For a songwriter, owning the publishing rights for a hit that finds a home on classic rock radio can make the rest of your life easier. Just ask Journey's original lead singer, Robert Fleischman, author of the FM rock staple, “Wheel in the Sky.”
“Thank God, I don't know any other song that's been played for so many years every frickin' day,” says Fleischman over lunch at Can Can Brasserie in Carytown. Dressed entirely in black with rectangular, tinted shades and ornate rings on several fingers, Fleischman looks every bit the Los Angeles rocker. “People here look at me like I'm from Mars,” he says — “but hey, have a ball.”
A Los Angeles native, Fleischman moved to Richmond in October to be around his new Virginia bandmates in his latest project, the Sky, a melodic rock group he characterizes as having a Brit pop feel. “This is the best band I've ever put together,” he says, “based on talent, personality, everything.”
Fleischman's certainly a creative sort, but he's true royalty amongst royalties: Thirty years ago he discovered the Holy Grail of intellectual property.
While auditioning as a singer for Journey during the mid-1970s, Fleischman acted as songwriter to help the group transition from fusion to more commercially viable pop. He was given a poem by bassist Ross Valery's wife and asked to work his magic.
“The poem wasn't really happening,” he recalls. “But out of courtesy, I took that one line and worked it into a song with [guitarist] Neal Schon.” Thus, “Wheel in the Sky.”
The rest is rock history — sort of. After touring with the group for only nine months in 1977, Fleischman was replaced by dramatic tenor Steve Perry after some internal differences with the band. Perry led Journey to multiplatinum pop success. Fleischman went on to become a staff songwriter for Almo Irving Publishing while fronting other bands, including Vinnie Vincent Invasion, featuring the former Kiss guitarist.
Fleischman still gets regular checks for the publishing rights to Journey songs such as “Wheel in the Sky” (“It's been on so many Journey albums, and each one sells at least five mill,” he says.) and “Anytime,” which pretty much keep him afloat. The 152 words of “Wheel in the Sky” (counting the chorus) have earned him, well, he's not saying, other than enough to be comfortable. He also does the occasional score for ambient electronic music, film and television work.
For the first four months of his time in Richmond, he stayed in a Hyatt. Now he, his wife and daughter — an older son lives in Hollywood — live in a house off Reams Road near Midlothian. But Fleischman knew he was in uncharted territory in October, when he visited County Rib and Ale, one of several restaurants and clubs patrolled by plainclothes police for dance violations.
He saw the “No Dancing” sign enforced. “A girl stood up and danced, and someone tapped her and told her sit down,” he says. “I was like, this is Hitlerville! But who is the Wizard of Oz?”
Having lived in the Hollywood Hills, Fleischman misses the California produce, thinks the high saturated fat content in local meat “is killing people,” and is suddenly being pulled over more often for driving too slowly (“and it's always three cops, not one you have to deal with”). The days of attending Brentwood school functions for his son with buddy Gene Simmons of Kiss, or having Steely Dan's Donald Fagen come over to play his old Wurlitzer, are in the past. But he seems upbeat about the prospects for his new hometown.
“This place could be like the Nashville of alternative music here,” he says. “But the city doesn't embrace it. Instead they want to throw money into a baseball stadium that will be a big, concrete toilet bowl.”
Fleischman, who has a large practice space on Broad Street, thinks the city should focus more on its youth, improving nightlife and musical club options and being more attractive to young professionals.
And he still keeps his ear to new music from all directions. He co-runs a publishing company in Los Angeles and says that Adam Lambert — the “American Idol” favorite — is in his stable. “Adam now has nine or so offers, so when we make the deal for him our whole company will be umbrella-ed in,” he says. “My band will be associated.”
If there's one thing Fleischman's learned by being in show business, it's that you have to constantly reinvent yourself. “When you expand, you give yourself more opportunity,” he says. “More projects, the happier you will be.”
As far as Journey goes, he remains friendly with the members. They even invited him to join the group during their Hollywood Walk of Fame moment in 2005. But he wouldn't be a well-traveled journeyman rocker if there weren't a few Spinal Tap moments: Recently, Fleischman went to check out the Journey tribute band, Frontiers, at the National and wound up signing autographs all night long.
His new group will have its debut show at the National with Fleischman's favorite local act, Horsehead — a rocking, guitar-driven, Petty and Stoneslike group that also features the Sky's drummer, Andre LaBelle. A Virginia native, LaBelle moved to Los Angeles years ago and became a session drummer, where he met Fleischman.
The only recent snag: LaBelle broke his leg in a freak accident and will have to perform both sets during the big night in Richmond with only his left leg.
“It should be a unique night,” LaBelle says. S
Robert Fleischman and the Sky play the National on Friday, May 22, at 7 p.m. with New American Standard and Horsehead. Tickets are $10. Call 612-1900 or visit www.thenationalva.com.