I’m takin’ what they’re givin’ ’cause I’m workin’ for a livin’

Some rock musicians are such huge celebrities that it’s hard for us to imagine that, at some point, they all were like the rest of us, toiling away at temporary, dead-end jobs, before they hit the jackpot and found fame and fortune.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that most stars came from humble beginnings which often included holding odd jobs that ranged from boring or unpleasant to exotic or bizarre.


Let’s take a look at 20 big rock stars and some of the curious lines of work they dabbled in when they were young and struggling:


Freddie Mercury, along with Queen drummer Roger Taylor, ran a market stall in London’s Kensington Market, selling their own artwork, along with second-hand clothes.  They enjoyed it enough to keep the vendor space open from 1969 until 1973, even after the release of Queen’s debut LP.  It wasn’t until late 1974 that they became stars when “Killer Queen” rocked the charts.

In the mid-’60s, Tom Waits was hired as a dishwasher at a pizza parlor in San Diego but was soon promoted to pizza cook.  He wrote about his experience in his song “The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone’s).”  Waits has never done well on the charts, but his music is widely revered for its honest lyrics and well-worn music.  You might want to check out “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” from his superb debut LP, “Closing Time.”

14433bdf569cbaf5ab48ae2b81661d62In 1975, already age 30, Debbie Harry had worked as a waitress at Max’s Kansas City club in New York City, and then spent a few months as a Playboy bunny in New York City’s Playboy Club.  She later dyed her hair bright blonde, and became a sensation as the lead singer of Blondie, with huge hits like “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me” and  “Rapture.”  She said she dealt with the clientele’s leers and gropes by dabbling in drugs to numb her to the experience.   “I was often half asleep and didn’t much notice, or care, what was going on.”

David Jones’s first job, at age 13, was as a delivery boy for a local butcher in a London suburb.  He used the money he earned to pay for saxophone lessons, and within three years, he became a professional musician and changed his name to David Bowie to differentiate himself from Davy Jones of The Monkees.  Suffice it to say Bowie’s extraordinary 40-plus career ensured there was no mistaking the two David Joneses.

Ozzie Osbourne, who soon afterwards found himself the front man of the first heavy metal band Black Sabbath, spent about nine months working in a slaughterhouse.  Mick-Jagger-mick-jagger-15979251-331-400“The smell was repulsive,” he said.  “I had to slice open the cow carcasses and get all the gunk out of their stomachs.  I used to vomit from it every day.”

When he was 18, Mick Jagger seriously weighed the advantages of pursuing his passion for rock and roll or continuing as a student at the London School of Economics, where he was working toward a degree in business with an eye toward journalism or politics.  I think we all know how it turned out — he helped write and perform some of the most iconic songs of the last half of the 20th Century.  But his business schooling also helped make him one of the richest rockers of all time.

1235677995521_fLong before “Maggie Mae” and “Tonight’s the Night” were #1 singles, Rod Stewart spent time working in Highgate Cemetery in London, mostly mapping out burial plots but also periodically digging graves.  He also did a stint working in a funeral parlor, greeting guests at wakes and driving hearses.

Patti Smith — famous for her influential 1975 debut album “Horses” and breakthrough “Easter” LP in 1978, which included her version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night” — worked at a toy manufacturing company for a few months, assembling boxes and sometimes testing toys before packaging.  “I guess it was kind of fun checking out  toys, but mostly they made me do the drudge work,” she recalled.  “The women who worked there were incredibly mean to me, I guess because I was too rebellious for them.  A horrible experience, for the most part.”

eb30a40e4268e198c64840a74d3d6a6c--simon-garfunkel-art-garfunkelAfter Simon & Garfunkel’s 1964 debut album (“Wednesday Morning 3AM”) stiffed, the duo went their separate ways.  Paul Simon headed to England and tried his hand at “busking,” playing for spare change in the London subways, but Art Garfunkel put his college degree to work teaching high school algebra in Brooklyn.  Apparently, he was pretty good at it, because the principal said he was sorry to see him go when “The Sound of Silence” was re-released (with a folk-rock arrangement) and rocketed to #1 in 1966, and the duo quickly reunited and went on to become superstars.

Madonna had always been ambitious, earning great grades and hoping to do well with her natural instinct for modern dance.   Although she won a scholarship for dance at the University of Michigan, she dropped out at age 20 and moved to New York City to pursue a professional career in dance, but she had no support and wondered how she’d survive with “about 35 bucks to my name.”  To help make ends meet, the future pop star and trendsetter worked the Dunkin’ Donuts counter for several months.  She would “live to tell” many other stories…

At age 18, Jimi Hendrix found himself in trouble with the law when he was twice caught riding in stolen cars.  Given the choice between jail time and military service, Hendrix enlisted, where he served at bases in California and Kentucky.  He completed paratrooper training but alienated his superior officers, often shirking his duties in favor of practicing guitar.  He managed to finagle an honorable discharge from the Army in 1962 after only one year, and immediately started playing gigs with various bands, including King Curtis, Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett and The Isley Brothers.  By 1967, he was an international sensation (“Are You Experienced?,” “Electric Ladyland”) before his untimely death in 1970.

Ross MacManus, a bandleader and musician in London in the ’50s, took the stage name Day Costello, and when his son Declan decided at age 17 to 40ceaa25da25caabfcb8e3f386522d71form a band, he adopted the name Elvis Costello as a tribute to his dad and his early rock hero.  To support himself in the mid-’70s, he worked as a data entry clerk at the London offices of Elizabeth Arden.  He also served as a computer operator for Midland Bank.

Born into poverty in South Carolina, James Brown showed an early predilection for music, and wanted to pursue it, but it took some time.  He was a boxer for a while as a teen, then got arrested for car theft and formed a gospel group in prison.  Later he worked as a truck mechanic, a shoeshine boy and a high school janitor. All that happened before, at age 22, he took his energy and amazing vocal ability to the top of the charts with the one-two punch of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good),” which earned him the nickname “the Godfather of Soul.”

Before donning face paint and becoming the menacing, long-tongued bass player of Kiss, Gene Simmons served as “an excellent typist” for an editor of the fashion department of Vogue magazine.  He also served a stint as a sixth grade teacher in New York’s upper West Side, focusing on art and music.  In recent years, apparently, he has helped his friends’ kids by typing some of their lengthy essay assignments.  His stage persona never had anything to do with any of this, evidently.

As a young boy, Keith Richards spent time watching his father play tennis at a local tennis club, and at 15, he was persuaded to spend a summer as a ballboy there.   He didn’t last long — he was prone to goof off, which embarrassed his father and angered his boss.  “I didn’t respond well to authority,” he chuckled.  “Still don’t.”  But his fifty-plus years as guitarist for The Rolling Stones shows he could give the finger to just about anyone.

elvis-aaron-presley-1From meager roots in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Presley and his family moved to Memphis when he was a teenager, and from there he pursued his dream to become a singer.  He did numerous auditions and demos for companies like Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, but nothing much happ-pened.  Meantime, he took a job as an electrician, and then a truck driver, for Crown Electric in Memphis.  One bandleader dismissed him with the comment, “Keep driving a truck, Elvis.  You’re not much of a singer.”  I think maybe that guy was wrong about that.

As a boy, Marvin Aday was a beefy Texas boy who decided he didn’t want to play football, as everyone thought he should, but instead got involved in high school drama, playing a part in “The Music Man.”  He moved to Los Angeles, and adopting his mother’s favorite dish to cook, he assumed the name Meat Loaf, hoping to make something of his acting dreams.  Sure enough, he played a key part in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” on stage and in the film version.  But things stalled, and he found himself putting in brief stints as a bouncer in various L.A. night clubs.  By 1977, Meat Loaf was a superstar, thanks to the work he did with Jim Steinman’s opus “Bat Out of Hell.”

Liv1467861721-1erpool was a tough place to grow up in the 1950s, still suffering from the effects of World War II.  For Richard Starkey, later known worldwide as Ringo Starr, it was even worse — he contracted appendicitis and then peritonitis as a youngster and spent much of his childhood in convalescence and under medical care.  Eventually Ritchie pursued a life as a drummer, but not before accepting a position as an apprentice at an industrial equipment manufacturer in Liverpool.  That lasted about four months before he joined Rory Storm and The Hurricanes, where he was admired by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and Ringo was asked to replace Pete Best on drums for The Beatles.  Perhaps you’ve heard of them?

Divorce and other circumstances meant Eddie Vedder‘s childhood was split between Evanston, Illinois and San Diego.  His interest in music, spiked by The Who’s “Quadrophenia” album, had him working in bands and cutting demos on home equipment.  To make ends meet, Vedder worked as a security guard at La Viencia Hotel in San Diego for a spell, but things came to abrupt end when he was discovered in a back room practicing guitar instead of being at his security post.  Eventually, Vedder became the lead singer of one of grunge rock’s most impressive bands, Pearl Jam, whose albums in the 1990s and 2000s (“Ten,” “Vs.,” ” Vitalogy,” “No Code”) routinely reached the Top Five of the US charts.

diana-ross-senior-photoIn 1960, Diana Ross became the first black employee at Hudson’s Department Store in Detroit who was allowed to work “outside the kitchen.”  She excelled as a saleswoman in the ladies fashion department because of her schooling in modeling, cosmetology and fashion at Cass Technical High School in Michigan.  Within four years, she was the lead singer in The Supremes, who had five consecutive #1 hits in 1964 (“Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop in the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again”) and many more big hits afterwards (“You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “Reflections,” “Love Child, ” “Someday We’ll Be Together”).


I’m learning to fly, around the clouds

When former Eagle and gifted guitarist Don Felder was in his early 20s, he gave guitar lessons at a Gainesville, FL, music store.  “One day this scrawny, blond-haired kid came in and wanted lessons,” he said in 2010.  “He already played bass and sang in a band, but he wanted to switch to guitar, so I started teaching him, and we became friends.  I remembering telling another teacher, ‘This kid is already really good.  He’s got what it takes to make it — the talent, the charisma and the commitment.'”

Unknown-7That blond-haired kid was Tom Petty.  And Felder was certainly right — he had what it took to make it, in a very big way.

The rock music world was shocked on Monday when word spread of the fatal heart attack Petty suffered at his Malibu home.  He and his band, The Heartbreakers, had just completed an extensive 40th Anniversary Tour with three sold-out shows at the Hollywood Bowl only a week earlier.

And now he’s gone, yet another rock hero taken too soon.  He was 66.

IMG_2069I used to review concerts for a Cleveland newspaper in the 1980s, and the other day I dug up a clipping of a piece I wrote about a Tom Petty concert in 1983.  While I confessed to being largely ambivalent about his records at that point, I readily admitted he had won me over with his live show.  “Petty and his band were superb, injecting a healthy dose of vitality and enthusiasm into his no-nonsense material.”  I labeled his music thusly:  “It isn’t heavy metal, or rhythm-and-blues, or English arty rock, or three-chord rockabilly.  It’s straightforward American rock ‘n’ roll, with emphasis on melody and rhythm.”

Petty was a true giant in the business, with 15 classic albums, a couple dozen now-standard rock radio hits, and some high-profile collaborations since his debut in 1976.  lat_petty043017big_19167598_8colHis music has offered “a more stripped down, passion-filled, elemental form of rock and roll,” as The LA Times‘ Randy Lewis put it.  His songs borrowed from his ’60s influences — The Byrds, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, as well as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash — to produce his own unique style.

“We always wanted very much to create our own sound,” Petty said in 2006.  “I tried to take whatever influences I had and make them meld together into something that was our own thing.  And we somehow did that.  I don’t know how.”

He was not “a rebel without a clue,” as the lyrics to “Learning to Fly” went.  He was instead a rebel with a passion, and a fierce determination to do things his way.  He famously stood up to corporate record companies and spoke on behalf of the average fan.  “I Won’t Back Down,” one of his best known tracks, is the more apt lyrical description of the man.

Bob-Dylan-Tom-Petty-sydney-1986-896x600Other rock music icons reacted swiftly to the news of Petty’s passing.  “It’s shocking, crushing news,” said Bob Dylan, with whom Petty teamed up in the late ’80s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.  “I thought the world of Tom.  He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I’ll never forget him.”

Bruce Springsteen added, “Down here on E Street, we’re devastated and heartbroken over the death of Tom Petty.  I’ve always felt a deep kinship with his music.  A great songwriter and performer.   Whenever we saw each other, it was like running into a long lost brother.  Our world will be a sadder place without him.”

Born in 1950 in Florida, Petty was among the thousands of American kids who saw The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and knew what they wanted to do.  “I saw that this was the way to do it.  You form a band, you write your own songs, you do everything you can to maintain control of your dream.  The first time you count four, and suddenly, rock and roll is playing — it’s bigger than life itself.  It was the greatest moment in my experience, really.”

He learned his chops in his first group, The Sundowners, and in lessons from Felder.  By 1970, he formed Mudcrutch, which included guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboardist Benmont Tench, who would become mainstays of the Heartbreakers.   The band enjoyed a local following and even won a record contract with Shelter Records, Leon Russell’s label, and relocated to L.A., but not much came of it, and Mudcrutch soon disbanded.  But TomPettyDebutCoverPetty had a solo contract, and he cut a few demos of original songs (“Breakdown,” “Anything That’s Rock ‘n Roll,” “American Girl” and others) with Campbell and Tench, adding Stan Lynch on drums and Ron Blair on bass.

As Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, this lineup did modest business on its first two LPs, charting first in England and eventually in the US.  “You’re Gonna Get It!”, the second LP featuring “I Need to Know” and “Listen to Her Heart,” reached a respectable #23 in 1978.  “I think we made the most of not knowing what the hell we were doing,” Petty told Warren Zane in his 2015 book, “Petty:  The Biography.”  “We were having a blast, living the rock ‘n’ roll dream, writing and recording our own music, performing all over the country.  It was a great time to be alive.”

But it was the band’s third LP, 1979’s “Damn the Torpedoes,” that truly launched Petty as 220px-TomPetty&theHeartbreakersDamntheTorpedoesa star, reaching #2 and selling three million copies on the strength of time-honored tracks like “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even the Losers,” “Don’t Do Me Like That” and “Louisiana Rain.”

Petty and the Heartbreakers toured relentlessly, first in support and eventually as headliners, as the venues and the crowds got bigger.  As the group returned to the studio for its fourth album, “Hard Promises,” MCA Records decided they would capitalize on their newfound success by slapping a $9.98 “superstar pricing” on the next release instead of the then-customary $8.98.  Petty balked, and withheld the master tapes in protest, which helped make the issue a popular cause among music fans.  When he threatened to rename the album “$8.98” to drive home his point, the label backed down.

More than 20 years later, Petty’s LP “The Last DJ” (2002) continued his argument on behalf of the common man, offering scathing criticism of the corporate mentality that TPATH-LastJD_cvrwas dominating the record business more than ever, at the expense of artistic concerns.  The lyrics to “Money Becomes King” yearn for the old days when average fans could afford concert tickets in great seats, before lip-synching, TV commercials, V.I.P. areas and other greed-driven developments changed the vibe:  “As the crowd arrived, as far as I could see, the faces were all different, there was no one there like me, they sat in golden circles, and waiters served them wine, and talked through all the music and paid John little mind, and way up in the nosebleeds, we watched upon the screen they hung between the billboards so cheaper seats could see…”

In a 2002 Rolling Stone interview, Petty said, “Everywhere we look, all they want is to make the most money possible.  This is a dangerous, corrupt notion.  It’s where you see the advent of programming on the radio, and radio research, all these silly things.  That has made pop music the wasteland it is today. Everything – morals, truth, art – is all going out the window in favor of profit.”

_96871101_6e361f15-deef-47f0-9c55-c34d3c3f39ccIn the ’80s and ’90s, though, Petty and the Heartbreakers were riding high with one success after another.  The “Hard Promises” sessions spawned not only “The Waiting” but also Petty’s superb duet with Stevie Nicks, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” which appeared on “Bella Donna,” Nicks’ huge solo debut.

Heartbreakers LPs “Long After Dark” (1982) and “Southern Accents” (1985) both were Top Ten hits.   A 1986 tour where Petty & Company backed Dylan broke attendance records at multiple venues.  And that experience led to the fun, musically solid merger of Petty and Dylan with George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison on “The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1,” which featured Petty’s vocals on “Last Night” and “End of the Line.”

In 1989, Petty decided to try a solo record (although he ended up using most of the Heartbreakers on most tracks anyway), and he ended up with perhaps his most popular album of all, the multi-platinum “Full Moon Fever,” with “Free Fallin’,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and “I Won’t Back Down.”  The follow-up project, 1991’s Heartbreakers LP “Into Tom_Petty_Full_Moon_Feverthe Great Wide Open,” nearly equalled the impact of “Full Moon,” with solid tracks like “Learning to Fly,” “Out in the Cold,” “King’s Highway” and the title cut.

Against Petty’s wishes, MCA released a “Greatest Hits” package in 1993, which included a new single, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”  He later acknowledged the compilation was an attractive option for the casual fan who didn’t already own the original albums, and indeed, the “Best Of” CD remained on Billboard’s Top 200 Album chart for more than six years.

Petty’s second solo album, 1994’s “Wildflowers,” again emphasized his acoustic side, with fine tunes like “Don’t Fade on Me,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “It’s Good to Be King,” “Only a Broken Heart” and the title song, which recall Neil Young and Dylan more than The Stones and The Beatles.

The late ’90s proved to be a challenging time for Petty, with a few more departures from his customary routine.  He and the band regrouped to provide soundtrack music for the Cameron Diaz-Jennifer Aniston film “She’s the One,” which included work by other artists as well.  Then the Heartbreakers lent their talents to Johnny Cash for his new record, “Unchained,” which won a Best Country Album Grammy.  But behind the scenes, Petty and his wife of 22 years divorced, which sent him into a spiral that included heroin use.  He bounced back somewhat by using the experience to write his darkest album yet, the Heartbreakers effort, “Echo.”  Then, after his friend Harrison died of cancer in 2001, Petty joined in a group effort with Lynne, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and others for the superb “Concert for George” concert and subsequent CD the following year.  Petty contributed covers of “Taxman,” “I Need You” and “Handle With Care.”

images-4So many of Petty’s songs, even those from later releases like the bluesy “Mojo” (2010) and the rocking “Hypnotic Eye” (2014), have hit resoundingly with his fan base, which, by the way, covers at least three generations of music lovers now.  “I know the songs mean a lot to people, and that means a lot to me,” said Petty recently.   “Rock ‘n’ roll is more than just something that you can manipulate into advertising, or whatever they do with them.  It means way more than that to me, and apparently to others as well.”

220px-Mudcrutch_album_coverIn 2007, Petty had reached a point in his career where he could indulge himself a bit, so he surprised fans and Heartbreakers colleagues alike by reuniting Mudcrutch for an album and a tour, and then a second LP in 2016.  Mike Campbell, a member of both groups, said, “The beauty of this is Tom wanted to connect with his old friends, and with the pure joy of revisiting the energy we started with.  It’s been very, very spiritual.  It’s commendable that he’d do something so generous.”

A few years back, Petty reflected on his career, and his strengths and weaknesses.  “I don’t have a trained singing voice, and I sure didn’t get into this to be a pinup,” he said with a chuckle.  “Some people are so good looking they can’t help but be a poster boy, but I’ve certainly never been saddled with that problem.

rs-203017-GettyImages-457038636-1“I wanted to be taken seriously as far as writing songs and making music are concerned.  As you’re coming up, you’re recognized song for song, or album for album.  What’s changed these days is that the man who approaches me on the street is more or less thanking me for a body of work – the soundtrack to his life, as a lot of them say.  And that’s a wonderful feeling.  It’s all an artist can ask for.”

R.I.P., Tom.  Although you left us an enviable catalog of great music, you and your brand of authentic American rock will be sorely missed.