Rock music isn't evil - it's the rock star myth that creates men like Ian Watkins

Music journalist and author Ben Myers has been doing some soul searching on the day the former Lostprophets singer was sentenced to twenty-nine years imprisonment plus a further six on licence for crimes including several counts of sexually abusing childr

The sentencing of former Lostprophets singer Ian Watkins today to twenty-nine years imprisonment plus a further six on licence for crimes including several counts of sexually abusing children hopefully brings an end to what some police officers have described as the most horrific case of child abuse they have worked on, and by far the most disturbing criminal trial associated with British rock music.

For all it aesthetic flirtation with the dark side and its well-worn sex and drugs rhetoric, a case like this is rare – unprecedented, in fact - in the home-grown rock scene. I’d even argue that there is a playful innocence to many of its posturing bands. Far less sex, drugs and fisticuffs than I’ve seen at some British town centres taxi ranks at 2am. I know some lovely Satanists and have enjoyed many intellectually-invigorating encounters with men and women who scream about death for a living.

Which is why many of my colleagues in the music business who have had close dealings with Watkins and his band have been doing some deep soul-searching. Are all of us who contribute to the myth-making business of music somehow indirectly culpable for creating a world in which simple musicians are deified?

My own contact with Watkins has been limited to phone conversations and some innocuous online exchanges. But I have spent plenty of time close-up with some of rock’s bigger figures – Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Jimmy Page, Mötley Crüe, Marilyn Manson, Slash and recent wayward artists such as Pete Doherty and the late Amy Winehouse - and am almost always struck by the same observation: these are ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. They are not demigods, and nor should they be portrayed as such. Treat them as normal and they will generally respond accordingly. Pander to their inflated egos and they might just take advantage.

“Today mythical thinking has fallen into disrepute,” notes Karen Armstrong in A Short History Of Myth, and post-Watkins, there are certainly questions to be raised about why lifestyle excesses and preening, red-blooded rock stars have been historically celebrated in rock music. The big difference today is that these mythological creatures of yore are no longer absent, unobtainable figures. As Watkins has proven in the most diabolical ways imaginable, they are only ever a tweet or webcam away.

When 47 year old Bill Wyman started dating 13 year old Mandy Smith there was tabloid outrage but little in the way of legal action. When Led Zeppelin took advantage of young fans they were not brought to account, but instead lionised. They were portrayed as heroes. Was Ian Watkins, the nadir of the indulged rock star, somehow “allowed” to hide in plain view, exploiting the susceptible without impunity? “There are so many rumours about me,” he said in an interview with Kerrang! in 2010. “The more shit that’s out there, the bigger the smokescreen and the harder it is to tell what’s actually true.”

Academically gifted and believed to be a reader of de Sade, perhaps he saw himself as some sort of de Sade/Gilles de Rais figure pushing the limits of morality. The same interview was littered with prescient phrases such as “I’ve taken down all the rules in my life,” and “I’m not just talking about substances, I mean everything ... just opening up to being like ‘come what may’ is so liberating”. Hindsight now tells us that the previously drink and drug-free Watkins was not merely alluding to his recent dalliances with class A drugs.

One unnamed girlfriend told Wales Online: “I’m not sure if he was born a paedophile. He said it got boring having 16-to-20 year-olds throwing themselves at him.” Another of his ex’s – and the main whistle-blower in his case - Joanne Mjadzelics has noted that there is an irrefutable difference between enjoying what she has called “adventurous sex” and becoming what the judge called “a determined and committed paedophile”. Taking to one paper Mjadzelics said “I’m absolutely sure Ian wouldn’t have stopped at abuse. He wanted to rape and kill children. He wanted to rape newborns.”

Statements such as these suggest that though Watkins’ occupation facilitated the abuse - increased access meant a swifter escalation in severity - he may have been an abuser anyway. Perhaps rock music is no more to blame than drugs, social networking or the writings of de Sade, but yet simply dismissing Watkins as evil however is doing criminology and psycho-analysis a disservice.

One suspects ego, money, greed, access to extreme pornography, a talent for manipulation and coercion, and a narcissistic and/or  psychopathic personality all played some part in Watkins committing these heinous crimes. 

The rest perhaps only he could explain. Certainly today is rock music’s darkest day.

“I’ve taken down all the rules in my life” Watkins said in 2010. Photograph: Getty.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

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Marc Maron: a conversation with the anxiety co-pilot

Now that the interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads and featured guests from Iggy Pop and Barack Obama, what does its host Marc Maron want to say?

Richard Pryor decided to talk about race. Sam Kinison used his fame and his family history to talk about God. Bill Hicks asked why nothing produced in America seemed quite worthy of the people who consumed it. Now that the intimate, interview-based podcast WTF has had millions of downloads on iTunes and has featured guests from Mel Brooks to Iggy Pop and, this summer, Barack Obama, what does its host, the comedian Marc Maron – adopter of stray cats, recovered addict and vinyl hoarder – feel he has to say?

“I think the type of conversations that I have on the show are something that is missing in our lives,” Maron told me one recent Friday, down the line from the garage in the garden of his home in Highland Park, Los Angeles, where WTF has been recorded twice a week since 2009. “We’ve lost the knowledge that it’s not that hard to have an hour-long conversation with someone. You’re built to carry whatever problems they have. I think it’s good for the heart.”

If the Maron family crest bore a motto, it might be that timeless adage: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Born in 1963, Maron was raised by a real-estate broker mother and an orthopaedic surgeon father, first in New Jersey, then in Alaska, then in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “My father is and was both an overactive hypochondriac and a physician,” he wrote in his 2013 memoir, Attempting Normal, “which is a bad combination.” After studying English at Boston University, he began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 24.

“I don’t think of myself as a joke guy,” he told me. “Most of what I do is creating a dialogue around my own problems. Some people call it ‘navel-gazing’ but I’d prefer to call it ‘compulsive self-awareness’.”

And there have been many problems. Maron, now 51, began his 2013 comedy special Thinky Pain by telling the audience in the basement of the Village Gate nightclub in New York that he didn’t “have a lot of respect for people that don’t have the courage to lose complete control of their life for a few years”.

When Maron was 35, unhappily married, hoovering up booze, weed and cocaine most evenings, he met a beautiful aspiring comedian 12 years his junior, who told him he looked dreadful and offered to help him get sober. And she did, more or less. He divorced his first wife and pinned his hopes on his second. By 2009, he was living on the US west coast, divorced for a second time, barely able to work and newly dismissed from the morning talk show he’d co-hosted on the left-leaning Air America radio network.

“It was a period where I needed to talk a lot,” he said, “but also to sort of re-engage with something I think I had practised as a child: being part of somebody else.” With the former Air America producer Brendan McDonald, Maron began recording conversations with comedian friends, seeking advice, delving into their lives. He asked stock questions, such as “What did your old man do?” and “Who were your guys?”, as if they might provide some clue to where he had gone wrong. Then people started to listen.

“I started getting emails saying somehow or other the dialogue with my guests, or my monologues, were making people feel better or getting them through dark times,” he said. “I never anticipated people would get that type of help from the show.”

In a recent episode with Ian McKellen, Maron explained to the British actor that his listeners were “sensitive, slightly aggravated, usually intelligent people”, not so much “a demographic, more of a disposition”. By 2010, WTF had attracted a cult following. Robin Williams came to the garage and talked about his depression. Maron’s fellow stand-up Todd Glass came out as gay on the show after a string of suicides among young LGBT people. Friends whom Maron had known throughout his career, including David Cross, Sarah Silverman and Bob Odenkirk, joined him to reminisce. His 2010 interview with Louis CK, arguably the best-known US comedian of recent years, was voted the greatest podcast episode ever by the online magazine Slate.

“Comedians in their infancy are generally selfish, irresponsible, emotionally retarded, morally dubious, substance-addicted animals who live out of boxes and milk crates,” Maron wrote in his memoir. Yet, as they mature, they can become “some of the most thoughtful, philosophical, open-minded . . . creative people in the world”.

“The best comics are people that have taken the chance to live a life independent of mainstream culture and expectations,” he told me. “They’re constantly looking for an angle on the information coming in. They write things down. It’s the life of a thinker, or a philosopher, or poet – however you want to put it.”

I suggested that poetry was an ideal analogy for comedy, not only because poets reframe reality in a truthful way but also because they can be savage and resentful, particularly to fellow poets. It’s a fact Maron openly concedes about himself.

“I’m the clown that thought Louis CK’s show Louie should be called F*** You, Marc Maron,” he said at the 2011 Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. The episode of WTF with Louis CK, a friend since the late 1980s, is remarkable not only for the moment when CK becomes audibly emotional as he discusses the birth of his first child, but for the way in which he unflinchingly airs his grievances with Maron, who confesses to envying CK’s success so much that they lost contact for a time. “You were being a shitty friend by being jealous,” CK says. “I could’ve used you . . . I got divorced. I got a show cancelled. I could’ve used a friend.”

So, in 2015, with a TV series about his life on the IFC cable network concluding its third series, the widely discussed interview in which Obama opened up about parenting, gun control and racism in the US and a series of high-profile appearances in Dublin, London and Sydney booked to showcase new material, surely the glass at last looks half full? “Maybe,” he said. “There are some people whose ego is able to accept the love and adoration of an audience. I’ve always been one to question that.”

Yet the improvements to his life – recognition, financial security, reconciliation with old friends – are undeniable. “Most creative people move through a tremendous amount of insecurity, which can turn to hostility. But the podcast became socially relevant and some of the insecurities dissipated. I could accept myself, for the most part, and realise that all the hard work I’d done for half my life had manifested into something that connects with people.”

Maron’s biggest anxiety today, he explained at the end of our talk, before opening the garage door to face the day, is that he’s “swamped with work all the f***ing time”.

“I beat myself up feeling like I should be out in the world, seeing a play or some art or something. Often, when I do monologues, I think, ‘I’ve got nothing to talk about.’ But then I go on and talk about nothing.”

The truth is that Marc Maron isn’t Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks – but that’s OK. We live in a different time. Perhaps what listeners need most is not more opinions, but a little help getting out of their own way: a co-pilot to navigate the anxieties of living day to day. “That’s exactly right,” he said. “The little things.”

Marc Maron performs at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, on 3 and 4 September

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses