This is an edited version of a 28 minute interview with John by Anna David published on 18 April 2018 - full transcript and downloadable interview available at medium.com which you are recommended to click.
Anna interviews John with insightful questions that allows him to open up about his sobriety and life in Duran Duran. She is the NY Times best-selling author of 6 books and you can follow her on Twitter here
This is edit is half the length of the original interview. For reasons of space Anna's questions have been omitted.
On writing ‘In The Pleasure Groove’:
I had a guy working with me on the autobiography. I don’t think I could have done it without him, actually. Let’s say I wrote the cornerstones by myself. But there’s a huge amount of research involved. I was really humbled by the experience, actually. I’ve always respected authors, but after that more so than ever, really, just how much work is involved. So I’d like to claim it all as my own, but Tom Sykes does have a credit on the cover.
Actually, Tom had come to my wife Gela to tell the Juicy Coutre story and pitched her that, and that didn’t work out. So he said, “Well, what about you? Who are you? What do you do?” I’m like, “I’m a musician.” He goes, “Well, why don’t you tell your story?” Not quite like that, but… And it was a moment in time actually when everybody who could play a guitar was ready to tell all. And so the timing was quite good for me.
I’d lost both my parents at that point, and with them the connection to place that was this street that I grew up on and that I went back to my entire life because my dad died in that house.
And also the band. Now, most of our conversations are like memory tests. And of course I’m thinking, “Well, these guys have got really bad memories. I’m going to have to put it down on paper because I’m the one with a memory.” I mean, only the other day something came up and I realized that I’d got some timing wrong in one of the chapters.
I’m a very occasional diarist, like when I feel the need to, to fill a few pages of what’s going on with me right now, or some kind of memory, I will do it. So I did have a few ideas about events and how I could tell them. I think I knew the attitude of the book, I knew the voice of the book and what it was going to be.
Now I think about doing another one, but what would it be about? I think I like plumbing the same depths in a way, like looking deeper into the same material, rather than going in a completely opposite direction. But I’m not sure what that would be.
On being sober and the 12 Step programme:
I think most people that don’t take the sober route, that aren’t in 12 Step programme, have no sense of the amount of work that those of us that are have to do. And there’s a reason why we don’t drink or use mind-altering chemicals one day at a time, because just every day we have to kind of recommit to that idea.
One of the things that gets said early on is, “What keeps you sober today may not necessarily keep you sober tomorrow.” And I’ve found that the amount of things that come up on a normal day, on a pre-sober day, I would have a drink over and just be done with it. But that’s not an option. So we have to really put those issues under the magnifying glass and break them down, and uncover, discover, discard. And look, there are times you can coast, when you can just get by, but inevitably something will come up, and it’s usually something that’s very close to you. It’s usually something to do with the family, or work, or self-esteem, or it’s just something that there’s no external fix for. Even though I’m all about external fixes.
Anybody that diagnoses themselves with alcoholism as I did, and ends up in a 12 Step program - we do kind of accept the idea that there is a genetic problem, and that whatever our life experience had been we would have ultimately encountered our alcoholism. And I like that idea.
I think there’s a reason why it’s growing. And one of the reasons is, is that we kind of take responsibility, we don’t blame our parents, we don’t blame our partners, we don’t blame our teachers. I mean, we can look at the effects of our parents’ experience, we can look at the effect of what happened to us when we went to school, but ultimately we kind of accept that there’s a genetic difference between us and people that can take alcohol or leave it, can we say?
And that was a very important idea for me to buy into, because I was so filled with blame and resentment. By the time I got to the end of my 20s, my career had been and gone. I mean, I was over, I was washed up, really. I’d been in a band that had had a lot of hits, and I’d been a pop star and on a lot of people’s walls, but I was washed up. I was just a wall of, like, guilt and shame and resentment. And that I’d had all these opportunities, and I’d blown it basically. I was very, very hard on myself. But consequently, everybody that was close to me, such as my parents, really got it.
I used to call them up and say, “It’s your fault that I…” et cetera, et cetera. And right away in my first introduction to 12 Step program I was told, “No, no, no, it’s not about them, it’s not about… You could have been…” For instance, I was an only child. “Well, that’s got something to do with it. Why didn’t my parents give me a brother or a sister?” And it’s like, “Well, you could have had five brothers and five sisters, and you would have still been an alcoholic. You would have still had these problems.” “Well, it’s because I was a pop star.” “Well no, you could have actually been a bus driver and you would have been an alcoholic.”
And I remember thinking, well, it’s not so much believing that, it’s just appreciating that the idea is significant. That if you can just even acknowledge that that’s an interesting idea… Because I think the jury’s out as to whether there is incontrovertible science, if there’s proof. But it is a good idea.
Because most people that get sober, let’s say in midlife, let’s say after their mid-20s onwards, almost always they’re full of anger, and fear, and resentments, and they’re generally pointing their finger at everybody that got them in that mess that they find themselves in that moment. And we don’t do that. We say, “No, no, you’ve got to look inside. That’s where the problem is.” And this idea of this faulty gene is like, “Really? Okay, I guess I can go with that.”
On the early days of Duran Duran:
I don’t think that I was an unhappy kid. Quite the opposite, actually. I think I was quite happy in myself. But the career kind of required me to be a lot, it seemed to me at the time, to be a lot bigger personality than really what I was. So in order to expand I had to be so many things in such a short space of time.
Almost within 12 months, I had to become like a worker and a partner in a firm. I had to become a labourer working with a team of people. I was an only child, suddenly I had four brothers. I had never left home. I didn’t get a passport until after our first record came out. Suddenly I’m travelling all over the world and adjusting to all these time changes, and jetlag, cultural opportunities, and the demands of the job.
One of the big kind of revelations that the research for the book brought me to was that after the Rio album came out, I’m still living with my parents. I was still occupying my old bedroom, which was about eight foot by six foot. I was going back after touring America, touring Japan for the first time, a big Christmas tour of Britain, going home to my old home where my parents lived. Two days after getting back and after the novelty of the young pop star coming home had worn off I’m fighting with my dad over what we’re going to watch on the TV.
A lot of stuff happened in that first year even subsequent to us putting our record out. I met Simon in June of 1980 and he completed the circle. Right away we started writing the songs that would become our first album. We were fortunate to make a record deal within five months of Simon joining and our first record out in January ’81. So I’ve known Simon for six months, and then we were off. And it was a lot to adjust to. And most of it was fun, but for me the alcohol and drugs particularly was stronger than I was. Now I didn’t realize that at the time.
On hitting the party trail:
I couldn’t understand why the rest of the guys were like, when they said they were going to bed, they went to bed, and when they said they were going to go to the hotel bar and have one drink they’d go to the hotel bar and have one drink. And I was the one that more and more often found myself like, crawling back to the hotel at 5:00, 6:00 a.m. in the morning, like, just as everybody else is getting ready to leave.
I got so quickly into this lifestyle, and I wanted to be living it 24/7. And I just didn’t know what to do with myself, particularly when there wasn’t anything happening, even though it was a very busy time. Inevitably there would be a couple of days when my services weren’t required, and that’s really when I would get into trouble.
That’s something that I came to understand in more recent years, like in the last 30 years, 20 years, and I think it’s what you do with your time off. It’s sort of, I hate this phrase, what sorts the men out from the boys. But it’s one thing when it’s all about working, and everything is on, and you can deal with it. It’s when you’ve got no responsibilities that you really have to be careful.
I very rarely got into cocaine if I was sober. It was usually that I’d have like, you know, one polite drink, and then I’d start thinking, they must have a little coke. It always followed. So alcohol was the gateway for me. I never really thought of myself as an alcohol lover. Very rarely would I drink myself into a stupor. But it just loosened my barriers, my scruples. And coke definitely, yeah, I mean, it helped with one of the characters that I felt needed to be amplified - certainly the afterparty player. Like, the job’s done, you’re exhausted, time to go home, go to bed. Well no, I don’t want to do that. I want to reap the fruits of my labours. I want to get out there, I want to party, I want to have a good time, and I felt that I needed a little help to do that. I’ve got a little bit of a manic personality anyway. I still kind of use coffee today a little bit, like, I have to really watch it.
And I could go at it all night. And it was fun at first, you know, and then it did start to get in the way of things. It started to get in the way of work, it started to get in the way of creativity. And then you’ve got to cut down on the drugs, right? And I was like, no, you’ve got to cut down on the work. Because that became the primary thing for a few years. At the peak of the band’s first wave of fame, which was probably in 1984, we were touring and we were playing places like the Forum here in LA and Madison Square Garden.
I couldn’t really appreciate what was happening to me. I was too busy thinking about where my next fix was going to come from, and just to make sure that I had what I needed for the afterparty. And I think that happens to a lot of people that get into recovery, is that they realize that because they have this addiction, the addiction was causing them to behave in certain ways, and they actually got to miss out on so many of, like, nature’s generosity.
You hear all the time about people that, they weren’t there for the birth of their child, or the death or a parent, or all sorts of things, that they’d checked out because they were too busy chasing their needs, their addict’s needs.
On his passion for music:
You’re lucky if you can identify one passion, if you can say, ’that’s my thing’, which is how I feel about music. I’ve been working on a musical with Nick. Occasionally I’ll stand in as one of the actors. And that exchange with actors is really good fun, and I can see why it’s so appealing to people. It sort of appeals in the way that performing music does. I always like when the lights go down at the beginning of the show, and it’s like the suspension of reality and the music takes over.
When I’m playing a song, I’m playing with four, five, six other people, and it’s a conversation that we’re having, but the terms of the conversation are entirely the song, they’re entirely the music. And I love that, because that’s what it is. And then the lights come up and you’re backstage, and it’s back to personalities and it’s back to everybody’s opinions, and that’s how we tend to go through the day, right?
On his politics:
I’m so glad that such a big part of my life is apolitical. Not that I’m not one way over the other, but I don’t have to dedicate my life to being angry at half the population. And I don’t want to be that, you know. I had a very elite, rarefied education as an adult. I mean, I made money quite early on, I was a star. I got surrounded by love, and certain kinds of yes-men, and certain kinds of sycophancy. But my experience in the 12 Steps has brought so many people into my life that I would have never have gotten to know.
I also am very much about the similarities rather than the differences. We just got back from Russia, actually, and people would say, “Oh my God, Russia.” And I’m like, “They’re people just like us. And their politicians are just like ours, and their media is just like ours. But at the end of the day the people are just like you and I.”
I want to hear about how we are all the same, we have all the same needs, we have all the same likes, appreciations. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of about my achievements as a musician. Every time I walk out onstage I see all kinds of people, and I see people that perhaps wouldn’t normally hang together. But we create an environment, and music is the excuse for people to come. And I really, really appreciate that. That’s something I probably appreciate more than almost anything about what we get to do.
On his personal journey:
I’m a man in his late 50s that is wrestling with a 14-year-old boy continually, that just happens to be in me, but I’m also kind of wrestling with a 25-year-old that kind of missed out when we toured. He comes up sometimes, and I’ve got to like sit down, and talk to him, and reason with him.
I mean, I know guys that have a very heightened sense of responsibility. I’ve got a guy that sings in my band, I mean, he’s the eldest of three brothers, and he’s the captain. You know, he has an extraordinary ability to soak up responsibility. And I’m not saying this about him, but I’ve seen guys like that who then get it between the eyes when they least expected to, because they haven’t been tending the garden. Because they’ve been subjugating their younger selves. Because at different times in our lives things get expected of us, right?
I think that very few of us get raised appropriately every step of the way, and like we get treated like a four-year-old when we’re four, we get treated like a 10-year-old when we’re 10, we get treated like a 16-year-old… More often than not we’re either babied or we’re expected to be more than we are, depending on the experience.
In the band we often argue about, I think we should do this, we should go here and do this. And somebody else will say, well, I don’t think we should. I think we should…and have this back and forth, back and forth. And I don’t get my way, let’s say. I’m disgruntled if something happens to what I wanted to have happen. A few weeks later I’ll go, damn, I’m so glad that that happened. And I think that when you can acknowledge something like that it opens your world in a way.
I just find myself eternally fascinating, and I say that meaning that I find humanity, I find all of us eternally fascinating. I mean, I know more about me than I do about you, so I can put the pieces together when I’m aware of my own existence. But essentially it’s all about being the best, showing up for the day, and being the best person that we can be, right, with the people that we encounter.