Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the 24th 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, at a restaurant, backstage.
1. The lanky, Australian-born singer has made a mark with two great bands with songs are full of tension, conflict and violence; yet, there can be a majestic, redemptive sweep as well, especially in that second band. But, as we’re talking in 1992, I ask, about this about his music: Why all the damage and bloodshed?
“Well, there are certain things that excite me to write about or read or watch in films and violence is one of them,” he says. “If it’s well-filmed or well-written, it can make the blood come faster. I like to write that way, to write violent words is an exhilarating thing for me. In America, my music is generally considered dark, depressing music. I think that even if my music is considered relentlessly dark, there is a calming element. In Europe, I think people are starting to understand that there is a very healthy sense of humor in there, a kind of bright light that shines through these songs.”
I admit I hadn’t heard the humorous undercurrent much and voiced the thought that, at least, in song you wouldn’t think that’s his currency.
“Well,” he says, with a slight laugh, “I think there is a certain amount of perversity in my music in that I continue, you know, to eat at the same ball of vomit year after year. There is something that’s kind of funny there.”
After a record is completed … “I’m so disgusted with music after I’ve made a record, I just don’t want to have anything to do with it. I’m exhausted by it. It’s a bit like, um,” he says, with a pause and a chuckle, “having a lot of sex and then the idea of having it again for a while is kind of nauseating. You have to wait for the desire to come back again.”
2. There were critics – well, there was at least me – who in the late 90s thought of this one-named singer as sort of the “White Prince.”
In 1997, I asked him if that was close to the mark. He loved Prince and laughed. “I’m the artist currently known as [name withheld],” the man says, dryly. Which is a small joke on the name game played by The Artist Formerly Known as Prince at the time.
“There’s something about the one-name thing, and there’s a tradition of that,” he continues. “It’s acceptable and people like it because they’re not sure if it’s a person or a band or what kind of entity. It’s a little more nebulous. People are always asking me if I’m the lead singer in [name withheld]. But I think with the next album we’ll be coming out with my full name: [name withheld] [name withheld] Mellencamp,” he says. “I don’t think it’s commercially viable, but I think my real fans will appreciate it.”
3. A couple of years ago, I was asking this guitarist-singer from a still-going still-great New Jersey new wave band what it was like back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. “In looking back,” he said, “it really was a great time for a young musician. The doors were wide open. And literally. There were a number of venues, some with staying power and some short-lived, and with their support they played a vital role in helping to foster a new period of creativity. The music was quite eclectic and the possibilities did seem endless.
“It was common for [our band] to share a bill with anyone from Suicide to Wayne County. There was also a great sense of community, even though at times we preferred to keep some distance from it. Our manager, would introduce us to those who were on the scene at the time, from the guys in Television, the Void Oids, and so many others. Being part of a second wave of musicians, it did make us feel welcome and a part of something special. It was a pleasure to meet Alex Chilton, who recognizing us as a young band, offered some friendly and sobering advice to both [the co-singer-guitarist] and I backstage at CBGB’s.
Other inspiring moments … “Musically, seeing the Talking Heads many times as a three piece with Tina’s great bass playing, and now thinking about all the women she inspired to pick up that instrument. Television, with Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd’s intricate interplay, and seeing the mesmerizing, energetic playing of [Void Oids and Lou Reed guitarist] Bob Quine. Music that lasted and left a lasting impression. These were exciting and inspiring times, particularly juxtaposed with what was going on in the mainstream.”
VIDEO: 1977 Columbia House commercial
4. She was one of the hottest and most lacerating singer-songwriter-guitarists during the early-mid- ‘90s in England. (Note: She’s still hot; saw her four years ago in Boston at House of Blues and she and her band delivered the best concert of the year.) Her music in the ‘90s – and still is today to a degree – was positioned somewhere amidst a Venn Diagram of punk, blues and art-rock. And it included a fair amount anger – violent and sexual imagery.
“A lot of that comes from the music I spent most of my time listening to,” she told me in 1993. “A lot of old musicians like Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, whose lyrics are shocking, who just make my work seem so tame and make me want to produce something that’s much more hard-hitting. I find their music so exhilarating and challenging and so near the mark – and horrifying a lot of the time but also very funny.”
The singer, who considers (or confronts) sexuality in a graphic and sometimes disquieting fashion, said, “I think it’s one of the most potent subjects that anyone can deal with, one of the most intriguing emotions. I want to explore it all the time. I don’t think I’ve had a rougher time than anyone else. I don’t know. I’ve never been anyone else.”
5. Forty years ago, this pixie-esque Scottish pop singer, then 22-years-old, had a huge hit, No. 1 in America, Canada Australia and New Zealand and No. 3 in the UK. Feminism was on the rise – post-punk music and bands like the Slits, Au Pairs, Bush Tetras, Delta 5 and Raincoats made that clear in the rock world – but this song was about … a woman who waits at home for her man to come home from work. The song is carried along the stream of not-a-care-in-the-world melody and powered by an infectious refrain. She irons his pants Very contentedly. The only time she’s happy is when he’s with her.
Feminists were not happy. (I’m a guy, but I count myself in that group.)
“I’m a pop singer,” she told me, in the spring of 1982. “I don’t make any pretensions to be anything else.”
Fact is, she was a career woman. “I don’t relax any,” she said, talking about her meteoric rise from relative obscurity. “If anything, I work harder. All success means is you’ve got to keep on working. I’m on the road 99 percent of the year, literally.”
Here, the distinct lines were drawn. There was the self-assured, aggressive go-getter, and the pop singer who, she said, plays roles. “Everyone knows that a performer is playing a role,” she said.
What about celebrating the attitude of that song?
She bristled. “I have not encountered criticism by anyone who is actually a true thinking person. I’ve only encountered criticism from people who are fishing around for feminist viewpoints. I do not make any sort of comment in my songs about me as a person.”
1) Nick Cave, 2) Beck, 3) Bill Million of the Feelies, 4) PJ Harvey, 5) Sheena Easton on the song “9 to 5 (Morning Train).”
VIDEO: Sheena Easton “9 To 5 (Morning Train)”