DEF LEPPARD INTERVIEW
Joe Elliott Tells The Whole Sad Truth About Steve Clark
An interview originally published in 1992 and Joe's first time talking about Steve's death during the 'Adrenalize' album promotion.
Death is never pretty, but when it takes one as young and talented as Def Leppard guitarist Steve Clark, somehow it seems even uglier. Nearly 15 months have passed but Joe Elliott is only now talking publicly about the private anguish over the loss of one of his closest mates. Next week, Paul Elliott writes about the band's forthcoming single, album and the future return to live action but for now, it's a sad tale of life and death as the singer tells the touching and sometimes harrowing tale of, in Tesla's words...
Song And Emotion
A little over seven years ago, on New Year's Eve 1984, Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen lost his left arm in a car accident just outside the band's native Sheffield. Incredibly, he recovered to play again using a customised kit. If anything, this trauma made Def Leppard stronger. The ensuing album, 'Hysteria', became the band's most successful, with 15 million sales worldwide.
Tragedy struck Leppard again in the first month of last year. Guitarist Steve Clark was found dead in his Chelsea flat on the morning of January 9. A coroner's report dated February 27 gave the cause of Clark's death as "respiratory failure " due to consumption of an "excess of alcohol mixed with anti-depressants and painkillers". His blood also contained low quantities of valium and morphine, but it was booze that killed Steve Clark.
Again, Def Leppard have pulled through. A new album, titled 'Adrenalize', is released at the end of the month, preceded by a single on March 16, 'Let's Get Rocked'.
Phil Collen, who joined Leppard when Clark's former partner Pete Willis developed a drink problem, has played all guitars on the new album. 'Adrenalize' is a great rock record, a synthesis of 'Hysteria' and the more direct 'Pyromania', and 'Let's Get Rocked' is as classically anthemic as 'Rock of Ages' and 'Pour Some Sugar On me'. More of the possible album of the year in a later issue of Kerrang!. For now, Leppard vocalist Joe Elliott has much to say about his old friend Steve Clark.
Joe enters a hotel suite at Hollywood's exclusive St James Club, an elegant 1930's Art Deco tower on Sunset Boulevard, bubbling about his beloved Sheffield United's recent hot streak.
Now living in Dublin, Joe has lost none of his Yorkshire brogue. Leppard have sold more albums than Guns N' Roses but Joe has no messiah complex like Axl Rose. In interviews he's straightforward and candid. The story he tells of Steve Clark is a sobering one...
"Steve just wouldn't have wanted us to quit."
"When lost Steve a year before he died - the human race had lost him," Joe sighs.
"The last resort was to leave him alone, because we just couldn't do anything for him anymore. As well as my professional life, it was starting to mess up my private life, so I had to let it go."
"Through 1989-90, Clarkie was in rehab at least half a dozen times. When we were working in Dublin, he'd been found unconscious in a gutter in Minneapolis with an alcohol level in his blood of .59. That doesn't mean anything to you and me until I tell you that .41, apparently, killed John Bonham, and .30 is coma, so Steve was double-coma. And he lived, but he looked like a dead man when we saw him."
"We flew out to Minneapolis, to the psychiatric ward, which is basically like a nuthouse, and I'm looking at Clarkie and I'm thinking, what the f**k are you doing in here?"
"I looked around and the only things missing were Jack Nicholson in the the classic movie 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'". In which Nicholson stars as a reckless but sane minor offender institutionalised simply to get him out of the local authorities' hair.
"It was unbelievable, guys standing on one leg shouting, 'I'm a cuckoo!' and stuff. After 10 minutes I started to think, well, maybe in his own way, Steve is sick, mentally."
Didn't you once call him the most normal bloke in the band?
"He was! He didn't have an ego problem. A lot of people thought he was arrogant because he wouldn't talk to them, but he was just shy; he couldn't talk to people he didn't know."
"When we were on tour, he had a routine. He had to be on stage at nine, so he had to be out of the shower at eight. It was on days off that he'd lose the plot, but maybe only one day in a month, not every day off."
"He was together most of the time, and then on a day off, me and Sav would walk out of the lobby at half-eleven on the way to a golf course and Steve'd be comatose on the floor. He'd be fine the next day, but once we came off the road and he lost that routine, his routine became just drinking."
"It got to the point where he not only couldn't play his guitar, he didn't even want to. Those were the only two things he had going for him, his guitar and his drinking, and as soon as he stopped being interested in his guitar, there was only the drink."
"I'm not a shrink, we don't know the answers, but we tried to get him more interested in his guitar than the booze, and it wasn't easy."
When Steve was hospitalised in Minneapolis, Joe flew out from Dublin to visit him along with bassist Rick Savage, producer 'Mutt' Lange and Cliff Burnstein, who co-manages Leppard with Peter Mensch.
"It would've been inappropriate for everyone to go.. stupid," Joe reflects. "We met the doctor the night before, and he said, 'I want each of you to write a letter to him and read it to his face in the morning'. It was like the first time you stand up in class and read out what you did that summer."
"I was tongue-tied, not nervous about doing it, but nervous about who I was saying it to. This was a guy I'd known for 10 years. I thought I knew him but I didn't know him at all. The doctor told us, 'Write anything you want, you can call him a bastard, anything, just tell him how much what he's doing to himself is affecting you'."
"We all read these letters out, and Steve's first reaction was nothing; he just sat there with his head bowed not saying a word. Then he burst out crying. He said he was sorry and that he didn't realise what he was doing to everybody, he didn't realise we all cared that much. It's like, Are you kidding? Def Leppard's not a band, it's a bleeding family."
"After he said he was sorry, we started feeling sorry for him, cos he's such a nice guy. And as soon as he saw us feeling sorry for him, he stopped feeling sorry for himself, and the arrogance comes out. It was like he was doing us a favour, not us doing him one. And you think, I've just sat eight hours on an aeroplane for this?"
"I remember one specific incident - it was the closest I ever got to grabbing hold of him, slamming him against a wall and smacking him. I was walking two yards or so behind Phil and Steve and Phil said to him, 'Do you realise what the alcohol level in your blood was? It was twice as much as coma!'"
"Steve just turned to Phil with a huge grin on his face. He was really proud of the fact that he'd cheated death. And I'm looking at him thinking, you f**king idiot! I wish I had hit him, but at the same time it just wasn't right, we were just leaving the hospital ward. Plus, you don't actually think he's gonna die. You know it's a possibility but you don't ever think it's gonna happen."
"After that incident he was in rehab in London. He'd go sober for a month, and then he'd check out and go straight to the pub!" he shakes his head disbelievingly, exasperated.
"Steve was in rehab in Dublin, and the doctor there specifically asked for a family member to come. They all sit at around table with the family member right opposite the person with the addiction problem - be it alcohol, drugs or even gambling."
"There's farmers there with their wives and kids, and the counsellor says, 'Right, Mrs Murphy, tell me what your husband does when he's drunk'. And she embarrasses him in front of everyone."
"But when they asked for a family member, Steve begged me not to tell his parents, and like an idiot I didn't. He was pushing this guilt thing on me, and Mensch was saying, 'Will you do this?'. I really didn't want to do it but in the end I said okay. Once every Wednesday for a month I went and did this and said all these things, and it was really embarrassing."
"Def Leppard are like the best kept secret in the world - we sell loads of records and no one knows anything about us - and here I am washing the dirtiest of laundry in the most public of places."
"Steve used to sit there while I was talking about him, talking at him, just picking stuff out from under his nails, looking at the floor, as if he didn't care. When everybody had gone he'd say to me, 'I really appreciate you coming down', but it had a hollow ring to it, I gotta admit."
"He'd go to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings and stand up and say, 'Hello I'm Steve Clark, I'm an alcoholic', and he had his fingers crossed behind his back. He must have done, because he didn't believe till the second he died that he had a problem. That's the first problem alcoholics have, not being able to admit it. He thought he was fine."
Steve's death, when it happened, therefore didn't shock Joe.
"When I got the phone call, Cliff Burnstein rang me and said, 'Have you heard?'. I didn't even twig what he was talking about. I didn't think about it. He said, 'Steve's dead', and I wasn't surprised."
"10 minutes ago I said death's the one thing you don't think about, but I think we'd all mentally prepared ourselves that if anyone was gonna die early, it was Steve - unless one of us got knocked down by a bus."
"His Dad had said to me that he wouldn't make his 30th birthday. He made it by six months. I was upset, the way you're upset when your 99-year-old granny dies, but you can't say you're shocked. I cried my head off when Rick lost his arm, I cried till my face hurt, and when Steve died I didn't. I don't know if that's an age thing, or whether the torment he'd suffered and we'd all suffered had built up a barrier or something."
"Because of the alphabetical order we were in, I always seemed to end up rooming next to Steve, and some nights, man, it was f**king impossible to get to sleep. The first night before the 'Hysteria' tour he was so bollocksed, he tried to break his knuckles on a marble sink because he couldn't bear the thought of going on stage the next night. This is the guy who, once he got out there, was like God almighty on a guitar."
"How anyone can play a Les Paul - which is a heavy guitar - above his head for about eight minutes is beyond me, especially a skinny little runt like him. But he did, and yet the night before he was so panicky."
"He couldn't come and knock on my door and say, 'We haven't played to a big audience for a long time, I don't know what I'm gonna do' He just started throwing himself against the wall while the lighting engineer was trying to stop him, grabbing his hands."
"Even the arguments on the phone to his girlfriend were unbelievable, and because hotel walls are so thin I could hear it all, so I had to turn the telly up to drown him out, and then people are telling me to turn the telly down. So I said to Ian Jeffery, our tour manager, 'I want to be as far away from Clarkie as possible'."
"These were isolated incidents over a 10-year period. 99 per cent of the time, Steve was fine. Even when he was drunk I could handle it cos I sorta knew why. People handle things differently. He was a nice guy and I loved him to death."
"It wasn't like we were carrying a passenger, and Steve wasn't like Pete Willis, who was a horrible person to be with when he was drunk. Steve was the nicest guy in the world, sober or not. You do your best to help people, but towards the end it just got impossible."
By September of 1990, Joe Elliott hardly knew Steve.
"He was completely out of his mind. He was trying to tell us he wasn't, telling us he was on these pills that wean you off booze, and he was washing 'em down with beer and shit, y'know?"
"We gave him a totally unconditional, very informal six month leave of absence. We didn't fire him. We just said, 'Look, this isn't doing you any good, and it isn't doing us any good, so why don't you go home and just work at your own pace? Write some songs, redecorate the house, sleep in your own bed'. He'd bought this house in Chelsea. We said, 'We're gonna carry on working on the album, and come February, come back and we'll see how things are'."
"Obviously, if he'd been alive and still out of it, we'd have had to consider getting somebody else, but he absolutely hadn't been fired, and we didn't say to him that we were gonna look for someone else. We'd said to ourselves that if he came back in the same state, he'd obviously be no good, but I'd much rather have had a live Steve Clark fired, than a dead one."
"I'm really glad that Pete Willis is not in the band and alive, rather than dying in the band. The whole idea was that Steve could go back to London, live his live how he wanted to live it, and not have to worry about the pressures of the album. He had a little demo studio put together in his basement, and he was gonna be working on that."
"We even tried not ringing him."
Joe puts his hands to his face as he stammers a little.
"Through mutual friends we'd find out how he was doing. If we'd been ringing Steve up he'd have been like, 'They're checking up on me' - he'd have gotten paranoid. I think I rang him twice between September and when he died.
"I tried to ring him the day before he died, and I got his answering machine. I hate that. That killed me for weeks, the fact that I never got to talk to him."
"I'm not saying it would have done, but if I had spoken to him, maybe it would've changed the next 24 hours, just to the point where I made him an hour late for a drink that he didn't bother having, so that final one might not have killed him...
"But I got his answering machine, and Steve being Steve, he was quite possibly in anyway, he hated the telephone. He'd leave the answering machine on when he was in the house, and once he recognised the voice, maybe he'd pick it up, if he wanted to talk. Maybe he was in, I don't know."
"Anyway, February never came. He died in January."
"We did everything we could, we went to the meetings, we talked to him, we sat him down, we gave him what he wanted, and it still wasn't enough. There was nothing else we could do; we were exhausted. You can see why we didn't get much of the record done."
"We went back to work the day after the funeral, but everything we did from that day till the end of March was bullshit. It was therapy for us, great therapy, but what had gone on tape was very ordinary. I sounded like I was reading off a piece of paper instead of singing from the heart."
"Finally, we just sat down and said, 'Look, we've gotta get on with our lives. Steve has gone, he was great, he's always gonna be Steve to us, but he's not here anymore and he's never coming back'. We took in a big deep breath and in we went and we did the album, and by our standards, we blitzed through it."
"We had each other to lean on, that's the great thing about a band, but I don't think we've struggled more than any other band that's struggled round the Marquee circuit for 10 years before they got a deal. Maybe we're paying our dues now, I don't know."
"In 14 years together, we've lost two guitarists through alcohol - one died, one didn't, and Rick lost an arm in a car crash."
"It's not that different to the Rolling Stones, they lost a guitarist. If any band's had it bad, it's the Grateful Dead. Jesus, they go through keyboard players like Spinal Tap go through drummers."
Joe finally musters a thin smile.
"We were asked if we'd considered knocking it on the head when Steve died, like Zeppelin did when Bonzo died."
"We didn't, because: a) we had the songs nearly finished, and we weren't gonna lose these songs, cos they were too good; b) we've got nothing else to do; and then c) Steve just wouldn't have wanted us to quit anyway..."
By Kerrang! 1992.
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