Dad Rock: Denis Leary’s ‘Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll’ Isn’t Trying Too Hard to Be Cool, and It WorksPatrick Harbron/FX
There’s a school of thought that says the best rock songs are always, in some way, confessional. So let’s start there.
A lifetime ago, I wrote about music instead of television. Near the end of those years, just as I was sliding from one career into another, I tried to combine the two by writing a script about a music-obsessed teenage girl in the suburbs and a twentysomething singer-songwriter on the rise. This script got me the usual level of noninterest from the Hollywood powers that be: some empty, marginally enthusiastic emails; a handful of tepid meetings marked by the consumption of a reservoir’s worth of tiny bottles of water. Occasionally I even got my parking validated.
Eventually, I found myself in the office of a young executive at MTV, a place I had long thought was a logical home for the script. The guy was generous in both his praise and his frequent offers of mini water bottles. What he wanted to talk about, though, was not the script I had written, but whatever one I might write next. What, I asked, was wrong with this one?
He looked pained and took a swig from his doll-size bottle. “Yeah,” he said. “Music … just isn’t a good fit for us.”
If music wasn’t a good fit for a network called Music Television, then what chance would it have anywhere else? I was so confused that I didn’t even bother to ask about validation on the way out.
Years after leaving that world behind, I kind of see where he was coming from. While it’s true that making music on TV, then and now, can be riotously popular — there’s a long, pitchy line of success from American Idol to The Voice to the ever-escalating ratings of award shows — actually making up music on TV has always been a riskier proposition. Consider the degree of difficulty: A series like House M.D. can both tell us that Hugh Laurie is a medical genius and show us — all it takes is some jargon, a passing reference to lupus, and a bunch of rented EKG machines. But convincing the audience of a made-up musician’s legitimacy requires more than mascara and swagger. You need actual songs that could plausibly be hits — and if doing that were easy, there would be a lot more platinum plaques in the world. And a lot fewer Zack Attacks.
Still, there have been some encouraging recent exceptions. On ABC, Nashville has earned kudos for having an original soundtrack that is more compelling and grounded than the sudsy plot that surrounds it. And this past winter on Fox, Empire became the biggest thing on TV by integrating the rhythms and attention span of radio into its storytelling DNA. It’s reductive to say Empire is a TV show with pop songs; it is a pop song, with all the glitter and glorious artifice that entails. It’s worth noting, of course, that both shows have enlisted accredited sachems behind the scenes to add luster and experience: T Bone Burnett on Nashville and Timbaland on Empire. Neither is bringing his A-game, but the B sides are good enough to get by.
So if it’s possible to do it with country and hip-hop, why not rock and roll? I think the answer lies in the placement all three genres have in our culture. In 2015, country and hip-hop, despite their ascendance to the peak of the pop charts, remain essentially outsider music. Ambition is still baked into their narratives. It’s why we respect the grit of a banjo-packing striver busking on Music Row or a punchy MC passing out mixtapes in front of the Apollo; why — contra Maino — we generally don’t begrudge their eventual success. Taylor Swift and Drake, arguably the two biggest stars in pop, have made this ascent central to their celebrity. Both started from the bottom. Now they’re here.
Rock, on the other hand, has long since curdled into something more introverted and acrid. For proof, I can once again pull from my own back pages: Back in the ’00s, if I wrote a rave review of an indie group’s new album, my feedback would be evenly split between readers who were furious I was wasting ink on something so trivial and fans who were furious that I had dared to throw a spotlight on something so private and beloved. It’s a sensibility that I think has only increased in the Internet era. With the ability to be heard — via Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud, what have you — virtually guaranteed, smaller bands have fewer incentives to dream bigger. And with the same streaming platforms allowing rock fans to curate their own personal cocoons, the need to connect with a like-minded, larger fan base is diminished. Unlike its rivals, rock has become less social in the social media era. I find that its fans are often too busy looking down on each other to pay attention to what’s happening up onstage.1
So I won’t be surprised if many of them hate Denis Leary’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, premiering Thursday night on FX. They probably hate it already, sight unseen and sound unheard. I’ll admit that I, too, had my defensive hackles up for no good reason: How dare some aging comedian try to poke fun at an industry that, if we’re being honest, moved beyond parody years ago? The references will be all wrong. The riffs, too. After years spent yearning for TV to capture something fresh and original about rock, why settle for a cover band?
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. The most rock-and-roll thing about Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is how little it cares about other people’s opinions. Like the bands Leary so clearly idolizes — from the New York Dolls and the Pogues to his old pals the Afghan Whigs — what matters here isn’t authenticity. It’s fun. Sex&Drugs is a blowsy, casual comedy that hits most of the right notes, occasionally in the correct order. Leary seems more than happy to leave the high-pitched battles over relevance and dominance to the Lyons. Refreshingly, he just wants to play.
For proof of that, look no further than his character. Clad in ill-fitting pleather, his hair teased into a mullet that once had dreams of being a mane, Leary is Johnny Rock, a drug-hoovering, self-destructive frontman who’s blown every chance at the limelight he’s ever been given. Twenty-five years after shattering his last big break with the Heathens — a downtown Manhattan quartet that combusted on the day their album was released — Johnny is still oozing through the streets of SoHo, high on his own ego and a number of chemicals. Make fun of his stage name all you want, but I’ve seen plenty of real-life Johnny Rocks in my time in New York. You can find them halfheartedly hosting karaoke nights on the LES or stubbornly holding court at bars like Niagara, bragging about the time they did drugs with Ryan Adams, as if they had briefly shared the same going-up elevator as opposed to passing each other on escalators headed in opposite directions. Getting high is easy. Staying aloft is something else entirely.
From MTV to Rescue Me, Leary has always been a sympathetic crank, and he’s no different here. With his quick temper and sharp eyes, his Johnny cruises through the cleaned-up Bowery like a shark through a coral reef. Ava (Elaine Hendrix), Johnny’s backup singer and lover, offers sympathy. His agent (Josh Pais) offers considerably less. So when Gigi (Broadway veteran Elizabeth Gillies), a twentysomething daughter Johnny never knew he had, arrives in town wanting to get the band back together, he notices her checkbook well before her talent. (She’s got $200,000 from her mom to help kick-start her career, no strings attached, because a sitcom has to begin somewhere, right?) Here’s the thing about Johnny: He’s more than willing to sell out, provided there’s someone out there still willing to buy.
Soon enough, the Heathens, older but no wiser, are back in the studio. Drummer Bam Bam (Louie’s Bobby Kelly) is a sweet buffoon. Bassist Rehab (John Ales) pops pills like Tic Tacs. And guitarist Flash (John Corbett) is dripping with disdain: He’s actually making money now, touring with Lady Gaga. Backsliding with these bums is the last thing on his mind. But Gigi isn’t just rich. It turns out she’s twice the singer Johnny ever was, with four times the charisma. Why, exactly, she wants to collaborate with this gang of aging, dysfunctional hacks — the Heathens “make Metallica look like the goddamn Jonas Brothers,” fumes a shrink in the fifth episode — is never fully explained. The band’s shouty pub rock (think a D-minus Generation or a slightly less Mighty Bosstones) is a tougher sell today than it was in the pre-grunge ’90s. Still, their chemistry is better than their harmonies. With Gigi out in front, the Heathens (now rechristened the Assassins) suddenly have a chance to do all the things Johnny never got to do the first time around.
So, yeah, there’s a mushy father-daughter redemption story lurking at the corroded heart of Sex&Drugs, like a power ballad stashed on Side 2. But Leary, who wrote all 10 first-season episodes, knows how to structure a set list. The jokes on Sex&Drugs are so good-natured that it’s hard to fault them for being familiar. Early episodes choogle merrily on all the oldies: the allure of groupies, booze-as-muse, gullible Euro fans, and, of course, the epic tour rider. (In this, the Heathens may actually top Van Halen, thanks to requests ranging from 27 peaches and an owl to a masseuse that looks like Johnny Depp.) The hippest contemporary reference is Coldplay. The biggest guest star is Joan Jett.2
Soaking Sex&Drugs in dad-rock nostalgia is smart: You can’t accuse something of being uncool if it wasn’t trying in the first place. But simultaneously mocking it is smarter. Leary graciously allows the terrific Gillies to best him in nearly every battle, and their generation gap — at one point, each is shocked to discover that there is “another” Steve McQueen — works even better professionally than it does personally. At 50, Johnny is still devoted to “the bullshit rock star stuff”; a limo makes him happier than a high note. By contrast, Gigi is pure millennial: gushing about her pristine lifestyle (only hot tea with lemon for her, please) while greedily posting bikini selfies to Twitter. The notion that father and daughter are equally ridiculous is one of the show’s smarter, subtler gags.
I wish there were more of that sort of observational humor in Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll; too much of it feels closeted from anything remotely resembling reality. Leary has earned the right to work with his pals, but it’d be nice if he’d occasionally jam with someone outside of his comfort zone. (And one can only hope that Gillies’s contract includes a bonus for every time a fiftysomething man refers to her character’s “tits.”) Still, like its louche frontman, Sex&Drugs is awfully hard to dislike. Better to kill time with these charming burnouts than let the dream of a rock-and-roll television show fade away forever.