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.