If Rodney Bingenheimer is the Mayor of Sunset Strip, then Michael Des Barres is the Strip’s Lord Chamberlain, Knight of the Garter, and Poet Laureate. He is what would result if you combined the DNA of a young Rod Stewart, Marc Bolan, Lord Byron, Percy B. Shelley, Heathcliff, Lothario, and every aristocratic hero (he is a marquis) from every Barbara Cartland romance novel.
Michael Des Barres started out his professional life as a young actor. He attended drama school at sixteen after years at elite British private boarding schools. He appeared on television in the U.K. (Whack-O!, The Bruce Forsyth Show, Mrs. Thursday), West End theatre (The Dirtiest Show in Town, performing in the nude), and in the film To Sir, With Love. Most Americans recognize him from his acting roleshere: Mulholland Drive, Roseanne, NCIS, Ellen, Melrose Place, and MacGyver.
Some of us caught an early glimpse of him in 1978 as a punk rocker on WKRP in Cincinnati. Musically his vampy joie de vivre as Robert Palmer’s replacement as lead singer for The Power Station at Live Aid in 1985 was legendary. A diminuitive friend of mine who saw Des Barres for the first time at Live Aid immediately went about studying and desperately copping his stage moves.
Those stage moves were carefully honed in three short-lived bands: Silverhead, Detective, and Chequered Past (which also featured Steve Jones). The British glam-rock band Silverhead, consisting of Michael, bassist Nigel Harrison (who later joined Blondie), guitarist Rod “The Rook” Davies, drummer Pete “Tommo” Thompson, and guitarist Steve Forest (replaced by Robbie Blunt), formed in 1972. They were young, glamorous, and skinny, so scrawny that Michael once joked that their collective weight was about 150 pounds. They released two studio albums, Silverhead (1972) and 16 and Savaged (1973), and one live album, Live at the Rainbow (1975), on Purple Records, Deep Purple’s label. They were dirty, raunchy (“More Than Your Mouth Can Hold,” for example), and fun, a hard-partying, kohl-wearing feature of the burgeoning glitter scene, where Michael befriended, among others, Marc Bolan. They toured extensively throughout the U.K., Europe, Japan, and the U.S., opening for Kiss, Nazareth, Osibisa, Fleetwood Mac, Uriah Heep, and Deep Purple. When Michael fell offstage and broke his arm in the U.S, it did not slow him down. His cast was spray-painted silver to match his hair, and they kept the party going.
Silverhead were supposed to be the Next Big Thing, poised to conquer the American music market. Unfortunately it never happened. Their sales were disappointing, and they did not reach the same sphere of popularity as T. Rex, Slade, or Sweet. Then they imploded, abruptly breaking up in the middle of working on their third album (Brutiful) in 1974. Michael relocated to L.A. permanently and eventually married The GTO’s Miss Pamela, whom he had met on the set of the movie Arizonaslim when he was a last-microsecond replacement for Keith Moon.
Pamela wrote about her first impression of Michael in her first memoir I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, calling him “a degenerate drug-taking sex-dog toting two bottles of Southern Comfort, wearing two dozen silver bracelets on each arm” and “...a well-bred lunatic with an abundant vocabulary who drank like a school of fish.”
Silverhead has earned a new generation of young fans, thanks to the internet. They reunited last year for a series of concerts in Tokyo and just settled on another reunion scheduled for next year. I talked to Michael this week about the origin of Silverhead and their brief few years of glory. We ended up talking about a lot of other things, including 12 Step programs, drugs, art, and books. He’s read the recent list of David Bowie’s top 100 books and concurs with it, but would add classics like Hemingway, Tolstoy, Twain, Genet, Henry Miller, Rimbaud, Shakespeare, Sartre, Patti Smith, and Serge Gainsbourg. He doesn’t like Bukowski: “I’d rather read Steinbeck.”
He also told me that he prefers real books to Kindles, as does his long-time friend Jimmy Page. “If someone gave Jimmy a Kindle, he’d give it to a member of his staff to start a fire with.”