It can be argued that rock lyrics largely became self-aware upon the 1965 arrival of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Many Dylan theorists identify the song’s “Miss Lonely” character, who once was the toast of the town and now is down and out, to be doomed art world superstar Edie Sedgwick. What’s noteworthy here is that the first rock anthem to take a profoundly reflective point of view focused on the pain and disappointments of life once you’re fawned over and famous.
Since then, rock stars have been bellyaching about their own plight as, well, rock stars by way of any medium they onto which they can get their hands and/or egos.
This basis for complaining has resulted in movies such as the Monkees’ brilliant psychedelic suicide note Head (1968) to Paul Simon’s misfire One-Trick Pony (1980), as well as in tragedies on par with Kurt Cobain’s lamenting in his suicide note about how profoundly troubled he was by rock stardom.
First and foremost, though, some great rockers who found themselves at odd with the bountiful fruits of their labored have pondered the conundrum with some very great pieces of music.
Here now are the Top 10 songs about how bad it sucks to be a rock star.
“Empty Spaces/What Shall We Do Now?” – Pink Floyd (1979)
Lyrical Lamentation: “Shall we buy a new guitar? Shall we drive a more powerful car?/ Shall we work straight through the night?/ Shall we get into fights?… Keep people as pets?/ Train dogs? Race rats?/ Fill the attic with cash?/ Bury treasure? Store up leisure?/ But never relax at all/ With our backs to the wall”
On Pink Floyd’s landmark 1979 double album The Wall, “Empty Spaces” leads directly into the classic rock radio staple “Young Lust.” The original lyric sheet, however, contains the words for a song that doesn’t appear on the record, “What Shall We Do Now?” The group’s decision to excise that track came at the very last minute, simply due to the limited amount of music that vinyl could physically contain at the time.
“What Shall We Do Now?” is a jarring, powerful jolt on its own terms, but its absence from the Wall LP actually ups its impact in the bracing, brutal, and beautiful 1982 movie adaptation Pink Floyd: The Wall. In the film, “Empty Spaces” underscores shocking animation by Gerald Scarfe of a pair or flowers morphing into human forms as they fornicate, which then gives way to an absolutely bravura visual onslaught that illustrates the numbing, isolating effects of a litany of rock star indulgences.
The entirety of The Wall, in fact, qualifies as one long screed about how much it sucks to be a rock star. That’s no knock against it, obviously; it’s just an observation on exactly how rich and fertile some artists’ creative genius can be even when steeped in what is, essentially, the self-pity of multimillionaires.
“Stars” – Janis Ian (1974)
Lyrical Lamentation: “Some make it when they’re young/ Before the world has done it’s dirty job/ And later on, someone will say/ ’You’ve had your day, you must make way’/ But they’ll never know the pain of living with a name you never owned”
Janis Ian scored a huge pop hit in 1975 with the devastating adolescent confession “At Seventeen.” The song, which she performed on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live, made Ian a major mainstream folk-rock performer for a while, and won her sufficient fans worldwide to keep her actively working and playing to full houses to this day.
Interestingly, a year earlier, Ian first caught the ears of rock radio listeners with “Stars,” a sweet and determined take on the trials of professional musicianship.
While it’s not a scabrous wail on par with many of the other songs listed here, “Stars” still paints a successful rock career as a series of bummers from which the participants must constantly pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and kick ass (primarily one’s own) all over again.
“Freedom ’90” – George Michael (1990)
Lyrical Lamentation: “Well it looks like the road to heaven/ But it feels like the road to hell/ When I knew which side my bread was buttered/ I took the knife as well/ Posing for another picture/ Everybody’s got to sell/ But when you shake your ass/They notice fast/ And some mistakes were built to last.”
George Michael proved to be a curious (closet) case in the wake of his 1987 smash, Faith. The album super-successfully transformed him from the broad-grinning goof in various Wham videos such as “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” to a brooding, quasi-tough-guy sex vamp. En route to his follow-up LP, 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, Michael came off sour and angry, and announced he wouldn’t appear in any music videos to promote the new album.
There would still be music videos, of course. The clip for Listen’s lead single, “Freedom ’90” showcases a succession of supermodels lip-synching the song’s lyrical bird-flips to the record industry, followed by the visual tropes of George’s previous success, such as the jukebox and leather jacket of his “Faith” video, getting blown to smithereens.
George Michael’s “Freedom” tantrum made sufficient waves to grab the attention of no less than one Francis Albert Sinatra, who scolded the upstart pop star in an open letter to the Los Angeles Times.
Sinatra wrote: “Come on George, Loosen up. Swing, man, Dust off those gossamer wings and fly yourself to the moon of your choice and be grateful to carry the baggage we’ve all had to carry since those lean nights of sleeping on buses and helping the driver unload the instruments
“And no more of that talk about ‘the tragedy of fame.’ The tragedy of fame is when no one shows up and you’re singing to the cleaning lady in some empty joint that hasn’t seen a paying customer since Saint Swithin’s day. And you’re nowhere near that; you’re top dog on the top rung of a tall ladder called Stardom, which in Latin means thanks-to-the-fans who were there when it was lonely.
Talent must not be wasted. Those who have it – and you obviously do or today’s Calendar cover article would have been about Rudy Vallee – those who have talent must hug it, embrace it, nurture it and share it lest it be taken away from you as fast as it was loaned to you.
Trust me. I’ve been there.”
“Fame” – David Bowie (1975)
Lyrical Lamentation: “Fame, it’s not your brain, it’s just the flame/ That burns your change to keep you insane/ Fame/ Fame, what you like is in the limo/ Fame, what you get is no tomorrow/ Fame, what you need you have to borrow/ Fame/ Fame, ’Nein! It’s mine!’ is just his line/ To bind your time, it drives you to crime/ Fame”
The music of the David Bowie-John Lennon collaboration “Fame” is best described as bizarre, kind of chilling, and seeming to leap straight out of a cocaine hallucination. It’s more than matched by the song’s minimalist lyrics that cohere to hammer home a clear message: be careful what you work so hard for, because you might end up just this freaky.
“Success Story” – The Who (1975)
Lyrical Lamentation: “Away for the weekend/ I’ve gotta play some one-night stands/ Six for the tax man, and one for the band/ Back in the studio to make our latest number one/ Take two-hundred-and-seventy-six/ You know, this used to be fun”
As the bass player for the Who, John “Ox” Entwistle occasionally busted out some brutally brilliant dark-humored gems, and none is more savage than “Success Story,” the lead track from side two of 1975’s The Who by Numbers.
Taking aim rather directly at Pete Townshend, Ox’s lyrics mock, in a perfectly dry British manner, a singer who “deserted rock and roll, to try to save his soul,” but who also, by the song’s end, has abandoned his enlightened path: “There’s a rock and roll singer boppin’ on the TV/ He used to be a preacher, but now he sings in a major key/ Amended his decision to the new religion.”
It’s a clear shot at Townshend, who attempted to pursue Eastern spirituality for a spell, and then just quit. Even more direct is Entwistle’s jape: “I gotta give up my day job/ To become a heartthrob/ I may go far if I smash my guitar.”
Along the way, Ox also complains about his own plight pumping out music that the world loves for a living. In the stellar 1979 documentary, The Kids Are All Right, “Success Story” plays under footage of Entwistle skeet-shooting and using gold records as targets.
“Garden Party” – Rick Nelson (1972)
Lyrical Lamentation: “Played them all the old songs, thought that’s why they came/ No one heard the music, we didn’t look the same/ I said hello to “Mary Lou”, she belongs to me/ When I sang a song about a honky-tonk, it was time to leave… If you gotta play at garden parties, I wish you a lotta luck/ But if memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck”
The first rock star created by TV, Ricky Nelson co-starred with his real-life parents and brother on the beloved 1950s sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
Playing who he actually was—a teenager with ambitions of making it as a music performer—Nelson scored a number of massive pop smashes, including “Hello, Mary Lou” and “Travelin’ Man.” He thereby cultivated a following not just among screaming female fans, but future stars such as Paul McCartney and John Fogerty. The latter even once said that, back in the ’50s and early ’60s, Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson were his two musical heroes and that, of the two, Elvis wasn’t always #1.
Ricky faded from the charts once the Beatles changed the playing field (along with everything else), but he never stopped writing, recording, and performing. Come the turn of the decade, Nelson had become a serious, albeit below-the-radar, force in the development of country-rock alongside heavy hitters such as Gram Parsons, Michael Nesmith, and the guys who would go on to become the Eagles. Nelson also matured up his own name, dropping “Ricky” in favor of being just “Rick.”
The vast majority of Nelson’s original fans, however, hadn’t kept up with his creative evolution. As a result, when Rick and his Stone Canyon Band came out dressed like hippie cowboys at a Madison Square Garden oldies concert with Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Bobby Rydell, the audience became hostile. After playing a couple of vintage hits, Rick went into a cover of the Stones’ “Country Honk,” and the crowd booed him off the stage.
A year later, Rick Nelson settled the score via “Garden Party,” an irresistible, country-twanged toe-tapper that wittily recounts the event, right down to details such as former Beatles being out in the audience (“Yoko brought her walrus”) and the group knowing when it was time to hightail it out of there. “Garden Party” hit #6 on the pop charts and remains even better known that Nelson’s original 1950s numbers.
“Get in the Ring” – Guns N’ Roses (1991)
Lyrical Lamentation: “That goes for all you punks in the press/ That wanted to start shit by printin’ lies/ Instead of the things we said, that means you/ Andy Secher at Hit Parader/ Circus Magazine, Mick Wall at Kerrang/ Bob Guccione Jr. at Spin/What, you pissed off ’cause your dad gets more /P-ssy than you?/ F—k you, suck my f—kin’ dick… You want to antagonize me/ Antagonize me, mother—ker/ Get in the ring, mother—ker/ And I’ll kick your bitchy little ass, punk”
To deem Guns N’ Roses mastermind Axl Rose one of rock’s all-time world-class a-holes is hardly an insult and, in fact, even the volcanically hotheaded former William Bailey would likely feel complimented by the term (depending, as everything always does, on his mood).
For sure, it takes that kind of egomaniacal rage machine to, at the height of his band’s fame, power, and creative freedom, devote an entire song to calling out rock critics and challenging them to martial arts combat.
Rose does virtually nothing but exactly that in “Get in the Ring,” personally naming writers with whom he has a beef. For the record, Spin magazine owner Bob Guccione Jr., who was trained kickboxer, took up Axl’s mantle and told the singer to name the time and the place where they could fight. Axl Rose, famously, retired into years of silence not long thereafter.
“The Load Out/Stay” – Jackson Browne (1977)
Lyrical Lamentation: “But the band’s on the bus/ And they’re waiting to go We’ve got to drive all night and do a show in Chicago/ or Detroit, I don’t know/ We do so many shows in a row/ And these towns all look the same/ We just pass the time in our hotel rooms/ And wander ’round backstage/ Till those lights come up and we hear that crowd/ And we remember why we came”
More wistful than wailing, and more accepting than aggravated, Jackson Browne’s “The Load Out” details the singer’s experience looking at an empty arena after yet another sold-out show, thinking about the grind of bus travel that lays ahead, and how he and the band will have to all deliver 100% again in some other city they won’t get to see on the very next night.
He actually makes a compelling case for the burnout aspect of rock stardom by peppering the complaints with upbeat details such as what entertainment the band uses to pass time on the road (“We’ve got rural scenes and magazines/ We’ve got truckers on the CB/ We’ve got Richard Pryor on the video”) and the reasons why they commit to this vagabond life in the first place (“We got time to think of the ones we love/ While the miles roll away/ But the only time that seems too short/ Is the time that we get to play”).
“Limelight” – Rush (1982)
Lyrical Lamentation: “Living on the lighted stage/approaches the unreal/ for those who think and feel/ in touch with some reality/ beyond the gilded cage/ Cast in this unlikely role/ ill-equipped to act/ one must put up barriers/ to keep one’s self intact”
Among the numerous brilliant nuances of drummer Neil Peart’s lyric writing for Rush is how exactingly on-target he can get with his words. “Limelight” provides one of the most glorious examples as Peart doesn’t so much as decry but simply reveal some of what frustrates him as being a sought-after rock star.
Just consider the specificity of the verse that regards Rush having to work with the press: “Living in a fish eye lens/ Caught in the camera eye/ I have no heart to lie/ I can’t pretend a stranger/ Is a long-awaited friend.”
With words like that, it’s impossible not to get Peart’s point. And, really, Neil, we feel you.
“Turn the Page” – Bob Seger (1973)
Lyrical Lamentation: “Well you walk into a restaurant/ strung out from the road/ And you feel the eyes upon you/ as you’re shakin’ off the cold/ You pretend it doesn’t bother you/ but you just want to explode”
The granddaddy of all sonic outbursts regarding the hardships of rock stardom is actually a slow burn that sears hotter than all others because it never really comes to a full boil.
Bob Seger’s pent-up anger and steadily soaring frustration instead bleed through “Turn the Page” by way of its ice-cold lonely saxophone, those cymbal beats that tick like a time bomb, and, of course, Bob’s subtly constrained vocal performance that surges only when it has to, and then backs down because… well, because of all the stuff he’s griping about in the lyrics.
The most pointed passage of “Turn the Page” relates to the bum treatment longhairs and “hippie freaks” still got in rural America circa 1973: “Most times you can’t hear ’em talk/ other times you can/ All the same old clichés/ ‘Is that a woman or a man?’/ And you always seem outnumbered/ you don’t dare make a stand…”
That level of rage made “Turn the Page” a natural cover for Metallica to turn into their own hit, but the universality of Seger’s emotion is what has continually endeared the song to fans from every walk of life. It’s organically easy to relate to how Seger’s job as a rock star is kicking his ass the way your gig pummels you—as well as the rest of the knocks and downturns of simply being alive.
Just read the song’s final words. What comes to mind is not some superstar ego trip, but the stark reality of life itself: Out there in the spotlight/ you’re a million miles away/ Every ounce of energy/ you try to give away/ As the sweat pours out your body/ like the music that you play/ Later in the evening/ as you lie awake in bed/ With the echoes from the amplifiers/ ringin’ in your head/ You smoke the day’s last cigarette/ rememberin’ what she said….”
That’s heavy, man. We’ve all been there and, like Seger, we all continue to get up the next morning and get on with the next show.