Music » Music Lead

Okay to Be Weird

Denise Sullivan profiles artists who "let the freak flag fly."


Denise Sullivan opens Rip It Up! Rock & Roll Rulebreakers with a simple anecdote. When she received her first record player at age six, she took a copy of the Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow into her bedroom and "closed the door for the next 12 years."

"I only ever remember being interested in music that was extraordinary, outside, and different from that which was enjoyed by my peers," she writes. That experience forms the foundation for this book, a collection of interviews with rock innovators and eccentric figures, "all of whom made a singular contribution which set them apart from others."

In these artists, Sullivan, a music columnist for the Contra Costa Times, sees a reflection of her own otherness and draws from their proudly individualistic streaks. "When I'm afraid to accept the wacky part of others and myself, the music and artists on the fringe inform me of all that's good about that quality," she writes. "It shows a particular strength of character to be OK with one's weirdness, foibles, and uniqueness -- and to continue to do the unexpected and move forward in complete harmony."

Sullivan speaks from the standpoint of those born between 1960 and 1970 -- neither Boomers nor Gen-Xers -- who are looking for a band to call their own. They end up choosing acts that, in most cases, never rose above cult status (i.e., '80s college radio phenom Camper Van Beethoven) because, as Sullivan is fond of reminding us, their music predated the advent of alternative rock in the '90s. Still, she insists, "We have our bands. They aren't your Elvises or your Beatles, nor are they your Nirvanas, N.W.A.s, or even Becks. They're somewhere in between -- just people our age singing the songs of our lives."

Sullivan, who has a penchant for rootsier sounds, writes with affection for the Glasgow band Teenage Fan Club ("among my favorites in the history of rock music") and praises the "beautifully timeless" quality of their "underappreciated brand of guitar rock." They're underappreciated perhaps because, as Norman Blake, one of the group's three singer-songwriter-guitarists puts it, the media are "more interested in people who make outrageous statements than people who write songs."

In each profile, Sullivan includes a timeline and recommended recordings. She leans heavily on her subjects' musical history and output, which, in the case of a band that may be unknown to the reader, makes for less than interesting reading. When she widens the scope of the conversation to include topics beyond the minutiae of the band's history, the results are infinitely more entertaining.

Take married duo Julia and Buddy Miller, for example. They've gone from '70s bar singers to critics' darlings with their 1999 releases, Julia's Broken Things and Buddy's Cruel Moon, which made many year-end top 10 lists. Together, they describe how they've maintained a strong personal and professional relationship, which Julia attributes to a commitment to their marriage and to God.

Much of Rip It Up! can be read for the simple pleasure of getting inside the heads of creative artists ignored by the mainstream media. In a section devoted to rock and roll pioneers, Sullivan includes an upbeat profile of Wanda Jackson ("Let's Have a Party," "Fujiyama Mama"), who describes how she was encouraged by friend Elvis Presley to drop her country leanings in exchange for a hardcore rockabilly style. In the process, writes Sullivan, "[Jackson] invented a vocal style that was unheard of for her time in the late '50s -- not to mention by a teenage girl -- with her series of whoops, woos, and grrrrrs." The now sixtysomething born-again Christian still enjoys performing, even if she no longer has a huge audience.

Sullivan offers a more downbeat portrait of Ike Turner. The singer has been perpetually on the comeback trail since he was depicted as a wife and substance abuser in the film adaptation of ex-wife Tina's autobiography. "They did what they could do to make money," he tells Sullivan. "They didn't think about destroying someone's life. They've made it really hard for me." Sullivan doesn't focus solely on Turner's frustrations; she also acknowledges his impressive musical legacy.

Sullivan's profile of the Talking Heads, gathered for the first time since their '94 breakup to promote the rerelease of director Jonathan Demme's 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, is among the book's most revealing interviews. The article focuses on David Byrne's estrangement from the rest of the group (he remained in a room apart from his bandmates during Sullivan's interview) and finds the author witnessing a verbal free-for-all among the other three Heads, with Byrne as their primary target. Bassist Tina Weymouth, Byrne's harshest critic, accuses him of trying to keep his ex-bandmates from recording for the same record label. It's "a crime," she huffs, that has led to a situation "where you can't even feed your kids."

Another of the book's highlights is a cosmic conversation with Julian Cope, ex-frontman of the neo-psychedelic group the Teardrop Explodes. Proclaiming that "everything in my trip is a holistic thing," he shares his perspective on the origins of his prolific songwriting ("It has nothing to do with me, but it's a huge tumultuous tidal wave of white gooey cosmic light") and his tendency to shun TV and movies ("I can't take that kind of generation of energy").

Sullivan is empathetic toward artists "who, as they approach middle age, [are] still moving and growing and changing, relentless in their efforts to have their voices heard, even at the risk of appearing foolish or awkward." Such devotion to those rock and roll rulebreakers who "let the freak flag fly" forms the heart and soul of Sullivan's book.


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