The Reluctant Celebrity
Christopher Cross did not want to participate in a photo session. He was wary of even interviewing with the Chronicle, writing in an email weeks before that the paper had a reputation for being "hard on mainstream bands." He has a point.
In 1981, when his Christopher Cross band collected five Grammys for its eponymous debut, the group's accomplishments met with ringing indifference here, where it began. After "Ride Like the Wind" charted at No. 2, the follow-up "Sailing" bested it in Billboard. Soon, the awards shelf included an Oscar, and still the Christopher Cross band got no respect, especially in Austin, where songwriting literacy and the elusive perception of authenticity rule.
By the mid Eighties, the group dissolved. Cross recorded more albums and maintained a busy life in and out of the spotlight. It's the career musicians dream about, but few ever achieve. And after 30 years in Los Angeles, Christopher Cross moved back to Austin late last year.
If it's cliché to say none of it came easy, it's true nonetheless. Stardom thrust a sensitive soul with rock-solid credentials and a poet's heart into the unforgiving glare of mass appeal. When Cross writes, "I am the reluctant celebrity," he's not being modest.
Cross' house in West Austin is not large or ostentatious. It's neat in the typical prosperous neighborhood style and exudes a genteel attractiveness. The property includes a garage apartment where his son Rain lives. Cross' desire to stay close to his children factored into his move here. He likewise keeps a New York City residence, where daughter Madison attends college. Another son, Justin, lives in Birmingham, Ala.
The khaki walls of the white-trimmed front room are lined with a dozen or so framed gold and platinum records, an impressive showing for a career bestowed with the most sought-after honors in the entertainment business: an Academy Award, Grammys, and a Golden Globe. Down the hall is his home studio, also spare and unassuming but tidy. The house suggests someone organized and in control of his low-key surroundings.
Cross' reticence about photo sessions doesn't apply to his general demeanor; he's tall and imposingly built, neatly dressed and with a passion for fine Borsalino hats. He's also the Exhibit A of artists who'd rather let their work speak for itself.
"The biggest gift of my career has been to work with and meet those artists I idolized growing up, whether it's Randy Newman or the Beach Boys," he says earnestly. "I realize, 'Oh, I'm Christopher Cross, and I'm famous, too' on some level because people know who I am, but then there's Brian Wilson or Joni Mitchell or Randy Newman, and that's a whole other thing.
"They are larger than life. I have to pinch myselfsometimes."
Yet there's Cross, in the same room with Brian Wilson, conversing as peers. Staying true to his pop affections, Cross famously became a target of derision, especially in the town he picked to live in after leaving San Antonio.
"We did feel slighted by Austin," he admits, "but we never related to the songwriting or music being celebrated here and always looked to a more West Coast star. My attitude was to do the cover music. It paid the bills better. But keep your own music under your hat and shop it to the labels. That took us out of the mainstream. We weren't playing at Mother Earth or the Armadillo or Antone's.
"In fact, I never went to Antone's or the Armadillo. Guys like Jerry Jeff Walker and Rusty Weir – I went to see them play but didn't know them. I used to go to see B.W. Stevenson at Castle Creek. The only one I really identify with is Willis Alan Ramsey."
Sacrilege! Cross identifies Buddy Holly as a huge influence, likes "Muskrat Love," and confesses he doesn't know Townes Van Zandt's music. Can you really be from Austin and not kiss the ring? Sure, if you're Christopher Cross. Let's go back to the tote board.
The Christopher Cross band collected five Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year for its December 1979 bow on Warner Bros.; got nine songs onto the Top 40 charts, starting with "Ride Like the Wind" in 1980; and charted four No. 1 hits including the ubiquitous "Sailing." Cross also took home a Golden Globe and an Oscar for "Arthur's Theme (The Best You Can Be)," co-written with Burt Bacharach. Cross has sold 9 million units worldwide over the course of eight albums, including his most recent, Doctor Faith.
In 1980, Christopher Cross leapfrogged from recording in the studio to opening for the Eagles. Meteoric climb, wild ride, rocket ship to the stars – all the rock star checkpoints.
"It took 10 years from Chris and me sitting in his parents' bedroom in [San Antonio's] Terrell Hills in 1970, pipe-dreaming about making an album, to the reality of the Grammys," muses Cross' longtime writing partner and friend Rob Meurer.
"Anyone who thinks all Chris can play is 'Sailing' doesn't know he started out with a Flying V and a Marshall stack and hair out to here."
Smoke on the Water
It was good to be young in San Antonio in the Sixties. The town basked in its position as the capital of South Texas rock (see "My Children Are Becoming Heavy," Aug. 26, 2011). Doug Sahm rode the beautiful vibrations of "Mendocino" because he'd moved to Northern California, while his lieutenant Augie Meyers ruled San Antonio as Lord August & the Visions of Lite at the Pusi-Kat.
The Pusi-Kat was the hippest club in San Antonio in 1968, when the World's Fair turned the eyes of the world on the Alamo City. When the fair closed the following year, an up-and-coming promoter named Joe A. Miller bought the club, booking it under the old name before revamping it as the JAM Factory.
The JAM Factory replaced the Pusi-Kat in the early Seventies as the venue of choice for the hip rock acts traveling through San Antonio, as well as local rock bands like Flash, which featured the young Christopher Geppert, born 1951. Flash was a high-octane quartet seasoned enough to rank among the city's best rock bands. It didn't hurt that the group's guitarist also worked for Miller doing gofer work.
"Deep Purple booked their first show in the U.S. at the JAM Factory," recalls Cross. "But Ritchie Blackmore had a reaction to the flu shot, and he got sick. The show was sold out, and Joe Miller suggested to Jon Lord he use me to sub, and Joe would issue refunds to anyone who wanted. Ian Gillan was not for it, but Jon Lord made the call, and they said okay.
"Eric Johnson was opening, so I used his Marshall and amp. I played the Deep Purple tunes I knew and some blues and got through it. I drove them to the airport, and when they left, I met Ritchie. He gave me his pick and was very nice.
"It was such a thrill. He was such a great guitarist to me."
"Eagle Rock, who [publicized] my new Doctor Faith album, has Deep Purple, so I asked them to ask about it. Deep Purple has no recollection of it – said it never happened – but why would they remember? It was a drag for them, a blip on their career radar. To me, as a kid, it was huge, a big thing."
Cross was already a big thing himself in San Antonio's cross-culturally vibrant scene, having started out in a junior high band called the Psychos.
"My big moment was playing 'Wipeout' at the make-out parties," he laughs. "The other guys didn't want to sing, so I was the singing drummer, and that's where I started. That's what got us as the Chosen Few into the Mule Stall [Alamo Heights High School's teen club], too. For our audition, we wore blue button-down shirts, and I sang 'And I Love Her.'
"It was an all-girl committee, and I still have the card somewhere that said, 'Us few choose the Chosen Few.' They said, 'It's so cute the way he sings that sweet song.' It was unlikely for us to be picked to play because we were sophomores, but the girls wanted slower music. The other guys were like, 'Way to go!' And I was like: 'I'm telling you, dude, chicks like those soft songs. They like you to be romantic.'"
By 1970, the JAM Factory was in full swing. Cross reveled in his position with Joe Miller, now paying off in opening gigs for Led Zeppelin, rounding up equipment for a snowbound Three Dog Night, and being sole witness to Eric Clapton's warm-up before a Blind Faith performance.
"I picked up Fleetwood Mac and delivered them to the hotel," mentions Cross. "I was changing from drums to guitar, so it was cool to meet Peter Green, the old English guitar god. That night, the roof leaked and blew out John McVie's amp. They got him another bass amp.
"Years later, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks heard the record and took me out with Fleetwood for their Tusk tour. I was in the bar one night and told John and Mick about how I'd picked them up in San Antonio. They didn't believe it! I told them I was serious. I'd driven them around. 'What a bunch of crap,' they said. They weren't buying it!
"Suddenly, I said to John, 'You blew out your amplifier and had to get another one.' You should have seen the look on his face.
"'I remember that. I remember my amp blowing up in Texas,' John McVie said. 'But I don't remember you.'
"But they started to believe me."
The Godfather of Chillwave
"Chris dreads Grammy time," confides Meurer. "His name will be dragged through the mud by writers saying he beat out Pink Floyd's The Wall and Frank Sinatra. Without fail."
It's got to be brutal being Christopher Cross, the punch line to any joke about music that doesn't target Kenny G. Bloggers still cite his music for its lulling melodicism three decades after he ruled the charts. "Like Christopher Cross on muscle relaxers," snarked The Village Voice, describing the chillwave musical trend at South by Southwest 2010.
The Christopher Cross band that signed to Warner Bros. and moved to California on the wings of "Ride Like the Wind" consisted of Cross and Meurer with drummer Tommy Taylor and Flash bassist Andy Salmon. Austin engineer Chet Himes perfected a sound Cross and Meurer had in their heads: sweeping, orchestral pop-rock inspired by the sounds of their Southern California and songwriting heroes. Meurer has been playing in San Antonio bands since he was 14.
"Austin didn't believe that's what we sounded like," he asserts. "People thought we went to L.A. sprinkled in fairy dust and got this record deal. It didn't have any grease, but it's exactly what we did. But we didn't get L.A.-ized. We did this here in Texas.
"I don't think Austin wanted to produce this music. It flew in the face of the tradition of down-and-earthy blues bands, roots and cosmic cowboy stuff. The illuminati didn't have the time of day for us, and the critics were hard. We didn't understand it. We were proud! These were good songs! We were listening to pop writers, and our music reflected it. We weren't hanging out where they played the Sex Pistols. For us, it was about the song."
It was also about the band. Christopher Cross was a group as well as an individual, and by the second album, its success opened doors of unimaginable opportunity. Cross was given the chance to write with Burt Bacharach, and the two composed the theme for the hugely popular 1981 film Arthur, starring Dudley Moore. "Arthur's Theme (The Best You Can Be)" took home an Oscar for Best Song. That upped the ante; Meurer recalled tours where Cross would be constantly swept off to do publicity while "Tommy and Andy and I just had a great time on the road."
Writing "Arthur's Theme" with Bacharach (the song also credits Carol Bayer Sager and Peter Allen) also became a sore point with the band, even though it gave Cross the chance to write the 1984 Olympic theme for swimming, "A Chance for Heaven," with Bacharach and Sager. Cross never considered himself a collaborative writer; composing with Meurer was simply something he'd done much of his life.
"But how do you say, 'I don't want to write with Burt Bacharach?'" exclaims Cross today.
Meurer points out the other problem: "Suddenly, it wasn't our band – pop tunes with a rock tinge. The success of 'Arthur' was mega, and it put off the second album."
It took another two years before the release of the band's sophomore follow-up, 1983's Another Page, which although a certified gold record (sales of 500,000) couldn't touch the multiplatinum zeitgeist of Christopher Cross despite a Top 10 hit with a song made famous by soap opera General Hospital, "Think of Laura." By the third album, 1985's more rocking Every Turn of the World, there wasn't much for Meurer, Salmon, and Taylor to do. Christopher Cross ceased being a band and wholly became the man.
Cross took the opportunity to explore music solely on his own, drawing from the vibrant panoply of music in his hometown of San Antonio. In a way, his music reflects the "beautiful music" radio format popular in the Sixties on the then-little-used FM band. It emphasized orchestral arrangements, instrumentals, and soft vocals like the Percy Faith Singers. "Beautiful music" gave way to middle of the road, aka MOR, and then came adult contemporary, the format practically invented to accommodate the popularity of Christopher Cross in the Eighties.
"One band I saw a lot was Sunny Ozuna [Sunny & the Sunliners]," remembers Cross, name-checking the popular S.A. singer favored by Doug Sahm. "He was like San Antonio's James Brown, with this big band, tight brass, and percussion. It was amazing. Dynamic performers, great band, great players. 'Put Me in Jail.' 'Talk to Me.' They were the first band I remember that really stepped their game up. I think I got the 1960s Latin feel ingrained in my music from that."
The time on his own gave Cross an appreciation for the past, too, and in 1988, he and his boyhood bandmate began writing together again. The two have been co-credited ever since.
"We're getting pretty good at this," Meurer allows. "We still feel like the arc is up. We care about the craft of songwriting. On Doctor Faith, he wrote the music and I wrote the words. We get jazzed just like we did in 1970."
"I have no desire to write with anyone except Rob," says Cross candidly. "The only other person I've really written with was Burt Bacharach. I'd rather be a guy like Tom Waits. He's always danced to his own beat."
When Life Hands You Lemon
"Like Christopher Cross?" the Facebook ad for Windsor Drive inquires coyly.
After finishing a summer on the Van's Warped Tour, the Wisconsin-based quartet recorded and shot a video for Christopher Cross' "Sailing," posting it online last month. Windsor Drive flaunts its contemporary sound, soft rock for the tattoo set, and wears its Christopher Cross influences proudly.
Then there was a 30 Rock episode the previous fall in which Tina Fey's character Liz Lemon muses about an ex-boyfriend and the hope that "the whole thing would turn out like a movie where Christopher Cross sings a song like, 'All my days I've been waiting for you to come back home in the moonlight of New York City.'"
Cross caught the episode and called Meurer, suggesting they actually write the song. "Lemon's Theme" became a golden opportunity to tweak his own saccharine reputation. The tart melody is carried throughout Meurer's lyrics, with Cross crooning for Miss Lemon to "pucker up and give the world a kiss," that "love is a bitter game," and to "taste the world's delights" because "a sweet life waits for you."
It was pretty, as Cross' music has always been. It was clever. It was released on the 30 Rock soundtrack and became the unexpected focus of the ad publicity campaign. That same year in the book Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy, engineer Lee DeCarlo recalled John Lennon, saying he was inspired by Cross' hit "Sailing."
By the time his eighth LP, Doctor Faith, was released last year, Cross made the move from California back to Austin. He's content to be back among old friends like Eric Johnson and Van Wilks and sending MP3s to Meurer. He was enthusiastically received at the Erwin Center's wildfire benefit in September, completed a European tour in November, and has tours scheduled throughout this year. So far, he's been welcomed warmly, a genial presence showing up at the Saxon Pub, Threadgill's, and fine Italian restaurants.
Maybe Cross finally got the last laugh, reluctantly.
Christopher Cross sails/rides into the One World Theatre on Friday, Jan. 27, for two shows, 7 & 9:30pm.