Twisted Sister are true rock ‘n’ roll survivors. They have played thousands of concerts, and in the early pre-Dee Snider club days in the ’70s they would perform five sets a night. They endured shunning by major labels and critical barbs from detractors. They took over a decade to become stars; their third album Stay Hungry became a multi-platinum smash in the summer of 1984. Once they became stars, frontman Dee Snider faced sharp criticism over his lyrics and profanity-laden stage rants and faced down the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in a record censorship battle on Capitol Hill in 1985. Then almost as quickly as famed arrived, it departed. After record label shenanigans turned a 1987 Snider solo album into the half-hearted Twisted swan song Love Is For Suckers, they broke up for over a decade. But they reunited to record for a song on the Strangeland soundtrack in 1998, then to play live for a benefit show in 2001. They buried the hatchet, began touring again in 2003, and became bigger than ever thanks to a massive European resurgence and subsequent film and TV licensing deals.
They have been through the ringer and have seen it all.
But when drummer AJ Pero passed away unexpectedly on March 20 from a heart attack, the band (and their close friends and fans) were stunned. He was the youngest member and the last to join the classic line-up in 1982. The fun-loving drummer who brought a joyous energy into the band was suddenly gone, and his bandmates were in disarray. After an initial period of mourning, the four surviving members sat down to discuss their future. They decided to honor their European festival dates for the summer, and they chose to give fans a farewell tour in 2016. Pero’s immediate replacement became Winery Dogs and former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy (who actually recorded and filled in with Avenged Sevenfold when their drummer passed in 2009).
All of the Twisted members spoke to the Aquarian just prior to their first gig with Portnoy in Vegas on May 30, which was recorded for a CD and DVD release. The next show, “A Concert To Honor AJ Pero” at the Starland Ballroom on June 13, is a benefit concert for Pero’s longtime girlfriend Michele Agnello and his daughter. The drummer left behind no will, and there has been legal wrangling over his estate involving them, his two ex-wives, and his three other children. The band wants to help his girlfriend and daughter in the short-term. The long-term is uncertain, although for Twisted Sister the future is now clear.
“We had pretty much planned to call it a day the week that AJ died,” reveals founding guitarist Jay Jay French. “My last conversation with AJ was a discussion about the end of the band. That’s the irony of that discussion. We were discussing the endgame. He then told me that if I heard he pulled off the Adrenaline Mob tour not to be concerned. His shoulder was bothering him, and he needed to have his shoulder rehabbed for the [Twisted] shows this summer. Think about how ironic that statement is.”
Pero then called his son, AJ Jr., whom he had not spoken to in a couple of weeks. It would be their final conversation. “That’s one of those strange coincidences,” says French. “Then to know that 12 hours after the conversation he is declared dead is crazy. It’s two months later and we’ve processed it. The initial pain, the physical crying pain, is over, and now we have to get down to the business at hand.”
“As Jay Jay French said, AJ was the nice one in the band,” remarks frontman Dee Snider. “Truly just a wonderful, kind, warm guy, and the only guy during our 15 years apart who remained friends with everybody in the band. He deserves credit for bringing the band back together because of his subtle connection between us—he kept the embers alive and ultimately led to us reuniting. It’s a tremendous loss for the band on that level.”
Snider took some heat for venting his anger and frustration over Pero’s health soon after his death. The singer says that he learned that the drummer’s father had died of heart disease in his sixties and that the drummer had not been concerned about his own health. When the coroner’s report returned saying Pero had major blockage in all of his aortas, the singer became incensed and vented to media including TMZ. But he wanted to send a message: “Get fucking checked out. If you have a history of any disease, you owe it to the people you love to be responsible. If you don’t do it for you, do it for them.”
“It’s difficult,” confesses guitarist Eddie Ojeda of Pero’s passing. “Every day I think about it. It’s like losing a brother or a family member. I wish it was just a recovery thing because it’s a bittersweet situation playing with Mike Portnoy. He is such a great musician, a great guy, and one of those people that just has so much respect for whatever playing situation he’s in. It takes a little bit of the fun out of playing with somebody else. It is what it is unfortunately. It was [AJ’s] time and we’ve got to deal with it. It’s definitely a big loss.”
“While Mike’s a great guy and a great drummer, AJ was AJ,” stresses Snider. “He was the heart and soul of the band and the final piece of our puzzle. When AJ joined the band, that’s when the unit was complete, that’s when the sound was complete, that’s when it all connected. At least for me as a songwriter and as a frontman, to have that driver behind me was just incredible.”
Pero’s personality was also integral to the band, which has an intense sense of humor that grew out of years of battling it out in the club trenches and fighting for their big break. While other bands might chill out prior to a festival appearance, the guys in Twisted are creating mayhem backstage on a regular basis.
“These are four of the funniest motherfuckers I’ve ever met in my life,” bassist Mark Mendoza says of the classic Twisted line-up that includes himself, Snider, French, Ojeda, and the late Pero. “I’ve been [in] all kinds of situations in my life. There’s nothing funnier, wittier, and has scripts that Hollywood couldn’t even begin to write than the members and people around Twisted Sister. Drumming aside, you take away that camaraderie, that wit, and that high-speed transition of making fun of each other and making comments about things and tearing things up, it’s a piece that’s missing now. Of course, the band is funny. Dee is fast-witted, Eddie is the best stand-up comedian, and Jay Jay, of course, has a comment about everything. But we’re missing the AJ piece—he was a very funny, street-level guy, and it’s gone. That is not replaceable. He and I used to spar, kidding around—we would physically fight—and he was a tough character.”
Bringing in Portnoy seems to have been the right choice before the band. Mendoza praises Portnoy’s studiousness and ability to learn so much material so quickly (and to endure their comic hazing from the start). But he says it is still tough to replace an essential team member. “AJ and I ran the rhythm of the band and pounded the crap out of the audiences,” recalls Mendoza. “There’s no two ways about it. I never had to turn around and look at him because I knew exactly what he was thinking and exactly what he was going to hit. I matched my bass riffs to his drum riffs, I knew it all perfectly. That being said, Mike is doing an incredible job. He has been a dream to work with. We’ve had to give him very little direction.”
“The rehearsals have been going great,” reports Ojeda. “Mike really has respect for what AJ did, and he’s doing exactly what AJ did. It’s kind of scary how much he’s been able to cop AJ’s feel—the same power, the same kind of hard-hitting solid drumming that we’re used to. I think it’s also going to make people realize how good of a drummer AJ was. In Twisted Sister, with all the visuals [we have] and with Dee being such a strong frontman, sometimes a lot of musicality gets taken for granted or overlooked.”
“AJ’s drumming was astonishing,” marvels French. “He was just a great, great drummer. He filled in for Portnoy [in Adrenaline Mob] because he had the chops to do it. Portnoy can do what AJ can do, so it’s an honor to have them available to do these dates.”
The band had made both short and long-term decisions soon after Pero’s death. “Next year’s run will be ‘Forty and F**k It’—40 years with me, Dee, and Eddie, and then it’s over,” declares French. “We’ve seen Scorpions do their farewell tour. Mötley Crüe is in the middle of theirs. I think bands are going to take their victory laps. One last chance to see a legend.”
Portnoy is quite happy to be coming onboard during Twisted’s final chapter. He is not a fan who discovered the Long Island legends with “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” He saw them live during their club days in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “I was going to see them play at Speaks, and I knew their legendary status of being that incredible Long Island club band,” he says. “My history with them precedes all of the MTV videos, so I have a deep understanding and appreciation for their true legacy, which spans the entire 40 years and not just the MTV golden age.”
The drummer loves playing straight ahead rock stuff, and he does so with The Winery Dogs and plans to take that approach with Twisted. “That being said, I don’t think people realize that there is some crazy drumming in Twisted live,” remarks Portnoy. “AJ always played it very straight on the albums, but if you saw Twisted live, AJ always played like nuts throughout the songs, overplaying even at times. That was his live style, so people don’t realize there’s a lot of chops in that stuff that AJ used to pull out live.”
Portnoy says he became very good friends with Pero over the last 15 or 20 years “just because there’s the mutual drum admiration club. Most drummers get to know each other and become friends, and he and I were very much like that. We also had the situation where he took my place in Adrenaline Mob, so we had that in common as well. He was always such a sweet, sweet guy and always had this twinkle in his eye. It’s just so sad that he was taken from us so soon.”
The past few years have been surreal and sad for fans of classic rock and metal as many iconic performers have passed away, many at younger than expected ages, including Pero, Ronnie James Dio, Jon Lord, Jeff Hanneman, and scores of others. “We are now entering the era where we’re seeing everybody get older,” notes Portnoy. “You’re seeing Tony Iommi, Bruce Dickinson, and Chris Squire battling cancer. It’s the inevitability of time.”
While Twisted Sister’s final “Forty and F**k It” world tour night raise hopes for some fans that the band will whip out some deeper album cuts rather than simply do a greatest hits collection, Snider dismisses that notion. “It’s such a small percentage [of people who care], it’s infinitesimal, that you lose the vast majority of the audience,” he explains. “It’s playing for a handful of people, and as much as you love that handful of people it’s so self-serving and not what people want. It was tested at the very first reunion show, the New York Steel show,” the post-9/11 concert for The New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund.
For that reunion show, their first since breaking up in January 1988, French and Mendoza assembled the set list, which included Twisted club era cuts like “Come Back” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Saviors.” Snider recalls how when he looked at the audience during those cuts, he could count the hands of the few fans who actually knew those songs. From that point on, Snider was given control of the set list—he actually wrote all of the songs anyway—and decided not to play to the 1% of the audience that appreciated the vintage club offerings.
“I’ve got to cater to the mass audience and give the mass audience a show and enjoyment,” confesses Snider. “Jay Jay loves the club stuff, and I’m about the arena, I’m about the festival and the stadium and reaching 100,000 [people], not 100. And I wrote all those songs. Not enough people know about those songs to make them worth taking up X percentage of the limited time you have on stage to do a show.”
Those powerhouse shows will be coming to an end in a little over a year, and Snider says he plans to stop doing solo shows after 2016 as well. Where does that leave the members of Twisted? Luckily, they have their own irons in the fire.
French writes a regular business column for Inc. magazine, does motivational speaking gigs, and is writing his autobiography. “My book is going to be about my story because it’s too damn ridiculous,” declares the guitarist. “That’s going to be a thrill ride. The days before Twisted were way more crazy than Twisted ever was. My teenage years were my craziest times. Twisted actually brought order and sanity to my life, and that’s the part that people are going to be a little surprised about.”
“I’m going to play forever,” proclaims Mendoza. “It’s in my blood, and I will continue to do whatever playing I’m going to do [with] whoever I play with.” He has played recently with Joe Rock and the All Stars on Long Island, and he does voiceover work and radio hosting as well.
On top of working on some new solo material and planning to help the career of his daughter, a singer based in L.A., Ojeda is expanding his hot sauce line. The guitarist made friends with chef John Rizzotti, who helped him out when he came up with an idea for a hot sauce with cherries, which Ojeda used to eat for health reasons.
“We tried different things and eventually came up with the Cherry Habañero Hot Sauce,” he recalls. “I decided to do just a small quantity and got a distributor in Delaware, and they got it into about 30 stores. I entered a contest called the Scovie Awards, which is basically like winning an Oscar in the hot sauce world. I won first prize in the Sweet Heat [and Sweet Sauces] category, which kind of blew my mind. I was really happy with the way came out, and I loved it. I had no idea that people would respond to it the way they did. They were absolutely freaking out over how good it is, and I think part of it is that it was so different and nobody had done it before.”
Ojeda adds that he has partnered with some other people in the business and is coming out with two new flavors within the next few months. He recently made an appearance on the show Chopped with Lita Ford, Dweezil Zappa, and Foreigner frontman Kelly Hansen, which will air soon. “It was a competition for charity,” says Ojeda. “I have a real passion for the foodie thing.”
Snider certainly has plenty on his plate, including his weekly House Of Hair radio show and Snider Comments podcast, the Rock ‘N’ Roll Christmas Tale musical that is being developed, and a sequel to his 1998 horror film Strangeland in the works. He really did not plan to be still doing Twisted after all of these years.
“Don’t get me wrong—when I’m on that stage, I love it and the audience loves it,” stresses Snider. “I’m proud of it, but I thought that I would have moved on to other things. I’ve been on radio now for 20 years, I’ve been in films, I’ve been pushed to do more acting from a lot of people. I’ve been on Broadway, I’ve written musicals, I’ve written movies. I’m more excited about the new things than I am about the old things. I’m proud of the old, but I’m more interested in showing you the latest idea that I’m working on that hasn’t sold anything. That’s where my passion lies.”
While the final chapter of Twisted Sister is indeed bittersweet given that Pero passed away so soon before the 40th anniversary of the start of the classic line-up, it was about time for the wild ride to wind down. As Mendoza notes, Pero was the youngest member of Twisted at age 55. He is the next youngest, soon to be turning 59; Ojeda is 59, Snider is 60, and French is 62. While the bassist feels they can mix it up with younger, tougher bands and win, there is the question of how long the iron men of Twisted Sister can continue running around on stage and touring like they are 25 or 30 years old. French notes that Snider has been keeping himself “abnormally thin” for years in order to rock out onstage and project the proper image. (As French jokes, Snider might soon pen “I Wanna Eat”!) Video footage of Portnoy’s first gig in the band with Vegas shows a well-oiled music machine that unleashes the energy of a younger band. Snider himself is bouncing around the stage like someone 20 years his junior.
“We give 110% every friggin’ night, and we all agree that it might be getting close to the point where every one of us can’t give all of that anymore,” says Mendoza. “We never want to compromise a Twisted Sister show. That’s why you’ll never see Twisted Sister do unplugged or tone back the show a bit. It’s 110% or it’s not. We can’t take it any higher.”
The bassist clarifies that Twisted is not breaking up, but they are retiring from doing monster shows around the globe. French says they really do plan to retire. “We intend to do some charity shows, there’ve been some movie offers and a few other things, so we’ll still be a band and be able to show up and play,” says Mendoza. “Some nightly TV shows want to have us on again. We’re not saying we’re too old to rock, but we want to go out on top. Let’s face it, our careers right now are higher and bigger and more intense than they ever were in the ’80s. We figure that’s enough.”
“A Concert To Honor AJ Pero” takes place Saturday, June 13, at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ. For more information, go to twistedsister.com.