This article is long, and maybe a little self-indulgent, but bear with me. Or skip straight to the pictures and the video. It’s your call. But I’m going to tell this story and I’m going to tell it right and to tell it right, a little bit of background information is needed.
When I was a kid growing up in the wilds of Southwestern Ontario and our family’s cable package started carrying Muchmusic (the Canadian MTV for those who don’t know), one of the first music videos I remember ever seeing was for a song called Keep The Dogs Away. In the video, an oiled up muscle man calling himself Thor strutted about on stage, flailing his arms all over the place clad in leather and studs but not before he was pulled down an alleyway by a pack of Dobermans. This video was nuts, and it left an impression. Or maybe a mental scar. Either way, it stuck in my brain. This was around the same time that my comic book obsession was starting to peak and, to me at least, this made sense. All of this made sense. Of course this muscleman should make glam metal - superheroes should rock! Comics and metal? Sign me up. Sure, the album was a few years old at this point (it came out in 1977 and I saw that video sometime in the eighties) but shortly after on a trip to Toronto I found a used copy of the record at a record store on Yonge Street called The Vinyl Museum. That record store is gone now, but I still have that fairly tattered and well played copy of Keep The Dogs away.
Why am I telling you this? Because that’s how I got into Thor. Eventually I’d pick up a few more Thor albums – the better selling ones like Unchained and Only The Strong – but I didn’t know a whole lot about the band or the muscle bound guy up front outside of the fact that the lineup on those essential releases was made up of Jon-Mikl Thor on vocals, Steve Price on guitar, Keith Zazzi on bass and Mike Favata on drums. You could figure that much out by reading the album credits. As the years went on, that would change. The internet opened up a lot of avenues for fans of all kinds of music to look into and obsess over acts and that’s eventually what happened. It turns out that Thor wasn’t just a guy, Thor was also a band. At least at one point. Over the years Thor the band would break up and Jon would retire. Then he’d made a comeback, some of the players from those early CLASSIC records accompanying him, but not always.
When Synapse Films put Rock N Roll Nightmare out on DVD, I wound up writing the liner notes and shortly after that happened, I was lucky enough to take in a Thor show. I introduced myself, he knew who I was because of the liner notes. The next time I saw him play I was lucky enough to play ‘the mutant’ in his stage show and he wrapped a mic stand around my neck. A couple of years ago he was cool enough to do an interview at this very website (read it here). Since then we’ve stayed in touch. So when the new documentary I AM THOR was slated to play at St. Vitus (Brooklyn’s best metal bar) about six miles from my current place of residence with a live performance afterwards, you’re damn right I was going to be there. But we'll get to that in a bit. First let's talk about pizza and yogurt tubs.
I bought the tickets and dropped Jon a line to let him know I was looking forward to seeing him again and he was kind enough to invite me to the press party the day before. I was happy to accept the invite, got the info as to when and where it was going on, and showed up at 3pm like I was told to. Except when I got to Eva’s on 8th St. and 5th Ave. in Manhattan, nobody was there, at least not that I recognized. Why was I standing around in a health food restaurant looking confused? It turns out their flight was late. I killed time at a nearby record store, came back in an hour, and saw a dark haired guy who looked like he could have something to do with heavy metal outside the restaurant literally hugging a tree. I walked past him and back inside where Jon was sitting with a few friends. He saw me, gave me a mighty hand shake and a hefty pat on the back, sat me down… and gave me some pizza! It turns out that the press events were basically rescheduled to take place before the show the next night and really this was just a chance to hang out. And so we did, not just Jon and I but these other guys too. I wasn’t sure who they were until the introductions – and as fate would have it, these guys were Steve Price, Keith Zazzi, and Mike Favata (the aforementioned man hugging the tree). Now, since staging his comeback some time ago, Jon has played with Steve and Mike off and on BUT this lineup had not performed together live since they disbanded in the eighties. Keith didn’t get in on the comeback action, he’d moved on to other things. So as I was sitting there eating some delicious pizza (courtesy of Eva’s proprietor Steve Kapelonis, a longtime friend of Jon’s, one of the nicest guys you could ever meet and a man who knows food!) I got to thinking that, for a fan of Thor the man and Thor the band, I was witnessing a little bit of history.
That little bit of history got even more interesting when, after an hour or so of listening to these guys tell stories and getting caught up, Steve Price pulled out an acoustic guitar, Keith pulled out a bass and Mike, with no drum kit to be found, grabbed an empty tub of Greek yogurt and they started setting up for… something. This wasn’t really the type of space where you'd think ‘time for a jam!’ but after Mr. Kapelonis moved some tables around these four guys did just that – they put on a brief four song acoustic show in the middle of the restaurant. That yogurt tub never knew what hit it and the NYPD officers enjoying their mid-afternoon snack appeared to be a little confused but it didn’t stop the band from playing a few of their hits. And you know what? They sounded great. It was low key to be sure but you could tell these guys were having a blast. It was also really interesting to hear toned down acoustic versions of these typically very powerful, loud, boisterous metal anthems.
I took a few pictures and shot some video. You can check that out now and I’ll get on with the rest of it once you’ve done that.
Give the video a few seconds to stop shaking (I wasn’t expecting this to happen so I only had a cell phone to shoot with):
Pretty great, right? Right! That’s a little piece of Thor history happening right there. You're welcome. At any rate, shortly after that I had to head uptown for the King Diamond show, unaware that a last minute screening of the new documentary I AM THOR, with a Q&A, had been scheduled at the Nitehawk Cinema. You can’t do everything, you can only do your best. We parted ways and went off to do our respective things.
The next day was the main event. St. Vitus was pretty packed when we showed up at 7:30pm and it got more packed by the time Thor Central’s webmaster and official Thundergeek Mike Pilmer got up on stage to quickly introduce the movie. The lights went dark, images of a young Jon Mikl hit the screen and as the documentary started to unfold we got to learn about the man, the band, their ups and downs and a whole lot more. Directed by Ryan Wise, it starts in the early days. We learn how Jon was obsessed with comic books and superheroes as a kid, even going to class dressed as Superman. From there, through his older brother, he got into bodybuilding and weight lifting and soon after became a competitive bodybuilder. This led to a career in show business – working in a nude review among other things – and then into a career in rock n roll. We learn how Jon had always been interested in music, starting a band at a young age called The Ticks, but with his bodybuilding past it was time to try something new, something different – it was time for Muscle Rock!
RCA signed him in Canada, the aforementioned Keep The Dogs Away LP was released, and from there… things got rocky to say the least. We won’t spoil the movie but it paints a pretty fascinating picture of what can happen on the perceived road to stardom. Jon, as Thor, had it all - it seemed like the stars were aligned but forces conspired against him. A few years later, he tried again and, with help from Price, Zazzi, Favata and Pantera (the woman who would become his wife for many years) Thor (the band) independently recorded some of their classic material. They made it bigger in England than in the United States but they were building toward something huge. They kept at it, and then kept at it some more, but never hit the heights that some of their contemporaries did. Shortly after, Jon had a breakdown and he walked away from it all. But you can’t teach an old dog new tricks and you can’t keep a good man down – it took a few years but he got the fever again and, for the last decade plus, he’s been back at it, sometimes playing for six people, sometimes playing festivals attended by tens of thousands of people.
Along the way we get a feel for Jon’s personality, his outlook, his persona. If you’ve ever met him, the first thing you pick up on is the guy’s friendliness. This is a man who appreciates his fans in ways that few other rock stars would ever care to. And you can’t help but love him for it. We see him during the good times (surrounded by beautiful scantily clad women and living the dream) and in bad times (alone in an airport fumbling for his medicine), we learn about his health problems, his divorce and his breakdown but more importantly we see him get back up and try again time and time again. It’s inspiring, it’s funny, it’s honest and while it isn’t the comprehensive bio-pic documentary you might expect it to be, it’s also very revealing and a fascinating snapshot of a unique rock n roll story.
While Jon is definitely the ‘star’ of the documentary Wise followed him around for roughly fifteen years to make this picture happen. Along the way he interviews Price, Favata and, yes, Pantera about their affiliation with him but so too does he interview some of the people who worked with him at RCA, who promoted him in his early years and plenty of others. The whole thing is often very funny (any time Favata opens his mouth something hysterical seems to happen) but you can't help but be moved by it all. This is a GREAT movie.
But the movie wasn’t the only reason that a bunch of sweaty metalheads crammed themselves into St. Vitus’ back room performance space. About fifteen minutes after the screen came up and the chairs were cleared out Jon-Mikl Thor, Steve Price, Keith Zazzi and Mike Favata took the stage and played a set of classic Thor songs together for the first time in over three decades. The big surprise here was Zazzi. He hasn’t lost his touch and he’s still a remarkably efficient bass player, just really tight. The guy spent the entire set with a big grin on his face and it was, for lack of a goofier way to describe, really just flat out sweet to see. He even got his daughter up on stage at one point and this little girl’s smile was just as big as her dad’s.
Sappiness aside, how did the band sound? Fantastic. Price delivered an amazing guitar solo mid-set, the guy is a very precise player and his classic style really just works perfectly for this style of music. Favata behind the kit didn’t miss a beat and played with a smile on his face that was almost as big as Zazzi’s. The big guy himself was in fine form. He might not be bending steel bars in his teeth anymore and he might not be blowing up hot water bottles until they explode but he’s still a great frontman and his voice hasn’t aged at all. Thor, the band and the man, sounded fantastic last night and yet another little piece of heavy metal history was made in the back room of a metal bar in Brooklyn.
When the show was over, Jon made his way to the back of the hall to meet and greet with fans – this is the norm for him, it’s almost a mandatory part of the Thor live experience. There were about three people ahead of me when I got there. I grabbed a shirt and had a picture taken and really just wanted to shake his hand and wish him a safe trip back home. We talked for a bit (again he’s a friendly guy and so am I so friendly guys are apt to talk) and I didn’t think much of it until I turned around. It was then that I realized that there were a TON of people behind me waiting to do the same thing. Some were clearly older fans who had been following things for a while, others clearly were not and had likely just had their first Thor experience, but everyone who was there… who stood in that room and who watched the movie and who watched the band play live… after it was all over with they left that place plenty entertained and completely fulfilled.
The tour ended last night, but somehow, some place and at some random time, for as long as he can do it Thor will be back. And when he is, I'll be there, and so too will everyone else who was converted this past Sunday night in Brooklyn.