a lesson in fame from the rock stars who never quite made it
In his new book, Lost Rockers, writer and filmmaker, Steven Blush, explores the politics of fame as he resurrects those who fell through the cracks of rock history.
Cherry Vanilla avec The Police, The Speakeasy, Londres, 1977. Sting en lunettes noires. Tiré de Lick Me: How I Became Cherry Vanilla. Photo de Ray Stevenson. Remerciements à Ray Stevens
The Clash, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones… all legends who will stand the test of time, forever etched into the fabric of rock god history. But what about the musicians who fell through the cracks, those who were on the cusp of stardom but never quite made it? In his new book, Lost Rockers, writer Steven Blush explores exactly this. Having dedicated his life to chronicling the lives of some of the greatest musicians in the world, Steven has now turned his attention to commemorating those for whom the stars never quite aligned, and in doing so deconstructs the very meaning of fame. Here Steven talks success, failure, and what it takes to make it in the music industry.
How did you get involved in music?
I got into this game young. As a teenager on an exchange programme in London I saw the Clash and Generation X at Victoria Park, and never looked back. My father worked in New York's Lower East Side around the corner from CBGB so after that I got into everything punk and new wave. At college in DC, I fell in with that city's new hardcore punk scene of Bad Brains and Minor Threat and Henry Rollins, and as a show promoter and radio DJ, I had much to do with that scene's rise. Then after that, my years back in New York, working both in the publishing business as a journalist, editor, and publisher, and in clubland as a DJ, promoter and club manager gave me a unique insight and behind-the-scenes perspective. Most people today may know me for the American Hardcore book and film, and other books like American Hair Metal and .45 Dangerous Minds.
Would you describe yourself as an observer? Or do you write from the perspective of being fully immersed within the world you describe?
I am definitely an observer and a bit of voyeur in that I never partook too much in the licentiousness that dragged others down. But due to my level of involvement I was deeply immersed, and many of the people I write about, famous and forgotten, are or were part of my world. I've learned some cold hard truths first-hand.
Where does this interest in failed musicians come from or rather this notion of being on the cusp of fame?
As a former DJ with over 10,000 records, most of my collection is great music by musicians you've never heard of. In the research for my other books, the most interesting stories were of these people who were peers of the Beatles, Stones, Warhol, Bowie, Bolan and whatnot, who went on to do all these other interesting things, yet nobody knew about them. Bobby Jameson worked with the Stones and Zappa, and no expert on the Stones or Zappa ever heard of him - what's up with that? Why does no punk history book mention Chris Robison in the New York Dolls? So that kind of thinking led to this book and the upcoming film.
What is it you are trying to convey?
The book's subtitle is Broken Dreams and Crashed Careers. Everyone has had that artistic dream, be it wanting to be a singer, dancer, poet, photographer or architect. But life doesn't always work out as planned. Lost Rockers goes into that fine line between stardom and oblivion, and how a lack of success can shape and scar one's life. The book's also dedicated to the art of diggin' in the crates for vinyl and the rediscovery of lost music online.
What unites the lost musicians?
Interestingly, few of these Lost Rockers knew each other. They all had similar career arcs and many of them worked for the same labels and managers and club promoters and appeared in the same magazines and TV shows. They became undone by kaleidoscopic combinations of missed opportunities, poor business decisions, lack of focus, intoxication rituals, dysfunctional personalities, and/or being too far ahead of their time. Yet most of them, despite eventual anonymity and frustration, never gave up on playing music.
What does fame mean to you?
Fame means very little to me, as it's an artificial construct. I understand that because I serviced the music industry long enough to help make a few artists famous. But we live in a world where seemingly everyone wants to be famous as some sort of instant validation and cure-all. However, the entertainment industry is a grotesquely conservative business disguised as a nonstop party. This book delves into the spiritual cost of not achieving your artistic goals.
What does it take to be successful in this industry?
My publishers nailed it perfectly on the book's back cover: "To become a star you need talent, charisma, dedication, intelligence, energy, intensity and a helluva lot of luck." I'd also add that success requires an almost pathological dedication to "making it." The people I've known or met who've achieved fame are totally committed to that one goal, which means they're relatively sober, and never get tripped up on social politics or "artistic integrity." Before this project, I only respected artists with no-sellout attitude, but now I realise that many of those who hide behind "ethics" are too scared to be pop stars.
Is fame more attainable these days?
Success will always be possible with talent and preparedness, and being ready for when that moment arrives. So I doubt that will ever changes. Perhaps the real question is how today's instant technology will affect the musical craft, which often takes a lifetime to create, and how such music can be memorable with everything moving so fast? Not sure anyone knows that answer…
Text Tish Weinstock
Images from Lost Rockers by Steven Blush, published by powerHouse Books