Famous Quotes Vol. 42: March 2023

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

1983 Kool Lights ad (Image: eBay)

It’s the 42nd 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. 


1. It’s the summer of 1998 and I’m talking to one of the giants of rock ‘n’ roll. He’s 53 and one of the most self-aware (and self-critical) rockers I’ve evet talked with. As such, he is quite cognizant of how rock careers tend to flatten out creatively as the aging process takes its toll. 

“I see it in my peers, and, of course, I’ve experienced it as well,” he says. “It’s not so much just that one’s creativity perhaps levels off — maybe that’s not what happens. I think what happens if that we lose sight of the magical chemistry of serving the masses. And I think, ‘God, how did that happen?’ Simply, I suppose, because of music moving to stadiums. Because the people there were denied the ‘collective unconsciousness’ that happens in the performance of any art. I think that if the person on the stage is living in any kind of fantastical bubble, there’s a problem, too. In other words, if they’re surrounded with enough yes men, they end up in kind of Michael Jackson-land.”

What, then, I ask, is the pop artist’s role?

“They’re meant to be the bunch of flowers that’s on the table for today until you replace them with new ones,” he says. “In pop we don’t ask much, but what we do ask is that we are served, in the passing moment, we are served by the music and the artists that we hear. In the world of pop, what we want is solace and we want it now; we want cheer and we want it now; we want self-forgetfulness and we want it now.”


2. It’s February 1979 and we arrive at the European electronic musician’s suite at the Hyatt-Regency in Cambridge at quarter to five. The interview is scheduled for five, so I spend the ensuing 15 minutes watching the Mike Douglas TV show in the adjoining room with the musician’s manager and several record label people. He’s done a Boston TV chat show earlier in the day and the yak around the room is that one is really happy with interview. She honed in the musician’s famous father and famous girlfriend angle, no doubt to appeal to the thousands who could care less what the man’s new album sounded like, but who might make that all important celebrity connection

When we sat down to chat, I aimed higher and asked if he could draw some comparisons and contrasts between his music and that of other prominent players in his field – say with Tangerine Dream. It’s all he needed to let it rip.

There are a few things to say about that,” he says. “First of all, at the moment, we are exactly in the position of Amazonians or Africans who are listening to Schubert, Ravel, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner, in front of a symphonic orchestra. I don’t think they could tell the difference because they didn’t know enough about the music. For them it would be the same, because they are not used to it.

“And we are, considering all the people who use electronic instruments, a bit like that. In my opinion, German groups, Keith Emerson, Walter Carlos, Tomita, Pink Floyd, Alan Parsons, Terry Riley or myself, are sometimes using the same kind of instruments but I think we are all very different.

“Tangerine Dream has a very intellectual attitude vis-a-vis electronic instruments. They are considering much more than machine, than instruments. When they leave the stage and they leave the instruments playing, it makes a kind of confusion with the public who could think an electronic instrument is a machine who can make music. Even if it’s interesting in a show, it just isn’t true. Even if a sequencer can repeat a sequence, it will be just sounds because we have to not forget that music, in my opinion, is the human organization of sounds.

“It leaves the impression in the minds of the people that electronic instruments are linked with something mechanical, robotized and cold. The emotion or the lack of emotion is not the responsibility of the instruments; it’s always the responsibility of the man behind the instrument, and if you have emotion to communicate you can do it through a sitar, a guitar, a piano, or a synthesizer.”


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3. It’s the summer of 1982, and this one-time habitue of CBGB is on tour for the first time in nearly three years and they’re playing a hockey barn, the Providence Civic Center tonight. A big arena. The guitarist-co-leader couldn’t be happier, right?

Wrong. He is still angry about the music industry. “But I think I’ve figured things out more,” he says, “about the industry and about what’s happening in music.” That is, he feels the industry is still blocking the best new music. “The fact is that big business has taken over throughout the ’70s and taken away from the importance of records and music.”

Right now, his band may be inside the winner’s circle — radio hits including four number 1s, the essence of mainstream appeal — but on the phone from Miami, he tells me, “I certainly never want to do mainstream rock. Our thing has always been to look around and see what’s happening and then do something different. I don’t think of myself as a regular pop star. I’m trying to do something with my influence.”

He says his band’s music is “less specific now. I’m more interested in archetypes — music that taps into your subconscious and triggers something. I think that’s why the Beatles were so great.”

Does his band consciously try to merge pop and art?

“I’ve never really thought of it. I mean art is what it is, music is art. I’m more interested now in trying to merge black and white music than I am pop and art. I think what we’ve been able to do is bring the black musical emotions to a white audience. Somebody like Prince is able to do the reverse; he may bring white music a little closer to blacks.”

He looks back fondly to the mid-’60s, when black and white music was all part of one musical stream. “For years I’ve said if ‘Satisfaction’ came out now, it would never get any airplay, and when I finally met Mick Jagger, I asked him that and he said, ‘Oh definitely. It would just die a death.’ It’s true.”


4. They’re a scurrilous pack of London-based louts whose punk rock band began in 1979 as everyone in England determined punk was dead. They kicked off their 1995 gig at Boston’s Mama Kin club with their theme song. It states the band’s name and then proudly proclaims them both “mad,” and maybe even more proudly “and our music’s bad.” 

They haven’t been a band for six years. But here they are. Why?

“It doesn’t have any street cred,” their guitarist tells me in the dressing room, post-set, “but we needed money.”

The drummer Johnny B., the newcomer, adds, “Metallica did a cover of [one of our songs] and played it live in concert.” Metallica even invited their lead singer up on stage in 1992 to sing it with them. So, the germ was planted. Perhaps the politically correct world was ready for another attack by the proudly impolite.

The music — corrosive, swaggering, Sex Pistols-esque rock — had all the nasty bite, sarcastic wit, yobbo charm and blazing guitars of yore. That’s in part because pretty much everything they played came from their grade-A debut album. They played nothing from their latest album, a 1985 disc which was described in mostly unprintable terms by the band, “crap,” “dreadful” and “the worst nightmare you can make” being the most useable. “It alienated our fans,” sighed the guitarist, of the sweetened album that included horrors like a backing choir and a cello. “And,” he adds, “the straights hated us anyway.”


Answers: 1) The Who’s Pete Townshend, 2) Jean-Michel Jarre, 3) Blondie’s Chris Stein, 4) Anti-Nowhere League’s Magoo (guitarist) and Johnny B. (drummer). 


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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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