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Journey’s Neal Schon on ‘Emotional’ Steve Perry Reunion, Rock Hall Induction

It was a vision that Journey fans have been fantasizing about for years: Steve Perry and Neal Schon standing side-by-side on an arena stage holding their hands up high in the air together and hugging like old friends. It took the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to make this happen, but even that wasn’t enough to get Perry to actually sing with Journey again. Still, Schon says the important thing was getting the friendship back on track. We spoke to the guitarist about the big night, what happened with Steve Perry backstage and where this could all go in the future. 

It’s been four days. Are you still buzzing?
Yeah, man. It’s really kind of surreal. The whole event was amazing. I really loved seeing Steve Perry, who I haven’t seen in a long time, since we did the Hollywood Walk of Fame [in 2005]. I went in his room backstage. I think it was one of the reasons I was so highly emotional. I hadn’t seen him in a long time and I realized how tight we always were. Looking at the old pictures and listening to the music we made together, I got emotional. Probably had I not been in his room before so I wouldn’t have been as emotional, but who knows? Steve and I were very, very tight for so many years.

At the end of Journey, around Trial By Fire [in 1996] or even Raised on Radio [in 1986] we were having a falling out as far as the direction of the band. It was more or less like that. There were a lot of other issues going on that were kind of stupid looking back. I’d hoped we’d put everything aside and get back to our great friendship that we always had, the admiration and respect we had for one another. I felt like that was definitely there. Some of his friends were in the room with my wife and I, and they snapped some photos. People can genuinely see that he was very happy and so was I. Every picture tells a story.

Did you have contact with him in the days leading up to the ceremony?
No, I had no contact at all. I had no idea what was going on. TMZ was waiting for me outside of the London Hotel in New York and I was like, “I have a big zero for you guys. I have nothing.” I knew he was supposed to show up. That was the bottom line for me.

How did you feel at the start of the ceremony?
At first I was told that we were going on the first thing of the evening, so I was kind of looking forward to that. There was a lot of nerves seeing everybody together onstage for the first time in many, many years. A little tension. But it turned out that we were in the middle, so as the evening progressed and I listened to all the great bands I started to feel more nervous. By the time I went on, I was supposed to be the first one to speak. I had a whole speech written out. It wasn’t on the long side, but definitely from the heart. When I walked up to the mic and Steve met me and he gave me this big hug I just couldn’t get it together to read, so I didn’t read. Whenever I do anything like this I just kind of speak from my heart and sometimes I go, “Oh, shit. I forgot to say this and that.” But I think I hit on some of the vital points I wanted to make.

What did you and Steve talk about when you were in his room?
I looked at him and said, “Hey man, I really miss you.” There was very good eye contact. It was real. It wasn’t just things being said because of the ceremony and to keep things cool. He said, “Coffee is way overdue for us.” I went, “Let’s do it. Please.”

I saw photos of him meeting Arnel [Pineda], who just looked euphoric to meet the guy after all these years.
He was meeting one of his all-time idols. I told Steve that when I met him in the room. I thought that was very gracious of Steve to do, and him giving him props too for keeping the band going, someone that I found. Arnel is very grateful and I was happy to see that.

Did they meet prior to the speeches and performances or after?
I believe it was before.

TMZ reported that morning you were going to perform with Steve, which obviously didn’t happen. Were you aware of all the reports flying around that day?
I couldn’t help it. My phone was blowing up. I was on the phone with management. I was talking to them and they were kind of puzzled too since they hadn’t heard anything from his manager, and his manager didn’t know anything about it. After that they just made a statement saying he was just showing up to accept the award. Knowing everything else and how he was feeling – he was very emotional too – it’s understandable to me that he wouldn’t want to sing. It was just highly emotional.

Were you hoping he’d change his mind?
I wasn’t even thinking like that. To me, the main thing with Steve is that we were always great friends and music was kind of always there, but right now we haven’t seen each other in so long. I’m just looking forward to getting reacquainted with the guy and be his friend. That’s where I’m at.

I thought Arnel sounded amazing, especially with the pressure of knowing Steve was in the house.
Especially with the induction happening in front. Had it been the other way around I think he wouldn’t have been as nervous, but I could tell after doing many, many years with Arnel now – this is his 10th year – that he was very nervous. I know with the monitors it was very difficult to hear. It was very difficult for me to hear. He said he couldn’t hear anything. Who knows what we got there? I thought we played well. The band is always top notch, I think. He is always as good as he can hear.

How was it to have Gregg Rolie and Aynsley Dunbar back for one song?
I loved it. It was something I’ve been trying to make happen for some time. Without Gregg finding me at a little club in Palo Alto and coming in to see me play with a local Bay Area band, since he heard about me with Michael Shrieve, I never would have been introduced to Santana, and who knows where I’d be right now? I owe it all to those guys for taking me under their wing when I was so young. Without Santana, there would be no Journey.

How did the all-star jam on “Rockin’ in the Free World” come together?
It was really funny. That was my first time meeting those guys, definitely my first time meeting Eddie [Vedder]. They couldn’t have been nicer, all of them. All very, very cool, super-great guys. I had to go two days in a row for soundcheck before the event. The first day was for Journey and the second day was for the jam. We head over there from downtown New York. I get there just in time for soundcheck and there’s a zillion people on the stage, as you saw, all the Rush guys and everybody else, Trevor [Rabin]. I was putting some settings on a new amp company I’m working with called Revv, we’re working on a Schon model. The amp sounded very good and I was cranking it up because they play really loud.

We went through Neil Young’s song “Rockin’ in the Free World” one time, and that was it. Eddie comes over to me and goes, “You play the first solo and we’ll hand it off to the other side of the stage and then Alex [Lifeson] can play and Trevor and everyone else.” It was like that fast. I’d never played the song before, but obviously I’d heard it on the radio. Once I found it was in E minor I was like, “Oh, this is pretty easy.” I managed to play some cool parts that night playing it for the second time.

It was a lot of fun to watch. Nowhere else would you see you guys playing with Pearl Jam, Yes and Rush.
Yeah. I loved that. I hope in the future … I’m very adaptable as a guitar player; I’m kind of like a chameleon, so I’d love to be involved with any other jams from here out. There’s so many artists that I appreciate and enjoy and would love to play with, but never had an opportunity to. I’m hopeful this will open up some opportunities.

Tell me some other highlights of the night for you.
Honestly, I thought everyone was so good. I thought that Yes was very good. They had a great performance. They sounded very tight, Steve Howe, Trevor. Everything sounded great. Alicia Keys kicked my ass. If I had a choice of playing with one other person besides Pearl Jam it would have been her since I have huge blues and R&B roots that some people know, but not a lot. I could have definitely ripped that stuff up in a different way.

Did you watch most of the show from your table?
I did. I watched everything until we played, but then we went back to do interviews. I was bummed i didn’t get to see Lenny [Kravitz] since I was busy in the back doing interviews. I missed pretty much the rest of the show, but I managed to go out onstage about 10 minutes before I went on. I saw Pearl Jam from the back. I could hear it. They sounded amazing, by the way. I love the feel of the band and I’ve always liked them from when they first came out. I remember I was in the studio and this A&R guy came in with their first record. I was like, “Wow, this sounds really fresh.” I liked the drumming on the record and the writing. Their drummer is very strong and I enjoyed playing with him too.

For so many fans, the moment of you and Steve holding your hands up in the air was something they’d wanted to see for years.
Like I said, every picture tells a story. I saw him for the first time in many, many years. We hung out in his room for 10, 15 minutes. None of that stuff was planned, the hug, none of it. It was all real. When I looked at it and said, “Look at how unified we are still, to this day” … Everything is very genuine between us. I feel great gratitude and respect when I look at it.

He said backstage he’s finished a solo album.
I’m excited to hear it.

How would you feel if he toured by himself and played Journey songs?
Well, you know what, I’d feel great. We’ve been doing it forever, and he actually did it before we did it with his own solo tour. He owns the songs as much as we do. He helped build them, wrote them, sang them, cemented them in cement in everyone’s hearts and minds and souls. He’s very overdue to be able to do that. I have nothing but respect for him. I can also tell you after we get together some more and get our friendship even more solidified, I almost feel like we’re back where we started. We have some talking to do, but I’d love to work with him on something on the side, not necessarily Journey, something more bluesy more R&B-ish, soul.

The fantasy of so many fans is to see some sort of reunion.
He was telling me about his record, and I was telling him about my new record I’m working on with Narada Michael Walden and his eyes got big because he knows who Narada is. I approached Narada to do a solo record with me and he wrote everything, produced everything and he’s playing on it, playing his ass off. If I get together with Steve in the Bay Area before we go on tour again in the next week or so, I’d love to go get coffee with him and bring him over there and have him listen to this record since I think he’d enjoy it.

I think a lot of people were presuming he didn’t sing at the Hall of Fame since his voice isn’t what it used to be and he didn’t want to live up to what it sounded like 30 years ago.
Seriously, we can play in any key he wanted to play. I was aware, like everyone else was, that he went out a couple of years ago and played with the Eels. I noticed that the keys were lower, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It still sounded like him, very soulful. He’s got a very recognizable voice. Even when he was talking I was like, “That’s the voice.”

Why do you think he didn’t sing then? He was just overwhelmed by emotion?
I think so. He was tearing up. I was definitely tearing up. I had tears running down my eyes. I was trying to keep my composure on the stage for that event, but it was something that was too strong.

A couple days after the ceremony I was reading that Myles Garrett, this 21-year-old college football recruit, is a huge Journey fan. He was saying his favorite album is Escape. It just seems like this music gets more and more popular as the years go by.
I’ve noticed that too. I would have never imagined that, but I do understand why. It’s really soulful. With Steve singing on top of it, it’s not only rocking like a motherfucker, but it’s really soulful since his roots are soul and R&B and blues: Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, all those guys. When you mix that on top of the music that we all wrote it’s a unique experience to listen to. Back in the day when we would get lumped in with every band that was successful at that time from the 1980s I would think to myself, “You know what, I disagree. We have something really unique.” When you look at a lot of our early records like Infinity, it was so brand new and fresh and organic.

A 21-year-old fan has no sense of the critical reaction at the time. They just know the songs.
Right. Also, all they have to compare it to is what’s been on the radio and what people are pushing since they’ve been born, so there’s not a whole lot out there unless you know exactly where to look and find it.

One of the coolest things about all this is you’re known forever known as Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Neal Schon.
I guess so! It does feel really great. I know I’ve said in the past that I didn’t really care about it since we were never up for induction, 17 years later than we were, but at least we won, we got it. I really feel like we owe a lot of it to the fans. Without our fans voting the way they did, relentlessly, fighting the way they did, this wouldn’t have happened. 

You didn’t used to care, but I’m sure you do now.
I do now that we’re in! I probably lied before when I said we didn’t. 

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