Is a dry Johnny Rock still Johnny Rock?

Credit: Patrick Harbron/FX
  • TV Show
  • FX

Though it is written by and stars Denis Leary, Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is already establishing itself as an excellent ensemble piece. Last week’s premiere did an exceptionally efficient job of introducing the core members of the Heathens as well as Gigi, Eva, and talent manager Ira (looking back on it, it’s mildly staggering just how many specific relationship details get unpacked in 22 minutes), and this week goes deeper into those relationships, quirks, and foibles. Leary is fond of talking about SDRR as a family comedy at its heart, and “Clean Rockin’ Daddy” is an excellent example of that.

We open with our hero barely conscious after a night of independent partying in the recording studio. Though Rock is stumbling and hung over, he still managed to grind out a song idea that, lo and behold, actually works (and is cut by the Heathens in a neat little montage). Though Rock helpfully points out that mumbling into a recorder while barely coherent is a technique that Keith Richards used (and that yielded the “[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction” riff), the rest of the crew demand that he remain sober throughout the reunion. In fact, it’s even in his contract.

So begins the struggle: Rock wants to score, and everybody else in the Heathens family is trying to keep him straight. He gets time with just about everybody, and each encounter is unique and hilarious—the standout being his chat with Rehab about the 29-track song cycle he has written about the Irish potato famine (with its opening tune “Bloody English Whores”).

Eventually, Rock manages to stay straight and grind out a wistful, vaguely British-sounding composition that features a refrain about “mining sinner’s gold.” Is it a fresh songwriting frontier for the newly sober Johnny Rock? Not quite. “That song sounded like something that Sting would write if he was living inside of Sarah McLachlan’s vagina,” Gigi declares, and the entire crew goes on the hunt for drugs and alcohol in order to bring back Rock’s muse.

The key moment in the episode revolves around one of Rock’s rants, which hits on an idea that has bugged me for years. While trying to justify his own bad habits, Rock points out that all of the music they all adored—including the Heathens’ own debut album—was made under the influence of chemicals. He makes a particular point of ranting about David Bowie, one of his personal heroes: When Flash points out that Bowie has been sober for years, Rock notes that’s also when his talent left. “Let’s dance? Let’s not, David,” Rock shouts.

While I don’t agree with Rock’s assessment of Bowie’s ’80s dance-pop period (I’ll stand up for “China Girl,” and I don’t care who knows it), I have often felt guilty about thinking, “This person was better when he was high.” I acknowledge that it’s an unhealthy and cruel philosophy to adopt—after all, we have lost too many artists far too early thanks to drug and alcohol abuse. There’s nothing funny or whimsical about addiction, and it should never be taken lightly.

But maybe I’m a fundamentally bad person, because I have often told people that I prefer the Martin Scorsese movies from his cocaine period. Same goes for Oasis albums: Noel Gallagher writes off Be Here Now as a blow-addled disaster, but I think it’s a tremendous accomplishment. And most of the recent Mötley Crüe stuff that Nikki Sixx has written has paled in comparison to his perpetual hangover period.

Of course, plenty of people have improved their lives and careers once they finally cleaned up. Johnny Rock just isn’t one of them.

Liner Notes

  • Eva encourages Johnny’s sobriety by telling him he can have a little wine at the end of the day. When the rest of the Heathens disagree, she says, “I thought we were going old school.” That’s derived from a great joke from Leary’s stand-up special No Cure For Cancer: “We didn’t have rehab back in the ’70s. Back in the ’70s, rehab meant you’d stop doing coke but you kept smoking pot and drinking for a couple more weeks.” Rock makes that exact case later in the episode: “We’ll just get rid of the blow, and I’ll just do the booze and the weed.”
  • Bam Bam feels particularly sensitive about Johnny’s struggles, as it reminds him of somebody. “Johnny and my mom, they both have the same hair. And I’m pretty sure she had that blouse.”
  • Johnny doesn’t care for Morrissey or Radiohead. His fake Morrissey-meets-Radiohead jam is pretty scathing, and he also notes, “Every time I hear a Radiohead song I feel like I’m failing the SATs all over again.”
  • I can’t sing the praises of Liz Gillies enough, and Gigi’s heart-to-heart with Johnny about his health is both funny and real.
  • The little stand-off between Johnny and Flash over Gigi is a little flat, but I like the way Gillies plays coy with Leary about Gigi’s attraction to Flash. It feels like a lot of it comes from improv.
  • Rehab knows a couple of great places to get sober. “Five…I know five great places.”

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2015 series
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  • FX