Rock legend Suzi Quatro on the secret to her success: "I never, ever did gender"

The original rock chick talks about her new documentary "Suzi Q" and why she's ready to get back on the road

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 4, 2020 11:00AM (EDT)

Suzi Quatro (Sicily Publicity)
Suzi Quatro (Sicily Publicity)

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

If you are under the age of 40 — and especially if you are American — you might not know about one of the most influential artists in music history. Or if you do, you might only know her as, of all things, a sitcom character. 

Without Suzi Quatro, it's hard to imagine what The Runaways, The Go-Gos, The Pretenders and nearly every other female-led band that followed would have sounded like. The bass-playing Detroit native figured out early on that she had more in common with Elvis Presley than Petula Clark, and then set out to forge a career unprecedented in rock and roll. After moving to London in the early '70s, she became a superstar overseas, selling millions of records. She took on a recurring role on "Happy Days" as the tomboyish aspiring musician Leather Tuscadero. She starred in musicals in the West End.  Even now, she remains unique in pop music, an original, true blue rock chick. 

Now, a new documentary explores Quatro's enduring impact and shows a portrait of an artist still rocking through her golden years. Featuring interviews with the likes of Debbie Harry, Alice Cooper, Joan Jett and Henry Winkler, director Liam Firmager's festival hit "Suzi Q" is an exuberant celebration of a woman who broke all the rules. Salon spoke to the 70-year-old icon recently from her home in England, to talk about music, gender, and leather.

What made you decide that this was the moment to do this movie, to open up your life in this way?

And boy, did I open it up. That's one thing I did insist on with the director. I don't know why now; it just was the right time. You just feel these things. It's been on my bucket list for a very long time. I just wanted to put the record straight what my life has been like — the struggles, the good bits, the bad bits. It's such a story, and nobody knows it completely.

So now I've done it and I stuck to the truth. This was the big stickler I had with the director. I said to him, "Even if I cringe on some of the things I said, if it's true, it stays in." And the cringe moments are probably the best things in the film. Because you're showing yourself. You're vulnerable. You're open. You can see the struggles that I went through, you can see emotionally what I had to go through. It's never easy. Nobody's life is easy anyway, nobody gets it perfect. I've been blessed that I've been very successful, but I wanted it to be the whole story. And now, because of the  success of the documentary, we're nearly done with the script of the movie of my life.

Do you have anyone you would dream of playing you?

We've got three or four people. A couple of them have been approached, I don't want to say anything yet. I'm obviously very hands-on because it's my life, so I'm not going to just hand my life over to anybody. I want it to be honest, and I want whoever plays me to be the right person. I will meet this person and decide if it's the right one. I don't care, famous, not famous, it has to be the right vibe. That's what I keep telling all the people I'm involved with while we're working on the script. I can't explain it any better than this. I have a vibe, and you act what this vibe is.

When you saw the film in its entirety, were there parts of it that surprised you?

A lot of the big people in there, I was just in tears, because it was so nice. I was just humbled.

And there were bits and pieces in there, like some of the things that obviously [my] family is saying. It's a pretty normal scenario in a family in the same business where one gets picked out and makes it. You're not going to get away with that stuff without some resentment; that's just not going to happen. Even though I was aware that that's the way it was, to watch it on the big screen, you kind of go, "Oh." Because there's no hiding on a big screen. You can't make it less than what it is; it's actually magnified. So I can't say I was surprised, but hurt. A little bit hurt. That's just been my life. I can't change it. That's been going on since day one. Certain things still hurt me, but that's actually how I'm wired.

And family is family. It's that old saying, it's like, "Of course your family pushes your buttons, they were the ones who installed them."

Yeah. It's a no-brainer. Family knows how to push buttons. Also, everybody's the same. They want the approval from their family. We are all the same. It seems to me more than an audience, and that's just called blood.

My brother called me yesterday. He's seen the documentary now, finally. I sent it to him, and he said, "This is a work of art." I couldn't believe it, how sweet of him to say that. He said, "It's a work of art. Just fantastic. Just fantastic." And then he said, "Your poetry, you're like a Jim Morrison." I went, "Pardon?" And I made him repeat it 17 times. "I didn't quite catch that, could you say it again?"

There have been so many moments where you have defied expectations. I want to start with just being a rock star — that it seems it never occurred to you that you couldn't be a rock star, as a woman, as a girl.

It's a strange quirk in my nature. I always tell the story, because it's exactly how it happened. I was watching "The Ed Sullivan Show" with the family like you did every Sunday, and he brought on Elvis Presley. I was six years old. My eldest sister by nine years was exactly the right age to be screaming, so she was screaming. I was looking at her, thinking, "Why are you screaming?"

I turned and looked at the television, and I went into the television. I was drawn into it like a magnet. The light bulb went on over my head, "I'm going to do that." Don't ask me how or why I knew that. I didn't think, "Oh, I'm a girl, he's a guy." That didn't even cross my mind. All I said was, "I am going to do that."

Even now, from the time a child is born, there are these lanes that you get put into in terms of what your career is going to be, what your priorities should be, what you should look like. It just bounced off you and you said, "Yeah."

It's a strange thing particular to me. I've always had a sense of my destiny from very, very young. I never, ever did gender. I don't do it now. It's just not in my character. I don't do gender. I don't understand why anything should be denied me. That's just me. That's my advice to women that want to do it. I can't pretend that I went into it thinking, "I'm going to change the world for women," that wasn't even in my head. I was simply doing what I do. But without compromise. I did not want to be like anybody else, I wanted to do exactly what I was doing. And if I couldn't make it exactly as I am, then I thought, "Okay, not going to make it then." So I stuck to me.

When I talk to my colleagues about this, I always say to them, "Okay, so let's get down to brass tacks. When you first saw me on TV, and there's this little, bass-playing girl with these big guys with a hit record, did it look to you like I was trying to show you that, 'Hey, I'm a girl. Look what I can do'?" And they always say, "Absolutely not."

"Did it ever look like I was trying to be sexy?" And they say, "Absolutely not."

"So what did it look like?" "Like you were just being you."

Whatever I did, for that door to be broken down like I did it, to have success as a female rock and roll musician, it was because I didn't do gender. It's hard to explain, but I think this is why it fell to me.

I'm sure you have had people come up to you over the years and say, "Because of that, you opened a door for girls and for boys." Not even in terms of sexuality, but just in what gender can be.

I did do that and I know I did that. I guess I gave all these unusual women that didn't know where they fit in the world permission to be unusual. That's the best way I can say it: I can do this. You can do what you do. There you go. I just explained it. I never explained it so articulately before.

It's not just about music, it's about being a person in the world and saying, "I don't have to dress like everybody else. I don't have to sound like everybody else."

I gave a speech when I got my honorary doctorate degree at Cambridge, which was just mind-blowing. I don't even have a high school diploma and I'm a doctor of music. I got up there with the speech, and I threw it on the side and I just started to talk.

I remember that I was in tears. I remember saying, "Your job in life — doesn't matter, male, female, Black, white, rich, poor — is to go inside and find that little light, because we all have a little light. Find it and switch it on and let nobody ever switch it off." And then I cried.

That's my message that I try to put out there. Find your light. Find your voice and use it. It doesn't matter what it is.

And that light can change. For someone who is a rock star to then be on a sitcom to then do musical theater, these are not things that rock stars do even now.

I know. But do not box me in. Don't do it. I won't allow it. I'm a typical Gemini. I just need to spread my wings. And you must say though, everything that I have done is all within the entertainment ball of wax.

I have spread my wings and I have done everything in this business that I've been asked to do that I feel I can do. I knew I could act, I always knew that, that was a no-brainer. I just knew I could. Musicals, I was raised on them, loved them. What a great experience to walk in Ethel Merman's shoes. Being a disc jockey, that's just another way of communicating. I was 15 years on BBC, the biggest station in Europe. I'm a published poet, I'm a published author, I have a novel out, I did my autobiography. I've done a bit of everything in this business. It's all about entertainment and creation and communication, those are my three key words, and that describes me.

I am of the generation of Sleater-Kinney and L7 and The Breeders and Hole. Watching watching this documentary, I'm trying to figure out what happened to women bands. Do you think it's because that sound is less popular now, or do you think that there is a problem?

I don't know. The bass player up at the front and that real" take no prisoners" kind of thing, it's not an easy job. You give up a lot along the way. I can't remember a time when I wasn't going to a gig except for right now, and this is 56 years now. You have to be a combination of tough as nails and still remain feminine and still remain vulnerable. There's so much pressure on you, so much tension. Just take the gigs themselves. You go up there and you have to make sure your voice is top notch. You can't get sick. You have to jog when you're not on the road, keep your fitness up. That's a two-hour aerobic workout that I do up there every night. Two hours. When I go on stage, I announce my age, I always have. I'm proud of it.

My son pointed out something very nice about this documentary. He said, "As opposed to other documentaries, every single person that spoke in this one, wanted to be in the film, and they meant it from the bottom of their toes to the top of their head." And he's right. You saw the sincerity, didn't you?

Because this film is coming into people's homes in a more intimate venue, what do you hope people watching this get out of it now at this unique moment, where being in a crowd watching somebody up on stage screaming with ten thousand people is just not in our cards for a while?

It's a real strange feeling. My cup is always half full, so I refuse to get down about it. I have hit the wall a couple of times, like we all have. You get your moments where you get depressed. Everything I am is all about travel and crowds. That's what I do. Even with my marriage — he lives in Hamburg, I live here. Everything I do involves flying, people and crowds.

We're just going to have to see how the land lays. But I did embrace the lockdown, me being how I am, I wrote 14 songs with my son for the new album. This is the same person I wrote the "No Control" album with. I assembled an illustrated lyric book, Through My Words. We've been working on the movie script, which is nearly done. I'm writing and writing and writing, and I'm never out of ideas. This lockdown has really been a creative time for me. I'm doing a lot of social media. I'm trying to do my bit to wake people up, and it's had the desired effect because so many people said that they get up and they switch that on and that's their morning, wherever they are, so it's fantastic.

I've kept busy, I've kept out there. I hope the gigs return. Nobody knows that yet. And I'm not the only artist, there are millions of us, and not just as artists, what about the road crews and the lighting companies. I have to hope it gets better. That's all you can do, is hope it gets better.

Once an entertainer, always an entertainer, right?

One zillion percent. I can't change it. This is how I'm wired.

"Suzi Q" is available now to stream on iTunes, Google Play and other platforms. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Documentary Happy Days Interview Music Rock And Roll Suzi Q Suzi Quatro