The Punk Virtuoso

By Sergio Ariza

"You can't beat two guitars, bass and drums." 

Robert Quine
could not agree more with the phrase of his idol Lou Reed, his best moments always came when he was in fluid dialogue with another guitarist, either supporting him as a rhythm guitarist or showing off with incendiary solos in which Ornette Coleman was face to face with Chuck Berry. Quine was a guitar scholar who found his own sound and was able to develop it in the midst of the earthquake that was punk. Punk was a revolution in which Quine’s guitar stood out as much as his appearance; as here was a middle-aged, bald man with his shirt buttoned up to his neck in the midst of a wave of safety pins, mohican haircuts and ripped T-shirts...

Born in Akron on the penultimate day of 1942, Quine became a music obsessive from an early age. He could enjoy anything from Gene Autry to Django Reinhardt, but when he heard his first rock & roll album his life changed forever. He bought a Danelectro with two pickups and an amplifier for $130 and started taking guitar lessons at the age of 15. However, those lessons didn't last long, his teacher wasn't interested in rock & roll and Quine only wanted to learn pieces from his idols, James Burton, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed and, above all, Ritchie Valens.

In 1961 Quine raised enough money to buy the guitar he had been dreaming of since he saw it on the cover of Valens' first album, a Fender Stratocaster, plus a Tremolux amplifier. But by that time rock & roll had lost its original heroes: Berry was in jail, Little Richard had become a preacher and Valens had died, along with Buddy Holly, in a plane crash. So Quine started listening to blues and jazz until the appearance of the 'British Invasion' brought him back to rock. The bands that attracted him the most were those with two guitarists like the Rolling Stones or the Yardbirds, and in the USA the Byrds, as the fluidity between rhythm guitar and lead guitar seemed fundamental to him. In 1965 he joined a band that did covers of these groups and began to improve considerably.

Quine continued to be an avid music consumer and in 1967 he met a band that was not achieving much success but would change his life forever: the Velvet Undergrond. Quine lived in St. Louis and every time the band played there he went to see them. In the end he became friends and managed to record their performances, and developed an incredible private collection of their live music. His favorite album was White Light/White Heat, especially I Heard Her Call My Name, and he became obsessed with Lou Reed's solo, which he saw as connected to Ornette Coleman's free jazz, but also to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

He was getting better and better, but when he joined a band called Bruce's Farm he had a revelation, as he had found his own style: "I went to play this concert. We were doing the Byrds' Eight Miles High, where I usually did a very long guitar solo. But that night something definitely clicked. I was playing strangely, and it wasn't wrong notes. Suddenly, I was in control. It's a wonderful feeling when this happens, and it doesn't happen that often... when you suddenly get transported; you're somewhere else.”

Quine had found his style but not the right band. In 1971 he arrived in New York, quit music and ended up working on tax-related issues. There was nothing more boring, but his few opportunities to continue working as a musician were ruined by his difficult character. From this period, there is an anecdote that, on the verge of getting a job for Art Garfunkel, Quine told him that his duet with Paul Simon was for people too dumb to understand Bob Dylan. According to the story, Garfunkel punched him, and Quine’s Stratocaster continued to gather dust inside its case.  

But in New York a new scene was emerging and Quine felt an affinity with these young people who sang nihilistic songs and had, like him, the Velvets on a pedestal. In 1974 he discovered Television, a group led by Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell. A year later he began working in a movie memorabilia store with the two of them. By that time Hell had left Television and formed the Heartbreakers along with the former New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan, but Hell was not entirely happy with the direction of his new group and had made good friends with Quine.

At the beginning of 1976 Hell left the Heartbreakers and formed a new band with Quine on guitar, called Richard Hell & The Voidoids: on drums was Mark Bell (eventually Marky Ramone) and on the other guitar Ivan Julian.

The punk scene was booming and the contrast between Quine and the rest couldn't be greater, especially with Hell himself, the creator of the punk image, with the safety pins, the leather, and the torn T-shirts; while Quine looked like a high school teacher with his jackets, his 34 years and his baldness. At first some people mocked him, although as soon as they heard the notes coming out of his Strato, they were silent. Of course, Quine would not forget that scorn, some of the rage and anger you hear in Blank Generation comes from there, and the rage and anger could not be more punk. However, many people forget that when we talk about New York punk, we don't just talk about the Ramones, but that there was a lot of diversity and musicality around, from the intricate guitar play of Television, to the rhythms of Talking Heads, to the mastery of Quine.

Blank Generation
, released in 1977, is one of the best albums of the first wave of punk. Quine used two Stratos and a Telecaster with a Bigsby, plugged into a Fender Champ or a small Pignose amp. His rapport with Julian is perfect, both have moments of showcasing and moments of supporting the other, although most remembered is Quine's solo on the title track, a feedback download using equal parts the atonality of free jazz and the energy of early rock & roll. But despite his enormous influence, Hell sank into drugs and there was no more until five years later, in 1982, when Destiny Street appeared. By that time only Hell and Quine came back from the original band, and punk had long since passed the baton to New Wave. Even so, the album contains some of the best moments of Hell as a composer and of Quine on guitar, songs as irresistible as The Kid with the Replaceable Head and Time, and solos as interesting as Staring in Her Eyes, in which he even emulates the harmonics of Roy Buchanan.

That same year, the opportunity Quine had been waiting for all his life came along, when Lou Reed noticed him and signed him as a guitarist for his band. We could say that Quine had been preparing all his life for this moment and he did not fail. The first thing he did was to convince Reed to take up guitar again, and with just a few rehearsals, they began to record The Blue Mask, the most Velvet record of Reed's solo career and the best since Berlin times. It is a raw album in which Quine and Reed's guitars dialogue as if they were two old acquaintances. Quine shines throughout the album but the defining moment of his style is the solo of Waves Of Fear, where Quine transfers to notes the state of psychosis of the protagonist of the song. For the album he used his Strato but also a 12-string electric Ovation.

The happy relationship between Reed and Quine continued on the 1983 tour, as can be heard on the remarkable Live In Italy. These were the best concerts he had given since the days of Rock'n'Roll Animal, with Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner on guitars, but this was much closer to the spirit of the Velvets and the duo that Reed himself formed with Sterling Morrison. Quine shows off on Kill Your Sons and Betrayed, where he brings out his best country licks to demonstrate the enormous influence James Burton had on his style, but it is in the Velvet pieces that he really enjoys himself, with more than half of the repertoire revolving around Reed's old band. However, everything came to an end with the recording of Legendary Hearts, the friction between the two began to grow and Reed reduced his contributions in the final mix. This broke Quine’s patience and he decided to leave; even so just listen to Make Up Mind to understand his tremendous contribution to Reed’s work.

From that moment he became a sought-after session musician, choosing his appearances very well with contributions to works by Tom Waits, Marianne Faithful and Scritti Politti. One of the most interesting of this period is his collaboration with jazz musician John Zorn, with whom he worked on The Big Gundown and Spillane. In the former he shines playing Ennio Morricone's music as you can hear in the wonderful Once Upon A Time In The West, while in the latter he plays the guitar with Albert Collins on Two Lane Highway.

But perhaps his most interesting collaboration in recent years was the one that brought him together with Matthew Sweet. They met while working for Lloyd Cole, Sweet playing bass and Quine delivering solos like the one on She's a girl and I'm A Man. Quine had already worked on Earth, but his definitive collaboration would come on Girlfriend, both the album and the song. His solo is outrageous, his tone is warm despite the unusual phrasing; he plays dissonant notes but, at the same time, is totally lyrical. It is a perfect example of his style and one of the strangest and most accomplished solos ever to appear in a song that became a hit.

His collaboration with Sweet extended to three more albums and he continued to collaborate with people like They Might Be Giants and Brian Eno. Everyone knew that when you hired Quine you didn't hire someone to sound like a normal guy, but to sound like Quine. It didn't matter that in the mid-90s he gradually abandoned his beloved Stratos for Telecasters, his favourite being a reissue of '52, Quine, like all the greats, he always sounded like himself.

In August 2003 his wife Alice died and Quine could not bear it. His last recordings were for the soundtrack of a film he was commissioned to make, and you can hear his suffering in the desperate notes he gives. Quine was always transparent and in May 2004 he overdosed, possibly deliberately.

A couple of years earlier he decided to select the best sounding tracks from his countless Velvet tapes and Bootleg Series Volume 1: The Quine Tapes appeared. In a way Quine closed the circle with the material that had helped him find himself. He had said before that "part of being a guitar player - ninety-nine percent - is being obsessive enough to spend thousands of hours listening to records and practicing. I've always believed in immersing myself in good music. Sooner or later, if you have some personality or musical intelligence of your own, you'll come up with something of your own". He came up with it and many others got their style from listening to him.