Music News & Reviews

Ed Kowalczyk: An escape into rock stardom

Ed Kowalczyk joined Live when the band members were still in high school.
Ed Kowalczyk joined Live when the band members were still in high school. COURTESY PHOTO

In the ’90s, while working a crummy job in a bleak Midwestern town with little to offer other than a mall, the Live song “Sh*t Towne” provided me a cathartic release.

Like Springsteen’s pleading lyrics “We gotta get out while we’re young,” it channeled a desperate desire to be somewhere — anywhere —else. Yet its own lyrics— “gotta live in sh*t towne”— reminded me that I had to stick it out where I was, at least until I got out of my own sh*t towne.

“I’d say that song is most everybody’s story about growing up in a small town,” said Ed Kowalczyk, the lead singer of Live, who penned the song while living in York, Pa. “Especially if you combine that with the angst of wanting to get out of wherever you were born. Then you compound that with the fact that, you know, York, Pennsylvania, was hardly the hotbed of culture and music that I would have dreamt of. So you throw that together and write a song about it and — there you go — a lot of people can relate to it throughout the country.”

Luckily for Kowalczyk, he managed to escape (as I did) to the California coast. But the Ojai resident does occasionally get back to the York area to visit friends and family, and to perform.

“It still sucks,” said Kowalczyk, who performs as a solo act at the Mid- State Fair on Saturday.

It was that small-town angst, though, that gave Live’s music an edge that appealed to music audiences still clinging to the spirit of grunge in the middle and late ’90s.

The members of Live were actually in junior high school when they formed, with Kowalczyk joining their freshman year in high school. By the time they had a recording contract, they had been together nearly a decade—yet they were only in their early 20s.

While their debut album, “Mental Jewelry,” exceeded expectations, the follow-up, “Throwing Copper,” rose to No. 1 and spawned five top 20 sin-

gles, including “I Alone,” “Selling the Drama” and “Lightning Crashes,” a dramatic tune that showcased Kowalczyk’s powerful vocal delivery.

“It emerged from this idea of a baby being born and then a death in the same hospital,” Kowalczyk said. “Hospitals have this cycle of life — people leaving and people coming. And then it really opened up into this sort of mantra about that energy flow.”

Through the years Live fans have spent considerable time trying to dissect Kowalczyk’s lyrics. On the site Songfacts.com, one man claimed “Lightning Crashes” was about his sister-in-law, who was killed in a car accident. While the song was indeed dedicated to Barbara Lewis — a former classmate killed in a crash—Kowalczyk said the song was written before the accident.

“I’m not a real conceptual writer,” he said. “I don’t sit around and think, ‘I’m going to tell a story and it goes like this.’ It’s more like a song like ‘Lightning Crashes,’ where you have almost a montage or a stream-of-consciousness kind of flow. And I have heard just about every kind of interpretation of that story of mine. And that’s fine. In fact, it’s something that I invite.”

As Live’s music became more mysterious, Kowalczyk admitted, he adopted a look to match. So while he looked like a college student in the band’s earliest videos, by “Throwing Copper,” he had shaved most of his head and lost his shirt.

“I was always intrigued by artists that kept you guessing in that sense,” he said, citing Peter Gabriel as an example. “So I had to get my rat tail going.”

Beginning with the band’s debut album, spirituality and religious references have always been present in the lyrics. But while Kowalczyk’s view on religion seemed almost skeptical in the early song “Operation Spirit,” they became more cryptic in the “Throwing Copper” songs.

“I’m a huge fan of Bono’s lyrics for that very reason,” Kowalczyk said. “That he’s able to express his ultimately positive ideas but also in a way that aren’t always super happy.”

By the 2003 “Birds of Pray” album, though, Kowalczyk was much more literal about his Christian beliefs. And his first solo album, “Alive,” from 2010, is a continuation of that.

Having children, he said, was part of the impetus. (In the Live song “Heaven,” after the birth of his first child, he sang, “I look at my daughter, and I believe.”)

“There’s nothing like the birth of three girls— or three kids in general — to put your feet right down on solid ground and allow you from that point to go deeper into what it means to be alive and what it means to be human,” said Kowalczyk, who is working on new music. “It definitely impacted me in a major way over the years.”

Kowalczyk said he left Live in 2009 because he needed a creative spark. But the band has not been pleased. Just last week, Live, which has a new singer, filed a lawsuit, trying to prevent Kowalczyk from using the Live name.

“I don’t take any of that seriously,” said Kowalczyk, referring to reports of discontent. “I mean, the fans obviously are interested and deserve some sort of reunion with the four original members. And I’m still working for that.”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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