MALIBU, Calif. >> On the back patio of a Greek restaurant, a white-haired man making his way to the exit paused for a second look at one of his fellow diners, a man with a prominent nose who wore his dark hair in a modest pompadour.
“You look a lot like Steve Perry,” the white-haired man said.
“I used to be Steve Perry,” Steve Perry said.
This is how it goes when you are Steve Perry. Everyone is excited to see you, and no one can quite believe it. Everyone wants to know where you’ve been.
In 1977, an ambitious but middlingly successful San Francisco jazz-rock band called Journey went looking for a new lead singer and found Perry, then a 28-year-old veteran of many unsigned bands. Perry and the band’s lead guitarist and co-founder, Neal Schon, began writing concise, uplifting hard rock songs that showcased Perry’s clean, powerful alto, as operatic an instrument as pop has ever seen. This new incarnation of Journey produced a string of hit singles, released eight multiplatinum albums and toured relentlessly — so relentlessly that, in 1987, a road-worn Perry took a hiatus, effectively dissolving the band he’d helped make famous.
He did not disappear completely — there was a solo album in 1994, followed in 1996 by a Journey reunion album, “Trial by Fire.” But it wasn’t long before Perry walked away again, from Journey and from the spotlight. With his forthcoming album, “Traces,” due in early October, he’s breaking 20 years of radio silence.
Over the course of a long midafternoon lunch — well-done souvlaki, hold all the starches — Perry, now 69, explained why he left, and why he’s returned. He spoke of loving, and losing and opening himself to being loved again, including by people he’s never met, who know him only as a voice from the Top 40 past.
And when he detailed the personal tragedy that moved him to make music again, he talked about it in language as earnest and emotional as any Journey song:
“I thought I had a pretty good heart,” he said, “but a heart isn’t really complete until it’s completely broken.”
In its ’80s heyday, Journey was a commercial powerhouse and a critical piñata. With Perry up front, slinging high notes like Frisbees into the stratosphere, Journey quickly became not just big but huge.When few public figures aside from Pac-Man and Donkey Kong had their own video game, Journey had two. The offices of the group’s management company received 600 pieces of Journey fan mail per day.
The group toured hard for nine years. Gradually, that punishing schedule began to take a toll on Journey’s lead singer.
“I never had any nodules or anything, and I never had polyps,” Perry said, referring to the state of his vocal cords. He looked around for some wood to knock, then settled for his own skull. The pain, he said, was more spiritual than physical.
As a vocalist, Perry explained, “your instrument is you. It’s not just your throat, it’s you. If you’re burnt out, if you’re depressed, if you’re feeling weary and lost and paranoid, you’re a mess.”
“Frankly,” Schon said in a phone interview, “I don’t know how he lasted as long as he did without feeling burned out. He was so good, doing things that nobody else could do.”
On Feb. 1, 1987, Perry performed one last show with Journey, in Anchorage, Alaska. Then he went home.
Perry was born in Hanford, California, in the San Joaquin Valley, about 45 minutes south of Fresno. His parents, who were both Portuguese immigrants, divorced when he was 8, and Perry and his mother moved in next door to her parents’. “I became invisible, emotionally,” Perry said. “And there were places I used to hide, to feel comfortable, to protect myself.”
Sometimes he’d crawl into a corner of his grandparents’ garage with a blanket and a flashlight. But he also found refuge in music. “I could get lost in these 45s that I had,” Perry said. “It turned on a passion for music in me that saved my life.”
As a teen, Perry moved to Lemoore, California, where he enjoyed an archetypally idyllic West Coast adolescence: “A lot of my writing, to this day, is based on my emotional attachment to Lemoore High School.”
There he discovered the Beatles and the Beach Boys, went on parked-car dates by the San Joaquin Valley’s many irrigation canals, and experienced a feeling of “freedom and teenage emotion and contact with the world” that he’s never forgotten. Even a song like “No Erasin’,” the buoyant lead single from his new LP has that down-by-the-old-canal spirit, Perry said.
And after he left Journey, it was Lemoore that Perry returned to, hoping to rediscover the person he’d been before subsuming his identity within an internationally famous rock band. In the beginning, he couldn’t even bear to listen to music on the radio: “A little PTSD, I think.”
Eventually, in 1994, he made that solo album, “For the Love of Strange Medicine,” and sported a windblown near-mullet and a dazed expression on the cover. The reviews were respectful, and the album wasn’t a flop. With alternative rock at its cultural peak, Perry was a man without a context — which suited him just fine.
“I was glad,” he said, “that I was just allowed to step back and go, OK — this is a good time to go ride my Harley.”
Journey stayed reunited after Perry left for the second time in 1997. Since December 2007, its frontman has been Arnel Pineda, a former cover-band vocalist from Manila, Philippines, whom Schon discovered via YouTube. When Journey was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last April, Pineda sang the 1981 anthem “Don’t Stop Believin’,” not Perry. “I’m not in the band,” he said flatly, adding, “It’s Arnel’s gig — singers have to stick together.”
Around the time Pineda joined the band, something strange had happened — after being radioactively unhip for decades, Journey had crept back into the zeitgeist. David Chase used “Don’t Stop Believin’” to nerve-wracking effect in the last scene of the 2007 series finale of “The Sopranos”; when Perry refused to sign off on the show’s use of the song until he was told how it would be used, he briefly became one of the few people in America who knew in advance how the show ended.
“Don’t Stop Believin’” became a kind of pop standard, covered by everyone from the cast of “Glee” to the avant-shred guitarist Marnie Stern. Decades after they’d gone their separate ways, Journey and Perry found themselves discovering fans they never knew they had.
Mark Oliver Everett, the Los Angeles singer-songwriter who performs with his band Eels under the stage name E, was not one of them, at first.
“When I was young, living in Virginia,” Everett said, “Journey was always on the radio, and I wasn’t into it.”
So although Perry became a regular at Eels shows beginning around 2003, it took Everett five years to invite him backstage. He’d become acquainted with Patty Jenkins, the film director, who’d befriended Perry after contacting him for permission to use “Don’t Stop Believin’” in her 2003 film “Monster.” (“When he literally showed up on the mixing stage the next day and pulled up a chair next to me, saying, ‘Hey I really love your movie. How can I help you?’ it was the beginning of one of the greatest friendships of my life,” Jenkins wrote in an email.) Over lunch, Jenkins lobbied Everett to meet Perry.
They hit it off immediately. “At that time,” Everett said, “we had a very serious Eels croquet game in my backyard every Sunday.” He invited Perry to attend that week. Before long, Perry began showing up — uninvited and unannounced, but not unwelcome — at Eels rehearsals.
“They’d always bust my chops,” Perry said. “Like, ‘Well? Is this the year you come on and sing a couple songs with us?’”
At one point, Eels guitarist Jeff Lyster managed to bait Perry into singing Journey’s “Lights” at one of these rehearsals, which Everett remembers as “this great moment — a guy who’s become like Howard Hughes and just walked away from it all 25 years ago, and he’s finally doing it again.”
Eventually Perry decided to sing a few numbers at an Eels show, which would be his first public performance in decades. He made this decision known to the band, Everett said, not via phone or email but by showing up to tour rehearsals one day carrying his own microphone. “He moves in mysterious ways,” Everett observed.
For mysterious Steve Perry reasons, Perry chose to make his long-awaited return to the stage at a 2014 Eels show at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. During a surprise encore, he sang three songs, including one of his favorite Eels tunes, whose profane title is rendered on an edited album as “It’s a Monstertrucker.”
“I walked out with no anticipation, and they knew me and they responded, and it was really a thrill,” Perry said. “I missed it so much. I couldn’t believe it’d been so long.”
“It’s a Monstertrucker” is a spare song about struggling to get through a lonely Sunday in someone’s absence. For Perry, it was not an out-of-nowhere choice.
In 2011, Jenkins directed one segment of “Five,” a Lifetime anthology film about women and breast cancer. Perry visited her one day in the cutting room while she was at work on a scene featuring real cancer patients as extras. A woman named Kellie Nash caught Perry’s eye. Instantly smitten, he asked Jenkins if she would introduce them by email.
“And she says ‘OK, I’ll send the email,’” Perry said, “but there’s one thing I should tell you first. She was in remission, but it came back, and it’s in her bones and her lungs. She’s fighting for her life.”
“My head said, ‘I don’t know,’” Perry remembered, “but my heart said, ‘Send the email.’”
“That was extremely unlike Steve, as he is just not that guy,” Jenkins said. “I have never seen him hit on, or even show interest in, anyone before. He was always so conservative about opening up to anyone.”
A few weeks later, Nash and Perry connected by phone and ended up talking for nearly five hours. Their friendship soon blossomed into romance. Perry described Nash as the greatest thing that ever happened to him.
“I was loved by a lot of people, but I didn’t really feel it as much as I did when Kellie said it,” he said. “Because she’s got better things to do than waste her time with those words.”
They were together for a year and a half. They made each other laugh and talked each other to sleep at night.
In the fall of 2012, Nash began experiencing headaches. An MRI revealed that the cancer had spread to her brain. One night not long afterward, Nash asked Perry to make her a promise.
“She said, ‘If something were to happen to me, promise me you won’t go back into isolation,’” Perry said, “because that would make this all for naught.”
At this point in the story, Perry asked for a moment and began to cry.
Nash died Dec. 14, 2012, at 40. Two years later, Perry showed up to Eels rehearsal with his own microphone, ready to make good on a promise.
Time has added a husky edge to Perry’s angelic voice; on “Traces,” he hits some trembling high notes that bring to mind the otherworldly jazz countertenor “Little” Jimmy Scott. The tone suits the songs, which occasionally rock but mostly feel close to their origins as solo demos Perry cut with only loops and click tracks backing him up.
The idea that the album might kick-start a comeback for Perry is one that its maker inevitably has to hem and haw about.
“I don’t even know if ‘coming back’ is a good word,” he said. “I’m in touch with the honest emotion, the love of the music I’ve just made. And all the neurosis that used to come with it, too. All the fears and joys. I had to put my arms around all of it. And walking back into it has been an experience, of all of the above.”