People try to put him down, but The Who’s legendary drummer Keith Moon, whose life of excess inspired the nickname “Moon the Loon,” is making a comeback of sorts. Actor/musician/playwright Mick Berry is depicting the perky percussionist in the must-see one-man show Keith Moon: The Real Me at the Hudson Theatre Mainstage in Hollywood and the Dragon Theatre in Redwood City, California. The play’s simple set consists of an elaborate drum kit, a pile of drumsticks on the floor, a Union Jack plus a screen, with still photographs of Moon, actor Oliver Reed, album covers, etc., projected on it, as well as overhead footage of Berry drumming live.
During the two-act play, Berry gets inside the skin of the rocker, who pounded the sharkskins and reveled in pranks, playing the “bad boy of rock ’n’ roll” shtick with his rollicking drumsticks. Berry explores the dark side of the moon – alcohol, pills, domestic violence, and a multitude of manias. But as Berry – who also frequently plays the drums during the almost two-hour show – demonstrates, it wasn’t all “Summertime Blues” for Moon, with the actor revealing this rock icon’s other sides.
In the process, multi-talented Berry explains the man who gave The Who’s 1964 hit “I Can’t Explain” and other classics – many of which are performed during this exciting, engaging play – their throbbing beat. Moon may have died at age 32 in 1978, but since The Who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the flamboyant drummer’s velvet suits and a drumhead have been exhibited in the Hall’s Cleveland museum. Who fans are likely to be over the moon by Berry’s resurrection of the man author Nick Talevski called “the greatest drummer in rock.”
In this candid conversation, Mick Berry discusses why Keith Moon, who was born into a blue collar family in postwar London, marched to the beat of a different drummer; Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and Frank Simes’ input into the bio-play; the show’s intricately designed drum set; depression; hope; and more.
Rock Cellar: Where were you born and raised?
Mick Berry: I was born in 1957 in New Orleans, where I grew up.
Rock Cellar: Did growing up in the Big Easy musically affect you?
Mick Berry: Oh sure. Even the people who aren’t musicians in New Orleans know music. You grow up in New Orleans, you find out about parades and know how second line marching drumming goes. The town is built around music – that, booze and food.
Rock Cellar: Tell us about your education?
Mick Berry: I went to private school and I didn’t even have musical training there. I kept begging to play drums and my father said, “You can play drums when you can buy ’em yourself.” So when I was 13 I worked for him at his ice company at a buck sixty-five an hour and I saved $350 over the summer and bought a drum set. Then I just started playing as much as I could, in various bands when I was in high school.
I ended up going to three different colleges… I did a one-man show [What’s My Mantra?] about where I graduated from, Maharishi International University in Iowa, and it’s about why I quit transcendental meditation after going there and attempting to levitate. Then, I decided I wanted to pursue acting, so I went to graduate school and got a MFA from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I attended while Michael Jordan was there.
Rock Cellar: Are you a fan of Thomas Wolfe [author of Look Homeward, Angel, set at Chapel Hill]?
Mick Berry: [Laughs.] A little bit…
Rock Cellar: What are some of your career highlights?
Mick Berry: I landed an acting job, doing Shakespeare in Florida, right after UNC. Then I went on the road, I decided I needed to get back to music and playing with different bands for a couple of years. Then I moved to San Francisco. A highlight was a gig one night with Paul Jackson Jr. who spearheaded the song “Chameleon”, which was a big hit for Herbie Hancock… I also played in a New Orleans jazz band in the Bay Area.
I started doing one-man shows over 20 years ago, because you’re able to talk about things that are much more personal… I’d been doing stand-up comedy for 10 years; I played the Improvs at Phoenix and Seattle… Stand-up can be a heck of a lot of fun. I opened for lots of notable people: Ray Romano, Mark Curry, of the show Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper, and more.
Rock Cellar: Have you ever seen The Who perform live?
Mick Berry: Oh yeah. More times than I can count. Every chance I get I watch them perform… Last summer, I got to stand backstage about 20, 30 feet from Pete Townshend and he was doing his windmills. I saw Roger Daltrey last week; he’s going on tour now by himself. I see them as much as I possibly can. What’s great about The Who is it’s all improvisation. No two songs are ever the same. The music is very creative. It’s a heck like jazz.
In The Who, everybody’s going after it at once, which makes it very exciting.
In fact, The Who’s musical director, Frank Simes, told me that if the music is not living on the edge of falling apart, Pete Townshend is not happy. He wants it to be really living in a dangerous place. And that’s what makes it so much fun to play.
Rock Cellar : Discuss the creative process of portraying Keith?
Mick Berry: Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to see Keith perform live… or offstage. So I talked to people who have, and I had to look at reams of footage of him. And I talked with drummers who have played with The Who, Scott Devours and Simon Phillips – they’ve both given me tips. I had to study him like mad. I’ve been devouring this stuff as much as possible. It’s been all-consuming. I’ve had to really relinquish a social life to get the show where it is. I’ve lived in isolation and it’s an obsession to get the show to where it is now.
Rock Cellar: How did you get the idea to do this Keith Moon one-man show?
Mick Berry: I was reading a biography of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher, and it’s a 600 page book, but I was just eating it up. And a friend of mine said, “You oughtta do a one-man show about Keith Moon,” and I said, “Nah, you’re crazy.” He said, “You’re spending all your time reading it anyway – why not?” It seemed like an impossible task because of how wild and intense Keith was. I felt I could probably get the drumming going but to put him onstage just seemed like an incredibly dangerous proposition to take on. Then I started it and made a little leeway… An actor friend of mine, Marco Barricelli, read a 40-page script [I’d written] and he circled two lines and said, “That’s your show right there.”
The lines were about Keith being allegiant to “Moon the Loon,” this character he’d created that was thrust upon him and was expected of him. From there I’ve been constructing the show, but I’ve been rewriting and rewriting it for eight or 10 years, trying to get something I’m happy with. I found the current director [Nancy Carlin] last February… and I’m really happy with the current script.
Rock Cellar: Before this L.A. run where had Keith Moon, The Real Me been mounted?
Mick Berry: Last summer in Marin, with the new version… Before that I did it four and half years ago in San Francisco, but I wasn’t happy with the script. I had to regroup and find new people to work with and write a new script… Then I started working with Nancy Carlin and everything started falling into place… (She’s not related to George Carlin).
Rock Cellar: What input have members of The Who directly had into the play?
Mick Berry: Roger Daltrey gave me tips on the script four and half years ago. He said, “I didn’t really say that. This isn’t really how it went. This is how it happened.” I thanked him and said I’d incorporate those details into the script… A week and a half ago in Oakland, he talked about Keith’s death and said, “You never get over it – you just learn to deal with it.”
Pete has read the script and just really has given me the green light, saying “It’s your baby… If there’s anything I think you ought to change I’ll write you.” But I sent him the scripts and everything’s fine. One thing that was incredibly helpful is that Pete laid out in great detail what I needed to do to secure the rights to the songs and the name “Keith Moon” from the Keith Moon estate. He’s been incredibly helpful in guiding me and supporting me, as has Keith’s daughter Mandy. They’ve both been incredibly helpful, they want to see this thing – they’re very committed to just seeing me succeed with this. I can’t thank them enough. They’ve really come through.
Rock Cellar: Tell us about Frank Simes and his contribution to your one-man show?
Mick Berry: Frank Simes was Roger Daltrey’s musical director for about 10 years, then he began working with The Who about six years ago. They had him put together the Quadrophenia tour. I met him backstage during that tour, and then I started talking to him about my project and he wanted to come on board. He’s been – he helped us do all the recording. He helped us to reproduce the sound of The Who. I knew it would be an undertaking but I didn’t know it would be this detailed.
He’s been instrumental in us being able to make this music happen. The Who’s music is quite difficult to play. It has to have the right aggressive nature, while not out of control – bordering on out of control. [Simes played the horns for the show’s soundtrack.]
Rock Cellar: Do copyright issues have to do with why you had other musicians record the audio soundtrack for your show?
Mick Berry: I have the rights to use the songs. I don’t have the right to use The Who’s recordings… [Also] we didn’t want the drums in the recordings because I’m playing drums live. We recorded the songs with the drums then extracted the drum track, and I recreate the drumming live [onstage]. Although of course, I’m improvising, because Keith did a lot of improvising. However, I play “Won’t Get Fooled Again” note for note and describe what inspired Keith to play it like he did…
All of the songs we use to advance the plot. For example, during “My Generation” I talk about Keith being 18 years old and all his dreams are coming true. He’s got this hell-bent personality – he’s not thinking about his mortality but considering his immortality. This is all revealing the character. The play opens with “Baba O’Riley” – “teenage wasteland” sets the tone for the play.
Rock Cellar: Keith’s nickname was “Moon the Loon.” What drove Keith?
Mick Berry: I think it was his insecurity, which I included in the show. He wanted people to love him so much, and people just latched onto him being this wild, crazy man. In fact, the wildest, the craziest rock star going. He felt he had to live up to that, to give people what they expected of him. Because he was so insecure he just wanted people to love him so much he was willing to risk his life in order to fulfill this expectation of him. In the end, it’s what did him in. He tried to clean up, but he had such bad habits and took so many pills and then he overdosed on the drug that was helping getting him off of alcohol. What really drove Keith was his insatiable need to be loved. I’ve read Roger Daltrey talking about that…
Rock Cellar: Was part of Keith’s motivation for his outrageous behavior a reaction against the rigid British class system?
Mick Berry: Oh yeah, there’s no question about it. He loved Monty Python, which is all about just shooting holes in the class system of Britain. My speech coach told me there’s a phrase she sometimes still hears in England: “N.O.O.C. – Not Of Our Class.” Cicely Berry, a voice coach for the Royal Shakespeare Company, told me what was so great about the early ’60s is playwright John Osborne, who turned theatre upside down in England, with the Beatles and all these rock bands, money that had been tied up for centuries where young people didn’t have a chance to make lots of money.
But with Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and the Beatles and then the “British Invasion,” all these young people started making all of this money and it completely turned around things like England had never seen. So there was this huge shift in power and money to where youth and a new class of people finally had some freedom that money was giving them. England didn’t know what to do about it. It completely shattered all social strata that had existed for centuries.
Rock Cellar: Why would Keith sometimes dress up as Hitler or other Nazis?
Mick Berry: He loved that there were no rules anymore and he just wanted to shock people. As a good friend of his said, it wasn’t that he was anti-Semitic at all, he just wanted to take things as far as they could possibly go. So people were just baffled by his actions and not knowing what to do – so, Keith was as outrageous as possible. Once he got a bunch of policemen to strip down to their underwear and parade around the hotel lobby.
Rock Cellar: Since your character was dubbed “Moon the Loon,” I have to ask you: How self-destructive is Mick Berry?
Mick Berry: [Laughs.] This is the funniest thing. You want to find the part within you that you have in common with the character. When I first started working on the show, I thought, “I can’t do this – I’m nothing like it.” But I found out, which is the scariest thought, I’m so much like him. I have no personal substance abuse problems… But personality-wise, I can drive myself utterly crazy. Like so many people, I’ve had therapy, I’ve learned how not to drive myself crazy. I have had a huge problem with depression and anxiety. I’ve learned what to do and take care of myself and think in ways that are self-helping, rather than self-defeating.
But if I don’t take care of myself I can be one of the craziest guys going. I can be absolutely out of my mind. With awareness of that comes the ability to live with it and function. But without that awareness and maintaining it, I could be as absolutely out of my mind as Keith Moon. I’ve got a huge tendency to be absolutely nuts.
Rock Cellar: Describe the drum set you use during your one-man show?
Mick Berry: Keith loved a lot of drums. The greatest thing about playing The Who’s music – I have been in a Who tribute band, which I joined mainly for the practice of playing these songs – there’s no such thing as overplaying. So you get to makes all kinds of sounds. You can do them on four or three drums but to get these long tom rolls from a high pitch and low pitch and all sorts of possibilities – you have two bass drums, you’re going after the sixteenth note. Keith kept building his drum set. I have a set with two bass drums, lots of toms, so I can get the sound I want to replicate as Keith. But if I could have even more, I would.
We’re using electronic triggers – otherwise the sound would be deafening in a theatre the size of the Hudson Theatre. So I’ve only got nine drums up there because the number of triggers is limited. I’ve got pins on the drums that take away the sound; they’re made out of mesh, so the drums themselves are incredibly quiet.
There’s an electronic device on the drum called a trigger that a sensor picks up and sends to a computer brain that replicates the sound of the drums so you can control the volume. I’m playing the drums, but the sound comes out of an electronic brain, rather than out of an acoustic drum. If they were acoustic drums, people couldn’t handle the volume produced; it would be too massive [in an intimate theatre space].
Rock Cellar: Any last thoughts?
Mick Berry: This August will be the 40th anniversary of Keith Moon’s death. The Who have given me so much. Their fans feel the same way and they’re often told, “You’ve given me the soundtrack for my life.” When I was 16 and discovered them, The Who’s music really spoke to me… What Tommy really provides is hope for the hopeless, which is really invaluable and crucial. Keith didn’t get it. I want to join in with The Who and give hope to the hopeless.
Keith Moon: The Real Me is playing Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through April 15 at the Hudson Theatre Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, CA 90038. It is also being performed April 20 and 21 at 8:00 p.m. and April 22 at 6:00 p.m. at the Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway, Redwood City, CA 94063. For tickets and information see: www.keithmoontherealme.com.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based journalist and film historian/critic. A repeat contributor to Rock Cellar Magazine, Rampell is also co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. The third edition of it drops in April.