Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the third installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the third edition of Famous Quotes: A little quiz where the basic question is: Who said this?
It’s a deep dive into my archives of published and non-published quotes, culled from 40+ years of yakking with rock ‘n’ rollers of all stripes – on the phone, in a bar, backstage.
1) It’s 1980 and I’m at the Paradise rock club in Boston.
The singer-songwriter-bassist on stage has a pressing concern. “Is everybody getting enough to drink?” he asked figuring, perhaps, as the party’s host, he might have neglected a few details. It would seem he is. Despite a small crowd, the spirits – alcoholic and otherwise – were flowing in abundance. Playing with a band, the singer treated the club as his living room and spent the evening playing songs to a few friends and walking the tightrope between seriousness and absurdity. He fell off on the absurd side more than a few times.
Backstage, surrounded by a few friends, he said, “I have come to party, and this is but the first stage of what a good time can be!” As he downed beers, he philosophized about alcoholism: “An unsuccessful alcoholic doesn’t have any fun; a successful alcoholic looks forward to not having any fun.” Later, he unflinchingly let a flame from his cigarette lighter lick his outstretched palm. His final move was to collect the leftover beer in a plastic trash bag and haul it off with him to a new frontier.
2) I’m in Chicago, 1981.
The singer-songwriter’s band was in the midst of a major comeback tour – a hit band all over again, playing arenas. He, however, had a fever, feeling the hazy effects of a flu as he drank tea in his hotel room. He was in a confessional mode and talking about how he’d professionally mistreated women, including his former wife by not giving her credit for singing backup on one of the band’s big hits. He brightened some, though, adding “But at least I don’t stick Mars bars up my girlfriend’s arse like Mick Jagger.”
3.) I’m in Detroit, 1988, another hotel room.
The singer-songwriter has been a long sabbatical, happily married to another rocker, away from the rock scene for a long time. She’s about to mount a comeback of sorts – no tour, but a new album. She’s talking about a cover song she and her band did back in the early days, a defiant song of youth and anger.
“That was an inspired cry,” she says. “When we did that song, we meant it; we did it with full heart. It’s a young person’s battle cry, and I think we really got it. There were plenty of bad performances, angry performances, and plenty of enlightened performances. But I was there. All my being was there. But I didn’t miss it. The day I stopped performing, that was it.”
Now, there’s an optimistic bent to her music. “I stand guilty of being positive and hopeful,” she says, “I’ve always been optimistic. I mean, I’ve had my dark periods and certainly now I’m more worried about the condition of the planet than I’ve ever been, but I’ve always loved life and I’ve always been inspired by other people. There’s a million things that make me optimistic.”
4) It’s the summer of 1997 and I’m driving the singer-songwriter-guitarist from a gig in Providence RI to one on Cape Cod.
We’re doing the interview in my Mitsubishi Eclipse. He’d been doing solo and outside projects alongside his famous band for quite some time but 11 years earlier he left that new wave band behind and is still saying good riddance.
“I thought this is not why I play music,” he said, of the latter days of that band. “This is very miserable. It was not a very pleasant divorce. People want bands to last forever because it’s part of their growing up, part of their adolescence. You want to have that touchstone to be able to go back to. Yet, they’re specific times, and [bands] are human beings. It’s not like a movie that you saw when you were 19 that you can go back and watch again.”
I asked if mourned the group’s passing in any way?
“No, it was an incredible relief for me. It’s a way of saying `I’m my own person, I’m of my own identity, I’m not just the singer from a band who’s doing a vanity project.’ You feel like some of the new stuff is better, or at least up to, the level of the acclaimed stuff you’ve done in the past, and yet you feel like `Why isn’t this getting the mass popularity some of the other stuff did?’ Occasionally, it will. Sometimes, the Zeitgeist or moment will hit.”
5) It’s 1989 and I’m backstage after the band’s gig at Boston’s Channel club.
I’m talking with the lead singer of a British band that was one of the first out of the gate when punk rock took off with a roar in the mid-‘70s. But the band is not quite so much of a ‘punk’ band now and has mutated into a different sort of psychedelic stew. The ever-mercurial British rock press was dismissing them as a cabaret punk rock act.
I asked about that knock. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” the singer said. “I saw a Gene Pitney concert recently and it was cabaret, but it wasn’t sickly-sweet.” He reasoned if his band was indeed cabaret “it was cabaret down the dark alley you wouldn’t want to go down. Obviously, the songs don’t mean what they once did because things have changed, but they still seem fresh and exciting.”
1) Rick Danko, 2) Ray Davies, 3) Patti Smith (First song referenced: The Who’s “My Generation.”), 4) David Byrne, 5) The Damned’s Dave Vanian
AUDIO: David Byrne Live at the Riviera in Chicago 1997