By Eileen Katz
John French, 70, has lived on the Upper West Side, in the same building, since he was a child. He was a drug dealer and user; a disrupter (just ask Brandeis High School); and a guitarist who founded the heavy metal band Twisted Sister. The band’s biggest hits include “I Wanna Rock” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” They toured the world, filling stadiums and arenas, until their final concert on November 12, 2016. In 2021, John wrote a book in which he laid out a practical plan for personal and professional reinvention, called “Twisted Business: The Soul of Twisted Sister and the Art of Reinvention,“ coming soon as an audiobook. He sat down recently to talk with Eileen Katz, creator of WSR’s long-running series, Why The West Side.
John French: Surviving everything I did from all the drugs — and believe me, a lot of people didn’t survive — the crazy stories are true. Any of us who did survive did because we reached a tipping point, where we had to decide: Are you done here with all this? Cause it will kill you. The ‘60s were incredibly fun, but also incredibly dangerous. I was robbed right here in this building on Amsterdam Avenue during a drug deal. After almost five years of living like this, I made my decision to stop dealing and I did drugs for the last time and walked away a survivor. The fact that I’m still here is incredible considering the crazy stuff I went through.
West Side Rag: Literally still here, because you’re living in the same apartment where it all began!
JF: The fact that this is the same apartment and location is so ironic and put me on the road to doing these speaking gigs as a motivational speaker. When you’re in that place, everybody asks, Where’s your book? So I went to Writopia…do you know Writopia?
WSR: Of course! It’s an incredible place and program and they are the nicest people.
JF: Well, that’s my niece Rebecca’s business, also right here on the Upper West Side. Within five months of that program, I got a book deal. So I meet with my publisher and he says, to be successful, your stories gotta be authentic. I figured I would just write like I was having a conversation with a good friend. And this way of telling a narrative really started taking off. I thought I’d be getting speaking engagements for music companies, and now I find I’m being hired by Fortune 500 companies to talk about how I started this little bar band and built it into a huge brand. Those speaking engagements evolved into the TWISTED Method: Tenacity, Wisdom, Inspiration, Stability, Trust, Excellence, Discipline. Each has a chapter with examples of how I learned it and turned it into something that worked for the betterment of the band and myself as a business person and human being. What I’ve found most rewarding is getting emails from people who are, like, “I loved your band, but what I got out of your book is a whole different thing, applicable to so many situations in life.”
WSR: I found the same thing. The TWISTED approach is not just for business. And it’s not at all preachy or unattainable. You also provide a real insider’s view of the Upper West Side through your experiences here, like where you bought your first 45 (kids reading this: ask your parents what a 45 is):
JF: 107th and Broadway! The song was “Hey Paula” and it cost 49 cents.
WSR: And the performance you gave at Tavern on the Green:
JF: It was an event honoring Michael Flom from Atlantic Records and the first time the band had played together in years. And speaking of Atlantic Records, that building that came down over the summer on Broadway and 60th Street used to be the home of Atlantic Studios and, on the 6th floor there, we recorded our last album. Aretha Franklin recorded there and Cream recorded Disreali Gears there too.
WSR: Central Park has a lot of other memories too for you according to your book:
JF: Its where I bought my first Gibson Les Paul guitar. From a Junkie. And spent a night sleeping there with my friend Vickie Sue Robinson (of “Turn The Beat Around” fame)!
WSR: And what about the night you saw Eric Clapton perform up here?
JF: I was totally underage. There used to be this club, Ungano’s, at 210 W 70th Street. Kind of where Café Luxembourg is now. So my friend David gets us in and they announce that the band we came to see has been cancelled and it’s open jam instead. Up goes Eric Clapton with his guitar and that’s the next three hours of my life!
WSR: When they make the movie of Twisted Sister, who plays you?
JF: Oh God! I don’t know. But what I say about Dee is, he looks like Sarah Jessica Parker dipped in a vat of acid — that’s how I introduce him on stage. Thankfully he’s got a terrific sense of humor.
WSR: Not to be a trouble maker, but last time we spoke, you let West Side Rag readers know exactly what you thought of Bob Dylan as a performer, specifically his performance at The Beacon. Can I ask you about “The Cult Of Bruce And Why I’m Not A Member”.
JF: Look. I get it. You love him. So many people love him. Me? Twice I went to see him. Twice I walked out. Twice the sound sucked. Twice his raps were boring and uninteresting, so twice I left. I’m deliberately caustic when I write articles like that. If I think something sucks, I say it!