We tend to think of musicians as being cooler than us. And while that may be true, they’re also often bigger geeks than we would imagine. Did you know, for instance, that the man who was Ziggy Stardust is always down for a good chess match? Or that Lily Allen makes delightful cushions? Can you guess which hip-hop pioneer owns 5,000 souvenir mugs? Click through to read all about famous rock stars’ nerdy obsessions — and find out which international pop star plays Scrabble with Salman Rushdie.
David Bowie plays chess
We can’t quite picture him heading up a high-school chess club, but Bowie certainly has the intelligence for the game, and his love of it is well documented. Here he is playing a match with his The Hunger co-star, Catherine Deneuve.
Frank Sinatra loved crossword puzzles
If you made a list of the coolest people who ever lived, the Rat Pack’s main man would rank near the top. But he wasn’t too cool to embrace crossword puzzles. In fact, Sinatra was such a superfan that in 1989 he wrote to Eugene Maleska, then editor of The New York Times crossword, to reminisce about the teenage summer when he fell in love with the word game. “Today I would say a daily puzzle is completed in 30 to 40 minutes. The Sunday puzzle is completed in 90 to 120 minutes,” Sinatra told Maleska. “What a wonderful way to pass the time and also learn new answers every day.” Read the complete letter here.
Courtney Love collects dolls
Jack White collects taxidermy
“I’ve never hunted — I don’t think I ever could — but I really do love animals and I love the majesty of taxidermy,” said White during his appearance on American Pickers earlier this year. He ended up trading a black-and-white photo booth and a jukebox for a taxidermy elephant head. White’s fans have apparently been supporting his hobby for years; in 2010, he had to ask them to stop giving him tacky pieces like “a squirrel playing pool or some shit like that.”
Lily Allen traded music for knitting and embroidery
British MySpace sensation turned mouthy pop star Lily Allen quit music back in 2010. By July of the next year, she was married and two months away from giving birth to her first child. “I’m being taught how to knit,” she said in an interview at the time. “I’m so not rock ‘n’ roll any more. I’m embroidering too. I’m actually in the process of making cushions.” Allen has since returned to music and, as of June, is at work on a new album.
Grandmaster Flash collects mugs
You know your aunt who’s got a whole cabinet full of mugs with “witty” sayings on them? Yeah, legendary hip-hop DJ Grandmaster Flash can beat that. As of 2009, he’d collected over 5,000 souvenir mugs on tour — so many that he has to keep them in a special, climate-controlled storage space.
Kylie Minogue plays Scrabble
No casual Scrabble enthusiast, the pop queen is known as a master of the game. “Kylie has the game down to a fine art — she knows how to score big and doesn’t mess around. She pretty much always wins,” her friend, author Kathy Lette, told the UK Mirror in 2009. She and her sister even played something called “streetwise” Scrabble with Salman Rushdie. The game has even made it into Minogue’s lyrics. In her 2000 song “Your Disco Needs You,” she chastises a lover, “You’re lost in conversation and useless at Scrabble.”
Neil Young builds model trains
Sure, he’s got a well-known love for vintage cars, but Neil Young has a geekier hobby, too: model trains. In a recent New York Times piece, David Carr described his visit to the rocker’s train barn: “This is a place where Young is supremely comfortable, a miniworld he built with his own two hands, where he controls everything with technology that he helped make. I found the layout baffling and thrilling — there were rocks and chunks of redwood from all over the ranch and he had let some of the verdant moss go dry to ‘model the drought’ that was going on in the world at large. There were at least six different trains on hundreds of feet of track and when Young, with a little urging on my part, set everything to motion, we weren’t so much a journalist and subject as a couple of grown men on a caper, playing with a massive train set in the middle of the day.” See photos of Young’s creation here.
Ronnie Wood collects stamps
You could make a case that the Rolling Stones helped invent “cool” as we know it. At the very least, the image of rock ‘n’ roll decadence they cultivate doesn’t exactly square with the nerdy pastime of stamp collecting. But considering that excess is just what Stones guitarist Wood was seeking to escape from by taking up the hobby — he started his collection after leaving rehab in the mid-’00s — it makes a certain kind of sense. In 2006, an anonymous source told the UK Sun , “He gets assistants to go to specialist shops trying to buy the best stamps. He’s very proud of his collection.”
Owen Pallett plays Dungeons & Dragons
An indie rocker who used to go by the handle Final Fantasy is sure to have some history of geekery. But enjoying video games ranks low on the nerd scale compared to another obsession that came out on Pallett’s 2006 album He Poos Clouds: Dungeons & Dragons. Of the ten songs on that record, eight correspond to the role-playing game’s eight schools of magic (the other two reference The Legend of Zelda and The Chronicles of Narnia). Explaining his process to the now-defunct webzine Stylus, Pallett said, “I’d start writing a song about a Dungeons and Dragons school of magic and bring the modernity to it, or bring the D&D to the modernity. I mean, it did take a long time to write those lyrics, but ultimately it was easier than writing an album about a bunch of crap.”