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'Til Def Do Us Part

Steve Clark, lead guitarist for Def Leppard, was brought down by booze and drugs 10 years ago.

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If tragic excesses are the measure of a metal god, Steve Clark is definitely somewhere in rock’s Valhalla. Def Leppard’s lead guitarist lived life at a blistering pace — but the hysteria caught up with him on Jan. 8, 1991, when he was struck down by a deadly combination of alcohol and prescription drugs in his London home.

”You’re as surprised when you hear that Steve’s died as you are that your grandmother died,” says lead singer Joe Elliott. Clark was only 30, and the blow couldn’t have come at a worse moment for the Leps, who had already seen their fair share of disasters: Drummer Rick Allen lost an arm in a 1984 car accident, and producer Robert John ”Mutt” Lange was hospitalized with serious injuries after a 1986 pileup.

When Clark died, the band was trying to record a worthy successor to its multiplatinum Hysteria, the 1987 smash that included the arena anthem ”Pour Some Sugar on Me” and made hair metal safe for suburbia. Minus their riff master, the group’s signature sound was in jeopardy.

”His guitar playing brought the raw edge to the band,” says Elliott, who welcomed Clark into the Def Leppard fold in 1978. The band drew on their meager beginnings in Sheffield, England — the same kind of working-class environment that nurtured other Brit bands like the Who, Led Zeppelin, and that motley quartet of Liverpudlians — for their first album, 1980’s On Through the Night, which signaled the arrival of a great heavy metal act.

As the band’s fame steadily grew (with 1983’s Pyromania and the formidable Hysteria), so did Clark’s drinking problem. He’d been to rehab several times when his mates sent him on a leave of absence during the recording of 1992’s Adrenalize. (”He just wasn’t capable of contributing,” says Elliott.) When word came that Clark had been found dead on his living room floor by his girlfriend, Janie Dean, the band greeted the news with sadness and resignation. According to Elliott, ”We’d been expecting the call for a year.”

Luckily for the group, most of Adrenalize had been written before Clark’s death. One song that wasn’t, ”White Lightning,” was directly influenced by his passing. ”It was a very washing-the-soul kind of song,” explains Elliott. ”It was such a draining experience to put that song together.”

But it was no drain on sales. Adrenalize (which was dedicated to Clark) sold over 3 million copies, even as hard rock was beginning its long slide into the bargain bin of history. Today, the Leps still tour — even though their last album, 1999’s Euphoria, sold only 550,000 copies — and Elliott has a side project called the Cybernauts, which recently released an album in Japan.

”I’m not going to be crying tears of sadness,” says Elliott of the 10th anniversary of his friend’s death. ”I’m going to be doing a gig. But I’m certainly going to dedicate a song to him.” And pour some sugar on it.

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time capsule / jan. 8, 1991

AT THE MOVIES, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III, starring Al Pacino (right), pulls audiences back into theaters. ON TV, Americans tune in to ABC’s Tuesday-night lineup, including Who’s the Boss?, Roseanne, and thirtysomething. IN MUSIC, Madonna’s MTV-banned ”Justify My Love” is a No. 1 Billboard single. AND IN THE NEWS, as the Persian Gulf situation heats up, President Bush asks Congress to support a forced withdrawal of the Saddam Hussein-led Iraqi military from Kuwait should Saddam fail to meet a Jan. 15 deadline to pull out.

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