Rock ‘n’ Roll Babylon, Gary Herman’s 1982 book has gone through many editions in the last 26 years, adding current content as new trends and innovations become part of the collective culture, and as new stars rise and fall. Rock ‘n’ Roll Babylon: 50 Years of Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll is the latest revised and updated version, taking the reader from rock’s genesis in the 1950s, right up to the tabloid exploits of today’s stars (Amy Winehouse’s self-destruction and Britney Spears’ spectacular decline are featured, and there is nearly an entire chapter devoted to perpetual lost-boy Pete Doherty and his muse, Kate Moss).
Herman has written several other books on rock music, musicians and movie stars, including Hollywood Babylon and The Who. He also co-founded the 1970s magazine Let It Rock. Originally, Rock ‘n’ Roll Babylon had 192 pages and 150 pictures, and has expanded over the years to boast 352 pages and 300-plus pictures, more than 40 of which are full-page photos (several of which have served as the cover shots of previous editions). It’s these striking black and white photos that are the great revelation of this book, for they tell the real story of rock ‘n’ roll, showing it as the beautifully seductive, deceptively inclusive and brutally vindictive beast that it is. The first chapter, titled “The Promised Land,” features a facing page photo of a mid-performance Mick Jagger, with his pale, skinny, hairless chest, androgynous eye makeup, and a very prominent bulge in his sequined jumpsuit. You’d be hard-pressed to find an image that more succinctly sums up the implied and often incongruent promises rock ‘n’ roll makes.
Of course, “The Promised Land” actually details the Monterey Pop Festival, but it could allude to the rarefied air of rock stardom as well. After this introductory chapter, Herman doesn’t follow any particular chronology, choosing instead to group incidents loosely by topic; he covers the ‘50s, introduces the first collection of rock’s many train wrecks and tragic victims and wanders off point rather annoyingly for several pages to explore Elvis Presley’s sexual proclivities, spiritual pretenses and self-prevarication later in life, before cataloging several of the countless tragedies of rock’s other progenitors.
Despite the jumping back and forth in time and not having thoroughly updated some of the early copy (some poorly edited passages make it seem, for instance, that some dearly departed musicians are still alive), there are enough titillating stories and mesmerizing photos to thrill even the most jaded and in-the-know rock music junkie. Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll opens with an iconic picture of Sid Vicious tied off and shooting up and tells not just of the well-known busts and fatalities, but also touches on other, overlooked side effects of rock stars using drugs (the drug trial that broke up the Allman Brothers Band, Eric Burdon’s psychedelic breakdown, Syd Barrett, etc.). Naturally, Herman does list details from the well-documented (John Bonham, Keith Moon, Gram Parsons, etc.) to the now relatively unknown (Mike Bloomfield, Tim Hardin, Jimmy McCulloch) casualties of drug use and excess, however excesses of many varieties are chronicled throughout the book.
There’s the excessive “outrageousness” of image and performance (Frank Zappa, David Bowie, the Velvet Underground’s, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper and the Sex Pistols are discussed at length.) and the excess toll of touring. There are excesses of fan adoration (from Elvis fanatics—the “aristocracy of fandom”—to the more frightening fanatics—collectors of Dylan’s garbage and murderers like Manson and Chapman, from Deadheads to dead audience members crushed by crazed crowds or killed by security) and the excessively abusive groupie scene (from both perspectives).
No other industry, save perhaps Hollywood, has such an excess of corruption, corporatization, sensationalism and behind-the-scenes sadness as the music industry and Rock ‘n’ Roll Babylon delves into all of it (extended sections on Kurt Cobain and the spectacle that is Michael Jackson are quite compelling). Herman also dives into the sometimes hollow, sometimes heroic attempts by rock stars to rail against the demons that haunt them and the monsters they have become. Whether it’s an about-face, religious conversion denouncing former indulgences or a sincere effort to remain faithful or get clean, there are a lot of rockers quick to blame all of their sins on rock ‘n’ roll.
Though it’s true that there is an excess of repentance in rock ‘n’ roll, just as surely as there is an excessive relapse rate (not to mention the revisionism!), there is also a romance to it. Herman chooses the many rock star relationships of Pamela Anderson, the very public courtship and bitter divorce of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills, and the circus of Kate Moss and Pete Doherty to illustrate the connection between the music, the people who make it and their personal relationships. It’s a fact that in this media-saturated age, rock ‘n’ rollers are as famous for who they date as for the musical contributions, but I suspect Herman produced this relationship chapter (and the “Celebrity Courtroom” chapter that follows and ends the book) simply to include photos of today’s tabloid stars like Kate and Pete, Spears, and Winehouse.
That’s not to say these subjects shouldn’t be included, they are important and intrinsic parts of rock ‘n’ roll after all, but perhaps the next edition could benefit from a little more time to present new material in a fuller context. A bit more revising and editing might be a good idea, too (because, apparently, Courtney Love gets “visibly raddled” and Roy Orbison appears to be alive and well 20 years after his death). Still, Rock ‘n’ Roll Babylon is overall a fabulous book; it exposes all of the things that make the idea rock ‘n’ roll so irresistible, even after 50 years. And the photos are phenomenal!