Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the 26th 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. It’s 1991 and this hit-making English duo is on the verge of a highly theatrical, multi-costumed, multimedia, money-losing extravaganza, helmed by a former Pink Floyd production whiz who, the lead singer and co-songwriter chuckles, finds it “a complete nightmare. And that makes it exciting. We always thought that it wouldn’t be particularly interesting for us, or maybe for the audience, to just go out and do our songs in a regular concert format. [My partner] and I have always thought a majority of concerts we’ve been to haven’t held one’s interest all the way through, and we always wanted to do a concert where there was always something happening, where it didn’t flag after 10 minutes. That was, basically, why we decided to go down the theatrical path.”
They also penned a song that poked at self-righteous pop stars and the highfalutin Rock and Roll Hall of Fame mentality. It was born, he says, out of “anger and the absurdity of it all – that rock and pop has to carry this weight of history with it, that it’s already a museum piece. Things like this are making it not a living thing. I almost think in America rock is ceasing to be the music for a younger generation – it’s the music of the 1960s and if it doesn’t relate to the 1960s a lot of people in the music business distrust it. The ‘hot’ new band is in their middle-30s, like R.E.M. It seems a series of imitations of old gestures and phrases.”
“We always try to do things differently or provocatively,” he adds. “I think we have quite a lot of content in what we do. At the same time, we don’t put out banal records and then do long interviews demanding to be taken seriously.”
2. Again, it’s 1991. This woman’s band had ridden high, ridden low. Right now, and they’re on a high, as a sexy auto-erotic single hit No. 1 in their native Australia, and became a top tenner here in the States.
“You have your ups and downs like any human being does,” the singer explained to me, about trying to maintain equilibrium. “And with whatever you do, sometimes you have a good run with your creativity, and other times you’ve got nothing to say. As soon as we got dropped from [our record label], we went straight to Paris and had sort of a good time. We co-wrote with some people, which was fun ’cause that opens you up and gives you a different perspective. And, I suppose, we’d been disappointed so many times [with the lack of commercial success], you kind of just make music ’cause you enjoy making music.”
The group signed with another label and recorded their fourth album in eight years in 1990. Then, improbably enough, the single gained them a spot in the mainstream. “We’ve been fortunate to have success with this song, which enables us, hopefully, to continue and to pay our bills,” she said.
Why though, despite their strong, sexy music and hard rock-pop hooks, did the band fall between the cracks for so long?
“We’re quite eclectic,” she reasoned. “We’ve always been, basically, a rock ‘n’ roll band, but we came out of the early ’80s, and my performance was, I suppose, quite aggressive and sexually energetic and wild and. . . . It’s hard for me to describe myself, you just do it. We had melody in our music, but we’re very loud and kind of boisterous. We’re a song band, but we’ve got guitars, and we have a pop thing about us. Radio likes us. It’s all these different elements.”
VIDEO: 1986 Crazy Eddie Record Sale Commercial
3. It’s 1979 and the singer, 25, is sitting with me backstage at the Paradise club in Boston. He was in a band for a few years, a rather notorious one – a love ‘em or hate ‘em bunch – but he’s now looking at some semblance of mainstream success as a solo act with backing band. The club is packed; the set is rocking, uplifting.
Looking back, he muses, of his prior band, “We were colloquially naive, like we thought that maybe everybody had a sense of humor like New York. In New York everybody loved our first album cover, but we never thought beyond that – that people around the rest of the country would get flipped out by something like that, that it’d offend them. They had this machismo thing that they took very seriously.”
“Everybody had a part to play. It was like a play in progress that was evolving. We were out to be a complete package artistically – an art package. You’ve got to remember: we didn’t come from the school of corporate trust. We came from the 14th Street art school. People say the [our band] was a failure, because they think that commercially if you don’t make a zillion dollars, you’re a failure. That’s not where it was at. We did it to prove something artistically through rock ‘n’ roll. It took two albums to do it. … We all benefitted from it to varying degrees. From there I took off to be a rock musician. I appreciate the freedom [now], but it’s not like I was yearning for it before. I wasn’t aware of it. It’s not like I was limited with the [other band]. I was just, like, learning. I didn’t know I could sing a ballad or a love song.”
4. He’s the longtime guitarist for and collaborator with one of the most influential female singers of our generation, a woman who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nearly 15 years ago. He’s working on a book about great scenes in certain cities throughout the history of rock. And he’s talking to me two-and-a-half years ago about what it means to be doing this job for more than four decades, how they approach a set every night.
“As an artist,” he says. “I don’t feel like we’re ‘greatest hits of the 70s’ – we weren’t greatest hits then [either], We’ve always been a little idiosyncratic, following our own sense of mission and beyond style. I think when you have too rigid a definition of style you trap yourself within your era. We’ve been able to maneuver backwards and forwards and take the best of who we’ve been and convert it into who we understand we are now. When you play music for 45 years, you understand yourself as a musician. I don’t think melodically different now, but I know how to express it, how to interpret it and how to make it communicate and that’s a blessing to be able to do this as an older musician. We perform all over the world and [the singer] is in the total vortex of performance. The way [she] describes and the way I like to describe it is this: We like to work.”
5. It’s 1992, six years after a Time magazine cover story, and the singer-songwriter has left one of the most successful bands of the new wave world, and gone out under his own name. As we know, the winds of pop music and culture blow in fast, furious and funny ways. Consider at least one current impression. A colleague was interviewing the editor of Blast, an upstart magazine aimed at twentysomething rock fans, and the editor explained to him, “Our magazine is for the generation that doesn’t think [this man’s band] and [the singer] is the coolest thing.” As in: That’s another (older) generation’s version of hip.
Ouch, it would seem. So: “Ouch?” I ask of the singer, on the phone, before he brings his big new band to town.
“Well, it’s kind of flattering to think that we’re some kind of signpost,” he says. “Some sort of line of demarcation or a Mason-Dixon Line or something to that effect.”
But does it hurt?
“I really don’t give a shit,” he responds. “I play the music that I think moves me or feels right to me. I’m not shooting for some kind of market. I’m not trying to do something that doesn’t feel like it’s from my heart. That’s what I do and if nobody in the world likes it, well, I’ll get another job. It’s the only way anybody can really work.”
Answers: Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys, the song in question being “How Do You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?” 2) Christina Amphlett of Divinyls, 3) David Johansen on the New York Dolls and going solo, 4) Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group, 5) David Byrne, no longer of Talking Heads.
AUDIO: David Johansen Group “Frenchette”