Michael Des Barres is one of the most charismatic and fascinating people I’ve ever met, so when I heard a documentary was coming out about his life I was extremely interested in watching it. The film, entitled Michael Des Barres: Who Do You Want Me To Be?, has already appeared at the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival and the Macon Film Festival, where it was universally praised.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with one of my favorite musicians and actors, Michael Des Barres. Many of you may know him for his role as the sinister Murdoc on the TV show MacGyver. Others may know him from his tenure as lead singer of Silverhead, Detective and The Power Station. While music is Des Barres’ main priority, he still makes time for acting, including his recent role in the wonderful film California Solo.
Below is part one of the interview. Stay tuned for parts two and three. And at the end of each part I’m including live clips from Michael Des Barres’ concert in New York City on March 7, 2013 at the Bowery Electric. I was in attendance, and it was an awesome show. Enjoy!
Hello, Michael. You recently announced your new radio show, Roots and Branches. How did this come about?
I had a relationship with David Lynch because I had done Mulholland Drive with him when it was a TV show. And what happened was he cast me to play the bad guy in the pilot for a TV show for ABC but ABC passed on it because it was incomprehensibly Lynchian, ya know? (laughs) So, a couple years go by and he invites me to the premiere and I realize I’ve been absolutely cut out of it and replaced by these two chicks fucking. And I thought, oh man, this is very exciting, but where the hell’s my footage? (laughs) So, we’ve had a relationship for a while.
But he’s got this amazing TM (transcendental meditation) movement going, and he just created this network, Transcend Radio, and he’s contacted people and asked them to produce some content for that and it ended up my door. And I came up with a show called Roots and Branches, which is essentially about influences, where lots of musicians got their influences and passed it on to the next generation, and the next generation. I deal mainly in American blues music and also the edginess of Manhattan rock and roll, heroin rock and roll, I call it – the psychosis of rock and roll. So I do various genres. I play a song and then I play a song that was obviously influenced by that song or artist, hence the title Roots and Branches, because it’s very important for me. And I do it in the vein of Stevie Van Zandt, who flies the flag of the lineage of rock and roll, the history of rock and roll, soul, pop, and rockabilly, and all of the wonderful music that is, in a sense, threatened by extinction today because of the advent of technology.
If you can see relationships between artists, you can go deep into it and that’s what I want to create: A sort of atmosphere of research, ya know? You start at Zeppelin, then you back to the blues and where that came from. You listen to Jack White and then who influenced him, and equally groundbreaking musicians that inspired them. And it becomes this enormous organism, and hopefully an enormous orgasm (laughs).
I recently read Rod Stewart’s autobiography, and in it he talks about how his music as well as other artists’ music, including The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, was influenced by the blues. What was it like during this time period?
I was in the clubs at the time you’re describing with Mitch Mitchell saying to me, “Why don’t you come see me play with this black bloke?” And I did, and it was Jimi Hendrix. I was there in London at the birth of the skinny rock and roll dudes being inspired by the blues. It was a phenomenal hybrid, which I’ll explore deeply in my show. It’s why working working class English boys and girls would turn to the oppressed black slave music that came out of oppression – out of Chicago and the Delta. Why would that be? I think it’s because it’s almost the same today: You get out of the ghetto by being a rapper or a sports figure. It’s the same man, you know?
Yeah, Jeff Beck was heavy. But there were a lot of people that were plugging in and turning up because rock and roll was blues real loud, essentially. And if Chuck Berry hadn’t existed, there wouldn’t be a Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. I mean imagine a world without Chuck Berry in it. What a horrible thought. (laughs). But they were smart enough to marry that with the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and the style of Oscar Wilde. It was this pop-hybrid of Muddy Waters, Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron with a slide guitar. It was this incredible cocktail of stuff.
Your modern music seems to harken back to that classic three-chord rock and roll.
Yes, because what happens is, as an artist in the beginning it’s all about passion. Then you learn how to do it and you learn the chords that are complicated, and to keep yourself interested you start experimenting. And you lose sight of why you did it in the first place. Rock and roll is a synonym for having sex. It’s not a synonym for meditation. So you’ve gotta roll with it. And, for me, I went on all sorts of tangents because I was thinking too much. But when I got back to it three years ago, when I was in Texas recovering from an accident, I broke a lot of bones, I had time to reflect on what I really wanted to do, so I started to write. I couldn’t write with my right arm because it was smashed, so I wrote with my left hand these social media updates and people started to respond. So I took those ideas and put them to simple chords, blues-based music and I wrote “My Baby Saved My Ass,” (laughs) which sounds funny and cute but it’s true. It’s a redemptive song about the redemption of love transcending a drug addict’s downward spiral.
Stephen King once stated that, “The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.” Like King, you’ve overcome drugs and alcohol. Do you agree that these substances don’t enhance an artist’s creative work?
He and I are the only ones that have said that. I mean, I’ve been saying that for 30 years. The myth of the self-destructive genius is bullshit. And I can give you one and only one example: Jim Morrison did not write the “Great American Novel” … and he could have. And it’s as simple as that. Genius is divine; it’s a talent you’re given by the universe. It’s like being born beautiful and you fuck yourself up.
I always think of Chet Baker and his beautiful face and how ravaged it was at the end of his life when he fell out of a hotel room window and smashed his skull because of heroin. So, I’m with Stephen King. It is a myth, and I’m 100% more creative with clarity than I am in a fog. I might think I’m a genius, but I’m not.
What made you stop using drugs?
I looked in the mirror and I looked like a monster. And I’m way too narcissistic and vain to look like that. I can honestly say vanity got me through it (laughs). I felt like a fool, and there’s nothing worse for me than feeling foolish. And being a slave to something? Good lord! I can’t be owned by a bag of white powder…unless it’s foundation. It’s absurd; it’s childlike. Unfortunately many of our greatest artists capitulated to it and died, and that’s a shame.
To answer your question, I’m not being glib when I say I looked in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw. It was absolute vanity. But once I got into that spiritual groove, I woke up from the trance of drugs. And I wrote “Obsession” within the first few weeks of being sober. Everybody around me was saying “I’m obsessed with this” and “I’m obsessed with that.” Is it an obsession? Yes. So I thought, OK, and I wrote that song, which was a worldwide hit because people could relate to the thing.