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”).



And we’ll never be Royals

I figured for sure there would be an enormous amount of anniversary coverage this week of the day 20 years ago yesterday when Princess Diana of Wales died in a shocking 0auto accident in a Paris tunnel.

Consequently, I went ahead and started assembling a setlist of songs about Royals — kings, queens, princes, princesses.  A couple of my selections reference Lady Diana in particular, but most have more to do with the titles and the notion of royalty.  It’s kind of a loose, hodgepodge collection of music, but give it a chance.  Check out these songs on the Spotify playlist at the end of the column.  It’s just for fun.  And I think Diana would’ve liked that.


“Diana,” Bryan Adams, 1984

heaven-12Adams wrote this tune with veteran Canadian songwriter Jim Vallence, and although the lyrics don’t mention Lady Diana or Prince Charles by name, there’s little doubt it’s about the royal couple (Adams even admitted it in interviews).  The narrator is infatuated with “Diana” and criticizes her choice of husband — “The day that he married you, I nearly lost my mind, Diana, whatcha doing with a guy like him… He may have lots of dough but I know he ain’t right for you… Diana, she is queen of all my dreams…”  Not surprisingly, Adams was worried that they might take offense, so he left it off his hugely popular album “Restless” that year, instead relegating it to the B-side of his hit single, “Heaven.”  He performed it often in concert for many years, but upon her death, he retired the song permanently.  (It’s not available on Spotify and hard to find elsewhere, so if you have a copy of the single, you might want to hang on to it…)

51OsZUkXreL“Candle in the Wind,” Elton John, 1973/1997

When Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote the words to this classic in 1973, he was obsessed with Marilyn Monroe and her tragic tale of fame gone wrong and the relentless hounding of her by the media.  Twenty-four years later, when Lady Diana died while being aggressively pursued by the paparazzi, the Taupin/John team took the extraordinary step of writing new words to the song as a tribute to their fallen friend.  The new version, which began with “Goodbye England’s rose” instead of “Goodbye, Norma Jean,” became a record-setting international hit and the best-selling song in UK chart and Billboard chart history, holding the #1 position in a dozen countries for many weeks following her death.

1200x630bb“Diana,” Paul Anka, 1957

One of most popular love songs of the late ’50s period, “Diana” was written by Anka about a girl he had a crush on but barely knew.  He pined for her but she was a couple years older and most likely unattainable, which gives the song its angst that resulted in sales of nearly nine million copies.  Lady Diana wasn’t even born yet, so the song clearly has nothing to do with her…unless you want it to when you sing it at a karaoke bar.

0001451877“Pretty Princess,” Loggins and Messina, 1976

Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina were a duo by accident.  Loggins was pegged as a solo artist, and Messina was to be his producer, but Messina contributed so much to the debut album’s tracks (guitar, vocals, and several songs) that they were persuaded to proceed for five years as a successful duo.  On their final of five well-received studio albums, “Native Sons,” there’s a fantastic tune written and sung by Messina called “Pretty Princess” that tells a romantic tale of a married woman who gives in to the temptation of another man’s advances for one smoldering night.

00b86fc50a63d3354d00eb8fdcb24a40“The King of Hearts,” Procol Harum, 1991

One of the great underrated British progressive bands of the ’60s and ’70s, Procol Harum reunited in the early ’90s with a strong LP called “The Prodigal Stranger,” led by veteran alums Gary Brooker on vocals and keyboards and Robin Trower on guitar.  It didn’t get much attention, but there are at least four tracks worth checking out, including Brooker’s regal-sounding “The King of Hearts,” which compares the jockeying for position that occurs in many relationships with the playing of cards in a poker game.

Tommyalbumcover“The Acid Queen,” The Who, 1969

The legendary rock opera “Tommy,” as most everyone knows, is the story of a boy who is struck deaf, dumb and blind after seeing his father murder his mother’s lover.  In one attempt to find a cure, Tommy’s parents take him to a gypsy, a self-proclaimed “Acid Queen” who feeds him LSD to unlock the boundaries of his mind.  Pete Townshend wrote and sang the track, which is often paired with the subsequent instrumental piece, “Underture,” which approximates an acid trip.  Soul music dynamo Tina Turner, belting her heart out, played the part of The Acid Queen in the “Tommy” film in 1975.

51UOa0TuGBL“I Used to Be a King,” Graham Nash, 1971

One of the great lost classics from the Crosby/Stills/Nash/Young catalog is this track from Nash’s “Songs for Beginners” solo debut.  Several of the songs on the LP deal with his breakup with lover Joni Mitchell after an 18-month relationship, which had been chronicled more happily in songs like CSNY’s “Our House” and Mitchell’s “Willy” (Nash’s middle name).  In “I Used to Be a King,” Nash talks somewhat resentfully about how he used to be treated like royalty, but he’s now steeling himself against future relationships going bad:  “Someone is gonna take my heart, but no one is gonna break my heart again…” 

51-killer-queen“Killer Queen,” Queen, 1974

“She keeps Moet and Chandon in a pretty cabinet, ‘Let them eat cake,’ she said, just like Marie Antoinette, a built-in remedy for Kruschev and Kennedy, at anytime an invitation you can’t decline, caviar and cigarettes, well versed in etiquette, she’s extraordinarily nice, she’s a killer queen…”  Freddie Mercury wrote this track as a combination of admiration and indictment of all the pampered femme fatales out there who tease and manipulate men and then leave them by the wayside.  It turned out to be Queen’s commercial breakthrough, reaching #2 in the UK and #12 in the US.

the-police-king-of-pain-am-3“King of Pain,” The Police, 1983

This superb track from The Police’s last and best album, “Synchronicity,” represents composer Sting coming to grips with the pain involved in the breakup of his marriage and the looming dissolution of the band.  He recalled seeing sunspot activity one afternoon and remarked to his wife, “There’s a little black spot on the sun today… That’s my soul up there…”  She responded by poking fun at his self-pity:  “There he goes again, the king of pain.”  Sting formed a wonderfully poignant song around that exchange, and it ended up #3 on the US charts, following “Every Breath You Take”s trajectory.

51XhouV8ESL“Mississippi Queen,” Mountain, 1970

One of the best of the earliest heavy metal singles, this hard rock classic reached #21 in the spring of 1970.  Drummer Corky Laing, guitarist/vocalist Leslie West and bassist Felix Pappalardi co-wrote most of the material on Mountain’s debut LP, “Mountain Climbing!”  This track featured a feisty Cajun lady — West claims she was a real person — known all over the region as the Mississippi Queen, who could teach a man a thing or two “if you know what I mean.”  During recording, so many takes were required to get it right that Laing started counting off the time with a cowbell, and it became an integral part of the track.

Greggallman-laidback“Queen of Hearts,” Gregg Allman, 1973

The Allman Brothers Band had endured two tragic deaths and still emerged in 1973 with a #1 album (“Brothers and Sisters”) and a #2 single (“Ramblin’ Man”).  Still, Gregg Allman was writing songs the other members rejected, so he went off on his own to produce a strong solo LP, “Laid Back.”  The highlight is “Queen of Hearts,” a smoky, bluesy, jazzy piece in which Allman, a notoriously unfaithful guy in his relationships, wistfully fights sadness and wasted time by devoting himself, however fleetingly, to his queen of hearts.

Beatles_-_Abbey_Road“Her Majesty,” The Beatles, 1969

A brief, tongue-in-cheek ditty Paul McCartney wrote as an affectionate nod to the Queen.  It’s hard to imagine now, but this song fragment was originally slated to be placed in the middle of the “Abbey Road” Side Two medley, between Lennon’s two tracks, “Mean Mister Mustard” and “Polythene Pam.”  It would have been a jarring distraction there, I think, and spoiled the momentum.  Indeed, at one point in the editing process, McCartney himself said, “Take it out, it’s just a piece of fluff, it doesn’t matter.”  Studio engineers had been told never to discard any Beatles tape, so the 30-second snippet was tacked on past the leader tape on the “Abbey Road” masters.  When McCartney listened to the playback and “Her Majesty” suddenly arrived 15 seconds after the album had ended, he said, “Perfect!  Leave it right there.  What a great P.S. to the fans!”

189114“God Save the Queen,” The Sex Pistols, 1977

Despite being banned by the BBC, The Sex Pistols’ scathing diatribe “God Save the Queen” was at the top of the UK charts at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee.  Co-songwriter Johnny Rotten dismissed those who saw the song as an attack on England:  “You don’t write ‘God Save the Queen” because you hate the English race.  You write it because you love them and you’re fed up with them being mistreated.”  The 1970s were particularly hard on Britain’s working class, which helped bring on the anger and outrage of the punk rock movement.  The song made almost no impact in the US, although the punk movement here embraced it, and Rolling Stone ranked it one of the “500 songs that shaped rock and roll.”

954b84731f57791712c2455d9fa56e39.1000x998x1“Dancing Queen,” ABBA, 1977

An ear worm if there ever was one.  The Swedish foursome enjoyed a number of hits in the US, the UK and elsewhere, but none bigger than this disco anthem that dominated the charts worldwide in the early months of 1977.   The lyrics describe a 17-year-old young and sweet dancing queen “having the time of your life” as she searches the discos for her fantasy dancing king.  It was the #1 song in 17 different countries, and you can still count on hearing it at weddings and karaoke bars today.

In_the_Court_of_the_Crimson_King_-_40th_Anniversary_Box_Set_-_Front_cover.jpeg“The Court of the Crimson King,” King Crimson, 1969

One of the recognized anthems of the progressive rock era, although not commercially popular, this 10-minute track from the album of the same name offers some arresting Robert Fripp guitar and a young Greg Lake handling lead vocals.  It crystalizes the regal, quasi-classical, quasi-haunting sound that other bands borrowed over the next several years (Rick Wakeman, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis).  It occurs to me that this piece would make a hell of a great soundtrack song for use in “Game of Thrones.” (Note:  The track included on the Spotify playlist is from a 2016 live LP without Lake on vocals.)

1828771“Kings,” Steely Dan, 1972

Every single track on Steely Dan’s debut LP, “Can’t Buy a Thrill,” is fabulous, but one of my personal faves is this infectious little number with typically obtuse lyrics that are open to interpretation.  Some think the line “We’ve seen the last of Good King Richard” refers to Nixon, and “Raise up your glass to Good King John” is a toast to Kennedy, but Donald Fagen denies this, saying it’s just about how kings’ reigns typically didn’t last long, thanks to brutal wars and court skullduggery.

prince_and_the_new_power_generation-my_name_is_prince_s_9“My Name is Prince,” Prince, 1992

The man named Prince Rogers Nelson decreed in 1992 that he would henceforth be referred to as a unique symbol, a stylized combination of the astrology-inspired symbols for Mars/man and Venus/woman.  Still, he couldn’t help kicking off the new album with a single called “My Name is Prince,” just to make sure everyone was on board with his new identity.  The lyrics proudly touted his funky musical prowess, but also decried what happens to people once they reach the heights of fame:  “My name is Prince, I don’t want to be king, ’cause I’ve seen the top and it’s just a dream…”  

maxresdefault-1“Royals,” Megan Davies and Emily Hackett, 2013

You can listen to the hugely successful Lorde single as often as you want, but I still prefer the remake by these supremely talented, Nashville-based singers.  It shows far more savvy, more melody and more harmony than the original.  Their music video of “Royals” has registered more than 4.5 million hits on YouTube, making it one of the most popular covers of the past few years.  The song’s lyrics, by the way, aren’t really about British royalty; Lorde is referring to the superstar artists in the music business, who she disparages for living a rarefied, materialistic lifestyle.


Honorable mention:

King Creole,” Elvis Presley, 1958; “Queen of All My Days,” American Flyer, 1976; “Sun King,” The Beatles, 1969; “Pearly Queen,” Traffic, 1968; “The King Must Die,” Elton John, 1970;  “Little Queen,” Heart, 1977; “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, 1992; “I’m a King Bee,” The Rolling Stones, 1964; “Queen and Country,” Jethro Tull, 1974; “I Had a King,” Joni Mitchell, 1968; “Princess,” Elton John, 1982; “Kings and Queens,” Aerosmith, 1977; “Little Queenie,” Chuck Berry, 1959; “King of Hollywood,” The Eagles, 1979.