Who is Michael Des Barres? Perhaps rock’s ultimate lead singer, he’s fronted legendary bands Silverhead, Detective, Chequered Past and Power Station, and he’s loved more women than you’ve met including legendary “I’m With The Band” groupie goddess Pamela Des Barres. Hell, he married her! Also having acted in dozens of film and TV programs including “MacGyver” and “Melrose Place;” Des Barres the coolest cat in a room full of hipsters.
West Coast Bureau chief Keith Valcourt met up with the rock god in Hollywood to discuss his legendary career, hanging with Led Zeppelin, playing Live Aid, and his brilliant (said in English accent) new CD: “Carnaby Street.”
Rocker: There is a line from the title track of your new CD “Carnaby Street” that makes me ask, what was it like to be seventeen on Carnaby Street in London in 1967?
Michael: I smoked so much hashish that it sort of turns paisley whenever I think about it. Carnaby Street is a metaphor for a feeling, for a vibe. It was a cultural revolution and Carnaby Street was the mecca for where everybody got their ruffled shirts and their extraordinary outfits. In those days there was a very definitive “them” and “us.” It was very tangible. You would see these men and women who looked like Oscar Wilde standing next to post-second-world-war veterans. What I tried to do with this album is evoke that vibe, that innocence, that sexy sort of charm, debauchery and experimentation. To walk down Carnaby Street in those days was to be proudly walking in the front lines on an army that was in a war against hypocrisy and mediocrity.
Rocker: How old were you when you joined your first real band Silverhead?
Michael: Silverhead was in ‘71. I was born in ’48, so I was twenty three when that began. There was no band before. That was mythology for drama. The band Orange Illusion was indeed an illusion. We played once for maybe three girls in dancing class.
Rocker: Silverhead was the beginning of your singing career?
Michael: My singing career began in a nude musical in London in 1969 called “The Dirtiest Show in Town.” I played an androgynous rock star called “Rose.” Andrew Lloyd Webber saw that and helped me get a band together. I was singing in the West End making music, but Silverhead was the first incarnation of my rock and roll career.
Rocker: What drew you to “Glam” as opposed to Mod?
Michael: We never described ourselves as glam. Glam Rock was a lazy assessment of our band. It’s the same with rock and roll today. What the fuck is rock and roll? Is it Little Richard or Little Wayne? What is it? It’s just lazy journalism to describe us as glam. I never accepted that mantle. The difference between us and The Sweet was we wore our makeup without washing it off for a couple of weeks. Our mascara was smudged. Our music was smudged. Our souls were smudged. Glam is just a very nondescript way to sum up the mighty Silverhead which was a band in a cloud of hashish and velvet. It’s like calling both Jerry Lewis and Mitt Romney comedians.
Rocker: Was the “Cloud Of Hashish” to blame for the band only lasting for two albums?
Michael: Isn’t everything? I think drugs and ego kill most bands. We were so young and so fucked up that it played a part. When I look back in retrospect at these things I have no regrets about them because it had a life. The life was two albums. All the bands I’ve been in have had a life. I don’t know if I could single out drugs or ego as the sole culprit for their demises. People change. We were so young. If you get married when you’re twenty one are you still married at forty? Most people are not. It’s the same with rock and roll.
Rocker: You then went on to Detective which was harder rock. Was there a plan to go harder?
Michael: There have never been any machinations or calculations with anything I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t know how to calculate anything. It’s just all instinct. Detective was unbelievable because of our connection with Led Zeppelin.
Rocker: The band was signed to Zeppelin’s label Swan Song. Did you have any interaction with Led Zeppelin?
Michael: I had known Jimmy and the Led Zeppelin way before Detective ended up on Swan Song. Jimmy (Page) and I had “mutual interests” shall we say [Ed: Page and Des Barres both dated Pamela Des Barres]. The classic story is Detective played Birmingham, which is the hometown of (drummer John) Bonham and Robert (Plant). There were thirty people in the club and four of them were Led Zeppelin. So we went back to Bonzo’s house and stayed for a couple of weeks. Detective was both a wonderful experience and a very dark experience.
Rocker: Dark? How so?
Michael: There is a book coming out by Barney Hoskins, it is an oral history of Led Zeppelin that will better answer your question. If you can imagine being in league with the biggest rock and roll band in the world that was shrouded in mystery and decadence, and then having to go and make a record and write songs… Do the work. Clearly we were at play in the fields of Babylon. This was not some childish experimentation with pot in a parking lot. This was Led Zeppelin! Being in their world was a blessing and a curse. It made for amazing albums, I think. As do other in retrospect. But at the same time there were protracted weights. Give me a million dollars and a year to make a record and there is going to be trouble.
Rocker: Did that weighty relationship lead to the end of Detective or did it simply run it’s course?
Michael: As I said earlier, it has it’s own life. The demise of Detective was we took it as far as it could go given the circumstances. Various members of the group did give in to the dark temptations of rock and roll. That’s a rite of passage. Or a wrong of passage! (Laughs) Did Zeppelin have something to do with that? Of course. Led Zeppelin were an incredible influence on the world. Let alone the four of us in Detective.
Rocker: Because your next band Chequered Past was a supergroup was it hard to keep them together?
Michael: I suppose so. Again the term supergroup is a journalistic description. If you could have met those five guys and been in rehearsals with us you wouldn’t have used the word super. Weird and wonderful perhaps, but not super.
We began in New York as a cover band. The first song we played live was “Vacation” by the Go-Gos. You had all these punks, and Jonesy [Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols] nodding out and playing this vicious guitar – perhaps the wrong word given his previous band! And the band is drunk. The band is coked. The band is smacked. That first show playing covers to an enthusiastic crowd was really the apex of the band. As it went on we got signed by EMI, which stood for Every Mistake Imaginable. The band was so vicious, chaotic, sublime and spontaneous, like good rock and roll should be, but we made a record and it wasn’t what we were all about. It was the time of hair metal. Poison. We found ourselves supporting Ratt. Good lord how can we support a rat? I don’t disparage anybody. If you’ve got the balls to go up there and plug in then god bless you. But the superficiality of that era was the hook. The music was New York Dolls in a home for senior citizens.
I’ve been in all these different bands and it’s been incredible because I’ve worked with unbelievable people. I’ve learned so much for each and every one of them in terms of songwriting.
Rocker: Most of my generation really discovered you when you toured replacing Robert Palmer in Power Station. How did that come about?
Michael: It was really interesting. I was in Chequered Past with Jonesy, Clem Burke and Nigel Harrison from Blondie and Tony Sales from Tin Machine. All incredible musicians, and at the time, all incredibly fucked up. I had just got sober when we opened for Duran Duran.
I had no idea at the time, but Duran guitarist Andy Taylor was really the conscience of that band. It was 1985 and I was in Marshall, Texas hanging out with our friend Don Johnson while he was making the movie “The Long Hot Summer.” I was just hanging out and had a big hit with the song “Obsession.” I had co-written that, and it was huge. I was walking around cocky and getting laid due to that. This guy from New York, Wayne Fortay called and said: “Look, there is this band going on tour in the summer. They are selling millions of records and would you be interested in singing?” I said: “Can you just tell me who the band is?” Not that I could give a fuck.
Rocker: Well if he said Wham! You might not have signed up.
Michael: I would have joined even then. I would be a big yo-yo for the summer. Wear a fucking big white t-shirt with the words “Relax” or “Suck My Cock” on it? Great! I would have done it.
He said: “I can’t tell you.” It was all so mysterious. I got on a plane to New York and went to this promoter’s office and there is Tony Thompson (Chic/Power Station drummer) and John Taylor and they both look terrified because its millions of dollars at stake. I had just heard “Get It On (Bang a Gong)”in the limo on the way over. They said Andy Taylor had remembered me and that Robert Palmer had dropped out of the tour because… Well, I’ll give you a quick impression of Palmer’s stage show (moves shoulders slightly), and that was not going to cut it with seventy thousand fourteen-year old screaming girls. That night I went to the Power Station studio and they gave me the tracks without Palmer’s vocals. I took them and got on the Concorde that night and flew to London. Once there, I went straight to a studio and they told me “Andy will be here in a half an hour,” he was the leader, so I set up the tracks, sing “Get It On” perfect and I wait. Seven hours later Andy comes in, all 5 foot 3 with seven-foot bodyguards, and a billow of marijuana smoke, dressed in Vivienne Westwood. “All right Mikey, sing it.” I sing a verse and a chorus of “Get It On” and he said: “Great! Let’s go shopping.”
I went shopping, incredible clothes. Twenty-thousand-pounds worth of clothes. I got on the plane and came back to New York. On the way out to dinner with [Miami Vice actor] Don Johnson that night I got the call. “Sorry Michael but you’re out. Palmer is back in and going to do the tour. Enjoy the clothes. See you sometime in LA. Goodbye.” So I go to dinner with Don and who is in the restaurant? John Taylor, drunk. Don gets up and asks John if he can have a word with him. Now John Taylor is obsessed with Sonny Crockett [Don’s Miami Vice character ] so Don takes Taylor outside on the sidewalk and says: “You fucking idiot, get Mikey. He’ll get the kids going!” I didn’t know that, of course. So, I go back to my hotel. Put my new clothes out on the bed. Fantastic. What a drag the tour would have been. Great. 6 months. Millions of dollars. Oh well.
7am the next morning the phone rings. It’s my manager Danny Goldberg, and he says “Okay Mikey, you’re back in. We did a deal with Palmer for the t-shirts.” The tour made half a million a night and sold six hundred thousand a night in merchandise. I had to learn the album in 10 days. It was the most extraordinary time.
Rocker: What was playing Live Aid like?
Michael: I was in ecstasy. All my life I’ve been so fortunate. By some weird circumstance I was in Texas having a laugh and literally two weeks later I was on stage at the biggest concert in history. Two billion fucking people. Also all of the artists were staying at the hotel. I remember walking into the bar and sitting with Ronnie Wood, Dylan, Mick (Jagger), Keith (Richards) and Sonny Crockett, all of them looking like Geoffrey Rush in the Pirates movies. I thought what the fuck am I doing here on a couch with these icons? This is so Zelig!
Rocker: You mentioned you co-wrote the song “Obsession” for Animotion. Who is that song about?
Michael: What a great question. It’s actually about drugs. I was three months sober and you keep hearing the word obsession when you go to these meetings. I knew I couldn’t write just about drugs. I’m a huge fan of the movie “The Collector” with Terrance Stamp. It is about this young guy who is drone worker in the sixties in London who wins the lottery, “The Pools” as they call it there. He decides to kidnap and hold hostage the girl of his dreams. That image really intrigued me. I guess that will be the ultimate obsession. Those things combined “I will have you. I will have you. I will find a way and I will have you. Like a butterfly. A wild butterfly. I will collect you and capture you.”
Rocker: Why has it been 26 years between your last CD and “Carnaby Street.”
Michael: I had reached a pinnacle with Power Station. It was all private jets and six months of fantasy I’d ever had coming true. I wrote the song “Obsession” and it was number one everywhere. I just took a breather after that whole thing. I had been an actor, and I was asked to audition for an episode of MacGyver. I had this beautiful vintage white Rolls Royce. I remember driving on the lot at Paramount Pictures and the security just waved me on. How could you refuse a white Rolls Royce? I was pulling up to the offices of the producers of MacGyver and they were outside smoking. I got out of the Rolls and I do believe I got the job without even auditioning for it. Just due to getting out of the Rolls.
I ended up playing Murdock on MacGyver for the next six years. After that, I started to work like crazy as an actor. I really enjoyed it. Even while that was going on I always sang with bands at night. I would be an actor during the day, and then at night, Steve (Jones-Sex Pistols) and I would play a set of Bowie, Iggy or Bolan songs. I never stopped doing that.
Rocker: How did you come to make the CD?
Michael: About two, maybe three years ago I was in Austin, Texas while I was recovering from a car crash. I began writing and getting into the social networks. I got tremendous response from the tidbits I would write. They became lyrics. Refined the songs. Then I came back to L.A. and put a band together.
Rocker: Is it hard to make a real rock record in a time of disposable auto-tuned pop?
Michael: Apparently not very hard at all. I think people are dying for it. This record is on the radio in 180 countries. Steve Van Zandt (Little Steven’s Garage on Sirius XM) plays it hourly, as do others. The reviews are the best I’ve ever had. Our audience is twenty year olds. Why? Because they haven’t heard this kind of music before. This music isn’t yesterday and it isn’t tomorrow: it’s tonight! This is head shaking, tail feather fucking rock and roll. Joyous redemptive music that was created by Robert Johnson infused with the spirit of Oscar Wilde. The audience
is fed up by all the dreadful compression in music today. Autotune and loops? Slide the chorus in? What?! I’m not interested in any of that bollocks.
Rocker: How long did it take to record?
Michael: I went in and made this record in seven days. I thought, “What do I wanna do more than anything else?” I want to stand on stage in a nightclub and sing rock and roll. Let’s make this record quick so we can get out and play. I spent forty years of my career laboring over how to learn not to labor. There are no overdubs on that album. To put it bluntly, if you overproduce you’re lying to the audience. I want to tell the truth. And I don’t care whether you like it or not. I would love it if you screamed and threw their underwear at me but it’s not a prerequisite.
Rocker: Who’s playing on it?
Michael: Eric Schermerhorn on guitar (Iggy Pop), Paul Ill on bass (Linda Perry, Tina Turner, Courtney Love), and Jebin Bruni on keyboards (Fiona Apple, Amy Mann.), and David Goodstein, this R&B guy from Miami who has played with Ricky Martin. Unbelievable drummer!
By day they manifest other artist’s visions. It’s what they do. They are all technically brilliant. At night they play what they love which is what I love. It’s a vacation. That’s why it only took seven days to make this record. There was no “Let’s go back and do that again.” It was “Fuck off! We play it all now.”
Rocker: Speaking of ladies throwing their underwear, there is a whole lot of song about sex on the CD.
Sure. What is rock and roll a synonym for, meditation?
Rocker: Are the songs like “You’re My Painkiller” and “Baby Saved My Ass” about any specific women?
Michael: It’s about all women, and all men. I am a monogamist. I can hardly say it, but I am in a committed relationship for the first time in twenty five years. I adore the woman I’m with. That’s the reason I have been able to be objective. These songs sound like I’m singing them to a specific person. Like I’m singing them to you. All great songs touch people and make them feel like you own them. That’s why we love them.
In terms of “My Baby Saved My Ass,” I have been saved by the love of women, specifically, that has been a gradual revelation. The songs have a depth. A lot of people think that it’s just about carnal lust, and it is, but carnal lust isn’t just something that’s animalistic. It’s glorious. These are hymns to sex and love.
Rocker: Do you have a favorite acting role?
Michael: To be perfectly frank, I just did an episode of NCIS.
The character that I play on that is the closest thing to rock and roll I’ve done. Apart from “Sugartown” that I did with Martin Kemp and John Taylor playing an eighties rock band. This roll on NCIS was about a broken rock and roll star. When people ask what my favorite role is, it is always the last thing I did. It’s amazing. They use “Forgive Me” and “Carnaby Street| from the album on the show too. I learn something from every role I play.
The other one role that stands out for me as far as performance goes, being lost in the moment,was “Diary Of A Sex Addict” with Rosanna Arquette who I was dating at the time. That was pretty funky. It dealt with my issues. I really had to go to some dark places. But it was worth it because the performance was pretty good.
Rocker: Any you regret?
Michael: Oh no. I can’t even spell regret. I regret nothing. I’m Edith Piaf. No interest in regrets man. Everything that has happened to me has been a message.
Rocker: Had to choose between singing and acting which is your greater passion?
Michael: The long answer is self-expression is my favorite thing, the short answer is there is no question at all that the most perfect form of self-expression for me is to stand in front of a microphone in a packed sweaty rock and roll club and to sing my ass off. If I had to choose, I would choose rock and roll.
For more info check out: www.desbarres.com
“Carnaby Street” is available on iTunes and Amazon.com