It’s so common in rock ’n’ roll, it’s almost a cliche.
Bands spend decades together forging a career and chasing fame, but gradually they grow weary of one another and break up. Sometimes, the split is amicable, but often, as in the case of guitarist J. Geils and Peter Wolf, frontman for the J. Geils Band, it isn’t.
Geils, who was found dead Tuesday in his Groton home, had been estranged from Wolf and the rest of the band that bears his name for several years. The 71-year-old Geils hadn’t performed alongside Wolf since 2011, when it was discovered that the guitarist had trademarked the name “J. Geils Band” without telling his bandmates.
The bold move, intended to give Geils ownership and control of the band’s name, touched off a bitter legal battle that was eventually settled, but it abruptly ended his tenure in a group known for its ferocious live shows, whether playing in a sweaty club in the ’70s or opening for the Rolling Stones in a stadium in the ’80s.
As news of Geils’s death spread on social media Tuesday night, Wolf posted a warmhearted, if somewhat benign note on Facebook: “’Thinking of all the times we kicked it high and rocked down the house! R.I.P. Jay Geils.”
The list of bands who’ve endured bad break-ups — so bad members can’t be in the same room with one another — is long and includes the Kinks, Beach Boys, the Eagles, Talking Heads, newly-inducted Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Journey, Van Halen, and Oasis, to name just a few.
“It’s true what (George) Bizet said, ‘Ah, music. What a beautiful art. But what a wretched profession,’ ” says Stephen Davis, a rock ’n’ roll historian who’s written books about several famously fractious bands, including Fleetwood Mac, the Band, and Guns N’ Roses.
“It’s a real problem for musicians,” says Davis, who lives in Milton. “They’re condemned to repetition, doing the same thing with the same people night after night.”
The J. Geils Band, which Geils formed (without Wolf) in the late ’60s, enjoyed its greatest success with the release of 1981’s “Freeze-Frame,” an album that yielded two enormous hits, “Centerfold” and the title track. But even during good times, there was tension. The band was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1973 and again in 1982, and on both occasions only Wolf was pictured, which could not have pleased the band’s other principal songwriter, keyboardist Seth Justman, not to mention Geils, harmonica player Magic Dick, bassist Danny Klein, or drummer Stephen Bladd.
“Between, say, 1969 and 1973, J. Geils had been like Boston’s house band,” says Davis, who was a student at Boston University at the time. “They were the only band in Boston that was any good. Wolf was great and no one could touch the band. They were like the American Rolling Stones.”
Their eventual break-up, in 1985, is generally attributed to disagreements between Wolf and Justman, but Geils, in a 2012 lawsuit against his bandmates, revealed that he also had been unhappy. In the suit, Geils claimed he’d signed, “under tremendous duress and pressure,” a document in 1982 that stipulated that if he ever stopped performing with the band, he couldn’t use the name “J. Geils” or “Geils” in connection with any commercial venture. (He could, though, play as “John Geils” or “John Geils Jr.”)
To the delight of their fans, the J. Geils Band reunited periodically over the years, including concerts in 1999, 2005, 2009, and a memorable performance in 2010 at Fenway Park, co-headlining with Aerosmith. But it was clear by then that Geils, whose musical tastes ran more toward jazz and blues, no longer wanted to match Wolf’s manic, high-energy style on stage. (For the concert at Fenway, Geils asked to sit on a stool, a request vetoed by the band.) That, combined with bitterness on both sides over use of the band name, led to Geils’s departure.
When the J. Geils Band hit the road in 2012, its namesake had been replaced on guitar by Duke Levine, and Geils never played with the band again.
Here then is a clip of the J. Geils Band, in peak form, performing at Holy Cross in 1972.