NOTE: Bill Murphy interviewed Crimson Glory guitarist Jon Drenning in July of this year.
JD: No problem, man. We’re good, we’re all good.
Bill: Oh, good.
Jon: I’ve got some pictures, I’m picking out some pictures for you. Soon as we’re done with the interview, I’ll send them over.
Bill: Oh, that’s great, that’s really good. I appreciate that.
Jon: If you want me to send them as we’re talking, I can do that too. I’m just picking through them now.
Bill: Sure. Whatever works for you.
Bill: I definitely appreciate your time tonight. As I mentioned on the phone, I’ve been a fan for 20 years. I picked up Transcendence when it first came out. I’ve been digging it ever since.
Jon: Well cool. I’ve been a fan too.
Bill: First of all, I just want to express my sadness at the passing of Midnight. That was a shock for all of us out here. You might have seen it coming from your end, but it hit all of us pretty hard as I’m sure you saw from the ProgPower forum. There’s been an outpouring of support and emotion for you guys.
Jon: Yeah, well I have to say I’m very happy about all the wonderful emails the band’s received, and I’ve seen a lot of the posts on the boards around the world, all the different condolences and the recent postings. I think Midnight would be very happy to know all the fans all over the world, how much they loved him so much. I don’t think he had any idea that he was loved and appreciated so much.
Bill: Yeah, I was just going to ask you that. Did he know how much he was appreciated?
Jon: I think Midnight…hopefully people took notice of him and recognized his voice and his music, but I don’t think he knew to the extent at which people admired him, really. He was very humble in a lot of ways, I think he wanted to be appreciated. But you know, the fact that he hadn’t really gotten to much over the last 10 years or so, and he’d been doing some solo projects. But I think you know, he wasn’t really in contact with too many people.
Jon: But I know he had a presence online. Whenever he had an opportunity, he would go online and communicate with people. But I don’t know if he really knew how much he was admired, and how many singers he influenced.
Bill: Oh yeah.
Jon: You know, one of the things we’re realizing now is how many singers have come forth, talking about Midnight’s voice, and how incredible it was to them, and what it was like for them to hear him for the first time. And trying to sing some of the things, trying to sing like him in ways. Midnight truly had this amazing, heartfelt way of delivering words. He had a way of making words like “and,” “but,” and “or” passionate.
Bill: [laughs] Yeah, that’s true.
Jon: I mean, you felt everything he ever sang. And if you ever sat down with him, when he was just sitting alone on the couch playing a guitar, that’s when he really impressed me the most. Because he would just sit back and play and close his eyes, and he would just take you places. He would just go someplace in his mind and sing these words, and he’d take you on this journey with him. And it was always just very impressive to see and hear him do those things. You know, I’ll never forget the first time we heard him record, or play and perform, record the song “Lost Reflection” [from the first Crimson Glory album, 1986] in the studio. This is the very version that ended up on the album, you know. We’re all standing there, it was late at night, he was in this little room by himself, the candle going, playing the acoustic guitar and singing along at the same time. And he went from beginning to end of the track, and we were in this darkened control room with goose bumps. We knew that what we just had heard was simply amazing. That it was going to be a timeless piece of music. You sometimes have those moments where you just know.
Bill: You mentioned that he wanted to be appreciated. Was he the kind of guy that realized the depth of his own talent,? Or did he sort of take it for granted? [Photo: Midnight, age 3.]
Jon: Well, no. I’m sure on one hand he realized that he had a special talent and a gift. But on the other hand I don’t know if he ever thought he could be as great as we believed he was going to be. He and I had a very contentious relationship, because he’d always frustrate me, because he was our voice. And I always wanted him to do the great things, and push him even further than he even believed he could go. And so I was always pushing him harder to do it. We as a band did. And I mean, he would get frustrated with us, because he was doing things that were like, almost impossible. [laughs]
Jon: But we knew he could do it. So we were always wanting him to be even greater than he was. And push him beyond his own limits. So I knew how great he was, and I knew how great he could be. Now he was our greatest strength, and also our greatest weakness, because Midnight was, you know, he was insecure, kinda shy, insecure, he suffered from stage fright. His confidence could be easily shaken at times. And so, he could, when he was on and feeling good, he was at his best. But when he wasn’t, he could be a weakness. And obviously, through the years, his drinking became a hindrance to himself and the band. So Crimson Glory would have never attained the status, the legendary status that we’ve achieved, without Midnight. You know, he is our voice. But we could have gone further, had he maintained a better health condition. So it was kind of like a—
Bill: A two-edged sword? Yeah.
Jon: Well, a lot of great singers are like that. I think a lot of great singers have demons within them, have troubled lives or things that helped them become the great singers that they are, or the poets and the writers that there’s been in the past, you know. In some ways, Midnight was our Jim Morrison.
Bill: Yeah. I can see that.
Jon: He was our poet. He was our word guy. He was our singer. He was our voice. But he had all these other issues that came along with him.
Bill: You mentioned demons, and I’ve seen other people comment or wonder, what was his demon? What was driving him?
Jon: Well, to be perfectly honest, I couldn’t tell you. You know, I’d sit with him for long times and talk about it. And I’m not really sure what troubled Midnight so much that caused him to be the way he was. But he had issues he had been dealing with, probably from his childhood, that led him on the path he went down, that he was dealing with his whole life. He was loved. His family loved him. His friends loved him. He wasn’t unloved, by any means. We loved him dearly, you know.
Bill: Oh yeah.
Jon: We took care of Midnight, our whole lives growing up together. We all pretty much took turns taking care of Midnight. It was just, you know, he was on this path that we just couldn’t take him off of. In some ways, like I said, he was our Jim Morrison. He’s like, you’re not going to get him off that path, no matter what you did or said.
Jon: He would often say to me, “Oh Drenning. Quit worrying. You worry too much, man.”
Jon: He’d always call me Drenning. “Drenning, quit worrying, man. You worry too much.”
Bill: Oh geeze. [laughs] Yeah.
Jon: You know? But he was never, he was very eccentric, you know, in many ways. He wanted, I think he liked to have all the nice things that people got that had normal lives and families and jobs. But Midnight truly just wanted to be an artist. If that meant that he’d sleep on your couch his whole life, well that was fine with him. He wanted to sing, he wanted to write, he wanted to draw, and he wanted to paint. Of course, he wanted to drink and drink while doing all of those things.
Jon: We intervened with Midnight on many occasions. His family intervened with him on many occasions. The band intervened with him on many occasions. But a person has to make a decision for themselves. And you know, we always had hoped that Midnight, at some point, would change enough to at least get himself in a healthier state of mind and a healthier physical condition. We always held out hope that we would work together again. We couldn’t stand by and watch him destroy himself.
Bill: Oh yeah. Yeah.
Jon: It was too hard for the band and for me personally. It was just too heart wrenching to be there, trying to, you know, create music with him during the time he was having such difficulties with his health. When he wouldn’t do anything to help himself.
Bill: Sometimes when people pass away, the people left behind kick themselves in the ass or feel guilty: They could have done this, they should have done that. It sounds like you don’t have that kind of feeling, because it sounds like you’d done all you could do.
Jon: Oh yeah, I feel like we’ve done all we can do. I look back and wonder could I have done more, in some ways. But I know, in my heart I feel good that I gave him everything I could. I shared with him all I could, and I helped him all I could. And he knows that now. You know, in some ways, I know, Midnight and I spent many hours talking about the afterlife. And many of the songs that were written in Crimson Glory dealt with the otherworldly parts of the universe, whether they be inner space, or outer space, or other space. We’re always interested in the unknown. And Midnight is looking at and laughing at me now because he kind of beat me to it, you know, he knows all the answers we both used to think about, we always wanted to know the answers to. But he lived two lifetimes in a brief period. Midnight lived life, hard. So he lived a full life, Midnight lived a full life, that’s assured. He just crammed it into 47 years instead of about 80 like the rest of us.
Bill: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. How was his memorial service down in Florida? Was there a dry eye in the house, or was it more like a wake?
Jon: No, no. The service for Midnight was very touching. There was a few hundred people who showed up there on the beach. It was the very same beach where we discovered him. I didn’t know Midnight at first, but Jeff Lords [Crimson Glory bassist] went to school with him in grade school and Dana [Burnell, Crimson Glory drummer] and Ben [Jackson, Crimson Glory guitarist] both went to high school with him. So they had not only known of him, but they knew him also playing on the beach. So when we had his service, we thought it was fitting to have it right on the beach where he used to sit and play guitar.
Bill: Oh cool.
Jon: He used to sit on the beach and play Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin songs. He was notorious for Led Zeppelin songs because he used to enter karaoke contests and win them all the time singing “Going to California” or some of those other ones.
Bill: Oh, that’s great.
Jon: Yeah, he really dug that. It was a very beautiful service, though, I have to say. There wasn’t a dry eye. There was not a dry eye in the audience. The releasing of the silver balloons was a very touching moment, because we were listening to Midnight’s version of “In the Arms of the Angels” by Sarah McLaughlin.
Bill: Oh wow.
Jon: Everybody released their balloons when that song was being played. It was very, very touching. A very poignant moment.
Jon: And I just realized at that moment, you know, we were never going to see Midnight again alive.
Jon: But hearing his voice. Hearing his voice, it’s like he’s there with you in the room still.
Bill: A lot of people don’t realize, and I guess didn’t either, that Midnight was not in good physical shape from at least 1991, right on through now. I mean, that’s a long a time.
Jon: That’s correct. He’d be in the hospital a few times with serious ailments he had incurred. I think it’s very important for people to know this. Yes, Midnight was an alcoholic. But—and I want this very clear—Midnight did not die from liver and kidney failure.
Jon: No, it was totally taken out of context. Midnight died of complications. Midnight actually bled, he had an aneurism in his stomach. He actually had been bleeding for three or four days, internally. And because of his stubbornness, he refused to go to the hospital. So Midnight could easily be alive today had he just gone to the hospital when he was told to go the first time. But he was bleeding internally. He had had an aneurism. And so, for four days he was, you know, coughing up blood, and puking up blood and stuff, and he refused to go to the hospital. And his girlfriend at the time did everything she could to convince him to go, but he just would not go, until finally, on the fourth day, he was so pallid and weak they called the emergency, the ambulance, medical people to come and help him. And they immediately came in there and brought him to the hospital. But because of the internal bleeding, there was so much internally, they couldn’t even see where it was coming from. So while they were trying to figure out how to stop the bleeding that’s when his major organs started shutting down. With a loss of blood, your major organs start shutting down. And he died from loss of blood, and the organs shutting down after that. And by then, he’d lost so much blood, they couldn’t get things going back. They couldn’t get things restarted right. And he basically just slipped, you know, into a coma and his liver and other major organs started failing. And his heart was the last to go. I just want to make sure it’s clear that he did not die from drinking, he did not die by drinking himself to death. Drinking was probably, you know, the cause for many of these ailments. But all he had to do was go to a proper medical facility when he first had the internal bleeding, he would have lived just fine.
Bill: I’ve never heard that before now.
Jon: That’s because I’ve never shared it with anybody.
Bill: Man, oh, man. I don’t know how to phrase this, but that makes this whole thing seem even worse. Because he could still be alive if he’d just gone into the hospital.
Jon: Well Midnight was notoriously stubborn. He really would not do anything [laughs] unless he wanted to. And the idea of going to a hospital just did not appeal to him. He probably had coughed up blood before and just said, “Screw it, I’ll be fine. It’ll be fine, just don’t worry.” He would tell me, “Drenning, don’t worry. I’ll be fine..” And so he’d be alive today, there’s no doubt.
Bill: Man, I’m really sorry to hear that. I mean, that’s, wow.
Jon: It’s really sad, yeah.
Bill: I definitely appreciate you sharing that. It’ll be great to clear that up.
Jon: I think it’s important that the world know the truth. He did not die from drinking himself to death.
Bill: You mentioned his demons. You mentioned his problems. We’re talking about his passing. Tell me something funny about Midnight. What’s the funniest story or experience you had with him?
Jon: Oh man. The funniest story, one of the funniest stories I can remember [laughs] we were in California playing this show in LA, on our way out to Japan. And we were playing the show for MCA Records. And that night, Midnight had learned that his first child, Heaven, had been born.
Bill: Oh wow.
Jon: Back home in Florida. And so Midnight proceeded to celebrate and drink. You know, and this was a showcase show for MCA Records. We had just signed this big record contract with MCA, and they were going to be releasing the Transcendence album, and they had all the presidents, and the vice presidents and all the bigwigs came down to see us play on the strip somewhere, I can’t remember the club. But you know, Midnight proceeded to get drunk before the show, and by the time he got on stage, he was pretty schnockered. I remember at one point he went to leap up on the drum riser, and he actually missed, and he ended up falling head first into the kick drum.
Jon: His head ended up in the kick drum.
Jon: [laughs] And then he tried to recover by jumping back down, off the stage to grab his microphone, but he kind of missed it, and he ended up pirouetting around the microphone stand and falling down on the monitors, you know?
Bill: Oh jeez. [laughs] Was that funny at the time, Jon, or only in retrospect?
Jon: No, no. It was not funny at the time, but in retrospect, we used to laugh about it later.
Jon: Midnight would just say, “Oh Drenning. Let it go, dude. Nobody remembers that.” [laughs]
Jon: He used to tell me, “Let it go, Drenning. No one remembers that.” I’m like, “Yeah, right, man.” [laughs]
Jon: Are you kidding? It was, at the time, I had to be locked in the men’s room, in the bathroom for an hour after the show, because I wanted to just like, I just wanted to tear everybody apart.
Bill: Yep, yep.
Jon: I was so livid.
Bill: Yeah. I can imagine.
Jon: You know, we prided ourselves on being a great band, live. So yeah, at the time I was pissed, but later on, it was pretty damn funny. We’d always tease him about it.
Jon: But there’s plenty of others. Midnight was really funny because he didn’t have great rhythm. He couldn’t clap his hands in time, man.
Bill: Really? [laughs]
Jon: Yeah. [laughs] So every time we tried to give him like a tambourine or something to play, it was always messed up. I just would laugh my ass off, like, “Dude, how can you sing all those wonderful melodies and not have the rhythm to play to a beat?” [laughs]
Jon: You know? He was in his own world, believe me. In his own key. He lived in the key of Midnight, man.
Jon: You know?
Bill: [laughs] The key of Midnight.
Jon: Yeah, it was the key of Midnight, and the tempo of Midnight. It was like, he was in his own world. Like I said, when you put him alone, by himself, on a piano or with a guitar, he was pure magic every time. He could sing and play. It was just, you knew, everything he did was great. And we were thinking, “How are we going to use that? We gotta use that too.” You know? And matter of fact, we remained friends throughout the years, and occasionally we’d get together, I’d hear him play some songs, I would be like, just blown away, going, “Midnight, wow, that’s the best song you’ve ever written. Don’t mess it up, don’t let anybody screw it up, record it just like that. Record it just you, with a guitar, don’t fuck it up.” [laughs]
Jon: You know, because a lot of times he would get with those musicians, and they would like turn his songs into these other different versions that just were missing the whole message that he had, you know, the whole vibe he created on his own was lost. So I was a little disappointed that the songs I heard him play to me on the guitar or the piano would turn out being so different.
Bill: You know, I was going to ask you about his solo album [Sakada, 2005] a little bit later on, but what was your impression of it? What were your comments to Midnight about his solo album. Some people have commented that it came out of left field and was strange and bizarre.
Jon: Midnight’s was certainly very different. It was, in a lot of ways it was Midnight being unabated, and being without anybody interfering with just him. When you work with a band, you work within the confines of other people’s ideas, you combine them together to create this recipe. With Crimson Glory, Midnight would write with myself and with Jeff and Ben and Dana, and we would create this recipe. But by himself, you can see the recipe would be very different. And so you get this really strange, like, Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd kind of strangeness.
Jon: That was really him, all on his own. All by himself, on the tightwire, all by himself. For good or bad. And then, how it got recorded or transposed musically depended on the musicians he was working with. What they brought to the table was different than what we would have done.
Jon: So it came out completely different than say a Crimson Glory record would have. When I hear those songs now, I think about how I would have recorded them, how I would have had him play the parts, you know, how Crimson Glory would have done it differently.
Bill: Yeah. Yeah.
Jon: But he had a very distinct, unique sound. It, Midnight’s background was not heavy metal. That was not his thing at all. Matter of fact, when we first got him to audition for Crimson Glory, he had no idea who Judas Priest or Rob Halford or Iron Maiden was. Or Scorpion. He didn’t know who these people were.
Bill: [laughs] Yep, yep.
Jon: He, all he cared about was Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.
Jon: But that’s what helped him bring that element to the band, though.
Bill: Oh yeah.
Jon: Pink Floyd was a big influence on him, the way that Roger Waters had this element of drama to what he was saying and the craziness he brought to it. And it’s interesting, because Roger Waters was just emulating Syd Barrett.
Bill: Oh yeah, yeah.
Jon: He was trying to take over where Syd Barrett left off. He was an imitation of Syd Barrett, Midnight was imitating Roger Waters. So it was like a domino effect of people, you know, emulating each other and then taking it to their own little music.
Bill: Is there anything in the can, any Midnight-era live audio or video that hasn’t seen the light of day yet?
Jon: Oh yeah, there’s tons of stuff. I have boxes full. We have a 25th anniversary coming up, we plan to release a lot of that material.
Jon: So people will get a chance to see a lot of live Midnight things he’s has done, a lot of the demo things he’s done. There’s a lot of different demos people have never heard. You know, there’s been some live things we’ve released that were terrible, for VHS versions. We’ll be releasing, you know, true digital versions that are proper. The sound is good and the video is really good, so people get to see it and hear it the way it’s supposed to be, that it really should have been to begin with. One thing, we’ve always, you know, we’ve always done what we did because our true passion for music. It was never about money. We’d have liked to have made more money, but it just, that never going to stop us from going forward. And today, same thing, same thing stands. We want to make more records. We want to release more material. We’d like to get paid for it, but you know, it all depends. With record companies, it’s just signing a piece of paper. Your contract’s only as good as the paper you sign it on.
Bill: Right. Yep.
Jon: I feel sorry for a lot of the bands out there, because these you know, these kids put their heart and soul into making these albums. You know, and these record companies steal from them. You know, they don’t pay them for the royalties, they don’t pay them for mechanicals, they don’t pay them for publishing. It’s terrible. You know, Roadrunner, to this day, to this very day has never paid Crimson Glory a dime for anything they’ve ever sold. They still illegally license our albums to other people, like that Polish company, Metal Mind? Is that what it is?
Bill: Yeah, yeah. They’re re-mastered gold discs.
Jon: Yeah, all that, all those records are illegal.
Bill: You’re kidding me.
Jon: Roadrunner has no right to release those materials. They’re actually licensing our material to other companies. Everybody in the world makes money off Crimson Glory. They’re all making, stealing money from Crimson Glory to this very day. They’ve never. Paid. Crimson. Glory. One. Red. Cent.
Bill: So these albums I’ve got in front of me, these Metal Mind gold discs, I shouldn’t even have.
Jon: Well no. I mean, look, the guy from Metal Mind called me to tell me he signed a licensing deal for them. I was like, “How’d you do that? They don’t hold the rights to us anymore.”
Jon: He says, “Well I got a contract.” I’m like, “Well, you just paid for something that you have no rights to have.” He wanted my input. He wanted our help to give him some, you know, new material to put on these discs. I’m like, “I can’t do that. I’m not going to help you bootleg my own record.”
Jon: “You crazy?”
Jon: I’m like, “You go ahead and release them if you feel like you have to, but I’m telling you, one day, I’m going to sue your ass.”
Bill: [laughs] Well—
Jon: The day is coming. Listen, mark my words. Mark my words. The day is coming when Crimson Glory is going to sue the world.
Bill: Yeah. [laughs] Well, why haven’t you? If Roadrunner hasn’t paid you, and now Metal Mind’s ripping you off, sounds like you have a wonderful suit.
Jon: Massacre Records [Germany], let me tell you something. Rising Sun Records, you’ve got, Roadrunner, from the very first day never paid us, and to this day they’re still, they are still stealing money from Crimson Glory. Still bootlegging records, still illegally licensing records. You’ve got Metal Mind over in Poland illegally distributing and selling records. You have Rising Sun licensing and selling records. You have Massacre are doing it. I mean, who the, how did these people get the rights to our music? They have no contract! It’s really frustrating.
Bill: I had no idea.
Jon: That’s one of the reasons why, you know I haven’t been itching to go out and make more records just to be ripped off. Why give the record companies more opportunity to steal from Crimson Glory even more? I love the fans. The fans can have all they want of Crimson Glory music. Because as far as I’m concerned, when you write a song, the fans own the music. They own it. It becomes their music. We record it, we write it, we give it, we put our hearts into it, and we give it to the fans, and it’s, then they own it. They determine your success, they determine your success or failure, they determine your longevity, they determine whether or not you’re going to be ever considered a legend in any musical genre. The fans determine it all. So as far as I’m concerned, the fans own our music. But the record companies are the ones taking all the money.
Bill: What do you recommend doing, then? Do you recommend the Grateful Dead, Phish and jam-band model which encourages fans to tape your shows and trade the tapes around the world with each other?
Jon: I would rather the fans have everything, and the record companies have nothing.
Jon: And rest assured, the next Crimson Glory record product that you’ll see, including the DVD that will come out of the ProgPower festival, including the live CD that Crimson Glory will be releasing, and DVD from the Midnight era, including the new Crimson Glory record, you will only be able to find those online through the band, and through the channels that we decide. It will be only, the only way you’ll ever see it. Crimson Glory, it’s more of a cult band around the world. And we’re happy it just stays that way, and the fans, you know, we have a great relationship with our fans. And that’s good enough for us. Let the rest of the people deal with the record companies. We can care less.
Bill: Let me just ask you this, then, given what you’re saying. How have you guys been able to make a living doing this for the last 20 years if you’re not getting paid?
This ends Part One of Bill’s interview with Crimson Glory guitarist/founding member Jon Drenning. The complete interview can only be found in the official (printed) ProgPower USA program given to all attendees. If you want to read the entire interview, you have to come to the show!
Final Note: All photos are used in compliance with the principles of Fair Use. They illustrate reviews, opinions, and interviews with the band members who created the albums. All photos/images used to illustrate this particular interview (except album covers) were provided by Jon Drenning, with many thanks. No copyright violations are intended.