Famous Quotes Vol. 34: August 2022
Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the 34th 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. I give you the situation and the quotes; you guess who spoke those words back when.
1. It was 1987 and, at that time, depending upon your point of view, this country-rock singer-guitarist was an overnight sensation or a guy who fought the good fight for more than a dozen years and finally came up a winner.
“I see it both ways,” he mused, on the phone from Arlington, Va. “I’ve been doing it for a long time, but at the same time, I pinched myself several times in 1986 and ’87. I think it happened when it happened because I was ready for it. When I got to Nashville when I was 19, everybody thought I was going to get a record deal any minute. It never happened and in a lot of ways I think if it had happened back then, I’d probably be dead now.”
He scored in 1986 with his debut LP — it went to number one on Billboard’s country charts — and again this in 1987 with its follow-up. Success, of course, means his life changed — but not too much: “This is a vocation. You do it whether you make money or not and I never made more than three or four thousand dollars a year in my life until just a few years ago. Now, I’m actually making a living; the IRS knows me and everything.”
In conversation, he mixed self-deprecation and quiet pride. He called himself “an aging hippie” and “an old prodigy”; he attributed at least part of his success to “blind luck.” But he did credit for helping change the course of modern country music.
“I think I’m stylistically a country singer,” he said, “and I think I always will be. But I’m at a turning point in my career. I’ve made a decision that is probably going to cause a little flack.” That is, on his next album was going to take a bigger step closer to rock. He planned to make his next record not in Nashville, but in Memphis and do it with his backing band and Tom Petty’s engineer Don Smith, but also would use other backing musicians, including a fast-rising Celtic-punk band. He did that and it was a monster, the singer later calling it the world’s only merger of heavy metal and bluegrass.
2. Initially, CBGB owner Hilly Kristal had no intention of booking rock bands at all at his Bowery dive. CBGB stood for Country, Bluegrass and Blues. For the band in which he played, one of the two singer-guitarists admitted, this was a bit of impediment.
“When he first told us that,” the musician told me three years ago, “We said we play a little blues, a little bluegrass and a little rock.” (That was a lie.) “We don’t sound like anybody else.” (True.) He still said no. [Our manager] said, ‘How does your bar do on your best night? Let my band play and I’ll invite all alcoholics to come down and see them and you’ll have a better bar night.’ We played and it came true. [Our manager] was willing to buy everybody drinks.”
More than a few CBs bands exploded. Often, when they returned to New York they were too popular to play CBGB. “I think of it as a bird’s nest, where by and by all the little birds flew away,” the guitarist-singer said. As to those glory years: “The whole thing bleeds together and it was like a three-years long New Year’s Eve party at which we were one of the hosts.”
It wasn’t all about the glory days. There was heroin. He gave me an example, something that likely happened in 1979 at a club he can’t recall when he was on tour with his own band, supporting a brilliant gem of a solo debut. “I remember one time waking up in the dressing room and telling the band, ‘Do we really have to do an encore?’ Because people were clapping. They said, “You haven’t been on yet.’ I was like, ‘Really?’ I had nodded out and dreamt we had played a show.”
“I’ve been dead a couple of times,” he said, of heroin overdoses. “They brought me back for some kind of reason. Everybody had a life and mine was as much spontaneous combustion as anybody else’s. I just didn’t go down with the rest because I had guardian angels looking out.”
He’s been clean and sober for decades now. He’s not with that original band – if that band still exists – but plays out on his own.
VIDEO: 1976 WNBC-TV New York Commercial Break
3. “Maybe when I was a little younger, I didn’t understand what the songs were about,” this Anglo-Burmese singer told me about the band she fronted when she was a teenager. The band was assembled by someone very good at doing that sort of thing and the group debuted in 1980. She and I were talking in 1998. (The band had come back together for a tour and, with a different lineup, still exists.)
Back then, there were provocative songs and provocative jacket covers. The singer’s mother thought one cover pornographic and alleged exploitation of a minor for immoral purposes, instigating a Scotland Yard investigation.
For fans, there was this mad, beat-crazy music with this young exuberant singer and it was, well, at the least subversive and quite possibly inappropriate.
“It kind of took me by surprise when [the press] started telling me what the songs were about,” she told me, “ ‘cause I was sitting there telling them what I was told the songs were about by [our manager].”
One of those songs was about a tall edifice that was undeniably phallic. She thought “it was about falling off [the edifice] … He was the worst manager in the world, but a genius in the he can spot things in people and bring them out.”
4. This English band started out as one kind of band – you might have even called them electro-proto-punk listening back to their 1977 debut LP – but by 1979 the original lead singer was gone and the band brought in another singer, an additional player and ushered more synth-based, techno-pop new wave sound. Some, in fact, said they’d sniffed the success Gary Numan had with “Cars” and had copped his style.
“In America, they don’t know us as well,” the violinist-synthist told me in 1980, sitting in the dressing room after a Boston gig. In fact, he and Numan were friends, Numan saying that he’d been influenced by the first iteration of their band.
The violinist continued, “Gary projects himself as an individual who plays with people. His musicians are silhouettes. We project ourselves more as a group. We’re more into textural music and Gary was influenced on that level, but he’s using them in a, it’s a corny word, but spacier way.”
Their original singer-songwriter, he said, wanted to aim for a more minimalistic sound. “We wanted it to be expanded, say in the level of improvisation, of which there’s quite a bit. … The band used to go down the same road every night.”
“My only real influence is Bowie because he keeps changing,” the drummer added. “And we’ve told people the only thing they’re going to get from us is change. I think that’s how you get respect.”
Answers: 1) Steve Earle, 2) Richard Lloyd of Television, 3) Annabella Lwin, of Bow Wow Wow, speaking about Malcolm McLaren, 4) Violinist-synthist Billy Currie and drummer Warren Cann of Ultravox.
VIDEO: Ultravox “All Stood Still”
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