Backstage & Beyond: The Life of a Music Journalist Explored

A lively chat with our own Jim Sullivan about his new book

Ian Hunter with Jim Sullivan (Image: Roza Yarchun)

Jim Sullivan, a regular contributor to Rock & Roll Globe, loves music.

He grew up reading interviews and reviews in magazines like Creem and Crawdaddy and knew he wanted to get involved in the music business, but wasn’t sure how that would unfold.

When he attended the University of Maine, Sullivan was a DJ at the college station, WMEB. He started his career as a music journalist when he interviewed the British band Slade. Tape recorder in hand, he intended to talk to the band and broadcast it on his WMEB radio show. It went so well, he began to write about music for the college newspaper, The Maine Campus. Soon after, the local paper, The Bangor Daily News, asked him to contribute interviews and reviews and he was off and running. He moved on to The Boston Globe and has been a music journalist ever since, writing for Creem, Newsweek, Trouser Press and dozens of other publications.

As he began looking back on his career, the idea of an anthology came to mind. He dismissed the notion of publishing a “Greatest Hits” compilation. Instead, he decided to present a cohesive narrative of his life, based on his interviews and reviews with the musicians he admires. The result is Backstage & Beyond: 45 Years of Classic Rock Chats & Rants, recently released by Trouser Press Books. Sullivan talked to The Globe about his book, his career and the influence his Globe column, Famous Quotes, had on his book.


What was it like growing up in Maine? Was there a live music scene?  

I grew up in Orono, a few miles north of Bangor, which I then – and now – call the last outpost of civilization. Orono was, and is, a college town, reasonably cosmopolitan given the circumstances. No pronounced Maine accents – people going around saying, “A-yuh,” no one obsessed with fishing and hunting.

My dad taught Mechanical Engineering at the University of Maine and my mum was the Assistant Dean at the Graduate School. That’s where I went to college as an undergrad, not convinced I wanted to travel to a school that specialized in something, when I didn’t know what I might want to specialize in. 

The music scene? Clubs had cover bands mostly. The Bangor Auditorium hosted most of the traveling arena shows, ZZ Top, Slade, Uriah Heep, Starz, Dictators, KISS, Black Oak Arkansas, Outlaws, Marshall Tucker Band, Alice Cooper, Jethro Tull, Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, J. Geils Band.

David Bowie shares a laugh with Jim Sullivan (Photo courtesy of Jim Sullivan)

Did you intend to become a music journalist/critic when you were in college? From what you describe in the opening remarks of the book, it seems like your first interview with Slade was an unexpected success. 

I wrote for the high school newspaper and thought my life might end up in the media, but wasn’t certain. When it was time to pick, I double-majored in Broadcasting/Film and Journalism. I tried my hand at rock journalism with the college newspaper, The Maine Campus, then on to The Bangor Daily News as a columnist and feature writer, while DJ-ing and music directing at WMEB-FM, the college radio station. I was also an assistant manager of a small record shop called the Augmented Fifth.

The interview with Slade was something I planned, but they didn’t know about it until I showed up and got ushered in backstage. They were happy to see me, a Yank who knew about them and, moreover, loved what they did. More details in the book’s preface about what that meant and how it changed the shape of my life.


Do you remember the first music – album, single, radio song, live gig – that inspired you and made you a lover of music and musicians? 

The Beatles’ “She Loves You” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” as door-opener singles, plus the Beach Boys “Barbara Ann,” Help! as the album and, then, really all the great Top 40 of the 60s and 70s – multiple genres – country, soul, R&B, novelty songs etc. The first live gig I saw was Johnny Cash, Bangor Auditorium, 1969.

Volume One for Backstage and Beyond (Image: Trouser Press Books)

Did you ever want to write songs, play music, or perform? 

Only as a short-lived fantasy. Like most, I was, as the Fabulous Poodles put it in the song of the same name, a “mirror star” in my bedroom, playing tennis racquet guitar and singing into a can of Right Guard spray deodorant. Picked up the bass in college, briefly took lessons from a musician friend, took a music course and got frustrated with what the learning curve would be. I was better at writing about it than playing it. 

Also, I looked ahead to the insurmountable odds, even if I got good. I also questioned a life of repetition. I do wonder sometimes how bands can play the same show, night after night, and put into it what they do. XTC’s Andy Partridge told me he hated touring and felt that once they’d made the record in the studio, that was it. It was a complete piece of art, if you will.

Dave Wakeling of the English Beat, invited me up to sing the Damned’s “Neat, Neat, Neat” and for that I leaned into the mic to shout the chorus. Knocked it out of the fuckin’ box, I must say, for those two minutes.


Did Backstage & Beyond grow out of the Famous Quotes columns you write for Rock & Roll Globe

Not exactly, but certainly indirectly. For Famous Quotes, I dig through my archives for bits and pieces that are fun to resurrect and tease readers about who/what/when/where. But throughout the years, I’ve had a keen awareness of what I’d done, that there was a lot of good stuff beyond the quick-hit Famous Quotes stuff. My wife, among others, urged me to collect and collate, to remake and remodel, to quote the Roxy Music song, and put it all – or a chunk of it – in book form. Volume 1 is out now Volume 2 is written and will come out in October. Maybe there’s a Volume 3 in the cards.


How did you save the interviews? Did you record them, take notes, depend on your memory, write them in shorthand? 

In terms of doing interviews, if the story was to be of any length, tape recorder, once analog, now digital. If it’s a quick backstage hit, furtive note-taking. I wish my track record was better than it is on keeping tapes or I’d have been more organized about it over the years. Some interviews on tape have been saved and some of those are up at, where a lot of other archival material lives. Others are in a suitcase at home. I can’t say I thought the taped interviews had real value back when. If I had the transcripts or the stories, that was all I needed. I wish I’d known that there was value in the tapes. Some tapes goT taped over; others just lost. There are piles of notebooks in the basement, some clips. A few reams of interview transcriptions. A lotta stuff on-line in various places. 


Why did you divide the interviews into two volumes? 

As I was writing last summer, I kept writing, with my editor/publisher Ira Robbins’s encouragement and without much thought to length. Ira kept coming back with, “This is really good!” chapter after chapter. The words, the chapters kept on coming. At one point, Ira realized we had two books and then we decided to divide it up as we did – the artists who began in the 50s through the early to mid-70s – more or less – and the artists that began in the mid-70s onward, mostly the punk, post-punk and new wave eras.


It seems you’ve remained in communication with many of the musicians you’ve interviewed over the years. How do you build a rapport with the folks you’ve interviewed?

It just happens. Or it doesn’t. I write about that in the book – sometimes friendships do evolve out of interviews, the intimacy shared for “work” purposes continues on. It’s not the goal, by any means. I’ve never tried to collect celebrity rocker “friends,” but it can happen. If there’s mutual respect, that’s the key.


Is there anyone you’ve never interviewed that you’d like to write about?

Mick and Keith. Roger Waters. Paul McCartney.


What do you think about today’s music scene? Are there any acts that you can envision as the next big thing?  

As we all know, the current music scene is mostly radio-friendly teen pop, K-pop, boy bands, hip hop, bro-country and various mindfuck electronic genres and subgenres that are pummeling. There’s still some fun alt-rock out there and I do love Wet Leg and Dry Cleaning, but my days of discovery in clubland are pretty much done. Could happen, but that’s not where I live anymore and that’s fine. The torch has passed. To whom, I’m not certain.


Are you still making a living as a writer?

Yep. I’ve always done non-music-related writing, too.

Jim Sullivan with Iggy Pop (Image: Roza Yarchun)

What has been your biggest challenge as a journalist? 

Keeping a critical eye, but avoiding the trap of cynicism that seems to engulf so many. Lester Bangs was one of the guys I looked up to through most of his career, but in the end, his jaded, bitter mindset got the better of him. His sad trajectory is a good lesson to take with you.


How did the book release party go? Did you sign copies? Did anyone you’d interviewed show up to chat with the crowd?

We had the book party at the Paradise rock club in Boston, on July 27. Of course, I had anxiety going into it, but that dissipated right away. O Positive guitarist Dave Martin put together a background audio/video show to accompany the proceedings. My wife, Roza, arranged some of her pix on the walls of the club and on easels. Ira Robbins handled the financial logistics. The folks came flooding in and, while there was come and go, many lingered, hung, talked with me and others. A sense of community coming together. I got a warm and fuzzy feeling thinking I was the catalyst for it. We had some well-known musicians there – Peter Gabriel/King Crimson bassist Tony Levin, Mission of Burma’s Peter Prescott and Clint Conley, The Cars’ Greg Hawkes, Aerosmith’s Tom Hamilton. 

The books sold out in two hours. We should have brought more, but who knew? My hand got sore from all that signing, but they’re available now at and Amazon.

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste,,, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

One thought on “Backstage & Beyond: The Life of a Music Journalist Explored

  • August 19, 2023 at 11:14 pm

    Yay, Jim!! So excited for you. And although it was brief, I can’t believe that I’ve interviewed two people that you haven’t. You beat me in every other area by miles.


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