Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the 16th 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 a guitarist, songwriter and perfectionist. He’s in his 70s and likes to build things and tinker with them in his suburban Boston home. Oh, and the rock group he leads have sold more than 75 million records.
“We live a really good life,” he tells me, on the phone in 2017 about his wife and himself. “We have a nice house that’s a mess and a workshop. I’ve got two vintage Camrys that I love- one is 22 years old and has 225,000 miles on it and the thing still runs like a top. We wish we had a little more time. We had five days after the last tour [in 2016] and we got to stay on a beach on Martha’s Vineyard and that was it. That’s the only days off we’ve had since we did this last spring.”
He was prepping for another tour. “I did have a birthday,” he said, “but I barely noticed it. We were trying to get a new special effects [system] up and running this weekend. I had a bunch of people in town and I was involved in building the key pieces to it and got a little behind on one and didn’t quite get it done. So, I basically worked like a dog on my birthday and didn’t get any sleep. I actually had to ask somebody whether it was Saturday or Sunday this weekend. I thought I still had one more day. I hate it when that happens.”
His band’s first album was a mega success and he had that feeling of elation, thinking that the hardest mountain had been climbed and things were good.
“That wasn’t true at all,” he said. “Once you get there, especially in the music business, you spend the rest of your life protecting it from all the people who are either going to try and exploit it, take advantage of it, take it from you and the list of unfortunate artists who never got to enjoy the rewards of their work is endless.
“I got to that point and I realized what I was going to be up against. There were two choices. One was get out and the other was fight. I hit a corner somewhere after I’d been in it for about five years and I said ‘No, I’m not walking away from this. I worked very hard to get here and nobody’s going to take it from me.’ I went from thinking, ‘I’ve got to get away from this’ to just the opposite attitude. My attitude became and is today and has been, I will absolutely fight tooth and nail for what I’ve achieved and what I have and you have to do that. If you don’t, you’re almost handing people who would do those things a free ride.”
2. It was the early ‘80s and I was in a Boston hotel room interviewing this singer for USA Today, a paper I did a dozen or so stories for back then.
Her forte was classy ballads and light R&B; her biggest song was written by a well-known English folksinger. Not that he was in favor of it; the song had been covered – and changed – by various folk groups, too, in the ‘60s and he professed dislike for all of them. She tackled it in 1969, but it was re-released in 1972, after it was featured in a Clint Eastwood movie. It spent more than a month atop Billboard’s Top 40.
It was a love song, a song of longing and it became so identified with her, I asked something I often wonder (and sometimes ask) singers: Has the hit ever become a burden? Is it hard to conjure up the feeling you once had for the song? She admitted it wasn’t always easy, but she had this one device that never failed: As she sang it, she put an image in her mind, one that was not, well, human.
Who was the singer? What was the song and who might that non-human have been?
3. Did this singer – and his songwriting team – inadvertently invent bubblegum in 1967? Bubblegum is not a term or genre many artists want to lay claim to, but he will. “We started as a garage band,” the singer told me in the summer of 2018. “And then moved on to sort of accidentally invent bubblegum with [that song].’ And that was my fault. It was brought to me as a mid-tempo ballad and we went in the studio and did a demo of it and I started [going] dum-dum-dum-dum on the guitar and that caught on and became the signature sound for the next several records and the whole album. Then, we moved on to party-rock with [the next single] and then came …” A shimmering long (for Top 40) five-and-a-half-minute tune that was a slow-dance favorite for burgeoning teens of a certain era. (Yeah, mine.) The singer sang the song’s title over and over as tremolo guitar notes quivered behind his voice: It was vague, but psychedelic and mesmerizing. Was it spiritual? Sexual?
What, pray tell, did those words they mean?
“Just two of my favorite words,” he said, with a laugh. “Sounded like they oughta be profound. It sounded poetic. I have no idea what they meant. Listen, that’s how it was back then. You’re always on the make for interesting words and lines as a songwriter. It must have meant something.”
Who is the singer and what are those two songs?
4. In 1999, I posed this situation to the leader of a trance-inducing, Velvet-y modern rock band: Let’s say you’re on a commercial airplane. As will sometimes happen, the passenger next to you begins to make small talk and inquires as to what you do professionally.
“Musician,” answers the New Zealand-born, Harvard-educated singer-songwriter-guitarist.
And then a polite inquiry comes back: “What kind of music?”
Here is where the musician winces a bit before inevitably responding, “Alternative rock.”
“It seems so silly to me when people say, `What kind of band are you?’ and I have to say `alternative,’ ” he says, from his New York City home, on an afternoon between shows at Irving Plaza. “It is a world away from what we do . . . “
Yet, his band was part of alt-rock royalty back in the early to mid-’90s and to some extent still is. The quartet creates moody, at times spellbinding, guitar-pop that was still widely played on the college radio circuit and appreciated by a sizable cult. It’s just that the framework of alt-rock, or at least the most popular end of it in 1999, had devolved, with the heavy-hitting, mono-dimensional rap-metal bands at the top of the heap.
“We don’t really fit into that world, do we?” he asks, rhetorically. “I guess what I am most interested in is making beautiful music, or music that is at times beautiful, anyway. I am not doing it because I have some message to get across. I suppose I dreamed of being a rock star and being at the top of the charts and fantastically wealthy and all of that, and I guess in some ways it’s a childish fantasy. But I have been able to make a living making records for a while.”
Answers: 1) Tom Scholz of Boston, 2) Roberta Flack, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” her cat; the folksinger was Ewan MacColl, 3) Tommy James, “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Crimson & Clover,” 4) Dean Wareham of Luna.
VIDEO: Luna Live On KEXP (full performance)