Ray Charles

Elvin Jones

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Ronald Reagan

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Robert Quine

Robert Quine’s death was as depressing as suicides come. Maybe he would find it funny that the lead-in of his obit read something like “Punk Musician Dead of Heroin Overdose.” For those who knew nothing of him or his work, the only apparent punch line was that he made it to 61.

But what was most admirable about him was that he wasn’t Peter Laughner(1). Not to denigrate Laughner — he was a great talent and a great loss — but Quine stood for something altogether different from standard R ’n’ R autodestruct. Obviously, there was the “square” image — bald 40-ish looking guy in sport jacket, etc. But more importantly, there was his obsessively studious approach to an awe-inspiring array of music.

The guy lived and breathed American popular music: he was an encyclopedia of jazz, blues, rockabilly and early rock ’n’ roll styles. While Quine worshiped the Velvet Underground (see The Bootleg Series Volume One: The Quine Tapes), early-’70s Miles Davis funk-jazz albums (such as On The Corner and Get Up With It), and recited the merits of Charlie Christian to no end (he apparently learned note-for-note all of Christian’s solos on the “Swing to Bop” recording from the Minton’s Playhouse sessions — no small feat), perhaps his greatest inspiration was the primitive, often simplistic ’50s rock ’n’ roll of Mickey Baker, Richie Valens and Link Wray. Not exactly the influences of your prototypical punk rocker, though he was capable of a prodigiously unholy racket that could — and often did — put his CBGB peers to shame.

His guitar work sounds like an unruly combination of his influences: glasslike tonality, repeating jazz/funk-grooves, wild abandon, brutal precision. His solo on Lou Reed’s “Waves of Fear” (from The Blue Mask) sounds at first like sheer, inarticulate rage, but on second listen as sharp and starkly beautiful as Miles Davis covering White Light/White Heat. You can’t walk away from it unchanged. His guitar work on Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ Blank Generation album hardly sounds like it came from the same universe, let alone the same scene, as The Ramones. His solo albums take the same set of influences to their extremes.

Bob’s playing belied a humanity, a dignity and a soul that somehow clawed their way through often indifferent or inhospitable musical surroundings and were all the better for it. His solo on the Voidoids’ “Betrayal Takes Two” alone assures immortal status. The combination of percussive tone, off-putting timing and sheer scale blisters the ears of even the most jaded listeners. Quine’s screeching, deformed blues licks perfectly emulate the sound of one’s heart being ripped out and repeatedly stomped with a pair of stiletto heels. In that 36 seconds, Quine captured the transience and degradation of human relationships and the futile dignity in the face thereof in a way no musician has before or since.

Quine mostly recorded as a sideman. Besides the Voidoids, his most notable gigs were in Lou Reed’s Blue Mask-era band and as a studio accessory to Lloyd Cole and Matthew Sweet. He recorded three albums of his own material — Escape (with Jody Harris), Basic (with Fred Maher), and Painted Desert (with Marc Ribot and Ikue Mori) — but, even if you can find copies, they’re simply not very accessible to most listeners. Perusing a list of his recordings, you will see a few other names you know — Lydia Lunch, John Zorn, and Tom Waits — and lots of names you’ve never heard — such as Corin Curschellas, Kazuyoshi Saito and Lys Guillorn. If you read further, you’ll see that he didn’t often play on the whole recording, but just a track or two. What gives?

Robert Quine produced his work — and lived his life — to impossibly high standards. In his work, this led to fantastic high quality (every track he played on is worth hunting down, even the inaccessible ones), but infrequent, obscure output. He revealed in interviews how he would agonize over crafting perfect guitar solos and sounds tailored to each song. In his personal life, those standards led to burned bridges: more than once, he threw away long friendships over perceived slights or shoddy work, most notably (again) with Matthew Sweet and Lou Reed (about whom he said, “Encouraging him to play guitar again was digging my own grave. But I would have done it again because I owed it to him. This guy changed my life.” Link: http://www.furious.com/perfect/quine.html). With so many bridges burnt (Quine’s regret over not speaking with Lou Reed the last time they ran into each other in this interview takes on new levels of poignancy with his death), most of Quine’s recent album credits are rereleases of older material or out-of-country gigs.

He had endured some rough sailing in recent years, culminating with the death of his wife, Alice Sherman Quine, in August 2003. By all accounts he was in many respects a profoundly angry and unhappy man. How sad and ironic that he went out in the way he did: this was the man who took pains to be the Velvets’ student but not their subject; the same man who, in discussing the endemic drug use in the NYC punk scene, reasoned that he did not become a junkie because he had learned the evils of drug use from watching Dragnet on TV.

His influence will continue to be heard every time some indie rock guitarist takes an unexpected, jazzy, or complex turn. He was a genuine original, an iconoclast who led the way for punk to be smart and self-possessed, and a big brother to those of us who could hear his shepherding influence. It’s a damn shame that he’s gone.