Ivan Julian reflects on a lifetime of making music ‘Without a Net’

Ivan Julian interview

IVAN JULIAN

Ivan Julian — a co-founder of the seminal punk group Richard Hell & the Voidoids and a member of many notable New York and New Jersey bands for more than 45 years — will perform and tell stories about his life in a show titled “Working Without a Net: An Evening of Songs and Stories with Ivan Julian” at City Winery in New York, Dec. 5. He is also writing a memoir with the same “Working Without a Net” name.

The guitarist, pianist, songwriter and producer has contributed to acclaimed albums such as The Clash’s Sandinista! and Matthew Sweet’s Altered Beast, and also has worked with The Foundations, The Isley Brothers, Richard Barone, James Mastro and Shriekback. He owns a recording studio, Super Giraffe Sound in Brooklyn, where The Fleshtones, Sean Lennon, Marshall Crenshaw and others have recorded.

His eclectic style and guitar prowess blend powerfully with rawly emotional songs about the complexities of love, loss and passion. He is a tender poet in one song and a joyful rocker in the next. Sometimes he is both in one song.

The City Winery show will celebrate his life as well as his recovery from cancer. He was diagnosed in 2015, and his path from diagnosis to treatment to recovery has given him insight and focus that fuels his evocative 2020 album Swing Your Lanterns (released in Europe and awaiting release in the United States) and his soon-to-be released instrumental album, Speechless. He will play songs from The Foundations, Swing Your Lanterns, his 2011 album The Naked Flame, the Richard Hell & the Voidoids catalog and more.

“I’m going to touch on different periods of my life and make (the stories) amusing,” he said. “You have to have a sense of humor in life even when tragic things happen to you. I plan to make people laugh and cry” — which, as Joni Mitchell sang in her song “People’s Parties,” is “the same release.”

Ivan Julian interview

The cover of Ivan Julian’s album, “The Naked Flame”

The Naked Flame (listen to the title track below) is an intense, energizing and edgy album. In the title track, he eloquently describes “the core essence of love, that flame that burns when you’re with someone that you truly love,” he said. “Also, I wanted to write a modern version of (Jimi Hendrix’s) ‘(Let Me Stand Next to Your) Fire.’ ”

Julian’s wild guitar style has been compared to Hendrix’s — a comparison, Julian said, that started when he began playing a white Stratocaster. He sings in “The Naked Flame:

I’m not here to try to deceive you,
I came through these ashes just to be by your side
Come on and take my hand and try and be courageous
The sparks may fly, so baby close your eyes
I’m burnin’ down real slow
And baby here we go
‘Cause I just wanna get close to the naked flame
Of your love

His stunning cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Broken Butterflies” (from her 2001 album Essence), with its hushed, poetic vocals, expresses angst that is enhanced by an emotionally gut-wrenching guitar. Julian spoke of his admiration for Williams’ song “Greenville” from Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and considers her “one of the greatest songwriters of all time.”

He wrote the gorgeous, dreamy “Cazalla,” from Swing Your Lanterns, on a snowy day in a hotel when he was touring with Matthew Sweet. “The day after a show there was so much snow that we weren’t able to travel and we started reading Edgar Allan Poe together,” he said, adding “there were lines that made me think about the area where we were and the fact that so many towns, and so many places in the United States, have American Native names. This is a different country than you might imagine.”

He sings in “Cazalla”:

Well, it rained outside Ogalla,
Where most people seldom go.
You sat me down and told me,
“All I loved, I loved alone.”
And it was just this side of Winter,
Where the Red Rocks meets the sky,
You said “I’ll meet you in Cazalla
And then I’ll tell you why.”

IVAN JULIAN

During the City Winery concert, he will perform “The Beat” from The Naked Flame with David Amram reciting the lyrics. “In the newer album, there’s more reflection in the lyrics and consideration about how to backdrop them with instrumentation and guitars,” he said.

He suggests that people listen to the album in sequence as “it is written to be a book with a start, a middle and an end. Most of the songs were written before I got sick, and after I emerged from languishing from my illness, my first thought was, ‘You have to make this record.’ ”

He included some acoustic songs on the album that were, in part, inspired by his notes written while touring “about being in different environments and looking for sex and love or being hurt by it.”

(Watch the video directed by his son, Austin Sley Julian for “Voodoo Christmas,” from Swing Your Lanterns, below. The hypnotic song, in which he meditates on having a bad day, serves as his ironic Christmas song).

“Music enables me to be what I do,” he said. So getting back to rehearsing for the City Winery concert makes him “feel solvent and whole,” he said. It is not in his nature to punch out at 5 p.m. and leave his work behind.

Though the cancer was thought to be in remission in 2016, it recurred. But after surgery to excise a lump, he is now doing well. He must be checked frequently at Mt. Sinai Hospital for the next five years. “I feel good now until I go near the doctors,” he said, wryly.

Julian will be accompanied at City Winery by Mastro on electric guitar; Al Maddy on acoustic guitar, piano and electric guitar; Florent Barbier on drums; Jared Michael Nickerson on bass; Mike Ratti on percussion; and Debby Schwartz and Judy Ann Nock on vocals. Guest performers will include Barone, Vernon Reid of Living Colour, Glenn Mercer of The Feelies and others.

Julian’s colleagues have great affection and admiration for him.

“Ivan Julian is one of the main reasons I play guitar,” said Mastro in a prior interview. “I first saw him play at CBGB in 1977. I’d never seen a guitarist command a stage and instrument with such excitement like that before. I just remember his right hand was driving up and down like a jackhammer, while his left hand moved like a flock of startled starlings over the neck of his Stratocaster.”

Julian played with Mastro’s band, The Health & Happiness Show, on and off from 1999 to 2001, and with Mastro’s earlier band Strange Cave. Mastro added in a recent conversation, “Ivan Julian doesn’t play guitar — Ivan Julian is a guitar. When you are in a room with him, everything vibrates like a low E string. This hasn’t changed in the 40-plus years I’ve known and worked with him. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more exciting performer who writes songs combining chaos and beauty in the same breath.”

“When I first heard Ivan, breaking out with his solos and backing vocals on the Blank Generation album with Richard Hell — and then with his own bands — I knew he was ahead of his time,” said Barone, adding “he’s the kind of musician who not only pushes the boundaries but pushes through them. Young listeners today finally ‘get it.’ What he was doing then is what guitarists try to do now. Working with him through the years has never ceased to inspire me.”

Julian was celebrated at a 2015 benefit concert at City Winery that raised funds to cover his medical and living expenses during cancer treatments. The show featured Debbie Harry of Blondie, Matthew Sweet, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Ian Hunter, Garland Jeffreys, Willie Nile, The Bush Tetras, Barone, Mastro and others. City Winery recorded the concert and Julian says he plans to look into getting permission to have the recording released.

His friends organized a second fundraiser in 2020 when cancer returned, but he cancelled it because he did not think it necessary.

For the upcoming show, he has been “rehearsing orchestral-style, in sections, so when they all come together, it will be glorious music,” he said.

This is something new for him, but he says this is “the way orchestras rehearse. You play the rhythm section, strings, then the horns, and then you bring it together.”

Reflecting on his illness and comeback, he said, “I was on the very edge of being alive and dead and I had a long time to think.”

Richard Hell & the Voidoids (from left, Marc Bell, Ivan Julian, Robert Quine and Richard Hell).

He added, “It’s strange to see how the mind works because I’d say to myself, ‘You’ve been such an asshole,’ and then I’d say a couple hours later, ‘You’ve been such a wimp.’ I’d vacillate between these two things because you look back at your life and realize this is the moment when it could all be over, and I thought about what I had done and how I have treated people and let them treat me. It made me appreciate myself and things around me more. It made me examine my actions before I carry them out.

“I take absolutely nothing for granted. When I was able to walk again, I was on 43rd Street between Lexington and Park Avenue, not an incredibly beautiful part of the city, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is so beautiful.’ ”

Julian told me about his childhood living on Guantanamo Bay, the naval base in Cuba, where his father was stationed in the Navy; his family’s hasty evacuation from Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis; their relocation to Maryland and Washington, D.C.; and that area’s institutionalized racism, with “white only” signs and churches with seating divided by race. He plans to discuss these memories at the City Winery show.

Though his mother was proud of his musical career, his father was less accepting of it (“he would never say Hell when discussing Richard Hell,” Julian said). When Julian played with Matthew Sweet on “Late Show With David Letterman,” his mother “had the whole county in Virginia watching,” he said.

Classically trained on saxophone and bassoon and groomed by his teachers to perform with orchestras, Julian found freedom at age 13 from the conformity of his education via Hendrix. Like a rolling stone, he changed his direction to the complete unknown world of rock ‘n’ roll. He knew in that moment he had no direction home and, indeed, he would eventually leave Washington, D.C., to pursue rock ‘n’ roll in Europe and then New York. Creating original sounds would be at the center of his personal and professional life.

“All my instructors from age 13 until high school wanted me to go to conservatory and become a classical musician,” he sad. “I didn’t like that environment. I found them to be bigoted and ultra-conservative, not just in a racial sense, in a cultural sense. Jimi Hendrix and the music culture at the time confirmed to me that it’s okay to be an outsider. And it’s preferable. You don’t fit in and don’t try to fit it.”

His toured Europe before his 18th birthday with the pop group The Foundations, known for the hits “Build Me Up Buttercup” and “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” then moved back to New York, where he played on and wrote for Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ landmark 1977 album Blank Generation and playing on The Clash’s Sandinista!, released in 1980. (The Voidoids opened for The Clash and others on tour).

In addition, he co-founded the groups The Outsets (with Feelies co-founder Vinny DeNunzio and others) and The Lovelies (with his then-wife, Bush Tetras singer-songwriter Cynthia Sley, and others).

Ivan Julian interview

A poster for the documentary, “You Don’t Know Ivan Julian”

Geoffray Barbier’s documentary “You Don’t Know Ivan Julian” — featuring Hell, Barone, Reid, Garland Jeffreys and Alejandro Escovedo, and available on Amazon Prime — contains stories that Julian will share at the concert.

In the film, Barone says, “Ivan can play the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll in one solo.”

“When I’m playing a solo, I draw from history, especially when I’m creating a solo,” said Julian. “I think of Chopin. I think of fun. This is your moment to have fun and I’m so privileged to have fun this way. … I might take three notes from Charlie Christian and put it in a solo where you wouldn’t expect it. When I play a solo it has to encapsulate what the song means and draw from so many different sources.

“Some of the best guitar players do that. Jimi Hendrix’s song ‘Are You Experienced?’ is opened with a country lick, and if you don’t play guitar, you might not know that. Sometimes when I’m playing, a solo will just have one or two notes in it because that’s what I want. I try to make a choice.”

He talked about his observations of cultural and political changes in the post-Vietnam War era, and the time he called up the American Nazi headquarters when he was in high school, after a rally turned violent. He was most disturbed by hearing the sounds of children in the background. “I thought, ‘Now this is another generation that are going to brought up with bigotry,’ ” he said.

“When I was in the greater Washington area, coming of age I landed a job in a law firm,” he sad. “Then I met people on the west side of Washington who liked themselves, and worked downtown close to the pillars of power, and they were happy with that. And it gave me the outlook that not everything needs to be a major challenge.”

When he left England for New York, the area faced economic crisis, but an opportunity was provided by an exciting community of musicians who gathered in downtown nightclubs, including CBGB, and landed inexpensive rents in the East Village in the same place now gentrified by million-dollar condos.

“People ask me, ‘How’d you guys do it?,’ ” Julian said. “I say, ‘Rent was $125 and even back then, when we had no money, it was easy to make that happen at the end of the month. I used to wear a T-shirt which sums up what you’re asking. It said, “Animals thrown together by fate,” because everybody there was from somewhere else – some other part of the country – some other part of the world.’

“People gravitated to this place to make music — much like the jazz scene in the ’50s when (Charlie) Parker and all those people came here. It was the same thing. I liked that kind of atmosphere. Most of the people — except The Ramones — came from all different parts of the world at this time to make music.

“I remember walking to CB’s one time and thinking, ‘This little hole in the wall is going to become really famous. People are going to remember this.’ Blondie and The Ramones hadn’t yet blown up. They were popular, but they weren’t a national charting phenomenon, but I just knew that.

“I wanted to go to a place where I could see music most of the time and play music … and that was what happened at CBGB.”

I asked Julian about the genre he is usually associated with — punk rock — though the term doesn’t capture, I believe, all that he is.

“Punk rock is a label put on by Macy’s,” he said. “One day we saw in The New York Times that Macy’s had clothes with safety pins all over them.”

He fit in at CBGB, he said, because the bands defied genres and played different types of music every night. “I played in country bands and Irish bands,” he said. “I am curious about all kinds of music. I am a student.”

Richard Hell & the Voidoids (from left, Robert Quine, Richard Hell, Marc Bell and Ivan Julian).

Julian said The Voidoids’ model for making Blank Generation (listen to the title track below) was The Yardbirds, and that they did not identify their music as punk, but rather rock ‘n’ roll. “We had two guitar players who both played lead, hopefully not at the same time, and we never had our hands on the neck in the same place,” he said.

He felt that most of the musicians who were part of the CBGB scene were embracing. But there were conflicts among some of the bands.

“In 1975, there were a lot of politics going on between the bands,” Julian said. “Richard (Hell) was in a band with Tom Verlaine — the Neon Boys. Tom kicked him out. I became friends with Richard Lloyd, who played in Television, and Lenny Kaye, who was in Patti’s (Smith) band.”

Julian explained that Smith, Verlaine and Lloyd were all poets performing at St. Mark’s Church in the same time period. “They allowed the poets to recite and no one else would,” said Julian. “Then they approached Hilly (Kristal) and he let them come to CBGB to do it and that’s how the whole thing at CBGB started. Before, it was a biker club because Hilly was in the Hell’s Angels.

“I met Jim (Mastro) when Richard Lloyd was forming his own band after Television,” he said. “Richard was debuting his band with Jim, who was underage — 17 or something. He was a really down-to-earth, good person.”

Julian attributes his songwriting influences to a variety of inspiring writers and poetic musicians, including Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Lucinda Williams, PJ Harvey, Emmylou Harris, Edgar Allan Poe, Joni Mitchell and Howlin’ Wolf.

He described his songwriting process this way: “What I do is observe things or I’m triggered by a book or an experience and then I couple that with the backdrop of music. Sometimes they exist separately for a long time, sometimes they happen at the same time.

“I love poetry, but I especially like poetry with music. Music helps poetry. Sometimes I read a book and I have to write about it. The song we are doing at the show called ‘Can’t Help Myself’ (from Swing Your Lanterns), I wrote after reading a Charles Bukowski story.”

During the CBGB days, he was inspired by some of the women on the scene, including Cynthia Sley, Patti Smith and Debbie Harry.

“One thing that upset me, though, was when Patti got more famous and she did TV shows and she was mocked on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ She was herself, and why should that matter in the men’s corporate world, but it does matter.”

Ivan Julian with Robert Quine.

He found The Voidoids through a classified ad. “(Guitarist) Robert Quine called me up to play music in rehearsal studio in the music building on 30th Street,” he said. “It was the epitome of what I thought New York would be.”

“Marc Bell was on drums, Richard (Hell) was on bass and Quine was conducting the rehearsal. Quine said, ‘We have three songs.’ So I thought, ‘This is great. They needed someone to write.’ I thought Quine was Richard. Richard was nodding out. Marc was behind the drums with a pint of vodka, swigging in between the songs. They had ‘Blank Generation,’ ‘You Gotta Loose’ and ‘Another World.’ ‘Blank Generation’ didn’t have an intro. I liked the music and what they were doing.”

At the end of the audition Quine asked him to play in the band. “He laid out the plan,” Julian said. “Richard (Hell) got a production deal and he would pay us a salary while we rehearsed. Then we’d put out a single and he’d get us a major record deal. That was the plan and it played out like that, but in a much longer time frame than I thought.”

The Clash requested that the band open for them. “They had heard Blank Generation and they really liked it,” said Julian. “We met them during soundcheck. I met Topper (Headon) and Mick (Jones) and Joe (Strummer) — they were sweet guys. I became friends with them and we did the tour and it was pretty crazy because there was a very anti-American sentiment in England at the time. They were sick of us. Of our cars, our influence on them. We would come out to play and the audience would start chanting, ‘The same old thing, the same old thing.’ ”

At a jam session with The Clash at Electric Lady Studios in New York, Julian told them a disturbing story that he said The Clash turned into the song, “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe” (listen below). While the song references conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, it also mentions Julian’s awful night at the Studio 54 nightclub.

“It was after the heyday of Studio 54 and I’d never been,” he said. So he visited and “there was nobody there but me and a bouncer who kept following me around.”

He also played on The Clash’s “The Call Up” at that session. Julian said that he felt “bonded” to Mick Jones “because we were born pretty much at the same minute, June 26, 1955, at 11 in the morning. Meeting someone born at the same time as you, you try to factor in magnetics and star signs and you see the similarities and the differences … When we were doing the tour this came up because we were standing in the exact same spot on the stage in our respective bands.”

IVAN JULIAN

Opening shows for The Clash in England was a “rough and tumble” experience, he sad.

“There was a time when Robert Quine took off his guitar and knocked some guy’s teeth out. Quine looked like a truant officer. You wouldn’t expect it. What prompted him to do it was spitting. This guy was spitting on him. On that tour you would wake up at 9 a.m. and you’d know that by the end of the night you’d be covered in spit. When you looked at these people’s faces (in the audience), they were maniacal.

“Then when we got back to the States, people starting doing that, so I put my guitar down.”

His work as a producer was inspired largely by Nick Lowe. “After Blank Generation was released, we opened for Elvis Costello during the Armed Forces Tour. Nick Lowe was Elvis Costello’s producer and also had a band called Rockpile with Dave Edmunds. Richard (Hell) and Sire Records were not getting along well. So Elvis’ manager decides before the tour he was going to make a single with us and put it out.”

Working with Lowe as a producer “turned the Voidoids into a pop band,” said Julian. “And the way he worked with sounds and personalities, I never forgot. He’s my main influence as a producer, not ‘only, ‘ but main. He was great to work with.”

Julian thinks there is still a vibrant music scene, though “it’s not as concentrated as it was. The younger people have a whole thing going on in Bushwick. But what has changed is the affordability of it. How do you play music when you’re not getting paid that much and rent is two or three thousand dollars?” he asked.

The musician’s life is not an easy path. But it never was. Julian said that he, along with most everyone, is still working without a net.

“It’s a life-long state of being for everybody, because you never know what kind of challenges are going to come your way,” he said. “And very rarely is it any kind of linear plane.”

For more, visit facebook.com/ivan.julian.77.

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