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A Look at the Myth of Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll

Are rock stars really the drugged-out partiers we think they are, or are they just trying to boost sales with an image?

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By Remi L. Roy

06/18/14

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The divide between truth and lie has grown wider with every passing year. Business, media and entertainment – once honorable and upright enterprises – have been tainted by greedy suits and a society that prefers the synthetic to the authentic. The cogs of the lie machine, as I like to call it, churn unrelenting, producing Papier Mâché versions of everything, everyone. Music is no exception.

The lie machine has taken captive every genre that turns a profit. Rap sees correctional officers become gangsters; folk makes upper-class suburbanites into blue-collar indie rockers; country turns insurance salesmen into ranchers; pop transforms schoolgirls into salacious sleazes. Curiously, rock n roll has remained unchanged for the last 50 years. Or so the lie machine would have you believe.

In fact, rock has changed dramatically over the decades. Sex, drugs and rock n roll, once a trinity held as gospel in the genre, has proven to be a recipe reserved for outfits looking to fail. But what profit is there in the image of clean-cut rock stars from healthy homes? Little. And so, the myth prevails: Rock stars are crazy dudes who snort blow before shows on route to a lifelong diet of brown syringes and unadulterated sex with strippers and supermodels. 

In truth, few lifelong rockers who have had any sort of longevity and who have made a lasting impact on the genre are still using drugs or alcohol. Sure, many and most have crawled through Shawshank Redemption-like football fields of sludge to come out clean on the other side of addiction. Yet, without exception, every rock band and artist canonized in the collective consciousness of fans worldwide have taken one of two routes to success: sobriety or death. 

Admittedly, quantifying music is a pretentious practice best left to the likes of cynical critics, record execs and disc jockeys. Because of the subjective nature of the art form, sales rarely equate to quality, and vice versa. But any attempt to underline an argument as arbitrary as the one outlined herein is in need of numbers for proof. And so we turn to the stat sheet – the score card of record sales, a standard of success by which few conclusions can ordinarily be drawn. 

Of the Top-100 selling artists of all time, well over a third are rockers, including Elvis and Genesis, excluding The Beatles and Elton John (to give you an idea of who did and did not make the cut by way of the parameters I’ve applied to the data). Of these 40 or so artists, three categories can be created: the dead, the sober, and the recovered.

The dead is a short but stout list that includes Elvis Presley, Freddie Mercury of Queen, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison, eccentric former frontman for The Doors. Lest we forget, the dead can also count many former members of bands that now find themselves in the recovered list. The Who’s Keith Moon and John Entwistle, Hillel Slovak of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Def Leppard’s Steve Clark, Howie Epstein from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, AC/DC’s Bon Scott, and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones. 

This small group is but a jot of the many, many men and women who have been lost to drugs and alcohol in rock and roll. A more expansive investigation would dig up talents like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious, Andrew Wood, GG Allin, Paul Gray, Shannon Hoon, Bradley Nowell, Layne Staley, The Rev, Mike Starr and the list goes on… But I digress. 

The sober list is, in essence, irrelevant to this discussion and made up of bands and artists who, to my knowledge, have not ever struggled with the bottle, needle, pipe, pills or powder. This somewhat boring class includes U2, Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams. 

Of note, though, one could include KISS on the sober list. Though both Ace Frehley and Peter Criss succumbed to the seduction of that vile mix of drugs and rock n roll, the only two relevant and remaining original members of the band, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, eschewed the cliché.

Easily one of the most exuberant acts on the planet over the last 40 years, KISS has remained an evocative but healthy outfit since the onset of the group in the early 70s. En route to selling over 100 million records, KISS has continued to spit blood, breathe fire and blow stages to bits with pyrotechnics. In fact, both Stanley and Simmons can be held as an example of how to rock, hard, and stay alive and viable in a genre that destroys more musicians than hip-hop, pop, country, and folk combined.

Mike Bloom, owner of the Pasadena Recovery Center, agrees. For young musicians, whom he believes are more prone to delving into heavy drug use, it is important to find a model for their careers so that they don’t throw their careers to the wind. KISS, says he, is a perfect archetype for new rock acts on the scene. 

“I would look to a guy like Paul Stanley from KISS – real successful, and somebody who never got into heavy drugs. I think that if you’re talking about longevity, that’s what he possesses. Had he gotten into drugs, he wouldn’t be the person that he is. He’s a living legend.”

Bloom has seen rock’s track marks first-hand. He has a contract with the MusiCares Foundation, which aids artists dealing with health crises, and works with the Musicians Assistance Program, set up to help musicians in need of drug rehabilitation treatment. For 15 years, he and his family, founders of the facility that hosts Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, have watched rock stars barrel through the doors, get clean (or not) and leave rejuvenated men and women with new leases on life. 

“Addicts, the ones who develop the illness for drugs and alcohol, have a hard time maintaining professionalism,” Bloom says. “What unites them is the suffering that they’ve caused themselves and the suffering they’ve caused other people. We’ve had many rockers come through over the years, and it [addiction] has affected their careers. Drugs do not enhance your music“

The recovered is an extensive and exciting list of some of the many acts that have tried to defy that sentiment. Most had to hit rock bottom en route to the top of the charts. 

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