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John Taylor of Duran Duran Talks to The Fix About Sobriety
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Born into a working class English family in 1960, John Taylor co-founded the new wave pop band Duran Duran in 1978. Taylor grew up in Hollywood, a suburb of Birmingham in the North of England. This is particularly ironic since Hollywood, California has now become his primary home. Duran Duran scored its first hit in 1981 and went on to become one of the most popular groups in the world during the 1980s due to their revolutionary music videos that played in heavy rotation in the early days of MTV.
I certainly didn’t think of myself as an addict. I just thought I was being cool.
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In 1996, Taylor left Duran Duran to pursue solo projects. He rejoined the group in 2001 after embracing a path of long-term sobriety. In 2012, Taylor published a self-revealing memoir, In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran, in which he recounts the story of the band's formation, their massive success, and his descent into the abyss of self-destruction before becoming sober. In 2014, Taylor received the 4th Annual Experience, Strength & Hope Award that is given to well-known individuals who have written honest memoirs about their journey from addiction to recovery. Since releasing a new studio album Paper Gods in 2015 with Duran Duran, he has been touring all over the world.
We got a chance to sit down with the music legend for an interview.
You talked about how you underwent an "ugly duckling" transformation, ditching your thick glasses for contact lenses, adopting the ruffles and sashes of the fashion that would become known as the New Romantic style, and using eyeliner and lip color to heighten your look. Did this transformation also include an expansion into new drugs and heavier drinking?
I was never really a drinker before I started working. As a teenager, a lot of kids just couldn’t wait to start drinking beer, and, where I grew up, that’s essentially all that young people drank. I never really enjoyed the taste of beer. When I started getting into the club life around my band, the drink was a little more exotic, and it definitely went with the whole scene, which was quite stylish and decadent. I guess the alcohol went along with all that. Although everybody there was basically working class, there was a lot of champagne drank. It was a celebration. Plus there were a lot of cocktails, and I started getting into the different cocktails like vodka and orange, and rum and coke.
But I wasn’t looking to get wasted. What I was looking for was something else. What I found was that if I threw cocaine into the mix, it gave me an extra sort of rocket boost. Round about midnight, instead of starting to think about bed, I could think about the next act in the evening after the show was over, and that usually was like, “Okay, where do I find a girl, and how do I convince her to come home with me?”
When you began your journey with Duran Duran, you describe how, “I wanted brothers, and I wanted to travel the world with those brothers. I was just the lucky one.” How did your experience with addiction and alcoholism, particularly related to the decadence associated with the rock star lifestyle, disrupt that initial dream?
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That follows on quite well from your previous question. At first, I really didn’t know what I was getting into, particularly with cocaine. I developed a dependency on it quite quickly. I couldn’t imagine having a good time without it. At that time in my career, being a musician, it was an easy thing to do. Although we did have some sessions during the day, it was a nighttime kind of thing. Then again, even during the day, it was on. The hangovers from cocaine after spending a whole night doing the drug takes a lot out of your system. You’re going to be low on energy after a night like that and searching to get your energy back. Of course, the best way to get that needed boost to get over the hangover is to do more cocaine. Very quickly, I descended into addiction.
Then again, I certainly didn’t think of myself as an addict. I just thought I was being cool. But looking back—and I did a lot of looking back in sobriety and I went through an even more formal method of looking back when I wrote my book—I really thought about how my using impacted what was my dream job. I mean, hell, I kind of decided when I was sixteen that I wanted to be a musician, but here’s this guy who has never played a note in his life, but nothing else is really working out at school, so here we go. I decided, okay, I want to be a musician and not just a musician, but also a rock star. By the time I am twenty-one, I have a record in the charts. How does that happen? It was like all of my dreams and prayers were being answered, but what came along with this success, and came very quickly, was this hangover and this dependency. I started putting the cocaine before the gig. It became the juice that kept me going, and it made me a lot less consistent than I would have been, a lot more erratic.
By the mid-1990s, when Duran Duran's enormous popularity had waned, you faced your own demons and went to rehab for drugs and alcohol. "In many ways, I'm lucky to be alive. I could have checked out a number of times," you told Britain's Metro newspaper. Can you describe your bottom and what it was like to make that decision?
I had moved to Los Angeles, I was married and my wife had just given birth to our daughter. I was going back and forth to London to work with the band, and we were working on a new album. At that time, we were counting the pennies. We had blown through the mega-star stage of our careers, and we were just really trying to stay in the game. We were working quite diligently to try to come up with a new hit. We had managed to write “Ordinary World” which was our first hit in several years, and that gave everybody an exhalation of relief. We then had to go out on the road to support that record.
At this point, I’m really trying to stay clean. It’s like that phrase we learn in recovery; you could say that I was "white knuckling" it. I don’t have a program, but something has gone off in my head. I’m saying to myself, “I think I have to be sober.” Going back to the first question, I never really had a taste for alcohol, but this is when I learned that alcohol always took me straight to drugs. I couldn’t just say, “Okay, I’m just going to go out tonight and have a couple of drinks and nothing else.” That never worked out. I really learned that during this period. For anybody, it’s a very disheartening phase in one’s drinking career when you realize that you’ve lost all control over your drink and your drug use. I was getting pretty beaten up by drugs and alcohol because I’m trying to balance things out, and it’s not working. I promise myself that I’m just going to have a drink or two, but then I think that I deserve to get a buzz so I drink some more, and invariably I’d end up saying and doing things that I regretted. The shame is starting to pile up now and the fear is starting to pile up, and it’s getting ugly.
At the same time, I need to be the best me that I can be in order to keep my career on track. I also need to be a father because I have a newborn, plus I’m trying to keep my marriage together. I had not been married before and that was quite challenging. When I think back to that period, I realize that I was just so unhappy. It is pretty depressing when you realize that drugs and alcohol, these external things outside of you, have you in their grip and you can’t control them. I didn’t know how to get out of it.
At about this time, I decided to get into therapy, thinking that therapy could help solve the problem. It sort of kept me afloat, but it wasn’t providing what I really needed. The therapy I was doing in Los Angeles wasn’t providing the cure I wanted. Then I had to go to London for work, but I was so strung out, I said to my therapist in Los Angeles, “You need to find me someone I can talk to over there. When I get to London, I need somebody to support me.” At this point in time, I was totally reliant on therapists. I thought I needed to always have access to someone who could support me in that way. I went to see somebody in London and I talked to her for about ten minutes. She said, you need to get into a 12 Step Program. Actually what she said to me was that I needed to get into three 12 Step programs.
She said, “You need to take time out from your career because you can afford it and you should go to rehab. You should go to rehab back in the states because that’s where the best ones are located. Get sober, and then we can see what’s going on. But until you get sober, there’s nothing I can do to help you.”
I think of that lady as my Eskimo. Still, I didn’t go right away. First, I sent off for some details. I also remember getting home from that session and calling my wife back in Los Angeles and my bandmates, and saying, “Yeah, I met with this woman and she thinks that I’m one of those Betty Ford types. She thinks that I need to go to rehab.”
Everyone seemed to say in response, “Really? Do you have that bad of a problem?” And that happens to so many of us. It doesn’t matter how well they know us, the people around us rarely know the pain that we are feeling. They can’t see the existential despair that we experience inside. They just see someone that gets totally wasted like once a week. They don’t realize what we’re going through in between. But I knew that I had a problem, and so I signed up for a thirty-day rehab. I have managed to stay sober ever since, one day at a time.
You have written that, “In my 30s I was struggling to evolve into a responsible adult male. I had a hard time shaking off the hysteria of fans and pop stardom and slotting into family life. I kind of did, but then you don't count on the drugs and the alcohol. I was out of control.” What was the key to finding the path of your authenticity? How did you leave the rock star lifestyle behind?
First of all, I would say that I’m still on the path to being a responsible adult. Speaking as a 55-year-old and compared to the way my father was when he was my age, I feel like I’m still an adolescent. Of course, he was of a different age and he had a very different experience. In my life, I got to extend my adolescence because I got paid to be an adolescent because I was in the pop music business. I’m still coming to terms with it. If I define recovery, it’s about showing up for the responsibilities of adult life. When we talk about character defects and letting go of the old me, it’s about letting go of behaviors that are connected to not being a responsible adult. All of the things that my Higher Power would have me be means acting in an age appropriate way in my every waking moment. In contrast, my lower self wants to act out like a child and get away with cheating in life. There’s a battle being fought in me constantly.
I suppose you could say that I’ve been getting more emotionally sober over time. It’s been quite a while now, and my inner child is getting a bit older. Still, even if the battle has changed over the years, it’s still a battle. I still need a lot of program. I need God working with me. I need all the tricks and all the tools of recovery to keep me on the path. Deep inside, I honestly want it now. I do want to be that responsible adult, but it’s easier said than done.
I don’t know how unusual that is, I mean, I see some young people that have such an extremely well developed and strong sense of responsibility. They manage to show for the adult responsibilities of life at a very young age in a way that I never did. I’m not quite sure why that is. Maybe it’s because I was an only child. I didn’t have to look out for any younger siblings or anything like that. I don’t know. I have come to accept that we are all different in that respect.
John Taylor and Gela Nash-Taylor; Photo via John Lavitt
Can you describe your religious background and your present day spirituality for us? What is a God of your understanding? In other words, what does your Higher Power look like?
I was raised Catholic, and my mother was a black belt Catholic. She would have gone to church every day if it had been up to her, but religion wasn’t talked about. There wasn’t an intellectual aspect to it, so I kind of had to figure it out for myself. I thought it was very mystical. I used to lie awake, thinking, “How did Jesus do that; the miracles, the walking on the water, the raising of the dead? How did Moses part the seas, and how did all these other Biblical stories happen?”
Of course, the idea that God is watching us every step of the way made me think as well. Plus, the best way I could possibly put a face to God was that Leonardo da Vinci self-portrait as an old man. I had this picture of that old man with lightning bolts in his hands. If you masturbate too many days in a row, he’s going to let them loose on you or something like that—very judgmental and scary. Still, I must say that my mother got a lot out of the society of the religion so I experienced that in my childhood, particularly when I went to a Catholic school. But then I started breaking away. I started finding myself as a teenager. It didn’t really speak to me, it didn’t really speak to me at all. As soon as I could break away from that idea of praying by kneeling to a crucifix, I just did.
I then went through a period in my twenties when I had no spirituality in my life. I was running on an empty tank. I sometimes wonder if it’s coincidence that it was the time of my life when I was most messed up. I certainly didn’t have a moral compass through that period. It’s almost surprising because I did have a moral compass thanks to my parents as a child, and a fairly consistent take on what was right and wrong. But that was lost for a while during my early years in the pop music business. I was very lost and very egocentric and whatever I wanted, I wanted right away. By the time I got sober, I was hungry for a spirituality. I was ready to find something that could take the place of the religion I had experienced as a child.
In fact, I’m really glad that in recovery nobody asked me to pray to the same God that I had been praying to as a child. I’m glad that we got to talk about spirituality so I could sort of make it up for myself. A journey for me in recovery has been defining what the Higher Power is and what my Higher Power is. We talk about “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Well, sometimes you just get on your knees and you just speak out loud whether you believe or not. It’s a really important part of our recovery culture. You don’t have to believe. Sometimes you just go through the fucking motions, because what have you got to lose? And I did that a few times. I had to find what worked from the beginning.
I’ve found a Higher Power in a sponsor, I found a Higher Power in several groups of my peers, but when I was away on tour and I was struggling and I couldn’t get to meetings, I hit my knees. When I took that action, I found that things happened. Over time, I came to believe. My Higher Power doesn’t have a human face. But I like the St. Francis Prayer; I like how by saying the St. Francis Prayer out loud, it alerts me about how I need to relate myself to the world around me. That didn’t happen when somebody presented me with the Ten Commandments when I was five. At least for me, the St. Francis Prayer is a pretty good check in, it’s a pretty good list to help me look at myself.
My experience of getting sober is that it really all begins when you put that drink down. In order to stay away from that drink, one day at a time, you have to tighten your own belt. All those naughty little behaviors, whether it’s cheating or stealing or any of those little tricks that you do because you think you can get away with them, you can’t get away with them anymore. It’s not because you’re necessarily going to be caught or there’s an old man with lightning bolts sitting in the clouds and watching you, but because you just can’t go there anymore. I really need to win the ongoing battle between my lower and higher self. My higher self needs to rack up as many victories as possible. If my lower self starts taking control for too long, I’m going to end up drinking because it’s just going to be too painful. I’m not going to want to live with myself that way.
Duran Duran took their name from a character, Dr. Durand Durand, in Roger Vadim's 1968 sci-fi film Barbarella that starred Jane Fonda. The origin of the music was a balance of futuristic elements with strong dance and punk influences. By embracing sobriety, did you turn your back on your punk roots?
Not at all. No, I don’t see it like that at all. My attraction to punk rock was never about just wanting to get drunk and throw bricks at buildings. It wasn’t like that. It was a little more sophisticated for me. There was something that appealed to me in the music and in the fashion and in the hairstyles. Everyone needs some kind of a rebellion, and mine was kind of served to me in the guise of this punk rock movement that was happening. But I never associated drinking particularly with that scene so my getting sober had nothing really to do with turning my back on punk rock or anything else for that matter. Plus, sobriety kind of overrules any idea like that because it’s so much more important.
In an interview about your memoir, In The Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran, you said, “Artistically I am drawn to the searchers, who keep up a consistent creative output and weren’t afraid to change … Having said that, I’m not prepared to sacrifice my family life for the creative muse anymore.” What did you sacrifice in the past? Do you believe that the myth of creativity being fueled by extremism is a destructive element for many artists?
In terms of the first part of your question, John, it wasn’t so much the sacrifices that I made for creativity. I became this pop star when I was like twenty-one. Although we were all pinups, I was known as the cute one in the band. That was my thing. There was the intellectual, there was the poet, there was the rock and roller, and then there was the cute one and that was me. I got it into my head at that point that in order to have any success, I had to be single, I couldn’t revel in a relationship, I couldn’t hold hands in public, I couldn’t have children or else I would lose my audience. It became almost like an obsession for me even way after anyone had stopped caring about such things. I didn’t start a family until I was in my thirties, even as I watched my bandmates start families much earlier. About the time that I got sober, I felt like I didn’t know how to do a relationship. I had waited so long to get engaged in such a relationship that it proved very difficult for me.
In terms of the second half of the question, do I believe that the myth of creativity being fueled by extremism is a destructive element for many artists? Everybody’s got their own story, but if you’re going to be very good at anything, you’ve got to put a lot of time into it. Whatever it is you do, if you want to do it well, you are going to have to make sacrifices. If you are a writer or a painter or a musician, you’ve got to spend a lot of time alone. There’s a big part of it that’s not about being social. I mean, I love playing with my band, I love playing with other musicians, and I never liked practicing alone. I can just about get away with it since I’m a bassist, but guitar players, violinists, saxophonists; they’ve got to spend a lot of time alone working on their chops.
More than ever now, it’s so hard to find calm in our lives today. We have so many media options and social media always has an opinion on something. We’re checking our emails and downloading music, not to mention films and books and new art. Today, so much shit is available to us and it seems to be calling to us all the time, nonstop. Finding that space, where you can cut yourself off from what’s going on and just concentrate on the creativity, is quite challenging. I often find it to be one of the most difficult things to effectively accomplish in my life as a musician.
As part of your recent tour, you were asked about how you deal with modern criticism and the barbs of social media. You replied, “I've unplugged myself from social media. People can do whatever they please. Honestly, I don't know if anybody could be as critical as I am.” Can you describe how working the 12 Steps have helped you step off the cross of constant self-criticism? As you get older, are you more gentle and kinder to yourself?
This is like a God thing. We talk about how God either is or he isn’t, and how there are no mistakes in God’s world. Ultimately, it’s about accepting what is. I am quite self-critical, and I’m not just self-critical. I’m quite critical of the people that I work with and the people that are around me because I get it in my head that things should be different than what they are. I have an image in my head of how things should be every day, but throughout the course of the day, things work out differently. Sobriety has taught me that I have to accept that things aren’t always going to be exactly how I dreamt them, and I’ve got to be okay with that. I have learned to take a breath when that happens, and accept it. Maybe even more than accept it. I often look at what is happening and think, “Well, you know, maybe this is actually better than what I thought I wanted.”
You have to realize that it's been a long, long time now of doing this. It’s been like another lifetime of practice, a post-sobriety lifetime of adjusting to the way my brain works. It takes a while to fine-tune your brain to get it to work differently than how it used to work. This is one of those things that I need to do if I don’t want to drink again. I am always telling myself, “You should be this. You should do that. This should be different. You should be doing this differently. Blah, blah, blah, blah.” If I keep doing that, I’m going to lose my mind. I’m going to drink and I’m going to get fucked up. Instead, I’ve got to go with what is. I’ve got to learn to appreciate what’s happening.
I will say that since I got sober, time moves differently. I exist in time in a different way. Before I got sober, it was like, “Got to do it now! Now! Now! Now! Got to get it now!” Everything was so rushed and manic. Now there’s more of like a Zen-like thing happening. I can float through life a little more. It doesn’t mean that I don’t do what has to be done. You can’t just sit on the couch and wait for things to happen. Life doesn’t work that way, but I don’t have to make myself crazy trying to make things happen. I can accept that I don’t always know what’s best for me. That’s been an important line for me. I’m quite prepared to roll with that idea quite often. When I get an idea in my head that it’s got to be like this, then when things don’t seem to be going that way, I can say, “Okay, I can accept that. Maybe God’s got another plan.”
As one of the co-founders of Juicy Couture, your wife Gela Nash-Taylor is a highly successful fashion entrepreneur. Today, the company's only men’s offering is the cologne Dirty English by Juicy Couture fragrances. In a review of the fragrance, an anonymous critic wrote, “So Dirty English lives up to its name. When I first sprayed this I instantly thought of a barber shop full of men drinking in their leather jackets in London.” Were you the original inspiration for the name? Did you ever wear it?
Gela came up with this idea, but I was trying to remember what inspired it. She’s become quite an Anglophile since we’ve been married. She loves all things English. I probably wore it for a minute. It never became something I used on a regular basis, and I don’t think I was ever what you would call a big customer of the fragrance. It’s funny, John, that you found that quote. I don’t know where they came up with the name because I wasn’t involved with it at all. It might have been like a T-shirt logo because it became a fragrance and part of the men’s line, but I honestly don’t remember.
You wrote in your autobiography about the adoration of fans, “It was really good fun, until it stopped being fun.” How hard is it to separate yourself from that image of the past? Do you miss being the pinup? Did being the pinup get in the way of being the artist?
To a degree, it certainly got in the way of living life and making good choices for myself. I don’t miss it. I feel a lot of love. There’s a lot of people out there who were fans when we were big that are just as passionate about us today. When you’ve taken that journey with someone through adolescence and there’s a whole generation of kids that came of age with Duran Duran, particularly some girls for whom the band had a deep sense of meaning when they were young, they’re always going to be there for you. It’s nice to have people out there who have feelings for you that you’ve never met. You never know when you might want to call in a favor (laughing). You know, can you get me a table at your restaurant?
In terms of separating myself from the past, by the end of the '80s, I was a fucking wreck. I didn’t think that I was ever going to get over it. The experience had turned me upside down and twisted me inside out and fucked me up in so many different ways. It was really like a five-year roller coaster ride. Although it was what I wanted to do, it took me and spun me around in so many ways that I hadn’t expected. I didn’t think that I was ever going to get over it. I think if I had not gotten sober, that I never would have gotten over it. I think I would have been a very sad, very sad man. I cannot even imagine what kind of shape I would be in, and I doubt that I would even still be alive today. If I had lived, I don’t want to even think about what kind of person I would be and how I would be living life if I hadn’t gotten sober. I can only, only believe that it would have been a very sad existence.
Since I’ve gotten sober, I’ve put a lot of work into avoiding that outcome. I’m just trying to be the best me that I can be every day of the week. I really want to have the best possible relationships with everyone I know. Period. End of Story. Although that sounds easy in the telling, in reality, it remains a pretty tall order. It takes a lot of thought and work, but I like the challenge. I use that as my primary principle of living. The career, the health, and all else sort of follows along after that principle of being the best me that I can be.
When you were filming Sugar Town (1999), the unimpassioned look at the lives of struggling LA scene rock stars by director Allison Anders, your character in the movie reflected your former self in terms of partying and a proclivity for drugs. Was this hard to do? Did it trigger you into wanting to use again, or did it make you grateful that that part of your life was long gone and over, one-day-at-a-time?
I don’t know if I thought about it that deeply. It was the first time that I had done anything like that in terms of acting. I was much more concerned with how to remember the lines. I didn’t get into the process that deeply. Maybe if I did it today, there would be more self-awareness going into it, but there wasn’t then. I was just thinking things like, “Oh my God, I need to lose another five pounds before they start shooting!” (laughing)
What was really fun about that film was that I had known Allison for a while, and I really liked the opportunity to actually work with her. Plus (the British actors) Michael Des Barres and Martin Kemp were in the film so it was quite a bit of fun. Rosanna Arquette was just fantastic and amazing to work with. It was a cool experience to make the film. Later, I got to go to Sundance and have Robert Redford tell me how much he liked the film. It was a great experience.
When you were writing your autobiography, you explained in an interview with your ex-wife Amanda de Cadenet how, “My therapist kept telling me, ‘It’s a message of hope, John, don’t forget that.’” To people reading this interview, particularly the ones still struggling with addiction and alcoholism, what is your message of hope today?
We’ve been hearing a lot about the heroin problem in this country, and it’s becoming a hot topic with the elections. Knowing what I know, the good news is that there is a program that exists all over the world, but it’s a program that began in this country, that has been working now for over 50 years. It has been working well for so long that I consider it to be the primary spiritual movement of the 20th century. There is a solution to the problem of addiction and alcoholism. I know that and you know that, but the problem is getting people to want it as opposed to the opposite. I suppose the question really is why do people want to mess themselves up. Is there a lack of hope out there?
Look at me because I had a fantastic career, and I chose to fuck myself up. Life’s a struggle, and not everybody wants to face the responsibilities of adult life. We try to put that off for as long as we can. The good news for me is that I was able to find that solution. In this country, there are enough people who are aware of what recovery can do. It’s like six degrees of separation. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who got sober and stayed sober. That’s the good news for the problem. Alcoholics Anonymous has had over 50 years to work out the kinks, and now it’s a very, very successful and smooth running sobriety machine. At least, that has been my personal experience. It’s there for anyone who wants it and at no charge.