Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the fourth installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the fourth 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. In the mid-late ‘70s, he was a prog-rock superstar, a keyboardist of much flair and renown. He had chops, he had charisma. His band’s music was often complex and writ large. At the same time, punk rock was ascendant. It was July of 1977 and the Sex Pistols had just launched their assault on the monarchy with “God Save the Queen.” So, backstage after his band’s show at the Bangor (Maine) Auditorium, I asked the classically trained knight of the keyboard: What about punk?
“I’ve not heard any music from any punk bands,” he admitted. “I’ve seen loads of articles and loads of photographs, but, uh, I don’t know why but they don’t even play it on the radio, so there’s got to be something wrong.”
But then. … “It sounds like a good idea. It really fits time times, at least in England. And music has always reflected what’s going on.”
2. It’s 1999 and I’m on the phone with one of those English punks, a singer from the halcyon days of ’76 and ’77. He, himself, has moved beyond the genre with his latter band and he’s looking askance at what’s selling units like McDonald’s burgers at the moment: Nu-metal.
“The whole Limp Bizkit thing is completely manufactured. That band is so aptly named. It does sum up the industry right now: One big Limp Biz kit. [Their young fans] aren’t interested in anything at all and they think it’s clever not to be interested. They spend a great deal of time unlearning and being victims, ultimately. There’s some people like that in every generation, but this seems to be the majority in this one. Let them enjoy being stupid, because in 20 years’ time they are going to be one sorry, sad sack of people, unemployably ignorant. To see knowledge as something boring, and to have it celebrated . . .”
3. It’s December, 2011. He’s an esteemed cellist, a multiple Grammy winner, and the previous month in Georgia he played Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello and Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. He’s a superstar in the classical music world. Which is to say, he’s not a musician you’d expect to see on stage in a rock club like House of Blues in Boston. But there he was on this night, playing with a quartet that found the improbable and blissful meeting spot between classical and bluegrass music.
“I feel like I’m Waldo,” he said, on the phone before the show. “I’m in a lot of different places. If you don’t live my life and are looking at it from outside, it looks like I just keep flopping down in a lot of different places. It feels as if it has no rhyme or reason, but there are always lots of reasons.”
He’s held in such high regard in the classical world. I didn’t want to accuse him of slumming but I did ask if he ever feel like a cultural tourist playing in this bluegrass hybrid group.
“I think cultural tourism is someone looking through the window of something. I think, for me, entering into something is incredibly simple and basic. It just means you have to have someone invite you in and walk through the door. You’re not a tourist; you’re guest. Once you go on the inside, you share it with love.”
4. He’s no longer with us, but was a band leader, bassist and singer for one of the most beloved cult bands, existing at the interstice of hard rock, metal and punk. About thirty years ago, I was backstage after a Boston club show, talking to him after a gig and, no doubt, both us quaffing whiskey. He would have about 46 then (and I 35) so I posed this: Given the kind of music you play being mostly a young man’s game, do you ever see yourself stepping back from the stage? You know, retiring?
He was (appropriately) incredulous: “You just don’t consider giving up. I mean, what else am I gonna do? [Host] a fucking talk show?! If I quit [my band], I’d have to do something, right? So, I might as well keep on with the one that’s known. It’s a great thing for keeping you young, this business. Suddenly, you look around and think, `This is weird. I’m sure I’m only 21. Something’s wrong here. Go back and check the figures.’”
5. It was 2001 and I’m on the phone with this European singer-songwriter who had long retired from the band he co-led. They’d sold millions of records, long embraced by MOR pop fans and long scorned by rock critics. But now this band was seemingly and suddenly both popular and newly hip. All with its music never really disappearing from the land-scape . . .
” … for some strange reason,” he said, picking up the thread. “I’m the last one who can explain. Maybe because we had so many hits during the ’70s, perhaps when [filmmakers and playwrights] try to illustrate the ’70s with music, a lot of people would choose [one of our songs]. Other than that, I really don’t know. I thought when we split up, `Oh well, they might play one or two songs a couple of times a year, but we will be completely forgotten in three years’ time.’
“It was so different from all other stuff in the ’70s; things were much darker, more somber.” And even his band, he said, explored a “much darker” side on its last three albums.
The band did earn credibility when Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten said he far preferred their music to most anything else. Elvis Costello also offered praise. “We had some great fans during that time,” the singer says. “We were a very strange [group to] compliment. The critics didn’t like [us] but I remember we played Wembley Stadium, and we had Jimmy Page [among others] at the party afterwards – people with great credibility, what we didn’t have. It was really nice. They understood that we had the same serious attitude that they did about our music. It was only the critics that didn’t understand.”
Answers: 1) Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, 2) John Lydon/Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols and Public image, Ltd., 3) Yo-Yo Ma, then playing with Chris Thile in Goat Rodeo 4) Lemmy from Motorhead, 5) Bjorn Ulvaeus from ABBA.
VIDEO: Keith Emerson Piano Improvisations 1974