I’m about to wrap up reading Moon: The Life And Death of A Rock Legend, Tony Fletcher’s biography of Keith Moon. This kind of book always brings out somewhat mixed feelings in me. I always enjoy reading about music and musicians, and Keith was certainly the most influential rock drummer who ever held the sticks. Great drummers like John Bonham and Dave Grohl are impossible to imagine without Moonie blazing the trail.
Yet at the same time I am more aware than ever of the promise and talent that was wasted. Reading of Moonie’s often hilarious exploits can make you laugh, but there’s a sadness underpinning the laughter because the exploits are so often fueled by an absolutely insane intake of drugs and alcohol and it was these vices that killed him in the end.
Why should it matter to me? I didn’t know Keith. Never met him. He never heard of me. I was only 14 when he died and the only Who albums I owned at that time were By Numbers and Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy. But the soundtrack of my adolesence is largely provided by The Who. Over the next few years as I traveled the halls of high school, it would be The Who, among others, who I would keep going back to. I loved Who’s Next…who didn’t? But hearing Quadrophenia (on an 8-track tape, kiddies) blew my doors off. By the time high school ended I had memorized every note on every album, from The Who Sings My Generation to Face Dances. Townshend was, to me, even cooler than Keith Richards because he was not only such a captivating presence on stage but he was also so frickin’ smart. My old friend JT drooled over every note John Entwistle played. We all liked Roger, the mic swinging rock god.
But above all, it was Moonie. The powerhouse engine that propelled this beast forward. Listening to him on Live at Leeds and Quadrophenia was like hearing a man with eight arms playing a 50-piece drum kit. How on earth did he do that and still be so…musical? Naysayers may point to the fact that Moon was not the world’s best timekeeper, but to a teenage boy with raging hormones and a perpetual hard-on, and no clear idea what to do with either, I could never be satisfied with a timekeeper. I loved Kenney Jones in the Faces, but when he joined the Who it was obvious to everyone within earshot (except, apparently, Pete Townshend) that it was a poor choice. But yes, Kenney sure could keep time with the best of them. That was the key. The Who was us, and we were the Who and Moonie was the fire raging inside of every teenage boy…uncontrollable, blazing hot, anarchic, confusion incarnate. Jones was a very good drummer.
But reading Fletcher’s book, the adult version of me is struck by the notion that I would love to be in the bar watching Moon carry on, as long as he stayed far away from me. And knowing that he was obsessively jealous and abusive to the women in his life doesn’t sweeten the picture.
Moon comes across as a real life Jekyll and Hyde. In fact, Entwistle’s song “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was written about the drummer. Sober, he was sweet and charming and generous to a fault, a kind and caring man who would do anything for anybody. Drunk or high, he could alternate between being an over-the-top, laugh-a-minute clown or an abusive, nasty prick. And he was mostly drunk or high. Towards the end of his life, the laugh-a-minute clown became harder to find as the abusive prick began to take over. It is the same story as Jim Morrison, though spread out over a longer period.
So my teenage dreams of all the fun Moonie was having are tempered with the adult reality that Keith Moon the man was little more than a scared little boy who hid his insecurities behind walls of practical jokes and under oceans of brandy. Many illusions are shattered in this book. A lot of Keith Moon’s life was self-serving, self-perpetuated mythology and the purpose of a good bio, and Moon is one, is to report the myth, and then report the truth.
But because I did not know him, I can compartmentalize somewhat. I can deplore the man who beat his wife. I can laugh at the man who, with the actor Oliver Reed, walked naked into the restaurant at breakfast time and ordered brandy in an uppercrust British accent (which was, itself, a put-on to hide his working class roots). I can admire and laugh at his genuine wit…it wasn’t all practical jokes. Moon possessed a razor sharp wit and verbal skills. But for me the one thing that still remains is the drumming. Despite the madness, and maybe because of it to some degree, Moon still sounds to me like an eight-armed man on a 50-piece kit. I still shake my head and smile, or drop my jaw in surprise and awe, at some particularly outrageous fill.
Keith Moon may not have been a great man, but he was the greatest drummer rock music’s ever seen. He smashed every rule of drumming that existed and proved, like Hendrix did with the guitar, that there were no limits as long as there was imagination.
Keith Moon, dead at 32. R.I.P.