Finally, I saw John Parr’s vision of “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Toward the end of a concert full of flashbacks, stories and rock, Parr shared the story of Rick Hansen. The Canadian Paralympian’s passion was the true inspiration for the hit song, “Not the wheels on Demi Moore’s Jeep” joked Parr during his concert at Vinyl Music Hall.
With video clips of Hansen’s “Man in Motion World Tour” projected behind him, Parr performed the song that reached # 1 on the Billboard charts in 1985. Inspirational on it’s own, the song was even more moving as the screen filled with scenes from Hansen’s grueling day-by-day triumphs and struggles. Documenting the pain, the joy and the people who became part of Hansen’s journey, Parr’s lyrics are the perfect compliment.
One week before Parr arrived at the “Cradle of Naval Avation” to headline the concert at Vinyl Music Hall (which also featured local group Lugosi led by former Navy Rescue Swimmer and Blue Angels Crew Chief, A.J. Fratto), the engaging artist took time to be interviewed for my music column in the Pensacola News Journal.
Without question, Parr is one the most vocal and active supporters of our men and women in the U.S. military that you will ever meet. And he wasn’t even born in America. During our discussion, Parr talked extensively about his passion for our troops, the music industry, futbol and more.
Here is a link to PNJ column and the entire interview follows below.
*** John Parr Interview ***
JP: I was born in Worksop, England and currently, I’m still living in England, but I’ve literally got back in America yesterday.
MS: What music did you listen to growing up?
JP: The Beatles were the reason that I got into music. I used to really like Elvis Presley and things like that as a kid. But really, The Beatles were the band that made me want to pester my mom and dad to buy me a guitar when I was a little eight year old boy. It was really great up in that music of the early 60’s. Both American and English, they really kind of inspired me. I loved the Eagles, the guitar bands, the Doobies, Steely Dan in my formative years, but in the early stages it was The Beatles.
MS: Did you ever get a chance to meet or perform with any of the Beatles?
JP: No. There were a couple of really strange situations. One was when I first worked with David Foster when I was working on “St. Elmo’s Fire”. He was working with Paul McCartney and they both really like “Naughty, Naughty” which was my first record in America. A few years later I met up with Jimmy Page, Jimmy was working with George Harrison and he said that both he and George really liked the John Parr album and were actually using that as direction, which was amazing flattery. You can’t believe it. It’s one of those stories I thought I dreamed. And then I saw Jimmy about three years ago and I whispered what he told me in my ear and he said, “Yeah, I remember that.” Fantastic.
MS: I could see you doing the Robert Plant Jimmy Page tour like he did with Coverdale and Page…Parr and Page.
JP: It would be fabulous wouldn’t it.
MS: You’ve written for Meatloaf, went on tour with Tina Turner; With all of that said, what has been the most amazing experience on this John Parr rollercoaster ride for you?
JP: I think two things. I think the biggest was I wrote a song for Roger Daltrey called “Under a Raging Moon.” Which was a tribute to Keith Moon. My old manager actually started out as Keith Moon’s driver in the 60’s. And on all the plane rides across America in the 80’s with my manager, he told me more of the stories about Keith and The Who. I thought it would be great to write a song so I wrote this song to Roger Daltrey again about the night that The Who played Woodstock and the moonlit night that was “Raging Moon”. It became Roger’s biggest album in America and I got to do a duet with him at Madison Square Garden and everybody got onstage with us, Yoko Ono, Julian Lennon, and Gene Simmons. It was a real sort of crazy night. And of course, the other amazing thing was the Rick Hansen thing and David Foster and I writing “St. Elmo’s Fire” for the movie. But I was not getting very inspired by the movie to write the lyrics and he showed me a video of a young guy in a wheelchair called Rick Hansen who…he had no money, but he had just recently been disabled, was going to wheel his wheelchair around the world to raise money. But he only had four hundred dollars and he set out from Vancouver with four hundred dollars and just this idea in 1985 to raise money and it was called the “Man in Motion” tour.
And I talked to David, “we have to write a song for him and we put our song in the movie. And for the film company the song was about their movie, but really it’s about Rick Hansen. Called “Man in Motion”, “St. Elmo’s Fire”. And of course, the rest is history; he wheeled the wheelchair around the world. At that time when he finished, he’d raised twenty five million dollars for spinal cord injury research. It’s the 25th anniversary this year and we’ve raised a quarter of a billion dollars for spinal research.
MS: That’s the thing that’s amazing, you’re charitable contributions; you’re very active.
JP: I’m here in America now. My soul aim is to do work for the American military. When I was here in the 80’s, the military were getting a terrible rap. I don’t know how old you are. It was a time, now everybody is loving the troops and supporting the troops, but in the 80’s people spit on them and say they were wackies or whatever. It angered me greatly and I began to write music about it and the ultimate sacrifice they made and the affect it has on their families. Unfortunately, my career was cut a little bit short in the 80’s. A legal battle and that’s why I’ve been off the map for twenty years. It took me twenty years to win my legal battles, so I’ve not been back to America til now. If I come back to America to solely do this album for the American military, getting the money from the record to the rehabilitation of troops and their families. So you’re right really. I’ve got a new album coming out in May called “The Mission.” Fifteen tracks, which is a rock record, but it is about the military experience. That money is going to go them and really, that’s my passion.
MS: When is “The Mission” coming out?
JP: It’s going to come out in May. I’ve literally finished recording on Monday morning. 5am English time, Monday morning, I finished it, and literally caught a plane two hours later. So, I’m back here and I expect to get the masters tonight. And then, I may or may not record one more track in America, but as far as I’m concerned, “The Mission” is finished. And it’s my most exciting album ever. It’s the record of my life.
MS: You will be performing songs from that album on that tour.
JP: I will. Yes, very much so. The songs work great; you can either just play them acoustically or you can really just rock out. Depending on what kind of venue I’m doing, I’ll be doing the material. They’re no more military than if you think of “St. Elmo’s Fire” being a song about people in wheelchairs. You only know that if you listen really hard and know the story. And it’s the same with the military record. The lyrical content is very heartfelt and passionate, but if you’re just listening to it, the record sounds a lot like a rock record you hear on the radio.
MS: It’s very inspirational. I’ve seen clips of you performing live, but this will be the first time I’ll see you live. What can I and other fans expect from your concert tour.
JP: Well this concert we’re going to do there is a slightly different one. It’s my one man show and it’s a two hour show and I do electric and acoustic music and I take the audience on a journey with me throughout my life, starting out as a little boy, to playing with Tina Turner and Bryan Adams and Meatloaf and talk about the stories and talk about the movies. I perform with Meatloaf onstage. He’s on video. We do a duet together on it. It’s a really interesting show.
MS: With everything thing you’ve done, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
JP: I think my dad really. “Never lose the common touch.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. I’m comfortable in a room with the group of the greats or the regular Joe. I’m a regular Joe. I don’t walk through life with a boat goes through the water and makes a big wake. A lot of people in this business think that there’s a big wake around them if they walk through the world. And no, I’m just an ordinary guy. We’re all people and you connect with people by being a person and being real. So, I think “Never lose the common touch.” Whatever happens to you, treat people how you want to be treated.
MS: What words of wisdom would you give to someone who wants to have the kind of success and longevity that you’ve had?
JP: Two things. I would say, if you want to be in the media, you want to be a singer or film writer or film actor, songwriter, whatever, you have to be prepared to…it’s a thankless job, it’s a heartbreaking thing where it’s very difficult. It’s thankless and occasionally you get lucky and you get a bit of sunshine on you. Not necessarily monetarily, but you know, just somebody thinking its great or something happens, but generally it’s a very, very difficult business. If you go into it for the wrong reasons, for the girls, for the money or the fame, I think you’re going to be a very unhappy person. If you go in it, for the love of it and it’s not about the dollars, it’s about…I think, at least, even if you fail, you come out of it knowing that you gave everything, but you have to come into it with heart. And practice. When I was a little boy I practiced every day to become a good guitar player. And coming back to America, you come to the show and you’ll see. I still practice thousands of hours a year on my guitar. Because I’m trying to be better than I can be. My desire is to be, obviously you never achieve, but to be the best. Even if you come up short, you’ve come a long way. I think, be dedicated, to anything. If you’re a writer, if you’re a journalist, do it for the love of it and people will get that. And that’s the greatest thing isn’t it? When people react to what you do. And you connect. And you can only do that by being honest. If people don’t have the integrity in what they do and they’re in it for the dollar, don’t do it. Just be true and work, practice, dedication.
MS: Thank you, John. That’s awesome advice. I don’t hear that often enough. The Tim Tebow question. Will you perform “Tim Tebow’s Fire”?
JP: The Tim Tebow thing was strange. It was a pure accident. I went to ESPN last October to pitch a song I’d written for Monday Night Football. The Monday Night Football slot came free. So I wrote a song for Monday Night Football and while I was there, it was the day that Tim was announced as the opening quarterback for the Broncos. And so they said, we’re going to play “St. Elmo’s Fire” on Sports Nation. So I went to play “St. Elmo’s Fire” live at 5 and then they threw me Tebow shirts. So, I’m wearing it and they’re really into Tim Tebow and I look behind and this guy just starts singing Tim Tebow songs and I thought everybody loved it. Then after I watched him and got to know a bit more about the person. You know, he is a fascinating man. You look at the dedication to humanitarian, I don’t know how much you know about him, he does a lot of stuff behind the scenes that people are not aware of. Nearly every game he plays, he’ll fly somebody in that’s not fortunate enough themselves, just to make a day for them. We all know he’s a believer and I’m not saying believe in God, I admire people that believe in something. I think when Tim plays, his belief inspires his team to believe in Tim. It carried him a long way this season. Not quite far enough, but far farther than anybody thought and two months later I changed the lyrics a bit more on St. Elmo’s Fire to reflect Tim and then try and again like I did with “Man in Motion” to devote some of the money that that songs raises to the Tim Tebow foundation which is a children’s health foundation benefitting children with cancer. We’ve done that and we have a new song called “Just a Man” which is about being an ordinary guy that great things happen to. We want to make sure that money goes to the right place. So, yeah, you know, I may throw the lyrical into a couple of nights. Specific songs, not something…I do it special occasions, but really when I do St. Elmo’s in my show, I usually do it against footage of Rick Hansen going across the Great Wall of China, going across deserts and battling the elements in a wheelchair, it’s very emotive when I play “St. Elmo’s” against that backdrop.
MS: Is the song “Just a Man” available on your website.
JP: Yes. It’s there on a download on itunes. What we’re doing as will is there’s a computer game on Playstation and Xbox, I don’t know if you’re aware of it, it’s called Rock Band…
JP: We just did a deal with Rock Band and we’re going to do “Tim Tebow’s Fire” for that, but again, a good portion of the profits for that will go straight to the Tim Tebow Foundation. And hopefully, if we get that running, we can do “Just a Man” as well. It would be fantastic to do “Just a Man”.
MS: Have you two had a chance to sit down and talk with each other?
JP: Our paths haven’t crossed because it was crazy. I don’t know if you know the story…I told you the background of “Tim Tebow’s Fire” and none of us expected the craziness to happen and then Fox started playing a little video they made of Tim in December and they ran the song under it. And it went crazy. It got a million hits in about five days. And that was just as I was coming back to England. Of course, had they won that game against the Pats, they would have been in the Superbowl. History happened that they didn’t make it. So, I was back in England walking my dog. That’s life man.
MS: You mentioned football, some of my buddies are from London and they are Manchester United diehards. I have to ask you, “What’s your favorite futbol team?”
JP: Well, I do like Manchester United. They’re 60 miles from me in England. And they’re amazing. That’s a real test of quality if you’re always in the top three for twenty years. And it’s not just money, I don’t know how much you know about futbol, but Manchester City in the same town, they’ve had a massive investment of 200 million who are now challenging Manchester United, but the difference is, like you were saying, money doesn’t buy heart. Manchester United has the great tradition and that’s something money can’t buy.
MS: My last question for you John. It’s a food question. Do you like crunchy or creamy peanut butter.
JP: I like crunchy peanut butter.
MS: I’m a crunchy fan. Just the peanuts and everything.
JP: I’m a good guy. I’m in the crunchy club. We should start a crunchy club.
MS: We should start a crunchy club. The John Parr Crunchy Peanut Butter Club.
JP: This is what you do. You start the Crunchy Club and then you get some peanut butter browns and patriots to do the Crunchy Club and then you get all the rock stars and football players to and movie stars that like crunchy peanut butter to endorse peanut butter and then you give the money to the good cause. The Crunchy Club.
MS: Can you name off the charities you’re involved in with.
JP: The charities I’m involved in; I’m an Ambassador for the USO of North Carolina. I’m having a meeting with a great organization called USA Cares next week. And the great thing about USA Cares is they’re hands on. If you’re a soldier with everyday problems; you may come back from Afghanistan and you’re short on your money, they’ll come and step in and give that money straight away. If your car breaks down, you’ve got no money, whatever, they give it back to you straight away. Very hands-on organization, specifically looking at helping. If you think about the military, particularly people who enlisted after 9/11 it’s a very different military mindset. After 9/11 people enlisted to know they were going to action. They knew they were enlisting and were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. That’s a very different thing with enlisting when you’re not active. So post 9/11, USA Cares is entirely about people after 9/11. And a lot of the songs on the new album “The Mission”, there are two songs on there; one’s called “Fighting Girl” and the line in that is, “Once you saw those buildings fall, it changed my little girl. She cut off all her ribbons and her curls.” And that’s “Fighting Girl”. It talked about a young girl. She had the world at her feet and she saw that happen and she went out there to protect her country. And there is another song on the album called “Big Bad Silverado” and it’s a true story. My manager Barbara told me about-Barbara’s very involved in motoring and about car expert-and she told me she’s interviewing a young trooper a few years back and he talked about how he dreamed of having a great car, as all young boys do and he dreamed of this car and then he saw something on t.v. that made him want to enlist and he enlisted. And when Barbara interviewed him, he said, “I don’t even think about what car I want anymore, I might not be coming back.” And I just thought that says it all; for a young person to think-you know a young person, you know, sex drugs, rock n’ roll, whatever. It’s just a young person living life, just suddenly saying, “You know what? I’m prepared to lay it all on the line for what I believe in.” So the song is about this young boy that dreams of a big Chevy Silverado since he was a boy and then he sees 9/11 and he enlisted on September the 12. And he says to his mom, “If I don’t come home, don’t cry. I’ll be driving that big bad Silverado in the sky.” Big stuff, man. Big stuff.
MS: That is. I want to thank you. I didn’t expect…I knew you were inspirational and passionate, but…
JP: That’s what I’m here for. It’s the only thing I’m here for. I’m not interested in pop music and rock music anymore. I’ve done that all my life. What I’m invested in is things that move people. “St. Elmo’s Fire” moved people. And that’s what life is isn’t it.
MS: You fired me up. Thank you, John.
JP: God Bless you, Michael and I hope I see you at the show.
MS: I’ll be at the show.
JP: All the best to you buddy, cheers!
– Michael L. Smith