INTERVIEW BY STEVE OLSON
INTRODUCTION BY STEVE OLSON
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MICHAEL DES BARRES
And Scene… Cut to: A boy, a man, a master plan? From London to L. A. to N.Y. to anywhere in the world. It should read, ‘Sir Michael Des Barres’, one with a sense for whatever he would, or should desire to do, and complete control of his universe, and trusting in the unknown… We could learn from some that have been there and back. Do we know, or should one trust, and let be, with the outcome of knowing that it’s gonna be all right… Dress rehearsal, it’s all the same, so let the curtain drop, eventually it will, but have you lived like you’ve wanted to? This cat has, and will…deal.
“THE BEATLES WERE BRAND NEW AND EVERYBODY WALKING DOWN THE STREET WAS A ROCK STAR. EVERYONE WAS HIGH UP ON HASH. EVERYBODY WAS WEARING CRUSHED VELVET AND EVERYONE WAS A ROCK STAR.”
Let’s do this interview.
Why? Is it because I’m so damn witty and amusing?
[Laughs.] Let’s just make sure.
When I had sex with Sid Vicious the first time…
[Laughs.] What was the name of your first band?
Silverhead. We were the dirtiest band in England. There’s a resurgence of interest because Miss Pamela has her book ‘I’m With The Band’ out again. It’s like a Sex Pistols, Beatles, Zeppelin or Stones record. Her legacy is as important as any band’s because she’s one of the last connections with the glory days of rock n’ roll that everyone is copying now. The question now is, ‘How good can you parody this stuff? How good are you at thievery? How good of a plagiarist are you?’ It’s nothing new. Bowie took everything from Marcel Marceau and did an incredible thing.
He made a whole career of it.
As did Prince.
Did you see Prince on the Super Bowl?
He stuck it hard.
You couldn’t hear anything but his guitar, which is fine by me.
At the end of the show, the guitar went away. I was like, ‘Whoever thought this one up…’
‘Dearly Beloved…’ Look at this ring I found.
I have that skull ring.
I was thinking about how consistent you are in terms of your personal style, like with the leopard skin hat.
That hat got me a lot of money.
That hat was in the billboard. I remember when you got that gig.
Leopard skin has been good to me.
That should be the title of your autobiography.
It got me a Ringo gig, too.
That’s the thing about style.
A good gig is a day’s work for $50,000 or two days work for $150,000. I’m just showing you what the hat pulled out of the bag.
It’s so interesting you should say that right now. Dig this. I wrote a song twenty years ago called ‘Obsession’ by Animotion. It was number one. I wrote that song in ten minutes. It sold to MasterCard for $150,000 a week ago.
As the writer, you get the $150,000?
I split it with Holly Knight, but you also get tens of thousands of dollars on commercials. In terms of your day with the leopard skin hat, that’s what happened to me. That song is on every compilation of the ’80s. It’s a tremendous blessing.
How did the song come about to you?
I was six months sober at the time. When I wrote the lyrics in ’81 everything was about obsession, obsession with heroin, alcohol, girls, Prada, or whatever you got, leopard skin hats. It was linked with a movie that I saw called ‘The Collector’ with Terence Stamp. It’s an English movie about a young guy who wins the lottery. He then kidnaps the girl of his dreams and buys a country home and puts her in it in order for her to fall in love with him. He collects butterflies, and he collects Samantha Eggar, the British actress in the film, who was gorgeous in the ’60s. I put the two together, because obviously I can’t sing a song about being obsessed with heroin. I could have, but I chose not to. It’s about relationships. The lyrics are about, ‘I will collect you. I will capture you.’ It’s a kidnapping symbolism; taking hostages emotionally. Then Mike Chapman who was famous for Blondie and Suzi Quatro did a solo record that I produced. But way before that it was all about glam. It was The Sweet and Suzi Quatro. Chapman wrote ‘Ballroom Blitz’. Chapman is an amazingly interesting character in rock n’ roll. He wrote, ‘Wig-wam bam, gonna make you my man.’ It was nonsense. They were like nursery rhymes, but kids just went insane in ’72. Everyone was wearing makeup and bangs. We were the antithesis of that with Silverhead. We were like a dirty blues band in make-up. Silverhead was like the bastard children of Aleister Crowley and Keith Richards.
We were like the NY Dolls really, but Chapman was working a very commercial area. It was great. People loved it. Jonesy plays it this day. That’s the era that he loves.
I still put on ‘The Sweet’s Biggest Hits’.
Phenomenal recordings. So Chapman produced my record. His publishing company published ‘Obsession.’ He put me together with Holly Knight who had written ‘Love is a Battlefield’, ‘Better Be Good To Me’ and ‘The Best’, and a lot of great songs. I had the lyrics and we wrote a bunch of songs, but ‘Obsession’ was the biggest.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in London. My father an aristocrat. He was a Marquis. He married my mother who was just a teenage lower class working girl. I was the progeny of that. He was very wealthy, so he put me in these boarding schools from the time I was 8 to 16. Then I went to drama school. Within six months, I did ‘To Sir, with Love’ with Sidney Poitier. I’m one of the kids in that movie. That started my run.
Oh, really? I’m going to watch that again. So you were an actor before you were a musician?
Oh, yes. I have a picture of me with Sidney. This was in 1967. I was a teenager in drama school, and they came to the school and took half the class and put them in the movie. There was a whole other story about how everyone screwed each other and all of that madness.
Can you imagine being in London in 1967? The Beatles were brand new and everybody walking down the street was a rock star. Everyone was high on hash. Everyone was wearing crushed velvet and everyone was a rock star. There I was fresh out of boarding school for eight years, and, all of a sudden, I’m in crushed velvet walking the streets of London. It was beautiful. Because of that gig, I did a few TV series. Then in ’71, I did this nude musical called ‘The Dirtiest Show in Town.’ I had replaced this guy in the show. I played this androgynous rock star called ‘Rose’. Andrew Lloyd Webber came to see the show. After he heard me sing in the show, he said, ‘Come to my apartment and tell me what you’ve got.’ I had written this song about how I wanted to be in a rock n’ roll band. It was called, ‘Will You Finance My Rock n’ Roll Band?’
So I go to his apartment in London with all of his snooty friends. I’m in my green boa and platform yellow shoes. I played, ‘Will You Finance My Rock n’ Roll Band?’ And he said, ‘Okay. Yes.’
He hooked me up with Purple Records, which was Deep Purple’s label. Within three months we’d made a record. I put an ad in the ‘Melody Maker’, which is the British rock paper. It said, ‘Wanted. Erotic rock musicians.’
Collectively, Silverhead weighed 150 pounds. It was the thinnest band in rock n’ roll. And we got thinner. Within months, we were in Japan. You only had to have blond hair and wear makeup to be big in Japan. So we went to Japan right away and we were tremendously successful. It was like, ‘Here I am, darling. Hello.’ They loved us. We were just skinny, British, dirty, blues, rock stars. At that time, it was all about the blues, and Muddy Waters. Or it was Pink Floyd and prog rock. Peter Gabriel was the status quo. It was either British boys playing the blues doing 20-minute faux B.B. King solos, or Shostakovich meets ‘Oliver Twist’. We were like, ‘Please.’ We just wanted to get laid and do lots of coke.
When did cocaine come into the scene?
1972 was when I started to get loaded.
Psychedelics were happening.
London is a very opiate-ed city. It was more about hashish. Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Anita Pallenberg and the movie ‘Performance’ were all iconic symbols for us to emulate. It was all Moroccan furniture and hashish, and it was slow. It was like the way Keith walked. He looked stoned. It was the Rolling Stones, not the Rolling Crack Heads. I think heroin had more of a mystique at that time. It was the traditional drug of Aleister Crowley, who was the great black magician. That’s what all the archetypes were emulating, like Jimmy Page. Crowley was very influential, but when coke came in, everything changed. People started wearing make up and it became more theatrical. Cocaine fueled the theatre in rock n’ roll. It made people brave. There’s a great description that William James has about alcohol and drugs. He says they trigger the ‘Yes’ function of the brain. You just say, ‘Yes’. It’s an interesting concept. The British are so conservative it’s hard for them to let go. The great drug revolution of the ’60s and ’70s let these brilliant eccentrics go.
And go they did.
It wasn’t like it hadn’t happened before. There were opium-eating writers in the 18th Century. That wonderful movie ‘The Libertine’ was about the first rock star, the second Earl of Rochester.
Right, but what about Michael Des Barres?
I have the blue blood of the black sheep in my veins.
My father was decadent, therefore, I responded to that and knew that from a very DNA intrinsic level, but I didn’t know the vehicle with which I could demonstrate that feeling. It started with acting. I did ‘Hamlet’, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, ‘MacBeth’ and a lot of passable theatre because I really understood the melodrama. Then I did the musical, in which God gave me the gift of playing a rock star. Then I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s the platform from which I could play.’ Then Weber financed us and we went to Japan and then we came to the Whisky a Go Go. There were 16-year-old girls wearing sequins. That’s what I remember about the Sunset Strip in 1972, girls in three sequins.
[Laughs.] How was Sunset Boulevard for you in ’72, as a London kid coming over?
I was in love with the American consciousness as exemplified by Elvis, Robert Johnson and Walt Disney. Everything was larger than life. Everything was neon and brightly lit. Everything was young, fresh and new. I’d read about The GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously) and the whole Zappa lifestyle. I’d read about the free love aspect of it. Then in ’73, I met Miss Pamela in New York. She was making a movie and Keith Moon had been cast in the movie, but he’d thrown himself out of a window somewhere and was unavailable, so they got me. I made the movie ‘Arizonaslim’ and that’s where I met Miss Pamela. I’d been married to someone else for three weeks when I met Miss Pamela, which is interesting, and terrible really. Miss Pamela and I fell in love. She represented everything I wanted. She had this incredible pedigree of being close to the truly great. And who really contributed what? I think Pamela and the girls contributed a lot to the guys. You have a 19-year-old rock star from the north of England like Robert Plant coming to LA and they don’t know. They know they like Cadillacs, but they don’t know about the freedom these girls have. It changed their perspective. I don’t think it was the obvious analysis of groupie-dom, which is that they just screw them and leave them. Bullshit. I think those young American girls in the late ’60s and early ’70s were as instrumental as a drum kit in a rock n’ roll band. They changed the way the guys dressed. No one was wearing turquoise and makeup before that. The girls really shaped these people. Paul Stanley to this day says that he copied his makeup from a photograph of Virginia. The legacy is very subtle. Of course, what rock historian is going to extol the virtues of groupies rather than the obvious talent of someone like Jimmy Page? I’m sure that Jimmy Page was brilliant, but he was more brilliant from his association with these women. I was lucky enough to fall in love with and marry Miss Pamela. It taught me a lot. It was almost like I was marrying America. Pamela, as you know, is a combination of ‘Snow White’ and Jayne Mansfield. And that’s a very seductive hybrid. It was the innocence of Disney and the absolute raunchiness of someone like Marilyn Monroe. Plus, Pamela used to wear ’40s swimsuits with spiked heels and that’s it. She wore ’40s swimsuits and spikes. And so did I.
We were a match made in the bathroom. It was an amazing time. There wasn’t anything that preceded us. There was nothing to emulate.
You took everything that influenced you and made it your own, which you don’t see happening as much nowadays.
Yes. And I’m not here to decry anything that’s happening now. There are some spectacular singer songwriters and bands nowadays. My Chemical Romance is fantastic. Jack White is fantastic. There are so many wonderful acts. And I’ve learned over the years to not define myself by what I don’t like. So often now you hear young bands saying, ‘I don’t like that band. That music sucks.’ They’re trying to find out who they are by negating what’s around them. I did that, too, in the early days. I was so cocky and arrogant.
[Laughs.] How was it when you went from the theatre to being a rock star?
As an artist it freaked me out to go from the constrictions of doing dialogue that had been written by somebody else to writing my own lyrics. When you’re an actor, you have to be in a very particular frame of consciousness to portray something that isn’t you. In rock n’ roll, you write it.
And it’s you.
It’s at least ‘the you’ that you created. All of us are loving, and caring God’s children, but not at 2AM in a nightclub in Florida. Then you’re a beast. You’re an animal. You have to excite people. The only music I’ve ever liked is sexualized music. I like R and B, the blues, and music that’s sensual. The term rock n’ roll doesn’t stand for playing scrabble, does it?
That’s why I never understood it when musicians would have these flights of fancy and try to play cerebral music. The difference with rock n’ roll is that it’s yours. You create it in the moment, and the spontaneity of rock n’ roll differs very much from the calculation and technique of acting. That’s not to say, that you can’t be in the moment and be spontaneous with pre-prepared dialogue. There’s a long list of people that do it, but it doesn’t have drums. I mean, I can dance watching James Dean, but it’s a lot easier to dance with Robert Johnson in my head.
Who are your favorite actors?
I like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Bette Davis, Carole Lombard, Bogart and Cagney. I loved Cagney. He had incredible electricity. Today, I like Ryan Gosling. He’s an amazing young actor. It’s like music. I like individual songs. I don’t like albums. I like individual moments in certain performances. The music business has become about a song, and not a thematic record, and it’s the same with performances. Television is so corrupted by the need for these huge cartoons. There are very few moments that you can really lose yourself in. That’s why all the great movies that I watch are from many years ago. Then I don’t get lost in the cult of personality. Inevitably, whomever you watch, whether it’s De Niro and the great actors of this generation, eventually you see them so much that they lose their impact. You’re so familiar with every pore on their face that it’s hard to suspend belief and absorb them after awhile. That’s why James Dean, dying young after only three movies, remains such an impact. I’m sure that’s why Brando felt that way. He was so judgmental about the acting profession. He’d say it was ‘kid stuff’. I’m sure that’s why he became enormously obese and just did things for money. He knew all great artists come out with innocence, youth and spontaneity and make a statement. Then most of them spend the rest of their career emulating that statement. You can say that of the Rolling Stones. ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’.
That’s a great point.
It just makes sense. There are exceptions to that rule. Picasso was an exception to that rule. John Lennon was an exception to that rule. Bob Dylan is an exception to that rule. And that’s what genius is; to continue to reinvent yourself.
Do you put Madonna into that category?
Well, she’s a 21st century calculating type. She’s as good a mathematician and scientist as she is a dancer. It’s a different talent. That’s my whole point about Marilyn Monroe. There’s Jayne Mansfield, Kim Novak and Madonna, but there was only one Marilyn.
What about Frances Farmer?
Frances Farmer was the Courtney Love of that era. Frances Farmer was a brilliant girl who came up against the brutality and insensitivity of Hollywood and didn’t know how to use it. It used her. She resented it bitterly. That’s why she was turned away and lobotomized. She was also needed in terms of Hollywood history. She was a tragic starlet that was beaten by the system. It’s like, ‘The Blonde Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’
Steve, you’re an anarchist, a person who has lived their own life, be it skateboarding, art, music or whatever it is. It’s the leopard skin hat. You’re an iconoclast. You’re un-categorizable, and that terrifies Hollywood. They’ll use you until your anarchy has become the status quo. If you don’t know that, or at least find that out, good luck. I know there have been peaks and valleys in my life. In the first valley, I thought, ‘Oh, no. This could go up and down.’ When you’re 22, you think it’s going to go on forever and it doesn’t, but what does last forever is your desire to be creative. That’s what makes a Picasso and a John Lennon. And that’s what kills the people that stay in it. Even if they’re successful, they’re trapped. I’m sure Mick Jagger doesn’t look at it that way. He looks at those numbers from the biggest tour in the history of music and goes, ‘Mission Accomplished.’ But is it the mission accomplished of George Bush, or is it a mission accomplished of a creative artist?
Or are they one in the same?
[Laughs.] Right. But making a statement and jerking off over it for the next 40 years is very real. What happens is that you don’t want to see those bands anymore, because they’re doing the same thing, but there are exceptions to that rule. The Rolling Stones are that exception, but no one at their concerts screams out titles to songs from the new album. They want to hear ‘Give Me Shelter.’ They don’t want to hear ‘Sweet Neo Con’ or whatever it is. They want to hear ‘Angie.’ It reminds them of a better time.
What about Tom Petty? He continues.
He’s a plucky guy. Petty never had the iconic graces though. His music was brilliantly derived from the boroughs of America. I understand where he’s coming from. He’s enormously successful, but he’s not on my top ten.
My point is that he sticks to what he knows.
He had to or he wouldn’t be as successful as he is. It’s the guys that don’t have success that stick to it that I admire. They’re in their living rooms playing to their cat. That’s the tragedy. And the cat is going, ‘Let me hear that again.’ I think it’s easy to write what you play when you live in Malibu and sell 30 million records. I respect that, but I think Iggy Pop is the greatest singer songwriter there is. He’s this post-apocalyptic-industrial-rising-from-the-rubble-in-Detroit American poet. ‘Cold Metal’, ‘Raw Power’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ are significant poems. ‘In between the sidewalk cracks lurks Iggy Pop, looking up the skirt of the middle class matron and f*cking her while her husband is hard at work.’ He’s savage, but incredibly observant of the details of American life. I saw him at Coachella and he makes everyone that preceded him on stage look like ‘American Idol’ contestants.
Did you like ’50s rock n’ roll and Elvis?
Elvis was my idol, not in a sense that I wanted to emulate him, but in the sense that he was beautiful. Then he took African American music and made it his own. That always intrigued me. It happened with Eminem years later. When you look at the movies ‘8 Mile’ and ‘Loving You’, they both culled a lot of black culture and fed it to white America.
How was the scene for you when Silverhead first started? You were 22 and you were a rock star.
London was a non-stop cocaine-fueled lifestyle everyone had come to want. There was unlimited money in those days. The record companies knew that if they found somebody good they could make a lot of money, so they’d give you anything you want. I had a beautiful penthouse apartment and a 24-7 limo. I was 22 and had only written three songs. I always felt like a thief and I loved it. For years, I lived on potential and advances. They advanced you money because they thought they would make more money. I burnt so many bridges by taking advances and not producing the goods. There was a certain poetry to it. I didn’t feel guilty. I felt terrific. It was that fabulous arrogance that comes from cocaine. It was like, ‘Look at me. I should be paid just to walk around. I should just look good just getting off a plane.’
What was the scene in London like? What other bands were in there besides Silverhead?
Were there any other bands? I didn’t know. In ’71, Gary Holton had a band called The Heavy Metal Kids. They were my favorite band. They all looked like the ‘Artful Dodger’ with the fingerless gloves and the top hats. They were like lazy Rolling Stones on heroin, but there were no drag queens in the Stones. The Heavy Metal Kids weren’t drag queens, but they had some minimalists in the band. That was the forerunner to the punk movement. It was like, ‘Who cares? Look great and wear whatever. 1-2-3-4. Good night.’ It didn’t even matter. It wasn’t about the music.
It was all about attitude?
You could sing ‘God Save The Queen’ or ‘Happy Birthday’. It didn’t matter. You just had to look great singing it. Someone in the band would say, ‘We need a chorus!’ And I’d say, ‘No, we don’t. We need some good shoes.’
[Laughs.] So you were the forerunners of glam.
Well, it was the beginning of punk and glam. Iggy, Bowie and Bolan were there, and then all the parodies of that. That’s when Chapman came in and commercialized the whole vibe. When Bolan started it was Tyrannosaurus Rex. I was very attracted to that. He was talking about Tolkien and demons.
He was a cocaine guy.
Yeah, he said it. It was him and Steve ‘Peregrin’ Took. Took is a character in ‘Lord of the Rings’. I remember the first time I saw him. He was tiny. He made Prince look like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He used to wear little kid toy breastplates. He was very interesting. I don’t really recall anyone else. Why would I? I only cared about us. When you’re in a band like that, it’s you against the world. Everyone one else I saw was competition or I had absolutely no time for.
How are you going to compete if you’re all caught up in someone else’s style?
The five of us had stylists, but they weren’t called stylists then. They were girls with great wardrobes, which we proceeded to wear. We would travel with 25 of us on the bus.
Everyone was taken care of by the record label?
Yeah. They spent millions of pounds. They didn’t care, because the potential was there. I would say, ‘I need more money and they’d give me hundreds of pounds and I would go and spend it all on coke. I didn’t care. And I’ll tell you why I didn’t care. They believed in the artists. They believed in art and the eccentricities of art, which is not the case now. You can’t afford to do that nowadays.
You’re the puppetmaster or the puppet.
Yeah, but I love puppets. God bless puppets. Puppets are great. In those days, they wanted you to be fabulous, especially in London. There were three television stations and two radio stations. You could put out a record on Tuesday and be on ‘Top of the Pops’ on Thursday night and you’d be Elvis Presley the whole weekend and then forgotten by the following Tuesday.
Think about it. Adam Ant. Billy Idol. It’s an endless list. You’re huge for 18 months and then never heard from again.
How do you deal with that as a 22 year old kid?
You move to America. The British are so fad-istic. In America, there’s a lot more room and more opportunity.
When you were in London, were you thinking, ‘I have to get to America?’ It’s like when the Beatles conquered America. Did that have some kind of impact on your whole thing?
We knew it was possible. As you very well know from doing magnificent athletic stuff, you don’t think about what you’re doing at the time. You just do it. It was the same thing about conquering America for me. I was convinced that everything I did was spectacular, and meant something, whatever it was, having a conversation or playing a gig. It was an incredibly spontaneous and electric time. We saw the Beatles going on a plane to New York and the screaming fans and thought, ‘That’s going to be me.’ Of course, it wasn’t, but I didn’t care. You’re so isolated that you think you are Jimi Hendrix.
Did you see Hendrix when he came to England?
Yeah, his drummer Mitch was my schoolmate at drama school. We were in class and he said, ‘Michael, I’ve met a guitar player that came over here from America and we’ve got a gig at the Marquee Club. Do you want to come?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ And there he was, Jimi Hendrix. I remember more than anything else was that white teenage girls wanted to suck his cock. There were no black performers playing rock n’ roll and certainly none that looked like him. What was mind blowing to me was, how did he sound like that? He changed things on many levels.
So then you moved to America and married Pamela. Then what happened?
I got deep into drugs. I broke up Silverhead, because it had outlasted itself. Nigel Harrison went on to be in Blondie. Robbie Blunt went to Robert Plant. Speaking of Robert Plant, Zeppelin had come to see us play so I knew Jimmy, but I didn’t know he’d been with Pamela. When I came to America in ’74, and met Pamela, I formed a band called Detective. I had super high power management and they contacted Zeppelin, who had just started Swan Song Records. Coincidentally, I’m now with Pamela and Pamela knows Jimmy and Peter Grant. I’d known Jimmy, so it was a very natural thing that we were the first American band to be signed by Swan Song. Jimmy produced the record. We recorded it twice. It cost millions of dollars. And we just sat in the Jacuzzi with the record playing and smoked coke and had the girls give us massages. It took six months to get a drum sound. It was insane. The Zeppelin machine was so extraordinary. They wanted to live in Malibu. They wanted four houses next to each other. If you look at ‘Hammer of the Gods’, there’s a picture of me and my band with Jimmy unconscious on a couch. That record took a long time. It was very interesting and dark. There were a lot of drugs. When Robert’s son passed away, we were going to go on tour with them, but Zeppelin fell apart and, as a consequence, so did we. We put out a few records, but I’d lost the spark. I’d lost the spontaneity of my art. I was becoming a puppet. I was doing what I thought people wanted.
To verify the puppet thing, it’s like, ‘Here’s a song that you’re singing’ versus, ‘Here’s a song that you wrote.’ I don’t think the puppet thing was as heavy back then as it is now, so there’s a part of the creativity that’s missing.
You’re observant. You absolutely get it. I mean, Frank Sinatra never wrote a song. Elvis never wrote a song. You can become a great stylist and a great interpreter, but the honesty of the singer songwriter of the ’60s determined the great rock n’ roll personalities like Robert Plant. Robert Plant sang Robert Plant songs. Naked Keith sang Naked Keith songs, although not at the beginning. They covered a Beatles song, the one that Ringo did, and ‘Come on’ by Chuck Berry. By the end of it, they locked them in a room and said, ‘Write your own songs.’ I was trying to write what I thought they wanted, which is what you do when you’re lost. I was so into drugs at that point, that music was secondary.
What got you to that point?
The reason to be alive was to get loaded. If you get an idea of who you think you are, it’s not the same as being who you are. So we did a few records and toured endlessly with Kiss. I love Gene and Paul dearly. Gene’s never had a drug in his life. He never had a drink or a cigarette. He’s a Hasidic Jew. He came here when he was 12 and couldn’t speak English.
That’s interesting, because you’d think the persona of Kiss is that they’re bigger than life.
They were a wonderfully curious blend of unbelievable ambition and loving rock n’ roll. We supported Kiss in ’72, and they supported us in New York. I remember they blew their drum kit up. I was like, ‘We have to come out after that? Give me some angel dust.’ I remember that night because that’s the first night we hit New York and we met the Dolls. It was very funny.
That was the first time you’d met the NY Dolls?
We went to Max’s and they were playing and there were three people in the audience. Afterwards, we all went to the hotel and partied and then went out. When we came back, the hotel was on fire. The elevator opened and it was all smoke. The place was on fire. The Dolls show up and the hotel catches on fire. Welcome to America.
What happened after Detective?
In 1980, I did a solo record with Nigel Harrison and Mike Chapman, ‘I’m Only Human’. I had a hit. It went top ten in England. Then I went to London and hit bottom. I was drinking and drinking. In ’81, I got sober. In ’82, I was back in New York, and I was playing in Chequered Past with Steve Jones. I was a huge Sex Pistols fan. Jonesy had a girlfriend at the time named Nina Wong who booked us at the Peppermint Lounge. It was me, Steve Jones, Nigel Harrison and Clem Burke. We played and it was packed. We opened with ‘Vacation’ by the Go-Gos. We played all covers. It was so tongue-in-cheek. Then Pamela and I moved to LA and Jonesy moved in with us. Pamela had just had Nick, our kid, and we all were living there together with his girlfriend Nina. We started to write songs, and got signed by EMI, and then we made a record, but it was produced by some hack and the record sucked and that was that.
We opened for Chequered Past once in Anaheim at Radio City. I remember that gig, because there was a huge fight when you were playing.
Was that you?
[Laughs.] Yeah. The guy that booked the club was like, ‘I’ll put you on with this band, but if you fight in my club I’ll never book you again.’ We were like, ‘We’re not fighters.’ Then a friend of mine punched some other guy and there was a brawl. It happened while you guys were playing.
[Laughs.] I didn’t even know.
Were you still getting high then?
No, I was in the middle with my ‘Big Book’. One band member was on heroin, one’s on coke, the rhythm section was drunk, and there was me. It was a nightmare, but I loved Jonesy so much I would have done anything for him. I have the deepest respect for him. Nobody plays guitar like Steve Jones. We had great musicians in the band, but the band was very dysfunctional. We opened for Duran Duran in San Diego and then Chequered Past broke up. I wrote a single that’s number one all over the world and got so rich I couldn’t believe it. Then I go down to Marshall, Texas with Don Johnson. He’s down there filming the ‘Long Hot Summer’ movie. I was hanging out with Sonny Crockett of ‘Miami Vice’, which was the biggest TV show at the time. Then the promoter in New York called and said, ‘Michael, could you come to New York immediately? There’s a band going on the road and they’re booked for six months and they need a singer.’ I was like, ‘Are you going to tell me who the band is?’ They were like, ‘You have to trust us. Are you coming or not?’ So I flew to New York. They put me up in a beautiful hotel suite, with yellow roses and those delicious croissants, and then the car comes to take me to the office. I walk in and it’s John Taylor and Tony Thompson of Power Station. Andy Taylor had seen me when I was with Chequered Past and we opened up for Duran Duran. They wanted me to go on tour with them because Robert Palmer didn’t want to go out on tour to that audience, and Andy had remembered me. We went from there to the Power Station studio. They gave me a copy of the record and a ticket on the Concorde jet to London that night. I went from New York to Heathrow to a studio in London to audition for Andy Taylor. He finally arrived six hours later in a billowing, smokey haze of marijuana. He was a tiny dude with two bodyguards. He sat down at the table and I sang the first two chords of ‘Get It On’. He clicked the intercom and said, ‘Michael, let’s go shopping.’ I spent 20,000 pounds on clothes.
[Laughs.] You’re a clothes hound. That’s what I’ve learned about you in this interview.
[Laughs.] So I sleep at The Dorchester Hotel that night.
A verse. A chorus. ‘Let’s go shopping. You’ve got the gig? You’re the singer for Power Station.’
I love rock n’ roll.
Then I had to learn to sing like Robert Palmer. So I flew back to New York with my five suitcases of new clothes. I stayed at The Carlyle and waited three days. Then Don Johnson comes to town, and we go to the theatre one afternoon. I’m telling him that I’m doing this tour and I just got all these clothes. Then John Taylor calls and says, ‘Michael, I’m sorry, but Robert Palmer is going to do the tour.’ I was like, ‘What?’ My whole life had just changed. I was in the band! I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He was like, ‘Sorry, man. Take the clothes. It’s over.’ So Don and I go to Indochine for dinner, and John Taylor was there at another table. I couldn’t even bear to see him. I was under the table with very expensive Chinese food. He comes over and says, ‘Enjoy your meal.’ I was super dejected. So I go out to the car and fall asleep lying on a pile of very expensive clothing. The next morning at 8am my manager Danny Goldberg calls, ‘Michael, you’re on. Rehearsal is in an hour.’ I said, ‘What?’ Danny had gotten a hold of Robert Palmer and his manager, and asked, ‘What if you had a piece of the merchandising? It’s a quarter million for the gigs and $300,000 in merchandise five nights a week for six months. You figure it out.’ Robert Palmer was like, ‘I don’t even have to go along for the ride.’ Danny said, ‘We worked a deal. Go to the rehearsal. Have fun.’
My first gig was ‘Live Aid.’ It was incredible.
So you were on the road with Power Station for six months, but it was Palmer in the video right?
Yes. The idea of replacing has followed me in my career. I replaced Johnny Rotten in a TV series. I replaced Malcolm McLaren in a series I did for NBC. In the mid ’80s, I got the ‘MacGyver’ role as Eddie Murdoc and did that for six years. That’s what started my acting career again.