Denis Leary: the 10 records that changed my life
Denis Leary returns to TV in top form on Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, his upcoming comedy series debuting July 16 on FX in which he portrays Johnny Rock, a washed-up, middle-aged frontman who reunites his former band, the Heathens (rechristened the Assassins), as a vehicle for the singing daughter he never knew (played luminously by Liz Gillies).
Mining the subject of music for comedy isn’t new for Leary – in the early part of his career, he ruthlessly dismantled rockers such as Sting, Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard in his comedy routines. “You never know how musicians are gonna react when you lay into them,” Leary tells MusicRadar. “After I made fun of Sting, he called me a c**t in Rolling Stone. My mother called me up and said, ‘Do you know that this Sting fellow called you a c**t?’ I said, ‘Ma, that’s like a notch on my belt.’ I thought it was great.”
It remains to be seen whether Sting ever winds up guest-starring on Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, but Leary, who shares a David Bowie obsession with his character Johnny Rock, is hoping that the Thin White Duke can be lured to make an appearance. “I’m the biggest Bowie fan in the world, so I’m hoping we can get him on the show one day,” he says. “He’s a good actor, so that would be incredible if we can pull that off.”
Rounding out the Assassins are actors John Corbett, Robert Kelly, John Ales and Elaine Hendrix. Leary concludes that musical aptitude wasn’t a cast member requirement, but in the cases of Hendrix and Corbett, it’s proved to be a big plus. “Elaine can definitely sing, so we’re good there,” he says. “And as for John, who plays Flash, he’s great – he sings and plays guitar. He knows how to carry the guitar the way it’s supposed to be carried.”
Whereas Leary’s last show, Rescue Me, was a drama with touches of lighter moments, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is first and foremost a comedy, although it features splashes of poignancy (most of them focusing on Johnny Rock and his daughter, Gigi).
“Comedy isn’t easy, but it’s easier for me than drama, especially if you cast your show the right way,” Leary says. “I give my actors a lot of leeway to play around and improvise. Knowing that this show is a comedy is a lot more fun for me. I know we’re going to have our serious moments, so I can get into them when need be.”
On the following pages, Leary runs down the 10 records that changed his life.
The Rolling Stones - (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction (1965)
“I don’t remember seeing The Beatles on TV, but I did see The Stones play Satisfaction on one of the shows - it might have been Ed Sullivan. I was hooked right from that opening guitar riff. I just went, ‘Who the fuck are these guys, and what is that guitar part?’ The whole thing hit me at that moment. I absolutely remember it.
“My dad was a musician - a musician on weekends and a mechanic during the week. There were a lot of jams at our house after the Irish dance bands played on Saturday nights. My dad was into The Beatles and The Stones, and he bought me a guitar. How great is that? I tried to figure out the Satisfaction riff right after that. God, I love that song.”
The Who - My Generation (1965)
“Same as The Stones. I saw The Who on the Smothers Brothers show when they blew up the drum kit. Beyond that, there was the stuttering - that was new and different. But what I most remember about that performance is John Entwhistle’s bass playing. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. The bass player is doing a fucking solo right in the middle of the song!’
“That blew me away. I didn’t know you could do that. Maybe he was the first guy to try it - I don’t know. I love The Who. My Generation just sums up so much about them. I saw them on the Quadrophenia tour, and God, they were great.”
David Bowie - The Jean Genie (1973)
“I had to pick a Bowie song, and this is one of the ones that sticks out. When I saw Bowie as a teenager, at first I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ And then it all clicked, and he became an obsession.
“Bowie carried me through the '70s, when rock 'n' roll was really going down the fucking tubes. I hated all that singer-songwriter bullshit, stuff like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And fuck all that progressive rock, bands like Yes. Oh, my God, that was a terrible time for rock.
“To me, Bowie was like a godsend in every facet. Sometimes you wouldn’t see him for two years, and then he’d come out with a new record and you’d be like, ‘What the hell is this?’ He’d be completely new. What a great fuckin’ voice. He blows me away. And he’s brilliant live, just unbelievable.”
Iggy Pop - Lust For Life (1977)
“Iggy kills me. I picked Lust For Life because it’s my favorite Iggy song. It was the original closing song for No Cure For Cancer when we did it off-Broadway. After I had the heart attack and died at the end, Lust For Life played.
“I’ve seen some crazy Iggy shows over the years. I saw him do a show in Boston at the Paradise Club, where he jumped off the stage during the first song. He did pretty much the whole set while crowd-surfing; he’d go back on stage a few times, but then he’d keep coming out with the crowd. This was before everybody else started doing that whole thing. Iggy comes out and does it right off the bat. You gotta love that.”
Ramones - I Wanna Be Sedated (1978)
“Great fucking record. This was a salvation record for me. We had been hearing about the Ramones, and a friend of mine, Jonathan Paley – he was in a band called the Nervous Eaters – he went to New York to see them. He came back to Boston and was like, ‘You’ve gotta see this band.’
“The Eaters got picked to open for the Ramones – I think this was at the Rat – so I went to the show. The Eaters played a 45-minute opening set, and the Ramones, the headliner, played for 27 minutes. As soon as they came out, we started dancing, and we didn’t stop until the gig was over. We were like, ‘That’s it?’ They had played all their songs. It was fucking great.”
If You Want Me to Stay - Sly and the Family Stone (1973)
“My brother and I were into funk, and then he got lost. He was into Tommy by The Who, and he liked Yes. He even got a double live solo album by Rick Wakeman. In my opinion, he was getting into really shitty hippie music. Sly and the Family Stone were doing hit after hit after hit at the time, so they were our common thread.
“I saw Richard Pryor on the Mike Douglas Show. Sly was the musical guest, and he was high as a kite. He had this great outfit on – this big afro and giant platform shoes – and he came out doing karate kicks and stuff. Totally crazy. He told Richard, ‘You’re gonna play my song with me, right?’ Richard was like, ‘Sure, where’s the rest of the band?’ Sly looked at him and said, ‘No band, just you and me.’ There was a drum kit and a keyboard on stage - that was it.
“Richard had played drums in strip clubs back in the day, but he was used to playing with a whole band. Sly said, ‘Get behind that drum kit. I’m tellin’ you - now!’ It was wild. Then, while Richard’s at the drums, Sly starts changing his clothes behind a screen. Richard’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ It was taking forever. Sly came out in this insane glittering gold outfit with gold platform shoes - amazing. He sits down and starts playing If You Want Me To Stay. Richard tried to play along, but he was so off-time, as you would expect.
“My brother and I saw this, and we were like, ‘This fuckin’ sucks.’ But when the record came out, we loved it. It epitomized Sly in the studio, doing a ton of blow and making shit up. Lyrically it’s great, but by the end he’s just doing weird sounds and whatever. It worked, though. I loved Sly.”
BB King - The Thrill is Gone (1969)
“This was a really big record for me. Besides The Rolling Stones, this was my first real exposure to blues, when I went, ‘Wait a minute. What’s this? This is a whole different sound and mood here.’
“When this came out, my brother and I started getting into the blues. This is one of my favorite records of all time. I don’t even know if I’d call it a blues record, to be honest – it’s just a great all-around song.”
The Clash - London Calling (1980)
“I love The Clash so much. This is the song of theirs that I’ve probably played the most. I could put it on right now, and if I was tired it would wake me right up.
“It’s a shame what happened to the band at the end - so disappointing. But I was really glad that they never got back together. Let’s face it: It would have sucked. But they were so great during their little window of time.
“I saw them in Boston and in New York, and they were amazing every time. I never saw them in a stadium, though. By ’82, when they did Rock The Casbah, I knew they were done. And it was right after that they were done.”
Otis Redding - I've Been Loving You Too Long (1965)
“My father played this record in the living room one day, and just like The Stones and The Who, I went, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ You know? ‘What is this?’ Some records are like that - they’re just so good and different.
“To this day, I still think he’s one of the all-time greats, hands down. Nobody could sing like Otis. In his very brief career, he did love songs, songs that had a social message – pretty much every fuckin’ thing. His version of Try a Little Tenderness is spectacular. This one’s my favorite, though. God, it’s so good.”
Denis Leary - Asshole (1994)
“This one certainly changed my life. It paid for my kids to go to college. I still have to do it a few times a year when I do concerts. If I don’t play it at the end, the people get really fucking mad.
“To me, the song is about assholes outside of myself, but it’s about me, as well. I do like to drive really fast in the fast lane, and I will beep my horn at you if you’re in my way. I don’t flash my headlights – I come right up at you and lay on the horn. Yeah, I pee on toilet seats in public bathrooms, too. So the song’s about everybody.”