There are two big lessons Denis Leary wants to share in Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, which premieres July 16 on F/X:
- Most talented people are vain, egotistical, insecure assholes.
- Fame is fleeting, work and family are everything.
That doesn’t mean that his title character, faded 80s icon Johnny Rock doesn’t want a comeback and doesn’t, as he sings in one of the title songs, “want to die anonymous”
The 10-part series details the story of Johnny — lead singer of an early 90s New York band called The Heathens who partied hard and self-destructed right at the brink of the money and fame part of the sex, drugs and etc.
25 years later, as the series promo puts it, “the only thing bigger than Johnny’s ego is his prostate. The drugs he really needs now aren’t cocaine and marijuana; they’re Crestor, Cymbalta and Cialis.”
Enter his long-lost daughter Gigi — super-talented and flush — who wants to connect with her dad and bring the band back together (including John Corbett as guitarist “Flash”, whom she immediately hooks up with). Only this time she’s the lead singer.
And that’s where things start to feel like Rescue Me all over again, in the best of ways. It’s like Leary just can’t help himself. This time the existential male shooting-the-shit banter isn’t in the firehouse, it’s in the dressing room. The same gorgeous, smart women who are really running the show still make fun of Denis/Tommy/Johnny’s vanity, ineptitude and hair.
And Leary, as writer/director and lead, finds new ways to humiliate his character while revealing a humanity and simplicity of values that just wins us over, every time. A dysfunctional band becomes a dysfunctional family. And there are just some things that will always be bullshit: celebrity, closure, rehab, and sharing feelings.
Johnny Rock is somebody who can’t get out of his own way, but Denis Leary is happy to show him and us just exactly how.
I recently interviewed Leary for a second time about the new show:
Nancy Doyle Palmer: How different is Johnny Rock from Tommy Gavin of Rescue Me?
Denis Leary: Oh God! Just by virtue of their occupations — one guy consumed by guilt and the deaths of his cousin and his brothers in the fire department at 9-11, essentially that guy was doing something very heroic for a living — and Johnny is not doing anything remotely heroic in the course of this series.
NDP: What about similarities — like maybe addiction issues?
DL: Well in Johnny’s world that’s supposed to be a badge of honor — and I suppose in Tommy Gavin’s world part of being a man is being able to hold your liquor and live on the edge and that kind of applies to rock ‘n roll but that doesn’t work anymore. Everyone in the Rolling Stones is pretty much clean and sober except for Keith now. When you look at rock ‘n roll it’s a world full of survivors and people who have sobered up. But Johnny is just not behind that 8 ball yet.
Personally speaking the only substance I can use when working with people is coffee but rock and roll still has that edge. Johnny lists a whole bunch of people who wrote their best stuff when they were high. That’s a really empty argument and something he’s going to have to come to terms with because his daughter doesn’t drink or smoke.
NDP: How does that change things up?
DL: I loved a band called The Replacements when I was young — Johnny names them as an influence in the show — and I use them because that was the same time period as when the Heathens supposedly were together. I saw the Replacements once at a show that was three hours long. It was fantastic. And the next time I saw them they played three songs and then got into a fist fight and the show was over. Now I was young and thought it was really cool — but you know what? Now if I pay $ 175 to come and see you, you better play — you better start on time and play a couple of hours at least.
Johnny is a dinosaur. Look at this daughter, who is an exceptionally talented person — she’s all over that phone and texting and tweeting to the world so that they know she exists — it’s across the media spectrum now. If you want to be famous and you have talent, you better be ready when the phone rings. There are NOT a lot of second chances.
NDP: Fame is a big issue in this show. Talk about your take on it.
DL: To my kids, Paul Newman, one of the most famous actors of all time — my kids thought he was a chef. All they knew about Paul Newman was he was that salad dressing and spaghetti sauce guy. His face was on all these products in our kitchen.
And when I say Steve McQueen to them, they think I’m talking about the director of 12 Years a Slave.
The only thing that really carries through — and I think about my time on the planet earth — is MUSIC, that’s the one thing that carries on. My kids have no idea who John Wayne is but without me prodding them they became aware of Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and Louis Armstrong, and that’s because there are these three or four minute bursts of music that are still carried through on the radio or movie soundtracks, and those songs have the same emotional impact then and now.
I found out about Sinatra from my dad, who was a part-time musician but when he came to America he had to feed his family by being an auto mechanic. But my dad loved music and he would play Sinatra, Dean Martin, The Beatles — that’s how I found out about it and then my kids found out about it on their own. They’ll say, “have you ever heard this song?” And I’m like “yeah.”
NDP: What about the perils of celebrity?
DL: As I was writing this series and trying to raise my children right while they were surrounded by famous people and some of the worst and best aspects of celebrity — most of my good friends who are famous. They have kids too, so most of our experience with them was of family life, and they did know that these people were on television or in the movies but if there is any legacy to fame — you know — one or two great movies or television shows that might last but the real legacy is your kids because when they walk around the earth, if they’re good people then you can kind of take a little breath, and go phew, they turned out ok. Anything else is just bullshit.
NDP: So there is a moral center to this show to that I think you just articulated, which is this sense of legacy and family versus the trappings of fame. This series is not just sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, right?
DL: In the end Johnny’s drugs are Crestor, Cialis and all the drugs you need to keep your body moving forward as you get older. And the sex is really about his daughter. She is what that produced and she’s in his hands now. So how is he going to mold her, and the rock ‘n’ roll is where they live and how they make a living.
I’m fascinated by the relationship between the Johnny and Gigi. On the surface she’s so wise and so much older than him in how she thinks in some ways and he’s kind of adolescent to how he approaches what he does but at the same time she needs to know what he already has in his head which is his net worth. There’s a reason he didn’t make it which is he was afraid of success, and to me that’s really fascinating
NDP: In both this show and Rescue Me you portray men who have strong relationships with women who are unafraid to point out their flaws.
DL: In this show it’s clearly apparent, both comically and dramatically — these four guys in the band, especially Johnny and Flash, think they run the show but have no power whatsoever. The band is really run by Johnny’s girlfriend Ava and Gigi. Gigi is the most talented and the reason they are back together and Ava is the person who has always been there to punch Johnny in the shoulder and say ‘hey, you’re doing the wrong thing, moron’. Without those two women this group doesn’t exist and in spite of their stupidity Johnny and Flash have woken up to that fact.
NDP: Talk about the choices in your own career not to live in the spotlight of celebrity.
DL: There are people who I have met who I really admire: Dustin Hoffman, Robert Di Niro, Michael J. Fox. And I saw it with the Stones too — they are always surrounded by family and it’s always about the work and it’s never about the ego. I’d see the Stones rehearsing and then there would be a break and it was all these kids, who were teenagers, or 8 and 10 years old and some are even grandkids.
And truthfully, my favorite thing to do is what I’m doing right now, which is I’m sitting in my yard in Connecticut in sweatpants and no shirt on and I don’t know what I look like because I haven’t looked in the mirror today. And the reason I avoid the spotlight is that I think people would actually freak out if they saw how I walk around most of the time.
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