The Day They Became Angels still haunts himComment on this story
The world of rock music is one which has known its fair share of tragedies and triumphs over the generations, but even the most afflicted souls would be hard-pressed to challenge the childhood trauma experienced by Jonathan Cain.
As one-fifth of classic US pop rock group Journey, he has enjoyed a career of stadium gigs and multi-platinum record sales, not least the 1981 mega-hit Don't Stop Believin', which has now become essential listening to a new generation for its use in smash-hit US high school sitcom Glee.
It is something of an irony then that the keyboard player and rhythm guitarist's own schooldays were to be remembered for quite different reasons than the usual ups-and-downs of childhood life.
In 1958, at the age of just eight, Cain found himself caught up in the horrific Our Lady of the Angels School Fire in Chicago. A total of 92 pupils and three nuns lost their lives, and another 100 were seriously injured, when smoke and flames engulfed the Catholic primary school, cutting off most means of escape. Many of the young victims died after jumping from second-storey windows.
Cain's class was evacuated from the building and he recalls seeing what looked like a mushroom cloud above the school after fleeing from the scene.
“When you've seen death at eight-years-old, and you look it in the eye, and you've felt it, and you've smelled it, it changes your life forever,” he says of that day.
“You know you've been spared a horrific death - and there must be a reason.”
The cause of the fire has never been officially determined, though in 1962 a former pupil - who was aged just 10 at the time of the blaze - admitted starting it deliberately. He later withdrew his confession and has since died.
Such was the trauma which Cain carried over from that experience that he found himself breaking down in a Catholic church on his wedding day many years later. It is clear the event has been one of the driving forces in his life and career, even to the extent that he penned a tribute song, The Day They Became Angels, to mark the 50th anniversary of the blaze.
“It fuelled me to give everything I have to every day, to seek out all there is to live in life,” he says. “Because it can all end very soon, as I saw when I was eight.”
Cain, who plans to write a book about the fire and how it affected him, overcame his childhood trauma to forge a successful career in music, first as a solo artist and later as a member of The Babys.
But he is best known for his three-decade stint with Journey, whom he joined in 1980, helping to create what would become their highest-selling studio album, 1981's Escape. And Jonathan says the quintet, famed for their blue-collar anthems, are looking forward to ticking Belfast off their to-do list, when they play the Odyssey on Sunday, alongside fellow veteran rockers Foreigner.
“It's an honour to be in your truly historical city,” says Cain. “Belfast's a working man's place, and we're a working man's band.”
After nearly 40 years on the road, the San Franciscan-based outfit relish the challenge of performing in new places.
“It's one of the things that gives us juice,” says Cain.
“It's unnerving in the beginning, like being on a first date, but after 15 minutes or so then you know you like each other and off you go.”
Cain, with original members guitarist Neal Schon and bassist Ross Valory, and drummer Deen Castronovo, rebuilt Journey after some difficult years. Long-time frontman Steve Perry retired in 1998, and replacements came and went.
The band's eureka moment dawned when Schon found Filipino vocalist Arnel Pineda singing Journey covers in a Manila bar band on YouTube. The powerful-voiced Asian was soon recruited and has impressed fans.
“It turns Journey into a world band,” says Cain. “It was a leap of faith in the beginning, and we knew it wasn't going to be easy, but we carried on.” - Belfast Telegraph