Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the 28th edition of Famous Quotes, a little quiz where the basic question remains: Who said this?
It’s a deep dive into my published and non-published archives, quotes culled from 40+ years of yakking with rock ‘n’ rollers of all stripes – on the phone, in a bar, at a restaurant, backstage.
1. Eric Clapton’s been in the news lately for being a prick, mostly for the obstinate anti-vaccine stance he shares with fellow prick Van Morrison. But being a prick is not a new thing for ol’ Slowbrain. I spoke with one of the leaders of Britain’s top political rockers of the late 1970s back in1979 when a public Clapton slur came to the fore. We also talked about Elvis Costello, who not long before that, got drunk and called Ray Charles the n-word in a bar.
“Elvis is obnoxious and he never said he wasn’t,” the singer-bassist-bandleader said over breakfast at a Boston McDonald’s, following a club gig the night before. “I can’t defend him on grounds of being a ‘nice, personable human being.’ He’s been obnoxious to everybody, including me. But whatever Elvis Costello is, he’s not a racist. You’ve only got to listen to the lyrics of ‘Two Little Hitlers,’ ‘Night Rally’ and ‘Goon Squad’ to find out what he thinks about racists.
“Clapton was saying that the flow of black people into Britain should be curbed because he didn’t want to live with too many of them. Clapton made his name and his living and got substantially rich from playing black people’s music. If Eric Clapton hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent him. There was a need for [the movement] Rock Against Racism, as witnessed by the fact that it took off so big when it happened. Eric Clapton’s chance drunken remarks were the spark for that – that lit the forest fire.
“So, in a way, we must be very grateful to Eric Clapton for those remarks at the right time; if Elvis had said that at that time it might have been Elvis instead. … People do get drunk; people do say daft things. I think [Clapton’s] track record since then has shown that he can’t really be a substantial racist. Maybe he’s just too thick to work it out.”
VIDEO: Classic Channel 9 Commercials 1987
2. Their legacy is long; their albums often conceptual, their sound minimalistic and often dissonant, their worldview dark and cynical and their stage shows creative and costumed. And their identities were shrouded. Four years ago, I spoke on the phone with a band spokesman – who may or may not have been part of the band – about the humor that was always lurking underneath the darkness.
“Humor is a very personal thing,” he told me. “Certainly, what one person finds funny is not necessarily what someone else will find funny. The darkness in general is often a type of dark humor more than it is genuine darkness. They [the band] are not really dark people: It’s more that they’re amused by it. So, from that aspect, almost all of it is really humor, but none of it is really a joke. Life really is tragic. They do often take a humorous approach to dealing with the darkness that is out there.”
3. This British vocal group was huge – huge – in the mid to late ‘90s. On an MTV awards show, a presenter introduced them with a line I love: “[This band] are like heroin. You can’t help but absorb them till you’re sick of it.”
“We were there and it was quite a funny, actually,” one of the singers told me, on the phone. “I wouldn’t say something like that. I’m quite strict with the girls, that they’re not too rude. That’s my part. Make sure nothing’s falling out.”
The fans at their concerts were overwhelming teenage girls, but she said. “Every single night is very funny. We’re very pleased because a lot of families come, the moms and the dads and the sons and the daughters. At the beginning of the show, you see the dads sitting there and they’re sort of trying to be a bit cool and they’re just sitting there with their kids going, ‘Oh, yes, calm down.’ And by the end of the show, the dads are the worst! They’re up and they’re dancing and they’re singing all the words. They’re dancing away and they know all the words and they’re doing the routines.
Well, I suggested, perhaps it allows the dads to indulge in a little bit of, uh, fantasy too.
“Oh, maybe, but I don’t know about that!”
Right. Maybe that’s something you can’t answer.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t answer that one.”
VIDEO: Bubble Tape Commercial 1991
4. Bessie Smith, who was born in 1892 and died in 1937, was one of the first blues singers to make a record. Her first effort, “Downhearted Blues,” hit the top of Billboard’s chart in 1923 and sold 750.000-plus copies. Dubbed “The Empress of the Blues,” she was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in the “early influences” category) in 1989.
But what do young folk know of her? For that matter, what did this female singer – a longtime solo artist but once part of a famous female trio of the ‘60s and ‘70s know? We spoke three years ago before she was to be one of a number of singers and musicians paying tribute to Smith at a theater outside Boston.
When this singer was in her teens, she said, “My ears were much more attuned to the bobby socks rock and rollers, people like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry maybe Little Anthony and the Imperials, not so much the women of the early blues. Bessie Smith? It’d be like talking to somebody today who’s into K-pop and you go, ‘Have you heard of [me]?’ and they’d be like ‘What? Who is that?’” That’s how I felt about Bessie Smith. It was ancient history, ancient music.”
But then, in the mid-60s her girl group band shared the stage with blues/R&B singer Esther Phillips at the Apollo Theater.
“Hearing Esther’s voice really opened my ears up to that era of music,” she told me. “Bessie was a fit for me because there was power in her voice and with what she accomplished, how successful she was, and how she was willing, lyrically, to talk about sex. Or even some of the things on the social and political side of her music. Although she wasn’t the writer of a lot of what she was recording, it felt very authentic.”
5. This actor was in one very popular TV show from 1994 to 2001 and then another (dirtier) one on premium cable 2007-2014. Aside from that, he became a novelist and a singer-songwriter. We talked about the latter end of it five years ago before a Boston gig.
He knew that, musically, he’d entered a cluttered playing field, populated by the Bacon Brothers, Johnny Depp and Zooey Deschanel, among others. He also entered as a relative novice, not a longtime actor aching to be a rocker. He started playing the guitar on the set of his last hit TV show with no designs. But now he had recorded one album – with another on the way – and was on tour.
“It was all really just in fun,” he said. “I never picked up the guitar with any idea that I was going to be writing songs that were going to be on the radio or even record or even perform it in front of one person, let alone a concert. I guess you could say it was pure in that way, just for me, and as it evolved, somehow I found myself collaborating with musicians that could help me, make me better and write with me in terms of the second album.”
He understood initial skepticism, but said, “There’s no law that says creativity is confined to one area or that beginners can’t come up with decent stuff. I would just ask that people take it case by case and they either like it or they won’t. I’m not fool enough to think that I can fill up a thousand seats at a concert just because of the music. I know people are coming because they know me as an actor, but I embrace that. If they want to whistle the theme [to the popular network series] of course, it’s somewhat annoying, but I get it. I’m not going to play the theme at the show, but my hope would be you leave going, ‘That’s a legitimate musical artist, those are legitimate songs.’ “
1) Tom Robinson of the Tom Robinson Band, 2) Harvey Fox, spokesman for The Residents or quite likely a Resident, 3) Baby Spice of the Spice Girls, 4) Nona Hendryx, once of LaBelle 5) David Duchovny of The X-Files and Californication
VIDEO: Spice Girls “Wannabe”