Realities of the Rock Star Life 50 Years After Fame
Knowing our demographic, we're betting lots of you have never heard of the band Herman's Hermits. They were huge in the '60s, and we mean "huge" in the sense that at one point they were bigger than the fucking Beatles. They've sold more than 80 million records -- more than Justin Bieber.
The band's star faded, as all stars do, but they never stopped playing. Half a century later, night after night, pounding out those same damned songs for (in many cases) the same damned fans. That sounded simultaneously amazing and kind of sad, so we talked to Kevin Ducharme, who jumped on board during the Hermits' weird, sunset years.
Old Bands Can Go Forever -- They Just Keep Swapping Out Parts
Go to a Rolling Stones concert and name the band members. There's Mick Jagger of course, and Keith Richards. If you're a fan, you know Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood and ... uh, who's this guy?
Some roadie preparing to hand Keith Richards a bass?
His name is Darryl Jones, you probably have never heard of him, and yet he is the Rolling Stones' bassist and has been for over 20 years. Famous bands swap out guys all the time -- Aerosmith's keyboardist in concerts is someone named Buck Johnson. It's even more complicated when a band's known lineup keeps changing (KISS has only two original members; Lynyrd Skynyrd, one). And then, with some bands, it gets weirder still.
Like Heart, Quiet Riot, or Gwar, who all boast a big fat zero.
Let me tell you now about Herman's Hermits. They formed in 1964 and are among the best-selling bands of all time. But most of the public knew precisely one guy: Peter "Herman" Noone. Publicity was all about him, to the point that when the label wanted the band to record new music, they just brought in Peter and hired anonymous musicians at random to do the other vocals and play instruments, correctly guessing that fans wouldn't be able to tell the difference.
Peter Noone left the band in 1973. Today, the rest of the band tours and performs as Herman's Hermits. And Peter Noone ... also performs as Herman's Hermits, except with a bunch of people he never played with in the '60s, and since he was the face and the voice of the band way back when, fans flock to see him.
Seen here resorting to putting his name in the set dressing.
That brings us to 2001, when I was playing with a jazz trio in Florida. During the break of one show, a guy asked if I'd like a job playing with Herman's Hermits (the one that actually had Herman). The next day, I agreed and he handed me a folder stuffed with sheet music. "There are 40 songs in here," he said. "You've got two weeks to learn them."
That seemed overwhelming. But once I got a look at them, I laughed -- they looked like something you'd give a kid to practice so that he'd one day be able to play the piano for real. Not that the band didn't realize this. One of the songs I'd be doing keyboards on was "Mrs. Brown, You've Got A Lovely Daughter" -- a song from a British TV play that they recorded jokingly with a parody Manchester accent (to American ears, it just sounds "British"). It debuted on the charts higher than any song ever not by the Beatles.
Another I did was "I'm Henry VIII, I Am." That one had been a 1910 music hall song in England (I guess the American equivalent would be "Old MacDonald"). When they recorded it, the band cringed at what England would think of them. In America, it went to number one and was, at the time, the fastest-selling song in history. Enjoy:
Just in case it still needed saying, tastes have sort of changed since 1965.
The Fans Age Right Along With Them
Back in the '60s, these guys were chased by hordes of screaming teenage girls (and the guys themselves were teenagers at the time). It's fifty years later, and the same fans are still chasing them. I don't mean a new set of teenage girls -- I mean the same ones, from back then. A hundred of them come to every single one of the shows. It's like the deadheads who followed the Grateful Dead back in the day, except these are women in their 60s or 70s. They still worship Peter and never got over that 15-year-old girl crush.
So just a heads up, Biebs: Learn to love those septuagenarians.
At my first show in Baltimore (my audition, actually), while fans lined up for memorabilia to be autographed, Peter turned to me and said, "You see that lady there carrying about 50 records? Yeah, you'll see her a lot." Over the next months, we would see her in line and be like, "Oh shit, her." But even though we dreaded them, Peter treated them with the same kindness he extended to all of his fans, spending hours over the autographs, all the while muttering to us, "I've signed this album like 10 times now, look at it!" And sure enough, there would be 70 or so signatures on the album, all of us band members through the years and also Peter's name around 10-15 times.
The old fans had their rituals, singing along with "Henry VIII" with such vigor that it felt like a fight song at a college football game, the rally song of the self-named "Noonatics." And, yes, at one point in every concert, someone would throw their panties onstage as a gag. Me and Peter stepped into one voluminous pair and posed for a photo:
That's Kevin on the left, presumably waving at a flirty, 16-foot Amazon.
The Party Continues Long After It Stops Being Fun
If I asked you to guess why somebody would keep grinding through tour dates well into their golden years, you'd probably say they don't want to give up the rock star lifestyle -- once you've had groupies in your life, how do you go back? But that's like a little kid who's sure that after he grows up, he'll eat ice cream for every meal. You can get tired of anything.
We'd do a concert and then the venue manager would direct us to some party to unwind, at which point Peter would excuse himself and just go back to his hotel. He was getting on in years, of course, but also avoided all alcohol since joining AA a few decades ago. Sometimes I'd be the only one there -- someone would ask where the rest of the band was, and I'd have to shrug because they'd left or never even come. Imagine going back in time and telling the teenage version of the band that someday they'd still be out there playing these novelty hits but declining the after-party in favor of an earlier bedtime.
"So when I'm a rock star I'm gonna drink and drop pills every night, right?!"
Once, Peter took us all out to a club and pointed to a table with four incredibly beautiful women, saying, "Okay, time to have fun." Out from his pocket came two pairs of goofy glasses, something like Mickey Rooney's "Chinese Glasses" from Breakfast At Tiffany's. He had the two of us put them on and ... all right, it doesn't sound very funny when I summarize it, but it was a way of breaking the ice and getting these fans to relax and giggle. Clearly an old trick of his.
Next he put on a wacky "redneck" voice and did a Johnny Cash impression -- rolling out all of these bits and pickup lines. He signed a few autographs and, just when you'd expect him to try to make off with one woman on each arm, said, "All right, Kevin. You got this, right?" And he said good night and left. Because he had been (and still is) happily married to the same woman since he was 21.
The Gigs Are Awesome, And Also A Grind
It's easy to think there are only two possibilities for a musician's life: platinum-selling superstar, or bankrupt and struggling to pay for rehab. For the vast majority of acts, the reality is somewhere in the middle. We had our share of huge concerts -- our biggest was playing the Georgia Dome in front of 60,000 people. And then there was our stint at Disney World.
A place always known for its live performance scene.
Me, I was blown away by the idea. Disney World is the happiest place on Earth, right? And I got to explore the tunnels and places ordinary people never get to see! I got to see Snow White talking to a mask-less Beast about how hungover they were! I got to watch the nightly fireworks up close from an insiders-only boat! I got to invite my Mom to sit in the VIP section next to Kenny "R2D2" Baker!
But that had to have seemed like slumming it from the band's point of view -- remember, they outsold the Beatles in America in 1965. Now, they were included with the entry fee to a theme park (not even the most popular theme park in Disney World), one sector away from locals in sombreros strumming guitars and pretending to be Mexican.
Opening for Donald Duck isn't ideal for a band with enough gold records to shingle a roof.
And singing at Disney World was work -- we did three shows a day (noon, then 2 p.m., then 4 p.m.) and then stuck around for hours until every single person in the park who wanted an autograph got it. That's how you survive as a band for six decades -- day by day, fan by fan, smiling as you sign the same album cover for the tenth time.
In The End, I Couldn't Cut It
It was too brutal for me.
I'd be up every day at 5 a.m. and asleep at 1 a.m. I loved playing, and I loved the fans, but it was exhausting. Lunch and dinner were always in public so fans could approach us. Those stacks of 20 things to autograph. The band hadn't released new stuff in decades, and I wasn't even an original member -- it didn't matter, we were always swamped. There were fans who came up to us having researched everything about me -- my previous bands, where I lived, how I got the job -- which was insane, because I was nobody. I have no idea how bands at the top of their fame manage it.
Though a wall of bodyguards probably helps.
I reached my breaking point after we'd been on the road for almost 200 days solid. During an after-party, I found myself thinking, "I don't think I'm going to make it to tomorrow's show." I ended up out cold. They even came into my room to wake me up for the flight, but that wasn't happening.
So I woke up in South Carolina, in a hotel, a maid banging on the door, saying it was past my check-out time. A phone call later made it official -- I was out of the band.
Peter still keeps in touch with me now and then. And I check in on his website and the chat room (always greeted with, "Watch out, Kevin's here"). Peter heard that I was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's, so maybe he figures I wasn't just being a complete asshole when I decided touring was too much for me mentally.
Turns out someone willing to sign the same album 15 times is a pretty patient guy.
The Alzheimer's is progressing and the time's going to come soon when I can't remember what happened yesterday. But I think I'm always going to remember playing "I'm Into Something Good" at the Staples Center with two cameramen sending my face onto the jumbotron, or performing at the World Trade Center three weeks before 9/11. I'm always going to remember wiping the sweat off my head while under blinding stage lights, and then seeing an entire front row of sexagenarians fighting over the dropped towel.
Kevin is now dealing with his early-onset Alzheimer's, and you can visit his GoFundMe page to help out. This article is dedicated to Peter, the "Banned" and all the Noonatics out there. Thanks for the great year! Ryan Menezes is on Twitter.
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