Hilly Road

Hilly Road

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” That was all Hilly Michaels would say, with a rueful laugh, when I asked him about his rocky 18-month romance with singer Marianne Faithfull. One could say it’s an apt description of his musical career as a whole.

Over the past 50-plus years, Michaels, a sideman, drummer and songwriter, has worked with a vast array of rock and pop music luminaries: Faithfull, longtime friend Michael Bolton, Ronnie Wood, Mick Ronson (a key collaborator with David Bowie and Ian Hunter), John Cougar Mellencamp, Ellen Foley (who sang on Meatloaf’s “Paradise By the Dashboard Light”), Liza Minnelli, Lorna Luft. He’s collaborated with Dan Hartman, composer of the Edgar Winter Group song “Free Ride” and his own huge ’80s hit “I Can Dream About You”; Rupert Holmes, who had an even huger hit with “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” in 1979 and went on to a Tony Award-winning stage career; and Roy Thomas Baker, renowned producer of albums by Queen, Alice Cooper, The Cars and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Offered his own chance at pop/rock stardom in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Michaels proved reluctant. When his manager at the time, Jake Hooker—then-husband of Luft and former member of the band The Arrows (who originated the song “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll”)—heard some of Michaels’s song demos and instantly offered to get him a record deal, Michaels told him, “‘Okay, but only if it’s a small record company in Bavaria. If you can manage that, I’ll think about it.’” A week later, Hooker called him with the news that he’d scored a worldwide recording deal with Warner Bros. “I was so angry with him, really irritated. I’d wanted a cozy deal in Holland where I’d be the only rock star!”

By that time, Michaels was already a sadder-but-wiser veteran of the rock ’n’ roll roller coaster. A native of Westville, he became fascinated with drumming at age 10, when his parents gave him a set of bongos, and with rock music upon seeing Bye, Bye Birdie at the Shubert, marveling at the power that Conrad Birdie (a satirical stand-in for Elvis Presley) had over his fans. “He even had men swooning over him. I couldn’t get over that.” A few years later, the Beatles conquered the United States, and Michaels swooned for the first time himself. “I thought they were musical gods. They were pure energy.”

Inspired to join a band himself, he acquired a drum set and at age 14, started playing covers in local bars like Branford’s Sherry Shack. “We were playing clubs that served alcohol, so I had to get written permission to be there,” he recalls. When the band members started going their separate ways, he joined Joy, the acid rock band fronted by childhood friend Michael Bolton (then known as Bolotin). “We’d played Little League baseball together. I knew Michael was musically gifted. I thought, ‘This guy is gonna make it.’ I’d do gigs with him; he’d come to my house the next day and say, ‘I’ve got $38 for you.’”

Michaels’s tenure with Bolton led to a couple of nearly big breaks. Around 1970, when Hilly was 18, Bolton called his band together to record three songs they then sent to music production companies in Los Angeles, winning an invitation to lay down some tracks at Sound City Studios (where artists from Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan to U2 and Nirvana would later record). As a result, a small record company named Pentagram offered them a contract. “We were mainly interested in an advance against royalties,” Michaels says. “We’d been living on carob beans and 10-cent vegetarian dog food. It’s amazing how hungry and poor we were.” They wound up splitting a $750 advance among eight people. When the time came to record tracks for their first record, Michaels pointed out that they were all union musicians and should be paid the required daily rate—which Pentagram couldn’t afford.

Several frustrating years later, he reconnected with Bolton in New Haven, who had since gotten a contract with RCA Records and was planning a second album for the label. During a rehearsal at Bolton’s house, Michaels and the band started playing a song Michaels had written, “Every Day of My Life.” Bolton was thunderstruck, Michaels recalls. “He came running into the room, yelling, ‘Whose song is that? That’s a hit record!’” Though that didn’t turn out to be the case, it did become the title track for Bolotin’s 1976 ‘solo’ record, for which Michaels still hasn’t gotten a proper songwriting credit. He was, however, credited for the album’s drumming, as Jay Michaels.

Around this time, Michaels accepted an offer to play drums for a band backing Andy Warhol protégé Cherry Vanilla, primarily because one of his heroes, Mick Ronson, was also part of the band. Though they forged a strong friendship, Michaels remembers the experience as a four-month “charity gig” at Trude Heller’s, a Greenwich Village nightclub, for Warhol’s underground circle. However, it led to an encounter with Ron and Russell Mael of the acclaimed art pop band Sparks, who were looking for a drummer for their Rupert Holmes-produced sixth album, Big Beat. Though sales were disappointing, Michaels bonded with the Maels during an eight-month tour of the U.S. and Canada. “I think it was because I was a health nut at the time, always working out, not drinking or smoking,” he says. “Ron and Russell liked that, and we hung together while the rest of the band were chasing girls and booze. We were like the Three Musketeers. I don’t have one bad thing to say about them.”

After the Sparks tour, Michaels “went back home and had nothing. I was almost suicidal, thinking my career was over,” when, if anything, it was starting to blossom. He worked as backup for rising Connecticut musician Roger C. Reale at Trod Nossel Studios in Wallingford alongside G.E. Smith, who later became musical co-director of the Saturday Night Live house band. He befriended Westport resident Dan Hartman and played in bands with Hartman and Ronson. And he started recording more demos of his own songs, begging Rupert Holmes to produce them.

These were the demos that came to the attention of Jake Hooker in early 1980, who offered to manage Hilly on first listen. Despite Michaels’s misgivings, he recorded his first Warner Bros. album Calling All Girls with top-line producer Roy Thomas Baker. Critics loved it; even decades later, the webzine Lost in the Grooves called it “an effort that delivered the kind of hook-filled pop songs that other artists could only dream about writing.” (Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft were among the guest vocalists, mainly because Michaels couldn’t land his first choice, Ethel Merman.) The title song’s brilliantly cartoonish, collagic video went into non-stop rotation in the early months of MTV. Nonetheless, Michaels wound up unhappy with the experience, finding Baker an uninspired collaborator, and the record flopped. A sequel, Lumia, fared no better—though some of these songs continue to live on in movies such as Caddyshack.

Michaels had turned to producing other artists, forming his own production company called Chewable Music, when he made the acquaintance of Marianne Faithfull, another artist captivated by his songs. Faithfull, who had been Mick Jagger’s girlfriend and muse during the early years of the Rolling Stones, had done acclaimed recordings of her own but by the mid-’80s fallen into heavy drug addiction and homelessness. When she and Michaels met to get down to work on her next album, meant to be a comeback, “it turned out to be a scene from ‘Norwegian Wood,’” he says, referring to the Beatles song about a mind-bending assignation. “After that, we were never separated for more than two days. But she was in bad shape and could barely function.” Though they became engaged, the album (and relationship) was shelved, and Faithfull entered a rehab facility in Minnesota.

Michaels felt ready to “close the doors on music,” but as it turned out, not forever. In 1990, he initiated the steadiest and most successful chapter of his career, working for 20 years in marketing and development for several arts organizations across the country, including Long Wharf Theatre. He then returned to making music for his own reasons, releasing his third album, Pop This!, in 2010. Though in recent months he’s been hobbled by a serious car accident that injured his spine and makes it difficult for him to play, he still prevails as a songwriter, with, he says, 150 tunes in the works. “Of these, 50 are easy to put together, another 50 might need an hour of work, the others all still just crazy ideas.”

“Tell me the way to show you how I feel,” Michaels wrote in “Every Day of My Life,” but clearly, he’s known all along.

Written and photographed by Patricia Grandjean.

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