Remember when a rock band’s fame was measured in record sales and radio plays instead of Twitter followers and trending hashtags? Someone might as well stick us in a museum with a pole up our butts because we, like Johnny Rock, are fossils.
Comedian and former Rescue Me star Denis Leary returns to FX in the new comedy Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll as Johnny Rock, the drugged-out, aging frontman of early ’90s flash-in-the-pan punk band The Heathens. For nearly 25 years, he’s been living all of the rock star lifestyle with none of the fame or fortune.
John Corbett costars as Flash, The Heathens’ former guitarist who’s now enjoying anonymous success playing in Lady Gaga’s backing band. “We had a band that broke up the same day our record came out in the early ’90s and we all went our separate ways,” Corbett explains. “And Denis’ character, Johnny Rock, hasn’t changed his ways in 20-plus years. He’s just down and out in New York trying to scrape a buck together to get a shot of booze. And this young girl comes up and says, ‘You’re my daddy. I’ve got lots of money and I’m a great singer, and I want you to get the band back together again and write some songs for me.’”
Enter sexy scene-stealing siren Elizabeth Gillies as Johnny’s daughter, Gigi. “I didn’t know him growing up, so I’m on the hunt for my father because I want my father figure back, but also because I want him to make me famous,” Gillies says. “The band reluctantly re-forms, and I surprise them a little bit.” Jaws drop when Gigi grabs the mic for the first time in front of Johnny’s band. Yes, the actors all play their instruments and that really is Gillies performing the vocals.
“She can sing anything,” Leary says. “Man, I’m the luckiest guy in television right now to have this girl working for me.” He recalls how Gillies nailed a song in her character’s breakout live performance. “It’s flawless,” he says. “I wish I had her wisdom and ability when I was 21 years old.”
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll plays the generational differences for laughs, but more effectively mocks what it means to be famous in the 21st century.
“I’ve been famous for 25 years now,” Leary says. “It’s never been as blanket a case in society, especially in America, where everybody wants to be famous and you can become famous simply for social media or selling yourself that way. It’s fair game. Johnny doesn’t understand that, but that’s the way the world works.
“My kids didn’t know who Paul Newman was. They thought he was a chef,” Leary continues. “Fame is so fleeting for almost all of us. But the one weird thing is music. Great music carries through — great classical music, great jazz, great rock ’n’ roll songs — those are the things in fame that last forever. I don’t think Johnny’s going to make that boat. Gigi will, and I think that’s the closest he’ll get to it.”
It’s About The Music, Man!
Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll has a lot of good tunes, and a few songs that are bad on purpose, like these:
“An Gorta Mor” The Heathens’ bass player, Rehab (John Ales), recorded this overwrought 29-song cycle about the Irish Potato Famine. Chris Phillips, Denis Leary’s longtime collaborator, composed and recorded some of the songs to appear in the show. Upon hearing them, Leary told Phillips, “Dude, this is fantastic! It sounds like Rehab spent all of his money in the studio. This is fantastic! This is so incredibly expensive and bad!”
“Sinner’s Gold” Johnny tries to write a song while sober, and he comes up with the introspective, adult-contemporary “Sinner’s Gold.” Leary recalls, “Liz [Gillies] came into the studio and we played it for her, and we didn’t tell her that it was a joke song. And when I got done playing, I just looked at her and she went, ‘Ummm …’ And she didn’t know what to say. And I said, ‘It’s supposed to be bad.’ And she went, ‘Oh my God! Thank God. It’s horrible.’ But if Sting sang that song, he’d get laid.”
“Radiohead Meets Morrissey” “First of all, I’m a huge fan of Radiohead and Morrissey, but we all know that every great group or artist has their moments of pretention in rock ‘n’ roll,” Leary says. “I needed Johnny to prove that without chemical assistance he could probably end up being pretentious.” Leary went to Phillips with the idea of creating a song that would sound like it was co-written by Morrissey and Radiohead and would make Johnny’s daughter laugh. The result is one of the most Emo songs imaginable as Johnny sits down at the piano and longingly sings, “Don’t eat meat, I’m all alone, crying in the dark, standing in the park, asking a fatty for a cigarette.”
Photos: Credit: Patrick Harbron/FX