My drummer and dear friend AJ Pero died suddenly of a heart attack a little over a week ago. Because this column has given me a voice and, most important, a focus to share my business as well as life experiences and lessons, I will use this now to give you (and myself, in a strange way) some insight into how I have been dealing with this terrible news.
A quick recap:
Twisted Sister began 42 years ago. As you may know, the band has had the same members for nearly 33 of those 42 years. The core of the group (Dee Snider, my high school buddy Eddie Ojeda, and I) has been together 39 years. This constitutes, in any business context, a very long relationship. We struggled through the days of being a bar band, made the leap into international stardom, and crashed and burned and walked away from one another for more than a decade. Then we reestablished the band (after discovering that many parts of the world actually cared that we broke up and demanded that we come back) and reattained worldwide success over the past 12 years through legendary live shows and aggressively licensing our music for TV programs, movie soundtracks, and commercials. This has helped keep some of our songs, and as an extension of that, our band, current in the quickly evolving world of social media.
For the past 12 years, at about this time, we have scheduled yet another summer of massive festival performances. This has become so predictable that we take it for granted. Kind of like Groundhog Day, except that the shows get bigger every year.
Till Death Do Us Part
The last conversation I had with my drummer AJ Pero was less than 24 hours before he was pronounced dead, at the age of 55, from a heart attack on the morning of March 20. As the president of our various companies, I called AJ, who was playing drums and touring with a band named Adrenaline Mob, on March 19 to bring him up to speed on our touring schedule. I also gave him the latest information about a number of upcoming events: The about-to-released documentary Twisted F*ckin' Sister; a three-CD package of live concerts recorded between 1979 and 1983; the live concert recording for DVD and TV broadcast of our only show in the U.S. this year, taking place in Las Vegas on May 30th. I also let him know that we were using an all-European road crew for our summer shows (instead of bringing crew from the U.S., including his son AJ Jr., who was his roadie).
And finally, and reflecting on this last part brings tears to my eyes, we talked about how much longer we, as a band, could continue performing at the current level, since physical limitations were starting to take their toll on certain band members. (How deeply ironic, but not surprising when you read interviews of our peers who have had band members who survived or died of cancer or other diseases, as well as had various joint replacements.) "Mr. French," AJ said (he often addressed me as Mr. French, maybe because he was the youngest--and newest--band member and I was the oldest), "I'm leaving the Adrenaline Mob tour early to come home and have my shoulder rehabbed for our summer shows." Because of social media, he wanted to assure me that, if I heard that he left the tour prematurely, everything was fine. "Don't worry," he said. "I'm good for all the shows this summer."
And with that, we agreed to meet in New York City on the following Monday and said what would be our final goodbyes. The next morning I was having breakfast with Andy Horn, the producer/director of our soon to be released documentary. Andy was excited that he had just gotten a distributer. My cell rang, and it was my agent/tour manager Danny Stanton. He told me he just gotten a call from a member of Adrenaline Mob and was told they couldn't wake AJ up and had called an ambulance. He said apparently AJ had had a heart attack. As he was saying this to me, I just nodded my head, as I didn't want to alarm the movie director. I learned years ago that bad news may not really be as bad as you think it is, so I just waited for all the facts to be reported. After we finished breakfast, I started to take my daily walk and kept telling myself to be positive. AJ probably just had indigestion.
Danny called again.
This time he confirmed my worst fear. AJ had died of a massive heart attack.
Time stood still. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. You can never prepare yourself for news of this magnitude, no matter how tough you think you are. No matter how pragmatic you think you are.
I didn't have much time to process it. My management skills completely took over at that point. I had to then make some of the most difficult phone calls in my life. The one to AJ's son, AJ Jr., was the most wrenching. I said the words to him that I was just told. I heard his gasp of disbelief. So many thoughts were running through my mind. I knew one thing for sure, the next week would be one of the toughest to get through in my life. I had just lost a business partner, a brother, and a dear, sweet friend who always made me laugh and who I really tried to look after through the years.
I walked back to my office, sat at my desk staring at the computer screen, started to cry, and waited for the tsunami to come.
While I knew this was going to be a shock to many, I had no idea that AJ's death was going to send such shock waves through the heavy metal community and the regular news outlets. AJ was by far the most sociable of all the band members, and his roots connecting him to our fans became known to us in wave upon wave of social media comments. He was regarded as one of the greatest technical drummers in the world, and the outpouring of respect among his peers was incredible. AJ was also a family man, with four children and a grandchild.
We were about to celebrate AJ's 33rd year as a member. (His first show was on April 1, 1982.) He was always affectionately known as "the new guy." He was the first to agree with anything. He was the partner who just wanted everyone to be happy, and he never had an agenda. So talented, so dependable, so...AJ. So here I am, after a week of mourning, crying, talking, crying, the wake, the funeral mass, the band discussions about our future, and reflecting on AJ, my life, the band's fans...
I realize that the band's collective history is so long, so deep, so intertwined that AJ's death has shaken us to the core. It made me realize the fundamental connection that we as a band and company share as friends with a nearly 40-year history.
This company employs a lot of people and has created a business model that is the envy of many of our fellow bands. We will honor AJ during our shows this year. A professional drummer who is a friend will be filling in shortly. This will allow us to fulfill our touring obligations and, most important, give us some space to make some very hard decisions about our future.
We are surely not the same kids who had a dream 40 years ago to become "rock stars."
We carry the scars to prove it.
We are adults who run a business, and businesses must go on, even through a curtain of tears.