Whether you know him as the lead singer of Silverhead, Detective, Chequered Past or The Power Station, whether you’ve seen him in To Sir, With Love or MacGyver, whether you’ve heard him on the radio as a free-thinking DJ, Great Britain’s Michael Des Barres checks all the boxes. A real Renaissance man for the ages, he was once married to the notorious groupie Pamela Des Barres. His new release — Live! by Michael Des Barres and the Mistakes — is a totally rocking affair a la The Faces or Mott the Hoople with covers of T. Rex, Marvin Gaye, Little Richard and more. At 73, he sounds better than ever!
GOLDMINE: Your voice, unbelievably enough, is actually getting stronger with age.
MICHAEL DES BARRES: It is! Isn’t that weird? Maybe it’s because of my sobriety and all of that bollocks, but I do run and I do cling to life because I love life, and I want to sing my ass off until I’m 100 years old.
GM: To what do you attribute your longevity in this business?
MDB: It’s been 60 years! Longer even. I did my first commercial when I was eight years old. It’s been a long time. But it doesn’t feel like it. It feels more like one long incredible moment with me bouncing from gig to gig. That ball has not stopped bouncing. I should say balls in plural, shouldn’t I? I’m very happy about that.
GM: I love what you did with the Marvin Gaye song (“What’s Going On”). I’ve never ever heard it done like that!
MDB: I did the same thing with (Bob) Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” I record for Steven Van Zandt’s label (Wicked Cool Records). But I really haven’t gone out live much. So I was desperate to play clubs, which was where I was born. If I had my druthers, I would play in clubs every night, but given my schedule with the radio program, this video game I’m doing for Warner Brothers and the MacGyver reboot, I don’t have much time. But yeah, it’s great to reconstruct those songs. They’re both 12-bar, hell, three chords! So you can do anything with them. Obviously, I thought to do “What’s Going On” when the sh*t hit the fan. Same with the Dylan. Hey, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody, right? I sped it up, of course, to make it more rock and roll.
GM: It’s like these songs are the soundtrack to your life.
MDB: I think that’s true, but because I’m also a DJ, I hear these songs and play these songs virtually every day. I mean, I’m on the air on Sirius XM three hours a day, thus, I’ve learned more about them the older I get. If you see the Mona Lisa at 14, it’s one thing. When you’re 40 and you look at that painting, it’s another. The 14-year old version is, “Oh, that’s nice. She’s really cute.” At 40, you want to f**k her. At 50, you want to kill her. I think the same way about music.
GM: You’ve been through so many different eras and have come out the other side semi-unscathed, I would think, right?
MDB: God, I feel so scathed to pieces. And I love it. I’ve learned from everything, man. The good, the bad, the ugly, the dirty, the clean.
GM: That’s because you’ve had such a varied career from movies, theater, TV and radio to the rock and roll stage. Any one favorite out of the aforementioned?
MDB: No. And I get asked that every day. What I love to do is to express myself. Whatever form it takes, from painting to poems. I’m writing an opera right now about the Marquis de Sade. I really love acting, though. Then again, it’s all the same to me, really. That’s what made me able to walk out on that stage at Live Aid in 1985.
GM: The night before Live Aid, I was introduced to Bob Dylan backstage at the old Lone Star Café and I lost it. Instead of saying hello, I stammered, “Bob Dylan!” He said, “Uh, yeah,” and walked away. I never got to say anything to him but his own name.
MDB: (laughing) That’s so cute. I’ve known him for years, but I know what you mean. I’ve never been in his company when I wasn’t thinking “Bob Dylan!” But it’s not like I ever verbalized it. That’s a great story. I love it.
GM: Do you think the 1985 Live Aid concert when you fronted Power Station is one of the greatest performances of your career?
MDB: Oh, no question.
GM: Were you intimidated, scared or even nervous?
MDB: None of them, no. Absolutely not. When critics used to say to me stuff like I have really big shoes to fill, I would say I grew up in my own shoes.
GM: I remember when Detective was first signed to Led Zeppelin’s record label. Weren’t you the very first signing?
MDB: No, The Pretty Things and Stone The Crows came before us.
GM: Yeah, but those bands didn’t have the huge buzz that Detective created at the time.
MDB: I think that was because of the stir that my ex-wife Pamela had created with Jimi Hendrix. It was a story. And I knew the guy. The others were mere signings. I knew she was with Jimi before I married her. The press loved it. The story went beyond the signing of a band to Pamela, Jimi and myself in all sorts of configurations. Hey, I’m not Sting! But I have always been treated really well by the press. Rock and roll journalists have always been very, very good to me.
GM: I loved her book, I’m With the Band. You’ve always been a critic’s pet. I guess you learned early how to play that game with the press.
MDB: It’s not a game! I treat you like a friend. I don’t play games, dude. Children play games. I’m not a child. But what I am is real. I sing. I act. I do whatever the f**k I please. I’ve done it — not to multi-platinum success — well enough to have made, shall we say, a good living. I mean, I don’t own houses in Spain, Switzerland, London, Paris and New York, but I do have a couple of houses, sure. People believe me. And to be an actor, you have to be believed. Same thing as a singer. Or a composer. It’s got to be the truth. If it’s not the truth, then what the f**k are you doing? If it’s not the truth, you’re toying with your audience. You’re an imposter. I may be a poser, but I’m not an imposter. (laughs)
GM: There’s always an element of acting when one sings a song.
MDB: Oh sure. Interpretation! Whenever I sing a cover song, I’m an actor.
GM: You’ve sang a lot of songs by a lot of people, but you’ve made them your own.
MDB: Isn’t that something? I honestly do not know how that happens. I mean, I pick up a guitar and boom. I don’t even think about it. I think that’s why I’ve always sounded like I’m in the moment and it’s not calculated. You get up and you do your thing, and people either get it or they don’t. I don’t really judge myself.
GM: That’s for guys like me to do.
MDB: I don’t think you really do. You’re a fan of music, first and foremost. I can tell. I think that you truly love music. I can hear it in your voice. You’re moved by Rubber Soul. You’re moved by music. And so am I. We’re no different. I don’t think of you as a judge.
GM: I want to get back to Detective since that band had such a profound effect upon me at the time. Were you upset when critics hailed you as the new Led Zeppelin?
MDB: No, I never felt like that. I knew there were similarities, but that was not at my behest. (Detective bandmates) Michael Monarch and Jon Hyde were Zeppelin fanatics and I think the record did, indeed, approximate that Zeppelin quality. I actually liked that about the record. But I don’t sing like Robert sings. We’re sorta in the same register. His was a little higher than mine most of the time. I think of myself as more of a bluesy soul singer — as does he — but he always had that fantastical Tolkien-esque quality like a rock and roll Lord of the Rings, whereas I would be more Gollum.
GM: I love his Americana direction over the past two decades, but it had to necessitated by the fact that he just cannot sing “Communication Breakdown” anymore.
MDB: I don’t think so. He was barely 20. Now he’s 72. So, sure, he can’t sing in that key anymore. So f**king what? But I don’t think that drove him to Americana. He’s always leaned in that direction, and you can hear it in the acoustic songs that Zeppelin did. I know the guy. He adores the music of America. The keys that Led Zeppelin used are so hard to hit. They’re so high. Everybody lowers their keys after a while. Rod (Stewart) still sings “Hot Legs,” but it’s not the “Hot Legs” you remember from 1977! It’s a little different. Those legs aren’t so hot anymore. They’re kinda “Warm Legs.” I still love it, though. And Robert doesn’t want to squeeze lemons down his leg anymore. He doesn’t want to be a god anymore. He doesn’t want to be a Viking. All that sh*t was just laid on him anyway. He wants to be what he is: A musician. Led Zeppelin was offered a billion dollars to reform. A billion!
GM: The only guy who would be in that band who lost out and is dying to do it is Bonzo’s son, whose Led Zeppelin Experience band is so damn good. I loved them the times I saw them. And, boy, can he do it. Jason Bonham is probably a better drummer than his dad.
MDB: But you and I both know it’s not how good you are. It was those four guys. It would be like The Beatles without George Harrison. You’re talking about an icon. Nobody replaces Bonzo. You’re talking about the chemistry between four guys, and it has to be those four guys: Robert, Jimmy, Bonzo and John Paul Jones. Should you take but one of those four components out, you’d have but three seasons in a year. It doesn’t make sense. It’s like substituting day for night. It’s different. And it doesn’t matter how good you can play it. I have no doubt Jason can play that music. But he didn’t invent it.
GM: The Who went on without Keith Moon.
MDB: And sucked.
GM: Can I quote you on that?
MDB: Yes, you can.
GM: You must absolutely love being on the radio for three hours a day. All those songs, all those bands, you get to play them all and you get to talk about it.
MDB: I absolutely adore it, of course. An incredible gift was given to me. It’s been seven years now. I had had an internet talk show first. I was interviewing Marianne Williamson (the American author, spiritual leader, activist), who I found fascinating and sexy and political. Those three things aren’t usually put together in that equation. Andrew Loog Oldham, who managed the Stones at 18, a brilliant man, had quit his Sirius show and I was asked to replace him. I knew Steven Van Zandt from when Chequered Past opened for him on his 1984 solo tour. So now I’m part of his “Underground Garage,” and I’ve gotten to know him even more. Another brilliant mind. And I consider him to be one of the great icons of rock and roll. What he’s accomplished in his career — especially marrying soul music with rock and roll — had never been done quite as well and still hasn’t. I mean, Bruce too, but he’s a different story. Total genius, true. But working for Steven in radio has been one of the most delightful things I’ve ever done.
GM: You’re getting paid to play records and talk. And with your extensive knowledge of the history and the back stories of rock and roll, it’s a natural!
MDB: I’m naturally gregarious. I’ll go to the food store and do 10 minutes by the broccoli. But, yes, I really do take it seriously. Every week I do cross-referencing research. Three hours a day is a lot of time to fill! One part of that show is what I call a “Crossroads” feature. I pick one artist. I’ve done over a thousand artists now. It’s all up on Soundcloud.com. I mean, from Jeff Beck to Stiv Bators, not just their music but their very, how shall I say, their very emotionality. Howlin’ Wolf, for instance. Stayed married to the same woman for his whole career. Can you imagine? The man who wrote “Smokestack Lightning” could still sing those songs from the Deep South, yet he made sure his band had health insurance for the 55 years of his career. When you know those kinds of things, you have a tendency to step back and view them in a whole new light. If you can’t find that interesting, turn me off. That, to me, is radio. Because it’s personalized. It’s custom-made! It’s the truth! It’s so important to add context to these songs I play on the radio because a lot of them are so historic. We don’t play Harry Styles. I’ve nothing against him. In fact, I think he’s great.
GM: How did you feel when the tide turned with the advent of punk in the late ’70s? They used to say stuff like “kill rock stars” and “do it yourself.” Did it change your aesthetic?
MDB: I cut my hair.
GM: You must have incorporated some of that primal energy into your own music.
MDB: I was the first rocking punk. Give me a break. Come on. In ’71, I wore a f**king dog collar. Look at the pictures. I weighed 90 pounds, and I was screaming and jumping into the audience like Iggy (Pop). F**k you. I loved punk. See what I mean? I’m still a punk. I loved (singer) Johnny (Rotten). He adores me. He loves my acting. So don’t talk to me about punk. I f**king invented punk. I am The Punk. All of the aforementioned is tongue-in-cheek, you know that, right?
GM: Of course. With tongue planted firmly in cheek …
MDB: … with a safety pin. I was staying at the same hotel with my band Detective when The Sex Pistols played their last show in San Francisco. It was absolute chaos. I met (guitarist) Steve Jones and (drummer) Paul Cook with my roadie guy in the corridor after the show I had just attended. And Jones recognizes me and says, “I stole a Silverhead album.”
GM: Another one of your bands!
MDB: And I thought, “How perfect is that?” We ended up in Chequered Past together, and I still speak to him every day. So the whole notion of whether the advent of punk changed my life is absurd. I’ve been anti-authority from the day I was born. My father was in jail. My mother was in a lunatic asylum. I was raised by wolves. I go to a boarding school at eight years old, and when everyone else goes home, I stay there because there is no home to go to for me. No mother. No father. At 16, I leave and somehow get a movie: To Sir, With Love. That’s when my life started. So don’t talk to me about punk. And I don’t mean you personally. I lived a punk life from day number one.
GM: That’s right! You were one of the students in that movie?
MDB: No, I was the black f**king teacher. Of course I was one of the f**king students! I was the blond girl in the back. Of course, I was in the f**king movie. I was the one who wore the shades to class.
GM: So what floats your boat these days? It’s not like you can gig.
MDB: My wife. My cats. My friends. I wake up very early every morning at 4 or 5 to work out. Then I write my radio program. Then I record the radio program. Then I do my video game and any other kind of work that they need me to do about the game. Then I go work out again. In the evenings, I play guitar, watch the telly and try and write words that mean something.
MDB: Yeah, the simple work of an artist and a guy who loves life even in these poisonous times. In other words, I’m happy.