The old adage, “practice makes perfect,” is certainly applicable in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. Although many musicians were fortunate to hone their craft at an early age and began supporting themselves with this talent in their late teens, there were also scores of artists who had to punch in at the daily grind of a “day job” while they found their musical chops. Just learning that your favorite artists toiled a part of their early lives away in the service industry or some blue collar occupation should make every aspiring musician reading this feel like their break will be right around the corner.
Since the rock attitude is based partly on the “look” of an artist, it’s no surprise some musicians have spent time working in the salon industry. When he wasn’t managing a drive-in restaurant, keyboardist Paul Revere of Paul Revere and the Raiders was a barber in Boise, Idaho. Chuck Berry earned a degree in cosmetology, and when not working at the GM auto factory, he became a hairdresser and beautician. The Cranberries’ drummer Feargal Lawler also teased hair for customers, and mousse-mad rocker Bobby Dall of Poison was a cosmetologist. Blondie’s Debbie Harry worked as a beautician when she wasn’t occupied in her other profession.
Debbie’s other profession entailed donning a bunny costume and serving cocktails in a Playboy club. Other musicians have certainly served their share of meals in the restaurant industry over the years. While the B-52’s Fred Schneider shuffled plates at Eldorado, a vegetarian restaurant in Athens, Georgia, his fellow bandmate Cindy Wilson was dispensing milkshakes at the local Kress department store. Also serving up the cool stuff was a teenage Joe Perry of Aerosmith at the Anchorage, an ice cream parlor in Sunapee, New Hampshire. Susan Dallion, otherwise known as Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie & The Banshees waitressed at an establishment in Kent, England. Over in Cornwall, folk artist Donovan did the same. Down in London, Annie Lennox of Eurythmics worked the tables at Pippins restaurant, and back in the States, Cass Elliot of The Mamas & The Papas made sure the meals came out of the kitchen piping hot. In New York, Madonna toiled at a Times Square donut shop when she wasn’t modeling. On the left coast, Huey Lewis ran a yogurt business in the Bay Area, while down in LA, both Stevie Nicks and Rickie Lee Jones took customers’ orders. Back in the kitchen, lead guitarist Will Sergeant of Echo & The Bunnymen whipped up cuisine as a restaurant chef. The plates always piled up, so Carlos Santana stepped up to the sink as a dishwasher in a diner, and Little Richard fit in a little scouring in a bus station restaurant, when he wasn’t selling snake oil in a traveling medicine show. In Richmond, Virginia a young singer by the name of Pat Benatar put in time at the waitress station, as well as, another support position.
Pat spent a few hours doing the unheralded tasks of an administrative staffer. In her case, she was a bank clerk. Also participating in banking clerical duties was keyboardist Martin Gore of Depeche Mode, while his bandmate, Andy Fletcher, shuffled papers in the insurance industry. Fellow Brits like Elton John fetched tea for his bosses at a music-publishing firm, while pop heartthrob Cliff Richard scrutinized invoices as a credit control clerk in a lamp factory, and The Who’s John Entwistle eyeballed the bottom line as a tax clerk. New York reaped its share of support staff with Suzanne Vega as an office receptionist, David Cassidy as a mailroom clerk in a textile factory, Lou Reed as an accounting typist for his dad’s firm, and Eddie Money as a filing clerk for the NYPD’s police academy.
Some musicians would feel just too cramped working in those office conditions, so maybe that’s why Joe Cocker chose the hands-on chores of a fitter with the British Gas Board. Noel Gallagher of Oasis also worked with British Gas, while Billy J. Kramer, sans his Dakotas, grunted as an apprentice fitter with the British Rail System. Several rockers worked construction sites like Bo Diddley, Eric Clapton, Geoff Barrow of Portishead, and keyboardist Liam Howlett of Prodigy. Tapping nails as a carpenter’s helper, John Mellencamp also moonlighted at his local telephone company. And while Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band would describe his part-time job as a painter qualified as art, all four members of the band Bush were just flat-out painters.
When the whistle blew, some musicians headed home from the factory after a hard day’s work. Until that grateful sound rang out, Fats Domino was springing into action at a bed-making factory, and Johnny Cash steered his career path through an auto plant. Brothers William and Jim Reid of The Jesus and Mary Chain labored in a cheese-packing plant and an aerospace facility respectively. Drummer John Steel of the Animals also hung out at an aircraft factory. Presumably relishing the blood, Ozzy Osbourne had a grand ol’ time working in a slaughterhouse plant. Other musicians who worked the line at the plant were able to fit in other occupations along the way. Elvis Presley worked in both a tool factory and an upholstery factory but left time in his early years to usher people to their seats in a movie theater and to drive a truck for an electric company. Both Howard Jones and Graham Parker found time to punch in at a factory, but Howard also taught piano full-time, while Graham made a living at picking tomatoes.
Speaking of tomatoes, wait one cotton-pickin’ minute! That’s a good reminder of how a handful of artists spent their time out on the farm. Specifically, Carl Perkins was bent over at one time, picking cotton for a living. Iain Harvie of Del Amitri was a farmhand, while lead singer Lemmy of Motorhead broke horses for a quick stretch. And down at the farmers’ market, Chubby Checker helped to sell off chickens from the coop. Somewhere down a dusty Texas road, Bob Dylan was moving on to the next town with a travelling carnival.
Some jobs don’t require a great deal of skill, just a healthy dose of tenacity and dependability. For example, window cleaning. Van Morrison probably had plenty of time to think about his musical horizons as he squee-geed panes in Ireland. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was just required to lift a lot of equipment in his stint as a roadie for the group The Melvins. Mops figured prominently in the lives of guys like Big Country’s Bruce Watson, when he cleaned nuclear subs, as well as for Paul Westerberg of the Replacements and Kris Kristofferson, both of whom were janitors. Stephen Malkmus of Pavement got to walk around with a walkie-talkie when he was a security guard at the Whitney Museum in New York. And Bryan Ferry must’ve felt pretty independent driving a van around London. Bryan, however, used his noodle a bit more with jobs as an antiques restorer and another interesting occupation looming in his future.
Mr. Ferry went on to become a ceramics teacher at an all-girls’ school. Yes, the hallowed halls of education beckoned several aspiring musicians to the heads of their classrooms. In New York, tongue-wagging Gene Simmons of Kiss kept the students focused on the front, and in England, Sting pontificated before a classroom of children under the age of 9. Ian Dury of Ian Dury & The Blockheads lectured at the Canterbury College of Art while next door in Scotland, lead singer Ricky Ross of Deacon Blues taught children with behavioral difficulties. And sticking close to her favorite subject, Sheryl Crow strummed the guitar and taught music to elementary students in St. Louis.
Several other public sector jobs have been filled by musicians over the years such as Keith Richard of the Rolling Stones, whose stint at his local post office lasted only four days. Happy Mondays’ lead singer Shaun Ryder lasted a little longer in his postal position. Over at the hospital, lead vocalist Philip Oakey of Human League pushed around carts as a porter. And down in the morgue, Jonathan Davis of Korn was cutting up as an assistant coroner for Kern County, California.
A good deal of smarts is needed to become a part of the technical world of engineers, architects, and computer operators. Brainy musicians like Tom Scholz of Boston, who produced computer product designs for Poloroid, made up part of this crowd. Heaven 17’s Ian Craig Marsh and Martin Ware were early operators in the computer age. At the Elizabeth Arden cosmetic factory, young Elvis Costello was a computer technician. Drummer Dave Rowntree of Blur and Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads also tinkered in the computer field before joining their respective bands. Over at the architectural firm, Ray Davies of The Kinks pondered the blueprints for his future, while John Denver sketched out plans as a draftsman. Robin Guthrie of The Cocteau Twins made a strike at being an oil refinery engineer, and Seal sparked his career as an electrical engineer.
Speaking of Mr. Seal, he also found time to follow another path as a clothes designer in London. The thriving city’s fashion world also saw The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones working in a department store, Queen’s Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor selling their line of clothes in a stall in Kensington Market, and Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders working in Malcolm McLaren’s punk shop Sex, selling her own leather handbags on the side. Up north, fashion was anything but Garbage to lead singer Shirley Manson as she once worked in an Edinburgh clothing shop, and Jamiroquai’s lead singer Jay Kay got into Scottish couture by hand-making kilts. Across the Atlantic, the screeching pixie Cyndi Lauper just had fun behind the counter of Screaming Mimi’s clothes shop in New York. Not-so-fashion-conscious Sinead O’Connor once made a living by dressing up as a French maid in order to deliver Kiss-O-Grams. And the world of fashion was literally discarded by Hole’s Courtney Love as she stripped her way through clubs across the U.S.
Fashion has always heavily influenced the world of advertising, and a smattering of musicians made a brief impression in this field as well. With a keen sense of flamboyance, David Bowie first lent his creativity to the commercial culture as an ad agency artist. Drummer Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones also laid out his designs at an advertising firm, and Robert Palmer was simply irresistible with his graphics ability.
The acting stage beckoned a few musicians with a paycheck before they established themselves on the rock stages of the world. Trained as a theatre actor, Fine Young Cannibals’ lead singer Roland Gift had not given much thought to fronting a band before he was suddenly thrust before the international spotlight singing the hit song “She Drives Me Crazy.” Not so with musicians Lenny Kravitz and Eagle-Eye Cherry, both of whom played in bands while they acted in bit parts on television (the two of them at different times worked with Bill Cosby) and in commercials. Starting out as a child actor gave some musicians the comfort of being in front of an audience at an early age, like Phil Collins, who did theatre work and had a cameo in The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” when he was a young teenager. Britain’s ITV soap opera “Coronation Street” featured child actor Peter Noone, lead singer of Herman’s Hermits. And a very youthful, non-angst-ridden, Alanis Morissette seemed happy to take a gunging on camera in the hit Nickelodeon program “You Can’t Do That On Television.”
Performing well-crafted songs is one thing. To be a well-rounded musician, many artists choose to write their own songs. Naturally, the field of journalism might be an ideal launching pad for several musicians to tweak their lyrical inspirations. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits wrote for the established Yorkshire Evening Post. Unfortunately, bassist Mike Mills of R.E.M. was stuck in the sorting end of the newspaper world when he accepted a job as an insert operator. Musicians writing about music can help bring about an appreciation for the craft, and Pet Shop Boy, Neil Tennant, went so far as to edit his own pop magazine. Other novice journalists who focused on the music world in their writings were Patti Smith, Jimmy Buffett, Morrissey, and Bob Geldof of The Boomtown Rats.
Out of all the prior occupations filled by the artists above, it is only an assumption that the next best thing to playing music for a living would be to stand around a shop all day and get paid to listen to music. That’s right, become a record store employee. A library of songs are right there to capture your imagination and spark those creative juices. Former record shop assistants like Harry Casey, aka K.C., of K.C. & the Sunshine Band, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, and Steve Marriott of The Small Faces could probably attest to the fact that out of all of the day jobs mined by musicians over the years, this one came pretty darn close to the real deal.
© 2000 Ned Truslow