Sullivan bids for legend status

by Jordan Green

The man who pokes his head out of the dressing room at the Garage wears a shy, friendly smile. He towers over the guys in his backing band, looking like the mutant offspring of Quentin Tarantino and Quasimodo, but exuding qualities of glamour and goodwill all the same with his black suit jacket charcoal-gray jeans and Converse tennis shoes.

Terry Sullivan is down from Buffalo, that battered industrial city in western New York, as part of a two-day promotional sprint organized by Kim Thore, who is recommending the veteran rock-and-roll front man for legend status by getting the word out about his new record, itemizing his long list of bands and pointing out his roots in the fertile glam-punk-new wave scene of downtown New York City in the late ’70s.

Sullivan has done an interview at the Guilford College campus station in Greensboro. Tomorrow he’ll do an in-store performance at a record shop and perform at the Raven in Burlington. Tonight, he wears a pleased expression as he surveys the dank cinder-block confines of the Garage in Winston-Salem, where Rock-92 DJ Eugene Sims, known as “the self-proclaimed bad boy of rock and roll,” will introduce him.

As his guitar player and keyboardist arrange cords onstage and puff miniature cigars, Sullivan wends his way to the back of the club and hands a voice processing machine the size of a license plate to the sound man. On his way back to the stage, he grabs the arm of the guitar player of the opening band.

“You guys sounded great,” he says.

Donny Farmer, a hard-bitten axe-man with a gray bowl cut and ’70s guitar-hero swagger, kicks off the band with a cold blast of raw noise. The bass pumps out an insistent throb, and the drummer and keyboardist lock into a groove that effortlessly transitions from shimmering vamp to garagey romp to statesmanlike rock catharsis.

Sullivan grips the mike stand, and sweat begins to glisten on his forehead by the second or third song. His reddish, curly hair projects an aureole from his head as he squints into the light. His vocals sound angry but hopeful, pleading and resigned as he sings, “I want to see you when the lights go out.”

Sullivan as a front man possesses old-school charisma, projecting a troubled but communitarian visage – a jaded, guarded vessel that pours forth its contents all the same. A comparison to David Bowie is often batted around when Sullivan’s name come up, and when he sings it’s easy to understand why. The same tortured vocals reaching for the high registers, drawing together the threads of Motown soul and psychedelic space exploration – or even the tormented Merseybeat soul of a young John Lennon – crop up in Sullivan’s style. It’s probably less a matter of technique than an attitudinal disposition to turn catastrophe into celebration.

“It’s Friday night and everybody’s off work tonight, but it’s so quiet here.” Sullivan says, before the band launches into a rollicking version of the country-folk standard “Tobacco Road.” “I feel like I’m in Toronto, but I’m down South.”

If the energy in the room is running at a low ebb, Sullivan makes it clear that it’s not due to any lack of commitment by the band. Close your eyes and it’s easy to imagine an ecstatic tribe pressed up against the stage to share a transcendent moment of rock-and-roll communion, but actually everyone is reclining at tables a good 10 paces back or hovering at the bar.

Back in the dressing room after the performance, Thore congratulates Sullivan.

“You were smoking out there,” she says.

She’s a doting minder.

“Terry, do you need water?” she asks.

He shakes his head side to side.

“Where’s the other bottle?”

It’s onstage, he tells her.

Later she returns and snaps some photographs of him.

He quickly runs through his history, beginning in the late ’70s.

“I was in a power-pop punk band called the Jumpers,” he says. “I moved to New York for a year, but I got pre-tuberculosis, so I had to leave.”

“New York is kind of like Disneyworld now,” he continues. “Back then it was like – what’s that movie with Robert DeNiro?”

“Taxi Driver?”

“It was very similar to that.”

He says, “I kind of morphed into a family guy. I kind of lost track of a lot of people. Bloodless Pharaohs, which turned into the Stray Cats. I supported the Talking Heads. We did our homecoming show with the Replacements.”

His story quickly comes up to the present, and to his current band.

“I have such a catalogue and those guys are such exceptional musicians,” Sullivan says, “that we just kind of reinvent it every night.”

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