IN CONVERSATION WITH: MICHAEL DES BARRES – March 2015
By Shane Pinnegar
If legends are born rather than made, then 24 January, 1948 was a special day indeed. Born in Sussex, England shortly after the end of World War II, Michael Des Barres is a descendant of a heroic 13th century French knight and the son of the 25th Marquis Des Barres, who blew his fortune on opium and ended up behind bars. Brought up in a gothic castle and raised from the age of eight by a retinue of strippers after his mother was institutionalised for schizophrenia, Des Barres has lived a life less ordinary, splitting his time in the rock n’ roll and acting worlds for decades.
After a stint in a children’s TV programme from the age of 12, he appeared under Sidney Poitier in the acclaimed film To Sir With Love, and – as dedicated rock archaeologists will be aware – went on to front cult favourite bands Silverhead (alongside future Robert Plant alumni Robbie Blunt & Pete Thompson, as well as Blondie bassist Nigel Harrison), Detective (signed to Led Zeppelin’s Swansong label) and Chequered Past (also featuring Harrison and his Blondie bandmate Clem Burke, as well as Sex Pistol Steve Jones and future David Bowie collaborator Tony Sales). He joined The Power Station after Robert Palmer left the band, appearing in front of billions at Live Aid, and went on to appear in recurring roles in MacGuyver, Melrose Place and The New WKRP In Cincinatti as well as literally dozens of other TV shows and movies.
More recently Des Barres has re-embraced his rock n’ roll fantasies, with well-received albums Carnaby Street in 2012 and Hot n’ Sticky Live the following year. This year sees the release of another new album – possibly his best yet: The Key To The Universe, on which he has again teamed up with his old partner in crime Nigel Harrison.
Michael: Hello Shane. I’m doing really well, man. How are you?
100% ROCK: I’m great mate. It’s a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you for your time.
Michael: It’s my pleasure. You know, I love Australia. What I love there is what you see is what you get.
100% ROCK: Yeah, that’s us. That’s for sure.
Michael: There’s no pretence at all. I remember I flew down there – Fox flew me down there because my girlfriend was doing the series called Roar, which was like a teenage Braveheart. It starred a teenage Heath Ledger, who I met – he must have been eighteen – and played chess with him. Brilliant, brilliant. Had a great time.
100% ROCK: Wow. When was that?
Michael: Back in the thirteenth century.
100% ROCK: Come on, you’re not quite that old.
Michael: I don’t remember, Shane. It was ten, fifteen, twenty or whatever it was, years ago. I’m not very good chronologically. [The series was first released in 1997 according to IMDB] Although, the past few weeks I’ve had to do it. Because people ask me about stuff, and I just have to recall what the fuck they’re talking about.
100% ROCK: Well you’ve lived a life less ordinary. That’s for sure.
Michael: It has been entertaining, Shane!
100% ROCK: I bet. You’ve crammed so much in.
Michael: Yeah. That’s what my second wife used to say. [laughs]
100% ROCK: Boom boom!!!
Michael: You know, thank you. I’ll be here every night. Yeah, it’s been great. It’s been absolutely exquisite, and nothing is more exquisite than right now. Because, you know, I’ve just gotten this opportunity to make this album. Everybody seems to enjoy it. I’m just really very enthusiastic. As enthusiastic as I was when I was fifteen years old doing To Sir With Love.
100% ROCK: To look at photos, you look very healthy. You seem resolutely positive. Sobriety obviously is very good for you.
Michael: It has been. It was a door that was opened to the idea that you have a choice in this life. You have a choice that you can be completely different, and loving, and embrace the world, engage with the world, be enthusiastic about the world, or you can hide from the world. You know, I run – that’s excellent [for you]. I love to run. I realised, after heroin and all of that, I realised I even ran as a junkie. I was the healthiest junkie in the world! I figured I was running away from something. I know this sounds corny, but I run towards something now. There’s a big fucking difference, Shane.
100% ROCK: Absolutely. So let’s talk about the album. Key To The Universe. To listen to the track Supernatural Lovers, you seem to be saying that the key to the universe is love?
Michael: Yeah. Absolutely. That is the most metaphysical, heartfelt song. There are many ways of looking at it, many locks to that door. What I’ve done over the years, is find out exactly what it is that brings peace and creativity, while remaining a sense of the edge. Something that’s cutting, and something that’s dangerous, something that’s unique and spontaneous. Because rock and roll, if rock and roll is anything, it’s chaos. It’s spontaneous chaos, and its heart beats from the waist down. You know?
So I’m not advocating some sort of airy fairy tree-hugging presence, but what I’m trying to say is yes, it’s very healthy.
My sobriety came from sanity, however. You know, pure and simple. Once I’ve gotten over the idea that I was dying, you know? I saw, okay there’s a lot to this beautiful world, and my career took off in a sense. From being the decadent young guy, into doing what works, being collaborative, and you know trying to keep on doing it.
100% ROCK: Yeah, right on. The album really rocks, man. From what I’ve read in a couple of interviews with you, and the bio that came with the album, you seemed to have every intention to kick out the jams in the studio?
Michael: Oh yeah. That’s all I’ve ever done. You know, I’m not a sensitive singer/songwriter. I mean, I did not wear a vest. I have no facial hair to speak of. You know I applaud anybody with an acoustic guitar – I write with an acoustic, but I’m an electric guy. I mean I like it OUT! I’m a rock n’ roll singer, you know. Vulnerability is one thing – yeah, of course. Rock n’ roll is also about the lustful, carnal, sexy, you know, jealous. All of these things.
My favorite band [is] Iggy [and the Stooges]. You know, it’s that school of music that I love. Music that was made by people in a room looking at each other. Losing themselves in the unified heartbeat.
100% ROCK: Why did you decide to record in Rome?
Michael: You know, you can get into terrible ruts in your life. I know you understand. Sometimes you get the least bit challenged, by doing the same thing – Shakespeare called it ‘calmed by rote’ as I’m sure you’re aware. I got a call from Bob [Rose], you know, who is just brilliant as a producer. I mean just an incredible man, who really spent his years in authenticity – that would be on his mark board, ‘authentic’.
He got us in a room, and he just stripped away the artifice. He was in Rome, and he wanted to record in Rome. He didn’t want to do it in L.A., or London, or New York. Which is the places that I’ve recorded, I suppose, the most. He wanted to take one out of ones comfort zone, and he… fitted people together. He cast me like a movie. We got in there and kicked ass, you know? It was immediate. Because all we were living 24/7 [for] making as great an album as we could possible make, with no distraction whatsoever. That’s what happened. I mean, it’s just an incredible experience, man. You know.
Actually on bass is my old friend from Silverhead – Nigel Harrison. There’s Pete Thompson too, when we were sixteen and seventeen. Now we’re, what are we, thirty-two now? [laughs] [He’s] the drummer from Robert [Plant]’s band. Danny Robinson on guitar. Just an amazing section. Because it is our music. It’s our sound. There’s so much swagger, and beat in that album. It’s a groove. I think a refreshing groove. Would you agree? I mean doesn’t that sparkle?
100% ROCK: Absolutely. The whole band sounds like they are firing on all cylinders. The album sounds amazing.
Michael: I think so, and it was done quickly. It wasn’t thought about that much. The songs were created out of a thoughtful environment. You know, recording them was quick, and so exciting. Compares to almost playing live.
100% ROCK: In some ways it sounds like it’s a quite purgative record. You’ve really gone back to channelling some of your primal rock n’ roll influences, like The Stooges, and the Pistols, MC5, that sort of thing.
Michael: Yeah, because that’s what I love. Then you get sidetracked, ‘oh maybe I should write something.’ As soon as you start … after I had a couple hits through other people, you get into your groove of writing, not for yourself.
I saw a wonderful interview with David Bowie, and he said he would pick a character, and then write for that character, which made it easier than writing about himself. That’s such a brilliant way of looking at writing songs.
This time around, I wrote all these words that I really meant. So I went over there with very little music. My side of the fence is singer and lyricist. About me. Not about you, or she said this, and he feels this way. What do I feel? What am I feeling right now? That opened a floodgate of authentic emotional subjects.
100% ROCK: One of the standouts must be Yesterday’s Casanova. It sounds like the character is singing …
Michael: I’m so glad you said that… do you know how happy I am? It’s so great you said that, Shane. Please continue, but I’m so delighted that you said that. What were you saying? I’m sorry.
100% ROCK: Musically, the album is so vibrant, and raw and rocking. Then you’ve got the lyric on this, which is quite fragile. It sounds like the character singing, is really accepting that their glory days are long gone.
Michael: It’s a thing that people of my age, and my generation, think about now. I’m so delighted that you singled it out. If you think about it, I’m 67. Eighty percent of the people that I’ve made music with or have played with, are dead. I’ve said that I’m constantly trying to change – I was very, very in touch with the notion of mortality for musicians. Because, you know, I’ve been sober by the grace of God, and a good woman for a long time. I’ve been healthy for a long time. I’ve seen my guys … I mean you look at the last couple of months: Joe Cocker, Ian McLagan, Bobby Keys… You know, endless. A list of people that were so brilliant. It’s such a hard life, rock and roll, way too early it takes people.
100% ROCK: When they’re young.
Michael: It’s about that. It’s about dealing with the fact that you can’t do it anymore. You can’t rock. You can’t fuck. You can’t eat. You can’t enjoy the world. I am going to be the guy standing in the rubble of the apocalypse [laughs] with a Les Paul and a Marshall amp shouting ‘it’s not true!!’
100% ROCK: That’s great.
Michael: I’m a cockroach. I’m a rocker. I’m the house standing in the apocalypse, Shane. I’m doing it for all of my contemporaries, and for the young ones who are fucking their lives up.
100% ROCK: Fantastic. Talking about that vulnerability in that song… knowing I was going to talk to you, I re-watched Sugar Town [a movie starring Des Barres, Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp and Duran Duran’s John Taylor at the weekend, which is one of my favourite performances of yours. I have long wondered if your performance of Nick in that movie might have been the closest to the real you?
Michael: Oh, there’s no question. It was the real me, yes. What I wanted it to be… there’s the sexuality of that guy wanting to be with young women, it’s really just an extension, because of the times, of the audience. When you go back to that hotel, and there’s no light, and there’s no people looking at you admiringly and lustfully, you’re going to continue that feeling, or you’re gonna turn into an abyss of doubt. So, [after a gig] that’s the cure-all. That’s the anaesthetic. That’s the drug. That’s what supplies that final encore. So, once I realised that, I totally did it like that. He couldn’t believe that he’s not getting audiences – you’ve got to get somebody. So when she says, my mother really digs you, something actually happened to me. This is profound moment in my life. Windows opened. You could hear Pavarotti singing Perfect Day in the background. I mean it was a new epiphany. I realised that, fuck yeah, this is autobiographical. Yesterday’s Casanova is an extension of that thought.
100% ROCK: Wow.
Michael: You know, you’re kind of playing Dionysus as a child. Playing Dionysus as a child? You know, it’s a literal way of saying it’s child’s play, and grow up.
100% ROCK: So, let’s talk about the mainstream. I mean you’re a cult icon and a bit of a legend, but you never really – apart from a short stint following Robert Palmer as frontman of The Power Station, I guess – never really cracked the mainstream completely. A lot of people out there probably know you as much from your ex-wife’s book [Pamela Des Barres wrote groupie classic I’m With The Band amongst other tomes], than from your acting or music. Have you enjoyed that notoriety over the years?
Michael: You know what, it’s an interesting question. I don’t give a shit [laughs] about what people think. I’ve had a fantastic journey. I’m so grateful for the adventures that I’ve had – which would make all of the above look like poop. I have experienced stuff that is so exciting, and also so terrifying. Dangerous. Ecstatic. I have no regrets.
I don’t care if people come up to me and [say], ‘where do I know you from?’ The fact that they’re coming up to me, and we can start a conversation is what’s important. However, that said, this record will change everything. [laughs] I’m convinced of it. Radio’s already all over it. It’s been all over the planet, and I’m delighted by it. I don’t want to sound flippant about this, because it’s something that obviously, you know, is very interesting. People know me. They don’t know where they know me from. That’s really exciting. I mean I’ve done everything from sitcoms to being a DJ, which I am right now, with Steven Van Zant. This album is a culmination of all of those efforts.
100% ROCK: This is another thing I was going to ask you about. You’ve done so many things, and you do have a recognisable look. I’m assuming you get approached quite a bit. When you see someone coming up to you, possibly with something to sign, you don’t know if they’re coming up about MacGyver, or about Sugar Town, or about To Sir With Love, or about an album you did, or anything you know? Is it disconcerting at times?
Michael: No! There’s nothing in my life that’s disconcerting. I love it when they come up to me. I mean, I cannot imagine a world where everybody wouldn’t know, and coming up to you and saying, you know we really loved what you did in this and that. You know when you did House, or something. It’s lovely, isn’t it? I’d work with a fucking sock, for Christ’s sake! I mean it’s a loving thing. A connection. My whole trip is about connecting with people and loving them. I know full well that without the sense of community, we are lost. So, whatever the vehicle is that they’re driving towards me in, I’ll jump in the passenger seat and talk to them for five minutes. You bet.
100% ROCK: Right on.
Michael: Why wouldn’t I? I feel grateful for that. Usually, it’s a mixture. Sometimes I’m astounded by stuff. Because I’ve done a hundred and fifty hours of American television, and forty movies – plus the albums, and God knows what else. People see I’ve been at it for fifty years, so you never know what’s … I love it when families come up and go, I loved you in this. Yeah, yeah but I loved you in that. Then they go to war about who likes me the most. That’s pretty cool!
100% ROCK: Very cool. Back to the album, just very quickly. I love the title of the song, I Want Love To Punch Me In The Face. It’s fantastic. Were you sitting on that for a while, or did that come to you?
Michael: You know it just came to me. What has happened to a lot of people I know, is that they have been so disappointed by love, Shane. Perhaps you’re one of them. That just don’t feel that they’ve connected with somebody, and I hope to God that you have. We get into kind of a coma, I think. We need to be woken up to the fact that it is possible to turn any corner, and fall in love. I said, well what would be the summation of that idea? With a rock and roll title: I want love to punch me in the face. I want you to fuck up, and to let me know that I am lovable, and I can love. It’s as simple as that.
100% ROCK: Well, I’m very lucky I met the right girl about six years ago. Before that, I certainly felt along the same lines. Thankfully, as you’ve said it, love has punched me in the face. It’s been wonderful.
Michael: I’m so happy to hear that Shane. If I do anything with this album, it’s just to give people a nudge. Obviously, the metaphor of the punch is rock and roll, and not to say ‘tap me on the back and tell me I’m lovable’. No, it’s got to have some balls to it. It’s true, and I’m so happy that you did find that. Because, you know, I can hear it in your voice. You’re relaxed, man. You’re living the beautiful life, and that’s what it’s all about. The rest is icing on the cake. You just got to get the cake.
Michael: Oh great, and Shane, when we come down under, you better get in touch with us somehow, or we will with you, and come see us play.
100% ROCK: Well, hey, come Down Under. That would be cool.
Michael: We’re planning on it.
100% ROCK: Excellent. Look, I’ll be front and center for that one.
Michael: Okay, Shane. Thanks so much, man.
100% ROCK: Thanks very much. It’s been a pleasure. Have a great day.
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