In the early ’80s, Rick Springfield was on top of the acting and music world. As General Hospital’s Dr. Noah Drake, the native Australian was a heartthrob known for his lothario ways. On the pop and rock charts, the singer-songwriter was a formidable presence with “Affair Of The Heart,” “Don’t Talk To Strangers,” and, of course, “Jessie’s Girl.” But 1983 was an especially pivotal year for Springfield: He chose to leave General Hospital and made a slight musical detour with Living In Oz, a deeply personal album with a harder-rocking edge, more sophisticated instrumentation and arrangements, and mature lyrical themes.
In the decades since, Springfield has done quite a bit of acting (notably on Californication, on Broadway in Smokey Joe’s Café,and even the occasional visit back to General Hospital) and writing (2010’s bestselling memoir, Late, Late At Night), and has released a steady stream of albums, including last year’s Songs For The End Of The World. Thirty years on, the 63-year-old is still incredibly busy: He was a part of Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary and soundtrack, and is gearing up to release his first novel, next year’s Magnificent Vibration. He’s also looking forward to writing a new record soon. “I’m still very hungry,” he says. “There’s still a lot I want and a lot I believe I can do. So I’m looking forward to the future with fear and excitement.”
In the meantime, Springfield was gracious enough to look back at Living In Oz, his acting career (and near misses), his love of horror and sci-fi books, and having to resort to eBay to retrieve a treasured literary possession.
The A.V. Club: You released Living In Oz in 1983, and it’s one of your most underrated albums. What stands out to you today about the writing and recording process for that record?
Rick Springfield: That was one I really took a chance on. I had been co-producing the two albums before that [1981’s Working Class Dog and 1982’s Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet], and I took over full production on this one. I was very scared, because I was originally going to do it with Keith Olsen, but we differed pretty strongly on what were the best songs for the album. So I decided to take a chance and produce it myself.
Because of that, it was much more guitar and bass, and a heavier sound than I think I would have gotten with somebody who just saw me as, “This is the next pop record.”
AVC: What did you like most about saying, “Hey, This is my album. I want to do it this way”?
RS: We really experimented. I remember when we finished “Human Touch”—and now, in retrospect, it sounds pretty silly—but then I thought it was too outside for my audience, because we had all these weird sounds under it. Mitchell Froom, who actually went on to produce a lot of great stuff himself, was the keyboard player on it. We experimented a lot with synths and stuff. He had this woodwind synth that was one of the first ones in the world, and it was pretty weird sounding. We put a lot of kind of weird effects on quite a few of the songs. I actually thought it might be kind of alienating—and it was. I think it was alienating to the 12-year-old girls. But I remember seeing a lot of college people showing up around that album, with the album [title] written on their cars. I know a lot of people got it, but I think to a lot of my original army of fans, it was a little heavy for them, and a little bit too much of a left-hand turn.
Now, most of the female fans I meet, that’s one of their favorite records. Actually, the women seem to like a lot of the heavier stuff. I did a record called Shock/Denial/Anger/Acceptance that’s probably the heaviest record I’ve done so far, and that’s the hardcore female fans’ all-time favorite record.
AVC: Why is that, do you think?
RS: “Jessie’s Girl” was a rock song. [Working Class Dog] was much more rock than [Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet], because Keith took a much more pop vein. I wasn’t there for a lot of the mixing; I was there for all the recording, but I wasn’t there for the final mixing because I was on the road so much and doing General Hospital. It was a little softer than I would have done myself. People still want to rock, and I think… I’m the nice bridge between Metallica and David Cassidy. [Laughs.]
AVC: On the Marc Maron podcast, Dave Grohl was talking about “I’ve Done Everything For You” and said, “Dude, that is a Buzzcocks song!”
RS: [Laughs.] I think I had a lot of closet fans, and over the years they’ve felt safer to come out. Certainly having someone like Dave speaking up for me, or doing a show like Californication, gets a lot of people, “Well, I guess it’s okay to be a Rick Springfield fan!” [Laughs.]
AVC: It makes sense that older people might relate to Living In Oz—lyrically, there’s wistfulness, restlessness, searching for something, making wrong decisions, homesickness, and regret. This depth is something that’s pretty consistent with the songs you’ve written over the years.
RS: I was surprised that more guys weren’t on board, because I was a man writing about women and his failings as a man and his dreams as a man and regrets and all that. It’s a guy’s perspective. That’s the only place I know how to write from. So I was always amazed that a lot of the younger girls got it, but that a lot of the older guys didn’t.
AVC: You still play a fair number of Living In Oz songs live. How has your relationship to them changed over time?
RS: I’m proud of them. There’s a couple of the earlier ones that I’d wince if I had to play them now, especially from the second record. But [Living In Oz songs] still [convey some] fairly mature thoughts, and it’s kind of how I still feel about certain issues. I was at the pinnacle of that teen fandom and also had a girlfriend I was really in love with, but wasn’t being really true to, and so it’s a real mix of, “This isn’t quite what I thought it would be.”
The term “living in Oz,” it’s a double meaning. “Oz” is a term us Australians use when we talk about Australia—we call it Oz for short—and a couple of songs in there reference my growing up in Australia. But it also references being in this world of Oz; it’s an unreal fame, and suddenly everybody wants to know who you are. It’s a very meaningful record for me, because there’s a lot of stuff from my early beginnings, like “Me & Johnny” and the song “Living In Oz” and a lot of the other stuff. “Tiger By The Tail” is about my girlfriend who became my wife. [Laughs.] It’s a very personal record—it’s probably the most personal record I had written until that point.
AVC: “Me & Johnny” is the whole idea of your life going one way, and it’s weird—and your childhood friend, his life is totally divergent. A lot of people can relate to that.
RS: I’m actually still very, very good friends with John. I see him every time I’m out there. It was a great relationship, because he really encouraged me. He got me excited about playing the guitar; he was the one that really showed me, “Hey, we can form a band and play for people.” It was a great relationship, his and mine. And it’s really the same relationship that it was back then; he’s still the same guy, and I’m basically still the same guy. Our relationship is still pretty much the same, even though we have gone divergent paths. At the point that I wrote that song, I was feeling very alienated from my beginnings, and he really represented what those original dreams [were]—and that fearless feeling of “You’re going to live forever” teenage thing, you know?
AVC: In 1983, you were at the height of your acting and musical fame. How difficult was it juggling those parallel careers?
RS: It was not difficult; it was just time consuming. I wanted to do it. I’d been champing at the bit for 15 years, and when it finally came, I was more than ready for it. But it really was a 24-hour-a-day thing, and there wasn’t a lot of time for anything else—not that I really cared. I was gung ho on this, and I guess the hardest thing was just maintaining my relationship within it, because that really took a backseat. I had proposed to my girlfriend before anything really happened, and then it took off and we waited five years until we finally got married. Our relationship suffered to a degree because of that, but it also stood the test of time as well.
AVC: Did the time-consuming nature contribute to your decision to leave General Hospital that year?
RS: No, I felt I had gone as far as I could with General Hospital. I wasn’t asking them for more money or anything; I was just constantly asking them for more time off so I could go out and tour. Like, I’d get six weeks at a time and go out and do a tour, so it just seemed like the right thing to do. I’d just started thinking about [making] movies, so it was the right thing to do for sure. I don’t regret it.
AVC: Were there any roles that you were offered over the years that you turned down and then thought, “I should not have done that”?
RS: Yeah, they wanted to see me for one of the guys in The Right Stuff. And I’d just gotten friggin’ [1984’s] Hard To Hold and I said, “I don’t need to be a part of an ensemble, I’m going to be a star in my own movie,” and it was one of the stupidest fucking decisions I ever made.
AVC: Oh no!
RS: I had a lot of regrets, but that’s not really a big one—but it certainly would have helped my acting career. But I don’t know what else would have suffered [because of that], maybe my music career would have suffered because of it, but that’s really the only one I remember. I’m sure there were others. [Laughs.]
You know, you get to a point where you think it’s all about you, and [you get a] big head and it takes a while for your head to deflate, I think, so I was glad that it finally did.
AVC: You hear that from a lot of people. There’s a recent book by the MTV VJs, and they talked a lot about how they were back in the day. They look back and some of them were just like, “Man, I was such an asshole.”
RS: It’s a natural thing, and I don’t really know anyone personally that’s had any significant success that wasn’t a temporary butthole because they thought it was all right. You know, “I’m the man now.” Close friends have said that, basically, “I’m the man now—get out of my fuckin’ way!” I wanted a really long career, and part of the good side of that is that you realize that there are a lot of “the mans” out there and you owe it to yourself to be the best person you can be. I haven’t always been that, but I aspire to be that.
AVC: Were there any artists, bands, or pop-culture moments that you really enjoyed at the time, in 1983? Who were your favorites?
RS: Yeah, I was looking to a lot of the English bands at that point. Back in the [time] of cassette tapes, this guy used to make me a collection of all of the new British stuff that wasn’t heard out in America at the time. It was like the haircut bands and all of that before they broke in America. I got very into the English thing, Paul Young and all of those guys. [Sings.] “What is looooove…”
AVC: Oh, Howard Jones!
RS: Howard Jones, yeah, all of those guys. I was into all of that kind of stuff because the songwriting was really great, and they’d kind of stepped away from the whole American thing and gone out on their own, again with synths and all of that.
AVC: You’re publishing a novel next year, right?
RS: I’m working on the artwork, as a matter of fact, right now!
AVC: Are you really drawing it?
RS: Yeah, I’m doing drawings for it as well. Remember the old Christopher Robin books? They’d have, like, a little black-and-white drawing at the end of certain chapters? In the center of the page—well, I’m doing that for mine. We’re not 100 percent if we’re going to do it, because I don’t want to take away from the fact that it’s a novel and not a friggin’ comic book, as I probably have enough people thinking that it’s just going to be some silly little comic book, you know? It’s dark humor, but it has a serious side. I wanted to be a writer first before I was a musician, so it’s starting to fulfill that desire in me.
AVC: How did the opportunity to write it come about? Did it come up after your memoir?
RS: Yeah, I’d always wanted to. I’d toyed with it ever since I was a kid. I only got good grades in high school for my essays—it was the only thing I ever was any good at, and my English teacher was always saying, “You should be a writer rather than the juvenile delinquent you look like you’re heading to be.” So that was kind of in the back of my mind. And then music took over, and I channeled that into songwriting. But I was always an avid reader, and [I am] still a voracious reader. I think that’s really where I got my education from. I always had it in the back of my mind that I would do it.
The attention that my autobiography got, which I wrote by myself, was encouraging. My publisher, Stacy Creamer, when I first said, “I’ve written the first 30,000 words in my bio,” kind of rolled her eyes and said “Okay, send it to me.” And she was preparing to say, “Look, you’re a musician—you’re not expected to be a writer as well—you tell your story to a writer and they’ll write the story.” But she read it and freaked out and said, “You gotta write it. You have the [right] voice.” She’s just been my champion ever since, and she said, “You have to start writing novels, because you have a voice rather than just [a name].” I think people will see that when the book comes out. Whether they like it or not, they’ll certainly see that little voice.
AVC: Who were your favorite fiction authors?
RS: I was a giant Arthur C. Clarke fan. Moby-Dick is my all-time favorite book. I can’t think of a better book that I’ve ever read. I read a lot of the original stuff I think, like Stephen King read—you know, the Pan Book Of Horror Stories and Robert Bloch and Ray Bradbury. One of my great collectibles, I have [a copy of] Fahrenheit 451 signed to me from Ray Bradbury, which I really love.
Stephen King signed a book for me back in 1982 that I guess I’d accidentally thrown out in one of the house cleanings and taken to the Salvation Army. Someone sent me a link about six months ago—it showed up on eBay: “Stephen King book signed to Rick Springfield.” It said, “Rick, I don’t watch General Hospital, but I love your music—Stephen King, 1982.” So Stacy, my publisher, heard about it and she put in an extra 600 bucks on my advance for this novel so I could buy it. So I went and bought it, so that was pretty funny.
AVC: So how much did it end up selling for?
RS: I got it for the $600 they were offering, which I thought was outrageous, but it’s great. You know, it’s one of those things. I love Stephen’s writing too; he’s great. He’s really one of those guys that writes from a point of truth; a lot of his characters and heroes are writers. I was actually surprised that there are no musicians in my first novel. In fact, the hero is kind of the anti-musician. He struggles to play the guitar and is hopeless at it, so he gives up.
But there’s so many great writers I love. August Derleth [is another one], and Dracula was my Bible when I was 16. I had it by my bed for like a year. Orson Welles, I love, but I was kind of raised on all of the great horror books and the horror short stories.
AVC: Those are all so scary because they have an element of fantasy in them, but they’re just real enough that you think they could actually happen.
RS: Oh, totally, and that was the age of H.P. Lovecraft. I thought this guy somehow got involved in this freaky witchcraft shit with creatures in the earth—that’s the age of the book that really used to scare me. The book didn’t scare me like that until I read The Exorcist. Those would keep me awake at night when I was a kid, like Edgar Allan Poe and all of those guys that seemed to write from such truth of all of these horrors.
AVC: If you could give the 1983 version of you any advice, what would you say?
RS: I wouldn’t even know where to start. There’s so many things I’d say. “Don’t do all of the stupid things you’re going to do.” “Watch your money.” “Don’t believe everybody is in there for your best interests.” And, “Trust your girlfriend!”
AVC: That’s some pretty good life advice right there.
RS: Yeah, I have a few regrets. Personal stuff, you know?
AVC: What are the biggest ones?
RS: Oh, too personal to mention. But I haven’t always made the best choices as a human being, and I’m still trying to make up for that in everything I do.
AVC: Life is a process. No matter how old you get, you’re always learning—and there’s always room for improvement and to be better.
RS: I hope I’m done with all of the major fuck-ups. [Laughs.] That’s all I’m hoping for.