Thursday, February 26, 2015

Why Rock Stars Drink

I wrote yesterday about my friend in Status Quo, who never made much of a dent in the USA, but who were gigantic in Europe — and remain sufficiently popular to tour a lot. I know a great many musicians — and am indeed one myself — who would feel blessed to be able to make a living playing to rapturous audiences, but MFSQ was one of the most miserable people I know. He’d had a problem with his heart, but smoked up a storm, apparently feeling that life was barely worth living anyway. I rarely knew him not to be very drunk. 

I think I could understand his disgruntlement. He was a very good singer, but circumstances had conspired early in Status Quo’s history to make one his bandmates the group’s lead singer. Hoping to strike out on his own many years later, my friend had made a very good solo album that had been almost universally ignored. Hundreds of thousands adored him, but only as the rhythm guitarist in Status Quo, who every year undertake pretty much the same tours of the same venues, playing the same familiar hits over and over to the same audiences, a little saggier, bigger-bellied, and grayer each time. No one yelled for a song from his solo album. The calls were for Status Quo hits from 1974.

That nincompoop Terry Gross interviewed Ray Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air a few months ago. Ray’s been writing songs for 50 years. The only ones Gross wanted to talk about \from before 1970. In the wonderful West End musical based on Ray’s music, Sunny Afternoon, the newest song is 39 years old. I can well understand why, during the Fresh Air interview, Ray sounded as though about to cry. 

On a smaller scale, I know this phenomenon from the inside. I’ve composed and reoorded over 100 songs, directed a succession of scripted sketch comedy revues, and written many hundreds of thousands of words in the interim, but all many people want to talk to me about are the Kinks Kronikles liner notes I wrote in 1972, and the snide denunciation I wrote of Led Zeppelin in the autumn of 1969. It feels sometimes as though I might as well have died at 25.

I had a much better friend than MFSQ who ascended to the toppermost of the poppermost, the drummer in ELO. When I asked him if his wealth and fame had made him happier, he assured me he probably would have been happy anyway. Lucky him. Very lucky him. I think the main reason so many rock and film stars turn to substance abuse is that they imagine that fame and acclaim will fill the emptiness inside. When it fails to, they’re actually worse off than the rest of us. You and I can daydream about how much more content we’d have been if only fortune had smiled on us. Those on whom fortune has actually smiled have, in most cases, discovered that if you don’t have my drummer friend’s enviable mental health genes, you haven’t much hope. 


  1. Sometime last year I read Ray Davies' "Americana," which is about his life as a Kink in an era that I didn't find him or his music that interesting - yet, it's a magnificent memoir. I think a lot of people (and to be honest, me as well) look at an artist's peaks and ignore either the downward part of their career, or the time when things are quiet, but they're doing great stuff under the radar. i tend to be a fan of the artist that is around like forever. Even their failures are interesting. For an artist it is very hard space just to convey a certain era or time in one's music/fame. i don't really believe in giving the audience what they want - an artist needs to expand their expectation - which is really difficult at times - but that's the type of artist I like. And for me, there are musicians who made great music or albums, yet the audience by passes this period and just focus on the hit making years.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Tosh. I can't think of an artist who's more brazenly attempted to patronize his audience than Ray Davies, whose Destroyer might, by several key criteria, be the worst single in modern recording history.