Specter of AIDS is causing rock stars to reassess traditional fast-lane lifestyles

December 01, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

Less than three weeks after basketball superstar Magic Johnson shocked the world by announcing that he had contracted the virus that causes AIDS, the specter of the disease has hit the rock-music community.

Even before the death last Sunday of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury, however, music figures were reassessing their lifestyles a field that long took pride in the slogan "sex, drugs and rock and roll."

"For Freddie Mercury [to get AIDS], well, it can happen to me," said veteran rock star Ozzy Osbourne. "I don't [mess] around at all, but in the past I have. We all have. It haunts me."

It's too early to tell whether this soul searching will have an impact on rock music that has tended to glorify "fast-lane" excesses, much of which is aimed at the sexually awakening teen audience that AIDS activists are desperately trying to reach with information about the causes and consequences of the disease.

But it is clear that many performers are taking a close look at their own behavior and, in some cases, their responsibility in spreading AIDS-awareness messages to their fans.

Mr. Osbourne said that despite the publicity given to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, there are still a lot of willing groupies on the road, eager to engage in all types of sexual activity with musicians. Kasey Smith, keyboardist for the New York-based group Danger Danger, currently on a U.S. concert tour, confirms that.

"From what I see, the groupies don't care [about AIDS] one way or another," said Mr. Smith, 30. "They're still star-struck. Maybe there are less of them now, but the ones that are there are in full force, and they're ready to play. . . . They're always around the hotels. I try to stay clear of that."

Cliff Burnstein, who manages hard-rock bands Metallica, Tesla and Queensryche, said that his clients have all taken the subject very seriously in discussions over the past few years, but that recent news has galvanized their fears.

"Magic plus Freddie -- it's very stark to get that at one time," he said. "Everybody is wary, people are afraid. [Still] they might not want to talk about it. For the last 25 years drugs and alcohol . . .

have been the most high-profile hard-rock way to go. . . . Everybody's aware of AIDS, but would rather not think about it."

Many are thinking about it, though.

"We're only human," said Howie Epstein, bassist in Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. "Sometimes you get weak. Sometimes on the road I'm lonely and don't feel like going back to the hotel by myself, and you go, 'Well, OK.' But it's too scary. . . . I'd be so paranoid, the thought in the back of my head of sitting up at night and going, 'Hmmmm. I wonder . . .' "

Where the AIDS fight gained an active spokesman in Magic Johnson, it did not in Mercury, who went public only hours before his death. His role in the battle may be more akin to that of actor Brad Davis, who wrote a letter that was circulated after his death speaking of the fear of risking his career and reputation should his condition have been made public.

But will his death spur someone else in the pop music world to step forward to be a music Magic? Or will fear keep rockers silent?

Even someone as widely loved as Mr. Johnson has been the subject of backlash after his disclosure that he had slept with more than 200 women. And some initial reactions to Mercury's death already show what is at stake.

"I have the greatest admiration and a lot of affection for [Mercury]," London's Sun newspaper quoted singer Phil Collins as saying. However, he added, "But if you go around leading a pretty much promiscuous life as he did, then you always run the risk of AIDS."

Before Mercury, the best-known pop musician to die from AIDS was B-52's guitarist Ricky Wilson, who died in 1985, though AIDS was not acknowledged publicly as the cause until a year later.

"I think there's fear among rock artists who have so much invested in their image of being identified with AIDS or as gay," said Kate Pierson of the B-52's. "It's like the mask of red death. A lot of people would like to run up a hill and lock themselves in and when they see someone sick they want to run away. But what we need is compassion, and that needs to come from everybody. And if people haven't really gotten the picture now, I don't think it should take celebrities dying to bring it home."

Danger Danger, which still sings about the pursuit of sex, has begun to include a safe-sex message in its concerts.

"When we do little raps between songs and talk about sex we always throw in, 'Put a helmet on your little soldier,' " said Mr. Smith. " 'None of us go on without our stage clothes, so you shouldn't either.' If it only reaches a few people a night, then that's a few more who are thinking about it."

And Mr. Osbourne is planning to put boxes for donations to AIDS research in the lobbies of his concerts. He is investigating the possibility of including condoms in his concert programs.

"Once upon a time everyone [in rock] was getting syphilis, but they can cure that. Get this and you're dead," Mr. Osbourne said. "I sound like a prude, but it scares the life out of me. We're all going to die, but if I had the choice of deaths, that wouldn't be at the top of my list."

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