Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the 29th 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 singer is 82 now, still in fine voice. Known as an astute seeker of songs and a superb interpreter of them, we spoke in 2015. Not awkwardly, I raised the topic of stepping back from the stage – that is, retirement and resting on many laurels. She does not take umbrage at the thought, but says, “They’ll have to carry me out of there. Fate intervenes with anything you think you might be in charge of so I’m not in charge. But you have to act as if you are. I know what I need to do. I have a plan. I know what’s up and there are a lot of things that I do that I couldn’t live without. I have to meditate, I have to exercise. I think exercise is the secret fountain of youth. When I get done, I want to be all finished. I want to be all worked up, all used up.”
Then, noting she certainly had some sad songs in her repertoire, I asked if she went there emotionally when she sang them or remained at a remove.
“You can’t sing a song about a drunk if you’re drunk, that’s my motto,” she tells me. “Everything you do in public you must practice first in private and get to the point where the audience is the one who’s wrapped in tears. Of course, you’re emotional about it, but you’re not falling apart. The reason some of these songs are chosen is because they wrack you. You’re a disaster when you hear them but you can’t be that on the stage. I’m a great believer in the distance between what’s going on with the audience and what’s going on with you. You want to make them break down, fall apart and wail; you don’t want to do that yourself.”
2. This synth-rocker had a top 10 hit in the United States – it was No. 1 in his native England – and in his homeland he remained a top 10 hit maker through 1982. We met up during his first US tour and talked before a gig at the Harvard Square Theater, where he and his band performed within large stacked, illuminated boxes, like a rock and roll Hollywood Squares.
In 2017, we talked again. Now, his music often had pop elements in it, but his was a worldview that would never have been called cheery. He’d just released an album, his 18th studio solo album, and its subject matter was rather bleak and the music quasi-assaultive. I wondered if such dystopia was a risk.
VIDEO: 1985 Sam Goody commercial
“It does look at an unpleasant future, but it doesn’t have a massive risk for me,” he says. “A small one, yes, but I think people who follow me and know other records I’ve made know it’s probably going to be dark and it just might be about different dark things than what I wrote about last time.”
And for all the layers of synthesizers and guitars, there is melody coursing through it all. I asked about how the music was built. “I’m pretty good at tunes,” he says. “It’s the melody and the structure and the arrangement. You get that sorted out [when you write] and that’s the heart and soul of it, really. I’ll add layers and the idea of that is to give the producer I work with a very clear sense of direction. And not all those parts need to be kept, but that will tell him how I want those melodies to be taken, the feel of the song, the vibe, the atmosphere I want around it. You think of the melody as the bone structure of the song and then everything else is like the skin – the look and the beauty of it. That’s pretty much the way I see it. I do the bones. I’m the bone man.”
3. It was 1993 and I was having dinner at a seafood restaurant in Boston with the famous ex-wife/ex-manager of a famous English rock star. She’d just published her memoir, where she wrote about her dozens of affairs with the rockin’ rich and famous – men and women – and admitted to being part of all sorts of threesomes, foursomes and fivesomes. It was a dizzy, dazzling, highly sexed life. Yet, over dinner at least, she was reticent to get real down ‘n’ dirty.
“I have a problem,” she said, “with being very outspoken. I’m very ladylike. I get very offended by people taking liberties or being vulgar in a way I find offensive.” She added that at a country club party recently one man spotted her, assumed the obvious and started talking about blow job scenarios. She was not amused. ” `Let me be clear with you,’ ” she said she told the man. ” `I have never been involved with that, so if you think you’re making me laugh, you’re not.’ He was just, like, dumbfounded.”
I guess I would have been, too, given what’s in the book – that sex, in every way, shape and form was part of the common rock ‘n’ roll currency during the 1960s and ’70s. Maybe the chap was just assuming too much familiarity, assuming her history.
In the book, she described her ex this: “A friend-abusing, sense-mangling, money-bleeding, full-fledged Vampire of Velocity. Like coke addicts long before and after him, he’d learned to travel far and fast, to keep his mind spinning in tight little circles even when standing perfectly still, to arrange an existence almost entirely devoid of daylight, to assume a worldview of utter paranoia (in his case, no great stretch), and to start slowly sucking the life out of everybody close to him.”
Was she, say, a tad vengeful?
“Vengeful? No, not at all,” she said. “Did you feel that way?”
Uh, yeah, in places. Certainly, there’s anger and bitterness.
“I don’t think there’s any bitterness. If something is nasty, how can that be bitter? Being throttled isn’t particularly pleasant. Talking about it is not being bitter, it’s telling the truth. It’s got nothing to do with being bitter.”
1) Judy Collins, 2) Gary Numan 3) Angela Bowie
VIDEO: Gary Numan “My Name Is Ruin”