Hope You Die Before I Get Old

published in Like No. 5, Melbourne, 1998
Alice Cooper with Vincent Price; Lou Reed

In the early 70s, an over-therapied Alice Cooper picked up on David Bowie's chi-chi schizophrenia by talking in the 3rd person. Bowie did so to be artsy in a Burroughs kind of way. Alice Cooper did it as a form of carney promotion. As Vincent Furnier, he would refer to the 'outrageous' antics of Alice, like he was an outre Ms. Hyde. Alice Cooper was never really radical but he was and remains a popular icon of radicalism across the Burger King heartland of middle America and the Hungry Jack parkland of suburban Australia. One of the great charms of Pop music (far more so than popular culture) is its ability to ridicule radicalism. But to appreciate that, your being must be cleansed of every 60s counter-culture bug which so many people still cling to like a viral panacea. Forty year old plumbers play SCHOOL'S OUT in their vans on their way to unblock someone's toilet in Greensborough. With rocky mortgages, hardened arteries and hairy knuckles, they know exactly the snake oil salesman pitch of Alice Cooper and his Hanna Barbera shock tactics. While many a morbid soul weeps deep down for Bob Dylan as a voice of 'their' generation', there are many for whom Pop music was and will remain a complete and honest sell-out which let's you be at ease with how fucked up your life will probably be as you get on with making a buck.

While Alice bit off chicken heads and guillotined himself on stage, his real life was more compelling in its lumpen rock star banality. Cooper was severely alcoholic, did chemical time in sanatoriums, and basically ran the whole Hollywood Babylon gamut short of committing suicide. He still produced some great pop music post-breakdown (FROM THE INSIDE saw him as the Oprah of Rock & Roll well before tabloid TV had been defined) and in typically self-destructive mockery, made much reference to how fucked up he had become. Like all great Pop stars, he had an innately cynical and ferociously pragmatic attitude towards the recording industry and stardom. His last hit album TRASH is everything that people deny about the Rolling Stones: anaemic yet flabby; dark yet pasty; wired yet tired. The heads of L.J.Hooker could rock as convincingly as The Stones circa VOODOO LOUNGE. Perhaps somewhere deep down in the single saliva bubble at the edge of Charlie Watt's curled lip, there is honesty in the exploitative showmanship of The Rolling Stones' 'Voodoo Lounge' pyjamas which sold well on the tour to all the sexy dads in the audience. Alice Cooper's TRASH is a beautiful, glossy statement about how not to grow old with style. The album and its Hollywood Rock image machinations are embarrassingly old hat and gorgeously affected. There is a Rock & Roll Heaven - and in it, no one is dead. They're on tour in your town. They're doing plastic surgery and MTV. They're dating super models and selling stuff on late night TV. They're being prosecuted for child molestation and kiddie porn.

All Pop stars fuck up. And they eventually do so because you don't give a fuck about them. You don't care about them as people - as fellow humans who strive, overcome obstacles, have dreams, pay bills, use hair shampoo. If you cry watching THREE COLOURS but ridicule cheap social-issue telemovies starring Patty Duke, Kate Smith or Jane Seymour, get real. When your life fucks up it'll be every bit as banal as those telemovies. And no one will be speaking French to you. You might proclaim that artful movies must have such humanist values, but you probably don't extend them to the down slide of the Pop star. Why should you? You've never met them. It's only Pop music.

So when they commit suicide - don't cry to assuage your guilt.

Johnny Thunders; Billy McKenzie

Lou Reed many years ago made a quip about he could have done the easy thing and died. That way people would have respected him like some mythical hero. Reed chose life in all its rent-paying skin-sagging honesty. When Reed played on LETTERMAN last year, his studied and controlled performance of a Doc Pomus tribute tune was focussed, succinct and self-absorbed. Bent over his guitar and intensely attuned to the texture of his sound (he is, as he once claimed, better than Hendrix), he proved yet again that there is nothing more engaging than being an old rock'n'roller who truly doesn't give a fuck about what you think. Reed used to do this for nasty effect in the drugged-out days of Glam, but then got real passionate about it. In this respect, he has always gone against the grain of Nick Tosches' 'martyrs' hall of infamy'. In his books Tosches popularized the ideal of mythologizing old rockers who never die, but continually degrade themselves in the process. Reed - like Iggy Pop - got healthy and sharpened his brains. Which is why many a thirtysomething rock singer, guitarist or critic finds them uncool, and prefers Tosches slushes like Jerry Lee Lewis and Dean Martin. Once-glorious now-gross icons washed up on the martini lounge floors of nowhere dives, they now invite a strangely warm nihilism with which many ex-rockers identify. It's a pretty cheap romance, though. Most of our fathers are dead or are dying because they are dumb and stubborn, smoking their lungs away and eating shit while their insides rot with cancer. Their wives - our mothers - could care less for the pithy juvenile histrionics of it all. And believe me, not one of our dads is a rock star.

Many Rock and Pop stars have died. Some made me sad for inexplicable reasons. I always pictured Johnny Thunders as your basic New York New York junkie. He certainly played up to it, and I have as much time for junkies as I do for Christians and parents. The New York Dolls were OK, The Heartbreakers less so, but I still bought all their records. Yet when I read a brief piece by Johnny Thunders in SOUNDS, the simplicity and precision of what he had to say conveyed that he knew he was fucked up and could deal with it in a decidedly unromantic manner. He died a week later from an overdose. The day I heard that Billy McKenzie died upset me a lot. I always liked The Associates - their unevenness in the footlights, their gleeful slippery Gay-ness, their Byronic sonic quality. He committed suicide only a week or so after his mother died, a new album freshly mixed. In the end, Billy McKenzie was neither cool, hip nor avant garde. He was weird and Pop, but unlike Scott Walker, he didn't survive.

Nor did Andy Gibb. Brian Connolly. Sid Vicious. Karen Carpenter. Rick James. All of whom you probably made jokes about. Jokes based on the Stevie Wonder and Azaria Chamberlain templates, passed down by cardigan-wearing public servants whose monumental sense of inadequacy is just short of being traumatic enough for them to take their own lives. Laugh while you can, guys.

The Young Talent Team with Johnny Young; Michael Hutchence

I was not sad hearing about Michael Hutchence. Unlike most people who forgot that they outwardly dismissed INXS for the past decade as frothy over-foamed stadium Pop stars, but now have some hang up about having lost a great legend of Rock'n'Roll. Please. INXS never made good Pop music, let alone a decent Rock track. Despite Hutchence being groomed via COUNTDOWN as New Wave's answer to Mick Jagger (sic), INXS's music has consistently been undynamic, unperverse and uncharacteristic. (Try singing a chorus.) There are heaps of even more 'embarrassing' Australian Pop stars who - if you embrace the conundrum that Pop music grows sincerity like a fungus in its artifice - made better Pop tunes: Spectrum, The La De Das, Edith Bliss, The Models, The Swingers. Along with INXS, their buckled vinyl albums can be bought for a $1 a pop at Coburg and Maribyrnong markets every Sunday. INXS were a pseudo-internationalist band who tried to be funky (courtesy Nile Rodgers) and groovy (courtesy of whoever styled their video clips) and -like Jean Paul Young - sold well in the infamous Pop barn industries in Sweden, South America and throughout South East Asia. Not one of their songs will live on to be regarded as quintessential Pop as have those by other MTV-pouting New Romantics like Howard Jones, Eurythmics, Human League, Toni Basil or Adam & The Ants.

I don't know who came up with this Tall Poppie syndrome. Probably some literary dude who didn't sell many books. Contrary to that mythical syndrome, Australian culture is clearly insecure and gutless when it bags YOUNG TALENT TIME for decades then crowns someone like Tina Arena as a mature woman on par with Celine Dion. Though I like the idea that YOUNG TALENT TIME - "sponsored by McDonalds family restaurants" - was so popular with sexually confused middle-aged men in their drunken stupor after watching Saturday football, today I find no perverse enjoyment in even bothering to ridicule Tina Arena. But good luck to her: invest that money, honey, and beware of all levels of entertainment management. I once saw another ex-YTT member 'star' in a hard rock band at Preston Drive-in (when they used to have bands at interval - like, way cool). She waited in a station wagon until her big entrance, then entered the automatic doors wearing a white fringed leather jacket and rocked like a K-Mart Pat Benetar. The moccasined audience of thirty was more interested in getting hot dogs and jam donuts. Somewhere right now, she could be contemplating suicide. Somewhere right now, every ex-star you've ever bagged could be on the verge of a breakdown.

So when they commit suicide - spare them your false lamentations.

Keith Lamb in Hush; James Spader in Tuff Turf

As much as I never cared about INXS (and still don't), I cared even less for Hush. Man, were they a lame band, part of a uniquely tacky version of Oz Glam with bands like Skyhooks, U-Turn, Kush and The Ted Mulury Gang. Yet I really felt for Keith Lamb when he was profiled on AUSTRALIAN STORIES on Channel 2. Young, naive, immature and egotistical, he was prime meat for Pop stardom, but couldn't reach that Use-By sticker stuck between his shoulder blades. Interned, homeless, psychotically dispossessed, he's now healthy and running a handy crafts store in the bush. I still think Hush suck, and I'd never buy the stuff he sells in his store - but I'm glad he survived being spat out by an industry that is currently preparing Silverchair for a similar future. I switch channels and see Les Gock - one of the guitarists from Hush - doing an ad for American Express, going on about how in his 'industry' (which now means running a successful recording studio & doing jingles) you gotta survive.

Youth is never wasted on the young. The minute you know what youth means is the minute you grow old. And the more you talk about it, the older you grow. I just aged thirty days. Michael Hutchence - like most Pop stars whose nubile fans could be their own children - died an old death. An awkward, messy, badly directed one Kenneth Anger would find apt. And like all Pop stars, his choice of life-style trappings could have been taken from a sitcom episode - right down to him at one point professing an interest in filming J.G.Ballard's CRASH. The star of Cronenberg's CRASH was not Michael Hutchence, but James Spader. If you regard yourself as an 80s sophisticate and still wear black, you probably know him from art house crud like SEX LIES & VIDEO TAPE. I know him from teen movies like TUFF TURF and exploitation flicks like JACK'S BACK. Teen movie stars - like child TV stars and Pop stars - come up real good if they can survive. Because they know the heartless hyped-up vacuum at the centre of the entertainment industry. Because they know that they are there to be exploited. Because they know that in the end, you don't give a solitary fuck about them, their lives, their concerns or their feelings.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.