How Trans-Siberian Orchestra Created the Biggest Rock Show in the World

Year after year, TSO dominates the holiday soundscape.
Year after year, TSO dominates the holiday soundscape. Jason McEachern

Page 2 of 4

click to enlarge Paul O'Neill. - Samantha Fryberger
Samantha Fryberger
Paul O'Neill.
Paul O'Neill: A Man of Letters
When he was young, O'Neill, the group's mastermind, had trouble reading anything more sophisticated than The Cat in the Hat. In first grade, he was in danger of falling behind. But then his mother spent a summer teaching him phonetics, and the floodgates opened as O'Neill, whose parents forbade him to watch TV, started devouring the books around the family's home. Now, he easily recites facts from European history and quotes Cicero.

As he was learning to play guitar, he went to see the Who perform at Madison Square Garden in the late '60s. It was a pivotal moment.

"The Who were the only band that I walked out on because they were so good I couldn't stand watching them," says O'Neill.

With his black leather jacket, dark Italian sunglasses, speckled gray beard and shoulder-length hair, he looks like a cross between a member of the Ramones and a Lord of the Rings wizard. His dressing room includes a keyboard, two guitars and a KISS-themed pinball machine. For guests, the room also contains a few cases of Trans- Siberian swag — a stack of denim jackets with the TSO emblem on the back and CDs of the band's new album, Letters from the Labyrinth. He gives the stuff away at such a rapid pace, the cases have to regularly be replenished.

"[The Who] were so good, I was about to throw up," he continues. "I walked around New York City really depressed for about two hours. To me, the Who were the ones who invented the rock opera. When I first heard 'Pinball Wizard' on the radio, I thought, 'Whoa!' When I heard it on the album Tommy, it was a whole different thing."

Later, as he toured with Aerosmith in the '70s, he started developing his esoteric sense of the world. He has an extensive collection of letters written by Thomas Edison, purchased through the auction house Christie's and at various estate sales.

"I have every letter from Thomas Edison to his tool and die guy about how to build the first record player — I have every single one," he says. "I have a lot of letters from Lincoln, from Churchill, from Oscar Wilde, because when you're holding letters that Lincoln held, that Churchill held, that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote when he was a teenager, you feel a connection. Like I tell my daughter, we don't own these, we're just the caretakers of them for the next generation. I have one letter from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, from December 1779. He thought he was going to lose the war. It's fascinating stuff."

Those literary sensibilities would inform the prog band Savatage, which originally recorded "Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24" in 1995. The song would reappear on TSO's debut, 1996's Christmas Eve and Other Stories, and launch the band into the behemoth that it is today.

Al Pitrelli, the current West Coast musical director, describes the informal nature of that album's initial songwriting sessions.

"Me, Paul O'Neill, Jon Oliva and Bob Kinkel got together at what we called the kitchen table in Paul's apartment," says the slender, long-haired Pitrelli. He's in his dressing room, where he's plastered a sticker that reads "Roadie for Life" on a black case full of clothes and gear.

"We would throw ideas in the middle of the table, literally and figuratively. We were just having fun. We didn't think it would ever sell. Who the hell would buy a Christmas record by a bunch of long hairs from Queens? Don't ever tell the bumblebee it can't fly. It was really that simple."

Scroll to read more Music News & Interviews articles (1)
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.

Newsletters

Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.