Beyond the Rock 'N' Roll Myth: 10 Artists Whose Personal Lives Overshadowed Their Work

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We’re delighted to see that Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English is getting the deluxe reissue treatment this week — it’s one of the great comeback records of all time, and also one that’s been somewhat overshadowed over the years by its creator’s oft-discussed personal life. We don’t have a great deal of use for rock ‘n’ roll mythology here at Flavorpill; it’s not that we’re anti-drug, but we’ve seen too many great musicians and artists killed by embracing the sex/drugs/rock ‘n’ roll cliché as if it were a prerequisite for credibility and/or creative fulfillment. It’s also frustrating when we see the personal lives of musicians overshadow their work, either because their lifestyle ultimately undermines their creative output, or because a slavering news media insists on focusing on the former at the expense of the latter. With that in mind, here’s a roundup of artists whose work we’d like to see rescued from the haze of their personal mythology.

Marianne Faithfull

Even now, Marianne Faithfull’s name is just as likely to evoke images of Mars bars and heroin amongst the chattering classes as it is her music. This is a great injustice, given that she’s been singing for 40 years and her best moments — most notably Broken English, but also her Kurt Weill records (and, of course, her star turn as God in Absolutely Fabulous) — have been way more interesting than her drug problems and her endlessly chronicled relationship with Mick Jagger.

Amy Winehouse

Even in death, Winehouse’s mythology haunts the music industry — she was a drug-fucked Diana for the Internet age, a celebrity whose every travail was lived out on TMZ and lapped up gleefully by a leering, judgmental public. Lost in all this is the fact that she was also one of the great vocalists of our time — the author of at least one bona fide classic, and a songwriter who promised so much more than one album and an untimely death.

Pete Doherty

Likewise Pete Doherty, with the key difference that he’s still alive. It’s easy to lampoon The Libertines and the tidal wave of hype they spawned, but Up the Bracket was a killer record, and for a brief moment it seemed that the Doherty/Barât songwriting axis would be a genuinely great one. Then, of course, the whole thing degenerated into a drug-fueled soap opera, and Doherty spent the next decade as a living embodiment of how, despite what rock ‘n’ roll mythology will tell you, the level (and quality) of one’s creative output is generally inversely proportional to the level of one’s drug intake.

Shaun Ryder

The stories about Ryder are legion — some of them amusing, some of them depressing, all of them identified with the man’s legendary tolerance for drugs. Amongst all of this, it’s easy to forget that both Happy Mondays and Black Grape were innovative and exciting in their time, and for a brief moment it seemed that Ryder really was the visionary that Factory records supremo Tony Wilson insisted that he was. These days he’s just another bloated face on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Sigh.

Rick James

No one’s ever likely to forget James’s contribution to music — “Superfreak,” if nothing else, is a classic for the ages, and his flamboyant style lives in the wardrobe of any number of imitators — but for the past three decades, his career trajectory, along with that of contemporaries like Sly Stone, has served as a reminder of the human cost of doing way, way too much coke. To anyone under 40 or so, he’s best remembered as the punchline to Chappelle’s Show‘s crowning glory, a sad fate for a man with so much (wasted) talent.

Nick Oliveri

Great bass player, not such a great person. It’s never been officially confirmed that Josh Homme’s reasons for firing Oliveri from Queens of the Stone Age in 2004 were to do with the bassist physically abusing his girlfriend, but either way, Oliveri’s behavior toward women (and people in general) has long since overshadowed his thrilling stage presence and undoubted proficiency on his instrument. These days, he’s apparently back in the QOTSA fold, which is all very well, but the band’s glory days have long since gone — and whatever you think of Oliveri as a person, for at least two albums, those glory days were glorious indeed.

DMX

Remember when DMX was just known for being a rather promising rapper, as opposed to a frequently-arrested lunatic who’s horrible to dogs? It all seems so long ago now.

Shane MacGowan

The fact that MacGowan is still alive is a source of constant wonder, but it’s hard not to think about what might have been — we’re talking about a man, after all, who started drinking at four years of age and by the late ’80s was apparently taking between ten and 20 tabs of acid a day. A day. The stories of his intake are so outlandish that some of them can’t possibly be true, but these days it’s nearly impossible to separate the man and the myth — and either way, it’s getting to the point that the myth is really all that remains.

Keith Moon

The archetype of rock mythology, so much so that he’s now remembered more for blowing up toilets and driving a car into a swimming pool than he is for being one of the best drummers of the 1960s. Plenty of people seem happy to view him as a lovable eccentric, his antics related fondly around dinner tables by baby boomers recalling the madcap days of their youth. This conveniently ignores the fact that a) his “eccentric” lifestyle ended up killing him; b) dying from an overdose of alcohol withdrawal medicine isn’t what anyone would call glamorous; c) his death was a horrible waste of a singular talent; and d) destroying hotel rooms is kinda lame anyway.

Layne Staley

Staley is now and forever associated with heroin, the drug that ruled his life and eventually ended it. The Alice in Chains frontman’s last days make for some pretty harrowing reading, and his slow decline is pretty much every repudiation you’ll ever need of the sex/drugs/rock ‘n’ roll myth.