Veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan looks back on a career of epic interviews in the latest installment of his inquisitive column
It’s the thirteenth 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. “You set out to whip the world,” this singer-songwriter told me in November of 1988. “And then when you get beat up a little bit. . .. In my case, you say, ‘Father, I’m gonna let you have it. I’ve done what I can do.’ You turn your will over to God.”
He’d had mega-hits in the ‘50s and ‘60s; Bruce Springsteen famously name-checked him in song; he was about to release a comeback album and start a US tour. He was on the phone from Belgium.
“I’ve been developing a personal relationship with myself and with Jesus Christ and it just kind of smooths everything,” he said. “If you have faith, then your whole life is put in a new perspective. You get to work, but enjoy the work at the same time. If you grow spiritually, you do what’s in front of you and let the results speak for themselves.
“This is the first time in a long time that I feel the old phasing into the new. I never felt like the older songs were in the past; they were always very current to me. Now, I feel like the new material needs to be done. I think everybody’s going to like this album; it’s got a lot of heart and soul.”
2. They were one of Britain’s top punk bands and in 1979 I met with them at their record company’s Boston office. I mention that the Clash thought the whole idea of doing Britain’s TV show Top of the Pops was absurd and refused to appear. Silence among the three band members. Then the lead singer-guitarist blurts, “The Clash, bullshit! That’s the word. They’re saying, ‘Come on stand up and fight for your rights’ but it’s easy for them because they’re pop stars; they can fucking afford to do that.”
But aren’t you guys pop stars, too? “Yeah,” he said, “we can afford it; that’s why we don’t say it. We got the money and the time, same as the rest of the fucking bands. Somebody works in a fucking 9 to 5 dead-end job ain’t gonna spout off about revolution. He ain’t never going to see revolution all his life. That’s why I think band like ours are going to last – cause we’re saying there’s not a lot you can really do about it – except in your own small way, in the privacy of your bedroom.”
3. The dictionary defines transgression thus: “A violation of accepted or imposed boundaries, especially those of social acceptability.” Five years ago, the notion of transgression is put to this female singer-songwriter-rapper-musician-performance artist. She’s been ripping up social and sexual mores since the start of the century. She is asked, on the phone from Minneapolis, whether what she does – on stage, in the studio or during a video shoot – should be considered transgressive.
“I just see it as it should be seen as everyday life,” she says, sighing and pausing, “I don’t see why it should be anything else. It should be celebratory. I’m shocked that people are shocked. I’m shocked people are buying that bullshit.”
OK, fair enough, but one of the key songs on her latest album eviscerates a manipulative club owner/coke fiend. It’s as violent as anything Lou Reed – one of her heroes – has produced. “Oh, wow, I listened to a lot of Lou Reed growing up!” Of the graphic violence in the song, she says, “That’s why I think that song is so powerful because people actually relate to it. They say, ‘Oh my god I know that feeling.’ But you’re not going to have that feeling forever. I think it’s the most poetic piece of work I’ve ever written in terms of how far can you go? Is this indulgent or is it not? Or is that the point? What state are you in when you feel that way, where you want to kill that person? That is an indulgent feeling and it is dangerous, but is also a justifiable and natural reaction to being hurt.”
4. David Bowie, a big fan of this band, called them “the psychotic Beatles. Though the term wasn’t used when they formed, many consider them for laying down the roots of grunge – or whatever you want to call the edgy, grinding, guitar-driven early ‘90s alt-rock. Did they, indeed, plant the seed, however inadvertently?
“In all likelihood, that’s a probability,” the lead guitarist says, on the phone from his Los Angeles home in 2018. “Music moves forward. It was the right combination of people to make that kind of music with different influences. We’re one of the signposts, like Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü, who we were influenced by.”
This band mastered the idea of a full-thrust, drop-back, then even-more-raging climax. There was a lot of violence and morbidity in the lead singer-songwriter’s tunes, but also tongue-in-cheek humor and a good deal of cryptic thought. There was substantial hardcore-inspired frenzy in the music, but also surf music and pure pop and skewed love songs, as well.
“I like that word – humor,” said the guitarist. “Because we don’t go into the studio and go [in a snarling voice] ‘Yeah, fuck you! We nailed it!’ That was never the litmus test for any song we had. We just go in there and go that’s fucking hilarious. It’s more like when we laugh or when we smile – that means it’s right, it’s entertaining. We’re a funny band in that sense. It’s more like we always look for some kind of lift, not anger. We never want to scare anyone or make anyone sad. We want people to be happy – even though the songs aren’t.”
5. They were one of the prime love ‘em or hate ‘em band in the ‘90s and beyond alt-rock world. In 1999, I was talking about the love with the band’s drummer. “We are the grand old statesmen of alternative rock,” he said with mock pride and a laugh. “We were just playing in St. Louis with Blink 182 and all those guys come up to me and the drummer says, ‘Oh man, I started playing drums because of you, man!’ And, I’m like, ‘Oh my God what am I, Led Zeppelin or something?’
“But hey, you know what: We’re still making great music and we’re having a great time. We may be old farts, but we’re not boring. We want to be like Neil Young.”
Of what he and his band create … “We just all get in a room and jam off the top of our heads, just make noise, and the seeds of a lot of songs happen that way. If we hit on a groove, and everybody is smiling, we’ll tape it and do another. We’ll give tapes to [our lead singer] so he can ride around in his car and listen to them. He’ll get inspired by something and come back with melodies and words. [Our producer] comes in and we hone it down, try to make the best songs we can.”
5. His band, which by 1998 had five Grammy nominations, had sold millions of albums and soldout summer sheds. But we were talking about what was in the rock/celeb news at the time – his old band, a New York underground noise band with zero mainstream success, had one of its songs played continuously at maximum volume on a loop outside the Barbra Streisand-James Brolin wedding reception in order to drive the assembled press crazy and keep them at bay.
“I’m glad I pulled that off; a lot of work went into that,” he deadpanned.
That early band began during the early 1980s and made a godawful punk/art/noise racket, practically unlistenable to anyone outside that circuit. “I think it was practically unlistenable to anyone’s ears,” the singer-songwriter and band namesake offered. Our sound “was just an evolution. We were a total garage band, a bunch of people who started a band, who couldn’t play, or who knew how to play just enough. It wasn’t ever like we were trying to do one thing and then another. It was just that we weren’t good enough to be able to do what we wanted to do. So every record is different in a more advanced way. I don’t think bands should just say ‘Oh this is what we do and we’re going to do it ’til we drop dead.’ You know, you can get better at something.”
“There was definitely a turning point, but I don’t know what the turning point was. For us, musically, I’m not sure. But for us as a band in the industry, the turning point was when bands like Jane’s Addiction and Soundgarden were getting signed. I remember those bands from the club level. And all of a sudden it was like having a band, could be worth something.”
Answers: Roy Orbison – his last major interview before his heart attack and death, prior to the release of Mystery Girl, Dec. 6, 1988 2) Paul Weller of the Jam, which broke up three years after our interview; 3) Peaches (ne: Merrill Nisker), the song being “Free Drink Ticket” 4) The Pixies Joey Santiago; 5) Chad Smith of Red Hot Chili Peppers; 6) Rob Zombie, speaking of White Zombie and their song “Thunder Kiss ’65,” which played for four hours near the media coral.
VIDEO: Roy Orbison “She’s A Mystery To Me”