Growing up as a kid, I loved athletics, and I played them all the time. Basketball I played constantly. I sought out games, and it was a big part of my life. I tried to play 15, 20 hours a week. I’m only 5-3, right, so I wasn’t that great, but I love the game and I was a good passer. The bigger guys liked that, and I was great on defense. I hit the road in ’68 with my band Grin. I started doing a backflip off a trampoline while playing the guitar. That got me jumping off PA stacks, pianos, trampolines, and I beat myself up pretty well, and to my horror, 10 years ago I had to have both hips replaced.
When I got my new hips, my doctor said you can’t play crazy basketball anymore. So I started learning some [tap dancing]. It was just fun to play drums with your feet. You just throw your body around. As I’m getting ready to play the Birchmere with a new album, I’m determined to get my tapping into my show with the band. Even if I have an off night, at least the audience will recognize someone who’s trying to entertain them.
What’s a memory from ’60s D.C. that stays with you?
There were dozens and dozens of great places to play, college fraternities, bars. They used to have a summers-in-the-parks program where the city would pay you, even if it was a small fee, but still you got paid. Unbeknownst to me, who grew up here, there were hundreds of tiny little parks in the D.C. area. You’d drive through some little foresty area and find this tiny park. I remember setting up in the middle of nowhere, and somehow the locals in the community would know you were playing for free, and a small crowd or a medium crowd would gather. It was kind of a pure time.
Who smells better, Ringo or Bruce Springsteen?
They both smell pretty great! Usually when I get that close to them we’re both pouring sweat in a live environment. I’ve spent many times in a hot, sweaty stage environment with musical heroes of mine. The Beatles were really the band that got me off the classical accordion. The sophisticated harmonies and melodies mixed with the guttural soul of rock-and-roll. It was like an explosion for me.
What is something you wrote that still kind of amazes you? Like every time you hear it you think, “Wow, that’s good.”
I wouldn’t use the words “amaze me,” but I will say when I was 17 in my parents’ bedroom, while Grin was just making our way, we were getting ready to go to New York City for some auditions. I came up with a song called “Like Rain.” It was on the first Grin record. I sing it every night, no matter where I am. For a 17-year-old it had some wisdom and worldliness with it. I tapped into something that was kind of special.
Here is how cool you are: I just found a clip on YouTube of you being introduced onstage by Bruce Springsteen and then performing a backflip while playing your guitar.
You were 57 years old at the time. Is there anyone on earth cooler than you are?
There’s a lot of people cooler than me.
Okay, who is it?
Well, I think Jimi Hendrix is cooler than me. I think the Beatles and the Stones are cooler than me.
I got to see Muddy Waters at the Cellar Door. B.B. King I saw dozens of times. All these heroes, you get to see them in these small places, it rubs off on you. Grin got to open for Jimi Hendrix three nights in California — on my 19th birthday we opened for Jimi Hendrix. I got to go knock on the Winnebago door and shake his hand, look into his smiling face and thank him.
This interview has been edited and condensed.