Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the 22nd edition of Famous Quotes, a little quiz where the basic question remains: 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. Boston, 1979. I had an interview scheduled with this famous/notorious female singer after her set at a club. For various reasons, it didn’t happen. but she agreed to meet me at her hotel bar the following afternoon.
“I woke up three times,” the European-born singer told me, after we settled in over Bloody Marys, “and the last one was the best — I remained in a good mood. Sometimes you wake up and it’s really terrible … as if … the whole thing would collapse.”
She spoke as she sang — in a deep mournful voice that was simultaneously so expressive, and yet, so detached. She brought a sense of implied tragedy to many of her ideas, from the serious and profound to the innocuous. The previous night’s concert was not her best. She made all-too-frequent mistakes — forgetting lyrics, notes and passages; stopping songs in mid-stream to start them over. “I thought I was a total failure,” she said, (Despite that, I found her endearing as did the audience. They were rooting for her.)
She had been living in New York for a little over two months, after almost a year in Berlin. “I hate New York,” she said, but a moment later adds, “I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it either.”
She didn’t resolve the contradiction; I’m not sure she knew she made one. Silence.
What kind of mood are you in these days? I query. Do you see yourself as basically a happy person? (Stupid question, I know.)
“My mood has been … grouchy,” she answered spending over a minute searching for the right adjective. “I’ve been in a bad mood since I’ve been in New York. More or less. There have been days of exception.”
I look at her encouragingly, as she pauses, waiting for her to tell me about those exceptional days. She smiles ever so slightly and says she’s enjoying the cheddar cheese goldfish crackers in the dish on the table.
2. Blunt honesty and humility – not necessarily two things you’d attribute to rock stars who’ve been at the top of that world. This English band was all that and more in the early-mid ‘80s. And then it crashed. And then, a decade ago, they were on their way back – a new album and a a club tour, before it evolved into reborn fame and a large venue tour.
“We try to exercise humility at all times,” the bassist and main songwriter told me. “We’ve been written off a few times.”
I said, “You’ve written yourself off a few times, too.”
“Ha! Touché. Success came very early to us. Our first three albums were hugely successful and then we began this humiliating downslide where we lost our audience incrementally.”
I asked about the band’s original ethos and how it changed shape.
“There was something avant-garde and art-school about it that got hijacked by commercial success,” he said. “We became this pinup band that was only concerned with how to write another hit. It’s very seductive and can really take you off the path. We’ve questioned our own abilities and our own style along the way and we’ve tried a number of different things. I think [our new producer] got it right on this album – the art/commerce balance. He wanted us to get in touch with the style we all had in the early ‘80s before we became self-conscious.”
VIDEO: November 1979 TV Commercials
3. This Irish band “really is the best thing I’ve heard in an age,” singer Linda Thompson told me last year. Thompson, half of the famed, oft-dark 1974-1982 folk duo she formed with Richard, her then-husband, said “They make Richard and Linda Thompson sound cheery.”
It was early March of 2020 and this quartet was riding high, bolstered by scads of four-and-five-star reviews from the Irish and English press – Mojo, Uncut, Irish Times, Hot Press, the Guardian and Q. (They were about to embark upon a US tour that got scrapped because of COVID.)
This band does not make music for people with short attention spans or those in need of quick hits or short, sharp shocks. Their tempos are often slow, the tone somber and the songs lengthy. And although they’re generally tagged as a Celtic folk band, they may not be making music for the more traditional fans of that genre, either,
Another of their biggest fans, the Pogues tin whistle player/singer Spider Stacy, considered them “seriously bleak.”
I spoke with the band’s singer-guitarist on the phone from his Dublin home. The musician, who co-helms the band with his brother, was pleased by Stacy’s praise and had a laugh at the “bleak” comment. Then, he reasoned, “Yeah, I suppose that is, in part, quite true. When we showed the new album to our mother, she was like, ‘There are not many happy songs on it.’ It doesn’t particularly bother us if that balance isn’t quite there.”
While no one would confuse them for a band that lets the good times roll, he said that in concert, “If we’re playing a song that’s very downbeat or deals with a difficult topic, then maybe during the chat between songs we’ll be more relaxed. getting on board with the audience. We just try to be as honest as possible. This is exactly where we want to come from. The minute you start doing things for other people’s expectations, that’s dangerous. That’s not a road you want to go down.”
4. They were the New Wave party band of the ‘80s. One of the group’s three singers was talking to me last year about the early days, coming up from their Southern town to the big city. “In 1977, we went to New York and played Max’s Kansas City for the first time on December 12th, a Monday night, when nobody goes out. We didn’t make any money, but it was exciting. The Max’s people just stood all dressed in black, standing, posing next to the wall, smoking cigarettes, but luckily our friends came up to and they were dancing. Lux and Ivy from the Cramps were there and they loved us. There were 17 people in the audience. I think the total take was was $51 and we made $17 which was very punk. This was before we signed a record deal with Warner Brothers.
“I think that’s when we first felt we might make it, when we went to New York and found out Max’s Kansas City wanted us back and then CBGBs wanted us. We played where some of our idols played and thought this is really great. It snowballed and all of a sudden Sire Records president Seymour Stein was coming to our show, David Bowie was coming to our show and Keith Haring was coming to our show. Sid Vicious came to see us in New York and he told our manager how much he loved the show.”
5. Some have said her voice is that of an angel. She says she didn’t disagree with that when she was younger, but, now, she politely says “not anymore.” Music and activism have always gone hand in hand for her. Politics have helped make her a household name; her politics have gotten her in hot water. We were on the phone in August and were discussing life under the rule of the Orange Menace in the White House and what might happen in November of 2020.
“I think as long as we maintain a high bar of deniability and have practically no expectations, they are a part of all of our lives in a way they never have been before,” she says.
Meaning what? I asked.
“A deniability of the state of politics, starting in this country and the people who’ve picked it up around the world. We’re sort of the leadership of bullies – that’s the mildest thing to say. I’m going to hopefully put voting [registration] tables in the lobbies [at my concerts]. Mind you, it’s not my normal instinct to say ‘Everybody go vote,’ but at the moment” – she laughs slightly – “I would suggest people go and vote for a turnip before they go and vote for what would continue this death parade we’re on.”
1) Nico, 2) John Taylor of Duran Duran, 3) Daragh Lynch of Lankum, 4) Fred Schneider of the B-52’s, 5) Joan Baez.
VIDEO: Nico Live in Tokyo 1986