Best Seat in the House: My Life in the Jeff Healey Band
By Tom Stephen, with Keith Elliot Greenberg
Published by ECW, 240 pages, $18.95
Though it concerns a musician who played with infectious, electric elation, a new book on the late guitarist Jeff Healey is uncommonly sad, on multiple levels. Best Seat in the House: My Life in the Jeff Healey Band is a depressive story told by Tom Stephen, the former drummer and self-described co-manager of the Juno-winning trio. Stephen was not a particularly gifted percussionist. As a manager, he was abrasive and inexperienced. If anyone needed firm-handed guidance, it was Healey, a sightless, headstrong virtuoso. With Stephen, though, it was a matter of the incapable leading the blind.
His book (a memoir, with heavy Healey context) was written with the help of American writer Keith Elliot Greenberg and without the co-operation of the Healey estate, which Stephen has enjoyed a less than amiable relationship with in the past. It begins with an anecdote about the glass-eyed guitarist being taught how to drive the tour bus down the highway one night by the bus driver. Someone more capable should have been behind the wheel. This theme repeats itself throughout the book’s 240 beer-soaked, name-dropping and debauched pages.
One of the drifts is that the See the Light guitarist wasn’t in it for the money, but for the music (and, early on, the road-dog hedonist lifestyle). The maxim “you’re only young once” must have rung especially true to someone who had lost his eyesight to retinoblastoma as an infant and who probably had no illusions of having a long life ahead of him. (Indeed, the guitarist died of sarcoma cancer in 2008, at the age of 41.)
So, Healey burned bridges, gave no bleeps and refused to play the music-biz game. Stephen tells stories of the blues-rock wunderkind ruining relationships with guitar icons Mark Knopfler and Keith Richards, and doing nothing at all to please Arista Records founder Clive Davis and Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun.
Not that Healey was blameless in losing important allies, but a diligent overseer could have better protected the band’s best interests. We learn that heavyweight Canadian music manager Bruce Allen told Stephen that he could not be a musician and a manager simultaneously. Stephen ignored the advice.
Yarns are plentiful. The band went bowling once with ZZ Top, whose members were astonished with Healey’s 10-pin abilities. As for companionship on the road, Stephen and the young, unattached Healey never seemed to spend time with one woman when two or even three would do.
Healey and his band opened up for the Rolling Stones at Toronto’s RPM club in 1994. After the show, Stones drummer Charlie Watts mischievously took a highly refreshed Healey into Keith Richards’s private dressing room. Grabbing the Stones guitarist in a bear hug, Healey said, “Come on Keith. We’re going to go jamming at Grossman’s and I’ll show you how to play some real guitar.”
An unimpressed Richards was in the middle of changing his clothes. Pants at his knees, he scowled as Healey was led away.
At times, recollections of others are interjected into Stephen’s first-person narrative. More often than not, the quotes presented are flattering to the drummer.
While he comes off as self-pitying at times, Stephen is capable of self-awareness and something approaching apologies, especially when he writes about Healey gradually drifting away from the band several years before his death, as he devoted his energy to the trumpet and to pre-swing jazz. “Sometimes I pouted and acted like a jealous boyfriend,” he writes, referring back to the early nineties when the guitarist got married for the first time. “My critics would say I was clinging to Jeff because he was my meal ticket. But they weren’t around when we were driving to gigs in the frozen tundra, talking and laughing and sharing the same dreams. Now that fame and adulthood had hit, I missed my old friend. Yet I didn’t always express that emotion in the most constructive way.”
It is clear that Stephen is still attempting to deal with the hurt of his split with Healey – and, as in the past, not in the most constructive way. With this rock ’n’ roll tell-all, he throws a beloved Canadian musical son under the bus.