There’s the old adage that “rock ’n’ roll never dies,” a cliché that’s arguably hard to dismiss considering that six-string veterans from The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney to Foo Fighters and Metallica continue to headline the world’s biggest music festivals year after year. Yet given today’s staggering poptimist culture, one which actually still purchases records by the millions for the likes of Taylor Swift or Katy Perry or Ed Sheeran, it’s probably best to say that rock ’n’ roll survives. And survival is what fuels Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, the latest comedy series to sputter outta the mind of Denis Leary.
The manic comic plays Johnny Rock, the former lead singer of The Heathens, a sleazy New York outfit (think: The New York Dolls meets The Jam) that called it quits shortly after releasing their glorious debut album in the early 1990s. The band’s sordid history is cleverly summarized at the start of “Don’t Wanna Die Anonymous” in the form of a short mockumentary, which includes all-too-fitting appearances by Dave Grohl and Greg Dulli. The two real-life musicians humorously wax nostalgic about the fictional band, with Grohl even contending that “if it weren’t for the Heathens, I don’t think there would have been a Nirvana.” Funny.
That’s all in the past, though. Twenty-five years later, Johnny Rock is a deadbeat musician, nimbly supported by his former drummer Bam Bam (Bobby Kelly) and his longtime girlfriend and one-time backup singer, Ava (Elaine Hendrix). When we first meet Johnny, he’s surrounded by his motley crew in a dive bar, where it’s assumed he’s a regular. But he belongs in this dank subculture, and it’s where he’s most comfortable, which is probably why he horrifically mistakes his estranged daughter, Gigi (Elizabeth Gillies), for a potential one-night-stand. Don’t worry, this doesn’t turn into Oldboy: She knows who he is and has plans for him.
Not surprisingly, there’s a lot to digest in “Don’t Wanna Die Anonymous”, which is understandable for a pilot, especially one that only clocks in at 23 minutes. Leary, who wrote the episode, spends most of those fleeting minutes introducing the show’s rogues gallery and central premise, which boils down to a daughter needing her father and vice versa. However, there’s a rather macabre wash to their motives: As Gigi implores, “I don’t need a dad, I need a goddamn songwriter,” and Johnny tells Ava that they’ll “string her along until the money dries out.” That cynical bond is edgy enough for the off-beat lineup of FX and it’s also enough for us—at least right now.
Much of that interest stems from Johnny’s own pitiful plight. He’s a reckless and restless soul, frustrated with the world that’s moved on around him. He’s hated by everyone—especially the other half of his former outfit: guitarist Flash (John Corbett) and bassist Rehab (John Ales)—and he can’t find work. When his manager Ira Feinbaum (the always wonderful Josh Pais) chastises him for sticking to his guns and not playing covers or letting other people sing his songs (“In rock ’n’ roll, you know what that makes you? A bartender.”), he can only stubbornly beg for other alternatives. He doesn’t know any other life than this.
You can almost see Leary salivating at the mouth as he paints his Johnny character and bemoans a culture less obsessed with Joey Ramone and more infatuated with Lady Gaga. He’s never been one to hold back his thoughts—see: all 45 minutes of his 1993 standup special, No Cure For Cancer—and he airs all his grievances whenever he can in “Don’t Wanna Die Anonymous.” Which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing. After all, there’s room for this kind of criticism, especially in this erratic industry, where young musicians starve and older songwriters capitalize on past deeds until those deeds feel like cheap Wal-Mart stocking stuffers.
Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Tonally, this show feels more akin to Showtime’s Californication than Leary’s previous FX effort, Rescue Me. The characters are louder, the set pieces are less organic, and there’s a pacing to the proceedings that doesn’t exactly allow for more situated humor and drama. There are hints, though: At one point, Leary attempts to pray to the heavens in an empty stairwell, and later, his daughter listens in as he berates his reunited band members for coming up with asinine code names for her private parts. (Yeah, that’s a little creepy, but it’s all in jest. Hopefully.) They’re not much, but reassuring enough to know that Leary still gets the beat.
Because of this, there’s reason to believe that all of these pieces might come together in some form of harmony for Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. If you recall, what made Rescue Me so enjoyable for at least four of its achingly long seven seasons was Leary’s knack at ensemble comedy. Even at its shakiest, you could often rely on clever one-liners and agreeable situations to throw Tommy Gavin and co. through the proverbial fires. If Leary can shake up that magic again for this ensemble—and to be fair, there’s a lot of potential in the so-far-underused Corbett and Kelly—then perhaps rock ’n’ roll won’t hear the death rattle on FX. Party on, Denis.
- “There’s always blow in the rug.” Good to know.
- You gotta love the fake cover bands that Ira tosses at Johnny: Summer of ’69 (Bryan Adams), Jon Non Jovi (Bon Jovi), and Stung (Sting). Any of those could save a Tuesday night in February, at least in Chicago.
- Let’s hope that Sainty Nelson’s Becky isn’t too close of a friend of Gigi’s. She’s a headache, to say the least.
- “I wanna blow Bruce Jenner!” One has to imagine there was a discussion to nix that a few weeks back, no?
- Something worth noting: The episode features songs produced by Greg Dulli with music written by Leary and longtime collaborator Chris Phillips.