Don't Stop Believin' - Journey Guitarist Neal Schon Reflects on the Classic Rock Band's Generation-Spanning Legacy

For Journey guitarist Neal Schon, it’s been quite a trip. The legendary guitarist turned 60 earlier this year and for a large chunk of that time, he’s been making music. He accepted an invitation to join Santana in 1971 at age 15 after reportedly declining an invitation from Eric Clapton to join Derek and the Dominos, if you can imagine having to make that choice. He would stick with Santana for a couple of years and once he had his rock ’n’ roll sea legs, he left the group to form his own band. That group of course, was Journey.

The San Francisco-born band wasn’t instantly successful. After forming in 1973, the group would release its first self-titled album in 1975 and it released two more albums in 1976 and 1977 to little fanfare. It was the addition of one Steve Perry on vocals for the band’s 1978 Infinity release would finally complete the picture, setting the stage for years of success on the concert stage and record charts.

These days, although Perry has long been out of the picture (he and the band parted ways in early 1998), it’s the group’s legacy of hits that remain and it now plays (with vocalist Arnel Pineda on the microphone) in front of an ever-changing fan base that continues to grow more than 40 years later.

“Don’t Stop Believin’” is one of the signature songs in the Journey catalog that continues to find new ears in the audience. Famously, it was used in the closing moments of the series finale for the television series The Sopranos. During a phone conversation prior to the band’s current tour, Schon was quick to note that the resurgent success of “Don’t Stop Believin’” is something that’s hard to believe when he looks back at the beginnings of the song, recalling the moments shortly after they had recorded it.

“When I listened back to it before it was actually all the way mixed, I thought to myself, ‘Well I think that song is going to be a huge anthem,’” he says. “And at the time it was a big song, you know, [but] there were a lot of big songs on the record and some were bigger than ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.’ So to have it resurge and become like this national anthem, it’s really wild. And no matter where I am, no matter if somebody plays it — no matter where — everybody sings it. With [the TV show] Glee hammering the tune and redoing it, we [also] have a lot of kids in our audience. I look out and I see about four different generations.”

It would be easy enough for a band like Journey to just coast on the catalog hits and sit at home and count the money. But Schon recognizes that in order to stay on the radar of both current and future generations, the guys have got to keep elements of the same work ethic that got them this far in play, which means that they’re never too far away from the road. “I think on the Journey level [that’s] why we’re still prominent and out there,” he says. “I think it’s because we basically work our butts off and we tour every year. And we continually play the music and have new audiences come in all the time, we’re claiming younger fans. And also I think mainly, I think we just got it right, you know we wrote a lot of really great songs, the three of us; myself, Steve Perry, and Jonathan Cain. And it was like we just got some things right and I think that’s why it’s etched in stone.”

The members of Journey are on the road this summer touring with Steve Miller Band and Tower of Power and they’ll stop at Blossom Music Center this week. It’s a bill that brings things almost full circle for the group, touring with two other bands that also cut their teeth on the San Francisco music scene. Schon has fond memories when he looks back at his early days in San Francisco and the things that he was experiencing.

“I was hanging out in the city through the week and the weekends and there were numerous places I could pop in and jam,” he says. “And I thought it was just that’s the way it is everywhere. And soon after we started traveling, there were music scenes everywhere else like Austin, Texas is a hot spot for great bands and great guitarists and musicians, but San Francisco still remains to be one of those and I think it’s flourishing again and there’s definitely a demand in San Francisco for any type of great music.”

He also spoke about Journey’s plans to record some new music. He’s been busy on his own over the past couple of years, recording more than four albums worth of solo material (including his new solo album So U, which was released in late May) during downtime from the group. Writing songs and creating new music is something that’s always on Schon’s mind. When it comes to Journey however, things can be a bit more complicated. So when it came time to get ready for this summer’s tour, Schon thought they could take a few baby steps towards putting down some new music. “We’re actually going to be rehearsing in the studio where we’ve cut a lot of big records and we’ll be there for almost three weeks,” he says. “So I told everybody to set up microphones and since we’re actually in a studio, I’m hoping to record a couple of new songs and land a couple of new songs in movies. I was talking to [Journey manager] Irving Azoff and he put somebody on the telephone as we were talking and they said ‘Sure, send me a song.’ I think that’s a good starting place for us.”

Schon says that it can be hard to get the band motivated collectively to work on new material because of the diminishing opportunities to get their new music heard. Radio isn’t likely to play new songs from the group and record stores and other brick and mortar-type outlets are a vanishing breed. Beyond that, as Schon and other artists have realized, people’s listening habits and the way they obtain music have changed a lot.

“I think that a lot of people just don’t buy CDs,” he says. “They wait until they can download it for free. Not many people are buying CDs or records. So I don’t know, man, it’s all about playing live. I’ll always record records. I see myself just recording more solo records and playing live and filming live. I think that’s where it’s at. I think a lot of kids want to see it live. You know, much like I did when I was young. I got to see all of the greatest guys perform. I saw Hendrix, I saw Zeppelin, I saw Jeff Beck, the Who, the Faces, you know, I saw everybody. Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone — everything that was happening. I think that the younger generation wants to see people playing. I think they know about Pro Tools and that anybody’s able to do a record in Pro Tools. I think they don’t quite believe that it’s real unless they’re looking at it. So I see myself going more in that vein. But definitely, Journey has more music in them and if I can get everybody motivated to put something new out, I want to put it out.”

Journey with Steve Miller Band and Tower of Power

6:45 p.m., Tuesday, July 8, Blossom Music Center, 1145 West Steels Corners Rd., 330-920-8040. Tickets: $36-$151,

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