Author Interview: Critic Jim Sullivan on 45 Years of Modern Rock Chats & Rants
By Blake Maddux
An interview with veteran rock critic Jim Sullivan, who just dropped Backstage and Beyond, Volume 2: 45 Years of Modern Rock Chats & Rants in October.
A T-shirt that I occasionally see people wearing reads, “I May Be Old, but I Got to See All the Cool Bands.”
While I am not going to speak for him on the first part, I can confidently vouch for the fact that rock critic Jim Sullivan, who spent 26 years writing for the Boston Globe, has witnessed live performances by approximately 99 percent of the cool bands.
But he has done more than watch them on stage from the vantage point of a concert attendee.
In the case of the 60 artists who are featured in the two recently published volumes of Backstage & Beyond, Sullivan has hung out with them before and/or after shows, been their dining companion, transported them from one show to another, and received personalized mail from them.
My Arts Fuse colleague Karen Schlosberg did a fine job of reviewing Volume 1: 45 Years of Classic Rock Chats & Rants following its publication in July. I, meanwhile, had the wonderful opportunity to interview the author shortly after Volume 2: 45 Years of Modern Rock Chats & Rants dropped in October.
Jim Sullivan will be discussing Backstage & Beyond at City Winery’s Haymarket Lounge on Monday, November 13, and at the Public Library of Brookline — co-presented by Brookline Booksmith — on Thursday, November 16.
The Arts Fuse: There is a great episode of The Simpsons in which Homer delivers one of my favorite lines of his: “Why do we need new bands? Everyone knows rock attained perfection in 1974. It’s a scientific fact.”
In the first chapter, you quote Joey Ramone as saying, “In ’74, rock and roll was pretty much dead.” You seem to agree, writing, “The rock landscape of 1974 was every bit as bland as Joey Ramone recalls.”
Surely, though, the late teenager who you were at the time must have loved some of the genuinely great rock music that was new at the time.
Jim Sullivan: I think a lot of us liked some of what came out, and we didn’t know what was ahead. I had bands on my turntable in those years that I liked, certainly, and I was aware of the corporate, cookie-cutter stuff, the Journeys, the REO Speedwagons, the Styxes, etc., that really did kind of lower the bar of what was lowest common denominator rock. But there were obviously good things, too. Roxy Music, Eno, Lou Reed, Iggy, and Bowie. So it wasn’t completely that way, but rock definitely needed a kick in the ass, and that’s what punk did.
AF: Was it worth paying $80 in 1978 for a pair of $5.50 face value tickets to see the first Sex Pistols show on American soil?
JS: Absolutely. Yeah sure, it was a good chunk of change to pay. It may have strained the budget, but I knew the experience was going to be memorable, good or bad. But I expected it to be quite amazing and cathartic and a hell of a lot of fun. And it was all of those things, even if the playing was, shall we say, rough in places. Sid not really being able to play bass, for instance.
AF: Rock journalist Jon Landau famously wrote of Bruce Springsteen’s 1974 show at Harvard Square Theatre, “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Did you have a similar feeling when you saw The Clash’s fifth US show at that same venue on February 16, 1979?
JS: Not necessarily. As great as it was, I was aware of the country I lived in. I was aware that the city I lived in, Boston — along with other cities like New York, L.A., Cleveland maybe — were gonna take to these guys, and they were going to be huge within a certain community. But the idea that they would be playing Shea Stadium with The Who? (laughs) No. That I did not ever really consider at all.
AF: Punk rockers frequently declared that their style was an anti-rock-star reaction to corporate rock, hyper-complex prog, and disco, and that they had — as you write — “ripped it up and started anew.”
However, Patti Smith co-wrote a song with Bruce Springsteen; The Fall covered Sister Sledge’s “Lost In Music”; Captain Sensible of The Damned admitted to being a Moody Blues fan; and Pete Shelley acknowledged that the Buzzcocks song “I Believe” was “a ripoff of the chords from Yes’s ‘Starship Trooper’.”
Aren’t all of these prime examples of artists punks were supposed to hate?
JS: Oh, sure. Yeah. It would be a mistake to assume that punk started something completely totally new, not connected to anything that came before it. I think at the time it happened, that was maybe the myth or partial reality that they wanted to convey.
So I think there were obviously strands of what came before. Mostly I think it was a bold statement meant to separate them from the pack, the pack being older guys. They were saying this is our time, our music. Only after that explosion, if you will, did people like Captain Sensible and Pete Shelley start talking about that stuff. Keep in mind, those were interviews not from 1977. These were interviews 10, 20, 30 years down the line when they were able to say, “yeah, we nicked a bit. We liked some of it.”
AF: Speaking of The Fall, did you know in advance of the release of Cerebral Caustic that Mark E. Smith had named the album after a phrase that you had used to describe his music?
JS: No. It showed up in the mail, like records did back in the day. I opened the box, looked at it, went “great, new Fall record. Alright.” Put it on, and then looked at the title, and go, “oh, that sounds familiar. Did I write that?” So I went back through the clips and went, “sonofabitch.”
AF: You note that PopMatters ranked Entertainment! by Gang of Four — whose drummer, Hugo Burnham, is a 25-year resident of Gloucester and Endicott College professor — number 1 in its survey of The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever. Do you agree with that assessment?
JS: Yeah, I would say so, honestly. I would agree with that.
It was such a harsh, sharp sound that maybe emphasized rhythm more than melody. It had a sort of abrasiveness to it that I found very ingratiating. It had basically taken what punk had started and moved it in another direction.
There’s plenty of other choices, too. It would be hard to say Joy Division is not the best ever. So maybe we can say it’s a tie between Gang of Four’s Entertainment! and both Joy Division records (Unknown Pleasures and Closer).
AF: In the chapter on The Feelies, you write, “I’d argue that their debut, Crazy Rhythms … was the best American post-punk album of 1980. Maybe of any year.” Does that qualify it for a spot in the company of the Gang of Four and Joy Division offerings?
JS: Yeah, I’d say so. Absolutely, at least in terms of albums that I still go back to. It made a big impact when it came out and continues to. Like Gang of Four, it’s aided by the fact that The Feelies are still a band. All that stuff remains fresh.
AF: Frank Black’s statement about the Pixies that “If anything, we inspired people to start a band. That’s what I’m most proud of…” obviously brought to my mind the quote — sometimes attributed to Brian Eno — that every one of the few people who bought the first Velvet Underground started a band.
Do you think that the Pixies qualify as the rightful heirs to The Velvet Underground’s legacy as a hugely influential band that wasn’t initially very popular?
JS: That’s an interesting question. Possibly. I see the music of the Velvets and Lou kind of winding their way through both books, to be honest. The Pixies, to an extent, most certainly the credit Nirvana gave them. I think the Velvets’ influence might be more long-lasting, but I think the Pixies sure had a lot to do with what happened with grunge, with their loud screaming vocals, the big guitar, and the jagged rhythms. So I think they are in that realm with the Velvets as an influential band that initially wasn’t popular.
AF: Let’s wrap up with a question about another Boston band. Greg Hawkes of The Cars said in one of your interviews with him that “people used to say they couldn’t tell ’em apart,” meaning singers Ric Ocasek and Ben Orr. I would definitely qualify as one of those people.
Do you think that there was a strategy in choosing to have one sing some songs and another sing others?
JS: Yeah, there certainly was. Who can do this best? You know, Ben was certainly the more photogenic, I guess, and as a central lead singer, he fit the bill more than Ric did. But I too find their vocals very similar, and there are times where I’m going, “I’m not sure either who’s singing this.”
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, Somerville Times, and Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and six-year-old twins — Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson — in Salem, MA.