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Interview: Suzi Quatro

Suzi Quatro
1 July 2020

In 1973, Suzi Quatro became the very first true female rock star. Of course, there had been other famous women in the music business before then, but Quatro was the first one who led her own band, singing and playing bass (and writing many of her own songs). Originally from Detroit, Quatro was only 14 years old when she began recording and touring across America with The Pleasure Seekers. By her early 20s, Quatro had moved to London, where she put her own group together. With singles like “Can the Can” (1973), “48 Crash” (1973), and “Devil Gate Drive” (1974), Quatro became a superstar across Europe and Australia. Since then, Quatro has sold 50 million albums worldwide, and she isn’t stopping yet: her latest studio album, No Control, came out last year. On July 1, a documentary about her extraordinary life, Suzi Q, was released in cinemas and across streaming platforms (see www.suziqmovie.com for details). In the film, musicians like Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Kathy Valentine, and Donita Sparks talk about how Quatro was a trailblazer who inspired them to become rock stars in their own right. (Quatro’s longtime friend and onetime tourmate, Alice Cooper, also appears extensively in the movie.) Quatro recently called from her home in Hamburg (she is married to a German; they also have a home in England) to discuss what it’s like to see her life on screen, and how she’s navigated the ups and downs throughout her remarkable career.

Is it strange to watch a documentary about your own life?

SUZI QUATRO: Oh jeez, yes! It’s really humbling when you see some of the things people say that you don’t expect. I set out to do a very honest documentary, and this is what I’ve done, warts and all. I didn’t want just a complimentary little fluffy piece. I wasn’t interested in that. So when I got together with Liam Firmager [director], I said I wanted the truth even if it’s uncomfortable. I wanted the record straight, good and bad. I think we’ve accomplished that in a great way.

What made you decide that now is the time to do this?

SUZI QUATRO: It just felt right. I just turned 70 [years old]. Time to put it up there and get it straight. It’s been on my bucket list for a very, very long time. I got approached by Liam about four and a half years ago. He said he’d like to do a documentary on me, and then he followed that by saying, “I have to tell you straight away, I’m not a fan,” which I found very funny. It’s an icebreaker, for sure! He said, “Don’t get me wrong, I love your music. But I’m not a fan fan.” I said, “That’s fine. Then why do you want to make the film?” And he said, “Because I saw you talking on a TV show and you fascinated me.” I said to myself, “I found the guy. He will be objective, he will be tough and fight for what he wants, he will be insightful, he will ask the right questions.” And he is the right guy: we made a great film together. And sure, there’s a lot of uncomfortable things in there, but it’s real and it needs to be told and that’s the story.

The part about your mother and father both encouraging your career when you were so young is interesting, because most parents probably wouldn’t let their 14 year old daughter go on tour.

SUZI QUATRO: I know, that is kind of crazy, but my dad was a musician and he had five kids and there were three of us together in the band [sisters Arlene and Patti Quatro – Patti later joined the band Fanny], plus my sister’s first husband was managing it. So it was a little bit of safety in numbers. But my mom always told me, “You were on your path. Even if I’d said you’re too young to go, I couldn’t have kept you back for very long.” So she allowed me to go my route, thank God. I knew what I wanted to do so young, it’s ridiculous. I can’t give you an explanation for it.

Still, how did you know that you should become a professional musician, that it wasn’t just a kid’s daydream?

SUZI QUATRO: I did see Elvis at five and a half [years old] on TV, and I’ll never forget it because it was a pivotal moment. I’m not bullshitting about it, it’s just how it happened. Watching The Ed Sullivan Show, my eldest sister by nine years was screaming. I was looking at her and going, “What’s the matter with you?” And I turned and looked into the TV and I got drawn into it. It ran through my head at that age, “I’m going to do that.” And indeed, I’ve been a professional now for 56 years.

In the film, you’re honest about the sibling rivalry that happened with your sisters when you got famous, and how it hurt you not to have their full support. How did you avoid letting that derail you?

SUZI QUATRO: Because I was going where I was going. I’m a very determined girl. I had my road mapped out from very young. I always knew. You feel it in you that somebody is going to come up and tap you on the shoulder. It’s just something you are born with. Nobody teaches it to you. I knew I was different, that’s all. Different. And that I had to go forward to my own way. So that’s how I did it. I was always going to go when the moment came. And my moment came. And I grabbed it. Absolutely.

The film also makes it clear that coming from Detroit was also an important factor in making you able to become successful in such a tough business.

SUZI QUATRO: I think Detroit gives you a real edge. There’s a real determination in Detroit people. We talk about it all the time whenever we’re with other Detroit musicians. I have that edge. It definitely gives you a strength, Detroit. You’re a fighter.

Did you ever get any chauvinistic pushback about fronting a band as a young woman?

SUZI QUATRO: To be quite honest, I don’t do gender. This is the way I conduct myself. I always have. I never in any interview have called myself a “female musician,” because I don’t think of myself that way. This is why it fell on me to be the one to open the door [for other female musicians] because I wasn’t up there trying to be anything other than what I was, if that makes sense. Not like, “Hey, I’m a girl, look what I can do.” That was not what I was doing. I was being who I am and that’s what worked. And a lot of people came through after that and that’s fantastic. What I realized – and I didn’t realize it until I made this documentary – was that without meaning to, and I mean without meaning to, I gave these women who didn’t have a voice, I gave them permission to be different. And that is quite humbling and I will take that to my grave, thank you very much. What I find very humbling and wonderful at the same time was that, everybody in the documentary that did speak of me, it wasn’t just your usual lip service gushing, they meant what they said from their heart.

In the film, you mention that you’ve never felt you had to live the rock star life off the stage – which is interesting, because so many young musicians succumb to that lifestyle. How did you know to avoid that pitfall?

SUZI QUATRO: It’s a matter of attitude. I was brought up in a show business family. My dad was a musician. My dad was a pro. So he always said to me when I was young, “This is a job. It’s your profession. You have an obligation to your audience. Whenever you go on that stage, if it’s ten people or 10,000, somebody has taken money out of their pocket and paid for a ticket to see you.” And this went right down deep where I live. I still feel the same way now. When I’m on that stage, one thing you can count on, I will deliver.

Now you have a very dedicated fan base. What is it about your music that’s enabled you to resonate so much with people?

SUZI QUATRO: I like to think it’s because I’m real. That’s how I always feel about it. What you see is what you get. I’m not manufactured. The fact that I still wear the same leather suit says it all! I still have something to say, I’m still creating music. My current album No Control went ballistic with everybody, such rave reviews. I’m in this business because I love it. I think that’s what people really feel from me. So you’re getting a genuine artist and a genuine entertainer who does it for no other reason than the fact that she loves it. It’s more than a profession to me. It’s a calling.

Someone who doesn’t love it isn’t going to survive in this business because it’s too hard!

SUZI QUATRO: It is hard! Are you kidding? Wow, it’s real hard. I got calluses on my fingers all the time. Sore back with the bass. And you’re out there all the time. It doesn’t matter if you feel like crap, you’ve got a two-hour show to do. So it’s not an easy job. You really have to be dedicated. And that’s one thing I am, is dedicated.

But of course now when you play live there certain songs you’re expected to play forevermore or an audience will be disappointed. So how do you keep those songs fresh so you don’t get bored?

SUZI QUATRO: I never understand when artists say that they can’t play their hits anymore. I don’t get it. Because as soon as I start one of mine and the audience erupts, how can you not enjoy it? It’s crazy. I’ve had a lot of different members in the band, so that keeps it fresh because each new musician will bring a slightly different flavor to it. I do a two hour show with an interval, and it takes you everywhere from the beginning of my career right up to the present day. And I love it. If I ever have to go up there with a phony smile on my face, that’s the day I walk away.

Suzi Q documentary premieres July 1. For cinema/streaming information, visit:
https://www.suziqmovie.com/

 

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