Unplugged & Totally Uncut

Tom Stephen Releases Best Seat In The House

December 16, 201818 min
You want a polite, modest, bland and bleach-y clean biography of a Canadian icon?
This is not it.
You want fist fights, groupies, drugs, drink and trashed hotel rooms (not unlike
the film Road House, in which the band starred), set to the soundtrack of a smoking
hot rock trio fronted by a once-in-a-lifetime guitarist and featuring an all-star
cast, including Bon Jovi, Bill Clinton and two Beatles? Did I mention the book
begins with a blind man driving a tour bus on an icy I-95? Then this is the book for
you.
That said, The Best Seat in the House: My Life in the Jeff Healey Band, by drummer/co-
manager Tom Stephen, is a respectful book. Despite recent acrimony with Healey’s
estate, Stephen clearly loves the man, the music and the memories, and is on an
evangelical mission to get the Toronto guitar god into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.
Who was Jeff Healey? If you even need to ask, then you definitely need to read this
book. A towering, charismatic, blind guitarist who played a unique style of guitar, he
made his mark playing blues-based roadhouse rock, selling a combined three
million copies worldwide of his debut album, 1988’s See the Light and the 1989
soundtrack to Road House (in which Healey co-starred). His biggest hit single was
the John Hiatt ballad “Angel Eyes,” which barely scratched the surface of the depth
of his talent. As a Hendrixian guitarist—with all the virtuosity, curiosity and
eclecticism that comparison implies—he had no shortage of famous fans: Stevie
Ray Vaughn, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Albert Collins, Dr. John, Slash, Jimmy
Iovine, Patrick Swayze, ZZ Top. “You’re a muthafucka,” Chuck Berry once told
Healey after the Toronto trio backed up the rock’n’roll originator. James Brown had
similarly profane praise: “Jeff, you’re one motherfucker of a guitar player and your
band’s cool, too.”
Jeff Healey knew he was brilliant. He wasn’t a modest Canadian, and he wasn’t a fool.
It can be argued, however, that it might be somewhat foolish to piss off rock gods
Keith Richards, Mark Knopfler, Bob Dylan, industry legend Ahmet Ertegun and
even George Harrison. They all encountered what could easily be construed as the
arrogance of the young Canadian hotshot, when really the strong-willed Healey just
thought he was doing what was best for him and the band. And despite everyone in
the biz telling Healey almost nightly to ditch his rhythm section—which happened
to feature his co-manager, Tom Stephen, on drums—the guitarist stayed true to the
trio who drove through blizzards with him and came to his instant defence in
more than one rowdy roadhouse brawl.
There were lots of fights on the way up. And the way down: physical altercations
with patrons, with record execs, with Stevie Ray Vaughn’s manager—but never with
each other. Tom Stephen was the pushy manager who dared to pull double duty
as a musician; an industry no-no, as everyone in the industry told him time and time

again. Maybe they were right: it’s hard to be the disciplinary enforcer in the band
when you were drinking until dawn with the rest of them on the night before the
morning after. (On one such rough morning, Stephen got a “tut-tut” from none other
than Ringo Starr.)
Stephen’s chutzpah in the mid-’80s led him to show up cold in New York City,
hoping to run into fellow Canadian Paul Shaffer and be introduced to someone who
could get Healey a record deal. Days later, he left NYC with a nine-album deal from
Clive Davis of Arista. Stephen had street smarts he learned growing up in Saint
John, New Brunswick, where many of his classmates ended up in a local jail where
the Jeff Healey Band played a gig years later. One of his classmates died in prison
after murdering four people, including two Hells Angels. Today, Stephen is no
tough guy, however; the wisdom of age allows him to fully admit when he was a
total asshole, and his memoir is remarkably candid and self-aware.
The Jeff Healey Band didn’t end well: they became estranged as Healey moved on
from rock’n’roll in the 2000s, and devoted himself to playing the kind of early jazz
that was always closest to his heart; he’d been collecting old 78-rpm records since
he was a kid. Things eventually got so bad between the original trio that Stephen
was disinvited from Healey’s funeral in 2008; Healey died of cancer at age 41.
Facing his own health concerns now, Stephen is worried that Jeff Healey’s musical
genius is in danger of being forgotten, and this warts-and-all, page-turner of a
portrait is destined to secure his legacy. The time for bitterness and bad blood is
over, and now the full story has been told by the man who had the Best Seat in the
House.
Michael Barclay is the author of The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie
and the Tragically Hip

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