Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the 35th 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, scenarios from the penthouse to the pavement as the old Heaven 17 song has it.
I give you the situation and the quotes; you guess who spoke those words back when. The first item, by the way, is the shortest quote given in Famous Quotes history.
1. I’m at Dingwalls in the Camden part of London, 1985. A great, working-class scruffy club for punk and metal bands. This trip is part vacation/part work. – I’m penning a long takeout for the Boston Globe on the city’s music scene. The headliner at that night is Larry Wallis, one of my underground faves, a one-time Pink Fairies singer-guitarist and creator of the best song ever sung from the point of view of a law enforcement vehicle. That’d be “Police Car.”
This night, he’s playing a raucous set with his latest outfit – Larry Wallis and the Love Pirates of Doom. I’m at a pinball machine, drinking beer, before Wallis goes on and this familiar rocker with unique facial hair sidles up.
“Got 10 pence?” he barked, wanting to join the pinball action, but apparently without coin. I recognize him; he seems to recognize me. We have met before. I “loan’ him 10 pence. He tells me I’m in for a treat because his pal, Wallis, doesn’t play out that much – he gets nervous about performance. We drink and play pinball off and on through the night as Wallis rocks the house with lightning-fast pop-heavy metal songs. Standout: “White Girls on Amphetamines.”
Who was the rocker I played pinball with?
2. Same trip, same year. One of the hottest bands in town – soon to be known everywhere – is playing an anti-heroin benefit at the Mean Fiddler club. I’m talking with the singer-songwriter. “Half the people are junkies,” he told me. “It’s cheap, you can get it anywhere. Smack is a fucking killer. You see your friends turn into completely boring berks who’ll anything for a hit.”
His fans? “They’re absolutely devoted to [our band], the way I used to be with the Sex Pistols. I think they’re mad but I understand what it’s like to be that age.”
I get it, though. I, too, am the singer’s age. Their gig at the Mean Fiddler was one of the best I’d seen, the fans absolutely bonkers, slamming into each other, some sort of group bond and swarm. I’m an outsider, a Yank, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt more one with a crowd.
As to their success so far, he said, “I’ve got a taste of it. I’ve been struggling most of my fucking life and I’m sick of it. But I don’t want to go out and get limousines or anything like that. The fame bit, if that goes with it, it doesn’t really worry me too much. If we ever make it, we’ll probably let ‘em down just like the bloody Sex Pistols did. I hope we don’t. Who can say?”
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3. Whenever the leader of a popular band goes solo, fans wonder, with perhaps some trepidation, does this mean it’s the end of the line for the band they love?
This Southern band formed in 1998. Six years ago, I’m talking with the lead singer-songwriter-guitarist for this group – which could be anything from a jam rock to a prog-rock band at any given time. He’s about to release his second solo album and embark upon a 25-city tour.
“I really feel like music should be free and there should be no rules or restrictions placed on anyone,” he told me, about playing solo or playing outside the band context. “That’s why things can work and last – you’re free to do what you need to do and nobody takes it personally. If I didn’t let myself make solo records, I’d start resenting the guys in the band and nobody needs resentment. The guys in [the band] understand this is something I like to do and it doesn’t threaten them.
“I love playing music with people, but I also just love the art and meditation of being alone and working on stuff,” he continued, of the composition and recording process. “I’ve got this beautiful open relationship where everybody’s encouraged to do whatever they want. Everybody plays on different people’s records and tours with different people.”
The band still exists and released an album last year; the singer put out his sixth solo album last year and a joint effort with another musician and orchestra in 2019.
4. This could be an easy one. Ya never know. Just about every time Warren Zevon played Boston, he’d change a line in that jaunty, bloody three-chord hit of his, “Werewolves of London.” He’d do it to honor a rather famous Massachusetts-associated singer-songwriter. The line would mutate from “You better stay away from him/He’ll rip your lungs out, Jim/Huh, he’s looking for …” Not the person or profession in the recorded version, but this hit-making fella.
I always considered it a tribute to that musician and it so happened that last month I was doing an email interview with him for an unrelated story. At the end of the interview, I tossed in the question in: “Hey, I’m guessing you know this, but if not …”
He replied: “The story about Warren Zevon and his mentioning my name in ‘Werewolves of London,’ it’s the first I’ve heard of it and, being such a solid, longtime admirer of his humor and great talent, I’m delighted to learn about it.”
Who is that musician?
5. There were some naysayers who accused this lead singer’s band of being England’s biggest over-hype of 1984. This Liverpool band was all over the front pages of the UK music press; their first single became an anthem and their first three 45s all hit No. 1. They were mouthy; they were showy. There were two more Top 5 hits in 1985 before the bottom dropped out. Me, I liked ‘em a lot, thought they were a provocative hoot. I saw them live at a Boston club, sat with them backstage post-show, and wrote a feature for Rolling Stone’s offshoot music mag, The Record.
The negative nellies thought this band was a product of their producer and manipulated in a Malcolm McLaren-esque way. So, I posed, what would the singer say to those charges?
“I’d say ‘Fuck off, asshole, what do you know?'” he replied. Our producer “does his job. No one asks Michael Jackson about Quincy Jones.”
Fair enough. That first single, it was mighty controversial, no? “I don’t find us controversial at all,” he said, pausing to pick an alternative position. “We’re a band that definitely can stimulate ideas in people. But, then again, maybe that’s being too pretentious. Maybe it’s just like a band that wears nice clothes.”
This elicits a hearty chuckle from us both, as he’s outfitted in a dapper white suit, bow tie, a crucifix over his heart, black gloves, sunglasses and a coonskin cap. He looks not unlike a young Elton John. At 24 years of age and seeing the world for the first time, the fresh young fellow is nothing if not cavalier.
What about the message, I asked? What’s the overriding theme of their show?
“You paid 13 dollars,” the singer said with a laugh. “For heaven’s sake, have fun! That’s it, really.”
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