Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the eighth edition of Famous Quotes: A little quiz where the basic question is: 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, backstage.
1. In 1973, the singer told Creem magazine: “[Our band] is going to be around awhile.” Critics praised and scorned the band in about equal measure back then, and the cover of their first album was, for the times, a shocker. (The public was pretty indifferent to the music.) Now, the critical balance has shifted to almost universal praise. But they lasted only two albums (in their first run.)
In 1978, as a solo artist, and a very good one, the singer chatted backstage after a Boston club show. He regarded his old band as like that’s what he did in high school and this was college. “We were colloquially naïve, like we thought that maybe everybody had a sense of humor like New York. In New York, everybody loved our first album cover, but I’ve never thought beyond that – that people around the rest of the country would get flipped off by something like that. That it would offend them. They had this machismo thing they took seriously.”
But people were already starting to talk about that old band in reverential terms – godfathers of punk, progenitors of punk and all that. The singer demurred, “I don’t want to take the responsibility for it. I’m not really into punk rock, you know. I like the Ramones and that’s about it.”
2. I was talking to this famous producer – a man who’d done umpteen gold and platinum albums for a cavalcade of stars – about his production philosophy, his relationship to the musicians. (I’d connected with him on Facebook; we seemed to share a rather leftist bent, politically.) It was two years ago and he was 72.
“I was never a boss to any of my bands I worked with,” he said. “I always felt like a conduit or a collaborator. And I liked being a collaborator the most. I also enjoyed fulfilling a vision, which is the first thing I want to know when I get into any project: ‘What is your vision? Not mine. What are you trying to say? How can I facilitate it?’ To me, that is always the biggest challenge, to satisfy the artist’s vision. And that feeling of everyone being an equal in the studio, not only did it cause a really good vibe, but it also meant we could have a lot of fun together. That’s why I had a few artists who liked to return because the experience of making the record was a joyful one.”
He expected when the time comes, he will die with his boots on. “I should just keel over at the [mixing] board or at a keyboard,” he said. “You know, George Martin was a good friend of mine and he was still going with two [hearing] devices in his ears.”
3. He’s one of the most controversial figures in rock ‘n’ roll, as his his long-running arena-rock band. Love ‘em or hate ‘em is a cliché, but it’s pretty much been reality for this group. I’ve talked a fair amount with this guy, the bassist-singer, going back to 1976.
Here we were in 1998. “The show you’re doing now,” I ask, “Is it fun for the whole freaking family?” “Anybody can go,” he said. “We don’t dilute anything we do, but we don’t kill anybody either. It’s a combination of Americana from horror movies to a Fourth of July fireworks show — with a backbeat. If you can hum along to a couple of things, great. If you hate our music and just want to come for the spectacle, fine.”
The band’s ethos? “We’re not great masters. We’re the court jesters. We’re here to put a smile on your face and make your eyes pop wide open. If the only thing that happens is that for those couple of hours you feel a little happier to be alive or we tickled you, that’s a good thing. I wish I could bottle that. We stand guilty of making a complete spectacle out of ourselves. If you’re looking for a message, send a telegram.”
And how about some self-analysis: “I’m a whore. I’m easy but . . . I’m honest. Truth in advertising, that’s what I believe in.”
4. In 1993, a woman in a Seattle riot grrrl band was raped and killed. This older female singer-songwriter-guitarist wasn’t of that generation, but she was a feminist. She could feel the pain and hurt and had expressed those emotions in her songs, too. She hooked up with one of the key women in this Riot Grrrl scene to do some writing.
There was one song in particular, she said, that was “about being attacked and fighting.” She talked about what she learned in women’s defense courses. “They teach you boundary-setting. You say, `Get the fuck away from here!’ If that doesn’t stop the person, you learn how to get away, whether that means walking around with pepper spray or a really loud siren or stepping down on their instep or gouging their eyes, or hitting their chin with your palm and kneeing them in the groin. Just to give yourself time to get away, so you can get home alive.”
The song’s climax comes when she yells “No!” eight times. She didn’t learn until after she recorded the song that’s what a victim is supposed to shout upon striking her attacker. “Pure synchronicity,” she said.
And she went on about her new song-writing partner and the Riot Grrrl scene. “My first impression was that it seemed to be a collection of young women from across the country, not just the bands, but regular girls, people who write fanzines and can talk about all sorts of things they can’t talk about with their parents or friends. Serious stuff — drug abuse, incest, rape, domestic violence. I look at this as very positive; these women were trying to take control of their lives, trying not to let these negative things ruin them. A lot of people have the impression that the Riot Grrrl movement is a very `in-your-face’ kind of thing, and I guess it is, but I kinda like that.”
5. It was 1999 and her famous chart-topping band had broken up. She, in fact, was the first to exit and now at 26 was launching a solo career. “I want to clear that matter, deal with the past, go on to the future so you know where I’m at,” she told me on the phone, from England. “I actually was going to leave the [the group] at the end of the American tour; I hadn’t planned to go before that. But it was kind of like when you’re in a relationship and you’re not in love anymore and you think it’s time to move on — I don’t love you like I did four years ago.”
“Being in a band is like a marriage,” she continued. “When you first break up and dissolve the partnership, it’s a little tricky. You are detaching yourself and it is hard. I had to create a new space for myself. I felt I needed to rebuild. I wasn’t just saying goodbye to them, I was saying goodbye to the family and friends, the establishment, everything. But I think that like all ex-husbands you still love them and care for them even if you’re not in love with them. I just think I have grown out of them.”
Who was she now? “You know when you go on a first date and on that date, you put your best clothes on, you give your funniest lines, and there is probably one dimension of you. That was the one side I have, and [my alter ego/stage persona] was a part of me when I was 17 years old. I wore platform shoes. Nothing was contrived about [that image], but I just moved on. I was changing internally. When I left [the group] I didn’t know I was going to go solo. I was very afraid to admit that.”
Answers: 1) David Johansen/New York Dolls, 2) Jack Douglas, (Aerosmith, New York Dolls, John Lennon, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick etc.) 3) Gene Simmons of KISS, 4) Joan Jett, collaborating with with Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna; the song “Come Home.” The victim: The Gits Mia Zapata. (Jesus Mezquia was arrested in 2003, convicted the next year of the crimes and is serving a 36-year sentence.) 5) The Spice Girls Geri Halliwell, aka Ginger Spice
VIDEO: Cheap Trick “I Want You To Want Me”–Inside The Song With Jack Douglas