There are music-business survivors, and then there’s Jay Jay French. Twisted Sister’s founder/co-lead guitarist/manager has led a life of wild highs and lows, personally and professionally. Some were common pitfalls, others his alone.
In his book, Twisted Business: Lessons from My Life in Rock ‘N’ Roll, French (with co-writer Steve Farber) combines the Twisted Sister saga and general business advice. While deciding to do a book, French struggled on its focus before realizing it could be both memoir and business-themed.
“Aren’t all books about successful business people memoirs and business books?” he said. “Their history is imbued in their philosophies. I call mine a ‘biz-oir,’ and what it does is bridge a pathway of lessons learned and the pursuit of success in the rock-and-roll business, which are universal. It doesn’t matter if you’re rock or rap. Doesn’t even matter if you’re in the music business. It works for every business, which is why I do motivational speaking at business conferences; the story I tell is about how to overcome challenges. Don’t we all have them all the time? That’s all we do – reinvent ourselves over and over. That’s what life is about – challenges and reinventing one’s self to accommodate them.
“(The book has) practical applications to real issues that have confronted me,” he added. “It just so happens it was through the prism of heavy metal, which is a very sexy prism. I screwed up and made mistakes along the way, and I’m brutally honest about my mistakes. I survived them because I wasn’t on drugs or alcohol, which allowed me clarity to solve these problems. If you add drugs and alcohol on top of these issues, you’re fighting two problems.”
French grew up in New York City and became a drug user/dealer in his teens. He quit all drug-related activity cold turkey because he knew it would interfere with his dreams of rock stardom. Twisted Sister formed in 1973, and early members were fired for violating its no alcohol/drugs policy. It took the band 10 years to get a record deal despite nightly selling out large clubs in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, some seating 5,000 people.
“The difference between Twisted Sister and other bands is we’d get a rejection letter during the day and play for 2,500 people that night. We couldn’t have sucked that bad,” French chuckled. “Fans kept us fueled while we were going through that. It was validation. We had value.”
Ultimately, they signed with Atlantic Records in the U.K., even as its U.S. president, Doug Morris, openly despised them. Morris finally promised to give Twisted Sister a promotional push for 1984’s Stay Hungry, which then produced the iconic hits “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “I Wanna Rock.” MTV ate up the videos.
These days, a recording artist doesn’t need a record company to release music thanks to the internet and social media.
“Given our history, when I watch shows like ‘The Voice’ or ‘American Idol,’ and the 21-year-old winner looks into the camera and says, ‘I’d like to thank my fans for sticking with me for 15 weeks,’ I want to throw up!” French said. “Today, the good news is, anybody can make a record. The bad news is, anybody can make a record. How do you get heard? That’s the problem. It’s a different world.”
Twisted Sister today remains a financial success; the two Stay Hungry classics are among the most licensed songs of all time, and French has won legal ownership of the Twisted Sister name, with the vision of licensing its music.
“If you look at the four big bands that came out in ’73 – AC/DC, Judas Priest, Kiss, and us – it’s a pretty heavy-duty class. We have the most-recognizable songs in the world, and that’s just a fact,” French said. “You can hate the band – I don’t care if you hate us – but if you ask a 10-year-old kid to sing a Kiss song he may not know one, but if you go, ‘We’re not gonna take it!’ he’s going to sing our song. [‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and ‘I Wanna Rock’] are worldwide. They have transcended everything.”
Though the cruel parts of the music business hit French harder than most, he has allowed himself to enjoy success.
“Once in a while, I think, ‘Wow, that was an accomplishment.’ And then I get crazy and go, ‘What am I going to do next?’ The price one pays for success is nothing you could ever anticipate. Number one, it took 20 years and six months from the time I saw the Beatles on TV until I had a gold record. There’s no way I could’ve anticipated that. The second thing is the price one pays and the trip one takes down the road is impossible to know until you live it.”
This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.