first let me preface my latest list with my criteria for being included in the infamous “top ten greatest rockstars” of all time. the members of this esteemed club have to have a rare combination of qualities: firstly talent, followed by a nihilistic approach to drugs and life that would make any of us regular folk quake in our respective boots. or, for some, a position on the spectrum of sanity thats leads to incredible creativity but also to a seriously truncated life due to severe depression mixed with utter recklessness. one other thing: i really tried to get some women on this list but i couldn’t come up with any and i’m not putting janis joplin on here just because she died. i thought of madonna but although she is a superstar of immense proportions she seems to be almost more of a business model than a rockstar. i’m not slagging her because i like her but she’s not ……dangerous enough for me.
let the “soft parade” begin…
1. Jim Morrison
was there anything that morrison lacked? the epitome of rock stardom, perfect symmetrical chiselled features, insanely cool, leather pants and pirate shirts, a big beautiful bellicose baritone of a voice, unparalleled charisma and a wild side of pure unfettered freedom that unfortunately led to a very short career and an early death. a creative visionary who led the doors, which could go down as the quirkiest “big band” of all time. if you listen to the instrumentation and their very peculiar songwriting style it almost sounded as if “the carnival was in town”. yet they could be the “pound for pound” choice for bands with the most hits in ratio to their short career. they were only around for a few years but they contributed so much to our musical landscape.
as much of a creative collaborative force as the doors were, it was morrison that made them cool. he was also a sex god for the ages, and must have enjoyed his short time here immensely what with the freewheeling, free lovin 60’s in full flight.
a drug and alcohol user of copious amounts which will certainly become a common thread throughout this list, james douglas morrison flamed out in a bathtub in paris at the tender age of 27.
truly one of the most iconic front men to ever pick up a mike, a pure pagan, the lizard king will never be forgotten. long live the king!
essential listening: debut album, LA woman, strange days (the doors)
2. Jimi Hendrix
although jimi did not make my top 10 guitar players (as scandalous as that sounds) he had to be added to this list as he was without a doubt one of the most flamboyant, cool, badass dudes in the history of our planet, let alone rock n’ roll. jimi was immensely talented, blending his virtuosic guitar playing with great melodic sensibilities and serious songwriting chops. it was a coin toss for first and second on this list as hendrix could have easily topped it.
a rockstar archetype who clearly defined the role of a new breed of star, hendrix brought a sexy swagger to rock n’ roll that didn’t really exist before he showed up. the fact that he really stands alone as a black artist in the rock genre is a bit odd i find. although black artists have dominated in many other genres such as soul, r&b, rap, hip hop, and blues and contributed to many of the jazz greats, there is a strange lack of black artists in rock. some will say what about bad brains, living colour…am i missing anybody? (also an insane stretch to compare those bands with hendrix).
not only was jimi a black artist, he was also apparently a man of legendary sexual prowess (not to mention phallus size), and it was the sixties. although it was a time of certain …liberties, let’s say, civil rights was still a new idea. it takes a pretty cool individual to negotiate those waters and i’m sure jimi had to endure the standard racism of the day, death threats, etc.
there is a great story of jimi when he first arrived in london. he was doing a house gig at a club downtown and word started to spread about this guitar demon that no one had heard the likes of before. one night the club was full of all the local luminaries that had come to pay homage or just check out what all the fuss was about. jimmy page, jeff beck, brian jones, keith richards, eric clapton, pete townshend — all were all there to check out jimi and his crack band the experience. i think it was jones who opined “the front of the stage was wet with the tears of all the other guitar players in the room”. it was a collective “what do we do now” from the awestruck crowd that jimi had just blown away.
he was also a fashionista of the highest order. as spencer said in a previous post (and i’m paraphrasing here), “he had the ability to make a hawaiian print blazer look cool”. big hair, big floppy hats, etc. jimi and his wild looks and incredible talent cut an indelible mark in rock history.
essential listening: are you experienced, electric ladyland (the jimi hendrix experience)
3. Keith Richards
one of rock’s great survivors, keith richards should have been dead many times over as legend has it but he just keeps chugging along and i wouldn’t be surprised if he hasn’t curtailed some of his more “dangerous” habits at that. there was a story that came out not that long ago from a stones roadie that was partying at richards’ house after a tour and he found himself sitting down with keith in the library snorting coke mixed with his recently deceased father’s ashes. lots of rumours abound of course but keith’s drug use was definitely legendary, certainly not for any of us mere mortals. it was known that he would commonly take a “trip to the orient” back in the 70’s for a trusty blood transfusion and a bit of a breather before he would hop right on again.
all that being said, keith was so much more than a drug-addled superstar. he is a terrific guitar player and could possibly be the greatest riff machine music has ever produced. richards also defines cool. i saw him on the last tour at the ACC — i wasn’t sure what to expect as they are in full on “old geezer” territory now but when he walked out by himself and fired into the opening riff of “jumpin’ jack flash” i remember saying to myself that guy is the coolest mutherfucker on the planet. he reminded me of the poncho clad, cigarillo chewin clint eastwood from “the good the bad and the ugly”. one of my all time favourite film characters.
keith richards has been rock royalty for 50 years now, has been to hell and back and created some of the greatest music ever written. neither the stones nor music in general would be the same without keith’s devil may care approach to the excesses of rock n’ roll. i would personally like to thank him for “living on the edge” for all those (these?) years.
essential listening: exile on main street, let it bleed, sticky fingers (rolling stones)
4. Keith Moon
keith moon’s legend is one of maniacal hedonism and pure chaos. he’s that limo-driving-into-the-hotel-swimming-pool guy, the dude who emptied the contents of his hotel room off the 22nd story balcony without a care as to what (or more importantly who) was below. moon was actually responsible for the death of a driver for the who, who was crushed by his limo when moon hopped behind the wheel and sped off to get away from some crazed fans. it was ruled accidental but the fact that moon was rarely if ever sober may have had some bearing on the tragic outcome.
moonie lived liked he played his drums — like a wildman possessed — and there was no limit to how far on the razor’s edge he would go. for example, one night after some pre-show indulgences (pre-show no less), moon made it up onto the stage, sat behind his drum kit and promptly passed out, not to be awoken for the rest of the night. well the show must go on, so pete townshend got on the mike and asked if there were any drummers in the house. it was an arena show so the line up of drummers at the stage was huge and i’m sure all “assholes and elbows” to see who could get up on stage and play with their heroes. anyway they chose a guy and he finished the night. imagine going to see the who play and actually ending up on stage with them.
moon off stage had a penchant for nazi fashions, ladies clothing, crashing rolls royces and blowing up toilets with m80’s of all things. it appeared as though nothing was off the table for keith and i’m not so sure how much of it was for shock value or rockstar posturing — he really seemed to embrace the lifestyle like no other before or since.
essential listening: tommy, quadrophenia (the who)
(ed note: the keith moon rolling stone interview in the compilation “20 years of rolling stone” is far and away one of the most entertaining pieces of rock journalism i have ever had the pleasure of reading. i’ve talked of rockstars whose personalities literally jump off the page, and moon was primarily who i had in mind when i wrote that)
5. Jimmy Page
jimmy topped my greatest guitar players list but he was so much more than a great guitar player. he was the epitome of rockstardom in the 70’s and lived like a debauched king surrounded by endless drugs and groupies. page had a things for young girls — criminally young girls indeed. it’s amazing what some of these guys got away with back then. of course a lot of these tales of sadism and masochism (he travelled with a suitcase full of whips, etc) are the stuff of legend and myth but some of it had to be true. imagine what went on that we don’t know about. in the early 70’s jimmy purchased madman aleister crowley’s “boleskine house” and that place must have been witness to some of the most over-the-top bacchanalia since caligula rode tall.
i saw an interview of page on some european music show in the eighties and he was a mess. deathly thin, drooly, and i honestly had no idea what he was talking about. quite sad really and his drug addiction definitely had a major effect on his guitar playing as well. he recently said he had a 30 year heroin addiction but has been clean for years. today he seems coherent, has lost that horrible bloat he put on, and looks great. always cool in his john varvatos outfits, jimmy cuts a fine figure of the slick, dapper elder statesman of rock.
my ultimate dinner guest and probably the only person on the planet who i would ask for their autograph!
essential listening: the zep discography
6. David Bowie
when bowie moved to germany in the late 70’s and developed his “thin white duke” persona he produced, as far as i’m concerned, his best work. he was also so fucked up at that time he doesn’t remember any of it. what is it about drugs and music? imagine how barren or different the musical landscape would be if the beatles didn’t start dropping acid or any of the members of this list were without their vices. while bowie heavily embraced the drug scene was also a talent of major scope.
bowie was the original chameleon of rock, the androgynous performance artist who also had a tremendous gift for melodies and hooks. a superstar in the 70’s, bowie became a mega star in the 80’s after the release of his “let’s dance” record. he seemed to stumble after this and despite his collaboration in the 90’s with trent reznor which produced the stellar “earthling” album he has pretty much fallen off the map as far as new material. that being said there will always remain an outstanding back catalogue especially his 60’s and 70’s work.
david bowie a.k.a david robert jones is one of the most important, influential artists of all time.
essential listening: station to station, young americans, rise and fall of iggy stardust (david bowie)
7. Kurt Cobain
very rarely does an artist come along and not just upset the “apple cart” but drops a nuclear bomb on the friggin thing. i used to refer to kurt back then as the career killer. he literally almost single handedly shut down an entire genre that had been at the top of charts for ten years. that west coast, sunset strip, glamrock dudefest of a scene was annihilated by a kid from seattle with a guitar and his grandfather’s sweater.
i remember the first time i heard “smells like teen spirit” on the radio and as the song finished i thought to myself “i must hear that again, now”. i hopped in my car and booted down to the record shop (remember those), picked it up, took it home and played it all night. every track rocked and that album is truly a masterpiece.
as good as i thought nevermind was, though, i was even more blown away when i heard the unplugged album. i realized this was more than a great songwriter with rockstar looks and a bad drug habit. this guy was in “tortured artist” territory and to listen to his take on some of those old blues standards is haunting especially on “in the pines” a.k.a. “where did you sleep last night”. the pain in his voice is palpable and heart wrenching and i’m not saying i knew he was going to check himself out but you could kind of hear it in his voice.
it’s a shame kurt couldn’t have cleaned up and gotten some help, not just for him and his family but also for the legions of fans gypped out of all the amazing nirvana music that will never exist. “it gets better kurt, it gets better”…damn what a waste.
essential listening: nevermind, unplugged (nirvana)
8. Sid Vicious
nihilist, anarchist, sadist, masochist, fascist, goof, bonehead, nutter, killer, junkie, sot, lout, suicide, anti-everything, crude, lewd and rude. he was one fascinating individual as well as one of history’s great fuck-ups.
when sid was brought into the sex pistols to replace bassist glen matlock he didn’t even know how to play the bass. he was strictly brought in for the “other” elements he brought to the band (see first sentence again). it is truly amazing that these guys even made a record, and what a record it was. i remember not liking it much when it first came out but i sure do now. coming out of the “fog of prog” in the 70’s this was just about as far away from that pomposity as one could possibly get and at the time i liked my music with headphones, not a jackboot to the face. i have since warmed up to beautiful ugliness that was the sex pistols.
i saw a great pistols doc awhile back and when A&M signed the band to a recording contract, as is the custom the label brass took the newly signed artists out for a night of revelry and a “welcome to the label boys”. well, after a night on the town with the sex pistols the shocked and terrified label reps tore up the contract the next day saying “fuckin hell that lot’s insane, we’re out”. that’s hardcore.
sid was obviously a very troubled young man. he is also a punk legend!
essential listening: never mined the bollocks (sex pistols)
9. Brian Jones
it’s hard to top keith for cool but i think brian jones during his tenure with the stones may have shown keith the way. i also read that he even took more drugs than keith. imagine that.
jones was charismatic and beautiful, a rebellious fashion plate and a ladies’ man with a wickedly sly grin and a mop of golden blonde hair. jones really was one of the all time great pretty boys. he was also a “bad boy”, and that combination equaled back then (and will forever forward) “the girls all want you and the fellas all want to be you”.
like all the players of that era jones was a blues fanatic and he was also a multi instrumentalist. he became derailed when the glimmer twins hit-making machine started to crank them out, changing the direction of the band. having had leadership and founding-father status with the band at one time, he now found himself more and more marginalized. of course this feeling of ostracism lead to an increase in drug taking and outlandish behaviour which eventually lead to poor brian being asked to step aside.
although he will always be a stone he was not a member of the band when he was found “mysteriously” drowned in his pool at his home on cotchford farm. after his death pete townshend wrote a poem for brian entitled “a normal day for brian, a man who died everyday”. if your vices are too much for the stones, lord have mercy!
essential listening: aftermath, their satanic majesties request, beggars banquet (rolling stones)
10. Iggy Pop
the greatest anatomy chart to ever grace a stage (anyone ever seen him with a shirt on?), iggy started life out as one of the great unwashed, being raised in a trailer park in michigan. it wasn’t until after seeing my number one choice on this list (lizard king) that iggy crafted his onstage persona and grinded out his way to fame and fortune. iggy is actually credited with the first “stage dive” if you didn’t know.
another hard living nihilist, iggy would press how far you could go on stage. an intense performer that would roll around on broken glass, vomit, carve himself up, whatever. the “chairman of the bored” certainly didn’t disappoint once he hit the stage. heroin slim and wild eyed iggy has always been one cool dude and one of the greatest frontmen of all time. he brought danger and outrageous unpredictability to the role and his influence in the punk rock/hard rock scene is immense.
another of the great survivors.
essential listening: lust for life (iggy pop), the stooges (the stooges)
mick jagger (60’s/70’s mick, not 80’s/90’s/00’s mick), anthony keidis, scott weiland, bon scott, slash, maynard james keenan, freddie mercury, mike patton, robert plant, steven tyler (70’s), syd barrett, johnny rotten