Bon Jovi, Donnie Iris and Copyright Law: A Conversation With Mark Avsec
Here’s a quick Bon Jovi Jeopardy question for you:
“This song, from the group’s first album, is the only song on any Bon Jovi record that was not at least co-written by a member of the band.”
Answer: What is “She Don’t Know Me“?
It was the June 16th, 1984 and my brother and I had braved the Summer heat to drive to the Allentown Fairgrounds and see the Scorpions. They were out supporting their hugely successful album, “Love at First Sting” and we couldn’t wait to see them.
The only thing that stood between two teenaged metal heads and nirvana was having to listen to the opening act: some new band with a bunch of guys out of New Jersey who called themselves “Bon Jovi“.
As luck would have it, I had actually heard of these guys before and had even bought their debut album. They were mostly known for their song “Runaway”, which at the time was getting quite a bit of airplay. But that wasn’t the song that really appealed to me.
As a 15 year-old boy there was only one song on that record that I could immediately relate to. It was the third song: “She Don’t Know Me”. I can’t even begin to tell you the countless times those lyrics came into my head during my adolescence. In certain situations, where the female persuasion was involved I always found myself thinking: “If only she would look my way”…. but “She Don’t Know Me”…
To this day, whenever I think of Bon Jovi the very first thing I think about is the summer night when I first heard “She Don’t Know Me” performed live. The song still gives me chills when I listen to it today.
“She Don’t Know Me” is a song written by Mark Avsec that appears on Bon Jovi’s debut record and to this day is the only song from any Bon Jovi record that doesn’t have at least a co-write by a member of the band. But the story of how the song appeared on that first record is no where near as interesting as the songwriter is himself. For Mark Avsec’s story goes a lot deeper than just a Bon Jovi song.
Mark’s life as a musician, songwriter and producer includes stints with the bands Breathless and Wild Cherry (“Play That Funky Music”). The latter of which gave him the opportunity to perform on stage at the Grammy Awards.
He’s also had a long relationship with Donnie Iris as a member of the Cruisers where the two of them together would write the hit song “Ah! Leah!” and subsequently lose everything gained from the song’s success by defending themselves in a frivolous lawsuit. The outcome of which led Mark himself to become an attorney to make sure that what he went through never happens to himself or anyone else again.
In this interview with Mark we’ll talk about how he came up with what I believe is one of the best and most underrated Bon Jovi songs ever. We’ll also discuss the Ah! Leah! lawsuit and his reason for becoming an attorney as well as what the future holds for himself and his long time friend Donnie Iris.
Mark Avsec (MA): I was on the road with Donnie during our tour for the first album and I was supposed to go back into the studio with La Flavour (who later became the band Fair Warning) for an album. I was going to write the songs for and produce the album.
So I wrote this on the road in a hotel room.
I generally write music first, and that’s what I did for this song. I don’t know if the lyric is anything to write home about, but it’s a basic story of when you really have fallen for someone and that person does not know you exist. I felt that in my life. I think probably everyone has
gJg: How did the song wind up on the first Bon Jovi album?
MA: “Luck” is a factor in all of our lives and in any business. But I think “luck” plays a bigger role in the music industry or in the arts in general. How many super-talented people are out there that we have never heard of? A lot! Somewhere there is someone who could be as impactful as Bruce Springsteen but the stars have not aligned for that person.
However, I also believe that you have to put yourself in a position to get lucky. That requires dedication, study, hard work. I wasted a lot of hours in recording studios working on “spec” on albums and songs that never saw the light of day. That certainly seemed to be the case for this Fair Warning album that “She Don’t Know Me” was on. It came out on an MCA label and immediately died.
What happened though, was that record executive Lennie Petze heard the song and loved it and got the song to Jon’s brother, Tony Bongiovi – with a strong suggestion that Bon Jovi should record the song for the first album. This is what was told to me – I have never independently validated this story but it makes sense.
Ironically, Bon Jovi “opened” for Donnie Iris and the Cruisers for several dates – so we got to know the guys in the band a bit. I’m a little introverted until I get to know people so I was not out there trying to meet Jon (Donnie got more friendly with Tico).
I’m not sure how crazy the band was about the song – It’s never shown up on any compilations or anything.
gJg: What was it like when you met Bon Jovi? Did you picture what they would turn into today?
MA: When Bon Jovi opened for us (Donnie Iris and the Cruisers) it was clear something was happening. Jon had all of the rock star moves and he was a great looking guy – the chicks loved him from the start.
gJg:The song was originally recorded by Fair Warning (Also covered by Grass Roots and Sonny Gervaci). Were you concerned at all about overkill of the song?
MA: No. Very few people knew the song until Bon Jovi recorded it.
gJg: Your song is the only one that appears on any Bon Jovi album that does not have a Bon Jovi co-write connection. Do you think this may be the reason why it’s not performed live any longer?
MA: Yes, maybe. Like I said, I’m not sure what Bon Jovi’s perspective on the song is – it really does not show up on any of the “Greatest Hits” compilations or anything, at least not yet.
Writing “Ah! Leah” and Studying Law
gJg: I read where you decided to become a lawyer because you were sued frivolously for the song “Ah! Leah!” What was that whole lawsuit about?
Well, I never heard the song. I knew how I wrote Ah! Leah! – I knew where I was when I wrote it. And I certainly never heard the guy’s song.
I blame the contingency-fee lawyers who took the case, trying to take a shot.
Except the onus fell on me and Donnie – two lower-middle class guys who were simply trying to support their families with music.
The plaintiff, we learned during the trial, apparently went out to LA pitching the song to some MCA promo guy who promptly discarded the tape after a meeting. So the lawyers concocted this story where somehow the tape made the way to us to copy. We eventually heard the song during the trial I think – the songs were nothing the same and there were many, many titles registered with ASCAP/BMI called “Here We Go Again” or whatever.
It was suggested I pay the guy settlement money. I would not give him a nickel. The trial went to a jury trial – the whole nine yards. And we won. But Donnie and I lost everything the song made and more because we had to pay our lawyers.
I can now say – and it has taken me a long time to get there – that the lawsuit was the best thing that happened to me. Because I love copyright law – and I love my life now, being an intellectual property attorney, teaching at law schools and speaking – and also still writing music and playing.
gJg: So the outcome of the case made you decide to put the rock and roll dream on hold in favor of studying law?
MA: I became very interested in copyright law. That lawsuit made me think – “Geez, I did nothing wrong and I can be sued like that? Without any basis? I better learn how to defend myself.” And I began to think about the legal system and if there were mechanisms that could be put in place to dissuade meritless, frivolous lawsuits.
Since that lawsuit was decided, we had the Supreme Court in the United States decide the Fogerty lawsuit – ruling that defendants who prevailed in copyright infringement lawsuits – should be entitled to attorneys’ fees recompense from the losing party. The copyright statute already provided that the prevailing party could recover attorneys’ fees from the losing party. But before Fogerty, the statute was not applied in an even-handed manner to prevailing defendants and prevailing plaintiffs. So the Fogerty case was a step in the right direction.
The corporate receipt doctrine is also disfavored now – so that amateur songwriters who send tapes to record companies that nobody wants to hear will have a harder time arguing that so-and-so-big-star stole my song because I sent it in to Universal Records and, you know, this big star now is signed to the label and has a big hit song with the word “love” in it and an A minor chord.
But I still think some lawyers who bring these cases (the so-called substantial similarity cases) – bring them too easily hoping for quick settlement.
gJg: How has that lawsuit and eventual outcome influenced the way you litigate cases?
MA: I don’t have a stomach for baseless cases. No lawyer should. I don’t bring them. And if I’m defending – I will work as hard as I can for my client to get the right result. I have had many successes and I cannot discuss them.
gJg: In 2010, “Angel Love (Come For Me),” a song you co-wrote was included on Carlos Santana’s Supernatural (Legacy Edition) album. How did this come about?
MA: We’re back to “luck” again, aren’t we? And putting yourself in a position to get lucky. When I wrote that song I had a recording studio in my house. And I worked hard and spent hours writing and recording. And in retrospect – from an economic perspective – I wasted a lot of time because the lion’s share of that stuff never saw the light of day.
But I had a friend, Alan Greene, who I played with in Breathless – and Alan was a great, great blues guitarist – still is. And a wonderful guy. And so we were writing some blues-based songs for possibly an Alan Greene solo project. And Alan and I wrote the first iteration of “Angel Love” – but it was not called Angel Love. I think it was called “Too Much About Love” or something like that. And it had way more of an Allman Brothers vibe to it. The music was the same as what became the music for Angel Love, but it was even more bluesy and jam-based. I liked the music a lot.
Well, I have another dear friend – Mason Ruffner. And I had pre-produced Mason’s Gypsy Blood album in my basement studio. Mason used to come over and we’d work on it. And then Dave Edmunds, the eventual producer of Gypsy Blood, even came to the United States and visited my studio. And my studio was one of the first purely virtual, MIDI studios. And so it was decided that I would bring the entire setup over to London – where we made Gypsy Blood for real.
I thought that record was very good – and Mason had a lot of promotion behind him from the record label, but the record did not achieve the success everyone had hoped for.
So, Mason was now thinking about another record – though he had not found his mojo for what he wanted to say yet. We remained close friends (still are) and he came back to my studio to screw around. He heard the song I did with Alan and asked if he could write his own lyrics to it. Alan did not care – and so I said “sure.”
And so the song became “Angel Love” and we recorded it with Mason but nobody heard it. Yet somehow it got to Carlos Santana.
A lot of guitarists – Jimmy Page and Carlos Santana among them – had respect for Mason. Bob Dylan even devotes two pages in his Chronicles book to Mason (Mason had played on “Oh Mercy” for Dylan and Daniel Lanois). I think it is because Mason comes from a very real “roots” tradition, growing up in Oklahoma and Texas – spending so much time on Bourbon Street in New Orleans and in Memphis honing his craft. He is very picky about his lyrics – he is very well-read and is a serious artist I think.
So somehow Carlos heard the song – I think it was on Mason’s album which was not widely released.
Soon after that Carlos began playing the song live – there is a clip on YouTube where Carlos is playing the song in Warsaw, Poland at a huge outdoor festival. This was the early nineties.
Well, we talk about “luck” again. Because Carlos was going to record the song – or did record the song (I am not sure which) for his Supernatural record. Now, if “Angel Love” had been on the original release that sold 25 million copies or so – those pennies really add up and Mason, Alan and I would have done very well.
Unfortunately, the song did not make the cut for the first release.
However, 10 years later – Carlos wanted to put it on the “Legacy” anniversary edition of Supernatural. And “Angel Love” was the first single.
Of course, the “Legacy” edition sold nowhere near the copies the first Supernatural album did. Still, it is a thrill for a legend like Carlos Santana to record your song.
Ironically, I toured with Carlos in Wild Cherry (when I was in the band that had the hit “Play That Funky Music”). Again, I never got to know him well. But his band was smoking – and we used to hang with them a bit and go see jazz groups after-hours with them.
gJg: What was it like to perform at the Grammy awards?
MA: It was surreal. I have a tape of the show. I don’t know if you remember the television show, Laugh-In? Because, though the show was state of the art at the time, the graphics and the production seem so amateurish now. But there I was – sitting behind Ringo and standing next to Barbra Streisand backstage.
We stayed at the Beverly Wilshire hotel and I was waiting for my limo to take me to the show – Andy Warhol was standing there waiting for his limo and so was George Benson, who finally achieved commercial success after years of paying his dues in small jazz bars. We also toured with George Benson a lot during those days.
As for the Grammy show, we played on the show. We were a one-hit wonder but it was a BIG hit and still is. I really had nothing to do with the success of that song. That was all Robert Parisi. I just showed up in the recording studio. I learned how to make records during that period of time. My relatives thought I was probably rolling in the dough but that was not true either.
MA: My friendship with Donnie is one of the joys of my life. In fact my friendships with all of the Cruisers are very meaningful to me.
We have a very respectful band. There is no back-biting. We have always been very positive with each other. I may take the lead as the prime mover – but we have some super-talented people. Donnie, of course. And he has really become a legend in Pittsburgh. Marty – one of the most talented and creative guitarists. Kevin Valentine – awesome drummer and a very talented engineer and producer. Paul Goll – who was not the original bass player – but has been with us so long. The perfect guy for us now. He sings well and plays very nice bass – and is a great person. Our great band extends to our longtime crew – and in particular, Jimmy Markovich, our longtime sound guy.
I spent so much time on Ah! Leluiah! – our Christmas album. I put my heart and soul into that. Honestly, I wept when it was done. I saw it as a legacy for Donnie and for me – and I hoped people would listen to that once a year after we pass. I know, morbid but that’s the way I approached it. I also thought Donnie really shined brightly on that album. That was an emotional record for us.
I am now writing some new songs. We want to go in the studio to record an album for a landmark event – a landmark birthday for Donnie.
I cannot talk about the album yet, except to say it is beginning to take form.
For more information on Donnie Iris and the Cruisers Click Here
Article first published as Bon Jovi, Donnie Iris and Copyright Law: A Conversation With Mark Avsec on Technorati.