Denis Leary on Bowie, Louis C.K. and 'Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll'

Comedian waxes poetic on Keith Richards, the Thin White Duke's love of comedy and why he owes 'Louie''s star money

Denis Leary, the writer, producer and star of the new FX comedy 'Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.' Credit: Dana Distortion

A wise man once said that it's better to burn out than fade away. For Johnny Rock, the aging bad-boy frontman at the center of Denis Leary's Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, there's also the third option of hitching your dimming star on to a talented young female singer. (The fact that this mini-Joan Jett is also his long-lost daughter from a one-night stand — and has the hots for Rock's longtime guitar player — only makes things that much more complicated.) Once upon a time, his New York scuzz-rock band the Heathens had their next-big-thing moment, until Johnny's selfishness and appetite for destruction deep-sixed any chance of long-term success. Now, along with his reunited group, he's got another shot...assuming he doesn't screw this one up as well.

Like his previous show for FX — the 9/11 PTSD dramedy Rescue Me — the 57-year-old comedian's latest project (premiering on July 16th) revels in pushing the limits of acceptable TV antihero behavior and proudly displaying his patented foul-mouthed, fuck-you brio. Rolling Stone talked to him about the joys of playing a hedonistic has-been rock star, David Bowie's comedy fanaticism and why he now owes Louis C.K. money.

Why a series about a middle-aged, coke-snorting one-hit wonder?
When I went to Emerson College In Boston, I know all these guys that became musicians — people who would end up playing in Ozzy Osbourne's band, the Del Fuegos, Raging Slab. These were dudes who thought fame was everything. But what was interesting to me was: What about the people still living that old-school rock & roll lifestyle, but they had a single and went away, or they never ended up making it — what the fuck do they do now?

Johnny and his guitar player, Flash [John Corbett], are like an old married couple.
They're like the Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Nineties CBGB's bands. John's character has a little bit of Richie Sambora in him as well — when it's time for a solo, he's the star of the show, y'know? I like the dysfunctional-family dynamic of a band, and those guys are the fucked-up, bickering parents that keep everyone together. It's the Mick and Keith thing.

Your character takes a lot of his recreational lifestyle from Keith's playbook….
I got to hang out with the Stones round the Voodoo Lounge tour, and those guys…I mean, Mick takes care of himself, but Keith, it's almost beyond a lifestyle how he functions. He's never really high or drunk, either. It's different if you don't have his genetic gift, or you're like Johnny and drinking Jack Daniel's at 9 a.m. to find your "muse." Me, I'll take coffee, thanks.

How did you get actual rock stars like the Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli, Dave Grohl and Joan Jett involved?
I met Dulli when I was first working at MTV on Remote Control in the 1980s, and I knew I wanted him to help out with the songwriting and composing the music for the Heathens. I've known Dave for decades, and Joan and I do this concert every year for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. But here's the fucking galling thing: I told them, "So, I just want to improvise a few scenes, have you talk about the band." And I filmed them for two hours and they were all fucking hilarious! Like, I'm not really a rock star, so how are you guys so funny? And on my turf — that's what really fucking pisses me off. What can't they do? Fucking unbelievable.

Stand-ups are like rock stars, aren't they?
The similarities are kind of astonishing. Rock stars love comics. Once, I was hosting a show and David Bowie was there. I went out to have a smoke, and there's Bowie, one of my favorite rock stars of all time. And all he wanted to do was talk comedy! [In British accent] "What's Steven Wright really like, Denis? What's Bobcat Goldthwait really like?" I just had five minutes with my hero, and he just wants to know about stand-ups!

You're writing, producing and sometimes directing the show, and starring in it — it's the Louis C.K. model of showrunning.
Yeah! My usual guys, like [Rescue Me co-creator] Peter Tolan, they were all busy on other projects, so I just thought I should write it and produce myself; I know what I wanna do so why not just do it? But people forget that other than It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX wasn't really doing comedy. Louis C.K. changed that, so I guess I should be giving a percentage of the show's profits to him. [Pauses] Fuck, now I owe him money! If this is successful, I'm fucking screwed.