Famous Quotes Vol. 36: October 2022

Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column

Famous Quotes Vol. 36 (Image: Discogs)

It’s the 36th 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. (Occasionally, there’s an email exchange as there is in this edition.)

I give you the situation and the quotes; you guess who spoke those words back when. 

 

1. This famous bassist-singer has been part of a decades-long-running band and is also a solo artist of note. He’s gone by a myriad of nicknames, but most of those might give him away. I’ll give you one that might not: Casper the Funky Ghost. He also called himself a “rhinestone rock star monster of a doll.” A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he’s collaborated with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison to Fatboy Slim to the late bluegrass guitarist Doc Watson.

He’s known for his psychedelic funk. Where, I asked him 11 years ago via email, might be the capital of funk, he answered: “The funk capital of the world is wherever you are. Funk is having 40 muthas in one room with no air conditioning and enjoying every minute.”

In his youth, he played with James Brown. A recollection: “He was a tough enforcer. Shoes weren’t shined, that was a fine! Missed a note, that was a fine! To this day I appreciate him for what he stood for. He would say, ‘I just call out the numbers and you play them – “Cold Sweat,” Bam! “I Feel Good,” Bam!’ He motivated me to do better and to go after it harder. We parted on friendly terms. Mr. Brown was a father figure to me then and now. It was a serious type of discipline that I needed at the time but once I got with [the leader of his main band], the sky was the limit. [That] gave me the chance to be free. “

What made him want to keep kicking it out live? (He was in his early 60s when we spoke.)

“What keeps me coming back? Spreading hope, like dope! The reason I’m on tour now is I spent two years in the studio producing [my current album]. I arrived at a kind of Zen-like balance that inspired me to produce it. The secret that I learned was that you cannot tell the universe what to do.  When the universe is ready it will tell you and then you got to be ready.”  

 

2. This producer-drummer-singer, formerly based in Boston and the leader of a band in this town, has been nominated for seven Grammy Awards and won two. He is, to put it mildly, a well-respected man in the blues-rock community. He has written over 500 songs for the likes of Susan Tedeschi, ZZ Top, Eric Clapton, Rascal Flatts and Eric Burdon, among others. He’s produced albums for George Thorogood, Johnny Winter and the late James Cotton. (He also used to be a very good utility player for a year on my modified fast-pitch softball team, The Maniacs, in the late ‘80s.)

When Chuck Berry walked the earth, he was often the drummer in Chuck’s regionally assembled bands. He recalled: “Not only did he invent rock ‘n’ roll, which is amazing, but his songwriting was amazing. I think that at heart he was a blues guy – that meant a lot to him. He made the grooves faster and kind of turned it into rock ‘n’ roll, but I think the one thing a lot of people don’t talk about is Chuck Berry as a songwriter. Chuck was one of the greatest songwriters ever, one of the greatest lyricists ever to walk the earth. I’m putting him up there with Bob Dylan. If you read the lyrics, it’s a commentary on life.”

“The first show I did with Chuck was at a theater in Worcester,” he told me, from his recording studio in Nashville, “and it was only because the promoter had hired my band, or me, to back up a million bands like Herman’s Hermits and Gary Puckett. This promoter said ‘I booked Chuck Berry and I’m supposed to provide a backup band and I was told you’re the guy to call’ and I said ‘OK, great. Fantastic.’

“I remember showing up for that first gig and Chuck wanted to talk to me. He said, ‘Who’s the band-leader guy?’ That’s me. He gave me his cues – ‘When I do this with my leg that means stop, if I change songs in midstream follow me.’ I was like ‘OK, do you want a sound check or anything?’ And he said ‘We’re gonna play Chuck Berry music, just follow me.’ No rehearsal, nothing. Went out and just did it.” 

Berry, he knew, had a prickly reputation and was a demanding employer. (Kinda like the guy in the previous item, James Brown.) “There are a lot of people I hear about and read about who say it was the worst experience of their life,” he said, of playing with Berry, “but I had chills from the moment we started, when he looked at me and counted off ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ right to ‘Johnny B Goode,’ the last song.”

That date was the start of playing Berry gigs in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York state three or four times a year. “It got to the point where they started calling me ‘Chuck Berry Insurance’ – that’s what my nickname was,” he said, being told “‘Chuck will probably show up if he knows you’re there and the show won’t completely fall apart if you’re there.’ Well, I guess …. I will have guys who will know how to play his stuff.”

 

VIDEO: 1985 Sam Goody commercial 

3. He was a gay English rocker and he wrote the most prominent pro-gay protest song of the new wave era, maybe the most deeply detailed (and melancholic) ever. I saw him and his band at a Boston club in 1979 and had breakfast with him the next day at, yes, McDonalds. (His call.) 

He was a political rocker; a number of left-ish themes coursed through his songs – as well as some that were just pure fun, a Springsteen-ish driving song that became his first English hit. (Years later, I learned it had a gay subtext!)

Of that prominent gay song, it went over well in Boston. The crowd, certainly most not gay, was on his side, singing along in solidarity. “Yes,” that was OK but, he said, “I don’t believe that that many people in a room would be unanimously in favor of [the song] as appeared to be in as far as the vaguely beatific smiles and people looking unfazed. I felt there was a lot of people stifling – I just don’t believe that [big a] percentage of a city could be pro-gay …. but that song needs doing. You can’t let it get to the point where it ceases to be a challenge or else you just stop singing it. There’d be no point in singing the fucker if it just became cool, hip and institutionalized.”

Yes, I concurred it was politically correct, the right thing to do. I’m straight. I was supportive of gay rights, but I was no activist. I sang along.

“It could be a heavy thing,” he said. “Like it’s not hip to been as a racist and it’s not hip to be anti-gay. So, you don’t show it when the song’s going. You just keep in to yourself.”

 

4. It was 1990 and non-college radio, i.e., commercial alt-rock radio was gaining a real audience – there were nine such stations in the country – challenging the more mainstream album-oriented rock stations and forcing changes in their programming. In Boston, the top commercial alt-rock station was WFNX – not in terms or ratings, but cachet – and they held a multi-band bash every year to celebrate their success and the success of the genre.

There was, though, some grumbling that the station was Brit-centric, synth-centric and did not include enough American-made, raw roots music. One of those who made that claim was a singer-songwriter-guitarist playing the show. Too much Cure, too much Depeche Mode he felt, not enough Beat Farmers and Joe Ely. 

But they were playing him, in particular this song he’d written lambasting an American rock star and his superstar band. When he played that song, a fan in the front gave him a picture of that star and the singer promptly pulled down his pants to moon the picture (and the audience).

Backstage, munching Chinese food, he said he was surprised, but pleased to be on the station’s playlist. What was his role?

 “I’m definitely the weird, white, psychotic underbelly of the new wave underground,” he replied. “I’m not English; I don’t whine; I’m not dance music.”

 

Answers: 1) Bootsy Collins, of Bootsy’s Rubber Band and the P-Funk All-Stars [Parliament-Funkadelic] 2) Tom Hambridge, once of T.H. and the Wreckage, 3) Tom Robinson of the Tom Robinson Band, 4) Mojo Nixon

 

VIDEO: Bootsy Collins cartoon 

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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