There are a few musical mysteries that have confounded and intrigued rock ‘n’ roll fans for decades. Who was Carly Simon singing about in “You’re So Vain”? Was Michael Jackson really stalked by a pregnant groupie named “Billie Jean”? And who was “Jessie’s Girl,” the woman foolish enough to turn down future teen idol Rick Springfield? That last one is a mystery that apparently not even Oprah Winfrey can solve — although she tried.
Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment before a live audience at the Grammy Museum to promote his 19th studio album, the dark blues-rock opus The Snake King, Springfield admits that after “Jessie’s Girl” became a No. 1 hit in August 1981, “I had a couple of friends looking at me sideways, going, ‘Are you after my girlfriend?’” But the truth is, Springfield met Jessie — whose real name was Gary — in, of all places, a stained-glass-making arts and crafts class in Pasadena, Calif.
“[Gary and his girlfriend] were at a class I was in, and the class broke up before the song even came out. I’d recognize her if she came up to me, for sure, but she never has, so I don’t think she really knows,” says Springfield. “I was in a stained-glass class. I thought my music career was going nowhere, so I thought, ‘Hey, I’ll support my future family by becoming a stained-glass master! F****in’ pipe dreams! So, I started going to stained-glass class, and there was this girl in the class, and she was stunning and hot and everything. But she had a boyfriend. His name was Gary. If someone was in a stained-glass class in 1979 in Pasadena and his name was Gary, and he had a hot girlfriend, you got to put the things together, right? No one’s ever contacted me, but Oprah did try to find them.’
Yes, “Jessie’s Girl” became such a perennial classic (Springfield is particularly proud that he was “the first guy to put ‘moot’ into a pop song”) that years later, Winfrey attempted an in-depth investigation. “Seriously, Oprah went and found the stained-glass class in Pasadena,” Springfield reveals. “But the teacher had died two years before she had found them, and they’d thrown out all his paperwork a year later. Oprah missed it by a year, but they went looking.
“And if our president, Oprah, can’t find you, then you’re not going to be found!”
Springfield is joking, of course — Winfrey has already knocked down rumors that she’ll run for office in 2020 — but he says if she did run, she would have his vote. “Dude, I would [vote for] anyone [over Donald Trump]. My dog Bindi will be running for president. I advise you to vote for her, or she will bite your ass.”
That brings us back to The Snake King, a startlingly angry and political album, considering it is by a former Tiger Beat idol known for upbeat pop/rock hits and playing Dr. Noah Drake on General Hospital. A review on hardrockhaven.net even describes the album as “darker than black.” Springfield is aware that some fans will not like this artistic direction (“You’re known for freakin’ ‘Jessie’s Girl’; shut up and sing,” he imagines his detractors saying), but stresses, “I have to say what I have to say. … Some people will get it, and I appreciate the people that will get it.”
Springfield says the inspiration for The Snake King is “basically how f***ed up the world is, if I may speak frankly. I just look around me, and I see evil everywhere. I wonder where God is at this point. The album is just what I’ve been thinking about that lately, and I thought the best place to phrase that music was blues — because blues is about pain, and pop/rock is about having fun. I thought it was a good medium to approach the record with. … My first bands were blues bands, believe it or not. You can’t hear that from ‘Jessie’s Girl,’ but blues goes into the rock that we all play. We all have it in our soul.”
Springfield concedes that there is a lot of anger on The Snake King because there’s “a lot to be angry about. But with this anger, I’m doing something with it. Anger is destructive if you don’t do something constructive with it. … I don’t talk about personal anger. We all have anger in our lives, s*** that we’ve been through people have hurt us, but that’s not the kind of anger that’s constructive. The greatest healing is forgiveness, and any time anyone’s hurt me and I’ve tried to forgive them and allowed myself to forgive ’em. The pain lessens. There’s a great Confucius saying, which I love. It says, ‘When first you set eyes on the path of revenge, dig two graves,’ which is absolutely true. But anger that moves you in a righteous direction … I don’t know if that’s what I’m trying to do, but I’d like to think I am.”
So, what makes Springfield angry? Clearly, much more serious issues than the rejection of a comely arts-and-crafts classmate are weighing on his mind these days. “Wow, where do I start?” he gripes. “I’m not preaching, because I’m the wrong person to preach. I have my own dark past and haven’t always done the right thing by the world, for sure. I always [used to think if I had] a choice between the wellness of the world or the wellness of my life, I would have chosen the wellness of my life. … But we’re killing each other. Worse yet, we’re poisoning the planet, and no one’s really stepping up. … And when the world dies, we’re going to go, too. These f***ers that are making money off our kids’ backs and our kids’ kids’ backs — their kids are gonna die, too. At some point, someone has got to lead this insane path that we’re going down. … We’re electing people that are clueless, have hidden interests … I’m just not sure who’s going to rise up and say, ‘Rise up.’”
Still, although Springfield is making a bold and risky statement with The Snake King, and he’s pleased that it is putting the focus on his lyrics and guitar playing like never before, he knows he will always be best known for his ’80s heyday — and he’s OK with that. “I do love my one-dimensional pop/soap opera geek status,” he laughs. And he’s certainly having the last laugh, five decades into his career. Remembering one review for Working Class Dog (that spawned “Jessie’s Girl”) that claimed there were “no classic songs” on the album, he quips, “There couldn’t be more poignant way than that for me to realize, ‘Don’t worry about what people say.’ We all have a problem with how people view us. We all want to be viewed how we think we are. Certainly, when you get in the public eye, you’re just open for whatever.
“I’ve had to deal with that, and I’m not the only one who’s had to deal with it. I’ve read terrible things about people and I believe all of them — so when they say that about me, it’s probably true.”