Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the tenth edition of Famous Quotes: A little quiz where the basic question is: 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, backstage.
1. It’s 1979 and, of course we don’t know it, but the singer-guitarist we’re talking to after his gig at a Boston club has less than two weeks to live. (I’m interviewing the man backstage with my fellow Boston rock scribe, Dean Johnson, for a long gone magazine called Sweet Potato.) The musician left his critically acclaimed – but not super-popular – Southern-fried rock ‘n’ roll band to strike out on his own – with a backing band of course, not solo-solo. I suggest his career trajectory has not been one hell-bent to the top.
“Nope,” he says with laugh. “Up sideways, down … I figure it’s lonely at the top, and I figure with all the money I’ve made if I can have a band like I played with tonight, who cares if I’m moving sideways, up, down, backwards or anything? It’s more fun than I’ve had in long time. I’m getting off on it.”
Does the spectre of his old band hang over his new career?
“It’s not a spectre; it’s not even a ghost,” he says. “It’s a series of events — people, places and things — that took place over a period of ten years that wound up in a spot that was uncomfortable for people that were involved in it. … It doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t ever get back together again, and it may not get together again with the same personnel, but as far as I’m concerned it may be a break and it maybe will happen again… I have to say that if I owned property and a musician came up to me and wanted to rent a house from me… No way. The walls would be punched in, and the sink would be filled with grease, and all the pipes would be clogged up, you know?”
2. It’s 1995 and a few months before this phone interview I’d seen this English quintet at a small Boston club and shared drinks and dinner with them beforehand. They’re on the way up, playing a much bigger club, en route to a future of packing arenas … and then a really acrimonious breakup.
They’re a pop band, but with a snarl and mix hope and cynicism, cheer with a sneer. One wag called ‘em the Sex Beatles. The overall attitude? “Em, I’d just say we’re honest,” their guitarist and main songwriter. “We don’t promise anybody anything. We never said we’re gonna set out to change anybody’s lives.”
He pauses. “Well, our singer might have. He’s a singer, right, and all singers are the same, aren’t they? They always hope to change people’s fucking lives.”
I note that there seems to be some tension, some conflict, between himself and said singer. Does that give the band creative tension?
“Well, really,” he says. “There is no creative tension ’cause I create all the songs. I just give it to him and he sings it.” If there are clashes, he sniffs, they happen because “he’s got a pretty big mouth and I haven’t. He’s usually always wrong; I’m usually always right.”
3. This isn’t exactly a famous “quote” per se, but a reaction to something I said. It’s 2007. I’m at the Paradise, a Boston club, listening to and writing about a pretty obscure band and ultimately a band that went nowhere. But the main reason I’m here – and let’s face it, the main reason others are – is that one of the band members parents are expected to be here as well. They’re both famous, he more than her, but still. They don’t get there ‘til fairly late in the set, but join my party in the VIP box overlooking the stage. We nod “hello” and pretend we’re not amidst rock star royalty.
We all go backstage, post-show. My wife chats mostly and animatedly with his wife. I chat with him. Also animated. The rock star – I’d interviewed him before in 1979, same club – has temporarily re-united his famous band and are playing Fenway Park soon. He offers us free primo tix to the show – tells us who to call to procure them. “Thanks,” I say. (He followed through, 20th row or something.)
Some members of the rock press don’t get on well with him – or him, them – as he has a rep for carrying a pretty monstrous ego and being something of a contentious SOB. But we’re good. I like sparring with him and I think he enjoys the badinage. The conversation ping-pongs every which way. Finally, the staff wants to usher us out. He exits. I realize I need to piss so I go to the men’s room, where, of course, he is, too, standing at the urinal.
“Oh, hi …” It’s no golden commode. It’s a rock club loo. Black walls, graffiti, urine smell, you’ve been there. Three urinals and I leave the middle urinal between us open – AS ONE DOES – and I begin to do my business. We’ve already had this long, engaging convo. We’re aware of each other’s presence. Now, do we have an awkward coda? What now to say to break the silence? I look at him and go, “Hmmm. No rock star pissoir ,then?”
He emits a big laugh, allowing me to take the piss – as the Brits say – out of him and his ego. It has been a very fun night.
4. She had lived the teen dream. It was 1974, she was an L.A. kid. “I had just been to the David Bowie ‘Diamond Dogs’ concert,” she tells me. “And I kid you not: When I watched him on stage a lightning bolt came out of the sky and zapped me. I knew at that moment that’s what I wanted to do with my life. It was my calling. A couple of weeks later, I met [her future guitarist] and [future manager-producer] in a club, and all of a sudden, this amazing offer comes to me. I’m thinking is ‘This is all I want to do.’ I jumped at the chance.”
A band was formed. We talked on the phone in 2013 when she was 50. She’d just written a memoir and she was looking back at the band they formed, which released two studio albums. On tour, she says, “Me and [the guitarist] roomed together. We were best friends. But we just got so tired and we stopped communicating. We were kids. In the two years together, we never had a break. I was getting most of the publicity ‘cause I was the lead singer and they were focusing on that corset for the two minutes I wore it during the entire show. And that gets under your skin when you’re young teenagers growing up, trying to find out who you are, and you’re tired, you’re constantly having it thrown in your face that you’re not as good as or not pretty. Young girls get jealous. It’s natural. Unfortunately, I felt that way as well, I’m not saying it was all them. I felt that jealousy.”
5. The band used to fly the flag. Big time. Not the American flag. The Confederate flag, the Stars and Bars. Six years ago, I talked to one of the singer-guitarists about it.
“We’ve taken an ass-whipping over the last ten years over that,” he told me, on the phone. “That flag used to be the backdrop for the whole show. As time has marched on and everything has become politically correct, we tried to walk a fine line and you know what, we can’t even walk a fine line anymore. If you try to walk a fine line, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Basically, what we’ve given up on is giving up on being politically correct. That flag might mean a lot of stuff to other people. But look, it’s a freaking battle flag. And now what has happened, you’ve got all these hate groups and all these different organizations that have adopted that flag as their emblem. These people ain’t even from the freaking South. We look at that, that’s an insult to us, to people’s heritage.”
I asked how now, in concert, they used the flag. The singer’s “got it tied around his mic stand when he comes out for [the band’s biggest single]. When we come out [for the encore] it’s draped over the piano for [the band’s best-known song]. But the American flag is the dominant emblem of the band. The Confederate flag? Yeah, we’re a Southern band, we’re proud of our heritage. But we’ve got a couple of guys from the North – the drummer, he’s from New York City, and the piano player is from Detroit. I have different ethnic people that are my friends – black, Hispanic, white, a lot of American Indian friends. American Indians are like, ‘What the hell are you [white] guys arguing over? You came over here for dinner and never left.’ … We’re so divided in this country. We should be pulling it together, helping each other, instead of saying, ‘Up yours man, you’re a different color than I am, I don’t give a damn about you.’”
Answers: 1) Lowell George, formerly of Little Feat, 2) Noel Gallagher, formerly of Oasis, 3) Sting, formerly of the Police; Joe Sumner of Fiction Plane, 4) Cherie Currie, formerly of the Runaways and 5) Rickey Medlock of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
VIDEO: Lynyrd Skynyrd performs “Freebird” in Oakland, CA 1977