Rock superstardom begins as a fantasy.
The human mind is such that we all believe we are greatness waiting to be realized. For most of us, rock stardom is just a passing daydream while in the car, alone, with our favorite song on the radio. Once the song is over, or we arrive at our destination, we are the realtor, computer technician, or coffee shop attendant others see us as . . . with a secret ambition.
In our fantasies as wannabe rock stars, we are able to do things other people cannot. Play guitar like Eddie Van Halen. Bang out the drum intro from "Hot For Teacher." Do one of those karate kicks like David Lee Roth in the "Jump" video. This is escapism. This is catharsis. This is healthy. This keeps the horrible quotidian state of our existences from suffocating us.
When we get too caught up in the fantasy, however, it mutates into something pathological. In mild cases, this disease can lead to poor fashion choices, bizarre mating habits, and a twisted sense of the word grooming. Unfortunately, the majority of rock star cases are severe, the result of self-destructive mindsets, two of which are put forth by Hair Metal philosophers Def Leppard at the beginning of 1983's "Rock of Ages": "It's better to burn out, than fade away" and the seemingly nonsensical "Unta gleeben glauten gloven."
While to the average listener the latter phrase may appear encrypted, to a recovering rock star, it is perfectly intelligible. "Don't try to become a rock god," Joe Elliot, lead singer of the Def, seems to have been saying in his made-up hobbit language, "or you might sever an arm in a car accident, as our drummer is going to do about a year from now, or drink yourself to death, as our guitarist is going to do in 1991." Because what Mr. Elliot knows, as do all rock stars in convalescence, is that once the disease takes hold, it rarely ends well.
Researchers agree that the transformation of this healthy fantasy to unwholesome lifestyle is idiopathic. Certainly, a mixture of karaoke and alcohol may trigger brief fits, as can awards shows (it's fun to imagine whom we might thank) and showers (something to do with acoustics; as any rock star can tell you, reverb is everything). Yet for long-term sufferers, the causes are much more mysterious, making prevention nearly impossible.
Those who are concerned that a loved one may be infected might look for the following symptoms:
•Adding unnecessary syllables to monosyllabic words While this is common practice throughout the rock star world, there is no better case study on this matter than W. Axl Rose. Compare Bob Dylan's version of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" to that of Guns N' Roses, in which Axl saddles the word door with surplus syllables. The word mine, as in "Sweet Child O'" contains anywhere from two to five syllables. And then there is the megasyllabic ending to "Don't Cry," which lasts a sickly twenty-five seconds. Axl is almost certainly the greatest rock star to come out of the Hair Metal era, and yet today he only occasionally leaves his home to rerecord the same album he's been working on for a dozen years and beat up fashion designers. Had his illness been detected early, he might still be a productive member of society.
•The urge to dress like a cowboy, despite the fact that you don't ride a horse or work with cattle Clearly, no one suffers this symptom more than Jon Bon Jovi, as evidenced by "Wanted: Dead or Alive," a song in which he describes riding steel horses and carrying loaded six strings. People are quick to forget JBJ's solo career, however, during which he made a whole cowboy album (Blaze of Glory) for the 1994 cowboy movie Young Guns II. He even brought his Jersey cowboy image to his acting debut in that film as "Pit Inmate Shot Back Into Pit." I saw the movie in a theater just to witness his imaginary demise, really a symbolic moment for the entire Hair Metal community. Yet Mr. Bon Jovi hardly stands alone on this matter, as cowboy boots, chaps, and fringed suede jackets are endemic to the wannabe rocker population.
•Changing your birth name to something that sounds like an auto part, a verb, or something European Just look at Guns N' Roses: William Bailey became Axl Rose. Saul Hudson became Slash. Andrew Michael McKagan became Duff. Jeffrey Dean Isbell became Izzy Stradlin. Even our favorite cowboy Jon Bon Jovi was actually born John Francis Bongiovi Jr. W.A.S.P. had Blackie Lawless, the Crue had Nikki Sixx, Faster Pussycat had Taime Downe (pronounced "Tie Me Down"), Hanoi Rocks had Razzle, and so on. I knew I had lost a friend forever when this young man officially changed his name from Mike to Michel and dressed up his last name by changing a few letters around and giving himself an accent aigu. He disappeared in the rock star ether and, to my knowledge, has yet to reappear.
Despite early detection, by the time symptoms appear, it's often too late. Should you or a loved one show signs of infection, the best you can hope for is that no permanent damage is caused.
For me, the first signs of disease appeared when I was seven, in the waning months of the Jimmy Carter administration. I'd lie awake most nights, rapt not with dreams of playing big-league ball or fighting fires, but of playing guitar for Olivia Newton John while listening to the Xanadu soundtrack (because seeing her in satin short-shorts and roller skates was unquestionably the first time I felt the sick, helpless pangs of being in love) and playing guitar for Donna Summer (because the guitar solo on "Hot Stuff" is rad).
I would imagine that I was not in my bedroom, but up on stage in someplace huge, playing guitar behind Ms. Summer or Ms. Newton John before an audience composed entirely of girls from my second grade class. I was a phenom and no one had ever seen anything like me.
Reality, as is always the case with this particular disease, contradicted such whimsy.
I was born on December 16, 1973, the youngest of three children in what I always believed to be an upper-middle-class family, which I have since come to learn is simply a middle-class family with good credit. While both my parents are native Angelenos, they hardly fit the stereotype of the flighty Californian. They were too old to be hippies, as evidenced by their record collection, dominated by Petula Clark and Burt Bacharach. My father is a diligent, pragmatic man, having made his living in both commercial and residential real estate, while my mother was a homemaker with romantic hauntings from reading too much D. H. Lawrence in college.
The Family Williams was (and thankfully still is) typically dysfunctional; that is to say, my parents didn't really like each other, fought a lot, had affairs, and so forth, which led my brother (Paul, who is six years older than I), sister (Jennifer, nearly four years my senior), and me to embrace various neuroses. My brother took to booze and crashing cars into inanimate objects, my sister to a not very mild case of compulsive shopping, and me to existing almost entirely in an alternate universe in which I was a pop wunderkind.
The truth is that when these daydreams began keeping me up at night, I had no real musical identity, nor could I actually even play an instrument. During weekly visits to my Grandma Rene's house throughout my formative years, I would experiment with the electric organ she kept in her living room, but by no means could I play it. I was mesmerized by the keys that lit up to display the notes they represented, the foot pedals for deep bass notes, and cool drum rhythms like "Disco," "Samba," and the perennially popular "Fox Trot." Grandma Rene always had music laid out from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but I never saw her play any of it. Grandma Rene is evidence that my disease may be genetic, although her fantasy stage would have been specific to a tabernacle in Salt Lake City. I should point out that my family was not Mormon--my grandmother just dug their choir.
Like Grandma Rene, my fascination with music was limited to listening, and what I listened to as a child was what I was given. Believe it or not, the Donna Summer and Olivia Newton John cassettes weren't mine, but were pilfered from the glove box of my mom's '77 Mercury Monarch. In addition to Pop/Disco divas, I have fond memories of singing along with my mother to the Electric Light Orchestra's "Don't Bring Me Down" and ABBA's "Take a Chance on Me."
My first stab at forging my own musical identity was provided in the form of a gift certificate to Music Plus, the local record chain with an outlet near my home. Dressing me up in my finest pair of Tough Skins and a velvet Hang Ten shirt, my mom took my brother, sister, and me to the Orange Mall, where we spent hours sifting through rows of cassette tapes and LPs, until my brother appeared with two suggestions:
1. "Ghost in the Machine" by The Police on cassette.
2. The first Missing Persons EP on vinyl.
I knew nothing of either of these artists and these were, undoubtedly, albums that my brother planned on stealing from me as soon as we got home in one of his bedroom muggings. My mom, that peddler of disco, cautioned me against allowing him to tell me what to listen to, but needing the approval of my older brother, I assured her that these were indeed the albums I wanted.
When I got home and listened to them, I had no idea what to do with "Spirits in the Material World" or Missing Persons's "I Like Boys." By day's end, as designed, the albums ended up in my brother's possession.
I went on like this for some time, blindly sifting through my parents' collection of soft rock or the arena rock of Journey and Foreigner that my older siblings were enamored with, until I reached third grade and something happened.
Motley Crue's Shout at the Devil was given to me by a classmate named John Gorski. He was a year older than I, but, because I had been placed in the combo class with fourth graders, so were most of my friends at that time. It was my access to that sophisticated world of elders that provided the precise element that would annihilate my ten-year-old world.
By the end of 1983, President Reagan was all over TV and in hard-hitting political news outlets like People magazine talking about Armageddon and various divinations for the end of the world. Like my musical choices up to this point, I was fed my politics by my parents, and they were avid supporters of the Great Communicator. I can't say we sat around talking about the looming Day of Judgment or anything, but when the man with his finger on the button is telling you that yours "may be the generation that sees Armageddon," it carries a little more weight than it does from, say, the homeless guy outside a Lakers game.
So when John Gorski handed me Shout at the Devil, in my mind, I had just been handed the soundtrack for the impending apocalypse.
First, there was the cover: four guys with teased hair who are wearing makeup are dressed in postapocalyptic leather outfits (complete with studded codpieces) and stand before hellish fire and smoke. On the inside are the titles and lyrics of songs like "God Bless the Children of the Beast" and little notes, such as "Caution: This record may contain backward messages." This was terrifying; lawsuits were pending against Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne for using subliminal messages to compel fans to commit suicide. I could hardly wait to listen.
And by no means as a side note here, there's the music itself. Each of the eleven tracks on the album features a chorus of vocals that sounds like an army on the march, chanting to the head-splitting rhythm of Tommy Lee doing things to a drum kit I had never heard before. The first song, "In the Beginning," is narrated by someone named Allister Fiend (who turned out to be bassist/songwriter Nikki Sixx doing a bad British accent, but I didn't know that then) and lays out a world that has been decimated by war and disease. Indeed, Shout at the Devil might be viewed as a concept album for Reagan's vision of the future.
With MTV, that vision went well beyond any album previously could. Like me, MTV was finding its identity in 1983 and was proving to be a culturally relevant promotional tool. While image has always been a big part of rock music (see Elvis, The Beatles, et al.), "look" was beginning to play a much more substantial role in our music choices as opposed to just the way an artist sounded. How else might you explain Culture Club?
Most of MTV was rather safe--artists and images that could be shown at 3:00 in the afternoon on basic cable without fear of recourse from the FCC. And then, like a revelation, among the barrage of Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran, Lionel Richie, and even Taco's "Puttin' on the Ritz" (which, I have to admit, I sort of liked), appeared the video for "Looks that Kill," the third track off Motley Crue's album Shout.
It featured the Crue in yet another post-end-of-the-world setting, corralling a herd of indigent, although sexy, women into a pen and performing the song for them in their leather battle gear. A devil woman, also very sexy, is summoned, and she is given great powers by the pentagram on Tommy Lee's bass drum. There is a scuffle between the devil woman and the Crue, but ultimately they vanquish her in a puff of smoke, leaving behind only a burning pentagram.
As subtle as the imagery was, the whole Shout at the Devil experience fundamentally changed my musical DNA. It was forbidden, it was dirty, and it was visceral. This was not the poppy, over-produced Crue of the late '80s that made Dr. Feelgood; you could smell the stink of drugs and STDs through the speakers on Shout. What the hell was David Byrne's talking head talking about in his oversized tweed suit when he kept saying, "Same as it ever was"? The Crue didn't require such complex thought. They made my gut twinge in the same way that seeing the cover of one of my dad's Playboy magazines did. It was exactly what rock music for any generation is supposed to be: something that you hide from your parents because you're afraid of what they might think of you for listening to it.
Excerpted from Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants? by Craig A. Williams. Copyright © 2007 by Craig A. Williams. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.