are huge. People love this. Don't change a thing."
THE BRAT PACK
WW: What about the knock against the commentators for putting too much focus on American competitors and ignoring the rest of the world?
JT: Maybe that's a criticism for NBC; I didn't see the whole games. But I'm actually more of a fan of the Russian girls than I am of the Americans. I think a lot of the Americans are spoiled.
PERRY FARRELL AND JOHN TESH: BROTHERS UNDER THE SKIN
WW: Do you wake up each morning, look in the mirror and say, "Thank God I'm not doing Entertainment Tonight anymore?"
JT: I definitely look back on it fondly. I think if there had been acrimony, it might be different. I look at the way Joan Lunden and ABC are parting, and that doesn't look good--it looks like there's something going on there. But the people at ET were terrific to me, and they offered me a much lighter schedule. I probably could have survived doing the show and music at the same time. But I think it was like Jane's Addiction: When it's time to leave, just break it up and go on to something else.
WW: Were there ever days at ET when Mary Hart was just so darned perky that you wanted to slap her to calm her down?
JT: Mary is like that in real life. She is the genuine article; it's not like she switches that on and off. I've seen other people do that, but not her. But I've got to admit, when you wake up one day and you haven't had your coffee and you really don't feel like putting makeup on and you sit down next to her and she's perfect--well, that's when I wanted to kick her in the shins. Her legs were insured, so I always wanted to raise the premiums.
THE ARTIST CURRENTLY KNOWN AS TESH
JT: I may have a sense of humor, but I take myself seriously as a musician. I practice a lot every day. And I have a great band. I guarantee you, my band is the best-playing band that's out there right now. They're so good that I have to try and play catch-up with these guys. We may goof around with classical music in the middle of our shows, but as soon as people sit down, they realize that this is a serious, serious music concert. And the light show is bigger than Lollapalooza.
AS THE WORM TURNS
JT: The dangerous thing this year is that we've had some really good reviews. And I told the band, "That's a really bad omen."
WW: Maybe you're wearing them down.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
JT: Maybe so. But the more bad reviews we get, the more records we sell. When Leno and Stern say bad things about the records, the sales go crazy.
WW: So are you going to try to make your music worse so that you can get more bad reviews?
JT (in a notably glum tone): Oh, yeah. I think that's really the key.
John Tesh. 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 13, $20-$30, Red Rocks, 830-