Inside Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s first Christmas without leader Paul O’Neill

Published December 15 2017
Updated December 15 2017

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A half hour to curtain, Al Pitrelli unwinds on a couch in his spartan dressing quarters, fresh off a loading-dock Marlboro.

He’s deep inside an arena, about to play the 29th show in the 18th city of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s 19th winter on the road. Out in the hall, violinists tune and singers apply mascara and crew members pop in and out of catering — fajita night is always a hit. But Pitrelli is all out of pep talks and rituals.

If Paul O’Neill were here, "he’d have 100 questions and 100 things he couldn’t wait to talk about," said Pitrelli, TSO’s lead guitarist and musical director. "He’d always be talking about what we’re doing in six months."

It has been eight months since O’Neill, founder and eccentric mastermind of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, was found dead at 61 from a prescription pill overdose in a hotel room in Tampa, the explosive Christmas roadshow’s creative home base.

But his death has not slowed TSO’s grand annual march across the country. Since forming in 1996, TSO has played some 2,000 concerts, sold more than 14 million tickets and grossed more than $600 million at the box office. Judging from this sold-out show in Birmingham, they are more popular than ever. Their two concerts Sunday in Tampa, O’Neill’s adopted hometown, are on track to surpass last year’s 22,623 tickets sold.

A spectacle this grand, beloved and profitable can’t just up and stop. But without the enigmatic, exacting O’Neill at the helm, it’s unclear who will lead it forward.

• • •

Like so many oddities spawned in Florida, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is best thought of as a mutation.

A native New Yorker, O’Neill was a successful music manager and promoter, working with the likes of Aerosmith and AC/DC, when he suddenly found himself in Tampa Bay.

At the behest of Atlantic Records, he linked up with a Tarpon Springs metal band called Savatage, led by brothers Jon and Criss Oliva. Starting in 1987, O’Neill produced and/or co-wrote eight albums with the band, including several at Tampa’s Morrisound Recording.

O’Neill, a disciple of ’70s prog-rock acts like Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, found in Savatage musicians who could bring to reality a strange, ambitious but potentially lucrative idea: Christmas music with a melodic metal twist, borrowing from influences as disparate as Beethoven, Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Who.

O’Neill and Jon Oliva had co-written a Savatage song called Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24, a bombastic mash-up of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Carol of the Bells that would later score countless ads and viral light displays. That song was the centerpiece of Christmas Eve and Other Stories, a 1996 concept album by O’Neill, Savatage and additional musicians — an outfit he dubbed the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

While Christmas Eve and Other Stories would eventually sell more than 3.4 million copies, making it one of the 10 best-selling Christmas albums of the past quarter-century, it wasn’t until the band started touring in 1999 that they really exploded. They filmed a hit PBS special, released several albums — most Christmas-themed, but some not.

O’Neill divided the group into East Coast and West Coast factions so it could cover more ground, play more shows — often two in one day — and rake in more cash. By 2010, TSO was the seventh highest-grossing act in America, between Paul McCartney and Lady Gaga.

During these years, O’Neill split his time between New York, home to TSO’s business operations, and Florida, home to its creative core. They recorded at Morrisound and rehearsed at the Lakeland Center. O’Neill bought a house in Winter Haven and later Tampa Palms.

"You kind of have a church-and-state division between New York and Florida, and Paul would bounce back and forth between the two," Pitrelli said. "When you have a family, you base yourself wherever is best for your family. Paul’s wife grew up down that way. They decided they were going to raise their daughter down there."

O’Neill rarely performed with the band live, instead recruiting players from all over the world — this year’s lineup hails from as far off as Sweden, Croatia and the Ukraine.

"To me, TSO always just felt like they’re stewards of a greater story, and it didn’t matter where they were from," said Plant City native Charleene Closshey, an actress and violinist who performed occasional shows with TSO for about three years.

O’Neill did not make his presence in Tampa widely known. But in 2014, he changed the local music landscape overnight by purchasing Morrisound, a popular studio synonymous with the city’s reputation as a cradle of death metal. The compound, renamed Night Castle, became TSO’s exclusive creative headquarters.

"Buying our studio was the first step in that direction to moving the entire operation down to Florida," said then-owner Tom Morris. "It was a true commitment on Paul’s part."

There was talk of new facilities, including a full-time tour production lab and rehearsal space — Morris knew of at least five projects O’Neill had in the works. The problem was getting to it all. In interviews, O’Neill spoke about wanting his work to be celebrated long after his death, like his heroes Beethoven and Walt Disney.

"He just wanted TSO to live on until the next several generations," Pitrelli said. "If your great-grandchildren are celebrating Paul’s music in 100 years, isn’t that eternal? I think he set the foundation for that."

• • •

O’Neill relished his image as a mercurial, slightly mad genius. At concerts he was curious and gregarious with fans and venue workers, but otherwise kept his home life very private.

"I’ve been working for Paul, great friends, the best of friends, for 22 years," Pitrelli said. "We’ve been to each other’s houses maybe three or four times."

He quietly donated to charities, and gave a dollar from every concert ticket to an organization in that city.

Often he would gift random strangers a TSO denim jacket, or even on some occasions the heavy black leather jacket off his back — he kept extras of both in his car. He carried rolls of antique silver dollars; if he met a curious child, he would hand them a coin dated a century before the year of their birth.

At Morrisound, Morris said, he would buy additional studio time for local bands working in adjacent rooms, "to the tune of probably in the tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of studio time," Morris said. Another time, according to Morris, he drove by a University of South Florida marching band practice, hopped out of the car, handed the director $10,000 cash, and said, "I love what you guys are doing. Take everybody to dinner."

O’Neill’s home away from home and long days in the studio was the Embassy Suites at USF. Employees there knew well his generous ways, and would fight over who got to work which shifts when he was checked in.

"It really upset Paul when he heard that," Morris said.

Over the years O’Neill became more guarded. He was rarely seen without dark sunglasses, and carried his music in a locked personal safe. In a 2016 profile in the British magazine New Statesman, O’Neill flashed a Glock and traveled by armored SUV, accompanied by a bodyguard. He bristled over encounters with overenthusiastic fans, and cued up security footage of an attempted studio robbery that occurred while he and his band were inside.

Whenever he was working, O’Neill would sequester himself, though he regularly kept in touch with his family by phone.

On April 5, according to police reports, O’Neill was not returning calls from his daughter, prompting she and Oliva to go to his six-room suite at the Embassy Suites. Inside, they found O’Neill unresponsive on the floor, along with more than 30 prescription pill bottles in his name. On the bed were stacks of books, CDs and handwritten lyric journals.

In a statement, TSO said O’Neill had privately been "fighting chronic illness," including "chronic spine problems from a past back surgery" and "a painful, debilitating, incurable case of Meniere’s disease" — an inner-ear condition with symptoms akin to those of vertigo and tinnitus. He also suffered from heart disease, arthritis and osteoporosis, according to an autopsy report from the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner, and had recently undergone oral surgery. He died from an accidental overdose of prescription painkillers and sleep aids, including Valium, methadone and codeine.

Word rippled first through the family and TSO empire, which was then in the thick of planning its 2017 tour. Even today, it’s a difficult, sensitive topic in the organization.

"I have my moments where, no, I don’t get by at all," Pitrelli said. "I lost somebody very, very dear to me. I’ve had that happen to me a lot of times in my life. You never get over it. You just deal with it when you deal with it."

• • •

At this point in late 2017, no one seems willing to say who actually leads the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

"I’ve asked that question myself to some of the members that I know fairly well in the band," Morris said. "And honestly, I think they’re trying to figure that out themselves."

O’Neill held tightly the reins of his empire. He kept his studio under strict lock and key as he obsessed for hours over every meticulous note.

"In Paul’s ideal world, the performance came from a very dramatic standpoint," said former vocalist Guy LeMonnier, who now performs with the TSO-inspired holiday act Wizards of Winter. "He was very, very specific about what he wanted, and you can’t always say you knew what he wanted, so you continually took stabs at it until you got it right."

O’Neill also rarely discussed TSO’s business side, in part because "you don’t want to give away your business plan to people who might be competing with you in some way, shape or form," Morris said.

Who else would exact such obsessive control over TSO but its creator? As Pitrelli put it, "That was his child."

O’Neill was working on two rock operas at the time of his death; Oliva, his writing partner, will take the lead on new music. His wife and daughter inherited his estate, and thus the Trans-Siberian Orchestra name and business. TSO’s management, promoters Live Nation and the Savatage veterans who lead the annual tours will all have input. O’Neill’s wife declined to be interviewed for this story.

"Paul surrounded himself with a great team, and he trained us all very well for 22 years, where we were all going in the right direction," Pitrelli said. "So just let the leadership continue to steer it forward, and it will continue on exactly how Paul saw it."

TSO will tour again in 2018; that much is certain. A typical tour employs 200 roadhands on 40 trucks and 20 buses, plus another 300 local workers at each stop. A train that size can’t stop all at once.

"Life punches you in the face. And what do you do? You stand back up," said Pitrelli. "It’s all going to move forward. Just tell me where to plug in."

• • •

The show in Birmingham draws nearly 12,000 fans: Older couples in elf hats and Christmas sweaters; well-heeled millennials on date nights; families with kids out on a school night; bearded metalheads with long, scraggly hair like O’Neill’s.

Midway through the dizzying two and a half hour display, after TSO performs The Ghosts of Christmas Eve in full, Pitrelli finally addresses the crowd.

"Just out of curiosity," he asks, "how many of you guys are seeing us for the first time tonight?"

The crowd roars.

"And where’s all the repeat offenders?"

This time, the roar is much louder.

The creation and operation of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra might not matter to the hundreds of thousands of fans who turn out for every tour. They come for an A-plus rock spectacle, and TSO delivers it masterfully, complete with virtuosic solos and spectacular pyrotechnic effects. There is a tribute to O’Neill, but it is brief. The focus is on his creation, which long after his death will remain uniquely his.

"Where else can you rock out to an originally classical piece, now set in the rock world, that just totally works?" said Closshey, the former violinist, who remains close with TSO performers. "Whether you’re 5 or 105, TSO really is for everyone because of that. It’s because of the truth that they present, that they share with their audience. Truth and pyrotechnics. You can’t fail with that."

The lasers strobe and the flames explode and an acrid haze fills the arena. It’s 491 miles to the next show in Florida, the state where the whole thing began. It’s where whatever happens next will start, too.