GQ Writes An Epic Tale About The Dickensian Life Of Journey’s New Lead Singer

We’re not exaggerating. Journey’s still going strong with Arnel Pineda, the guy they found on YouTube to play the part of Steve Perry. We saw the live footage and Pineda sounded like Perry, though he smiles more. We still can’t believe the guy’s almost 41 years old, but that, among other things, are confirmed in “He Didn’t Stop Believin’,” a feature on Journey and Journey’s new crooner in the new GQ. Something we learned right off the bat: In addition to Journey, Pineda’s old band Zoo also covered songs by Styx, REO Speedwagon, Men At Work, Toto, the Beatles, RHCP, the Goo Goo Dolls, Simple Minds, and Stryper, among others. Things would be a bit different if Stryper had contacted him first. But Michael Sweet’s going strong, and they didn’t. So, as he tells GQ, “My life is a fairy tale … but I’m awake, and I’m dreaming it.” Judging by the length of the GQ article, his life is a Proustian fairy tale with YouTube playing the role of the madeleine. Unless you’re a fan, though, you won’t be awake when you finish reading it.

The entire article — which discusses how Perry first joined the band back in the day, Neal Schon’s discovery of Pineda via YouTube (“The hair stood up on my arms … I got up off the computer and told my girlfriend, ‘No way–this guy sounds too good. I don’t believe it.’ “), the Journey phenomena in general, et al — is actually really great. But, here’s a major abridgment. First of all, the guys refer to Perry as “He Who Cannot Be Named.” Figures.

Later, I ask Schon about this, after reading an interview with their former manager in which it is alleged that Journey are somehow legally enjoined from speaking on the record about Perry.

“Oh, y’know,” Schon says. “There’s no legal issue. We just try not to. I mean, I didn’t say anything inflammatory. I didn’t talk about how he still gets paid like a motherfucker even though he shouldn’t be. It’s stuff like that I’m not allowed to talk about. He sorta just bitches and moans and whines about everything. And he just assumes that every time we bring up his name, that we’re sayin’ bad things.”

Of course, we also get the feel-good Pineda story (as counter).

It’s a little after 8 p.m., and we’ve reached the point in “Any Way You Want It” where lead guitarist Neal Schon, who cofounded Journey in 1973, plays a precise yet impassioned hairspray-torch of a solo. This is Pineda’s cue to sidle up to Schon and make your-guitar-playing-is-rocking-me-so-hard faces at him, prompting Schon to make equally ridiculous not-as-hard-as-it’s-rocking-me-my-brother faces back. It’s the kind of thing singers in arena rock bands have been doing during the guitar break since arenas were invented, and usually it’s only entertaining if you know, for example, that the guitarist and the lead singer actually hate each other. But when Pineda does it, it’s more than a gesture. He has performed this song live many times before, but he’s still getting used to performing it with the band that made it famous, so when he does the grooving-on-the-solo thing, he appears genuinely awed, not only by the force of Schon’s rocking but by the fact that he, Arnel Pineda, is actually being rocked by Neal Schon. When he turns to the audience–where fans have been waving the Philippine flag and their own homemade banners (arnel for president) in his general direction all night long–the look on his face is equal parts glee and disbelief.

This is placed in contrast to where he came from pre-Journey. (And, see, it was their “Dickensian,” not ours.)

Pineda may have the most Dickensian backstory in rock history. His mother died when he was 13; his father took Pineda’s siblings to live with relatives, and Pineda struck out on his own. He collected scrap metal, bottles, and old newspapers, usually bringing home the equivalent of thirty cents a day. Sometimes he’d sleep at a friend’s house; more often than not, he’d sleep in Manila’s Luneta Park, alone or with a group of other homeless kids. They drank from a fountain there and bathed in it, too; most mornings, Pineda would wake up sick from the dew. (“All clogged here,” he says, pressing two fingers to his sinuses.)

His friend Monet Cajipe played guitar. Sometimes when Pineda wasn’t working, he’d go over to Monet’s house and they’d sing songs together. “He would bring me to his family,” Pineda says, “and say, ‘Come on, give some food to my friend,’ because I was starving. They would make me sing, and then they would feed me. They would just bribe me with food.”

At 15, Pineda tried out for a group called Ijos Band. He’d never sung with a real band before; during the audition, his voice was strong but his timing was weak. The bandleader saw something in him anyway, and when the other members of Ijos groused about having to split their nightly take with an extra man, one of the bandleader’s friends came to the rescue, offering to pay Arnel’s salary–thirty-five pesos a night–out of his own pocket. Perks of the job included a tiny room under the guitarist’s front stairs, where Pineda could sleep.

Etc and etc goes Pineda’s journey to Journey. The piece could very be a series of these teary, fist-pumping vignettes, but what makes it more interesting, and gives it some bite, is author Alex Pappademas decision to touch, too, on the pro-Perry backlash.

I get a hint of the backlash that may be on the way when, a week or so before the Vegas show, I post a thread on the Journey message board at Melodicrock.com, an Internet forum for people with strong opinions about power balladry and Night Ranger side projects. I ask people to tell me their Journey stories; I ask people what they think of Pineda. I give out my e-mail address. Within minutes, my in-box fills up with e-mails–angry, passionate e-mails.

I hear from a few thick-and-thin super-fans, from plenty of reasonable people ready to give Arnel a fair shake, and even a few early Pineda converts. But I also hear from people frustrated by the band’s inability to hold on to a lead singer and from people who resent the band for continuing on at all. But mostly, I hear from people who have not stopped believing in Steve Perry. They compare him to Elvis, John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, and God. They describe the post-Perry band as “a second-class rendition of Journey.” They send me all-caps e-mails–Steve Perry really brings out the caps-lock in people–that begin “IT HAD BEEN BROUGHT TO MY ATTENTION THAT YOU ARE LOOKING TO WRIGHT AN ARTICLE ABOUT WHY JOURNEY IS NO LONGER JOURNEY BUT NOTHING MORE THEN A TRIBUTE BAND TO THE BEST SOFT ROCK BAND EVER.” They send me photomosaics of Steve Perry created out of many, many tiny little pictures of Steve Perry.

“You want to know why the ‘fascination’ with Journey all of a sudden?” writes Thomas Cordea of Fort Wayne, Indiana. “With the hiring of a blatant ‘sound-alike’ singer, the world is ‘re-awakening’ to the fact that THEY MISS STEVE PERRY LIKE MAD…. That is the real ‘hidden’ storyline of your article, not this latest frontman hire.”

Maybe. But this latest frontman hire still seems like the first smart move Journey have made in years. They’ve got a guy who can sing the Perry material on tour. They’re excited about making new music with him. And the fact that they discovered Pineda on YouTube has given them a ready-made PR hook. In a clicky, viral, cell-phone-delivered media moment where even the twice-weekly cult-of-the-amateur hour that is American Idol seems like a rusty piece of star-making machinery and Simon Cowell like a snooty gatekeeper, Journey–Journey!–seem like innovators, in touch with the forces shaping the culture. For a band prominently featured in people’s memories of the Carter administration, this is pretty impressive.

This is pretty impressive. It’s the best book we’ve read all summer. it’ll be interesting to see how long Pineda’s tenure lasts, and where the storyline travels. For now, just because, here he is singing Stryper.

See you Friday and Saturday, Arnel.