Earlier this year, I received a promo for an album promising to be an amazing, long-lost post-apocalyptic concept album entitled Gang War, about a bleak future world where artists and the police fought each other in the streets, where rock and roll was outlawed, and the guerrilla warriors were musicians and artists struggling to survive. Considering the label, Drag City, can occasionally be a bit purple in their prose, I wasn’t sure of what to expect, but whatever it was, it couldn’t possibly live up to the fantastical description.
Boy, was I wrong! Gang War, the creation of Frederick Michael St. Jude, was recorded in 1982, but its sound—a heavy blend of classic rock, new wave, glam—is indeed as amazing as it was described. It’s an interesting album, to say the least; it’s the sort of record that simply asks you to listen to it. David Bowie comes to mind, as does Jobriath, but FM St. Jude is in a field all his own. Unfortunately for the world at large, Gang War never materialized, the only hint of its genius lay in a self-pressed four-song promotional EP–one that did well on its own merits, but sadly not enough to see Gang War released.
We were lucky enough to sit down with the visionary for a half-hour, and after you read this, visit your local music dispenser and pick up Gang War. You won’t be disappointed.
Gang War is amazing. What inspired it?
The whole thing came about after I was stringing my twelve-string guitar one afternoon. I was fed up with the club scene and I had just told my lead guitar player that I didn’t want to do covers any more, that it was time for us to sit down and write some original material. He agreed, and so I sent him out to look for an affordable recording studio. So I’m sittin’ there, and I’m running through a couple of chord progressions, and dang, if I didn’t come across a progression that just gave me the willies! So I’m pounding it out, playing around with it, and I’m starting to get a melody line, and then all of a sudden, the lyrics are coming, pouring out, and I’m singing “Gang war! I’m out on the street for hire,” and I’m thinking to myself, what the heck is this?!? I finished the song rather quickly; by the time he got back, it was complete. It just came out of me. So over the next twelve weeks, I just kept writing, and the only inspiration that I could attribute it to would be this crazy muse that I have. It inspires my work; it inspires my writing; it inspires my music. But it appears only in limited spurts; if I don’t grab everything when it comes, I’m in deep trouble, as it won’t return again. Right now, my muse is coming to me in the middle of the night while I’m sleeping, and I have to get out of bed and bang it out on my guitar and figure it out while I’m in this half-sleep, half-awake state. That’s how Gang War came about; it’s somewhat of a mystery to me, even now, how my muse operates. I wrote the song, sang the lyrics, and all of a sudden the opera just was borne, and it all fell into place.
My muse, it’s this sub-conscious, conscious, ethereal, whatever you wanna call it. It’s really indescribable; it’s something that’s so abstract, I can’t serve it justice by trying to describe it. I call it ‘my little voice,’ and you might find it interesting to know that I wrote it into Gang War. It’s what I call “The Guardians of the Talents of Man.” I’d probably say it’s the compilation of your emotions, your red flags in life, your intuition.
What struck me about Gang War was that it’s not apocalyptic, but it is futuristic, and yet, it isn’t; it feels quite contemporary. What were your feelings about society as a whole at that age? Were you hopeful? Were you nihilistic?
Back then, in 1982, there wasn’t much going on except for the death of the punk scene. Here in southern Florida, where I was living at the time, we had a pretty vibrant punk rock scene, but the people around there, the ritzy, the retirees, and the South Beachers, they were trying to put the kibosh on it. They were squelching anything that might remotely appear to be punk rock or underground. Clubs would come and go quicker than the lifespan of a fruit fly. It was really depressing, and I resented it to the hilt. I couldn’t understand why. I still don’t, truthfully. Why would they do that? Don’t get me wrong, had the things that people thought were going on at these places—drugs, violence, crime—were actually going on, there’d be a justifiable reason for the squelching. But there wasn’t. So I was really resentful of what was going on. Back then, the Miami-Dade police didn’t have the best reputation—and still don’t, come to think of it (laughs). They were really running roughshod on everybody on the street, and especially if you looked like you were part of that underground subculture. Being a musician, I knew a lot of people out there on the streets, and some of their stories were absolutely horrible. So I took it all in, and I thought, “These things that are happening, they’re important to know and to remember,” and as I was writing Gang War, it all fell into place. I put into the opera the dominance of the police state, the disappointments of life, the uncertainty of the future, and not being accepted by a society you have to live in and deal with on a daily basis. It was a stew of a bunch of negative things and twenty-something angst that went into Gang War.
The story of Gang War is this: fifty years after total chaos and anarchy descend on the country, everything is pretty much the same as it had been—to a point. The police are still very dominant, but there’s also the counter element, the street gangs. Everybody had a dream and a vision, even in the midst of chaos and oppression, and that’s where we meet our hero. He has a dream; he wants to be a rock and roll musician. The world of Gang War, it’s not like, Escape From New York or Mad Max—society is still functioning. There are still record stores and radio stations—though not to the capacity as they once had been, thanks to police domination. Even though society has been through the chaos, he’s still a normal guy. He has a love interest, and he wants to be somebody, but he keeps getting kicked around. He keeps getting rehired to do the job which he hates, even though he tries to get away from it. In the story, a copy of a Rolling Stones record became the bible of the day. I’m still waiting for someone to guess and find out what that record was. As of yet, over all these years, I’ve never heard anybody accurately come up with it. Care to take a guess?
(I guess)(No, I won’t be sharing my guess.)
(Excitedly) Good man!!! That’s excellent! You are a brilliant man, sir!
What had you been up to creatively in the time leading up to Gang War?
Well, you couldn’t do anything punk-related and make money at it, that’s for darn sure. So you had to do other things. Me, I worked the club circuit here in Florida for twenty-five years. No matter how good your original material might have been, people down here really weren’t interested. So you had to go the cover band route if you wanted to sustain yourself. So I was out on the road, playing clubs, performing covers from rock masters such as Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, Jimi Hendrix. Originality never entered the picture. That’s why I got fed up with the whole scene. I wanted to do something new, fresh. When I got to a point where I said I can’t stand it, I walked away, and that’s when me and my lead guitarist at the time began working on what would become Gang War. The club bands I played in, they didn’t have much in the way of a future, and the last one I played in, I’d only formed about five or six weeks previous, and I’d just had enough. The breaking point came when we played this club in Homestead, Florida. Before the show, some guy came up to me and said, “Well, we need you to pick out one song and play it for a long time, because we’re going to have a dance contest now.” So I said okay, fine. So we start playing the song, and the next thing we know, there’s this massive circle of guys around us, about three hundred strong, screaming, yelling, and throwing beers, and there’s girls out there, dancing around, and showing us their vaginas! All this, for a lousy fifty bucks!
What was the song?
“Play That Funky Music, White Boy.” (Laughs)
Well, uh, I guess that’s appropriate, in its own way!
(Laughs) Yeah. But afterwards, I was sitting in the parking lot, seething. I was like, what the heck am I doing with my life? I knew I could never do this sort of thing again. That night was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Of all the bands I’d been in during that twenty year period, none of them had any original inklings. The guys who did it, they did it because they liked to play. Many of them were proficient on their instruments, don’t get me wrong; they just didn’t have that spark—or didn’t care to nurture it—that is required to go from being able to play well, to being able to create. That’s not a knock on those guys, mind you; if that’s all you seek to do and you become good at it, then great! Some of those people really loved being in a group that played the hits for the people who were out on a Friday night and wanted to have a good time. The only one of the groups I was in that had a desire to do more was a band called The Other Side, and our sole release was a cover of a Terry Reid record. We’d gone to see Cream on their Goodbye tour, and Terry Reid was the opening act. He opened up with “Writing on the Wall,” and that song absolutely floored me. I told the guys in the band, I said, “Hey, let’s record this, we could do a good job of it,” so we went and recorded it. We released it on Kingston Records, this little label out of New Jersey, and though it wasn’t a smash hit, it did well regionally, and that record got us a lot of work.
When you made Gang War, was it you alone in the studio, or did you have a band?
I had a bunch of musician friends working with me. It wasn’t quite a band, really; it was more like getting friends to add embellishments here and there. We were going to have a band, and we were going to call it Reticuli, after the star cluster Zeta Reticuli. But the more I thought about it, the less interested I became in doing a band thing, because I realized that if I’m going to have a band, those guys are going to have to eat, and that means I’d have to play in clubs, and, like I said earlier, that meant covers, and I wasn’t interested in doing that anymore.
How was it received?
Well, I worked my tail off! (Laughs) I got it on every radio show I could get it on; every underground zine and underground-friendly publication in Florida did a story on it. I got a list of all the cool college radio stations in the country, and I scanned their playlists, and I got it on quite a few playlists, too. DJ’s and program managers were really supportive; they wanted me to come to their towns and play, which was great…but it was also kind of depressing. Here I was, with zero dollars in my pocket, a good response to my music from around the country, no band to perform it, and thus no means to promote it, so it just died on the vine. I wasn’t disheartened, though; the good response was enough to use to approach labels. I even approached Tom Dowd at Criteria Studios. I figured if anybody would go for local talent, he would. But nah, he gave me the shotgun, had no interest whatsoever. There was a new record label that had opened up in Fort Lauderdale, and for a little white it seemed likely, but nothing ever came of it. So I flew to London, and I hooked up with Vic Flick, the guitarist who played the James Brown theme, who expressed an interest. He was in the midst of a lot of sessions, so he couldn’t help me, but he took me into one studio, and the people there told me, “You’re too American.” (Laughs) So then I hooked up with another agent, and he took me around to several labels, but we didn’t get very far. He the took me to New York, to meet with IRS Records. We had a 1:30 appointment, and we showed up on time, ready to go. While I’m sitting there, I see a crumpled up piece of paper in the ashtray, so I picked it up; it was a credit card application, and the name on it was Daryl Hall! (Laughs) I put it back, because the name didn’t mean anything to me, and I’m watching all these Reggae guys going back and forth—real Rastafarian types, who looked like they just came in from Jamaica, and you could smell the ganja—so strong you could get a contact high! (Laughs)
There were three girls there, sitting around, doing their nails, totally bored. We went up and said that we had an appointment, and one of them real dismissively said, “Oh, well, you have to go to the old Ed Sullivan Building, second floor, third door to your left, that’s where you audition.” So we walked down Broadway, go up to the second floor where they told us to go, and went in—and it was nothing. Cobwebs. Tons of boxes. Not a soul in there. So we went back to the office, and when we get there, there’s a sign saying, “Out to lunch.” And that was that. (Sighs) I didn’t know what to make of it. I turned to my guitar player and said, “Let’s get the hell outta here.”
Well, if it’s any consolation, I’ve been reading a book about The Cramps, and from what I’ve read of their dealings with IRS and Illegal Records, it’s probably best it didn’t work out!
You know what the funny thing about that is, though? A few years prior, we were playing in this tiny club in Hollywood, Florida. The manager said, “Hey, on Wednesdays we have our auditions for bands who want to play our club, would you mind if we used your instruments?” So we said sure, but the drummer was insistent about wanting to be there to watch his kit, because he didn’t want someone to screw it up. So the manager agreed, and invited us along to watch. That night rolls along, and though I’m not there, the drummer’s there. At rehearsals the next day, I asked Mark how it went, and he said, “Oh, they were pretty good, they were this British band called The Police. They did some reggae stuff, they did some punk stuff, but they didn’t knock me out.” We did that favor for them because they didn’t want to unload their gear from their station wagon.
You’ve referred to it as an opera. Did you have a vision in mind for a performance?
Oh, yes. Not only did I have the album, I also wrote a novel, and a screenplay, all coinciding with the Gang War story. There’s so much that I could do with it, in terms of creating and recording dialogue and narrative to go along with the songs, but if I were to do it, it’d probably be this huge multi-disc thing, and I don’t know if I’d be able to get it exactly the way I envision it. The novel was crap; when I went back and read the six hundred pages, I said, “Nah, best leave it unpublished.” Besides, the story sounds great in fifty minutes, so expanding it just seems unnecessary.
After you recorded Gang War, what did you do next?
I started a magazine, but I didn’t give up on Gang War. I just do what I usually do, I move on to the next thing. So I started a regional ‘zine called Zazz, and I did that for the next few years. One day after the magazine had folded, I was walking around the house, feeling rather bummed, and my wife said I looked sad. I told her that I was bored, I didn’t know what to do with myself. She told me she’d read about this local audition for cast members for Dracula, and she encouraged me to go. Though I didn’t get the lead, I did get a part as the servant, and that was the beginning of my theatrical career, and the next thing you know, ten years had passed. I did a ton of shows, including Man of La Mancha, where I played Quixote, and that was a fabulous part. I would have played that one role the rest of my life if they’d have let me. I then went and got certified as a stage director, which led me to joining a talent agency, which led to me getting my Screen Actor’s Guild card. I did three episodes of Miami Vice, a ton of commercials, and though I still have my card, I’ve not done any work in several years. I’m still making music; I’ve been working with some friends in Los Angeles, and nowadays, we do things via computer, which is cool, and it’s different. I’ve got a couple of new tunes that I’m working on that I think are really great.
Looking back at Gang War from thirty years later, and you compare the setting to today, how do you feel knowing that thirty years ago you wrote something that’s set fifty years in the then-future, yet is probably more relevant today than it was back then?
I definitely agree; sadly, it’s more relevant now than it was then. The chaos that happened in the setting of Gang War was civilian against government, government against its own people. It wasn’t some international war between the US and Russia, it was America against its own people, a civil war wherein people revolted against unfair laws, unfair taxes, unfair police brutality, corrupt governments, and the individual struggle with the drug of money. Aside from the military conflict that takes place, I mean, how much closer could we get to the Gang War reality? It’s really scary.
But yet there’s hope. Hope is the last thing to die, says St. John. That hope has always driven me. I’m a God-driven person, I’ve always believed in tomorrow. When you get to the song “Maybe,” that’s what I’m talking about. “If we could leave, if we only could,” that’s me saying, we’ve gotta get out of this chaos, this mess that we’ve created. But we can. I want to live my life, I want success, but I think we can do it, if we take no guff, and we stand for ourselves, and our belief. Gang War is about humanity, and the struggles we all face. We’re in the middle of it, and we can escape it. It’s important, and it makes me happy to know that people can hear it in its entirety now. I hope that people who hear Gang War can hear and appreciate that message, because the world needs to hear it.