Looner Cycles: The Mad Days and Sad Demise of Keith Moon
Throughout his adult life, Keith Moon loved to “dress up.” Whether it was in women’s clothing, in top hat and tails, in Nazi uniforms, or donning horror masks, the manic drummer of The Who liked to entertain and take on the roles each of these disguises afforded him. Of all of his alter egos, he seemed most enamored of Long John Silver from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” He’d play the character in the same manner as actor Robert Newton had in the 1940s – dashing, roguish, and commanding. It was an easy role for Moon to assume. He was, in every sense of the word, a modern-day pirate. Outlandish in breaking societal norms, critical of pompous institutions, yet yearning for wealth and adulation, Keith was nomadic in his lifestyle and a crusader for self-gratification. He wanted to be the focus of attention at all times and to lead the charge against the establishment. Yet, in keeping with the high seas spirit, he was also a raconteur who desired a fun-loving, loyal wench – someone he could share each life and excessive alcoholic experience with whenever he was in the party spirit.
What started out as a seemingly innocent streak of pranks and outrageousness became increasingly bent and desperate as the mad drummer found fame and fortune. Keith Moon began his professional career with a bottle in one hand and pills in the other and never let up. The damage done by these substances led to a kind of attention-getting delirium from which he was never able to recover. The one amazing by-product of his hyperactivity was translated to his abilities as a preeminent drummer of the rock world. Bob Henrit, who played drums with Adam Faith in the early ‘60s, was one of the few drummers Keith admired. Henrit gave his thoughts about Keith to author Tony Fletcher. “I thought he was wonderful, the most natural drummer I ever met. Technique was immaterial in what Keith did. Normally you have to know the rules to break them. Well I don’t believe that Keith ever knew the rules but he still broke them.”
The mischievous musician began his career as a bugle boy in the Sea Cadet Corps. Growing up in Wembley, outside of London, a stone’s throw from the city’s great stadium, Moon joined the marching band at age 12. While he was a relatively quiet boy, he certainly was not meek. He would oftentimes steal food to snack on with his friends. Childhood pranks of startling adults and blowing small items up were his way of relieving monotony and impressing his pals. His dad helped him on his future career path by purchasing his first Premier drum kit for him in his early teens. “I found out that I really could not do anything else,” Keith explained to Circus Magazine. “I tried several things and this was the only one I enjoyed doing.”
His fascination with drumming led him to hang out at a local club called the Oldfield when he was age 15. A drummer for the band The Savages, Carlo Little, that often played the Oldfield, offered to give young Moon lessons. Keith soon joined his boyhood friends for his first gigs in a group called The Escorts. Meanwhile, his youthful pranks had evolved into a more sophisticated form of devilry. One afternoon, while in the London Underground (subway system) in the Jewish section of the city, he entertained his buddies by breaking in on a supervisor’s platform microphone and announced in a crisp, German accent, “All Jews line up here, ready to be gassed.” He also stole a snare drum from his favorite music shop.
Leaving the Escorts, he auditioned for a local group called The Beachcombers. The band’s rhythm guitarist, John Schollar recalled to Tony Fletcher that Keith’s tryout sounded “like a bomb going off behind us. We couldn’t believe so much noise was coming from this little nipper behind these drums.” Joining the band and garnering the nickname “Weasel,” he took to tying his kit to the stage floor so as to prevent knocking the drums over with his merciless combative style. For the next 18 months, during the early 1960s, Keith honed his craft with the rocking, surfer outfit. The jokes tumbled forth as well. While performing one night, he acted as if he were angry with lead singer Ron Chenery, and at a pivotal moment in the set, leapt out of his seat and fired a gun at the horrified vocalist. Moon’s blank-filled starter’s pistol certainly stunned everyone for a passing moment, then he was all laughs and good cheer. While with the Beachcombers, he acquired the proclivity to dress up in costume. With the assistance of bassist Tony Brind, Keith would clomp about London in a full-fledged pantomime horse outfit, trying to board buses and enter into pubs. His klepto desires had not subsided, and he subsequently ripped off a professional reel-to-reel tape player and an amplifier from some of the establishments they performed in.
It was not like Moon wasn’t getting paid and able to take care of himself. He worked a day sales job with a plastering company named British Gypsum. It was more likely the thrill of living on the edge, at this very early stage, that was already becoming a fixture in his personality. “He didn’t seem to worry about money,” Ron Chenery told author Fletcher. “We’d worry about certain gigs, if we were going to get paid or not…and I don’t think he cared. He just wanted to play, and he wanted to be the center of attention.” When the Beachcombers performed at the Oldfield, another local band, The Detours could sometimes be seen there sharing the bill. With their leather jackets and blue jeans, The Detours were more aggressive in their style of play than Moon’s band. “…I’d decided my talent as a drummer was wasted in a tight-knit harmony group like The Beachcombers,” Keith told Rolling Stone magazine, “and the only band that I heard of that sounded as loud as I did was the Detours.”
The band he would soon join was made up of Pete Townshend on guitar, John Entwistle on bass, Doug Sandom on drums, and lead singer Roger Daltrey. Townshend and Entwistle had known each other in high school and formed an early jazz band. A few months after the hardscrabble Daltrey beat up one of Pete’s friends on a playground, Roger was asking Pete and John to form a rock ‘n’ roll group with him. They soon picked up Sandom, who was a 29-year old bricklayer with a wife and kid and who barely seemed to fit in with the scruffy teen musicians. Representatives from Fontana Records had heard the group play in a few clubs in the early part of 1964 and signed them to their label in April of that year. Pete forced Doug to leave shortly thereafter. The Detours forged ahead with several session drummers and were on the lookout for a permanent replacement.
“They were playing at a pub near me, the Oldfield,” Keith recalled to Rolling Stone magazine. “I went down there, and they had a session drummer sitting in with them. I got up onstage and said, ‘Well, I can do better than him.’ They said go ahead, and I got behind this other guy’s drums and I did one song – ‘Road Runner.’ I’d had several drinks to get me courage up, and when I got onstage, I went arrrrrggGHHHHHH on the drums, broke the base drum pedal, and two skins and got off. I figured that was it. I was scared to death.” Roger walked over to Keith and asked him if he was available to play their next gig. “And that was it. Nobody ever said, ‘You’re in.’ They just said, ‘What’re you doing Monday?” As with all things relating to Moon, embellishment may have a hand in how this legendary moment actually occurred. The manager of the Oldfield, Louis Hunt, later recalled he told Keith to go audition for the boys at their rehearsal studio in Acton and that there was never any public demonstration as Keith has related.
Nevertheless, Moon was now a member of one of the world’s loudest, most raucous bands. The image would suit his persona impeccably. Hooking up with a doorknob manufacturer, Helmut Gordon, to manage them, along with the publicist for the Rolling Stones, Pete Meaden, who changed their look to the ‘mod’ style, The High Numbers, as they were now being called, became the house band at the Railway Hotel. It was there one night that Townshend accidentally poked his guitar into the low ceiling, breaking the neck of his expensive Rickenbacker. The next week, fans expected more mayhem, so Keith kicked over his drum set. Soon, both Pete and Keith were trashing their gear with merry abandonment. Two film executives, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, caught their act and subsequently would step in to snatch up their management reins over the ensuing years. The band changed their name to The Who and started the climb to notoriety.
Around the time they released their first self-penned hit, “I Can’t Explain,” in late 1964, Keith had become enamored of a 16-year old model he met at a club called the Disc A Go Go in Bournemouth. Kim Kerrigan related her initial feelings about Moon to author Tony Fletcher. “He was actually very shy. He was an extrovert when he was onstage, but he was a shy person at that time and very, very star struck.” One set of stars he was clearly in awe of came across his path in 1965. Fletcher related Keith Moon’s meeting with The Beatles at the exclusive Scotch of St. James club one night. “Do you mind if I join you?,” Keith asked the mop-tops. “Pull up a chair,” came the reply. Moon stood still, pausing a moment, then repeated with emphasis, “No, do you mind if I join you?” The four legendary musicians looked to one another, clearly perplexed. Finally Ringo muttered dryly, “We’ve already got a drummer, thanks.” Everybody laughed, the ice was broken, and Moon settled in with them for the evening.
Keith’s insecurities, however, were starting to get the best of him. He became jealous of his new girlfriend, Kim, and asked her not to continue modeling. He learned that singer Rod Stewart had taken a fancy of her. While his drumming clearly improved over 1965 with the release of his stunning work on “My Generation,” and “The Kids Are Allright,” Moon was increasingly relying on the booze and pills to foist his spirit through each day. When the band toured Europe in September 1965, Roger Daltrey, the only member to not indulge in drugs on a regular basis, blew his top in Denmark. “I acted the only way I knew,” he told People magazine. “I punched Moon in the nose and threw away his pills, so they threw me out of the band. But cooler managerial heads prevailed. I learned to control my violence problem. But we hardly spoke for two years.” The ill will would carry on, actually, for many years. Chris Stamp told author Fletcher, “Roger was not liked by Keith at all. They were bitter enemies. Roger got the close-ups on TV, Roger got the girls, Roger was the singer. He was in front of Keith most of the time. He got all the stuff and Keith wasn’t getting that.”
With Pete writing their songs most of the time, Moon looked to Entwistle to be his party hound friend on the late night circuit. After Kim became pregnant, Entwistle was the only Who member to attend her and Keith’s wedding at a local registrar’s office on March 17, 1965. Becoming a husband didn’t slow Moon down. He left Kim at home with his mom and dad and would stay out to all hours of the night with his bass-playing pal. “He only needed one beer and he was gone,” Entwistle related to Musician magazine. “The alcohol seemed to stay in his body and all he needed was to top it off. But he didn’t get falling-down drunk. He got obnoxious drunk…He was Dr. Jekyll until two in the afternoon and then Mr. Hyde for the rest of the day. He’d say something to really hurt you and then he wouldn’t remember having said it the next day. That was the sad part about Keith.” Entwistle would later write a song, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” clearly inspired by his boozing buddy.
After the birth of his daughter, Mandy, in July 1966, Keith became insanely jealous of Kim returning to a more svelte form. One night, in a wild drunken rage, he tried to cut his bathroom door down with a knife to get at his cowering wife. Meanwhile, with the continued destruction of their equipment as part of their stage act, The Who was desperately in need of more cash flow. Lambert began booking them gigs overseas. In 1967, the group gave one of its best performances at the Monterey Pop Festival. They subsequently hit the road around America, touring with Herman’s Hermits.
It was while on the road that the concept of trashing their gear onstage translated to the trashing of hotel rooms after their shows. The heights by which The Who, and in particular, Moon, set about destroying comfortable lodgings around the globe may never have been rivaled by another band since. Pete Townshend saw Keith Moon’s penchant for obliteration as a kind of avant-garde expression. “He was a hotel-room-wrecking artist,” Townshend observed to Playboy magazine. “It wasn’t about violence or hedonism. It was art. Quite seriously. It was part of the statement against materialism, against neatness, against order, values, role models, against all that s***. He’d come into a freshly made-up room and look intently at it and study it. Then he’d rearrange it. Afterward, he would always go to warn the maid. ‘A slight problem in room 1308,’ he’d say.”
The beginning of Keith Moon’s long, fabled hotel destruction legacy commenced somewhere around Birmingham, Alabama. He and John Entwistle purchased legal cherry bombs, highly explosive devices used for fireworks purposes. “We tried one out on his suitcase,” Entwistle recalled to Tony Fletcher. “It blew a hole in the suitcase and the chair. So then we decided the hotel deserves to get f***ed because we’d had so much trouble with room service…our idea was to put the cherry bomb down the toilet and flush it so we couldn’t get blamed for it. Hopefully it would blow some pipes along the way. We crouched over, Keith lit it and I flushed and the cherry bomb just kept going round. The flush didn’t work properly. We looked at it and went ‘Aaaagh!’ and ran out and slammed the door. And as we slammed the door the explosion went off, and there was just a hole in the bathroom floor. The toilet was completely powdered.”
It was also in Alabama that Keith felt the wrath of a few of the town locals. “I’m not quite sure how it came about,” he told Beats International at the time, “but I was walking along a road when some fellers came up, took an instant dislike to me, and shoved me through a plate glass window. By the time I had clambered out, they had disappeared and I’m still wondering what it was all about.” Assorted trashing mayhem ensued on the tour, culminating in one of the biggest, oftentimes exaggerated, stories of rock on the road life.
On August 23, 1967, the group performed at Atwood High School stadium in Flint, Michigan. The otherwise routine appearance was exceptional in that Moon had been celebrating his 21st birthday since the early hours of morning. By nightfall, the group was back at a Holiday Inn conference room. Out of all the recollections of this event, three things are for certain. Mayhem did ensue, sheriffs did appear on the scene, and Keith broke his front tooth. Outside of that, just about everybody’s memory of the event seems suspect. A huge multi-tiered cake, presented by Premier drums, was wheeled out. Moon reportedly either started throwing it against a wall or mashed it into the face of an astonished hotel manager. Either way, the police were alerted. When the authorities arrived, Keith dashed out of the conference room. Roadie Tom Wright told author Richard Barnes, “He grabbed a fire extinguisher, goes outside and shoots foam into any car that had open windows. You know, ‘SWOOSH,’ and these Cadillacs were filled with foam. I eventually cornered him in someone’s room and said, ‘Listen we gotta talk,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ He picked up a lamp and threw it at me and it broke as it smashed against the wall…He ran again and six of us, in all, were chasing him by now.”
Keith’s version was quite a bit different. “By the time the sheriff came in, I was standing there in me underpants,” he related to Rolling Stone. “I ran out, jumped into the first car I came to, which was a brand-new Lincoln Continental. It was parked on a slight hill, and when I took the handbrake off, it started to roll and it smashed straight through this pool surround (fence), and the whole Lincoln Continental went into the ‘Oliday Inn swimming pool, with me in it…So there I was, sitting in the eight-foot-six in the driver’s seat of a Lincoln Continental, underwater. And the water was pouring in – coming through the bloody pedal ‘oles in the floorboard, you know, squirting in through the windows. In a startling moment of logical I said, ‘Well, I can’t open the doors until the pressure is the same…’ It’s amazing ‘ow I remembered those things from my physics class!” As for his broken tooth, Keith’s version is a bit tamer than his roadie’s. Tom Wright claimed Moon dove off the pool’s diving board…into an empty pool. He smashed his face on the dry bottom, breaking off his tooth. Moon, on the other hand, claimed to Rolling Stone, that after he swam out of his Lincoln Continental, he encountered a sheriff again. “And I ran, I started to leg it out the door, and I slipped on a piece of marzipan and fell flat on me face and knocked out me tooth.”
However the ordeal fell into place, the band was fined about $24,000 in damages. Moon said he was taken to a dentist that night who gave him a false tooth. The next day, he related to Rolling Stone, “the sheriff took me out in the law car, and he puts me on the plane and says (American accent), ‘Son, don’t ever dock in Flint, Michigan, again.’ I said, ‘Dear boy, I wouldn’t dream of it.’ And I was lisping around the new tooth.” Newspapers everywhere picked up on the destructive event, and The Who effectively became the legendary bad boys of rock the world over. Moon was the instigator of their merry maelstroms and gladly steered the course of their ensuing years as scandalous minstrels before the public eye. “In some ways he saw himself as The Who’s publicity machine,” Pete Townshend observed to Playboy magazine. “If he could get a front-page story, he’d do it. And it was quite difficult for us because we didn’t want to turn down the easy notoriety he gave us.”
A month later on September 17, 1967, the group made its American television debut on CBS-TV’s “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” Stagehands had already loaded up Keith’s bass drum with the requisite amount of flash powder to give a good bang at the end of their performance. Moon packed it with more explosive. At the end of “My Generation,” he triggered the device, and the huge white flash and repercussive boom that followed was enough to frazzle transmission on the television cameras for a good five seconds. Television guest Bette Davis fainted into Mickey Rooney’s arms in the wings. Pete Townshend’s hair was singed. And Keith suffered a nasty cut to his arm from a flying broken cymbal. The moment, however, cemented their anarchic popularity with American teens.
In England, Keith felt right at home, strutting his notoriety proudly and standing up for his friends who felt they wielded lesser power. Keyboardist Ian McLagan of the Small Faces was one of these chums who felt he was being slighted by his management company in their not rewarding his group with proper royalties and releasing inferior tracks of their songs. One night emerging from a pub, McLagan and his inebriated pal Moon spotted a luxurious Rolls Royce parked outside. McLagan said it belonged to his band’s manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who also oversaw The Rolling Stones at the time. “Keith stopped in his tracks and became very quiet,” McLagen later wrote. “He was thinking. He screwed one eye and pierced me with the other, his lips tight and menacing and his head slightly to one side…Beckoning me with a finger, and only when he had my full attention, he whispered with purpose, ‘Let’s key the Roller.” The drunken duo set about digging their keys into the sides of the pristine auto, scraping the paint up and down. The next day, when McLagan ventured to his management company, he saw the Rolls parked outside…without a scratch on it. The soused stooges had obviously keyed the wrong car.
Back in the United States for a second tour in February 1968, Keith’s drinking and fascination with fireworks went overboard once again, when he subsequently blew up the toilet in his room at the posh Gorham hotel in New York City. He then walked out onto the 9th floor ledge, overlooking the crowded streets below and began dropping cherry bombs that exploded mercifully high enough over unsuspecting pedestrians’ heads. Roadie Tom Wright was staying a few rooms down from Keith. “There was hammering at my door,” he related to author Richard Barnes. “I opened it and there were cops all the way down the hall. One guy was lying on the floor with a rifle pointed at my door and two guys were up against the wall, and this other guy had a gun pointed at my face. ‘What the hell’s going on here,’ he said. ‘Who’s got the piece?’ I said, ‘Man, everybody is peaceful here, no problem whatsoever.” The police then went to Keith’s room. The quick-witted Moon apparently calmed them down, claiming that he didn’t know the American fireworks were so powerful and was fearful they would go off in his room. Not like our harmless English fireworks, he chuckled in a haughty aristocratic voice. The Who were bounced out of the hotel. When they checked into the equally-expensive Waldorf Astoria, the management would not let Keith have his luggage in his room. One to always accept a challenge, Moon simply blew up a door with more cherry bombs and retrieved his stashed suitcases. The band was forced to go to another hotel.
By the end of the decade, The Who had become a force not only to be reckoned with in the rock world but also a forebear of the “angry young man” stance that would be adopted by punk lovers everywhere in the mid-70s. The flags of discontent that started in the cinema with America’s motorcycle movies like “The Wild One” had trickled across the seas to working-class Brits in films such as “Look Back In Anger” with Richard Burton and had now been passed on to torch-bearers like The Who. The ‘we’re not gonna take it’ posing was effectively molded into a tale of messianic proportions when Pete Townshend conceived his rock opera “Tommy” in 1969. The group was at an all-time high in popularity, delivering one of their best performances at the Isle of Wight concert that summer. Even with a broken foot, which he’d sustained falling down a flight of stairs at his apartment, Moon’s drumming licks were some of his stellar best. They were subsequently snatched up to appear at the landmark Woodstock festival.
But for Kim Moon, life at home had become unbearable with Keith. “I should have gone to Woodstock, but I didn’t want to, because Keith and I were having horrid fights,” she related to Tony Fletcher. “I was looking forward to a week on my own. Then just before he left, we had a fight, and I fell downstairs and my nose was broken, so I had a good excuse not to go, because I was in hospital.” Kim would subsequently suffer a broken nose over two more instances before finally leaving her marriage with Moon. “He just wasn’t a rational person. I don’t know if he was clinically schizophrenic, but he really was lots and lots of different people. He was very difficult to deal with. There was no discussing anything. You had to deal with him as you could. And it got worse.”
In early 1970, it got about as worse as it seemingly could get. Keith took Kim and some friends with him to a disco named Cranbourne Rooms outside of London. He had been asked by the management to formally open the establishment. When his chauffeur, Neil Boland, pulled their luxurious Bentley up to the front of the disco, it was obvious to everyone present that things might become very tense. The patrons consisted of brooding skinheads who looked on Moon and his flamboyance with disdain. After an uneasy few hours downing a few drinks at the bar, Keith apparently got into an argument with one of these hulking yard-apes. The next thing everyone knew, the Moon entourage was moving to the Bentley posthaste, and skinheads were surrounding the beautiful car, banging on its exterior. Boland for some reason left the car, perhaps to clear a way. He was chased on foot ahead down the driveway by several hooligans, who proceeded to beat him. Moon, in an ever-increasing panic from the mob surrounding his car, leapt to the driver’s seat and stomped on the accelerator. The Bentley flew down the driveway and on to a lighted area with other citizens about 100 yards up the road. Somebody motioned for him to stop, telling Moon someone was under the car.
“Keith went underneath,” Kim recalled to author Fletcher. “He put his head down and pulled out…brains.” Their chauffeur Neil had fallen in the path of the fleeing automobile. “His head was like an eggshell,” Kim horribly recounted. After a night’s incarceration for the whole lot, and a somber trial proceeding, Keith was not convicted of any wrongdoing. The authorities let him go scot-free. Yet, he never seemed to let himself go for his actions. “I think the thing that really screwed him up was when his chauffeur died,” John Entwistle told Musician magazine. “It had a much deeper effect on him than he ever let on.” His guilt never seemed to diminish. Groupie Pamela Des Barres, who met Moon on the set of Frank Zappa’s film “200 Motels,” later had a series of flings with the mercurial jester and saw this guilt manifest itself in their trysts. Their love sessions consisted of make-believe scenarios with Pamela as a hooker coming onto Moon’s virgin boy, Pamela as a rich old woman pursuing Moon as an unemployed stud, and Keith as a priest raping Pamela dressed up as a schoolgirl. “Sometime during the postmidnight madness,” she related in her book ‘I’m With The Band,’ “Keith pulled a sordid story out of his past that had crippled him for eternity.” He went on to tell her about the incident with Boland. “He broke down while playing the priest and started to cry, calling himself a murdering f***. Needless to say, this toppled our improv, and I smoothed his weary, wacky brow while he reeled in masochistic terror.” Over successive meetings his self-loathing became more pronounced. “At night he would wake up ten times, bathed in medicine-smelling sweat, jabbering about running over his roadie and burning for eternity. He couldn’t wait to pay for that horrible mistake.”
Moon’s erratic behavior became more pronounced. He took to purchasing a slew of expensive cars and homes over the next two years. He bought a pub and a hotel in the fashionable Chipping Norton suburb of London. His drunkenness caused him to be on the receiving end of more injuries. Kim had left him for a period and one night, while at his own hotel, Keith fell down soused, completely passed out. Some drinking buddies apparently tried to lug his body upstairs to his suite. “They got me up two flights and then promptly dropped me down, both of them, breaking me collarbone, y’see,” Moon later told Rolling Stone magazine. “But I didn’t know this until I woke up in the morning and tried to put me f***ing shirt on. I went through the f***ing roof.”
Surprisingly, Keith’s drumming technique had become more polished, as evidenced in his disciplined pounding of skins in the striking classics “Baba O’Reilly” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” But by early 1972, when The Who decided to rest from recording and touring for five months, a restless Moon was shining from the night sky. Parties filled with strangers and mere acquaintances raged at all hours inside his multi-pyramid-shaped mansion he’d bought in Surrey the previous year and dubbed ‘Tara.’ A recently-purchased hovercraft arrived from Los Angeles, and Keith proceeded to blast it around the front lawn, finally stalling it out perilously on a set of busy British railway tracks. When The Who set to touring again in the summer, Moon’s daily intake usually consisted of a couple of bottles of brandy and champagne every 24-hour period.
Kooky situations dominated life on the road once again. While performing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” in New York, a roadie rushed on stage at Moon with a bucket of water. “He looked as if he was gonna throw it at me,” Keith recalled. “So I started to move around, turned me head and there was smoke pouring off my headphones, and the bloody thing was alight. That’s what I call pyrotechnics!” When the band stopped over in Denmark, it was Townshend who primed Moon’s prankster pump when he suggested they move a giant waterbed out of Keith’s hotel room to an elevator, sending it to the bottom floor to flood the lobby. “Of course it wouldn’t move,” Townshend reminisced to Musician magazine, “but Keith tried to lever it out of the frame, and it burst. The water was a foot high, flooding out into the hallway and down several floors. At first it was ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ Then, ‘Ha…ha…ha…ooooh, this is going to cost hundreds of thousands of pounds! What are we going to do?’ The destruction was unbelievable. ‘Don’t worry, Pete. I’ll handle this,’ Keith says, and he rings the desk. ‘Hello, I want to talk to the manager. I have a suitcase here full of the most expensive stage clothes, designed by Hardy Amis, tailor to the Queen. Yes, yes, and they have just been engulfed by 4,000 gallons of water from this leaking waterbed. Not only do I demand immediate replacement of my clothing, but also a room on the top floor, straightaway!’ And the manager came running upstairs, ‘Oh my God! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’ Keith claimed it had burst when we sat on the bed…the guy bought it, and we never had to pay.”
But the wild antics were starting to wear thin on Moon’s fellow bandmates. “I didn’t like them very much, I have to say,” Pete told Playboy. “It’s not just me being a bad sport. I kind of went along with it, but I didn’t like it. And I don’t think Roger did, either, and maybe not even John…I think Keith is a brilliant example of the tragedy behind the clown. If he thought it would make you laugh, he would pour petrol on himself and set himself on fire.” It didn’t seem to matter if Keith was amongst strangers, spectators, friends or simply one-on-one with a mate, he always had to be ‘on.’ “Once, he was walking along with me on the second floor of a Holiday Inn,” Pete continued, “and he climbed up on the railing and said, ‘Bye, Pete!’ and leapt off. There was a swimming pool down there, but it was at least five yards away. By some miracle, he contorted himself and managed to barely squeeze into the pool. Then he got up and shouted, ‘Voila!’ I was the only person there, so who was he doing it for?”
Indeed, maybe even Keith knew how insane his life was becoming. For a short period in late 1972, he checked into rehab to try to clean up and subsequently took an acting role in the film “That’ll Be The Day.” But soon he was backing his Rolls Royce into ponds, crashing his Ferrari, and overdosing several times, having to be rushed on emergency to the nearest hospital. For his much-beleaguered Kim, time had run out. After a particularly heated argument, she escaped to a nearby pub to avoid his constant harangues. “Sure enough he came down, incensed, and I realized that it wasn’t good us having this big row in the bar,” she recalled to Tony Fletcher, “so I took off in the back of the pub. The next I knew he came after me with a gun, shooting in the air, like something out of a horror movie, stumbling through the woods, and then I get to the gate and the gate is locked. Eventually I jumped over the gate and he’s coming after me with this gun. I finally got home and hid myself away until he calmed down.”
At the end of the summer of 1973, Kim escaped her tormented Keith for good. She was put up by friends for a spell, and after a while, a romance with keyboardist Ian McLagan kindled. When Moon learned of their relationship, he paid one of his roadies 200 pounds to break McLagan’s fingers. Pete Townshend intercepted the thug, paying him the same amount not to assail Ian. McLagan later told interviewer Pat Gilbert, “I didn’t feel very good about him then…But I love Keith to this day. There were so many Keiths; he could be very nasty, he could be lovely, childish, funny…His job was being a clown, but it didn’t make him happy.” Ian and Kim subsequently wed in 1978.
The Who’s tour for their double album “Quadrophenia” in 1973 was, of course, not without incident. The group was jailed in Montreal after they tore apart a hotel room and tossed a marble table 13 floors to the swimming pool below. Keith was lethargic, virtually passing out stone cold during his performance in San Francisco. The contents of his pumped stomach indicated he had ingested PCP (angel dust). “He was in a wheelchair for two days,” Townshend later related to Musician magazine. “I have a Super-8 film of when we brought him off the plane in a wheelchair. The doctor from Free Clinic says, ‘His heart is only beating once every 30 seconds! He’s clinically dead!’ And Keith says (mumbles), ‘F*** off.’ That is not apocryphal. I have it on film.”
Back in England, alone in an empty house, boozing and popping pills at all hours, Moon turned to acting once again. In early 1974, he performed in a film called “Stardust” with other rockers. Famed Welsh singer/guitarist Dave Edmunds was temporarily swept into Keith’s world of lunacy for the duration of the shoot. One day, while on his way to the set, riding in a chauffeur-driven limo with Keith, they were passed by a school bus filled with young teenage girls. “They were looking out the windows and making innocent gestures and holding up messages they’d written on pieces of paper, that sort of thing,” Edmunds later wrote. “Their driver pulled in to a truck stop and Keith instructed his chauffeur to follow them. We stopped nearby and watched as thirty or more girls tumbled out of the bus and gathered in an orderly group with their teachers. We watched in dumb amazement as Keith quickly started taking off all his clothes. Then, completely naked and with perfect timing, he leapt out of the limo and started running around and around and through these terrified schoolgirls and their chaperones. Then he ran back to the car, got in and ordered Eddie the chauffeur to take off.”
Even Moon’s naked enthusiasm for exhibitionism couldn’t quell his loneliness from Kim. “A lot of the serious self destruction happened after his marriage split up in ’73 or ’74,” Roger Daltrey conceded to Musician magazine. “There was a definite change for the worse at that point.” The alteration in behavior truly manifested itself, without inhibitions, when Keith moved to Los Angeles in late 1974. He took with him a 19-year old Swedish model named Annette Walter-Lax. “He was very light to be with,” Annette said to Tony Fletcher of her first impression of Mr. Moon. “He wasn’t a heavy person. It was all ‘Yes, fine, okay.’ When you’re a young girl, childish and naïve, and you meet someone who treats you the way he treated me – he’d send a Rolls Royce to pick me up wherever I was – you get impressed.”
Keith began recording a solo album titled “Two Sides Of The Moon.” When it was ready for release, his record company, MCA, balked at issuing the cover sleeve that contained a picture of Keith mooning the camera. The loopy drummer reportedly appeared at the office of MCA executive Mike Maitland one afternoon. Holding a fire ax. “What’s it going to be, dear boy?’ he quizzically posed to the frightened Maitland. “My album cover or a new desk?” The album was released as is. Despite its novel photo design, the LP sold poorly. Moon sunk into a prescribed quaqmire. His friend, actor Larry Hagman, whom he’d met on the set of “Stardust,” was summoned by Annette one day to help her put the narcotized Who man into drug rehab. The brief respite from mind-altering stimulants and depressants allowed him to fly back to England to record another album with his increasingly-dismayed band members. Upon his return to LA, he fell in with his old drinking circle.
Amongst the Hollywood clique, Keith hung mostly with other rockers, namely, Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper, as well as his co-star in the feature film “Tommy,” Oliver Reed. One of the first encounters with his drinking buddy Reed occurred when Moon asked him to come over to his hotel room one night. According to author Tony Fletcher, Keith asked Oliver to help him ‘fix the television.’ The two moved the set close to the window, Reed not sensing why the change in locale might help reception. “All of a sudden he tips it up to one side and out of the window,” Oliver remembered. “Bang! The porter comes charging up the stairs. ‘Good, there you are,’ says Moon. ‘Next time answer the phone when I call.” Reed was an immediate convert. For the next four years the terrible twosome would goad each other to new, outrageous boundaries in public. A typical scenario occurred in early 1976, when Oliver blew into LA and took Keith to a posh restaurant at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. As the two became boisterous in their conversations and arguments, Moon broke all decorum by jumping up onto their dining table, dropped his trousers, and loudly proclaimed to Ollie that he indeed was not Jewish.
Another incident at the Beverly Wilshire left Reed downright flabbergasted. On the occasion of his brother’s 40th birthday, Oliver threw a massive party with many celebrities and friends in attendance. It wasn’t long before Moon became soused and started a messy food fight. Suddenly, expensive dishware was being smashed, Keith cut his hand badly, blood poured forth profusely, and he was skirted away to the hospital. Reed was left with the mayhem and the monumental dinner tab. “The people had screamed and run out because of Moon spurting blood everywhere,” Reed later told Tony Fletcher, “and the whole thing was in chaos, the waiters were going crazy, and bodyguards were punching people out…And Ringo was sitting at the table, just shaking his head like he’d seen it all before.”
Friend Harry Nilsson also witnessed the latter day madness of Keith Moon. When the two met up in London for a simple round of drinks at a hotel, it didn’t take long for Keith to find fault with the entertainment. “It happened to be the first night of their disco attempt,” Harry related to Musician magazine. “The music was horrible. Of course, they were buying drinks for us. Halfway through the second bottle, Keith snapped. He picked up a bottle and threw it at the disc jockey. It hit the wall behind him, bounced back and wiped out the turntables. The room came to a sudden stop. The next thing I know, the table is upside down, there are security people and I was on the floor. I looked up and saw Keith being carried out over the heads of six waiters, his arms and legs flailing, screaming, ‘Charge this to Neil Sedaka!’ He (Sedaka) was at the hotel at the time.”
Before the start of a short tour in 1976, The Who confronted Moon and told him to seek help. A spirit-filled health worker accompanied Moon on the road, because Keith was convinced he had a head filled with demons. He seriously wanted to believe in God. For the brief excursion performing around Europe, Keith remained sober and drug-free. But once the tour and his spiritual guide went home, the demons rose forth once again, and Moon tore the chandelier out of his Paris hotel room before flying back to Annette and Los Angeles. The simple pranks he once effortlessly executed became more surreal. He rolled up one day to a tennis match in a Nazi uniform, driving a prop tank he’d rented from the Universal Studios backlot. Meanwhile, his chums who’d normally hang with him, found excuses not to. “I couldn’t hang out with Keith all the time,” musician Alice Cooper told Tony Fletcher. “He would exhaust you because he never got tired, and it wasn’t because of drugs necessarily, he was just one of those guys who never got tired. You’d be passing out and going ‘enough’ and he’d be going ‘let’s go out!”
While on tour with The Who around the United States during the late summer of 1976, Moon went completely out of his head. After laying waste to the stately Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, he was arrested and committed to a mental ward of a hospital for observation. He told a local disc jockey, “I don’t really remember much about it. I felt dizzy…and I just blacked out and woke up here. The doctors said it was a breakdown.” After a week he was released and allowed to return to the tour. For the next nine days of their schedule, Moon was the perfect gentleman, no trouble whatsoever. His contribution to each show was impeccable. When the group performed the final concert in Toronto on October 21, 1976, nobody knew it would be Moon’s last live show onstage with The Who.
Exhausted and in need of creative rejuvenation, the band went their separate ways over the first eight months of 1977. Keith flew back to Los Angeles and further isolation. Having moved to a beautiful beach home in the Malibu colony, he picked fights with his celebrity neighbor, actor Steve McQueen. More and more he was seen around town dressed in his Rommel Nazi uniform, on one occasion having goose-stepped down the pricey beachfront properties with no pants and underwear, saluting aghast socialites with a hearty ‘Heil!’ Late night phone calls to Townshend and Entwistle decrying his loneliness and asking for their assistance left him broken and angry. Neither flew from England to be with him. He overdosed a couple of times to the point Annette and others had him checked into the rigid detox ward at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Weeks of treatment failed to remedy his addiction and soon Moon was back to the bottle and hard drugs. By the end of the summer, however, The Who wanted him back. Townshend had been writing new material. On September 12th, Keith and Annette caught a plane for London and never looked back at Malibu.
The Who settled into recording in early October. The old Moon abilities behind the drum kit were almost non-existent. Increasingly frustrated by trying to stay off the booze, Keith took up with the brandy and soon was delinquent in his commitments with his bandmates. “About halfway through the recording of ‘Who Are You,’ he was showing up late and not playing very well and I got into this mood: ‘I’m not taking any more of his s***,” Pete Townshend recalled to Musician magazine. “So I rang him up and told him to get the f*** down here. He came running down, babbling excuses. I got him behind the drums and he could not keep the song together. He couldn’t play. He’d obviously been out the night before to some club. He’d put his work second. Again. But before I could say anything, he went (imitates chaotic drum solo). ‘See?,’ he said. ‘I’m still the best Keith Moon-type drummer in the world.”
The band somehow plodded through the recording sessions into 1978. Moon’s work was discarded or not even recorded for some songs. Alcoholism was his life’s blood. “He was drinking port for breakfast,” Annette told Tony Fletcher. “His body was so toxic that when he was going to swallow alcohol it came straight back up again. So he had to force it down. It was just awful to watch.” After the completion of “Who Are You,” Keith and Annette took a holiday in June to the island of Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean. Away from the temptations to grandstand and booze it up, Moon stayed relatively sober and clean. Annette was cheered by his stabilizing health at the end of the month. However, the moments of madness were short-lived. Walking to the British Airways jet that was idling on the tarmac to take them back to London, Keith inexplicably hurled his suitcase into one of the jet’s engine, causing a tense-filled delay. He was thrown off the plane and put into a hospital midway in the Seychelles Islands. The old Moon was back.
His bandmates tried to rally him one last time. They made him director of publicity at their newly acquired Shepperton Studios recording facility. This new position, although relatively undemanding, seemed to give him hope. “I feel I’ve got a sense of purpose,” Moon told Rolling Stone magazine. “In the two years off, I was really drifting away with no direction, no nothing…Nothing ever came close to the feeling I get when I’m working with the guys. Because it’s fun, but at the same time I know I’ve gotta discipline myself again. I accept that.” Around this time, he and Annette moved into an apartment owned by Harry Nilsson in the fashionable Mayfair district of London. It was the same apartment Mama Cass Elliott perished in four years earlier.
To quell his yearnings for alcohol, Keith was prescribed a drug called Heminevrin. A highly potent drug, it is not ordinarily the kind of narcotic given to patients under a prescription form. Usually it should be dispensed to patients under the direct guidance of a physician. Moon had persuaded a doctor to let him have the prescription.
On September 6, 1978, Keith and Annette attended a premiere of the film “The Buddy Holly Story,” starring Gary Busey, and hosted by Paul McCartney. As the movie cranked up around midnight, Keith decided he wanted to leave and go home. He had told many at the premiere party how serious he was about curtailing his drinking and all-night cavorting. Annette and Moon arrived back at the apartment, Keith took some Heminevrin, and settled in to watch a Vincent Price film on TV. The next morning, around 7:30, Keith woke Annette up, saying he was hungry. After she fixed him a hearty breakfast, he apparently took more pills and went back to sleep. Annette, too, moved off to the living room and fell back to a fitful slumber. When she awoke around 3:30 in the afternoon, she entered the bedroom to find Moon still under the covers. Upon closer examination, she found the musician no longer breathing. His body was taken by ambulance to nearby Middlesex Hospital where he was pronounced dead. Keith had overdosed on too many doses of Heminevrin. Thirty-two tablets, some dissolved and others undissolved, were found in his system.
The well-wishers at his funeral on September 13th were a who’s-who of rock ‘n’ roll. Roger Daltrey’s floral contribution to the proceedings, an arrangement that depicted the image of a champagne bottle sticking out of a smashed TV set, seemed to embody both the reckless and endearing spirit of the fallen drummer. Pete Townshend encapsulated the very essence of Keith Moon’s demise. “He died f***ing around with drugs and alcohol,” he bluntly stated to Musician magazine. “Not in a nihilistic sense. He died f***ing around. He’d lost perspective. He was not drinking at the time he died, he took an overdose of a drug to prevent seizures during alcoholic withdrawal. He took eight of the pills. He was thinking, ‘I’m a good boy, I’ve quit drinking, if one of these is good for me, eight will be better.’ It was like a sick joke it should happen.” Nobody, not one of his friends, believed it was a suicide. It was an accident, one that seemed irrevocably inevitable. “I was in America when he died,” Ringo Starr recalled to Musician magazine. “We were all doing the same thing to our health; that seemed to be the course we were all on in those years. Some of us stopped and some of us didn’t. I think it was pure accident with Keith ‘cause he had the constitution of a horse.”
The eccentric talent of Keith Moon may never be fully understood outside the context of the destruction he left behind. But within his element, when he was in focus, seated grandly behind his drum kit, beating mercilessly in a way that suggested he was oftentimes the lead instrument, Keith Moon’s talent was in plain view. “People underestimated him,” guitarist Jeff Beck observed to author Tony Fletcher. “He was the most incredible drummer. You can’t even mimic him. Nobody’s been able to do it. I’ve watched and stood beside him and…I could describe a car crash easier than I could describe his drumming.” The Who’s publicist, Keith Altham, seemed to summarize Moon’s ingenuity the best. “What he could do none of them could do. Which was a wall of sound of his own, a kind of rumbling explosion that was going on in the background that was as impressive and exciting as anyone else could do on another instrument…He was a one-man walking explosion, and he put that into his music in the same way as it was in his life.”
The reasons for Keith Moon’s demons are complex. No one will ever know why this gregarious man with vast talent, a raw sense of humor, and exceedingly good fortune would virtually throw it all away with constant annihilation and self-destruction. The one mystery that can be solved is the fact that Keith Moon was aware of his own demise. There never seemed to be a moment in all of the fog-enshrouded, booze-addled episodes that he didn’t know exactly what his role in all of it was. “Those farcical situations,” he mused to Rolling Stone magazine, “I’m always tied up in them. They’re always as if they could be a Laurel and Hardy sketch. And they always ‘appen to me…I think unconsciously I want them to ‘appen, and they do…I suppose to most people I’m probably seen as an amiable idiot…a genial twit. I think I must be a victim of circumstance really. Most of it’s me own doing. I’m a victim of me own practical jokes. I suppose that reflects a rather selfish attitude: I like to be the recipient of me own doings. Nine times out of ten I am. I set traps and fall into them.”
© 2001 Ned Truslow