Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
The 19th 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. Few first-generation punk bands were known for a twin guitar attack. This one was, and the guy pretty much always referred to as the second guitarist has not always been happy over the years about some of the perceptions. There’s the who played what part issue and the songwriting on their classic first album: It’s all credited to guitarist No. 1.
“Some of the songs [on that album] are in contention and they have been since the beginning,” guitarist No. 2 tells me. “The sweetest songs on the first two records are both credited to me in the original pressing and it suddenly got switched to just [him] and that was a big dilemma. There’s nothing I could do beyond suing the guy and I’m not very litigious and he just laughs it off, makes a big joke out of it.
So, animosity? “We have a very sweet relationship and it’s based on humor. He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. And I guess I am, too, because we get along humorously, but I guess when it comes down to business, if you bring this up, he just makes jokes of it. If you press him, he puts his foot down and get angry. He thinks the song is nothing but the words and melody – the top line – and that’s not what a song is anymore – especially when you spend a year-and-a-half with a guy changing the song and looking for parts for everybody. It was a collaborative effort and it was a band.”
2. They were one of the best pop/new wave bands to break out of England’s punk rock din in the late-‘70s. But they broke up in ’82, re-formed in ’85, broke up in ’99, and re-formed in ’07. They’d been playing the hits on tour, but in 2015 actually had a new album to tour and promote. Thus, some excitement.
I asked one of the co-leaders, a singer-songwriter-guitarist, about when the creativity first started to sputter.
“I think it happened quite early,” he told me. “I don’t think we were as consistent, anything past 1982. And I think that process went right up to the last album [in 1998]. There was always good stuff, but it sort of somehow lost our sense of, you know, going for it properly.”
Was there pressure? “The only pressure is to deliver and not take our eye off the ball,” he said. “We’ve been firmly focused on this for what feels like about ten years now and I’m really proud of it. It’s ‘Let’s make it count every time and not get sloppy about it.” It worked out that we spent a lot of time, the first three months of the recording process wasn’t recording, and it was sitting in rooms. Funny enough, we weren’t in the same rooms; we were in adjacent rooms with a door open and we’d be working on our respective stuff and it worked out really great that way.”
As far as competing with their storied past, he said, “That’s one of those things I really wouldn’t think about except you’re involving the name [of the band] so it comes with a certain set of expectations. I suggested to [my partner] that we do a record under a different name, but why would we do that? The only reason to do that would be to do something very different. And actually, then you would find your way back to what the next version of [our band] is going to be like. It wouldn’t make any sense.”
3. He’d been up, he’d been down, but in 1993 he was riding a new wave, bolstered by an array of new-ish artists citing his music as a major influence. His music was often dark and disturbing, both intimate and grand, poetic and probing. I was asking him, on the phone, where he was coming from now, as he was just about to hit 60.
“I think as you get older that broad base, the range, gets very, very wide,” he said. “You become more tolerant and more crotchety at the same time. More open and more critical. I think the confessional nature contracts at one end and opens at the other. You’re willing to confess to yourself that you really do hate mankind, and, at another point, you’re really willing to confess to yourself that you do feel a deep sense of fraternity with the whole human manifestation.”
Ah, but the painstaking process in making his latest album … Writing songs was, he said, as usual, “the dismal process of trying to blacken a page, or trying to find a rhyme for orange — that impossible goal. You’re very much like a bear having stumbled into a honeycomb: You know there’s honey around, but there’s a million bees biting you and you’re trying to get them out of your eyes and your ears and trying to taste the honey at the same time, and the whole thing is a disaster.”
VIDEO: WPIX-11 Commercial Break 1978
4. For a spell in the mid-1990s, she was an “it girl,” the darling of alt-rock nation, a twenty-something woman whose music was featured on MTV and whose face was splashed on the cover of hip rock magazines.
It wasn’t the most pleasant of times for the Boston-based singer-guitarist, even if she believed in her music, both the band she’d formed in 1986 and her solo career.
“I thought what I was doing was really important and the whole world was going to be blown away by it,” she said, with a laugh six years ago, admitting that in that first band everyone was just learning their instruments. “I was delusional, but I had to believe it in order to be able to do it.”
Her big alt-rock hit came in 1993. And so … people wanted to talk to her. “I’m not a very enthusiastic self-promoter. I was so deeply uncomfortable with being an object, with being the subject of a photo shoot, a visual object. I didn’t really know how to deal with that sort of attention. I know people who do what I do and really love the attention and know how to manipulate it and have fun with it and use it to their advantage, to present themselves in a way that makes them really cool, but I can never figure it out. I envied people like Billy Idol who had this image: Spike the hair, lip snarl, throw on a leather jacket, boom! you’re done.
“I didn’t know how I wanted to be perceived,” she continued. “I felt like a very complicated person and I didn’t know how to simplify it in something that could be presented over and over again, or digestible. I guess I wanted to be seen as a complex personality, but that’s not easily translatable. I was a very confused, very miserable person.”
5. He may not be the first musician you think of when it comes to New Orleans. But in 2018 he told me, “My whole identity is wrapped up in New Orleans. The way I think about music and food, the way I interact with people. Those are very specific to New Orleans, the way we celebrate life. When you’re in high school and you hear a parade going down the street, you just don’t hear that in every city. It’s a unique experience and those are the things that are normal to me which I continue to think are normal and share with people on the stage. And sometimes I have to realize not everybody grew up like that. It’s a culture where things are celebrated a lot – like Mardi Gras and all kinds of music festivals. It’s hard to describe the influence that New Orleans has had on me but everything I do, one way or another, can be traced back there for sure.
His early work was straight-ahead New Orleans jazz and stride piano but then he became known more as a pop crooner. “Well, we played a lot of different kinds of music in New Orleans,” he said. “You could show up at a gig and be playing funk music or R&B or jazz and as a jazz musician the repertoire is the great American songbook, that’s just what we grew up playing. Not the traditional jazz side of it but the modern jazz side of it. If you listen to any Miles [Davis] or Herbie [Hancock] record or Louis Armstrong, that’s what you’re listening to, that’s what they’re doing. They’re playing those tunes and arranging them in whatever way that they did. It was about interpreting songs. It wasn’t about “I’m going do a Frank Sinatra song or I’m going to do a Nat Cole song.” These are great songs and to this day I think they’re the best songs that have ever been written. In terms of songwriting, it’s hard to top that particular age of American songwriters.”
Answers: 1) Richard Lloyd of Television, 2) Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze, 3) Leonard Cohen, 4) Juliana Hatfield, 5) Harry Connick Jr.
VIDEO: Television at CBGB 12/27/1976