I've been an obsessed hard rock/heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.
Savatage—"Streets: A Rock Opera"
Label: Atlantic Records
Year Released: 1991
Number of Tracks: 13
Run Time: 66:45
As I entered my senior year of college in the Fall of 1991, I was a full-on Savatage fanboy. Their 1989 Gutter Ballet album had been locked into my Walkman on a near-daily basis since its release, and I was lucky enough to see them live for the first time on the Gutter Ballet tour, which I still maintain was the best concert I have ever seen. Needless to say, when I heard that there was a new Savatage album on the way titled Streets, I was more than ready for new material!
On the album's release date, I cut class and took a bus to the mall to get a first-day copy like a good little geek. Standing in the record store aisle, I was slightly puzzled by the album's underwhelming cover art (a simple band photo) and its unexpected subtitle: A Rock Opera. Aside from hearing occasional tracks from Pink Floyd's The Wall or the Who's Tommy on the radio, I didn't have much experience with the rock opera format, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I got back to my dorm room and threw the tape into my stereo for its initial spin...
But, as I listened, an amazing thing happened. Streets: A Rock Opera hit me like a brick. I sat absolutely transfixed by that first listen. At the album's conclusion, I said aloud to no one in particular (because I had no roommate), "Holy sh**, that was sweet!" and then I played the album through a second time, with the cassette insert in hand so I could read along with the lyrics and follow the plot (thanks to the handy dandy synopsis of the story included inside). After that, I ran over to my friend's room and banged on his door, waving the tape and screaming, "Dude! You gotta hear this!"
The Story Behind "Streets"
Streets: A Rock Opera was the culmination of several years of work between the members of Savatage and songwriter/producer Paul O'Neill, who had come into the band's orbit during the recording of 1987's Hall of the Mountain King (and would remain a constant presence till the band's final album in the early 2000s).
Streets had begun as an idea O'Neill had come up with for a possible stage play, but had never quite completed. The Savatage songwriting team of vocalist Jon Oliva and his guitarist brother Criss were shown the unfinished work during planning for the band's next studio album, and together they decided to bring Paul's story to life. With O'Neill in the producer's chair as usual, Streets: A Rock Opera represented a giant leap forward for the band's sound. Savatage had toyed with the dramatic, Broadway-style vibe on a few tracks of Gutter Ballet, but on Streets they finally took the full theatrical-rock plunge, and it worked gloriously.
The Saga of D.T. Jesus
The album tells the story of "D.T. Jesus," a rock star who's fallen on hard times, gotten hooked on drugs (a narrator tells us that the initials in his name stand for "De-Tox") and is now living on the mean streets of New York City. A chance meeting with his former manager, Tex, gets D.T. back on stage playing to appreciative crowds in small bars and clubs, but just as he appears to be on the verge of a huge rock-star comeback, D.T. learns that the road to success is paved with tragedy. Over the course of the album's fifteen tracks, D.T. meets characters from his past and battles his own self-doubts and personal demons before finally finding a measure of salvation.
Before you get the idea that Savatage went full-on Andrew Lloyd Webber on this album, rest assured that there are still plenty of trademark heavy moments here like the ripping "Jesus Saves," the moody "Ghost In The Ruins," "Agony & Ecstasy," and the touch-of-thrash "Sammy & Tex," but they're weaved in between some of the most lush, emotional, and heartbreaking performances of the band's career, like the weepy "St. Patrick's" and the tear jerking, double-whammy album ending combo of "Somewhere In Time" and "Believe." Jon Oliva gives the vocal performance of his life on this album, (and he plays a pretty damn mean piano throughout too!) while his brother Criss continued to top himself on the six-string.
Summing It Up
While it was not a particularly huge seller when it was first released, Streets: A Rock Opera slowly developed a cult following in the years afterwards, particularly in Europe, where the band's most rabid fan base resided. In 2013, the now-defunct Savatage and O'Neill released a "Director's Cut" reissue of the album (Streets: A Rock Opera, The Narrated Version) which expanded the story to include narrated voice-overs between songs to flesh out the story, as well as songs that were written and recorded during the original album's sessions but were ultimately cut from the running order
Savatage would return to the rock opera format several times after Streets but in my opinion they never did it better than on this album. Even after all these years I still return to Streets fairly often and it's always a moving, satisfying listening experience each and every time. I know every lyric backwards and forwards (and have been known to sing along with it in the car when no one's around to hear me) and dammit, I still get a tear in my eye when I hear the chorus of "Believe." Call me fanboy if you will. Those of you who "get" this album know what I mean.
© 2019 Keith Abt