Book Review: “Backstage & Beyond Volume I” — A Valuable Addition to Any Rock ‘n’ Roll Library
By Karen Schlosberg
Rock journalist Jim Sullivan’s writing style has always been conversational rather than confrontational.
Backstage & Beyond Volume I: 45 Years of Classic Rock Chats & Rants by Jim Sullivan. Trouser Press Books, 341 pages, $25.
Veteran rock journalist Jim Sullivan, who has been a mainstay of the Boston-area music scene for four decades, has just released a collection of essays based on the many interviews he’s done during that span. This collection, Backstage & Beyond Volume I, covers those “who began or thrived in the classic rock area,” he explains in the preface (Volume II will cover punk/post-punk/New Wave and will be released in October).
Sullivan’s writing style has always been conversational rather than confrontational; his aim is to make a connection with a musician based on knowledge and a level of respect, and that is on display here — each chapter is an essay usually built from several interviews Sullivan has done with an artist over the years, sometimes including excerpts from reviews.
The pieces are pleasantly informative and chatty. The artists range from Roy Orbison and Darlene Love to both Davies brothers of the Kinks and Warren Zevon, from Pete Townshend and George Clinton to Lou Reed and Joan Baez. Sullivan is not out to write mini-bios of the musicians; he wants to present these artists as people, not stars. So while there is nothing earth-shatteringly new here, he serves up some good stories and evinces a sense of the person behind the microphone.
Of course, sometimes that person is not particularly pleasant and Sullivan, to his credit, didn’t sugarcoat these incidents. Jerry Lee Lewis, for example, appears to be a first-class arrogant misogynist and thoroughly unlikeable — not a surprise; Iggy Pop comes across as disagreeably full of himself, which was kind of a surprise. The sexism that is the dark side of rock ‘n’ roll is an undercurrent in many of these musicians’ anecdotes. I wonder how different some of these interviews would have been if the questions had been asked by a woman. (The skeptic in me thinks Sullivan probably got more truth from some of these guys because he is a man). And then there was Ginger Baker, who never met an interviewer he liked. Sullivan included his encounter as a humorous way of deflating his own goals for the book, and the encounter turned out much worse for Baker.
Overall, the artists in the book come across as thoughtful, hard-working, and refreshingly down-to-earth. The most moving chapter deals with Warren Zevon, whom Sullivan knew for many years; the writer examines the musician’s frustratingly commercially underrated work with compassion and insight. The chapters on Alice Cooper, Joe Perry & Aerosmith, and Peter Wolf & J. Geils Band also benefit from Sullivan’s long association with the artists. Richard Thompson, Darlene Love, and Brian Eno also contribute thoughtful musings on the creative process and the music industry.
Backstage & Beyond is a solid addition to any rock ‘n’ roll library, and I look forward to Volume II.
(Note: Sullivan and I have been writing colleagues in the Boston music scene for many years.)
Karen Schlosberg is a veteran journalist and editor. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Rolling Stone, Musician, Creem, and Trouser Press. She can be reached here or on Twitter @karen1055.