Q&A: Denis Leary

Denis Leary is no stranger to rock music. The acerbic comedian-turned-actor (he has appeared in more than 40 films, including Demolition Man, Draft Day and The Amazing Spider-Man), who made his name on MTV in the early 90s, has spent close to 30 years slicing and dicing rock stars such as Mötley Crüe and Sting with the same élan as Gordon Ramsey making his way through a porterhouse stake. His stand-up routines and albums have featured satirical songs of his own, most notably his biting put-down Asshole, a sizeable hit in 1993.

Now he’s crossed over to the other side of the fence. In his new US TV series, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, Leary turns his sights inwards. He plays up washed-up, addled old star Johnny Rock, who assembles his old band as a vehicle for the daughter he never knew. Whether Johnny Rock will ever storm the charts again remains to be seen, but his ongoing struggles with booze, drugs and ego provide pure comedy gold.

Where did the inspiration for Johnny Rock come from?

He’s a little Iggy Pop, a little Bowie – Johnny’s a bit of those guys. I’m the biggest Bowie fan in the world. I’m hoping that we can get him to guest on the show one day. He’s a really good actor, so that would be incredible if we can pull that off. I’d be thrilled.

You’re famous for sending up bands and musicians. Is there anything about music that isn’t funny to you?

No, it’s all funny. It’s all built for comedy, in my opinion. Take progressive rock: you gotta be kiddin’ me, right? I mean, I love The Who, but the rock operas were just never my thing. I like three-minute songs – get in, get out and make a statement. I’m not a big album guy. The worst period was in the seventies when everybody was putting out live albums – double and triple live records. Come on already – a double live album by Rick Wakeman? Gimme a break.

Have any of the musicians you’ve made fun of been offended by what you said about them?

Well, there was Sting. Years ago I made fun of him – and I like Sting, I love The Police. In Rolling Stone, shortly after, he called me a cnt. Now, I come from an Irish family, so I’m used to that kind of talk. My mother called me up and said: “Do you know that this Sting fellow called you a cnt?” I said: “Ma, that’s like a notch on my belt.” I thought it was great.

One time we were doing a concert in Ireland, and someone came backstage and said: “Def Leppard’s here. They want to come back and meet you.” I had been on MTV reaming them silly – I definitely wasn’t a fan of theirs at all. I didn’t know what to think. They want to say hi? So they came by and they were great. They posed for pictures, the whole thing. Joe Elliott told me: “Our band was dead in the water until you started making fun of us. We started getting gigs; we fuckin’ love you.

Tommy Lee’s another one. I had been tearing Mötley Crüe a new asshole, and Tommy came up to me and said: “Dude, it was so cool when you made fun of us on MTV.” He was into it. Hey, I didn’t know I was helping these bands.

Where do you stand politically these days? And which side of the political fence has the best campaign songs?

Oh, fuck, that’s a tough call. You know, they both pick such shitty songs. I’m not the biggest Fleetwood Mac fan. There are windows in my rock fandom that open and close. Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles I came to appreciate later. I totally ignored them in the seventies. But when Bill Clinton picked Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop, I thought that was such a clichéd choice. I think they all have terrible music.

Eddie Izard was gonna run for Mayor of London, which would have been great because he’s a friend, so I could say I know the Mayor of London. Now I think he’s running for Parliament. But I told him: “Dude, if you need a theme song, use [The Clash’s] London Calling.” Because he loves that song. That would be the greatest theme song ever.

In the new TV series, your character reunites his old band. What do you think about band reunions?

I don’t like it when bands get back together. My attitude is: once it’s done, it’s done. I can’t think of one band I’d like to see back together. I was really glad that The Clash never reunited. How bad would that have been? It’s never any good. Is it?

I did go to see The Who on their Quadrophenia tour, and they were great. I’m okay with Townshend and Daltrey touring as the Who. During part of the show, they play live with videos of John Entwistle and Keith Moon. If you can do something like that, I’m in; it’s not ‘the band is back together’. So Townshend and Daltrey are cool, but anybody else I’m not into it.

Some guys are crazy about the money, but other guys won’t go for it. Take Led Zeppelin. They offered them, what, eight-hundred million dollars to tour? Some ridiculous amount. Plant could’ve walked away with four-hundred million, and he still wouldn’t do it. But I do wanna send a message to Jimmy Page in this article: I’ll gladly step in for Robert Plant for a Led Zeppelin reunion tour. I’ll sing, and I’ll only take forty million. We can do my song Asshole to close. Jimmy, if you’re reading this, think it over.

What is the biggest misconception about you?

Oh, God. I have no idea. Maybe that people are scared of me, that I’m intimidating. I really don’t know. You’d have to ask other people what that is.

What’s your biggest regret?

I don’t have one. I know this is gonna sound cliché, but I can’t think of one. I went to Emerson College, and it was a complete stroke of luck to get in. I was a terror in school – the nuns and priests all hated me – but there was a musical-theatre nun who got me an audition for the school. From that point on I have no regrets. Everything I’ve gone wrong has worked out. From seeing the Rolling Stones as a kid on TV, and now here I am doing a rock’n’roll show on television. I’ve got no complaints at all.

Classic Rock 214: News & Regulars

Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar WorldGuitar PlayerMusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.