I am a stone-cold sucker for a good rock documentary. GIMME SHELTER; THE FILTH AND THE FURY; JIMI HENDRIX; RUNNIN’ DOWN A DREAM; THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART II: THE METAL YEARS; TOM DOWD AND THE LANGUAGE OF MUSIC; CROSSFIRE HURRICANE; THE BEATLES ANTHOLOGY; these are only a few of my favorites. But I’m also a sucker for a bad one; I don’t even have to like the band the documentary is about. No matter who it is, if I am flipping channels and I come to musicians talking self-importantly about their careers and the people they stepped on along the way, whether it’s just starting or five minutes from the end, I am powerless not to watch.
That’s why the arrival in the late ’90s of the VH1 series BEHIND THE MUSIC was simultaneously the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. Immediately, from the very first episode I saw, which if I recall correctly was the MC Hammer one — where Hammer revealed, among other things, that he spent a million dollars on marble tile for the entry to his $10 million house in Oakland, which also featured a solid gold, 8-person bathtub; $68,000 worth of mirrors; and $3 million worth of indoor and outdoor fountains, because as he put it, “Water represents power. Water represents freedom… so when I see that water flowing all through my house I feel free, spiritually free.”
The episode went on to mention that Hammer’s house was on the market, listed at $6 million, and I was hooked for life on this show.
All those rock docs I mentioned up top are all great, but they’re all about all-time legendary artists. There may have been bumps in the road along the way, but for the most part these are success stories — rise and rise and rise. BEHIND THE MUSIC is different: it’s artists whose careers crashed and burned, and appearing on BEHIND THE MUSIC is a calculated part of a comeback strategy. The worse the artist, or the artist’s fall from grace, the better the episode. And as it turns out, the bigger the assholes, the better the episode.
Memorable moments include: Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes of TLC telling about how she burned down her fiance’s house; Ozzy Osbourne relating how he brought a dove to a meeting with label executives and, blind drunk, bit its head off rather than presenting it as a symbol of peace, as had been planned; Grace Slick’s drunken taunting of a German audience, reminding them “who won the war”; Vanilla Ice describing how Suge Knight hung him out of a window; Milli Vanilli recounting the lip-syncing scandal that ended their career as though it was in no way their fault; Ted Nugent explaining how it’s totally cool that he adopted his teenage girlfriend; and Rod Stewart talking about having his stomach pumped. (Just kidding on that last one.)
Granted, each episode of this show was as formulaic as a can of Coke. The old term-paper recipe, “tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em” was religiously followed on this show; 12-15 minutes of actual worthwhile content was padded out to an hour by repeating the same tidbit over and over, first by teasing it in the intro, then teasing it again going into commercial breaks, then recapping the whole show so far coming out of commercial breaks.
Every episode was the same:
Intro — This band was famous once! You heard their songs on the radio! They did drugs and crashed cars and had unprotected sex! But it all fell apart, and the sordid details are coming up when BEHIND THE MUSIC continues!
Birth — These fresh-faced young go-getters started a band right out of high school, and before they knew it they had a record deal! Remember this song from their first album? It could only get bigger and bigger until it all came crashing down, which it will when BEHIND THE MUSIC continues!
Adolescence — Just to recap, young band, record deal, AM radio hit — you remember! It kept getting bigger! They recorded more hits, did more drugs, and got more pussy! They came to the gigs in four separate helicopters! But the singer got to be a real prick, and the guitar player went to rehab, and hey where’d all the money go? It would only get worse before it got better, which it will when BEHIND THE MUSIC CONTINUES!
Fall — Young band, radio hit, four helicopters, drugs, pussy, assholes, remember? Just in case, let’s recap it all. Up to speed again? Great. Their fourth album flopped, half the band went to rehab, the other half went to jail, they got dropped by their label, filed for bankruptcy, and one of them died. But they will make a triumphant return when BEHIND THE MUSIC CONTINUES!
Rebirth — Young band, radio hit, jail, rehab, death. Still with us? After several years of rehabs and failed solo projects and band began to feel a creative yearning not at all related to their dwindling bank statements. Despite the stubborn abstention of the singer, the band reformed and is currently on a triumphant tour of state fairs and boat shows! And it can only get better from here!
Almost every episode of this show followed this strict formula, and there are a lot of good ones, but by far the greatest — and by greatest, I mean most unintentionally hilarious — was the Styx episode.
Styx, my younger readers will need reminding, was a rock band that rose in the ’70s by pioneering the radio-ready power ballad, and fell in the ’80s when it tried to stage a full-on rock opera set in the future complete with costumes, sets, and the band doing scenes in character.
Their episode is particularly amusing for a few reasons:
- Lead singer Dennis DeYoung’s present-day toupée could not possibly be less convincing
- Despite the fact that they were estranged and had not been on speaking terms for many years, everyone gives their interviews while making the finger tent — the douchiest mannerism in the world — right in front of their faces
- Singer Dennis DeYoung quit the band in the late ’80s because he discovered he was, as he put it, “light sensitive” and unable to go onstage, despite the fact that a) he had already been onstage with the band for 20 years and b) when Styx went back on tour without him, he began touring as a solo act
- Even by the standards of terrible ’70s and ’80s fashion, DeYoung stand
s as the worst-dressed rock star of all time
- The footage shown of the band’s musical, “Kilroy Was Here,” suggests it is probably the worst thing ever put on a rock and roll stage
- “For Dennis, it was always his way or the highway,” guitarist James “JY” Young says with evident self-satisfaction, “and we’ve chosen the highway.”
Your life will be better if you watch the Styx episode of BEHIND THE MUSIC is what I’m saying.
My addiction to this show, not unlike the addictions the show invariably depicted with shaky black-and-white footage of mirrors and bottles, turned kind of ugly. When I turned on my TV, VH1 was the first channel I checked, and if BEHIND THE MUSIC was on it didn’t matter who was the subject, or if I’d seen the episode before — I’d watch it again. I drove my then-girlfriend-now-wife crazy. Eventually, feeling guilty at all the creative, productive projects I had started and and was allowing to languish while I watched the Rod Stewart episode for the third time, I kind of snapped; I closed the doors on the cabinet our TV was in and padlocked them, and soon after that canceled our cable subscription.
Eventually I came to my senses, re-booted my relationship to my television, and re-ordered cable, and when I did, BEHIND THE MUSIC was gone. I don’t know why, but not only did they stop making it, they stopped showing the reruns, which had constituted 88% of VH1’s programming calendar. Eventually, something made them bring it back. Public outcry? Flavor Flav didn’t renew his dating-show contract? They lost the lease to THE SURREAL WORLD house? We’ll have to wait for the VH1 oral history to know for sure.
But it wasn’t the same. When they brought it back they made some huge mistakes, the biggest being to do episodes about currently relevant artists, as opposed to washed-up classic rock acts. The thing about currently relevant artists is, there’s no fall. You can’t do a rise-and-fall story with no fall. Plus, the VH1 audience — people who like documentaries about washed-up classic rock bands — is not so interested in blowing the lid off of 50 Cent, Brandy, Pink, or Ricky Martin.
So even though Wikipedia says they’re still making BEHIND THE MUSIC, with episodes on Train, Carrie Underwood, Ne-Yo, and Nicole Scherzinger queued up, I prefer to think that it died that day that I padlocked my TV. All the best episodes are up on YouTube, in their entirety and commercial free, so if you ever want to visit the graveyard, I encourage you to do so.
But if they ever get Van Halen to do an episode, I’m there.