Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the 47th 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 was 1990 and he was 28 at the time. The English singer-songwriter had first gone out under his own name – one solo album under the belt in 1981 – but then switched to a group name, even though he was the sole consistent member. (One of the members of his group was the guitarist for a super-beloved/now-broken up UK band.) He was doing three shows in Boston, two at large clubs, one at a theater and nearly all were sold out.
Yet … “I cannot bear the rock ‘n’ roll industry,” he told me. “I’ve always felt like that, ever since I started.”
When we spoke, he was in Paris, he’d recently finished filming a French TV music show. “This moment could be like a catalyst There was an audience there and there was a live broadcast to three or four million people and the cameras went on and I’m thinking, “I’m a grown man, what am I doing miming this song?’ I just felt really embarrassed. It reminded me of when I was a little kid and me and my brothers used to have tennis racquets and mime to these. But now I’m a man. God, I love writing and the gigs are pretty good but not the rest of the garbage.”
He did talk about some of his music – synth-based, propulsive, often dark or self-questioning – but he found most music talk dull and, rather, jumped into people’s fascination with religion. “We’re fed fairy stories by the major religions. It’s crap, it’s untrue garbage. You’re supposed to hang up your critical faculties as soon as you approach a church.
And drugs, the upside. “Through things like hallucinogens, I’ve realized things like time and space are illusions, and if you tell somebody that who maybe hasn’t done them, they can’t understand the concept.”
2. He was a rock star whose band had broken the bank with its first album in 1979, selling six million copies. Huge, massive, new wave-into-the-mainstream stuff backed by one incredibly catchy hit. Now, it was 1998. The singer-guitarist’s brother had become a famous lawyer for a famous doctor and now his brother was running for governor of Michigan. No sibling rivalry or jealousy though: “Not from my perspective. I wish him well. My father was a high-profile labor lawyer, my mother a teachers union labor organizer and my sister’s a successful sitcom writer.”
But the critical hammer came down on his band, mostly for its lyrical snark and alleged sexism. That, or commercializing or corrupting the punk/new wave movement on the late ‘70s.
“Success, that’s it,” he said. “We were fairly well-received in California before we had success. When we got successful with the same look and sound and image and suddenly it wasn’t cool anymore. But the fans hearts are always pure. They don’t look at a band and examine a song beyond whether they enjoy it. Rock ‘n’ roll can have elements of intelligence, though, as our band does, but it’s really about having fun.”
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3. Four years after a misguided daytime appearance at Lollapalooza – this is a band that should never see daylight – the singer and his band are prepping for their first American tour since. The band’s label has just chucked out a best-of collection, so, one presumes, maybe the strategy is to re-introduce that group to a world with a short attention span.
“I don’t have a great desire to let anyone know I’m still here,” the Aussie singer says. “I think that it has just been a long time since we’ve been to America. My relationship with it has been somewhat strained over the years. I’m not quite sure why, but a certain amount of it had to do with Lollapalozza, which I found quite distractive to the group in a lot of ways.”
The man’s songs tackle gnarly issues, often spew a bit of blood. “I do have a love of violent literature and I get a kick out of violent lyrics as well,” he says. “I think that songs that bang on about what a happy lot this human race is and everything is full of joy, that’s an alternate world.
“I think America seems to have this arm-wrestle about what is dark and not,” he answers. “And I’ve never seen music in those terms. I think that I’m dealing with issues, mostly of love, and to me there’s nothing more positive than that.”
The singer and his bands – including the prior one – were adopted by the goths even if they never quite cottoned to the tag. “They are the most enduring and brave of all the subcultures,” he says. “There’s something sweet about that. When the big bomb goes off, all that’s going to survive are goths and cockroaches.”
4. In 1970, the trio he led notched no fewer than four gold albums – their debut, two more studio records and a live effort. They were an American band and truly one of the most popular hard rock groups extant. But when we talked six years ago, one of the things we talked about was drugs.
Drugs have certainly inspired some musicians and killed many others. Practically everyone who’s in the game has stories, and this singer-guitarist has a doozy about his one time in the drug den and Jimi Hendrix, a man he calls “my guitar god.”
“I knew Jimi,” he tells me. “He was in my dressing room when I got offstage at the Fillmore East in New York City (in 1970, less than two months before Hendrix’s death). Every time we were on the same bill, we would make sure our paths crossed and say howdy. This one time at Randall’s Island, Jimi Hendrix’s right-hand man came over to my dressing room after we got off stage and said, ‘Hey, Jimi wants to see you.’ These guys have got some stuff lined up on the dressing room table which looked like snow drifts and he says, ‘Come on, do some of this.’ And I said, ‘No, man, I don’t do that stuff. I’ll watch you guys. Knock yourself out.’ He says, ‘Well, just do a little bit.’
“So, I do this little snort of this stuff – and I’d never done anything like this before but Jimi says to me, ‘I wouldn’t give you nothing that could hurt you and you know me.’ That’s my guitar god telling me he’s not gonna hurt me and then I do this stuff and, holy crap, I just found out how much somebody could lie.”
He says it was a combination of cocaine and heroin, later termed a speedball, the toxic mix that killed John Belushi. “That took me some place where it put the fear of God in me about ever doing anything like that [again] and it also gave me compassion for those who are caught up in it. You have to lose part of your sanity to let that get ahold of you, and that’s the part that really scared me, brother, because I would have to allow this to happen. Man, I knew it was bad. I fell off the equipment truck because this stuff was getting to me.”
There’s more: “Then I saw Jimi get on stage, and he couldn’t find the neck of his guitar. He was missing it by two feet! And this long-haired kid with no shirt with bare feet with a pair of bell bottoms walks out on the stage, grabs Jimi’s arm, hooks it to the neck of the guitar and Jimi starts playing. But Jimi’s music isn’t making any sense to me, and that’s when I got sick and fell off the truck and threw up.”
Answers: 1) Matt Johnson of The The (the guitarist is Johnny Marr, ex-Smiths), 2) Doug Fieger of The Knack, 3) Nick Cave of the Bad Seeds and formerly The Birthday Party, 4) Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad.
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