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Joe Grushecky celebrates 40 years of good houserocking time -- and staying alive

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

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Joe Grushecky has never quite become a rock 'n' roll household name.

In fact, he's better-known for his associations with Bruce Springsteen, who produced Grushecky's 1995 album "American Babylon," than for his catalog of houserocking music.

The Pittsburgh singer, songwriter, bandleader and daytime school teacher has taken that in stride over the decade -- and hasn't let it deter him from his own creative path. He's not one to look back, either -- even with more than four decades of work to his credit. But with a 40th anniversary reissue of his Iron City Houserockers' "Have a Good Time But Get Out Alive!," expanded with demos and alternative versions of its songs, he's allowed himself to dip into the past for one of his shining moments.

"It doesn't feel like 40 years," Grushecky, 72, says by phone from Pittsburgh. "Iím not a backward-looking guy, but the record sounds fresh. It doesn't sound like it was made 50 years ago -- at least to my ears. So it's been kind of fun rehashing all this again."

"Have a Good Time...," released on June 6, 1980, was the Houserockers' second album, part of a deal with MCA Records that vaulted the blue collar, shot-and-beer regional favorite into the national spotlight. After 1979's "Love's So Tough" drew some attention, including a rave review in Rolling Stone, stakes ever even higher for the sophomore set, which was co-produced by former David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson with song arrangement contributions by Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter and Steve Van Zandt of Springsteen's E Street Band.

Most of the songs were written while Grushecky was recovering from surgery to remove a throat tumor during the fall of 1979, and they find him tapping into the rust belt angst of the time as the steel mills began disappearing from his home town.

"I had just decided that the stuff I wrote best about was Pittsburgh -- not Pittsburgh, per se, but my home, my friends and family," Grushecky recalls. "My best stuff is writing about things I know about and I see firsthand. So I started honing in on my environment and writing about that.

"And that was right at the end of the Steel City, the 24-7 steel mills. There was a lot of desperation."

The album's title track, meanwhile, came straight from a particularly spirited bar show. "These guys (in the crowd) were off the wall crazy, just going nuts -- we weren't a punk band, but it was like that," Grushecky says. "I was just like, 'Hey man, have a good time but get out alive. You're gonna kill somebody, or kill yourself.' When I went home that stuck with me, and I wrote that song and it became the title track."

Recording at Media Sound in New York during February of 1980 was a different experience for the Houserockers, Grushecky remembers. "The first album made people look at the band differently, and I guess they decided we were a good enough band to do a regular project like everyone else was doing in those days -- pre-production and rehearsal and all of that," Grushecky says. The Slimmer Twins team of Steve Popovich and Mary Mooney put the Houserockers through their paces, and the former brought Ronson and Van Zandt into the process. Van Zandt made some contributions but was more focused on Springsteen's "The River" album, but Ronson became a fixture and recruited Hunter, who produced the track "Hypnotized" for the Houserockers.

"We had the benefit of having all these years and years of experience of top-flight rock musicians, which was really quite eye-opening," Grushecky says. "We learned to play in the studio instead of bashing out the stuff like you do on stage. I was a little sensitive when they'd start tearing apart the songs...but you get used to not taking everything personal and say, 'Let's make this better...'"

"Have a Good Time..." was greeted with more good reviews and a somewhat larger audience, even if the Houserockers didn't break through to the proverbial big-time. Nevertheless, Grushecky says, "artistically and commercially it couldn't have been better. We couldn't get on radio and it didn't provide a big, solid payday for anybody. But I'm still proud of (the album)."

The group abbreviated its name to the Houserockers and stayed together until 1984, with Grushecky continuing to use the moniker for his own bands. He has three songs recorded for his next solo album, and with all live dates called off for now he's looking forward to creating more while also celebrating the Houserockers' past with the "Have a Good Time" reissue, which comes out Friday, May 22.

"I think I've made a couple records that were really important for me, life-wise, and ('Have a Good Time...') seemed to be one of them," Grushecky says. "I do feel this record put us on the map. People became aware of us and we became a very respected band. It felt good that people were getting it," adding with a laugh, "I just wish there were a couple more million of them!"

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