Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the 25th 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. We were backstage at the Paradise Theater in Boston, Dean Johnson and me, writers/editors at the Boston music magazine Sweet Potato. We were sitting down having a lively chat with this effusive, gregarious Southern rock bandleader, a singer-guitarist who’d just released his first solo album and played a gig on his first solo tour (with a backup band, of course.) It was June, 1979.
His career, I ventured, had been a rollercoaster of a ride. “Up sideways, down,’” he agreed, adding, with a laugh, “I figure it’s lonely at the top, and I figure with all the money I’ve made if I can have a band like I played with tonight, who cares if I’m moving sideways, up, down, backwards or anything? It’s more fun than I’ve had in long time. I’m getting off on it. [I’m] happy to be there because even with the mistakes it feels good … With [my previous band] I couldn’t always be sure that everyone’s attention was on the singer. To me, you have a song, you have a singer, and he has to demonstrate it with his voice… and if he has to sing out of character it’s a big drag. Now, the attention is on what the song’s all about — whether it be a horn solo or a piano solo — the focus of everybody there is not to stand out in front and go, ‘Yeow! Boy, can I play!’
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that [the previous band] won’t ever get back together again, and it may not get together again with the same personnel, but as far as I’m concerned it may be a break and it maybe will happen again… I have to say that if I owned property and a musician came up to me and wanted to rent a house from me… No way. The walls would be punched in, and the sink would be filled with grease, and all the pipes would be clogged up, you know?
“Originally, musicians were provided for by society, and they lived in a little house off by themselves in Greece and played Pythagorean scales, or whatever the heck they played [I think he meant pentatonic]. And they didn’t own possessions. At one point somebody said, ‘Hey, I’m bad. Dig this,’ and played Bach. ‘I’m Bach. Wow!’ It began to evolve out of the church-oriented, monkish, monasterial, Gregorian attitude into something to draw people into the church. And they said, ‘This is glorious,’ and the people came to the church to hear the music. ‘C’mon and dig. Boogie.’ And that evolved into governments, monarchies and churches and provided an income for musicians aside from a patron. And here we are today watching me sing ‘da bluz’ with a ‘z.’ That evolution is really fantastic.”
Nine days after we spoke, the man was dead. Heart attack caused by an accidental cocaine overdose.
2. It was 1989 and I was in Lakeland, Florida doing a big takeout piece on a very big metal band. Three years prior, they were nowhere near as huge – more of a underground secret – but with their fourth album they crashed the mainstream. What they wrote and sang about had hit home: Bone crushing riffs and lyrics that addressed a world in turmoil. Nuclear devastation, personal isolation, drug addiction, misplaced justice, bogus faith healers, capital punishment and gut-level, day-to-day frustration all figured in.
“The world is a dark place,” explained one of their two guitarists. “It isn’t a picnic, and a lot of people don’t like to see that in their music. They like to see it as a wonderful place. Come on, wake up and smell the coffee.”
“We’ve written about death and dying in a lot of different ways,” picked up the drummer-songwriter.
“We don’t sing about flowers and happy things very much,” said the bassist.
“There’s a lot of negative,” said the lead singer-guitarist. “I’m writing about life as I see it. I look at the news every chance I get. I used to hate reading; now I get into it.”
But if you spend any time offstage with the band, and you’ll spot its humor. “We’re basically pretty cheerful people,” said that first guitarist. “We all have a good sense of humor, and we don’t walk around with a dark cloud raining on us all the time.”
VIDEO: 1981 Musicland ad
3. This Boston rock singer was a veteran of two bands, the latter signed to a major label. The second band’s debut album was touted by Circus magazine as “the greatest debut album ever produced by a US rock band.” But by mid-1979, that was over. The sales didn’t match the acclaim and the singer broke up the band. He also found himself without a record deal and without any record company interest.
“I started to question whether I knew what was going on,” he says, when we meet up in August of 1981. “I’ve never changed too much. I’ve always been kind of true to my roots or whatever. I started to wonder if maybe what I’m into isn’t happening. But there wasn’t anything else I could do. When new wave came out people were cutting their hair and spiking it and all that…”
He was more a Led Zeppelin than Sex Pistols kinda guy.
“I’m basically as cocky and arrogant as I ever was,” he told me. That’ll probably never change. I was trying to convince them that I know what I’m doing: ‘Give me a chance’.”
One major label did. He had a huge hit with his second solo album and a single that he’s still identified with. He headlined multi-thousand-seat arenas in the Midwest and is well on his way to success across America and in Europe. In Boston, he was playing a smaller venue – a 1500-capacity club, a treat for the locals. After the gig, he says, he’d be packing up his home (two suitcases) and leave for a brief Canadian tour. The demands on his time, he says, are escalating.
Too many things to juggle?
“Well, it’s better too many than not enough,” he says, smiling.
4. He’s a veteran folk-singer/songwriter and the father of a more famous pop singer, as well. He’s made a creative life weaving fact and fiction, but often drawing upon his own travails or the travails of his family to paint some painfully poignant family portraits. And more than a few self-lacerating ones. And then, there’s the funny stuff.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a switch-hitter,” he told me in August of 2018. “I can do the dark and the light, and I enjoy doing both. I still enjoy singing the stupid, goofy novelty song – and I’m still writing them – and on the other hand I’m still writing more dark, serious, hopefully revealing songs.
“I don’t know how to characterize it. They’re just songs from my cheesy little life. I’ve never made any bones about the fact that my stuff is autobiographical. It’s not blow-by-blow. I use hyperbole or compression, various techniques to make it a three-minute song, but the source material has been my life and the people in it.
He was approaching an early 70s birthday and I asked what he gained and lost over the years?
“There’s all kinds of things I can’t do anymore or as much. That’s a kind of loss. You can use your imagination as to what those things might be. On the positive side of the ledger, I’m a little more relaxed and not desperate to prove things. I’m not in competition with myself as much as a I used to be, as driven.”
1) Lowell George, 2) Metallica: Quotes in order – Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Jason Newsted and Hammett again, 3) Billy Squier (former band Piper. Solo hit “The Stroke”), 4) Loudon Wainwright III
AUDIO: Lowell George at the Paradise Theatre in Boston, MA 6/20/79