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jon oliva - director of the savatage circus

Watt-magazine, March 1996 (The Netherlands)
by Wally Cartigny
translated by Yvonne Kluitman

Ten Years ago he and his band were heading for golden times. Alas in the year 1996 Jon Oliva and Savatage only "live" in the margin. Yet the quality of their music doesn't make the difference, the more so the ruling musical climate. Read this Jon Oliva story, a musical genius who has fallen more than once on account of his own madness.

The big question for every-one at the recent European tour of Savatage: will Jon Oliva be a part of it? Within the former leader of classical heavy metal, he nowadays is more or less the mentor. Together with producer and friend Paul O'Neill, he wrote all the music but leaves the performance to the others. As well as on the album "Dead winter dead", the several months ago released rock opera.

To underline his background part, his name in the CD-inlay, no longer appears in the list of permanent musicians. But stands underneath, like an added value.

Jon Oliva appeared !! As well in the "Noorderligt" as in the "Melkweg" (Dutch venues/YK). With a big smile behind the keyboards, a joint between his lips and at least a 120 kilos. For all those who came especially for him, the former frontmant, for one song, took over Zak's microphone. The applaus he received on regards of doing so, seemed to overstep the 120 decibels painlevel. Jon Oliva was Savatage, is Savatage and in the minds of the fans always will be, regardless what position in the band.

Back in 1983, when Savatage releases their debut CD "Sirens", it is the obvious influence of Jon Oliva making the Florida formation special. He has the biggest participation on the heavy, at that time "Black-Sabbath-like" songs. He almost wrote all the lyrics, which outline a fairyland that isn't too cheerful, arised from the vocalists nightmares. By doing so giving the listener a view inside his mind, for years influenced by exsessive alcohol and drugs use. Halfway 1988 drastic changes took place. Jon's addiction got way out of control, nearby insanity. In the nick of time an Atlantic staffmember sends him to a rehabilitation center and within a few months he becomes human again. Once again clean he tells the press how serious his situation had become. "I took an overdose of drugs three times, drank two bottles of wodka a day and had two nerveous-breakdowns. One day I awoke missing an entire week in my memory. I was a walking corps".

On the "Gutter ballet" album, which appears after this turbulent period, it becomes clear in what ammount Jon's addiction puts a mark on the lyrics. From then on they are no longer entirely fictive, but also reflect Jon's sober vision on the world. It appears to be a dark but at the same time fascinating picture, shaped through stories of less fortunate individuals.

It's very obvious the affinity goes to the outcasts of American society. Specifically the ballad "when the crowds are gone" , telling about the fall of a succesful rockstar, leave deep impressions with the fans as well as the reviewers.

Not only "Gutter Ballet" marks the turningpoint in Jon Oliva's live it also forms the foundation for "Streets, a Rock Opera" released in 1991. "Streets" is, as the title already reveals, a rockopera telling the story, as in "When the Crowds are Gone", of a fallen rockstar. An unparralleled album which musical recalls associations with Queen. The magazines already speak of the metal counterpart of the British succesgroup.

The big difference however is there's no megastatus reserved for Savatage, despite the enormous talent, particularly Jon Oliva's.

One could ask why the "big burst" didn't happen for the U.S. metal kings. On the one hand it's partly the music, which sounds too European, according to experts, and therefore hard to sell in the States. Only "Streets" didn't do bad, considered the sales figures, although it was released in a time "grunge" and "Seattle" were in the limelight. Savatage however has nothing to do at all with that sound and the generation that goes with it. On the other hand Jon's modest nature may have been playing a part. Many think he's a genius, but he thinks that's rubbish.

In a "Meltdown" (Dutch magazine/YK) interview he once told : "I don't like people saying that, I do what I like to do and I'm having great fun doing it. When people like it I'm happy, if not, no offence! I'm very modest and have no big ego." In an attempt discribing himself in one sentence: "I'm a total fool, but nice."

Recognition doesn't seem very important to Jon, but (artistic) developement all the more. It get's obvious in the summer of 1992, when he decides to withdraw partly from Savatage. Because he doesn't want to perform anymore, as rumours tell, he chooses for a background part as songwriter and keyboardplayer.

The real reason for his leaving as leader of the band soon becomes clear as it appears he's involved in several sideprojects. Within those projects he can put the part of his creativity that no longer fits in Savatage.

The most known example is Dr.Butcher. A band wich tends, as for the music, to the old Black Sabbath and therefore a kind of alter ego of the early Savatage. Perhaps Jon, escaped from the burden of addiction, wants to give his older work a second chance. For a moment it appears to be he mainly wants to concentrate on Dr. Butcher.

But a year later fate, which strikes his brother and co-founder of Savatage Criss Oliva, decides otherwise. The guitarist lost his life in a car crash at the end of 1993. At his funeral Jon promises to carry on with Savatage out of honour for his brother. He however doesn't deprive Zak Stevens of his microphone, but stays as a driving force on the background, in the role of songwriter.

Together with producer Paul O'Neill (the "seventh bandmember") in this function he's responsable for the Savatage albums in the new style, including the new rock opera "Dead Winter Dead".

"One must understand, it can never be the way it used to be", explains the maestro in the year 1996, "I can never get back Criss again, as much as I would like to, and another guitarist like him just doesn't walk on this planet". Besides I'm nowadays working with Paul on a big Broadway show. Therefore I can't always be with the band. I'm like a flying goalie, there are times when I participate in the game but most of the times I'm just defending the goal."

An exceptional posistion fitting a very special man. Insane or a genius? That's the question. For sure however is the fact that Jon Oliva possesses, frankly speaking, a rare kind of musical talent, and in all his modesty never got the recognition he deserves.