Source: Easy Rider
Writer: Mark McDermott
Greyhound trips and motel room blues: Mike Zito's different kind of soul music
The road Mike Zito took has included a long string of Motel 6's, a very long stay in a little guitar shop in South Saint Louis, more than a few detours into drug-hazed ditches, and one very sad, long ride on a Greyhound bus.
When he arrives at Café Boogaloo this Friday, the fact that Zito has songs to sing which actually possess some meaningful heft is in no small part due to the fact that he took that road and managed to survive it.
But it began in front of a television set in Missouri circa 1975.
"Like anybody, I saw the Jackson Five in 1975 and danced in front of the television and screamed and hollered and wanted to be up there," Zito said in an interview this week.
He knew from that moment on what he wanted to do. Only a few blocks from the house where he was growing up, he found a little guitar shop, and he spent a good part of his childhood hanging out there. After high school, he took a job at the shop, which was called Tower Grove Music.
"You had all these really great working musicians…that was where they came. I'd just sit and watch them play guitar," Zito said. "That's the education I had. I didn't go to college or anything."
Zito worked there almost a decade. Even more essential than the many working musicians who passed through the shop was a gruff guitar player who worked there by the name of Conrad Zoebel.
"He didn't really play in bands or play out much anymore," Zito recalled. "He'd done that when he was younger. I was 18 or 19 and I'd bring my Van Halen records in, or Steve Vai, or whatever….He would tell me, 'Turn that shit off. That is a bunch of noise.' And he'd play Live at the Regal by B.B. King, or Live at the Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers, or John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton….Anybody I've ever met that develops that taste, someone has got to tell you – you aren't born with good taste. This is the guy who taught me."
"When I see him to this day, I say, 'Dude, you have no idea what you did for me…' He drilled it into me. He drilled it into me what was good. Conrad Zoebel. He doesn't know how famous he is."
After a decade at the guitar shop, Zito's own music started gaining some traction. He'd been fired from numerous cover bands because he couldn't play the covers the way they sounded on the radio – he had his own take, not even by choice – so he finally started writing his own music and formed his own band. Before he knew it, the band was touring around the Midwest in places like Kansas City and Chicago.
"It seemed like a big deal, like 'Wow, this is really different,'" Zito said. "It was the only way I could do it, so that was the way I did it."
In retrospect, Zito had no idea what he was doing it or why he was doing it. He had some notion of getting a record deal, but mainly he was living the road life and singing songs that had little or no meaning to him.
"It just ended up becoming like a big party all the time," he said. "You know, after playing since I was 19 in bars, by the time I was 30 it was just about getting high and drunk. You get paid for the gig and you'd take the money and give it to the bartender…I was married and had kids and wasn't paying the bills. The drugs just got real bad. I would say a pretty common story in rock n' roll – I mean, it just gets overwhelming and I got really caught up in all that."
Pretty soon he'd lost his family and he'd even stopped playing music. Near the very bottom, he found himself alone on a long bus ride from Saint Louis to Florida, fleeing everything. "I didn't know what I was doing," he said.
Zito eventually surfaced in Texas with a job for Fender guitars, where he was subsequently fired when they discovered he was a drug addict. Two or three years passed in a haze before he suddenly pulled himself from the morass that was about to kill him. He sobered up and started singing again. Only now, things were different – he suddenly had something to say. And his weathered voice had blossomed into a soul singer's voice.
Music was no longer just a party. It was about hanging on for dear life, and appreciating it.
"The music I like, even old Van Halen, it's real – there's some reality to it," Zito said. "It's raw. Back in my 20s, I didn't know how to write. I mean, I wrote songs, but I didn't know what I was talking about. I didn't really get it. Once I got cleaned up and sober and started playing music again, I really started appreciating it. And now, ironically, I have something to write about."
His reemergence didn't go unnoticed. Zito was signed to a deal with Electro Groove records and teamed with producers David Z. (Buddy Guy, Prince, Johnny Lang) and Tony Braunagel (Eric Burden, Taj Mahal). He made a record called Today that featured such players as the legendary Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker's longtime keyboard player) and bassist Hutch Hutchinson. The record hit the Billboard charts and got a lot of play on satellite radio.
Another record later, Zito this week released Greyhound. It's a record that is a testament to the fact that getting older can in fact mean getting much, much better. From the opening song – the thudding Southern rocker "Roll On" – through a trio of strong songs that close the album ("Hello Midnight" "The Southern Side" and "Please, Please, Please"), this is the record of a singer who has earned his stripes.
He ain't singing no ditties. Songs like "Greyhound" (about that long, lost trip to Florida) and "Motel Blues" have the grit of real life, but there is a resolute hopefulness that pervades throughout. Zito, who lives in east Texas and is married again with five kids, feels like he's just begun.
"I turned 40 last year and it's like I'm in the prime of my life," Zito said. "I couldn't be happier, I couldn't feel better….I really enjoy the basic things in life and the music could be better. I can hear everything – I hear what we are doing, I know what I sound like, and I'm comfortable with how I sound. I'm comfortable with how things are."
Things have slowed down for Zito. Every note counts more, every song matters more, and maybe even a little wisdom has creeped in there somewhere.
"I can remember being 25 and one week you lose a gig and you are like, 'Oh my god, how am I going to pay the bills?' Now it's like, Dude, just wait a day. A whole bag of money will show up," Zito said. "Something always works out. You keep doing the right thing, you keep showing up, it just snowballs. Same way the bad shit snowballs…I mean didn't become a drug addict overnight. It took a while, but eventually it all caught up. I realize now doing the right things – show up for work on time, do a good job, try hard – it all adds up over time. You get to a certain point, it's like, 'Ah, it's all turned around. All you got to do is keep going along with it."