Poor Nathan Williams. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of Dutch courage to steady the nerves before taking the stage – but the Wavves frontman arguably took the concept of self-medication a touch too far at Barcelona’s Primavera last week.
The gig was almost hypnotic in its awfulness, with Williams strumming aimlessly and howling obliquely for minutes on end, to the mounting chagrin of the crowd, who ultimately responded by bottling the band off – although, one could argue, the epic wastes of silence and intermittent warbling were no more grindingly tedious than the average Sigur Ros gig.
Williams later blamed his surreal performance on a cocktail of “ecstasy, valium and Xanax”, which rather sounds as if he’d heard QOTSA’s ‘Feel Good Hit Of The Summer’ and taken it as a shopping list rather than a chorus.
Suitably chastened, the singer/guitarist apologised to fans and vowed to take some time off, in a blog post that was no doubt hammered out through the fug of a Winehouse-grade hangover. All of which demonstrates an enduring truth about live music: it’s never advisable to get crucified before a show.
There are many tales that bear this out. Lemmy used to rack out 5ft lines of speed in his tourbus and hoover them up in one go – a pre-gig practice which, as anyone who’s ever endured the soul-shredding comedown that comes with that particular drug would attest, explains why the Motorhead frontman now looks 1000 years old and has no teeth.
At the glitzier end of 70s hard rock, Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler used to keep cocaine wraps within the flowing scarves that adorned his microphone stand. At one stadium show during the band’s late-70s pomp, Tyler was so strung out he thanked the crowd and walked triumphantly off stage after the first song, convinced he’d played a full gig.
Tyler’s behaviour was echoed two decades later by Creed vocalist Scott Stapp. Blitzed on a mix of Jack Daniel’s, Xanax and anti-inflammatory steroids, the crucifix-pose-loving singer ambled off the Chicago All-State Arena’s vast stage after five songs. Re-emerging 30 minutes later, Stapp removed his shoes and fell backwards over a monitor – an act he later described as a “symbolic, personal gesture”.
That’s the problem with drugs: they skew your judgement. Sly Stone once wandered off 10 minutes before he was due to appear onstage in London. Venue staff panicked. Don’t sweat it, the ‘Stand!’ singer reassured them. No cause for alarm. He was simply off to Rotterdam to do some shopping – he’d easily make it back in time.
Stone’s drug of choice was cocaine, which at least keeps you awake while corroding your guts. That’s not true of brandy and animal tranquilizers, a toxic cocktail that made The Who’s Keith Moon pass out – twice – during a 1973 gig in Daly City, California. “Can anyone play the drums?” guitarist Pete Townshend asked the audience, plaintively. “I mean, somebody good.”
Nor is such behaviour confined to rock’s dusty archives. At Live 8 in 2005, Pete Doherty looked like he’d had a few ‘charity’ flutes of champagne before he lumbered onstage with Elton John to honk through a cover of ‘Children Of The Revolution’ that ran the gamut from ‘tuneless dirge’ to ‘environmental hazard’.
Displaying a junkie’s gift for sober self-analysis, Doherty immediately blamed his backing band for the disaster. “What a bunch of fucking wankers. What a bunch of sausage-sucking, session, slaphead, ponytailed pricks, you know?” the Sun quoted him as saying. Which is possibly more eloquent than anything that made it on to his recent solo album.
But when it comes to catastrophic drug-induced onstage meltdowns, the modern likes of Doherty and Winehouse are mere Lilliputians. Here’s Elvis Presley at one of his last ever gigs, in the final stages of his fatal addiction to prescription drugs. Sweating heavily underneath the stage lights, he forgets the words, starts laughing, then trails off into gibberish. It’s a clip that starts off funny – then rapidly becomes utterly heartbreaking.
It’s also a salutary lesson to budding musicians: just say no. At least until after the gig, dummy.