It is said that the golden age of deranged rock stars is over. Gone are the TV-throwing, groupie-loving, drug-abusing stars that our parents idolized and subsequently forsook when parenthood came. In many ways, the legendary anecdotes about these rock stars’ antics were inseparable from the music and won them legions of adoring fans. Most of today’s stars tiptoe around controversy and focus more on informing their social media followers about the banal events of their daily lives. The worst crimes modern musicians are guilty of are tempestuous love lives. But is the near-extinction of crazy rock stars to be lamented?
You can make your own mind up as you peruse this list of history’s 20 craziest rock stars. Here, we will look at the lives and crimes of some of the 20th century’s biggest stars. But though this list contains some of the usual suspects – John Bonham, Keith Moon, Ozzy Osbourne – it is truly a connoisseur’s collection, and doubtless, you will not have heard of a few musicians whose obscurity should not detract from the decadence and eccentricity of their behavior. So dig out your dad’s dusty old vinyl, pour yourself a stiff Jack Daniels and coke, and enjoy!
1. Lemmy was kicked out of his first band for his excessive drug use but didn’t let up
Lemmy Kilmister rose to fame as the bassist for the acid-drenched space rock band, Hawkwind, but was kicked out for taking too many drugs. Lemmy’s iconic band, Motörhead, was named after the nickname Hawkwind gave him for his overindulgence in amphetamine and cocaine. A hard drinker and drug user for most of his life, as long ago as 1980 Lemmy was refused a blood transfusion on the grounds that ‘I had become so toxic, mostly from all the speed and alcohol, that fresh blood would have killed me’. He also bedded over 1000 women over his miraculously long life.
Lemmy was known as much for his appetite for sex, drugs, and alcohol as for Motörhead, but his relentless daily diet of 40-Marlboro-Red and a bottle of Jack Daniels actually helped to hone his distinctive, gravelly singing voice. He did make one concession to old age, however. Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2011, he swapped Jack Daniels and coke for vodka and orange. Despite his great fame, Lemmy remained a down-to-earth man, unlike some of the other prima donnas on this list. His death on Christmas Eve 2015 forever ruined the holiday season for millions around the world.
2. Jerry Lee Lewis was arrested at Graceland with a loaded gun
It is a miracle that ‘The Killer’ is still knocking around at the age of 82. His dynamic stage presence, and general mistreatment of the piano, were echoed by a tempestuous private life enjoyed in fifth gear. Jerry developed an addiction to prescription pills in the early sixties, and at its peak would quite literally take pills by the fistful. He washed these down with gallons of whiskey, and this diet helped to fuel his violent and arresting stage show. Simultaneously, he developed a worrying love of firearms, and took pistols and machine guns both on tour and on stage!
Drugs, alcohol, and guns don’t mix, and The Killer almost lived up to his nickname when he accidentally shot his own bassist with a .357 Magnum. Some still believe that he murdered his fifth wife in 1983, which he strongly denies. In 1976, he was also arrested outside Elvis’s mansion, Graceland, outrageously drunk on champagne and wielding a firearm. He still maintains that Elvis had requested his presence. Most controversially, he almost hijacked his own career when he married his 13-year-old cousin in the late 1950s. As of 2018, The Killer has been married 7 times and still performs live.
3. John Bonham rode a motorcycle through a hotel lobby… twice
John Bonham’s legendary status as a hell-raiser is such that including him on this list seems almost lazy. However, it would be remiss to exclude the lynchpin of Led Zeppelin, the band that invented the hotel-trashing tradition and defiled a groupie with a red snapper (yes, the fish). A talented and powerful drummer, Bonham’s antics included riding a motorcycle through a hotel lobby twice, numerous drink-fueled assaults, and sleeping with countless fans. Even his decadent bandmates struggled to deal with an inebriated Bonham. Oddly, he also purchased a 100-acre farm in England, which bred award-winning Herefordshire Cattle. Go figure.
Where Led Zeppelin’s guitarist, Jimmy Page, dabbled in strange, esoteric practices (including buying the Satanist Aleister Crowley’s old house by Loch Ness), Bonham’s excesses were more straightforward rock’n’roll debauchery. Unfortunately, his capacity for alcohol finally failed him in 1980 when, at the age of 32, he died after one mammoth drinking session too many. The coroner’s report revealed that Bonham had sunk the equivalent of 40 shots of vodka over a day, and choked on his own vomit. Bonham’s importance to Led Zeppelin was such that they disbanded immediately after his death, only reforming for a one-off show in 2007.
4. Keith Moon: they didn’t call him ‘Moon the Loon’ for nothing!
Drummers are proverbially crazy, and Bonham’s close friend, Keith Moon of The Who, certainly lived up to the reputation. Nicknamed ‘Moon the Loon’, Moon’s energetic style was crucial to the band’s legendary sound. He loved explosives, and used them not only in his own performances but would hide M-80s in friends’ drum kits. As well as destroying his own equipment on stage, he once responded to being booed off stage in Saskatchewan by chopping up all the furniture in his hotel room with an axe he brought with him: ‘just trying to keep myself out of trouble, mate’, he explained.
Beyond wanton vandalism, Moon’s main indulgence was pills. Pills fuelled both Moon’s onstage performances and personal life, which included such memorable moments as knocking his own front teeth out whilst naked at his 21st birthday party in Flint, Michigan. The Who were politely asked never to return to Flint. Alcohol was another indulgence, and through the 1970s Moon quaffed two bottles of champagne and two bottles of brandy on quiet days around the house. His love of groupies was also to cost him dearly when he returned from a US tour and gave his long-suffering wife the clap.
Moon’s love of practical jokes was legendary. He had a public broadcast system installed on his Rolls Royce and would drive around London’s suburbs making convincing and terrifying public service announcements. Bands touring with The Who could expect to encounter exploding toilets, have their equipment tampered with, and Moon filling their beds with realistic toy spiders. Unfortunately, the drink, drugs, and reckless regard for personal safety caught up with the self-proclaimed ‘world’s greatest Keith Moon-type drummer’ in 1978. On 7th September, Moon died after overdosing on pills ironically prescribed to help him sober up. Like Bonham, he was just 32.
5. Jim Morrison was arrested multiple times for indecency
Jim Morrison’s erotic stage presence, controversial lyrics, and beguiling persona made The Doors one of the biggest bands in the world. Unfortunately, his long hair, promiscuity, and substance abuse often brought him into conflict with the conservative establishment. In 1967, Morrison was maced by a New Haven police officer after being found with a girl before a performance, and his tirade against the force in that evening’s show saw him arrested for public obscenity. In 1969, he was again arrested for encouraging his audience to strip naked and allegedly exposing himself in Miami (he was posthumously pardoned in 2010).
Like many in the sixties, Morrison experimented with drugs, but like many of his musical peers, he also wildly overindulged. Morrison alternated between heavy drinking and dropping LSD, which he believed helped his creative powers, and also indulged in speed. Unfortunately, far from helping him, these habits actually curtailed his career. According to a psychopathology journal article, ‘Jim Morrison is an exemplary case showing that heavy drinking and the abuse of LSD, mescaline, and amphetamines damages the capacity to realize creative motivation’. Reclusive, overweight, and bearded, the former ‘Lizard King’ died in Paris at the age of 27.
6. Captain Beefheart ran his band like the Manson Family
Captain Beefheart was the even cooler, less-famous, drug-taking version of his childhood friend, Frank Zappa. Although he never achieved mainstream success, Beefheart’s magnum opus, Trout Mask Replica, is a staple of ‘greatest albums ever’ lists. To prepare for the challenging and boundary-pushing release, Beefheart ran his band like a religious cult, exercising terrifying levels of control over their emotions and creative input, and feeding them a cup of soybeans a day for eight months of solid rehearsing. Although Beefheart maintained that he did not take drugs, listening to Trout Mask Replica and interviews with his surviving bandmates suggests otherwise.
Drummer John French recalled how he was ‘screamed at, beaten up, drugged, ridiculed, humiliated, arrested, starved, stolen from, and thrown down a half-flight of stairs’ by Beefheart. The Captain also drank heavily, which may lie behind some of his unusual methods of band management. His eccentricity will never be equaled: he had a four-octave range, and thousands of record company executives thirsting to sign him, but Beefheart marched to the beat of his own drum, and instead released baffling songs like ‘Neon Meate Dream of an Octafish’. After releasing Ice Cream for Crow in 1982, Beefheart became a reclusive painter.
7. Keith Richards snorted his dead father’s ashes
Over his miraculously long life, Keith Richards has been busted for drug possession on numerous occasions, and in 1977 police raided his London home found heroin, marijuana, Mandrax tablets, a rifle, a handgun, and 110 rounds of ammunition. He was cleared of all 25 charges against him, thanks to a wonderful lawyer. In 1966, he was tripping so hard on acid during a party at his Sussex mansion that he thought the police raiding his house were ‘blue dwarves’.
On the Stones’ 1975 US tour, Richards snorted cocaine after every song, and around the same time he survived smoking cannabis laced with strychnine. In 2002, aged 59, he snorted his dead dad’s ashes: ‘he was cremated, and I couldn’t resist, he explained. In the late 1980s, he stayed awake for nine days straight, then fell asleep standing up. Only recently has Richards showed any sign of slowing down. Aged 74, he is finally sober because ‘drugs are so bland these days… anyway, I’ve done ’em all. But fear not: ‘I’m not saying I’m definitely off all of this stuff.
8. Ozzy Osbourne bit the heads off doves and a bat
Where to start with Ozzy Osbourne? Whole books deal with the man’s excesses since he first shuffled onto the stage with Black Sabbath in 1968. One year, he took acid every day, ‘to see what would happen. Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe (see below) once saw him snort an entire line of ants by a swimming pool. Whilst in Black Sabbath, he developed such a penchant for cocaine that he and his bandmates had the stuff flown in by private plane. Eventually, even the easy-going, stoned hippies in Sabbath got sick of Ozzy’s drug habit and sacked him in 1978.
Unsurprisingly, Ozzy can’t remember many of the following incidents. Promoting his debut solo album, Blizzard of Ozz, an inebriated Ozzy bit the heads off two live doves in a publicity stunt gone wrong. He topped this by biting the head off a live bat on stage, albeit mistaking it for a toy. Most notoriously, his long-suffering wife, Sharon, took to hiding his clothes to stop him sneaking out and partying every night on tour in 1982. Undaunted, Ozzy simply donned her evening gown, got unbelievably wasted, and was arrested at 9 am the next morning whilst urinating on the Alamo Cenotaph.
Again promoting Blizzard of Ozz in 1980, Ozzy was having dinner with CBS Records executives in Germany when he grew bored. Climbing on the table, Ozzy began a sultry striptease, goose-stepped naked across the table, urinated in the wine carafe, kissed the chief executive on the lips, and then dangled his testicles in the receptacle for good measure. Despite Black Sabbath’s (unwanted) association with Satanism, Ozzy is actually a committed Christian, but this didn’t stop him accidentally drugging a vicar who ate a slice of cake laced with Afghan hashish. The confused vicar woke up three days later.
9. Steven Tyler spent $6 million on drugs
Steven Tyler and bandmate Joe Perry were known as the ‘Toxic Twins’ during their drug-fueled 1970s heyday. One night their band, Aerosmith, was so high on cocaine and heroin that they managed only three songs before one member lost consciousness: details are inevitably hazy. Aerosmith even played the same song twice by accident in the same show several times. In his autobiography, Tyler estimates that he has spent over $6 million on drugs: ‘I snorted my plane, I snorted my house’, he poetically muses. Incredibly, Perry once ran up $80,000 of room service partying with the band – in 1979.
Perry has also confirmed rumors that the band employed a ‘cocaine roadie’ to keep them supplied during shows. Things got so bad that, when they reformed in the 1980s, Aerosmith couldn’t remember their own songs, and Tyler even suggested that they cover some hits he liked. These were, in fact, Aerosmith songs. Tyler and Aerosmith also indulged heavily in sex, and the ‘Toxic Twins’ both ended up with crabs from an ill-advised group sex session. But does Tyler regret his hell-raising days? ‘If it wasn’t for Peruvian marching powder, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did’.
10. Al Jourgensen was addicted to heroin for 20 years
Al Jourgensen is the frontman of pioneering industrial metal band, Ministry. Ministry emerged just as Aerosmith was cleaning up their act, and more than made up for the global reduction in drug-addicted musicians. When Warner Brothers gave the band $750, 000 to make the album Psalm 69, Jourgensen said it disappeared ‘up our arms and … up our noses’. Such heavy drug use has produced some legendary anecdotes, including the time Jourgensen blew up Ministry’s tour bus with them on it with a firework. He also beat up R Kelly for ‘freaking out’ his daughter and urinating on his piano.
Unfortunately, not all of Jourgensen’s stories about drug addiction are so entertaining. He contracted Hepatitis C from using a contaminated needle, narrowly survived overdoses on several occasions, and had a gangrenous toe amputated after a needle wound became infected. He was once only a stone’s throw from losing an arm to a spider bite suffered whilst napping on a dealer’s couch. After 20 years of heroin addiction, Jourgensen finally said goodbye to drugs forever when an ulcer in his gastrointestinal tract exploded and he lost 65% of his blood. Jourgensen now contents himself with political protest and extensive body art.
11. Nikki Sixx died and came back to life… then overdosed again
Nikki Sixx was the bassist and main songwriter for Mötley Crüe, one of the biggest rock bands of the 1980s. In the early days on Sunset Strip, Mötley Crüe became one of the most dangerous groups to see live, with concerts often ending in fights, and the parties at the band’s shared house rarely stopped until the early hours. Money and fame simply meant more drugs, strippers, and alcohol – and Sixx developed a heroin addiction that nearly killed him. In fact, it did, clinically, for two minutes. After a shot of adrenalin directly to the heart, Sixx immediately overdosed again.
Not unlike the dynamic (drugged up) duo from Aerosmith, Sixx had a partner in crime, Tommy Lee. The pair, known as the ‘Terror Twins’, would egg one another on to push themselves to wilder and wilder extremes, and on one tour of Europe, they would smash bottles over each other’s heads and swallow light bulbs whole for fun. Heroin addiction and abuse every other drug under the sun also brought many crippling low points: ‘there is something about spending Christmas alone, naked, sitting by a Christmas tree gripping a shotgun, that lets you know your life is spinning dangerously out of control’, he mused.
12. Vince Neil killed his friend while driving while drunk – to go get more booze
With the wildly infamous antics of Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee, Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil is often forgotten. Neil’s main rock star passions were drugs, alcohol, and sex. And lots of it. Neil recalls one particular highlight in his life: ‘looking down on it from the helicopter, with a bottle of Jack in my left hand, a bag of pills in my right hand, and a blond head bobbing up and down in my lap, I felt like the king of the world’. Neil’s philandering ways saw him sleep with the most beautiful and iconic women of the 1980s.
In 1984, Mötley Crüe hosted yet another party, when the alcohol ran out. Both terribly intoxicated, Neil and Razzle, the drummer of Finnish glam metal band Hanoi Rocks, went to replenish supplies at a liquor store. Perhaps inevitably, Neil’s Pantera collided with an oncoming car, killing Razzle and leaving the occupants of the other vehicle with severe brain damage. A distraught Neil was given 30 days in jail, 5 years’ probation, 200 hours of community service, and ordered to pay a $2.6 million compensation bill. The episode still haunts Neil, and he believes that his sentence should have been harsher.
Mötley Crüe fans will be shocked that we’ve got this far without telling the infamous ‘egg burrito’ story. Well, here it is. In their heyday, Mötley Crüe struggled to balance having sex with fans and maintaining relationships with long-term girlfriends. Their solution? Continuing their infidelity, and hiding the olfactory evidence of having sex with dozens of women a week by rubbing their intimate parts with egg burritos, in order to mask the scent. ‘We would tell our girlfriends, “Oh, we dropped the burritos in our laps”. The girlfriends thought we were a bunch of clumsy slobs’, chuckles Neil. Yuck.
13. Marilyn Manson smoked drugs laced with human remains
Marilyn Manson was the undisputed public enemy number one throughout the 1990s. Aligning himself with Charles Manson, becoming an ordained minister of the Church of Satan, and naming an album Antichrist Superstar shocked millions of conservative Americans, who picketed his concerts and petitioned for a blanket ban on Manson’s albums. Early concerts saw a mixture of blasphemy and violence against himself, bandmates, and audience alike, and Manson often received fellatio on stage. Recording Antichrist Superstar in New Orleans, Manson and his band found old bones poking out of the ground in a graveyard near their studio… and smoked them.
Manson is a complicated figure, by equal parts an intelligent and articulate man yet also a drug addict who has made some questionable decisions and been arrested on numerous occasions (see above). An appearance on the Phil Donahue show in 1995 illustrates this. In full androgynous make-up and stage gear, Manson told an appalled, conservative audience some home truths: ‘I think parents should raise their kids better or someone like Marilyn Manson is going to’. In 1999, Manson was unjustly blamed for the Columbine Shooting. His intelligent and thought-provoking response, in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, is worth seeking out.
14. ‘Dead’ of Mayhem used to inhale the scent of death from a crow in a bag
You probably haven’t heard of Per Yngve ‘Dead’ Ohlin, but you sure won’t forget him in a hurry. Dead was the frontman of the pioneering Norwegian black metal band, Mayhem, for three years between 1988 and 1991. Though he would have hated being labeled a rock star, Dead’s concert performances fit the bill. The band wore scary make-up like others before them, which they called ‘corpse paint’. Dead cut himself on stage, and prepared for performances by burying his clothes for days to smell of rot and inhaling the fumes of a dead crow he kept in a bin bag.
This bizarre ritual allowed Dead to perform shows ‘with the stench of death in his nostrils. In 1991, Dead lived up to his stage name and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. His Monty Python-esque suicide note simply read: ‘Sorry about the mess’. Finding Dead’s body, his bandmates removed fragments of the skull to make necklaces, made lumps of gore into a broth that they ate, and took photographs of the carnage. One of these bloody images became the cover art for a bootleg live album, Dawn of the Black Hearts. It’s what Dead would have wanted.
15. Iggy Pop once defecated on stage and cut himself at every show
Iggy Pop today is a perennially shirtless, leathery, reptilian icon of a bygone age. But in his pomp, Iggy was one of the most dangerous and self-destructive performers in the world. Iggy’s on-stage antics – picking fights with the crowd, cutting and exposing himself – made his first band, The Stooges, irresistible to teenagers wishing to rebel. The band, and most of all Iggy, had serious drug problems to go with the legal issues arising from their live performances and disbanded several times. On one occasion in 1973, a bikini-clad Iggy defecated behind an amplifier then threw the excrement at the crowd.
All that cocaine, heroin, and pills made Iggy utterly fearless. He is widely credited with inventing the stage dive. In 1977, he responded to being heckled by bikers in Warren, Michigan, by performing a 45-minute version of Louie, Louie with improvised lyrics that insulted the leather-clad gang, then challenging them all to a fight, single-handed. He lost. If you want to get a sense of Iggy’s drug problem and wacky sense of humor, there are numerous bemusing interviews on YouTube. Now sober, Iggy had aged incredibly well and spends his days practicing Qigong. He still performs, and frequently records new music.
16. Axl Rose incited numerous riots and spent $13 million and 15 years recording a dreadful album
Although he has done his fair share of drugs, and much of his strange behavior can be attributed to an alcohol problem, Axl is chiefly on this list for his diva-like personality. Axl frequently turns up late to Guns’n’Roses shows, to the fury of his long-suffering fans, for spurious reasons, including once because he was leisurely finishing a roast dinner. Over the years, Axl’s poor timekeeping has frequently kept fans waiting several hours, and even when he finally makes an appearance there is no guarantee that he will play more than a few songs. It depends on what mood he’s in.
Axl certainly likes doing things his own way. In the early 1990s, he killed a moth with a shotgun instead of a swatter like a normal person. He has been arrested numerous times after reacting badly to everything from having his baggage checked at airports and objecting to having his photo taken at concerts. In 1993, Guns’n’Roses set about recording Chinese Democracy. $13 million and 15 years (during which the other members of Guns’n’Roses were either fired or quit because of Axl’s erratic behavior) later, the prize turkey that is Chinese Democracy was finally released to a changed and underwhelmed world.
17. Dave Davies’s temper got The Kinks banned from America
Dave Davies found fame in his late teens as the lead guitarist of The Kinks, the English band who is sometimes credited with inventing heavy metal (on the song, ‘You Really Got Me’). Despite their great success, The Kinks were a wildly dysfunctional band, with Davies constantly fighting his older brother, Ray, the band’s lead singer. Where Ray responded to fame by settling down with his childhood sweetheart, Dave, who had been expelled from school at the age of 15 for being caught having underage sex, responded by racking up a significant drug habit and a litany of sexual conquests.
Dave was extremely volatile. On stage in 1965, he started a fight with the band’s drummer, Mick Avory, who responded by knocking the cocky guitarist out with a cymbal stand. Such common incidents, and brawling with staff from the Dick Clark show, got The Kinks banned from America for four years and prevented them from achieving global stardom. Ray was no shrinking violet, either, and once sprinted 6 miles across London to punch his agent. Dave and Ray still hate each other: whilst Dave recovered from a major stroke at Ray’s house in 2004, they argued so much that Dave left.
18. Courtney Love existed on drugs and sugar
Courtney Love can lay claim to the title of ‘most controversial woman in rock’. From her troubled teenage years as a drug user and stripper, she rose to mega-stardom as Kurt Cobain’s wife and lead singer of the band Hole. Hole concerts were chaotic and peppered with inebriated rants, Love flashing the audience, and fighting. She first used heroin at Charlie Sheen’s house in the early 1990s, and her addiction was so bad that she continued to shoot up during her pregnancy. Owing to her erratic persona, and no small amount of jealousy, conspiracy theorists have accused her of murdering Cobain.
Love has been arrested numerous times. Long-haul flights, in particular, seem to bring out the worst in her. She was arrested for intimidating stewards in 1995 after refusing to take her feet off the window. In 2003, her violent confrontation with a stewardess grounded a plane until she was arrested. The same year, she was arrested outside her manager’s house after breaking windows and threatening to burn them down. Sadly, her life is still a battle against addiction. In a restraining order filed in 2009, her daughter alleged that Love existed on ‘Xanax, Adderall, Sonata and Abilify, sugar, and cigarettes.
19. Rick James spent $7,000 a week on cocaine and kidnapped two women
Rick James slapped his bass to funk stardom in the 1970s, but his love of music was in constant competition with his other great loves: drugs and sex. He developed early in both respects, losing his virginity at 9 and taking heroin and marijuana in his mid-teens. These two passions landed him in legal difficulties, which for a long time prevented him from reaching the heights of his hated rivals, George Clinton and Prince. But when his star finally did rise, so too did his use of cocaine and the number of broken hearts he left in his strutting wake.
Throughout the 1980s, James covered the windows of his Beverley Hills mansion with tinfoil to smoke crack in peace. Over a 5-year period, James spent $7, 000-a-week on cocaine. His increasing dependency resulted in some harrowing and strange incidents. In 1991, he and his future wife were arrested for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman during a, particularly heavy cocaine binge. Whilst on bail for the crime, the pair kidnapped and beat another woman for 20 hours. James was convicted of both kidnappings and spent 2 years in Folsom Prison. He died in 2004, obviously with cocaine in his blood.
20. GG Allin ate his own feces and attacked his fans
Rick James certainly took things way too far, but in this, he is surely outdone by GG Allin. Born to religious parents, GG’s real name was actually Jesus Christ Allin, because his father was convinced that the boy was the son of God. Instead, he grew up to be the most disgusting and mentally disturbed rock star in history. Allin’s concerts with his bands, the Texas Nazis and the Murder Junkies, usually involved him stripping naked, defecating, then smearing himself with (or eating) his own feculence and attacking the audience. He also cut himself and inserted things into his rectum.
You will not be surprised to hear that Allin was arrested 52 times, for his antics both on and off stage, and suffered from a serious addiction to heroin and alcohol. After numerous threats to commit suicide on stage, Allin finally died in 1993. That day, he had been chased from his final concert, naked and covered with blood and feces, through the streets of Manhattan, before attending a party where he overdosed on heroin. Allin called himself ‘the last true rock and roller’, but we are surely all relieved that no one has since tried to take his crown.
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