Over the years I have been amazed at how many top-notch celebrity actors there are who want to be rock stars, as if the acting and celebrity is not enough to totally fulfill them.
Is the power of the music from the 60’s, the artists it spawned, and/or the subsequent education about our original great blues men of the past so alluring that these people just can’t help but want to up their game of euphoric air-guitar windmills to the real thing? Might they be music lovers just like so many of us regular folks who want to play music as a hobby and experience that glorious feeling of a good band working together in total sync? Do they feel like playing out in a band somehow makes them even cooler than being a movie star??
The first example I recall hitting the scene was Bruce Willis, who plays blues harp and sings. At the time he was throwing very loud and out of control parties at his ranch house in Idaho and jamming all night with friends. Over the years many more have surfaced — Jeff Bridges, Jeremy Irons, Ryan Gosling, Keanu Reeves, Adam Sandler, Billy Bob Thornton, Kevin Bacon, and Johnny Depp, just to name some that are top of mind.
The funniest thing is most of them aren’t that good. I’m not trying to be mean here, just making the point that if you YouTube Johnny Depp, Billy Bob Thornton & The Boxmasters, The Bacon Brothers, etc., you see pretty average performances. And it kind of throws you off because these guys are giants in their chosen field of acting, and you somehow expect the same kind of excellence from them on stage as musicians — you want to witness that same kind of magic, you want to believe them. But it bursts my bubble because many sound less than professional, like local bands we all see in our hometown bars and restaurants. It’s like the movie star thing disappears and you see them as just the average people they are, when not on the big silver screen or the red carpet.
That shouldn’t come as such a surprise I guess, because these people did not spend their lives becoming musicians; they spent their lives learning their acting craft. It just comes off so weird to me — it blows their aura. It’s like people with real gravitas and all of a sudden the air is let out of the balloon and they become posers — you see behind the “Wizard Of Oz” curtain, and it makes you wonder.
I remember once being in England at a birthday party for David Gilmour. There were a lot of celebrity guests and one was Damon Hill, former English Formula 1 Champion. I am a huge Formula 1 fan and had a blast talking to him about F1 and racing in general. We discussed both David and Nick Mason’s love for vintage racecars and the fact that they both raced them during special vintage events at Silverstone and other famous F1 tracks throughout Europe. Damon began to laugh in a friendly way (as he is friends with both the guys) and said, “Yeah, it’s funny to me—they fancy themselves as real racecar drivers, but that’s like me playing in a band in my garage and thinking I’m Pink Floyd!!” We both laughed pretty hard at that, but is does further my point about, just because you can, doesn’t make you good, or worthwhile. So then I have to ask the question: Is it just about them wanting to make music? If so, you can have private jam sessions. But that’s not enough for some of them, they insist on playing out to the public and this is where it becomes troublesome to me.
A few cases in point:
Johnny Depp now plays in the Hollywood Vampires band with Alice Cooper and Joe Perry from Aerosmith. I love Johnny Depp as an actor, but he looks funny trying to do the rock star thing with all the stereotype moves. Because so many of those moves have, indeed, become cliché, you can’t really try to look that way because you look awkward and such a poser. Joe Perry has a particular stance and style that he’s developed over the years and so it looks natural and authentic. But when Depp stands next to him he looks lightweight — like an MTV copycat. Moreover, his playing is average, like the kid next door; so then you have to ask yourself, does he get a pass because he’s Johnny Depp?? Does he think because of his celebrity he can get away with it? Does he think we actually buy him as an authentic rock musician? For most of his fans and the public at large, maybe he does and maybe he can. For me, because he didn’t grow that way organically, just showed up recently and put on the clothes and the guitar, he looks clownish.
Hollywood Vampires – “Whole Lotta Love”
This video’s caption says: “JOHNNY DEPP PLAYING AWESOMELY.” Sounds like a press release to me. You be the judge; is this awesome guitar playing?
I am not trying to make this just a rag on Johnny Depp — there is some real meaning behind why Depp is doing this. I saw him once on the Jay Leno Tonight Show explaining how he first came to Hollywood to play in a band and become a rock star. His friend Nicolas Cage got him an acting gig and Depp was a natural at it — his acting career really took off quickly and according to Depp, “It ruined my whole dream.” Of course, Leno and the audience laughed like hell at this notion, and Leno pointed out how his “plan B” didn’t turn out so bad. Depp had a bit of a chuckle himself, but even though he was at the top of his game as an actor, you could see a longing in his demeanor that had never been fulfilled.
Billy Bob Thornton is one of my all time favorite actors, but watch this and tell me if you would pay to see him and this band perform.
Billy Bob Thornton & the Boxmasters – “She Looks Like Betty Page”
The Bacon Brothers where once guest stars on a Kenny Loggins’ television special I produced. At rehearsal the audio engineers asked me to come into the recording studio and listen to a playback — they were looking extremely nervous. Turns out The Bacon Brothers couldn’t sing all-that well. Uh-oh, this was going to be live television, what do we do now?? It wasn’t the first time this ever happened to us; we had the same issue with Michelle Branch, she was guesting on a Santana special and she couldn’t sing either! During the show we “ducked” down their vocals blending them more into the overall track so as not to call attention to them being off key. The show went great, but when the brothers saw the playback they were pissed and called up yelling and screaming. Hey, you do what you have to do.
So let’s get back to the questions I posed at the beginning of this blog, and some possible answers.
I truly believe that the power of music, and especially what we now call Classic Rock, is so ingrained in our DNA because of the culture in which we grew up, that these people feel compelled to be part of it in some way. It happens to so many of us and just because these folks have become celebrities through their acting careers doesn’t make them immune to these feelings and the overall desire to sing and play, thereby personally connecting them to this music.
I also believe that the cultural influence of rock and roll is so big that yes, it’s much cooler being a rocker than a movie star. This could be because true rockers are authentic and we believe in them and their messages, and movie stars are always pretending to be someone else.
And that’s the hard part about seeing them taking their act on the road before taking the time to really become good at performing and honing those kinds of talents—which would take the years that it took The Rolling Stones or whomever. Otherwise to me, it’s them just pretending one more time to be something they are not. Acting the part doesn’t get it in music. I guess I just can’t get away from the “authentic,” the thing that always rings true for me when it comes to music and musicians.
People have a right to do what they want and who am I to judge really? But music has always been a sacred thing to me, and when it gets watered down I don’t like it, in fact, I hate it. And, Keith Richards will always be cooler to me than Keanu Reeves.
Post Script Editorial
These questions and discussions conveniently segue to one of my all time favorite rants — too much music is being designed to make money instead of being designed to make music.
I just read the New York Times review on Taylor Swift’s opening night of her Reputation Tour Stadium Tour, named after her latest album released last fall. In her new show Taylor once again has shed an old skin and now is dressing more like Madonna and coming off cold and steely using snakes in her new act as a metaphor. “Since the release of ‘Reputation’ in November, the snake has become Ms. Swift’s spirit animal, but also the symbol that’s gotten in the way of her spirit. She claimed it for herself after Kim Kardashian deployed it against her in 2016, at the height of the tensions between Ms. Swift and Ms. Kardashian’s husband, Kanye West. Ms. Kardashian depicted Ms. Swift as duplicitous, and it stuck.”
Apparently much of the show is designed to make Taylor appear to be tough, a warrior, rising to defend herself from her detractors and part of the production is actually aimed at making fun of Kanye during the performance of “Look What You Made Me Do.”
Taylor Swift started out as a singer-songwriter who semi-organically segued into pop. Once successful in that genre the marketing machine kicked in big time and ever since she has kept changing her artistic personality to suit what’s needed for the popular brand of the moment. She has some authentic and touching material but some of her biggest hit songs are about the soap opera that she has found herself in. So one has to ask, if that’s all you have to write about, or you let that interfere with your art, are you making art at all? Or just stooping to the lowest common denominator to get your fans and the public riled on your side to buy your records?
As much as I want to like Taylor Swift she keeps confounding me with her actions. Now she has decided to play stadiums — not because she’s good at it, but because she can, due to her popularity. Does her “art” suffer? If you believe the New York Times, yes it does. Now she’s doing all the choreography crap and she is struggling as a dancer—it’s not her, that’s not what she does well, and her more authentic tender moments are being lost. She is forgoing all of what she used to be to (literally) wag her finger at Mr. West. Do we care?? Obviously, the throngs who have been marketed to do, or at least for the moment — which sadly is what this music is about…just for the moment.
As Jerry Lee Lewis once screamed… Think about it!
Until next time,
© Paul Rappaport 2018