Inside The Mind Of Michael Des Barres
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Des Barres three times. He’s also the first celebrity I interacted with through my blog, way back in 2012. Since then, I’ve seen him perform live in New York City and continue to enjoy his countless artistic endeavors, which are always inspired. Michael has a new documentary, and it’s a rip-roaring success! Make sure to watch it, and check out the following interview I conducted with him, where we cover a wide range of topics.
Congratulations on the release of your documentary! It’s been a long time coming. I remember when it was showing at festivals back in 2015. I imagine you’ve been blown away by the overwhelmingly positive feedback you’ve received from critics and fans alike.
It took a long time to make. I never watched it when Josh Weinstein put it together. It took so long, and it took so long to get the licensing and all of that. There was Clint Eastwood and Johnny Depp, music rights, all that stuff. Then Steven Van Zandt happened! (laughs) And that wasn’t in the movie. I got that Little Steven’s Underground Garage gig, which I’ve had for almost seven years. I sent the movie to Steven and he said, “Where the fuck am I?” (laughs) I hadn’t been hired to do that when we originally filmed my documentary. So, we created a new edit of the film where Steven talks at the end, and it’s my favorite part of the documentary. It’s now inclusive of my boss, and that’s why we waited so long to release it, spiritually. It’s so much more impactful with that ending. Not that there’s an ending to my life. I refuse to end it. It’s just a great button as to where I went next.
That makes sense. You want the documentary to be an accurate representation of your life. And speaking of Steven, how has that experience been for you — being the host of Little Steven’s Underground Garage on Sirius XM Radio? You’ve had the opportunity to interview musicians and play music for people. What has it been like having that direct connection with listeners and sharing with them your love for music?
It’s very logical that the powers that be allowed me to do that. To share music with people and talk about its influences is an amazing feeling. It’s been an enormously huge change in my life. I’m talking to five million listeners a day but it feels like one person, as if we’re sharing records together. It’s like when vinyl existed. You crack the cellophane and read the liner notes. We are the liner notes. We are the cellophane. We are the vinyl. We are in that groove for people to enjoy the music in a full and thorough context. If I tell you that Mick Jagger was wearing pink leather trousers when he recorded “Jumping Jack Flash,” it may sound facile but it isn’t because it gives you an idea of the era of the times, and therefore you can feel the history and the magic of the songs — if you’re aware of the name of the guy that swept the studio. Details mean a lot to people because it’s so repetitious. You hear the same songs but not really. They’re mantras, and I’m beyond excited to do it every day.
In 2017 Gene Simmons released his Vault box set, and it includes a song called “Mongoloid Man” where you provide backing vocals and Joe Perry from Aerosmith is on guitar. What was that experience like?
I love Gene. Joe is very different. He’s distant. But I love Gene. We opened for KISS many times in my various bands. He was good to me. Gene liked Silverhead. He loves that Steve Marriott stuff, as does Paul. So, I went in the studio and I sang for Gene. All I do is scream, which is my favorite thing to do anyway (laughs). I’m not there to harmonize with anyone. I’m just there to enjoy it, with no words. Percussive ad libs, which I think is a great trait to have as a singer. If you think of the great rock and roll singers, like Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart, it’s the ad libs in and around the melody that you get off on. That comes from the blues, which is Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and Sam Cooke. It’s elaborating on a gospel level. It’s about adding sound, and that’s what I did for Gene. I added sound to Gene’s work. I love Gene. He’s great and an amazing person. He lives his life his way. I don’t agree with a lot of it, but that doesn’t matter. I’d defend him whenever his name comes up, if it’s a negative vibe. Joe, I don’t know at all. I know he got sober, and I think we met a couple times and talked at AA meetings. Hopefully I’m not busting his anonymity. However, I wouldn’t say we had any kind of a relationship.
I agree with your thoughts on ad libs. In music, those are my favorite parts — when a singer starts vocally riffing in between words. It heightens the emotional nature of the song, and one of the best singers to do this was Joe Cocker. He’d add in screams throughout a song that no one could have pulled off but him.
He’s the classic example, and he got that from Ray Charles. He studied the greats and wanted to reproduce it in his own way, as we all do. Some do it better than others. He was the best. “With a Little Help from My Friends” is clearly the best Beatles cover song. Whenever I’m asked that question, I always answer with that song by Joe Cocker.
It takes great skill to cover a song in a way where you’re putting your own stamp on it. I imagine it’s challenging to cover a song where it’s unique enough that people want to listen to it over and over again, rather than simply producing a recreation of the original song note for note.
Exactly! Songs mean something different today than they did yesterday. You can’t do it note for note. It’s all about interpretation. If you can do Hamlet for hundreds of years (laughs), surely you can do it with a rock and roll song. I covered “Stop! In the Name of Love” because I believe it. We should stop in the name of love.
I love your version of that song. It’s wonderful. Speaking of covers, you recently released an EP featuring your interpretation of “Anarchy in the UK,” as well as a wonderful song you wrote called “Where Did All the Lovers Go?”
I wrote “Where Did All the Lovers Go?” with someone who is quite brilliant, and I wanted it to be a ’60s duet. So, who better to sing it with than Genya Ravan, who was the lead vocalist for Goldie and the Gingerbreads — the first all-female rock band signed to a major record label. I got a hold of her. She’s a DJ, and we did it technologically. She’s in New York, I’m in LA, and it worked. It just worked. The band and the back up singers performed beautifully. I was going for that Phil Spector-ish feel with the sound of the song. Stevie Van Zandt loved it and Wicked Cool Records — that’s his label — got on board. He said to me, “We need a B-side. What should we do?” I said, “I’m thinking of doing a punk classic as a ballad.” And we both said, “Anarchy in the UK!” at the same time. (laughs) It was phenomenal. That’s what we did. He produced it. It’s an orchestra. It’s a warning. It’s not angry, like Johnny was super angry. You remember, Steve Jones, who is one of my best friends. I ran it by him. He said, “OK, Michael. Do that.” And people just went crazy for it. It’s the highest selling record I’ve ever had.
They’re both great songs. Very melodic with terrific hooks that make me want to listen to them again and again.
Melody has not always been first on my list. It is now because I’ve learned so much from Van Zandt — melody is everything. In the past, in my other bands, it was just sheer energy. Not as tight as this.
Speaking of Steven Van Zandt, two questions. First, how did the radio host gig come about. And, two, how has it affected your relationship with him?
We’re very close. He’s my mentor and many other things. He’s a great teacher. This is a guy who runs two websites — TeachRock.org, which helps teachers engage students through music — and LittleKidsRock.org, which brings instruments into schools. This goes way beyond making a great record. The guy lives a very spiritual life. And he earns my absolute respect. So, it’s changed many things. It’s a relationship I’ve never had with another man. I’ve never felt that way before. I did not have a father, as you may or may not know. I did not have a mother. None of those things. So, when it comes to being a parental and spiritual advisor — all of those kind of gurus — he embodies those things.
As for how I got the gig, Andrew Loog Oldham, who produced the Rolling Stones and is an icon, he worked as a DJ in New York for Sirius XM radio and he just had enough of doing it. I was doing an internet interview show and I was interviewing Marianne Williamson — fascinating woman — and Maureen Van Zandt, Steven’s wife, heard or saw this interview. And when Andrew made his decision to leave Maureen said to Steven, “Get him!” Then MDB started talking into a microphone (laughs) and never stopped.
To coincide with the release of your new documentary, you also have a new live single: “Get It On (Bang a Gong).”
It’s the 35th anniversary of Live Aid, which I was privileged to be a part of and sing “Get It On” there live 35 years ago. And I have this group called The Mistakes that I play around with and we recorded our second gig, which was an incredible concert. And I said, “Why don’t we release ‘Get It On’ around the same time of the documentary? Should we do that?” And everybody said, “Yeah, Michael!” (laughs) It sounds great, the guitars are powerful. It’s such a great rock and roll song. It’s more rock and roll than when The Power Station did it. Robert is wonderful but I’m a rock and roll singer.
The name of your group is The Mistakes. How did you come up with that?
Because mistakes are the biggest lessons you’re going to get. Rock and roll is a mistake. I want to see mistakes because that’s where the miraculousness is. What you think is wrong is right because it’s authentic. It’s real. Mistakes are integral. I learn from my mistakes. Nothing is too hard to take, if you learn from your mistakes.
Absolutely! Nothing in life is perfect.
No, it isn’t. And what is that? Perfect is a personal choice. What one man thinks or what one woman thinks or what one sex thinks is perfect, somebody else doesn’t. So, define perfect. (laughs) I just thought it was fun and unpretentious and that, metaphysically, it’s true.
In the documentary you talk about your wild nights of playing Trivial Pursuit with a motley crew of celebrities. What was that like?
It was amazing! We moved into Don Johnson’s house when he got Miami Vice because he, obviously, had to be in Miami. Somehow, Eddie Begley came over and we played. Then the next night Anthony Perkins and Bob Dylan came over to play. (laughs) It just grew. It was one of those things where people came over on Friday nights to Michael and Pamela’s house to play this game. I swear to you, Michael. Some of those nights were levitating, with the astounding people that would come over. Warren Beatty, Ozzy Osbourne, you name it. It was incredible. Half the questions were sitting on the couch. It was just incredible. Literally, they would come up in the games. It was an indescribable year or year-and-a-half of Friday nights. Once the word got out, we had to have somebody at the door to keep people out. The house was too small.
You mentioned Anthony Perkins. He was an incredibly underrated actor. He had a wonderful vulnerability about him.
He was gorgeous and superb. So delicate and so powerful. You put those two things together and you have a movie star.Speaking of acting, over the past few years you had the opportunity to be a special guest on the new version of MacGyver. What was that experience like for you?
Extremely financially rewarding, and that’s about it. I love David Dastmalchian, and I think he’s a tremendous actor.
Speaking of actors who are similar to you when it comes to the way they speak or the gravitas they bring to a performance, what are your thoughts on James Spader?
I always found him intriguing. He has a secret. You have to have a secret that people are always trying to find out. I think you shouldn’t give everything away at once by overdoing it.
Since we last spoke, you had the opportunity to reconnect with Richard Dean Anderson at a convention. What was that like?
Well, I never really knew him. I like to stay in character. I know that sounds corny, but it helps me be real out there. The character was so camp that I had to stay in that mindset of wanting to kill this guy. So, it’s hard to have a cup of coffee together and talk sports. And I would spend time in the trailer in that mood. So, we never really knew each other that well. He’s a sporty guy, and I wouldn’t know what to do with an ice hockey puck. So, I bumped into him at the convention and it was very nice for the fans. We had a conversation in front of 20,000 people that night at $10 bucks a pop, so you work it out. And that was pretty interesting. He’s a very simple guy. He hates the reboot, and I don’t. (laughs) I don’t see it as that important.Just because one thing exists doesn’t mean the other thing doesn’t.
Exactly, Michael! Well put. I wanted to turn my garage into a studio so I did in three days. God bless everybody. I’m not that precious. It was fun working with the guy whose name is Murdoc. When the reboot aired and people were saying “You suck!” and “This guy’s awful! Michael Des Barres is the real Murdoc!,” I said “No, he’s great.” Well, within three hours everybody on social media changed their tune. And CBS was watching that and the next morning my agent got a call from CBS asking, “Would MDB like to be on the show?” So, being kind allowed me to make a lot of m-o-n-e-y, and all I was doing was giving him good vibes. If you send that positive vibe out, you will get it back.
I always thought you’d be great as a Bond villain. Are there any roles you tried out for that you didn’t get that you regret?
No, I don’t think about that. I either get it or I don’t. If I do, great. If not, I do something else.
Right, so you’d rather focus on what’s in front of you rather than what’s behind you?
Exactly! I think about what’s happening, and everything has fallen in place the way that it should. And was I a Bond villain? No. A Bond villain is a huge star. I’m not a huge star. I’m not that bankable. Could I have done a great job? You bet! But those opportunities for me arose in rock and roll and different places. Writing a song. The highs that I’ve had in my life are my own. You know what I mean? Being a Bond villain is like being on the cover of People magazine. Who cares? If I’m working and I’m happy doing that — whether it’s writing a song with Steve Jones, which Bond villains don’t get the chance to do — then I’m ahead of the fucking game.Speaking of being happy, within the past few years you got married.
Yes, and it’s the best thing I ever did. She’s just a spectacular person. We have this fabulous house. She teaches pilates from our home. We have a lovely life and two cats, man.
We have two cats as well.
Cats are my favorite. I adore them.
It’s nice during these challenging times to have the companionship of our pets.
Absolutely right. I have my wife, and I have my cats. That’s more than enough. And I do my show from my studio at home. I don’t have to go anywhere to do these shows. I haven’t from the beginning. I’ve always broadcast these shows from the house.Interesting. So, even before the pandemic you were broadcasting your shows from your home studio?
Oh yeah, since its inception. I do it through GarageBand. I get up and I just do it. That’s why I think I’m so relaxed. I live in Pasadena, which is a ways away from Hollywood, especially when there’s traffic on the streets. I had to shlep into meetings in Hollywood. Now, I don’t have to do that. I just fall out of bed and stand in front of this microphone.
As we’re doing this interview, you had a script delivered to your house. Are there any exciting projects on the horizon?
Absolutely! All the time. I’m writing a musical with my friend that I think is going to blow people’s minds on a Trumpian level. I’m constantly writing songs for myself and others. And I’m working on a book of poetry, which I can’t wait to be published. I’ll self publish it when the time is right.
Your poetry is featured in your documentary. And I remember when you’d send love letters to fans through your email list. You have a wonderful way with words that is unlike anyone I know.
That’s the art of talking and communicating with one another. My world is more Lord Byron than Dick Cheney.
Have you been reading a lot during this pandemic?
Yes, but I also write a lot. Right now, I’m reading Tropic of Cancer again. It was written by Henry Miller in the 1930s, as you know. And he was the first rock star. Certainly, the first beatnik. Reading Henry Miller is like reading a rock and roll poem. (laughs) This guy was so ahead of it all. The carnality of his writing is unbelievably explicit, and he was this existentialist. It’s right up my alley. It’s inspiring, and it inspires me to do other things in my work as a poet. I’m also interested in Lord Byron’s life, and I try to put myself in those boots.
You have a son, Nick, who appears in the documentary. I imagine you’re very proud of him.
Very much so. He’s an intellectual and 40 years old. I can’t even put into words what I feel about him. I respect him. I love him. He’s a brilliant artist. He works in the video game industry and has done everything. Nick learned Japanese by himself at the age of nine because he was so obsessed with anime. Now he speaks and writes it fluently.
I can totally see in his face how he resembles you and Pamela.
It’s crazy, isn’t it? It’s so beautiful.
Paul Stanley of KISS has talked about how being a father is his greatest achievement, and how it surpasses anything he’s accomplished as an individual.
Bullshit! (laughs) Believe me, Paul Stanley wants to be Paul Stanley. He’s a fantastic bloke. I’m sure that’s true but he wouldn’t be in the middle of that stage if he didn’t want to be. He’s also a fabulous singer. Paul is a great soul singer. It’s very nice for him to feel that way about his children. I think we all feel that way, but we’ve got jobs to do as well. You can’t deindividulize yourself to be a great Dad. You have to do both.
Paul’s got a great side project going called Soul Station, where he sings Motown music and Paul is really terrific at it!
Of course he is. KISS was a creation. We all have a love for Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, but that wouldn’t have put him in the biggest arenas in the world, would it? “Lick It Up” is not a Sam Cooke song.