Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the seventeenth 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.
The first two items concern rather radical covers of popular songs; the third is a public break from FQ tradition; the fourth a dispatch from a long-forgotten scene; and the fifth a bit from a band of lovable reprobates that had cleaned up its act. A bit.
1. This Boston hardcore punk band gained a measure of notoriety for their ferocious – and lyrically twisted – version of a brooding hit from a Boston new wave band. Some people thought they were taking the piss – that is, trashing the original. The punk group’s bassist says the other band’s attorney sent a cease-and-desist directive. The band said fuck you and kept playing it regardless.
Asked last year about the cover version, the original band’s singer-songwriter – long a successful solo artist – told me, “I don’t remember having a HUGE reaction, because I’m not sure I even listened to it at the time, probably because I wasn’t THAT eager to hear myself being made fun of. Obviously at some point over the years I ended up hearing it, and my reaction NOW is that their punkier, grinding approach actually suits the song pretty well. I would say I definitely prefer their version to ours, truth be told.”
Added the band’s former drummer: “I’ve always loved their version, too, and took it as a compliment. I guess that’s easier than the alternative! The cover of the single where they ‘punked’ our album cover photo was truly a masterstroke.”
2. This veteran singer-songwriter wrote more than a few enduring classics of pre-British invasion pop world – and after. In fact, it became one of Frank Sinatra’s signature songs and a comeback hit for him in 1969. It’s been covered by many over the years, but when a member of one of the world’s most infamous punk rock bands covered that song – woefully off-key and with revamped lyrics – well, when I talked with the songwriter five years ago, he said when he first heard it, he was “destabilized – for a moment.”
“Once I settled down and investigated it, I could see the guy was sincere. He went to Paris to do it, and it meant a lot to him and that was his only capability. He sang a certain way and that was it. By then I’d heard eclectic versions of it, but nothing like that! After I studied it, I thought “Everybody’s entitled to do their own thing, man.”
Was he trashing it or was it a tribute? Or maybe both?
“It might have been both,” admitted the songwriter, “but I also think it was an anthem for him. He was doing things his way. I don’t think it was an out-and-out trash at all.”
3. Breaking format for a moment. This was not a private moment with me but a public moment shared in a small theater in Boston six years ago. The world-class drummer – known as a “rock” drummer, but he hated that term – was leading a red-hot jazz band. He was getting up there in age. He had a new album to promote This was to be his final go-round. He was notorious for being cantankerous, aborting sets, pulling tantrums.
At one point, maybe 15 minutes after the gig began, he got up off his drum stool and started to amble off-stage. The audience gasped as one and collectively thought, “Shit, he’s doing it, isn’t he?” The drummer, perhaps realizing this perception, got half-way to the exit before he pivoted, shuffled back to the mic at the drum kit, bent over it and rasped: “I’m an old man and I’ve got to take a piss.” Which he certainly did after exiting stage left. He came back, completed the set and it was a corker.
4. This band emerged from England’s so-called Grebo scene of the mid-1980s, and all sorts of unsavory adjectives were attached to the band and scene by the UK press: obnoxious, slob-like, untalented, greasy and gross.
A few years later, I was on the phone from London with its bassist to see if he wanted to counter any of that. “Well, we’ve never been unpleasant to stand next to or anything,” he replied. “It’s one of those things where people think if you’ve got long hair and a leather jacket you automatically never visit the bathroom, which patently isn’t true.”
I think to myself: Would someone truly gross and obnoxious use the word patently?
“Our records probably stink,” he added helpfully, unable to resist the self-inflicted jibe. This band actually has made one of its selling points how much they’re hated by the native press. “But we’ve just been doing what we’ve always done, which is having fun with sound and making up songs we like to listen to. What we do is take small bits of everything around us. We’re probably influenced as much by Public Enemy as Jane’s Addiction, but we never set out to emulate anybody.”
5. When I last plugged into this band – that would have been autumn 1990 – they were at a crossroads. The lead singer-songwriter-guitarist, was proud of a sharp new album, but unsure as to whether the band should persevere. He was dissatisfied with drummer inability to keep the rhythm together; he was unhappy about the lukewarm response the band got when it opened a tour for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers the year before.
Why, then, were they on tour in 1991?
“It takes something as silly as for us to be told we’re wanted,” he told me. “You forget after a couple of years, especially after the last tour. You think maybe they won’t miss us. Finding out they wanna hear us makes us feel good. We are musicians and we do have a following – there’s not millions of them, but they really do love us and as long as they’re there, I think we’ll continue to play for them.”
He says they got a new, better, drummer – “finally, a guy who can play his kick drum. Took us 11 years but we got one. Which makes it a little more fun for all of us. I’m not gonna toot our own horn, but we’ve been playing better than we have in the past. Recently, at least.”
Does that have anything to do with the fact that the formerly and famously hard-drinking bunch was sober? “It’s more fun for some reason,’ he says. “I should have done this years ago. Sobriety is not easy, but not as tough as I would think. I have to focus more on what I’m doing and why I’m here which is to play for the fans. I’m making it so I don’t have any energy when we’re done.”
Still, he adds, even if they’re tighter, the ragtag element remains. “It depends who you compare it to. I mean, every song isn’t a fall-apart-garage-slop mess, but certainly Sting wouldn’t hire us to back him up.”
Answers: The song is “Voices Carry,” by ‘Til Tuesday. The speakers are Aimee Mann and Michael Hausmann. The band covering the song is Gang Green. 2. Paul Anka talking about Sid Vicious covering “My Way.” 3. Ginger Baker, once of Cream, and sideman to dozens after that, leading the Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion. 4. Richard March of Pop Will Eat Itself. 5) Paul Westerberg of the Replacements.
AUDIO: The Replacements’ last concert at Grant Park in Chicago, IL 7/4/91