It shouldn't be this easy to get Peter Frampton on the phone, but it is: A publicist for DreamWorks Pictures calls, asks if you're interested in talking to the man, and five days later, he's on the other end of the line at the appointed time. Twenty-four years ago, such things would have been unfathomable: For one brilliant moment, he was the very model of a Rock God--a curly haired totem worshipped only from afar, a man attainable only in record stores that kept Frampton Comes Alive! only as long as it took to refill the bins. In 1976, he was Rolling Stone's artist of the year, the magazine's cover boy (with an article written by Cameron Crowe, who would become Frampton's boss 24 years later) and every girl's poster boy. Even now, that record remains the best-selling live album ever made: 16 million copies and still going, a back-catalog mover long after the man moved from the arenas to the clubs to the county fairs.
The Peter Frampton on the other end of the line is so far removed from that hazy-pink, golden-toned image that adorns the cover of Frampton Comes Alive! one's hesistant to compare the two. He's now the short-and-gray-haired Frampton, family-man Frampton, Behind the Music Frampton, classic-rock-radio Frampton, bespectacled Frampton, half-forgotten Frampton. That beloved live album, which features songs you know so well even if you loathe them ("Baby, I Love Your Way," "Show Me the Way," "Do You Feel Like We Do") sold by the millions and made him quite wealthy. Everything since then, save for 1977's I'm In You, has sold by the thousands--and even I'm In You sold only three million copies and was considered a disappointment. To even the most rabid true believer, Frampton's discography starts and stops with one album, despite the fact he co-founded Humble Pie with ex-Small Face Steve Marriott, appears as a session guitarist on such albums as Harry Nilsson's Son of Schmilsson and George Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and released four solo albums between 1972 and 1974 and more than 10 since 1976, including the just-released Live in Detroit on CMC International, the label where dinosaurs go before they turn to fossils.
Frampton knows how he turned into a footnote: Quite simply, he fucked up. He killed his career in mid-sprint; he sabotaged his fame by following orders instead of giving them. He knows he shouldn't have released a studio album so closely on the heels of Comes Alive!, but A&M Records insisted. He knows he shouldn't have agreed to appear in Robert Stigwood's garish, laughable 1978 film version of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but he did anyway. At the time, it seemed like a good idea--the chance to play the Beatles' immortal Billy Shears in a film that starred the Bee Gees, Steve Martin, Aerosmith...and George Burns. At the time, he was excited, telling Crowe in Rolling Stone that it was "a labor of love," given his adoration for the source material. But like most things in the 1970s that seemed like a good idea, it was most definitely not. The soundtrack went platinum, but it wasn't worth it: Twenty-two years later, he tries not to even mention it.
"I've escaped Frampton Comes Alive! now, but it was definitely an albatross at the time," Frampton says, sounding very much like a man for whom the word perspective was created. "No matter what you did to follow it, a la Michael Jackson and Thriller, it's never going to be as big or as good. Everybody wants more. It's gotta be bigger; it's gotta be better. There's no way of doing that, especially following up a live record with a studio one, which, as far as I was concerned, was not where I did my best work. I hadn't really proven myself. I mean, [1974's] Frampton was my best studio record, I felt, but...Releasing I'm In You and doing the Sgt. Pepper's movie were the things that really..." He pauses, then chuckles. "I let things get out of my control and didn't vote on those with my gut instinct, which was no."
Then, shortly after the film's release, Frampton suffered a near-fatal car accident in the Bahamas; soon after that, the platinum records became gold records became no records at all. Even his attempts at comebacks were ill-fated: At the end of 1990, he began writing and recording again with Steve Marriott for a proposed album that was to be released the following year. But on April 20, 1991, Marriott died in a fire in his home in England, and Frampton was once more left to ponder what had gone wrong.
But do not think for an instant that Frampton's is a sad story. Yes, he's been a subject of Behind the Music, and, yes, he most definitely fit the profile: A struggling young and handsome musician hits it big, then hits bottom. But Frampton's tale, like those of most rock-biz survivors who taste fame but refuse to swallow it, has its happy enough ending. He's now a 50-year-old husband and father, a family man who records when he wants and tours when he feels the need. He's been famous; now, he's just well-known, as it should be. After all, Frampton wasn't cut out for fame: He's too nice a guy, and nice guys don't finish at all in rock and roll.
"It took a while to put it into perspective," he says. "When I started working again with Steve Marriott in 1991, and then I lost him very soon after that, it was like, 'Well, nothing works here. What am I going to do now?' It was pretty obvious that no record company was interested in a Peter Frampton record at that point, and I just wanted to be back in a band. That was sort of the last straw, when we lost dear Steve, because it was so good. It would have been just as good the second time around.
"But after I spent the rest of '91 just sort of wondering, sort of in a blank, by the time it got to Christmas, I said, 'What makes me happy? What do I do that makes me feel a complete person?' And basically, it's playing my music. That's what I do. So in 1992, that's when we started up again, I got the band together, and did the six weeks of club dates that turned into six months and ended up in Pine Knob in Detroit. From that moment on, it's been a steady build ever since. The thing it's made me realize is that whether I've got a chart-topping album or not, I've got a built-in following that's very loyal, and it's growing again."
Which brings us to the year 2000 and Peter Frampton's first day job: He has spent the last few months working with his old friend Cameron Crowe, helping the writer-director make his film about his early days as a journalist for Rolling Stone. Though he's credited as one of the movie's technical advisors, Frampton likes to refer to himself as the "authenticity person"--the guy who made sure 1973 looked and sounded like 1973. He even appears briefly (very briefly) in the film as Reg, the tour manager for Humble Pie.
"I've only been involved in one other movie, and it wasn't a great movie," he says. "I don't even really want to mention it in the same sentence as Cameron's movie, to be honest. This is definitely...Look, I've been in the worst rock movie, I've been in the best. What can I tell ya?" Frampton laughs, loudly.
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Crowe--who wrote the liner notes to Frampton Comes Alive! and remained friends with the musician, violating the cardinal rule of rock journalism--hired Frampton to teach the film's fictional band how to look, sound, and act like 1973 rock stars on the way up. After all, the story of Stillwater--featuring two actors (Billy Crudup and Jason Lee) and two musicians (John Fedevich and the Red House Painters' Mark Kozelek)--was Frampton's: In 1973, he was still a young comer, opening for Black Sabbath and convincing himself that even if he failed on his own, he could always fall back on his career as a session man. So, he taught the actors how to dress, how to hold their instruments, how to hold themselves on stage, even what to be thinking while playing (usually, not a damned thing). They obsessed over the details--they wanted to know how to wear their guitar straps--and Frampton obliged their every question and every request. Days were spent learning parts; nights were spent watching old videos.
The foursome enrolled in Frampton's so-called "Rock and Roll School" until even Crudup learned how to play the band's songs, which were written by Frampton and Crowe's wife, Heart's Nancy Wilson. By the end of school, Crudup, who plays the band's lead singer Russell Hammond, was jamming with Kozelek, Fedevich, and Lee, who already knew how to strum his acoustic guitar. (Lee plays Stillwater's guitarist-songwriter, Jeff Bebe.)
"For instance, Jason asked, 'Why am I doing this?' And I said, 'Well, basically, it's two things. You're supporting a big headliner, Black Sabbath, so if there are 10,000 people there in an arena, you want to make sure that when you come off the stage, 2,500 of those are gonna be new fans. That's your job. You wanna play in front of as many people as you can in a short space of time, because you're on the up. Your album is starting to move, and you wanna get over.' Then he wanted to know about relating to an audience, and I said, 'Well, for me, when people leave I want them to feel as though I directed something toward them individually, so that I've involved the whole audience.' A lot of bands don't play like that. A lot of people in '73 came on with their back to the crowd and dissed the crowd, but I think this band was more go-get-'em, I-want-you. Jeff Bebe wanted that audience. He wanted the fame more than anything, so I told him, 'You're going out there to get as many new fans as you can.'
"They would ask, 'What am I thinking during a solo?' I told Billy, 'My mind goes blank. I just get involved in the moment.' I told him that I'm thinking, 'I don't want to play the same way I played last night. I want it to come from somewhere else, so I am always trying to reinvent myself musically, ya know? If I am not nervous before I go on, what's wrong? Something's wrong.' It was that sort of stuff. I mean, I do remember all that. I remember 1973. Now, 1976 was a little blurry." Frampton laughs again. He comes alive.