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Behind the Curtain – Tracking Down Keith Moon

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Nothing could have prepared me that day for meeting Keith Moon. His nickname was Moon the Loon and for good reason — Keith John Moon, born on August 23, 1946, was a certified madman.

Maybe he wasn’t certifiable but he was certainly one misunderstood individual. There have been so many stories written about him that I figured some of them must have been made up because there was no way he could have been as crazy as all that. I’m still not sure if he was. But he did throw television sets out of hotel room windows and he did drive his Rolls Royce into a swimming pool. One of his favorite exploits was blowing up toilets.

Sometimes his zaniness had lethal results like the time he was drunk and accidentally ran over his friend, driver and bodyguard, Neil Boland. It would haunt him for the rest of his life.

So when I finally met the insane drummer, I knew the man on the other side of the microphone was not going to be normal. He was probably going to be drunk—he was—and probably have a range of emotions from the riotous to the reserved—he did. In fact the person I met that day turned out to be one of the strangest people I’d ever met—but also one of the sweetest.

After multiple phone calls trying to set up the interview—Keith rarely talked to the press—I was ultimately given entry into his wacky world. But before I get into talking about that encounter, it is important to lay out what happened prior to that meeting.

Earlier that afternoon in 1974, I sat and broke verbal bread with Ron Wood, the guitarist with Rod Stewart’s Faces and soon to become a member of the Rolling Stones. I had met with Ron on one side of town at Warner Bros. Records in Burbank, and, running late, was forced to race along the convoluted and always traffic-jammed streets of Los Angeles in order to make my appointment with Moon.

keith moon drumset

I told Woody I had to hit the road as soon as our conversation was over because a friend of his—Keith Moon—was waiting for me on the other side of town.  Ron, eyebrows raised in an expression meant to convey, “Do not make Moony wait,” gave this by-now frazzled writer a big grin and clasped my shoulder. When I asked him to sign the Faces’ First Step album he scribbled, “Good luck with Keef.”

Which was exactly what I needed as I jumped into my car and zoomed west. I did not want to be late even by a few seconds. It was unprofessional, discourteous and disrespectful and I didn’t want my tardiness to trigger anything in Keith. I headed for Coldwater Canyon where Moon had leased a home. The streets in those canyons were winding, narrow and treacherous but still I barely slowed down.

Living in Laurel Canyon had taught me how to negotiate S-curves and maneuver through cutbacks and that knowledge was now paying dividends.

I scanned the addresses as they flew by my window. Finally I caught sight of the right numbers and onto an elevated driveway that rose to meet the house. There were no other cars in sight and as I pulled in my first thought was, “I’m early” and then my flummoxed brain kicked that idea aside and screamed, “No, you’re late.”

In fact, the house appeared vacant. I had blown through stop signs, disregarded all vehicular common sense, and barely missed clipping several pedestrians on the frantic drive over—and it had been worth every misdemeanor—but now it looked like I might have written down the wrong address. I knew I hadn’t but I was grasping for straws at this point. Nobody lived there. The place felt empty.

Even before approaching the front door and knocking, I knew there wouldn’t be an answer. Feeling out of breath and starting to hyperventilate, I knocked gently. No response. But as my knuckles hit the door, it opened slightly. It had been left unlocked and was slightly ajar. Again, I had competing thoughts burrow into my brain. My first thought was this house had been vacant for a long time and either realtors or robbers had left the front door open. Then in a jubilant sense of euphoria, I shouted inwardly, “No, this was Keith’s place. Who but Moon would leave his front door unlocked?”

I was now waiting outside the front door of this very expensive property. Coldwater Canyon was an exclusive, high-end community and some unknown individual standing on the front lawn in front of an unlocked door was probably not the best idea in the world. I tried knocking again a bit more frantically this time but still no Moon. My heart started to sink a little more with each rap.

Oasis’ 1997 album ‘Be Here Now’ famously referenced Moonie’s alleged car-into-pool accident

Several minutes passed and I’m still standing there because I don’t know what else to do. I was trying to figure out if I was late—and if I was it was only by a couple minutes—or if Keith has simply blown me off. Or maybe he just forgot? But there I was and there Keith wasn’t—a  total eclipse of the Moon. All hope gone, I began the walk back to the car. As I’m opening the door and as if on cue, I heard the roar of very high RPMs that could only originate from the engine in a very fast car. Down the street, I watched in combined horror and fascination as a Porsche screamed up the road, made the left turn into the driveway, and came to a screeching halt a few feet in front of me and ten feet off the cement.

As if the entire episode had been arranged just for me. But in Moon’s world nothing was arranged, and so there parked on the exquisitely manicured front lawn of a very beautiful home, was a man sitting inside a very beautiful car. It was perfect. If I could have written the script for my introduction to Keith Moon, it would have involved being kept waiting—well, maybe not too long—exotic cars and grand entrances.

Out came a visibly drunk Keith Moon with drink in hand.  He walked up to this speechless writer, extended the arm that didn’t have the cocktail in it and announced, “Hi, I’m Keith.” As if I didn’t know. As if anyone wouldn’t know. I extended my hand and shook his. It was a surreal moment. It made me a little sad to see the drink in his hand and knowing he had been driving that way.

But this was the drummer for the Who and normal rules weren’t meant for him.

It is difficult to remember whether Keith apologized for being a few minutes late. He probably didn’t even know he was late but it didn’t matter. Not a whit. This was Moon time and his lunar clock—looney clock—kept time in a fashion only he could figure out. We walked to the front of the house and as if he’d purposely left it that way, pushed open the unlocked door without using a key.

It was hard to tell whether he always left the front door unlocked or just forgot to lock it on this particular day. Either way, the fact that the door to his home was open didn’t even phase him. An unlocked door was something he just didn’t bother about. Had he returned to a house on fire, that may have registered. But there’s no telling. Or had he returned to an empty house, maybe that would have made him understand that you have to remember to lock your door.

As it turned out we did walk into a house devoid of furniture. There was none. For one second I thought he had been robbed but Keith never even blinked. That was because he had no furniture. There was a sofa and a bar. A very big bar. Fully stocked.

A drink was offered. I didn’t really drink—it gave me a headache—but in the spirit of camaraderie and not wanting to appear too stiff, I accepted a gin and tonic. The drummer mixed it perfectly, elegantly pouring the contents of the bottles into cut crystal glasses. These were movements he had made before. Many times before.  Moon then escorted me into what appeared to be the living room area where the lone couch resided in front of a rather imposing stereo system dominating one entire wall.

Keith knew we were there to talk but before we began, he wanted to play his new album. It was his just-released solo album, Two Sides Of the Moon.  I had already heard it and wanted to love it but in truth, it wasn’t very good. Moon sang like a drummer who has really never sung before. Most of the vocals were a little flat or a little sharp but he was visibly proud of the record and wanted to play it for me.

He took the record from its cover and set it on the turntable. The arm lowered and with a few final twisting, turning and tweaking of knobs, the first track came through the speakers. Or rather the music came blaring out of the stadium-sized monitors at a volume so hellishly loud I physically winced in pain. My skull felt like it was being crushed and I was certain my eardrums were going to rupture.

The music was unendurably loud but who was going to tell Keith Moon to turn down the volume on his stereo in his own house? I sat on the sofa and managed to endure the torture for two or three songs when I finally found the inner strength and turned to Keith and pleaded, “Maybe just possibly, Keith, could you turn it down just a touch? It’s a trifle loud for my ears and I am getting just a little bit dizzy.”

Surprisingly, Keith was not offended in the least and bounced over to the stereo and lowered the volume. He turned it down from excruciating to merely ear-bleeding levels but at least it was a bit softer.

Finally, the stereo was turned off completely—though he did leave the FM tuner on low—and he was ready to talk.

For the next hour, Moon spoke about his band, his beloved Who, with a reverence and love and unbreakable and undeniable devotion that truly moved me. In fact it was those expressions of what he felt for the band that moved me as much as anything else he said during our conversation. He broke my heart with a sense of honesty the usually crazy percussionist rarely revealed.

These are some of the deep-seated feelings he revealed:

About what the Who meant to him, he explained, “There’s nothing corny about love and I love the Who,” Moon confessed. “I couldn’t be blasé about the Who. With the Who we only ever do what’s right for the Who. We’re not concerned with individuals; we’re not concerned with individual ego. We’re not concerned with selling Keith Moon’s records. The Who are concerned with the Who and that’s as far as it goes. And it doesn’t matter to me if we don’t do one song off my solo album with the Who when the band are onstage.

The Who having some fun

The Who having some fun

Because what matters is the Who are onstage and not Keith.”

About the group’s success, he said, “We were destined to be a big group because we told ourselves that. I wouldn’t have joined the band unless I’d had thought they were magnificent and the best band that I could work with. I wouldn’t have been in the band otherwise. It was no surprise to me that we’d come up with something incredible because I knew what the band was capable of. Nothing that comes out of this band surprises me.”

But Keith was a surprise that day. Though many drinks were consumed during the conversation, he never went over the edge into that dark place where he became Moon the Loon. That was the character who accidentally ran over his friend and the crazy person who blew up toilets and destroyed hotel rooms. In fact he had crossed that line so many times that probably even he was confused about who he was and how he should act and who people thought he was and expected him to act. It was a balancing act and had become part of his life but at any moment he was in danger of falling off the high wire and tumbling headfirst into that void. It didn’t happen that day though. He kept his wits about him and was gracious, funny, charming, open and honest.

I could tell that Keith had other things on his mind  and our time together was over. Collecting my cassette player and notes and putting them away in my leather King Crimson promo bag, I hold out a copy of his solo album for him to sign. He did so graciously in an illegible scrawl. He walked me to the door and as I was leaving he said something like, “Drive safely.” It was perfect. This madman who had come screaming up his own driveway with a drink in one hand and steering wheel in the other was giving me driving instructions. I shook his hand and walked to my car.

This was one of the most memorable interviews I ever did. Keith Moon was one of the most unique, bizarre, and extraordinary drummers who ever lived. He didn’t use a hi-hat. It was unheard of but when you listened to the Who’s music, you came to understand why they sounded the way they sounded.

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Rosen’s signed LP, complete with Moon’s scrawl

When I think back to that sublime and insane afternoon, there are now so many questions I wished I’d asked. There was so much more I wanted to know. What everybody wanted to know. When Keith talked about the Who and what they meant to him, that was when the true man was revealed. That person was beautiful and sensitive and one of the true originals in this world.

But maybe the world wanted too much from him and maybe he was just a bit too fragile to deal with the mind-blowing success he had achieved as the drummer in the greatest rock and roll band of all time. Perhaps he was tired of the craziness and all the demands and expectations that came with being Keith Moon.

As I pulled away from his house, I could hear him crank the stereo back to 10. Maybe the sound helped to fill up the empty spaces in his home. Maybe the sound helped to fill up the emptiness in his life. Nobody would ever know.

Just about three years after this interview on September 7, 1978, the world lost Keith Moon. And I can’t help but think that maybe I should never have asked him to turn the music down.

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More Behind the Curtain:

Live Music Clubs – As Seen By the Bar Owner
Interviewing Led Zeppelin in 1977

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