From British nobility to posh schoolboy to glam rocker to addict to actor and everything in between, Michael Des Barres has lived more than his share of lifetimes — an existence perhaps best exemplified by his hit 1983 song, “Obsession.”
Rolling Stone has an exclusive acoustic performance of the song Friday, an outtake from Des Barres’ recent documentary, Michael Des Barres: Who Do You Want Me To Be?, directed by J. Elvis Weinstein.
“That clip was supposed to be the climax — which is my favorite word — of the film,” Des Barres tells Rolling Stone. “That was taken out much to the chagrin of the director. The song, the chorus of which is ‘Who do you want me to be?’ is also the name of the movie — [which is about] all these different characters I personified to get through a very funky and spectacular life. The song itself was a huge hit around the world.”
Written by Des Barres and Holly Knight, “Obsession” took off when it was covered by the band Animotion in 1984; it hit Number Six on the Billboard Hot 100. “I wrote it when I quit narcotics; it was about drugs, but I decided to turn it into a romantic obsession since the Eighties was obsessed with just about everything — shoulder pads and coke,” Des Barres says. “It was relevant then and always will be, but this acoustic version has a much more personal vibe.”
The actor/performer says that the song fit the arc of the movie well, as it traced his journey from son of a showgirl and disgraced nobleman (Des Barres is the 26th Marquis Des Barres) to his first foray into acting as a child to his decision to get into music, which kicked off with his first band, Silverhead. Des Barres has his share of tussles with drugs and infidelity, but he ended up with a diverse musical catalog and more than a hundred roles in TV and film — from MacGyver to 1967’s To Sir With Love.
“The real thrust of that documentary is somebody who never quit, who kept going throughout this whole journey,” Des Barres says. “‘Who do you want me to be?’ is a protective phrase in terms of saving my ass in whatever situation I would be in. I would blend into it and become what was necessary. That journey ended with me being sober and creative and not a member of club 27.”
Des Barres says he didn’t watch the film — which premiered in July on streaming — until it was finished; even then, he preferred to do so alone. “I would have assassinated the entire audience had they not liked it,” he says, laughing. “So I snuck into a screening room when I was doing a movie at Paramount. Picture me in the front row of an empty theater watching the movie with my fingers crossed. Nevermind my fingers — everything was crossed. My eyes! I wept at the appropriate moments and laughed at the others. It was great. I didn’t have to shoot anybody.”
As for what the Jack of all Trades is doing during quarantine, Des Barres says he’s busy making music and hosting his weekday radio show, The Michael Des Barres Program, on Little Steven’s Underground Garage (5 a.m. to 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. to midnight PT). He’s also on Stevie Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool Records and covered the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” with Van Zandt back in May.
“I’ve been around the world a hundred times, you know… or maybe eight times,” Des Barres says of the lockdown. “So it’s not as if I seek anything. The only thing I’m seeking is… I love to be on the radio. I love music. My gregariousness has turned into solitary affairs, which is important because I’ve been able to go deeper into who the fuck I am.”