Mention the name Keith Moon, and images of ruinous excess come just as readily to mind as do the man's achievements as the unbridled drummer of the Who. In a new biography, author Tony Fletcher credits Moon for revolutionizing "the concept of the drummer in rock and roll and pop music by rejecting the previously accepted constraints--leading from the back."
Because Moon was so consistent in his pattern of outrageous behavior, Fletcher has plenty of stories to tell--some might argue, too many. The seemingly endless series of wild escapades detailed here eventually blurs into one huge, indistinguishable mass of unchecked lunacy. Scariest of all, we learn that Moon was always this way.
Fletcher, who talked to Moon's relatives and friends, had an ordinary upbringing in Wembley, England, where he exhibited a restless nature and a short attention span from a very early age. (Fletcher puts it down to a hyperactivity disorder.) Moon was the irreverent class cutup with a constant need to be the center of attention. Outside the classroom he engaged in a series of adolescent pranks (e.g., tearing apart the seats and placards on the local train when no one was looking). At age 16 the boy with the all-consuming passion for California surf music and Marvel comics joined the Northwest London cover band the Beachcombers, where he displayed his uniquely flamboyant drumming style, hitting the drums with such force he'd have to anchor his kit with nails hammered into the floor.
As for Moon's days with the Who, Fletcher doesn't offer much info on the band's career, preferring to keep the focus on the public and private lives of his main subject. (Insofar as personal dynamics within the band went, Moon got along best with John Entwistle and the least with Roger Daltrey.) Operating within the rowdy, unrestrained domain of the Who's live shows, Moon was in his element; when fame came, and along with it a whole new world of hedonistic pleasures, Moon took to it with sheer abandon. He soon became as well known for his club-hopping, "Moon the Loon" persona as for his musicianship. He was a first-class substance abuser with a penchant for speed as well as excessive drinking that often led to blackouts. ("For him," writes the author, "all drugs were an end in themselves, getting completely out of it was a completely justifiable goal.")
Moon's seemingly endless reserves of energy were channeled into getting others to sit up and take notice. His predilection for publicly disrobing Fletcher ascribes to "partly a comic's desire to make his audience laugh, partly a serious attempt to provoke and study reactions in people, and partly a child's pathetic cry for attention."
Still, Moon's outgoing persona and outwardly warm and generous nature masked a deep-seated insecurity. Prone to wild fits of jealous rage if girlfriend and later wife Kim so much as looked at another man, Moon was possessive to the point of forbidding his wife to have a career, and he wasn't at all comfortable when she was out of his sight. He could be physically abusive as well, breaking Kim's nose no less than three times during their turbulent marriage. Moon's wild mood swings and revolving-door personalities confused even her. ("He really was lots of different people," Kim says. "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.")
Publicly Moon's skewed sense of humor was, says Fletcher, "intended to provoke as much as to entertain," which at least partially explained his fondness for parading around in a Nazi uniform. Unfortunately for Kim, Moon adopted the personality to go with it, which she recalls was "mental torture. We'd have a house full of people, and it would be amusing for them because they could walk away from it, but I knew it would go on like that."
Fletcher points out that Moon "had always presented himself as a lovable boozer," but after years of heavy drinking, he "became more of a boorish drunk." His boozing didn't appear to affect his exceptional skills as a musician, at least not until the end. ("He had the remarkable capacity to drum right through his inebriation, by instinct," notes Fletcher.) Moon appeared to be caught in a predictable trap, attempting to live up to his own image, motivated by a self-doubt that told him no one would love him for being any other way; it didn't help that the people surrounding him would egg him on to ever greater episodes of lunacy. The author remarks that Moon's behavior tended to exhaust those around him--reading all about it may well have the same effect on the reader.
For all his gregariousness, Moon lacked any real close friends and kept his dark side mostly out of view. (Kim recalls "some very, very horrifying, nightmarish times," including an incident where Moon chased his wife with a gun during an argument, firing shots in the air as he ran.) When Kim decided she'd had enough and divorced Moon, he took up with former model Annette Walter Lax, who also found Moon's endless carousing a bit much ("I was pretty certain that he was going to grow up one day. I was just waiting for that day to happen," she says here).
At loose ends when not touring or recording with the Who, Moon found life a continuous cycle of partying, but not everyone was fooled by the clown act. Kinks guitarist Dave Davies, who witnessed one of Moon's public outings, recalled, "Through his silly jokes and false laughter, I detected a terrible sadness." As Fletcher reveals, an increasingly unhappy Moon sought some rather unorthodox help in the form of parapsychologist George Patterson and wife Meg (the latter being the doctor who successfully treated Eric Clapton for his heroin addiction), who felt that Moon's problems stemmed from a form of demon possession. Fletcher's diagnosis is the far more clinical "borderline personality disorder," which involved varying degrees of "psychosis and manic depression."
From there Moon's life took a steep downward spiral. In and out of hospitals, his health ravaged by alcoholism, he was threatened with ejection from the Who. Moon's eventual demise (from an overdose of a detoxification drug) was a predictable ending to a life that for all its high, frenetic drama was at its core strangely empty and spiritually bereft.
Moon: The Life and Death of a Rock Legend. By Tony Fletcher, Spike, $30.00.