Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the sixteenth 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. He’s sipping tea in a suite at the Berkshire Place Hotel in New York, and beginning to describe the peculiar life of a rock star/addict. It’s 1985 and the famous English guitarist-songwriter-singer is 40. He’s talking about years of heroin, cocaine and alcohol and the process of recovery. “I’ve been living in a garbage can all my life,” he says, pointedly, “so I remain living in a garbage can. I know a lot of it is going to rub off on me and touch me, but it just isn’t going in my mouth anymore.”
He smiles, pleased with both the decision and the metaphor. “I think that if you live in a garbage can, you just keep your mouth closed,” he reiterates. “It’s what we’ve got, particularly in big cities where the arts in this society thrive. It’s just a fact of life that you have to live with.”
It began to build, he says, in 1979. He says he took on too much responsibility, music-wise, and began using cocaine to keep up a hectic pace. “At first, as always, I found it a very refreshing, stimulating drug,” he says. “Then it turned sour in about two months and later I started to experiment with other things. By the end of ’81, I was really in the abyss.
“I reduced myself to a gibbering heap of rubble and then woke up one night in some venue with a couple of bottles of brandy, [having] injected myself with whatever was available. I was literally just about breathing, covered in blood and warts and slime and phlegm and vomit and still I was surrounded by people who wanted to get close to me.”
2. This shambolic post-punk band was from northern England and Boston was a regular US tour stop. I’d covered the group and interviewed its lead-singer and songwriter several times. This one time, mid- ‘80s, I’m with him, the band and a bunch of other liggers backstage (actually upstairs) at a punk club called Spit. He eyeballs me across the room – I’m a familiar face – and approaches: “Hey, you got anything? Speed? Coke? Something to me you go fast.” It took me a moment, but I realized he’d probably mistaken me for his Boston connection. I wasn’t offended or anything, and said, “No, I’m a rock journo and we’ve talked before.” No harm, no foul. It’s not like I don’t understand where he’s coming from. I try to point him in the direction of someone who might help him out and I’m pretty sure there were no shortage of those people there.
Skip ahead to the mid-‘90s. As had done before with a previous press blurb and album title, he selected a two-word description I’d written in the Boston Globe about their previous album as the title of their next. It’s possible he was taking the piss, but I don’t think so and I was ultimately flattered by his choice and the fact that I kinda nailed his and his band’s essence in those two words. A few years later he and his wife, now a guitarist in the band, sent a personalized Christmas card to my house. I was astounded. (How did they even have my address?)
3. “I used to hate interviews with a passion,” the famous English singer-songwriter-sometime pianist says. “Now, I think it’s great. It’s quite inexpensive therapy.” It’s 1993 and the art-rocker has settled in for a long chinwag at his record company’s regional branch office outside of Boston. The band he came to fame with has been off-and-on; he developed a solo career alongside the band’s work and that continues.
Among the reveals: He says he doesn’t feel the confidence that others assume he possesses. He marvels at the gift of gab an ex-bandmate has – someone whose fame now equals his own. Basically, he looks at making music this way: “It’s an interesting job — well, if you want to call it a job. It’s a career. I like all the other aspects of it, writing — well, writing is very difficult — recording and doing the artwork. I try to make it as interesting as possible.”
Like many of his peers, he was trying to balance career and family. He admitted that for all the joys family offers — “I’m sure it brings something; I’m sure it helps you as a person” — it has made part of the job harder. “I think it’s affected the writing,” he says. “It sounds silly to you, maybe, but just the weekend thing: That’s when I used to write most lyrics [with the band]. I probably wouldn’t work in the studio on weekends, but the record would still be going through my head and I’d write on a Saturday night. Now, I escape completely.”
His parting comment this afternoon was, “You’ve got to be paranoid and messed up to be a singer.” It’s delivered with a laugh, but you knew there’s a kernel of truth in there as well.
4. It’s 1996 and I’m in a New York hotel room with this famous Irish singer. She has sold more than 28 million albums worldwide, nearly 10 million of them in the United States. Her current album is at No. 2 on Billboard’s “new age” chart after four weeks, and at No. 29 on the Top 200 that rates all albums.
She has this voice, a voice that, in its multi-tracked splendor, conjures up glorious, celestial images. She’s a spiritual, vaguely sensuous dream-weaver, an angel at the gates of heaven. The implicit spirituality is no accident.
“It’s because I was brought up a Catholic,” she says. “What I’ve done is I’ve kind of derived from religion what I’m comfortable with. . .. I love going to church on my own, the peace and quiet, I enjoy that and I think that crosses over into the music. And I’ve always loved church music, the hymns. Sometimes it’s such a simple, but beautiful, melody, and I just love that when you know what the next note is, what you want it to be, you’re aching for it to be that note — and it is that note! Thank you!”
Has there ever been a story or review written about her that has not contained the word “ethereal”?
“That I couldn’t answer,” she demurs, with a slight laugh. (Reasonable guess: No.) “But the British tabloids can be quite mean to me.”
Mean? It’s hard to imagine. She is pretty, polite, poised. Punks like her. Classical music fans like her. Her music knows no cultural boundaries.
So why the meanness in the United Kingdom?
It likely came about, she suggests, because she hasn’t any use for pop-celebrity culture and has never gotten involved in heinous personal scandal. Also, she’s well known for working in an insular fashion: She sequesters herself in the studio and works diligently with her collaborators.
Of course, sometimes people want to know more about her.
“I have a very private life,” she says. “It’s very important to the music, I think, that I’m able to have time away from the music and the lifestyle. The reason I’m able to have a private life is because the music is actually bigger than I am. For some artists, they’re actually bigger than the music.”
5. It’s 1980 and the singer-songwriter-bassist has carved out a nice little niche for himself, especially in England, first as a member of a pub rock band and then as a wry pop-rock artist/producer for an emerging indy label. He’s just formed a band with his longtime mate, a guitarist, and it’s possible he’s reaching a new level of success.
He shudders at the thought that he might be considered an established artist. “No, no, no,” he exclaims. “It is very easy to feel like the whole world is at your feet if enough people pat you on the back and tell you how great you are. In fact, it’s not true at all. Rod Stewart is established, Elton John is established. I don’t see myself in that sort of bracket and, frankly, I don’t really covet that position.”
And, you don’t want to call this man’s music art. He considers his tunes “garbage music. If you approach it as garbage music – in other words, it’s just here today and gone tomorrow – you stand far more chance of coming up with something good. It’s only looking back that something lives on.
“As far as I’m concerned,” he continues, “it’s ideas that are exciting. It’s not the marvelous synthesizer sound or the wonderful spread on the stereo. The average guy in the street doesn’t know anything about whether the bass drum pedal’s squeaking. All he knows is where there’s emotion coming out of the speakers.”
Answers: 1) Pete Townshend, The Who, 2) Mark E. Smith, The Fall. The album, Cerebral Caustic, 3) Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music, comparing himself to Brian Eno, 4) Enya, 5) Nick Lowe, talking about the band Rockpile with Dave Edmunds and his solo career.
VIDEO: Rockpile in Hamburg, Germany 1980