Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the 18th 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 the mid- ‘80s and this famous guitarist-singer is taking a break from his chart-topping band, releasing a solo album and embarking upon a tour. He confesses to a certain isolation from the current music scene. “I’ve been out of touch, to be quite honest,” he admits when asked his opinion on a particular post-punk band. But he claims that his reclusiveness allows him to easily mix with people, a freedom other pop stars don’t have.
“If you look at us,” he says, of his main band, “you only see some sort of public image, the amount that we let out. And that’s an image of privacy and stuff, but what that gives me is the ability to not be at all private in my life. It means I can go out shopping any place, I can go to Portobello marketplace on a Saturday morning, which is teeming with people and never have any problem. And what that means is I’m actually more in touch with what’s going on around me than a lot of other people in my sort of position, who are a lot more public in their image.”
For fun, he says he regularly plays with friends in London pub bands.
“I have normally written a fair bit of the music that [my main band] does,” he says, “but I’m not a very prolific lyric writer; if there’s a credit for me it just means I wrote the music.” Like his songwriting partner, he often floats depressing or distressing ideas over some imaginative rock ‘n’ roll – music that ranges between pastoral calm and churning hard rock. That solo album is not what one would call a cheerful album.
“Sometimes I’m dealing with fairly depressing topics,” he says, “but at the same time, my idea is the music will be uplifting. That sort of combination is something I try to work on. [My partner in my main band] addresses himself to whole problems in life and then tries to expand and broaden that and make a whole album fit around that sort of idea. He wants to explore that idea in very, very, very great depth from many angles, which I don’t have any disagreement with. But I mean there are moments when I personally would not make some of the things quite so preachy and complaining. Those things I don’t like to do.”
2. “You can’t be the king of college rock every season,” mused the singer-songwriter-rhythm guitarist for one of the biggest alt-rock band to explode onto the international scene during the early-mid ‘90s. We were speaking in 1998.
But he’s on hiatus now … and the mega-buzz is not there. “I accept my niche . . . my little cult career,” he says from a New England tour stop. What this artist had done was carve out a smaller-scale solo career, something he’d actually started five years prior. He and his new bunch just put an album out in Europe but, despite the success of his main band, he did not have a label here in his home country.
“Good question,” he said, from a tour stop. “We’ve certainly talked to many labels in the past six months and it seems to fall apart at the last minute or the first minute.” Part of the problem, he admitted, is that as a successful veteran rocker he didn’t want to be paid rookie wages. “I could have gotten a deal six months ago, no problem,” he said, “but if you’re hip to how it all works, you don’t want to work for rock minimum wage. You hold out for a fair shake. I’m sort of enjoying the struggle.”
And there’s this: He figures part of the labels’ reluctance to take a chance is “for a 30-something guy – I’m 33 – who’s been doing it for 10 years, I think they would prefer to hear a slicker product. If this was my first record, they’d be real happy. They want the angle to be: I went into the studio with [a well-known producer] and turned out a ‘mature, coming of age, or middle age,’ album. Overshadowing that, is, basically, it’s the music business and it’s about money and they don’t think they can make enough money off it. . .. But even my biggest flop, my last record, I made plenty of money off it and they made money off it.”
3. When his very famous band splintered in 1970, all four members went on to release solo work solo career. There was certainly the feeling that three of them would be successful – they were all well-known songwriters and singers after all – but what about the fourth? We talked in 2010.
“After we split up,” he said, “I made the [my first solo] album and I was like the biggest selling [of all four]! Ha-ha-ha-ha! But we didn’t get too involved in what everybody talked about. We just kept doing what we did.”
He continued to make albums and tour regularly – put together a rock ‘n’ roll roadshow – and also carved out a side career as a visual artist. I asked how he’d describe theme of his artistry, the color and the composition.
“It’s very colorful and naïve,” he said.
“Have you looked at it? A three-year-old could do it. But it’s for charity. That’s why I do it. It’s well worth me taking the time because it ends up in a good space. It’s not like I’m making a fortune. All my end goes to my multi-purpose charity. It is multi-purpose. [His foundation supports various social welfare programs.]
VIDEO: WNBC-TV 11PM News April 1981
4. You can see him now on HBO now in a mixed-media sort of limited series, but you knew him first as a lanky, sometimes irascible New Yorker, finding an audience with avant-jazz and no wave/post-punk fans in the ‘80s. His band was a progressive-minded, genre-busting band, capable of creating an emotionally rich instrumental journey, one that ranged from quiet and contemplative to cacophonous and careening.
The best music, he told me in 1998, “has always been the music that’s in the air for your time and you actualize it through instruments. … The music is beautiful and real. The rhythm stuff is almost always figured out, but there’s tons of room for improvisation. It’s like there’s different plateaus and different sections behind the soloist, developing stuff. The best thing about this band — and I know this is going to look corny on the page — but there’s so much love in this band.” ”
The goal? In concert, he said, “You want the audience to be hypnotized, then moved to feel the sexuality and the humor of it at all different phases.”
5. Bass guitar as a lead instrument? This band leader can step right up to the John Entwistle Stage. “That’s my tool, my line of communication, my medium,” he told me in the late ‘90s, “and because I write the tunes, it’s going to be a little heavy in that department. As a young guy I was one of those who got into fusion and funk, the whole muso thing. I was one of those guys who played too damn much and nobody wanted to play with me. What taught me to lock down was playing in this R & B band for three years. I learned not to be such a noodler. That happens with a lot of young players – it’s quantity as opposed to quality.”
Of course, there are those who would argue he still overplays his hand. He laughs and easily slips into a detractor’s view: ” ‘What do you mean?! The guy hasn’t learned to lock down yet!’ “
His band has had theater-packing mainstream success, but he says, “I see myself as not being in the mainstream. People have tried to analyze what we’re doing for years. The only thing I can say is even as a kid I was never into pop culture – I never watch MTV; I never even had MTV till they started playing us. I’ve always been attracted to things that were obscure and different, in film and literature, too. I find myself flipping the channel on the radio dial. ‘How come I can’t sit there and listen to this station for hours on end? Am I getting old and jaded?’ But I was never into it as a kid or teenager either.”
Answers: David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, 2) Charles Thompson IV, aka Black Francis, aka Frank Black of Pixies. The producer spoken of: Daniel Lanois, 3) Ringo Starr of The Beatles, 4) John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards, 5) Les Claypool of Primus.
VIDEO: Ringo Starr “Here’s To The Nights”