Jimmy Rip: From Mick Jagger To Television (Interview)

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Before Jimmy Rip replaced Richard Lloyd as Television’s second guitarist in 2007, he had carved out a career for himself as a session player based in New York City. Over the years Rip recorded and toured with a hundred of artists including Mick Jagger, Deborah Harry and Jerry Lee Lewis. He has also been recording with Television founder Tom Verlaine since the early 1980s.

When Television makes their first trip to New Zealand later this month, Jimmy Rip will be there along with Verlaine, bassist Fred Smith and drummer Billy Ficca. The 13th Floor spoke to Jimmy Rip recently and talked to him about his life as a session player and his new career as a member of Television.

You can listen to the interview with Jimmy Rip here:

Or you can read a transcription of the interview here:

MD: Possibly the last time you were in New Zealand was closing out the Asian tour of Mick Jagger back in ’88, is that right?

JR: That is the last time, and I had a very big outdoor show in Auckland.

MD: That’s right. So what do you remember about that?

JR: I remember Mick getting hit in the head with a whiskey bottle that somebody threw from the audience. I remember Mick and I, we were kind of leaning against each other, very rock’n’roll, at the time it happened, and I remember actually holding him up for about ten seconds, because he was gone. It kind of went off the side of his head, and neither one of us saw it until it was about ten feet away, cause it was an outdoor show and it was just blackness in the audience, and it just came out of nowhere. I thought we sounded pretty good tonight, so I don’t know why anybody would want to throw a whiskey bottle, but, you know–!

MD: Sometimes logic doesn’t enter into it, I’m afraid!

JR: Not at all. I’m just joking – I mean, the story’s true but that’s not my only memory of New Zealand. I do remember the aquarium being amazing, the first one that had that plexiglass tube where you could sort of walk underwater with the fish? I hope that’s still there, ’cause I wanna go back!

MD: Yeah I believe it’s a place called Kelly Tarltons that you’re referring to. It’s still here.

JR: Okay, great. [laughs] Well I’ll be there sometime in October.

MD: Yeah, we’re looking forward to your exploits with Television here. Now, both Mick Jagger and Tom Verlaine are kind of enigmatic figures, and I was curious, comparing how working with the two of them is for you.

JR: Quite different, because first of all it’s been a very long long time working with Tom, and it’s been a long time since I’ve worked with Mick, probably about ten years since we’ve actually done anything together, other than say ‘hi’. But, well, it’s not so dissimilar; they both have really great ears, as far as being able to tell what they want and what they don’t want. Both a little bit frustratingly so, because both of them can work at something so hard that sometimes they lose great spontaneous things that should be there. But for me anyway, I’m much more of a blues and jamming kind of player, although I’ve been playing– narrowing something down to such a finite degree is not my favourite thing to do, but both these guys… they know what they want, and they ask for it ‘til they get it. That’s the job of playing with them and it can be a beautiful thing, and it can also make you crazy. [laughs]

MD: And I imagine part of the job is sizing each of these folks up and determining what it is they want from you, and how much input. How do you go about doing that as a player, when you first meet up with these guys?

JR: You know, I used to worry about that, but at this point I’ve been around for so long that if somebody’s gone to the trouble of hiring me to do something, I pretty much figure they want what I can do. For me it’s always about the song, it’s a very old cliché, but everything you do has to serve the song somehow. As long as you’re doing that you can rarely go wrong, only if (like I said) someone’s got that real specific thing that they’re just hearing in their head. And I, as a band leader of my own bands, I really understand that, if there’s something in my head that’s just there and that’s the way I hear it, then I’m going to bug the player until they give me what I what. Especially if I’m paying them good money. [laugh] Working with both Mick and Tom is fantastic – talk about icons of what they do. It’s been very cool and I’ve learned an incredible amount from both of them. I consider myself very lucky to have been around both of them a lot.

MD: You’re actually a member of Television at this point, replacing Richard Lloyd, so that’s even, I would imagine, a different kind of experience, becoming part of a unit like that. Was it difficult to step into that role?

JR: Yeah, also ignoring the occasional ‘Where’s Richard?!’ from people. [laughs] I just had to delete one those on Facebook about ten minutes ago! If anyone’s a real fan of the band, I understand wanting to see the original lineup, but you know, the lineup with Richard’s not even the original lineup. If they’re bugging me about that, they should be screaming to get Richard Hell back. But Richard Lloyd left the band quite voluntarily in 2007, and I think it was just the easiest thing for the other three guys to ask me to join up, because I’ve been playing with Tom for 32 years, and I’ve definitely done way more shows with Tom than Richard would ever do. So people should just relax because the band sounds great in this lineup. [laughs] And also Tom is a lot happier to do shows, I think, with this lineup – not that there’s any secret that Tom and Richard butted heads quite a bit, you know, from the very beginning, and so Richard quit seven years ago. So I try to replicate the best I can the things that Richard played on the records, and on the new songs I just be me. Or I be as much me as Tom lets me be. [laughs]

MD: So there are new songs to be played, is that correct? 

JR: Oh yeah, absolutely. We just did a tour of South America, and Japan and Korea, and every show I think there were either three or four new songs. We started a record in 2008 and there’s a lot of really great basic tracks sitting around waiting for Tom to write lyrics and sing, and uh… one of these days… [laughs] One of these days he’ll get around to it and we’ll have a record to sell when we do these live shows, which I think is—I mean, at this point we all think it’s crazy that we’re out there doing live shows with literally nothing to promote or sell. And we all love to play live and it sounds great and everything, but it would be nice if there was a little bit more of a reason. But I’m hoping it’ll be soon, because when we started rehearsals for the South America tour in April, Tom showed up with about ten songs, and we narrowed it down to about four or five, and every show we’d rotate them around, and they’re just really great songs.

MD: Is it just a reluctance from him to want to get into the studio?

JR: Oh man, I would never even begin to try to put words into Tom’s mouth. Who knows his reasons? No, he’s at home in his laboratory conducting experiments. Which is the answer that he likes me to give to that question. [laugh]

MD: So you’re a New York City guy yourself, right?

JR: Not anymore, for more than 30 years, but yeah I was born there.

MD: So did you kind of hang out in the late 70s – I don’t know how old you are, so I’m not sure if you’re old enough to, but did you take part in the CBGB scene?

JR: No, I was busy making money. [laughs] I didn’t see that scene, though to me it was fascinating and I knew about it, I was aware it was happening, but at 18, 19, 20 years old I was playing with bands that had record deal. I never did care what kind of music it was, so long as I felt it was really good music. So I played with pop bands and disco bands and if I thought the songs were great, I was willing to go. That’s how I learned- I learned from playing along with the radio in New York in the ‘60s and the 70s. At that time radio was so much looser and so much better, that you could hear Beethoven,  Howlin’ Wolf and The Beatles all in the same set from the same station. They weren’t so… all the genres weren’t so isolated. I grew up in New York listening to absolutely everything and trying to play it. I mean, in the same week in 1981 I auditioned for Tom and I auditioned for Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and got both jobs. I was just lucky that one tended to be working when the other wasn’t, and it just worked out that way, so I did both of those gigs for a long time. It didn’t matter to me, because both of them had great songs.

MD: And another mainstay of that scene is Deborah Harry and Blondie, and I know that you played on her Rockbird album in ’86. It kind of looks on the outside like you were kind of doing the same thing, filling in for Chris Stein, as you’re replacing Richard Lloyd in Television. Was it a similar situation?

JR: No, not at all, because for one thing it was a solo record, not a Blondie record, and also it was when Chris was very very sick and in the hospital, and a very good friend of mine, Seth Justman from the J. Geils Band produced that Deborah Harry record. He basically got the people that he loved to play on that record, so it was a great band. And that just kind of came from being a New York session player, which is what I did, you know, in the studio with five different people, five different days of the week. So that was much more of a “my friend’s producing and I’m a New York session player” kind of situation – there was no real ‘band’ really involved.

MD: And would that’ve been the same situation when you played on Ian Hunter’s album, All the Good Ones are Taken?

JR: Yeah, all that whole period from 1980 to really 1990, that whole ten years, I was always just waiting to see who would call that day, and book what. It was a very different world, ‘cause there were no home studios, there was no Pro Tools, blah blah blah. So if you wanted to make a record you went into the studio and it was also the era of the producer and the singer, so you needed a band. It wasn’t so much a ‘band’ thing like it is now. And also, if you don’t have your band, lots of people just make their records at home. I really miss sitting in a studio with four or five musicians, some which you know and some which you don’t and someone putting a new song in front of you and trying to make the best of it. It was a very exciting, very interesting way of life. For me that lasted about 10 years.

MD: And were there any particularly musical moments that were magical in that era, that just kind of came out of nowhere and took you by surprise?

JR: I don’t know about magical… some of the funniest ones are the ones that people will groan over, but I mean, I remember lots of times walking into a studio and there would be 25 musicians set up and ready to play. It could be an elevator music session, which I did a lot of, just playing cover songs. There’s something amazing about sitting down in front of a piece of music that you’ve never played before, and looking at it and going “Wow, this is weird, I don’t play there and then I play this here and I do that and that,” and the guy counts it off and all of sudden you realise that the part that you thought was weird, you’re playing along with the string players. And the part where you don’t play, something huge happens with the drums or something. It was an interesting time. That’s totally lost now, nobody does that at anymore. The only time that happens at all, I think, is in big film score gigs in Los Angeles, which I did a little bit of when I went to LA.

MD: I’m a huge fan of music from the 1950s, and I know you worked with Jerry Lee Lewis on that Last Man Standing album, and from what I understand from reading, it was quite a project for you. I’m just hoping you can tell me what it was like to have to round up all those musicians and put that thing together.

JR: That was insane. It took almost five years from the time we started to the time it came out. And it wasn’t like we had it in the can for a few years and we were waiting – I finished that thing about four months before it came out. We were still trying to get people on it; for instance, the very last person I put on the record was the person who wrote the very first song that we did for the record, that was Jimmy Page, who I’ve known for a real long time. He was going through all kinds of stuff –  he got divorced, and then he really hurt his back doing the Black Crowes tour, then he broke his little finger… like, a bunch of bad shit happened to him in a row. He knew that I was making the record, and literally maybe only Tom Jones in the world is a bigger Jerry Lee fan than Jimmy Page. Jimmy Page, in the time of pen pals, in the 50s, used to have an American pen pal who he wrote to, only to get the guy to mail him Jerry Lee Lewis records. And he told me that and I thought, well maybe he was stretching the truth a little bit, then it turns out that that guy actually sold all of Jimmy’s letters on eBay right around that time. And Jimmy said “Well, you’ve gotta read the letters,” and every one of them was just asking about Jerry Lee, ‘what do you know?’ and ‘when’s his new record?’, so he was all for being on the record the second I asked him, but then things kept happening. Every time I would run into him somewhere, he was like, “Am I too late? Am I too late?” and I’d say “No you’re not too late, come!” And he’d say “Alright alright, I’m gotta practise. I’m gonna practise and I’ll call you,”, and I was like, “Okay, practise and call me!” and I’d see him two months later and he’d say “No no, I’m almost ready!”. So I’m like, okay… I thought he was handing me a line after a while, but it turned out it was all true, and I wound up flying to London and recording him in his little rehearsal studio he has out in the suburbs. So there was one story after another like that. I made phone calls to BB King’s managers for almost three years. And every time I’d call he’d say “BB is not recording with anybody this year, that’s it, no!” and I’d say thank you very much. And two weeks later I’d call and say “Hi, I see BB’s playing in Vegas, I live in Los Angeles, I could be there” – “No, he’s not doing anything!”. Three years I did that, and finally the guy said, “You are the most persistent producer I’ve ever seen in my life”. He said, “Okay, can you be in New York?” I said, “I’ll be anywhere”. So I flew to New York and I recorded BB in my hotel room on my laptop with Pro Tools. So I just had to keep calling and calling and calling. And the artists always wanted to do it, the problem was always the managers and the record companies, because they couldn’t figure out how they were gonna make money on it. You know, like, come on – all these guys are superstars, just let them do what they wanna do!

MD: And what was Jerry Lee like throughout this whole process?

JR: Jerry was great; Jerry was great from the first day. We pretty much laughed our way through all the sessions. He always showed up and he had one little bad moment in Los Angeles where I think it was just not his best day, not feeling so great, and he got a little grumpy… but really, I’m not kidding, in four years it was only one day like that. He was always, whether he wasn’t feeling good or whether he was, he was always on time, he always turned up, and he always gave it whatever he had to give on that day. I have all the outtakes, I threatened the recording engineer with death if he ever stopped recording, because you know, with computer recording it’s not like you’re gonna run out of tape. So I said, “Don’t you ever turn that fucking machine off, never”. So I have every conversation, every story– just the hour of recording George Jones and Jerry Lee together, seven takes of the song and then like ten minutes of talking between each take. That was funnier than any comedy show I’ve ever seen in my life, those guys were amazing talking to each other.

MD: –I can imagine–

JR: And I have all that shit. Someday I’ll sell it on eBay! [laughs]

MD: Yeah, there you go! That’s your retirement fund right there! So you and Television will be here soon and I know a lot of people are looking forward to it, because I don’t think Television has overexposed themselves live here in this part of the world—

JR: –no, that’s for sure!

MD: I don’t think they care whether Richard Lloyd is there or not!

JR: And they shouldn’t! Those are the same people that go to a Stones show and yell “Where’s Brian?”, you know, it’s like, come on! Bands change! “Where’s Bill?” –  well, Bill’s home, he’s happy and he left the band, come on, enjoy the music. If I don’t do it, then there’s gonna be no Television live and then you can sit and listen to the old records and that’s all you’ve got. It’s much better to have the band out there playing, and hearing the songs, because we do basically the whole Marquee Moon record and we’re playing a special festival in Melbourne, the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, and for that show we are doing Marquee Moon from the beginning to the end, and we’ve never done that. That’s a very special thing, and if I was a big fan of Television, and I am, that’s something I would love to go to.

Absolutely – I was DJing at a club last night and played Elevation from Marquee Moon, and it sounded great in that environment, and people responded to it.

Actually I was just sitting and learning that, because there are a few songs that we haven’t done. Like Torn Curtain, that is a really really hard song, so all four of us are studying right now, we’re going back to Television school.

Veronica McLaughlin is a free-lance photographer and writer, as well as web-Master for The 13th Floor.