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The Fault in Our Rock Stars

Rock stardom isn’t compatible with satisfaction; it is, in essence, satisfaction’s very antithesis. To be a rock star is to revel in need, because it is the ongoing and relentless need of the audience that calls them into being.
(Photo: DeshaCAM/Shutterstock)

(Photo: DeshaCAM/Shutterstock)

Time has not been particularly kind to the guitar gods who ruled the pop firmament when I came of age. My musical tastes were fairly typical for a pre-pubescent, middle-class white boy of the ’80s. That said, it’s still cringe-inducing to name the first album that I ever bought, a self-titled release by the glam metal band Whitesnake. In the spring of 1987, their power ballad “Here I Go Again” was rattling radios everywhere, in malls and at roller rinks and pool parties—but I still wanted more.

This particular Whitesnake album sold eight million copies in the United States, and so I can be sure that there are plenty of other people who shared my experience, although they’re smart enough to keep quiet about it now. Steeped in the hair metal clichés of its day, Whitesnake’s album is musically sound, if predictable; it’s the lyrics, however, that make it truly special. The first song opens: “A black cat moans when he’s burning with a fever / a stray dog howls when he’s lonely in the night.” Two songs later we get this first verse: “In the still of the night / I hear the wolf howl, honey / sniffing around your door.” The second side of the album begins with “Give Me All of Your Loving,” which has the following chorus:

I don’t even know your name,
And I can’t leave you alone,
I’m running round in circles
Like a dog without a bone.

No doubt many people in the record industry were made rich by the string of bawdy glam hits written by now-forgotten bands. Other dubious favorites of mine included Warrant (“Cherry Pie,” “Love in Stereo”) and Motley Crue (“She Goes Down,” “Ten Seconds to Love”). The close reader of these and other hits of the age is confronted with such rampant double entendre that, afterwards, it feels faintly dirty just using a word like “couplet” to describe the most common rhyme scheme.

The hard rock scene was artistically bankrupt long before the arrival of a new sound and style out of Seattle in 1993. Grunge acts like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden washed all the bands that I have mentioned out to sea. Most broke up; some went into hiding; a few stubbornly plugged on, playing small venues, signing at small record labels, and surviving mostly as nostalgia acts.

In August 2011, almost precisely 22 years after his power ballad “Heaven” owned the late summer Billboard charts, the dead body of Jani Lane—former lead singer of Warrant—was found in a Comfort Inn near the Mexican border. According to friends, he had taken up the habit of not carrying a wallet or identification, just a note reading, "I am Jani Lane,” and the phone number for a reliable acquaintance. Apparently, Lane was often turning up stone drunk, and, like a lost dog with an address around his neck, counting on the good will of others.

I am more interested in the rock stars that lived too long than in the martyrs or the legends. Who wonders at the psychology of Hercules? He remained, to the end, the mightiest of heroes.

His real name was—no lie—John Kennedy Oswald, and he came out of the Sunset Strip scene in the ’80s along with all of the other hair metal bands. He was originally from Ohio, and he could write an honest musical hook. He had some decent pipes, too. Impressively, his group charted four Top 40 hits in the span of three years. But after the world moved on he couldn’t land a single anywhere on the Hot 200, let alone near the top. He couldn’t shake the glam rock label, either. But he never went back to being John Oswald, as the note found on his body makes clear.

I have to wonder, did the person who found the note—that maid or cop or hotel clerk—did he or she recognize this name from his or her own teenage years? Or was “I am Jani Lane” just an idiosyncratic, oddly feminine name for a 47-year-old man who drank himself to death? And if you’re Jani Lane—if you were once selling out stadiums but are now headlining the floor of the Comfort Inn, alone—what does that feel like?

FOR MY GENERATION—THE Gen Xers who were once so ambivalent about their own ambivalence—there was for a time no better hero, no greater sacrificial demigod, than the tortured rock star Kurt Cobain. You’d think that Kurt Cobain was the son of Zeus for how he was spoken of in the ’90s after killing himself. I was 16 years old when he died, and in a fit of pique and pain, I wrote an angry poem called “Seattle” that appeared in our high school art magazine. I will spare you an excerpt. Let us say simply that the poet felt betrayed by the rock star.

Now, decades later, there is precious little that interests me about Cobain; his music is someone else’s angry ode; and his life story feels canned, as old as dramatic tragedy, like Oedipus and Agamemnon, but without the memorable monologues. Far more fascinating, and far more human to me, are the stories of exiled rock stars like Jani Lane. I am more interested in the rock stars that lived too long than in the martyrs or the legends. Who wonders at the psychology of Hercules? He remained, to the end, the mightiest of heroes. Jani Lane, however, was a long distance from his best days for the better portion of his life.

As a sonic class, grunge was the polar opposite of glam: jagged, not slick; denim, not leather; gut-rot, not cocaine. But beneath the imagery and the noise, at the level of the people who made the music, you can find the same kind of anxious, struggling souls. And why not? The Roman gods are the Greek gods—just with different names.

In a 2012 retrospective, the Atlantic suggested that of all the vocalists to come out of Seattle, a singer named Layne Staley was the most original. His gloomy, dark band, Alice in Chains, sold 25 million records in the ’90s, and it spent seven years in the limelight—all of this despite Staley’s well-known and debilitating drug problems. On one hand, Staley’s drug habit kept the band from getting even bigger; on the other, his addiction created an aura that appealed to teenagers trying to break from the suffocating safety of childhood.

Staley once told an interviewer that he had wanted to become a rock star as a kid because he believed attaining celebrity would lead his father—who’d left when he was a boy—to get back in touch with him. Staley did manage to become an honest-to-God rock star, but his father never sought him out. Staley all but disappeared after 1997, after the group’s third album. He lived out his last days in his apartment, pent up like Howard Hughes, emaciated; in the final interview he ever gave, he is deeply regretful for how his life ended. As if he were following someone else’s script. He weighed just 85 pounds when he died in 2002.

What, one has to ask, was wrong with Layne Staley? You could claim it was the drugs and the booze, but let’s work carefully through cause and effect here. If just drinking and drugs doth a dead god make, then who can explain the long lives of Ozzy Osbourne and Keith Richards? The alcohol and the heroin may have done the killing, but fermented liquids and narcotic chemicals are rarely the initial cause.

Instead, I see Staley’s life, and Jani Lane’s life, as foundering on something far more elemental. Irrespective of their individual artistic merit, they were both success stories on paper—and that experience of working for and attaining success appears to have left them haunted and unable to return to regular life again. The problem is a lot bigger than drinking or drugs. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our rock stars, but in ourselves.

EVERYTHING I THOUGHT I knew about writing and recording a record turns out to be wrong. Weaned on MTV behind-the-music specials, I grew up with the romantic idea that The Artist labors in a cavernous dark studio somewhere, large headphones pressed to one ear, pen in hand, mouth firm in concentration, and composing actively the lines that will be sung presently into a microphone on the other side of a glass partition.

The truth involves far, far more people, and a lot less cohesion or control. Lines are sung and re-sung; choruses and verses are reversed or re-arranged or dropped altogether; and even when a band like the Foo Fighters claims (as they did with their last album) that they kept things real in the studio by recording in analog and with live takes, well, you can be sure that what you’re hearing in the finished product was still never played simultaneously by all the musicians involved. Every three-minute pop song is the synthesis of hours and hours of work.

A particular favorite song of mine, the mega-hit “One” by U2, was certainly no product of artistic pre-meditation. It wasn’t written so much as it was cut and pasted into being. Basically, after weeks of struggling in the studio, the Edge, the band’s guitarist and resident geek, combined three recordings: an improvised vocal melody by Bono and the middle eight­s—the instrumental bridge that keeps a rock song from being too formulaic—from two other songs. In essence, a bunch of spare parts and rejects were stitched together into a single stretch of audio tape—and then, pow, presto, pop song immortality was made.

This story helped me begin to see how commercial songs are illusory; only very, very rarely do songs spring forth fully dressed from the foreheads of the rock gods. Songs are cultivated and created by groups of people operating at different times and different places. The editing process is legion, and a song often only gets “done” because it runs out of time before it must be packaged for mass appeal by liner notes and album photos—as in the ’80s—or pre-press tweets and Instagram sneak peeks—in the current era.

Looking back now, I cannot help but begin to see, behind all the bands I have followed, all the pop stars that I have admired, and all the songs I love, a set of hands at the controls—hands that are shaping many sounds into one; hands shaping many pictures into a single image and producing a singular product; hands adjusting the clothing and the style of a musician until everything is just right, until it’s all just so.

You can layer all the overdubs in the world and synthesize or record in perfect analog every instrument of every type ever known, but before you can finally make a song into a hit, into something people want to hear, you need a person. You need a canvas. You need a good-looking guy or girl who is willing to stand and smile when necessary, and who has the musicianship as needed to perform the songs live when it comes to that.

And so who is manipulating the levers? Whose hands are these? Who is casting Jani Lane out of the garden? Who is rewarding the suicidal behavior of Layne Staley? Who gave us the doomed Amy Winehouse? Who’s to blame for Elvis? Morrison? Hendrix? Who created the gods?

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, AT a second-floor party in leafy Evanston, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, I met the guitarist and singer who later went on to call himself Matt Lenny. I knew Matt in passing already because he was a poetry major in the same writing program where I did time, and he lived just behind my building. We traded barbs and name-checked bands and, before you knew it, he had me buying Jeff Buckley discs and re-sampling Radiohead.

For a time, I was a devoted groupie of Matt’s band, which played in intimate venues all around Chicagoland. He was still mastering his technique—he sat down while soloing sometimes so he could keep an eye on his fingers—but he was so capable of bending notes and hammering out solos that no one cared; he had a skill, a gift, a rare ability to echo the guitar gods without being enslaved to them. We all believed in his rock ‘n’ roll destiny.

Over the years, Matt has put out a few albums, both as a solo act and as part of rock bands. Listening to one such effort, an A&R man with a major label pedigree once told him that if it were 30 years ago, Matt would already be a star. “Your stuff is clearly genius,” the A&R man said, “but I need something that I can use to sell shampoo, you know?”

Who is casting Jani Lane out of the garden? Who is rewarding the suicidal behavior of Layne Staley? Who gave us the doomed Amy Winehouse?

The future is, as I have said, a funny thing. This is not the era for guitar rock any longer. For Matt Lenny, the timing has just never quite been right. But here’s where the story gets interesting, because I still know Matt well, and, in fact, just yesterday afternoon I met him for a glass of bourbon (we’d planned on coffee) in an apartment where he was staying on the 34th floor overlooking downtown Manhattan.

These days, Matt works full time in a pretty typical corporate job, although he is just as good of a guitarist as ever. If I were to line up the Matt of today with the Matt Lenny who was gigging and riffing and living the rock and roll life, there is one immediate distinction: this man, the grown-up Matt Lenny, the one who’s now married and expecting his first child and who owns his own home in a suburb of Chicago—this version of the man seems genuinely happy in a way that the striver of yesterday most pointedly did not.

You and me and the army of teenage kids who clamor for a new hero to worship with our hard-earned dollars—we aren’t really all that necessary for him anymore. Not to say that he wouldn’t mind a few of us buying his next EP. But he has a life outside the game of promotion and distribution and image; he’s not an indentured servant to the stories we need to tell ourselves while listening to music. He’s got his own separate time signature now.

This, I think, is a better fate than attaining the status of a bona fide pop star. Because the state of grace known as rock stardom isn’t compatible with satisfaction; it is, in essence, the very antithesis of satisfaction, which is an end state that needs nothing else. To be a rock star is to revel in need, because it is the ongoing and relentless need of the audience that calls rock stars into being.

The function of the rock star is—at its most existential level—the function of the hero, the comforter, the shaman, all in one. We look to them for relief at moments when we need a pick-up, or when we need to fill the quiet of an empty room, or the boring lull of a long drive. We turn to pop stars as teenagers, because they assure us of the possibilities of the world ahead. As adults, they also sometimes remind us of the orderly calm of the nostalgic past. We demand as much from them as Mark Strand demands from his muse in the great poem Dark Harbor:

Lay yourself down on the restaurant floor
And recite all that’s been kept from my happiness:
Tell me that I have not lived in vain, that the stars

Will not die, that things will stay as they are,
That what I have seen will last, that I was not born
Into change, that what I have said has not been said for me.

Heroes and the sons of the gods do not grow old gracefully in the epics and dramas of ancient Greece. In the pantheon of demigods, Bellerophone, Theseus, and Hercules would have done better to pack it in after act one. All of them came to a terrible end long after they’d hit the apogee of their acclaim. We can and should expect no less of our modern-day rock stars. After all, what is the point of a rock star except to function as a modern-day equivalent of those gods and goddesses?

They are like us, but not us; possessed of our appetites, but appetites at a scale that would kill most normal human beings. As a result, it is entirely understandable—maybe it’s even inevitable—that after some of these stars pass their prime, they’re left aimless and lost. To fault them, or to judge them, is self-indicting, because, while they may pass as gods, they are really creatures of our own making. We need them, and they need us, great and small, stars and mud; in that, at least, we are all equal in the end.