If you’re taking odds on last-man-standing in rock and roll, Michael Des Barres might be your best bet. The Englishman-by-way-of-L.A. powered through the 70s and 80s fueled by lead singer sweat & determination, fronting bands from glam pioneers Silverhead to post-punk supergroup Chequered Past to Duran Duran offshoot The Power Station (even playing a fake frontman for WKRP’s hoodlum rock band Scum of the Earth). Along the way he managed to crash & burn, get sober, then write a number one hit (Animotion’s “Obsession), play Live Aid, and spend screen time as MacGuyver’s evil nemesis Murdoc. With a resume that forms constellations all across the pop culture universe, Des Barres has continued to rock hard, recently releasing his latest solo album. THE KEY TO THE UNIVERSE is a hopeful flamethrower of a record, full of Des Barres’ trademark conflict: a tender heart fighting a born-to-boogie libido. We sat down with Des Barres at Manitoba’s bar in the East Village of Manhattan to get the skinny from the Skinny One himself.
Q: You are getting a very strong reaction to the new record. People seem to be yearning for a purer sound in their rock & roll.
Michael: The amazing thing, the record is just been added to so many stations — and I don’t say that from any self-aggrandizing place, I really don’t — I’m so grateful for anybody that plays this music because this album means so much to me. It was so fun to make it, and we did it so fast. I think the reason that people have picked up on it is because it is an authentic record. It’s an analog record. it’s guitar, bass, drums. It’s the blues, more of a British inspiration from the blues – Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, and in my case Lord Byron (laughs) you know? That romanticism of the great poets, and the blues, which is what I’m all about.
Q: I read a little bit about this gentleman where you sort of said, you have to come to Rome to make this record. Did that inform the album in some way?
Michael: Enormously because the timelessness of that city and I’m a student of history and mythology. I’d describe it as upping my game. If you’re in an environment that you’re not familiar with, you’re going to have to throw away, all the usual devices that you use to get through the day. By that, I mean the persona that you create to do something like this has to go out of the window.
I think the authenticity of this album is because I was in a place that I’ve never recorded before, in a city that I’ve never been to before, except to play. I describe it as “microphone, hotel room,” because that’s all I ever saw of any city. In this case we were working in The Forum Studios in Rome which was where Morricone did all those scores for those lush, beautiful Italian movies.
You got the ghost of Marcello Mastroianni and the presence of the greatness of those orchestrations, and here we are — guitar, bass, drums — so there’s a real paradox there. The thrust of it, the thread of it, the connecting silver cord was art. You better step up and be as great as you can possibly be because you’re surrounded by priceless beauty and timeless brilliant sculptures. The streets are like paintings.
We’re not in London, we’re not in L.A. going to some stupid trendy club every night and going back and doing a track of the song that we have to do two days later because we were whatever. None of that was happening. It was very disciplined, very strict and that music was done in a frenzy of creativity.
Q: I heard you said before that Rome and that experience is now seared into your DNA. What is it that you carry from that now that the record is obviously finished?
Michael: I think the most important thing about any artistic endeavor as a songwriter, as a singer, is that you give it your best, but what is the best? The best is the truth. I mean the truth is hit songs. The songs that I’ve written that other artists have cut, that I’ve cut have been hits have been songs that are not obscure, that are very clear what the emotion is, and I think the factor is the intimacy of a song. That means something to people.
If you’re going to write something that’s authentic, you got to be authentic. You can’t adopt a persona. The only person live who can do that is David Bowie which he did in my opinion I think he’s the master of rock n’ roll, as important as Elvis or Little Richard, or anybody else. No question about it.
In my case, I just wanted to tell the fucking truth, that’s all I wanted to do and that means you got to strip away all the artifice. The producer Bob Rose was very much therapeutic in that sense. If I ever did an adlib or whatever that was vaguely reminiscent of any other artist he would literally that button and say “we’ve already got a Mick Jagger.” “Bowie exists, he lives in New York.” “We have a Rod, okay buddy.” If you wear your influences on your sleeve, you know, please sing naked.
Q: How was it working with Nigel Harrison again?
Michael: Fucking awesome.
Q: Were there any moments there where you turned and looked at each other and you’re back in the seventies?
Michael: I started to weep on many occasions.
Michael: Oh yeah, it was really emotional, because he’s one of my oldest friends. We made records when we were 18. I’m 67, you work it out. I mean, it was unbelievable because I love this guy, who went on to Blondie, wrote “One Way or Another,” and has been an enormously successful songwriter, and we were children when we started. What he served as on this record was a bullshit detector. Whenever I went off on some mad thing, he would just look like me, he wouldn’t even say anything. And I’d say, “Sorry, sorry okay let’s get on with it.” He’s my conscience, he was my co-writer and he shot the photographs of the album. I couldn’t have done it without him. Nobody else on the planet can play that way, for one thing. He’s the most brilliant, melodic pop-rock bass player. Whatever the song demands, he could play it. In a way that was even more important was the humanity of it. The length of our relationship and the fact that we’re now still at this time in our lives making rock n’ roll music is just — well, you heard it, it kicks ass. I think a lot of that has got to do with our love for each other.
Q: I must say, “Black Sheep” is a true barnburner of a song. There’s young cats running around right now trying to make something like that and you’re hitting it right between the eyes.
Michael: We did nail it. But again, on a rebellion level, those guys [Bowie, Morrisey] addressed the people on the fringes, the disaffected kids that don’t have a voice. The LGBT kids, the transgender kids, all of those kids that don’t have a voice. Look, after all the heroin, Jimmy Page, Steve Jones, Murdoc, and all the stuff that I’ve been through, the one thing that I’m left with is I want people to feel they’re in a community that they could be safe in.
That song – “black sheep are beautiful they are, black sheep more vulnerable by far” — that’s the chorus and I mean it. I wanted to embrace the fact that differences are good. Individuality is what we need in this new community that we must create to survive.
Q: Coming from you, the album’s title The Key to the Universe seems like a multi-layered definition. Are the keys to the universe is something that you discovered on the way to this album? What is it that people are supposed to take away from the title?
Michael: It’s a question. I didn’t make it as a statement of what I had the answer to or anything. The key to the universe for me — and I can’t believe I’m sitting here telling you what the key to the universe is for one thing — but I do know this: in order to be loved you must love yourself.
Q: How long did it take you to get to that?
Michael: When I quit heroine in ’81 I started on this metaphysical path. I read everything that I could. Nihilistic writers, saints, Marcus Aurelius, I read everything I could get my hands on because I knew that AA wasn’t enough. I knew that stopping taking drugs and drinking which I did in 1981, and I haven’t had a drink or drug ever since, was a door to go through. The drugs and the alcohol would anesthetize me and make me avoid the very things that would sensibly give me a key to the universe.
To me one of the great things I’ve learned is when people say about success and I’ve been in all these bands and they are not U2, but I’ve realized that if you want to talk about success, success is peace, success is fulfilment, the process is the prize. The results are something that I have no control over.
I learned that early on in metaphysical pursuits and also just having fun. Man, look at my fucking life. The things that I’ve been given, and done apart from all of the money. I’m thinking about the ability to play a character opposite Alf and to do fucking Live Aid. To work with Jimmy Page and Steve Jones, to act with Clint Eastwood, to sleep with the most gorgeous women that ever lived and to go around the world many, many times and have a beautiful home and be talking to you in Dick Manitoba’s bar? This is fucking awesome. As far as I’m concerned I make Sting look like an extra in a Stanley Kubrick movie.
Q: If you don’t mind me asking, in ’81 when you did get clean, was there a moment that caused you to do it?
Michael: Vanity got me. Whenever you hear these guys say “well I had this moment of clarity and the clouds opened and there was Charlton Heston and he said stop it.” No, I looked in the mirror and I looked like Boris Karloff’s roadie. I looked horrible. I swear to you that’s the truth. It was a binge, I had been up for three days. If any of you guys have ever tried, you know how horrible it is. The third day when the sun comes out and the birds are chirping and you literally want to kill yourself.
It was that morning. I was really in love with Pamela at the time and I couldn’t stop. I had an infant child. I went home and I looked in the mirror and I saw this frightened creature. I suddenly saw it. I didn’t feel it, I saw it, it was physical. I could see the guy I turned into which was a man riddled with doubt and self-hatred. I was owned by something, and I’m not very good with being owned with something.
The minute I realized that I had no control, not that I’m a control freak, but when I realized that there was no choice, I had to do [heroin]. I had to get in, I had to shoot it, I had to do it. When I realized that that was going on, within mere weeks of me becoming truly addicted, I stopped everything. There was no rehab when I got sober, there was no $80,000 a month rehab in Malibu that I could be sent to.
Q: That first week must have been the worst week of your life.
Michael: The worst week in my life was working in this TV show that I can’t tell you. (laughs)
Michael: Let’s say it was the second worse week of my life.
Q: That was ’81, and four years later in 1985, that was arguable the year of Michael Des Barres between writing the hit song “Obsession,” becoming lead singer of the Power Station, and playing Live Aid —
Michael: And Murdoc [Des Barres’ recurring villain role on the TV show “MacGuyver”]
Q: Yes, and Murdoc. Was there some satisfaction in the fact that you did all of that sober?
Michael: All of my life since that moment has been satisfying. What happens is that when you realize all of the mistakes you make, if you learn from them, they’re advantages. If you can understand that principle, and it’s a lofty principle, if you can understand it even if you make mistakes, do not spend the rest of your life regretting what you did. Look at it, distance yourself, objectively see it. Observe what you’re doing, don’t judge it, don’t condemn it, don’t justify it. Look at it and let it go. If you do that, then you come away with knowledge, you don’t come away with regret. Especially as an artist, because all of that stuff, if you can distance yourself from something that’s so painful as a relationship break up or something like that, you will learn something about yourself that will protect you or give you the knowledge to be able to move forward and meet somebody else. You won’t judge them quite the way you did, because it’s all about identity, you got to find out who you are before somebody’s going to love you because they can’t love an inauthentic self.
You got to find who this fucker is before anybody is going to see the truth. If they can’t see the truth, it’s not a relationship.
Q: Isn’t it amazing that people go through their whole lives and sometimes don’t learn that?
Michael: People go through their whole lives having chosen an identity that isn’t real. “I’m Charlie, I work in the dry cleaners, I’m black, I’m a minority, I’m kind of good at the saxophone.” Before long you’ve written a fucking story that has nothing to do with what’s real because you’ve got to get through the day, you’ve got to pay your bills. I think I’ve spent most of my life stripping away the things that don’t work, which are artifice, pretention and conceding to a cultural reference point that I had no desire to be part of.
Every system is broken, every institution that we believed in we don’t believe in anymore. Even Barry [President Barack Obama] who I think is a heroic man, and I think anybody who doesn’t is a fucking idiot. Are you going to tell me that it’s okay to break into people’s private lives for the greater good? Well dude I have news for you, it’s the greater bad, and it sucks.
If people are going to blow whistles, keep blowing them man, because right now they’re blowing them out of their ass, and the presidency is for sale. I’m not interested and I will fight it at every turn. I can only fight it with three chords so this album is dancing to the truth. How’s that?
Q: Some say that as life goes on, rich rock stars don’t really connect to the people anymore, and the counter to that is that a rich man or a poor man can still fall in love and get heartbroken. How do you continue to tap into the rock and roller that you started out as, how do you keep close to that?
Michael: I don’t subscribe to the notion of rock stardom. I don’t see the relevance of the use of being worshipped. I mean rock n’ roll is a conversation, it’s not a fucking sermon. Rock n’ roll is a party, I’m not going to break up a party and talk about Syrian refugees. I’m there to make them dance.
I believe that the great iconic bands had a message. But the message is not singular. I would never stand on a platform and that’s why Live Aid was so weird, I said to Ozzy, “Isn’t it wonderful what they did in Ethiopia?” And he said, “Is that a restaurant?” (laughs) That will pretty much fill you in terms of rock n’ rollers and politics.
I’m not going to have some philosophical view of the world and lay it on you like this is what we have to do. Look, this is my politics, I’m walking in my neighborhood I see a homeless guy. I get on the phone, I call Music Cares if it’s a musician which it frequently is. I will get him a bed in a fucking facility and he has no insurance.
I have organizations, I work with Little Kids Rock which is getting instruments to inner city school kids. I can only do it on my level. I’m not fucking Bono, I’m not Angelina Jolie — although I’m keen on Angelina Jolie as everybody knows. But the thing is I’m not an ambassador. I’m a fucking guy who’s there to play sweet chord music, and make people happy. In my personal life, do you know of young musicians are dealing with drugs?
I mean so many and you don’t announce this stuff. You get what I’m starting to say here. It’s all an auspicious argument. It’s an abstraction. Syria? Who of us going to go over there and find the guy who beheaded the guy?
Q: It’s been so well documented in interviews that you had joined The Power Station and went on to play Live Aid with them, but I actually heard Don Johnson had a part in that happening. What was his role?
Michael: The story is, but he’s making a movie and he was making a movie with Ava Gardner, who I really wanted to me. “Obsession” was number one in the world, [Steve Jones] was strung out, the band [Chequered Past] was taking a piss, the other boys were drunks. I’m sober. I was like, fuck it, I’d go down and see DJ in Texas because he’s funny and I love him.
I get a call and he says, “Man I need a singer what are you doing this summer?” I said, “I’m taking an off year and I’m spending my ‘Obsession’ money. What are you doing?” He said, “Well I’m promoting a tour with this band. I said, “Who?” He said, “I can’t tell you, but we’ll fly you in New York and put you up at The Carlisle.” They did all that. So I’m in the room with Tony Thompson, who is the greatest drummer ever. And there’s John Taylor sweating profusely, who brought me in because Chequered Past supported Duran Duran and I got the gig.
Then I go to London and I meet with Andy and he’s late of course, and waited eight hours in the studio. Andy comes in I sing “Get it On” and he goes, “Okay let’s go shopping.” We go shopping. I come back in the Concorde in New York we go to dinner, it’s so exciting.
So then they say, “At 10 am, you’re going to be rehearsing you’ve got 10 days you’re going to be doing a show called Live Aid.” So I’m in the hotel, and Don Johnson comes in for a weekend and we go to a restaurant. Now, on the way to the restaurant we find out that it was over. Palmer was back in. So I’m going, what? I’ve got one more night in The Carlisle and then we go back to Texas and I’ll try to kiss Ava Gardner. And we go to this thing and there’s John. John Taylor’s there. Unbeknownst to us, he’s drunk. Don Johnson goes “hang on, you sit right here, I’m going to go and chat with John.”
Q: And this is 1985 Don Johnson, at the height of his power.
Michael: He’s Elvis, pink shirt and no socks. I remember I got a funny story. Three days into the pilot it was genius he calls and goes, “Mikey how’s it going?” He was a pilot you’ve got MTV Cops he says, “They want me to shave, the motherfuckers want me to lose my stubble and I don’t want to do it. And they want me to wear socks,” and I go, DJ you’ve done 11 pilots. Maybe you’ve perhaps might think about that and maybe shave. He said, “Fuck them.” Ten days after the pilot aired he was the king of the world. Not only that but there were shavers made that could produce the stubble that the very executive wanted to get rid of. We’re talking about THAT guy, that guy with balls.
Back to the story. He takes John outside, comes back and says nothing. John’s a big fan of Vice, okay, goodnight, got to go. I go home, I pack. At 7 am the phone rings, and it’s my manager Denny, a great guy. “You’re back in.” What they did was they went to Palmer and they said we’ll give you a piece of the t-shirts. We were paid half a million dollars in performance, but we made $650,000 in merchandising.
Think about the numbers, we did six months, five nights a week. Palmer got a piece of it because he never wanted to sing in front of 20,000 girls, I did, especially when half of them were topless. So what Don said to John was, “You’re an idiot not to do bring Michael in because he can control that crowd and Robert can not.” This is not disparaging Robert Palmer. Robert Palmer is a genius in my book and one of the greatest songwriters of all time, no question. At funk and R&B, he was brilliant. So, Don is a very convincing guy, what do we do after Live Aid? Go right after to Miami and do an episode of Miami Vice.
Q: I remember that. I remember watching it on television when it happened. The whole band is on the episode, and John says, “we got a new lead singer.” I also remember an interview that you guys did on the set, looking at each other like “we’re not going to tell you about that.” A decadent time, no doubt.
Michael: Because that tour was- I mean I lived a very decadent life and everybody knows that. But I’m telling you, when you have your own plane and you’re with two 22-year-olds who are The Beatles — I swear to you we would walk up there [on stage] and that place would erupt. I remember the first gig we did I came out and the whole audience parted like the Red Sea because John is here on my right and Andy is here on my left. The crowd couldn’t give a fuck about me! There was a guy in the middle they didn’t give a fuck about — Duran Duran is here in the house!
In all seriousness, if I could be serious about such a topic as rock n’ roll, I learned a lot about self-esteem, about what it means if people turn away. You don’t take it personally. This is John and Andy of Duran Duran! Of course it’s going to be like the Red Sea parting and you’re walking down that sandy middle path. After Live Aid, everybody had seen me on telly, and so then it became better.
I remember there would always be one guy in the front with a Robert Palmer album cover going, “You suck.” You had 19,999 naked girls watching, teenagers cheering me on and I don’t know the fuck they were doing, and who do you think about? I learned a big lesson with that, you cannot please everybody, you can do your best to be sweet and loving to everybody, and hope that they feel it. If they don’t, it’s their problem, it’s not your problem. But that takes time. A lot of artists they tell you that, if they’re telling the truth, that when they’ve got an audience and everybody is going bonkers and maybe two or three aren’t, you think about those two or three. It’s an innate thing in you as an artist. You want everybody to dig it and it’s impossible.
Q: Comedians say the same thing, they always look at the one guy who’s not laughing.
Michael: And you get fixated on it and you know what that’s called? Doubt. It hits where your self-confidence is and your sense of identity. I’m thinking, “Am I fooling them, am I getting away with something or am I really signing well?” You can’t think about it.
Keith Richards says it, when he’s on record as saying, “I don’t think when I’m up there. I’m not thinking, I’m playing, I’m being, I’m a human being.” Performance is kinetic, it’s in the moment. It’s an existentialist pursuit. You can’t let somebody get to you even though it’s really difficult, but that’s a lesson that you learn with experience.
That’s why going to Rome and making this record with these unbelievable musicians was so satisfying because of all the shit that I’ve been through. Nothing’s too hard to take if you learn from your mistakes. If you learn from them you can go forward and do the best that you can do.
Q: Quick question before I forget this, I heard that you when you were Detective you guys recorded a version of “I Need a Lover” by John Cougar that was never released. It must exist obviously somewhere but is it true it didn’t turn you guys on?
Michael: No it was great. I loved it but John took it back.
Q: I had no idea that’s what happened.
Michael: I don’t blame him. It was a great band, it was a crazy record. But you know, we got slack because of the comparisons to Zeppelin and I think it was perfectly justified. It was difficult because I’ve been on two vanity labels. Meanwhile I love Jimmy, Jimmy and I go back a lot longer as Detective and of course Peter Grant.
But the problem was drugs, I was addicted to drugs, shall we say that Zeppelin were somewhat chemically altered, therefore they gave us millions of dollars and we were in LA and we waited for a year for Jimmy to produce it. That was the beginning of the end because you can’t give four young men that amount of money, and expect them not to indulge every single temptation because it was de rigor for us to be the most stoned people in the world. By the time we got to make the album with Andy Johns who was unbelievable talented, really shockingly good for Christ’s cake. He’s brilliant but he’s on heroin, as is our guitar player, and I was just a lunatic.
The record was made twice, and it cost over a million dollars. It took nine months, we spent $200,000 of getting a good bass drum sound. This was ridiculous. This was a time in history where we were way too young to really understand how much money there was in the pot. We were the beneficiaries to that so there was a certain type of indulgence and we lost our way somewhere. I would never regret it.
Q: In your sobriety, the word “obsession” kept coming up again and again, so when you and Holly Knight were working together, that title emerged, and you wrote a huge hit with “Obsession.” How did that collaboration work exactly?
Michael: Well, she is an amazing writer.
Q: She was on a streak at that time too.
Michael: I wrote the lyrics, as you know, about drugs, but I knew I couldn’t write a song about drugs. I sort of nuanced it into this kidnap scenario where I would have a butterfly because I saw this Terence Stamp movie The Collector and it’s about a young man who wins the lottery. Wins it, has his eye on this girl, chloroforms her, puts her into the back of this van, bought a country home and takes her to the country home and collects butterflies and she’s a butterfly.
He creates a roof for her, he buys all her clothes in her size, he knows she loves to paints he brings her an easel and painting oils and canvass. I thought this was the most mind-blowing fucking narrative which I stole and put into the song. “I will have you, like a butterfly, I will collect you and capture you.” That imagistic obsessive love which is really a theme through all of my stuff.
It’s so ironic that I find out that the love that I should be feeling is for myself. What helped me and Holly was I had the lyric, and she had this groove, and it just came out in literally five minutes. That song took five minutes to write. She’ll tell you the same thing. She had that groove and I just sang it. That phrase was so important because it’s the ultimate co-dependent, “I don’t trust myself enough I’ll just be whoever you want me to be.” How many times have you felt that? I’ll do anything you want just please don’t leave me, please. Please don’t leave me. I’ll be whatever you want me to be. I’ll stop eating spaghetti I swear, I will not snore. Snoring is out, you’ll never hear it again. That’s it. I’ll kill a guy for you, I’ll stab him, I’ll be Fred McMurray in Double Indemnity, I’ll kill.
Q: Were you surprised that it took off the way it did? Because you and Holly did a version of it for a film [A Night In Heaven] and then, who ever heard of Animotion? And all of a sudden, boom. Were you taken by surprise?
Michael: Yeah of course we were. I mean yeah because it was in number one in 27 countries and we made this fortune. And that’s not the point, the point is it really connected.
Q: Exactly. What do you think it is that connected everybody to it? Just because it snaps you into that emotional place that everybody knows?
Michael: That’s what it is. It’s the intimacy of the experience of the song is something that you can relate to, plus it has a very sexy groove to it. We’re in the 80’s, the 80’s was very hedonistic and it was a very subversive, dark song. It wasn’t like “Do you really want to hurt me? Do you really want to make me cry?” — which is fucking awesome, but it’s not like “I will have you, yes I will have you,” looking at some girl in the club, lip syncing those words when the song comes on, you’re going to get wild sex that night you’re not just going to get a blowjob. I am responsible for many babies and herpes.
Q: You take responsibility for that?
Michael: I take full responsibility. Somebody asked me what my rising sign was the other day, I said herpes. The moon is in her eyes, with penis rising. (laughs)
Q: There is absolutely nobody I have talked to that doesn’t know you from something over the course of your life. It’s kind of amazing that between rock, film, television, all these different areas, you mean something to everyone. Your resume is rich and full, so I wanted to touch on a few things maybe you haven’t talked about much. What do you recall when I mention your role in Mulholland Drive, directed by David Lynch?
Michael: This is a great story and I’m so glad you brought it up. I got cast to be in a TV pilot. I had to go into this studio and just talk into the camera. No character, no script, just talk about myself which I can do. Lynch saw it and said, “That’s my guy.” It was a pilot for a TV show for ABC, it wasn’t a movie. I was the bad guy. Fabulous role, beautiful. ABC rejected the pilot out of hand because it was incomprehensible. They didn’t understand it.
Q: It’s somewhat Lynchian to get to the end of the film and you’re like, what the fucking hell is this?
Michael: It made sense to him, and he’s a genius, no question. Two years go by, and he reconfigures it into a movie with Naomi Watts and did that story and built the girls up and I’m out. I was in it for a brief moment.
You get that, those are the breaks. I’ve done movies where I thought it was the greatest performance I ever gave and it would be cut out and then reverse. I’ve done movies that were awful and it turned out great.
Q: I love you in Sugar Town.
Michael: That film was great.
Q: And the chance to work with pals of yours like John. Did you know Martin Kemp [bassist for Spandau Ballet] before that?
Michael: No but I love Martin. He’s great, they’re all great. The movie was great. Allison Anders were great and the relationship with her grew, and we created a film & music festival. For 10 years we’ve been doing it in L.A. playing documentaries about the fringes of rock n’ roll people and it’s enormously successful. By successful I mean we do it in a small silent movie theatre and I do Q & A’s with all the filmmakers and all the people that are still alive that the film’s about. So we do it every year. And again it’s one of the many things that I love to do that keeps it not so myopic. I’m just about one thing I’ll be so OCD about it, but that’s why I do the show for Steven [Sirius XM show on Little Steven’s Underground Garage channel] and that’s why I do what I do — which is a song I wrote for John Taylor. “I Do What I Do” from 9 ½ Weeks .
Michael: Is that it’s me singing it and it’s him doing the verses.
Q: You’re the singer?
Michael: Is that it’s me singing it and John does the verses. Remember that the next time you hear it.
Q: “Obsession” and that not that far apart in the basic message.
Michael: The director, Adrian Lyne, called me and he said, we’ve been attempting this scene with Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger to ‘Obsession.’ Would you write something like it?” And so I sat in a room, I wrote it, and I went to John and said, “Shouldn’t the Power Station do the song for this movie?” And he goes, “No, I’m going to do it.” (laughs) It was obviously a hit chorus so before I knew it, I went in and I sang the fucking thing and then I went on holiday, or I got Murdoc or whatever happened next. But it came out with my voice taken off it and John’s voice on it and my voice left in the choruses and it was brought out under his name. That’s fine and I don’t care. It came out and it was marginally successful in Europe and here.
Q: It was big on MTV.
Michael: We also did, which I wrote, the theme song to Commando.
Q: “We Fight For Love,” with the credits rolling in the end?
Michael: Yeah, I wrote that.
Q: You know I think I remember you saying one time that when it comes to the Power Station, they were a little funkier than you are. Because you’re a much more straight head rocker, that’s one of the reasons you sounded great doing “Murderess” [another Power Station song] at Live Aid.
Michael: That was a rock song.
Q: You were made to sing that song.
Michael: Yeah it was, and that was an Andy Taylor song. Subsequently I introduced Andy to Steve Jones, and Steve and Andy did an album together.
Q: You’ve worked so much with Steve Jones.
Q: The limitation of punk is that unless you get better at playing, and get better at what you do, then you don’t progress as a musician. Now, Steve Jones obviously extremely talented, so how is it working with him while he’s figuring out a post-punk world, I suppose.
Michael: It’s a great question, and for me there’s no limitation on catalogues, or a library. The Sex Pistols had one album and that was enough. Okay so why would you imprint the status quo on a band like The Sex Pistols? Oh yeah their fifth album wasn’t as good as their 17th album. Dude, they were destined to be this cosmic event. To me, it was like a meteor hitting earth with safety pins in it. John Lydon is a genius and those songs supported by Steve’s unbelievable guitar playing broke every rule, so why didn’t they break that rule? They’ve been in the rule breaking business.
Steve says, “Don’t fucking tell me what punk is. Whatever I do is punk. If I want to go and get liposuction it’s punk. If I want to go and get a big cheesecake and shove it up my ass, it’s punk. So don’t fucking tell me” – because all these people were suddenly now experts. Greil Marcus is now a philosophical writer about what punk rock is. He wouldn’t know punk rock if it bit him on the bum, but he’s a brilliant writer, and a philosopher, and Lipstick Traces is one of the greatest books ever written.
The Pistols are like the one relationship in your life that meant something. You just look at them and The Rolling Stones, they didn’t need to do any other records. So post-Pistols for me was fantastic because Chequered Past were a bit of a mess. Some nights we just played covers. I remember the first gig we ever did was Peppermint Lounge right here in New York city. Me and Frankie [Infante] from Blondie, Nigel and Joe. We opened with “Vacation” by the Go Go’s. And they went (makes open mouth face).
I wish we’d film that fucking show because we went to anarchy. And then they started gobbing and stuff and Steve was kicking it in the fact. Let’s do vacation again and we also do a great version of that Boy George song “Church of the Poison Mind”.
Q: That’s a Motown song.
Michael: But we did it like The Who would do it when they were the High Numbers! Jonesy, if anything, is encyclopedic about rock and roll. You might not know it. He knows every single Ray Davies song, he rocks Journey. He’s completely not the person you think music he is. First, he’s the smartest man I know. I’m not talking about academic. We lived together. Pam, and the baby, and Steve. I love him, he’s my brother. He’s the most brilliant rock n’ roll guitar player I’ve ever worked with.
You put him together with Clem fucking Burke and on any given night, that band was rocking. EMI put us in the studio with a stupid producer whose name I won’t even mention. It was the 80’s hair band thing and what they tried to get was a huge rocker in the title, and we did what we were told, and it was a dumb move. But the joy of it was the live performances with Steve, and I might work with him again.
Q Back to the current album I want to know what’s your favorite track on that album or do you just love all of them?
Michael: I try not to discuss this like they do in my show they ask me question who’s your favorite and I say I love them, they’re my babies. How can you choose a baby? The track that I return to and listen to that’s really good is “Yesterday’s Casanova” because it’s about yesterday’s Casanova. “Your lover boy days are over, the cop just pulled you over.” That’s obviously a letter to myself, because I was a lothario, and now I’m in love and I have a woman I love.
I think I wrote it subliminally to let her know that I knew what I used to be. So that’s a personal thing, in terms of a groove “Linda’s Song” is a great groove. And I love “I Want to Punch Love in the Face” because it’s wake up. It’s just about “wake the fuck up and love yourself enough so you can be loved.” It’s like, we started this wonderful conversation that we’ve had, telling folks to wake up out of your coma, realize you’re a lovable person, let people in and tell the truth.
Q: Beautiful. Last question: Can we talk about Scum of the Earth [the fictional band he fronted in an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati].
Michael: Rock god. Sir Charles Weatherby! If I could count in one hand the things that I am remembered for, that would be one of them. I don’t know why it struck a nerve. I think it’s when we came on the set they had us in all the gear Union Jacks, fucking safety pins, punk. I said “that’s not funny, put them in suits.”
Q: You said that?
Michael: Yes of course I did. Put them in suits, give me some stupid title, and we can say “sorry about the car.” It’s so much funnier. We’ve seen that safety pin thing a thousand times. That’s not funny anymore. That’s already been done. Why don’t you have them dressed like aristocrats and be a bunch of assholes? That’s funny. Hugh Wilson, who conceived the show, said to me, “Michael, that is genius.” I said, “Do I get any piece of syndication rights because of this?” And he said, “Fuck off.” All right, no problem. (laughs)
Q: At the end of the episode, when you’re performing at the concert, it’s hilarious because viewers can see a stream of profanities are coming out of your mouth. You can’t hear it, but you can see it.
Q: “Fuck you!” First of all, it was one of my last binges. I spent that whole week on coke, that whole week I was awake. When it came to tape night, it’s so funny because it’s not acting. I meant every word of it, and the timing was perfect, everything just fit into place for some mad reason. People just really responded to it over the years, it kind of became this legendary rock band which of course never existed. On a joke level, it’s perfect. It’s so dada, it didn’t exist.
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