Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the 31st 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.
The month’s wrinkle: A non-quote, but a situation.
1. “I offend tons of people,” this L.A. band’s singer-songwriter told me in 1981, sitting downstairs between sets at a Boston club. “The idea of this band is to be one big, horrible mess. We get away with as much as we can get away with.”
He defined a task that applied to both band and listeners: “It’s wading through the chaos to see if you can get off.” His music, he said, was the product of a cynical idealist. “People’s alliances to one another are important. I like the idea of people being able to trust one another, [but] it sounds so jive.”
The band is motivated, he said, by two main things: Sex and Revenge. There was one key song that invoked Elvis and not necessarily in a favorable light. “Elvis has been stuffed down your throat like a religious neurosis,” he said, calling that song, “a horribly distorted thing we took into a style. Taking something as straight and traditional as Elvis and just killing it, taking rock ‘n’ roll history and just ruining it. In the context of the song, [my aim is] to be as obnoxious and malevolent as I can. People don’t understand street humor – anything goes. A lot of my songs have a lot of stupid street humor.”
The singer died at 37 in 1996.
2. The singer is in his ninth decade and he’s got a UK and European tour set for the summer and is coming to the US this fall. Nearly 30 years ago, we were talking and he was ecstatic talking about temporarily fronting a band no one would ever expect him to front for a six-part VH-1 TV series.
“They get this groove thing going,” he told me, “and the kids jump up on stage, and when we did it this kid came up onto the drum riser and all of a sudden, he jumped on my back. The first time he did it, I almost threw him into the audience. You’re on stage and somebody’s on you — the first thing to do is get him off. I wanted to strangle him. But then I realized it was good, a good bit. The next take, I was ready for it.”
And, really, this singer has collaborated with more (improbable) musicians than you can shake a stick at: Shakespear’s Sister, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Stevie Wonder, Daryl Hall, the Chieftains, Cyndi Lauper, Sam Moore and Joe Cocker.
“I’ve had rock bands come up to me for years,” he said, “saying, `You’re a great singer, why don’t you do more rock?’ or `Could we do something together?’
One problem has been that he’d been stereotyped as the kind of sexy adult singer middle-aged woman swoon over and sometimes throw panties at. He wouldn’t mind ending that perception.
“Over the years,” he said, “the image became bigger than the talent, with the knickers-throwing. That’s what I’ve been trying to get away from, trying to be taken seriously as a singer, not as a bloody buffoon up there, singing a bit and pandering to the ladies. I’m a singer and always have been. It’s just that the underwear thing got out of hand. It became the most important thing, rather than the thing I was doing.”
“I was made aware of it through reading reviews and realizing the show was gauged upon how many pairs of underwear were thrown up there rather than what songs I was singing or how good or bad they were. After a while, I realized that had to change.”
3. Here’s the situational setup. Following a R&B concert at a Boston club in 1987, I was invited, with about half a dozen others, up to one of the singer’s hotel room for more chat and a few drinks. He had been doing a tour with his longtime musical partner, both once of a very famous band. Any conversation we had was off the record and we were all at ease with each other. It’d been a good night. The singer casually smoked cigarettes, dipping the end in a little dish of cocaine, genially holding court. There was no craziness with the coke; it was a smooth glide. But he died from lung cancer – he was ferocious tobacco user – five years later. His partner fared worse, dying in a crack house, a year before him.
VIDEO: WOR-TV Channel 9 commercial break
4. In 1966, this female singer – someone who had a very famous father – had the biggest hit of her career. In 1995, we were talking and she was on the comeback trail and one way she was making that comeback was, at age 54, posing in Playboy. I asked here, on the phone, if a a career re-launch via Playboy might be a tad dubious.
“I think some people are disappointed that I would use a promotional tool like Playboy,” she said, “that I didn’t live up to their expectations of what one woman called recently `American royalty.’ ”
She didn’t see it like that, did she?
“No, I see us as more of a target family, taking potshots by sniper media people. [Posing] took a lot of courage. I’ve been raised to not have to ask permission to take a step like that or to apologize for it. That’s the way both my parents have lived their lives. As long as you don’t hurt anyone intentionally in the process. I did not want to offend anyone, but figured that people who would be offended wouldn’t buy the magazine. It’s not like I was shoving it down their throats. They don’t have to buy it.
“I’ve been raised by feminists. My dad was one of the originals and my mother, of course, too, and they are fine about it. It’s not as controversial as I expected it to be. Or at least people are being kind if they’re feeling negative about it and not voicing their feelings. Some of the media has been a little unkind and made jokes, but that’s part of the game and we expected that.”
5. The lead singer-songwriter of this band plays multiple instruments and when we talked in 2012, his band’s latest album was quite synth-heavy. So, when they went on tour would the quintet be on a stage strewn with synthesizers and wires?
“We’re not using any synthesizers,” he said. “We don’t usually use anything like the original instrumentation on stage. Even if I did bring it along with me, the sound would be very difficult to replicate. On top of which, you wouldn’t be able to see anything. There would be no physical evidence of what was happening. It would be very dull to watch.”
He caught himself. “I don’t mean to imply [our band] is in any way exciting. We sit down. We don’t move about like other people. [Our pianist] sings one song standing up instead of at the keyboard and she gets lots of applause for it.”
The bandleader had made a mark by exploring multiple genres, the link being his astute pop craftsmanship, his sepulchral voice and mordant wit. “Any album I’ve ever done,” he said, “could be called Tragedy in a Major Key.”
On the 2012 album, there were songs about revenge, death and other various horrible situations. “It seems people are noticing that,” he said, drolly, “but there is a lot of death on the previous record as well, a folk record, after all. But maybe there’s not a lot of death on a typical electro-pop record so they’re hearing it as this disconnect between the presumed genre and presumed content.”
Answers: 1) Jeffrey Lee Pierce of the Gun Club, 2) Tom Jones – first band talked about was EMF, 3) Eddie Kendricks – ex-of the Temptations, he’d been touring with David Ruffin, 4) Nancy Sinatra, 5) Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields
VIDEO: Nancy Sinatra “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”