STILL PRETTY: AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
Two decades after "Rio" hit MTV, Duran Duran are playing arenas and making housewives quiver.
EVERYBODY LOVES DURAN DURAN. THERE ARE THE PEOPLE who loved them when they were around twenty years ago, and there are the people who weren't alive then but for whom they represent what they imagine the Eighties was all about, that refied vision of 1982 so terrible fashionable right this second. That's not counting girls who think it's supercute to dance around in berets and fishnets, guys who never forgot the uncut "Girls on Film" video and even those who once considered the band the nail in the coffin of real music but find they don't turn the dial at "Rio." So it is that this spring, as they tour behind a new album for the first time with the original lineup in twenty-one years, Duran Duran are selling out shows at arenas like the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden, with a new batch of tour dates announced for July and more to follow in the fall. Everyone wants to see them. Everyone just wants to take a look.
Then, of course, there are the Durannies.
"Nick Rhodes is God!"
"John, do you use a curler or a dryer for your hair?"
"I love your suit, Simon, and I love the way you smell."
Now in their early forties, all wearing some dye in their hair, the guys of Duran Duran look pretty good, still standing, a kind of New Wave Mötley Crüe. It's droll Nick Rhodes, quiet Roger Taylor, boisterous Andy Taylor, sensitive John Taylor and Simon LeBon — the exceedingly sociable, overdramatic and randy star of all those bizarre lyrics and decadent, art-rock videos, the ones where cocktails were quaffed underwater, Sri Lankan landscapes visited and the most beautiful, exotic women imaginable shown as much as possible. Their faces are lined with the natural effects of age, and they say they're amazed when they look back at their original costumes, all those slim-fitting suits and bolero jackets with epaulets — "I can't believe how thin the shoulders are," muses Roger. "We were just boys."
In the holiest of holies, a backstage greenroom in San Diego, girls are thrown into paroxysms of ecstasy — they laugh with hands clasped over their mouths while crying at the same time, tears rolling down their faces and plopping on fervently grasped band posters. It's pretty extreme, particularly for thirty-five-year-olds.
"How are you doing?" asks John, the tallest (with Simon) and, perhaps, most gorgeous Duran (though one would not want to rush to such a conclusion). "Have you got an allergy?"
"I'm just so hap-hap-happy," blubbers a mother of two.
A beyond-her-prime brunette, bosoms threatening to escape her neon-green top, pushes forward an old photo of the shirtless band. "I think you should sign it over your nipples, John," she says breathily.
"Oh, I don't know if we'd want to cover them up," he jokes. "They look good."
"Mine look good too," she purrs.
She doesn't have any takers. "We never were a blow-job-before-the-show kind of band," says Andy. "Too middle-class, to be honest." To a man, Duran Duran possess the confidence and sexual bravura of guys who have dated as many models as they liked, having lived a lifestyle befitting a group named after Barbarella's Durand Durand, creator of a machine called the Orgasmatron. "You know, you can't expect to be screamed at for waving your cock around at people your whole life," says LeBon, who then prepares to go onstage in front of 8,000 people to do just that.
In heavy eyeliner and a touch of rouge, LeBon doesn't exactly pirouette across the stage the way he used to, but he still shimmies his hips gamely, blowing kisses to the crowd from bee-stung lips, slapping his own ass. "Those who've got phones, turn the lights on and shine it out," he declares, spreading his arms wide. "Let the stars come out for us." Japanese manga, on an LCD shows the band battling monsters for control of EMI, the Endangered Music Industry — Duran Duran win. LeBon takes a moment to ask the crowd if they want to come backstage for a drink after the show. "You know, this is the last place we played before we broke up," he adds, then shakes his head. "Oh, dear. I shouldn't have said that."
IT COULD BE SUPERSTITION OR POLLYannaish dispositions, but no one in Duran Duran likes to think much about the past, particularly not the hard times. "One can't allow themselves the luxury of bitterness," declares Rhodes. They were big for only five years, from 1981 to 1985, which is a long time ago. Cultivated by British club owners with management aspirations, Duran Duran were sent on tour to America. "We hadn't traveled anywhere outside of Europe when we first came here, but we had still been more places than George Bush had when he became president," says Rhodes. They freely admit being out of control back then — bunking at the Hotel Carlyle in New York for months but rarely sleeping there, having lots of inspirational conversations "in toilets" — but these days they're a far mellower crew, though for some there are a lot of bottles of wine.
There's plenty of understanding all around now, not like it was back at their Live Aid performance in Philadelphia, when drummer Roger decided he was done with the rock-star lifestyle. "I think I was depressed," he says now, somewhat incredulously. He left to live on a farm. "When I think back on it, I was so selfish," says John. "He was my mate! I should've been round his house, supporting him. Instead it was, 'Right, we'll get Steve Ferrone, and we'll make that date in December. Screw him.' We felt no one was going to stop our party."
The party might have continued except Andy wanted out too. He quit midway through recording the Notorious album, in 1986. "You know, you just get to a point where your anger overtakes you," says Andy, quite a corner-bar ranter, struggling to explain a long-forgotten motivation for quitting. "It becomes 'Does anyone know the word no around here?' Not likely. Then it's "Why are you going sailing? " — LeBon took time off from the band to sail around the world — " 'Obviously it don't mean that much to you, being in a band.' Speaking rhetorically, you know. Then the suits got shirty, and I had to knock out a punch."
The remaining members of Duran Duran had a hit with the lite-rock single "Ordinary World" in 1993, but they were nevertheless dropped by EMI. John, who had a drinking and cocaine problem, left for rehab before recording a solo album — "I needed to create my own little Ziggy Stardust moment," he says. "One night in Florida, I played to twenty people. Fucking twenty people! I take that with me wherever I go."
LeBon and Rhodes were left to record a tenth album, Pop Trash, for the Disney-owned Hollywood Records. "I think that's when things came to a head," says Rhodes. "Never was there a place that felt less like a record company: Seven giant dwarves hold up the building. You're listening to these people, and finally I had to say, 'How funny that your corporate logo is a large pair of ears, yet not one of you in here happens to have any.' "
So the late Nineties were a bit stagnant. Everyone was just living off the Duran Duran cash: All claim that royalties, worldwide sales and leftover merchandise like Duran Duran Christmas-tree globes have been enough to keep up the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed, and given their lack of substantial employment in other arenas, that's possible. In 2000, though, LeBon and Rhodes visited John at his house in the Hollywood Hills, where he lives an AA lifestyle with his second wife, Gela Nash, one of the founders of the popular women's clothing line Juicy Couture. John had been trying to act, a couple of VH1 movies here and there, and had the notion of getting the original lineup back together. LeBon agreed readily.
They sat by John's pool and hit the phones. Andy had moved to Ibiza, Spain — "I like Ibiza, because people don't give a shit, so you can just blend in," he says. Roger, who moved off the farm in the Nineties and produced some music for the London underground dance scene, took a night to think it over but acquiesced as well. Rhodes said he would come on board as long as they recorded a new album. "I didn't want to do that at first," says John. "I'm too lazy. It's just so much bloody work."
They gathered together in London for the first time, taking seats at a round table in LeBon and Rhodes' business manager's office. "Fifteen minutes after the pleasantries were over, we were arguing about how we were going to do it," says Rhodes. "That's when I knew it would work." They ended up renting a villa on a beach near St-Tropez to record the album a few months later, with their own financing and no record deal — they didn't play the old stuff for a week, before launching into "Hungry Like the Wolf." What they did before that — in fact, the first thing they did when they sat down at that table — was take a Polaroid together. They thought they still looked pretty good.
Looking good has always been a big part of the Duran Duran ethos. "I remember when I auditioned for the band," says Andy, "Nick told me I was in, and then he said we had to do something about my shoes." John and Rhodes, childhood friends, were obsessed with glam rockers like T. Rex and Gary Glitter — "We wouldn't buy records by ugly groups," John has said. They started the band at age sixteen. "We had vivid ideas of what we wanted to look and sound like," Rhodes has said, "but we looked at the instruments and said, 'Do we have to learn to play these things?' "
These days, in London, at least LeBon and Rhodes have hung on to their It-boy status, appearing on billboards for the Gap, noted at film premieres and nightclub openings, asked to design a dream Vespa for a Sotheby's charity auction. They're pretty smooth: When I'm introduced to LeBon, he repeats my name wistfully, and then trails off. 'Vanessa..."
"Yeah," I say. "Like Vanessa Williams."
"No," he says, locking eyes. "You're unique."
It's still a pretty sweet pop-star life. Chat among the band members is an Ab Fab mix of what city has the world's best Nobu restaurant and the superior design of older vintage cars to the importance of avoiding ionized water. "We, as a band, have an aversion to regular water put through a filter," says Rhodes. "For all you know, it's gone through a drug addict's liver." They count the number of times the people they meet say "awesome" and can go on and on about the idiocy of reality shows. Not all of them know how to drive. "I was seventeen when I took the test," says Rhodes. "I failed on blond hair. I thought, 'Oh, well, got to have enough money to have a driver.' "
These days, Rhodes is dating young model-actress Meredith Ostrom, whom he met a couple of years ago while vying for a cab to a Mario Testino book party in London — both happened to be on the way there. "We got out at the party," she says in a high, tinny voice, "and all these flashbulbs started going off, with photographers asking, Who's the girl?' I turned to him and asked, 'Are you Austin Powers?' "
LeBon is still married to Yasmin Parvaneh, the model he picked out of a photographer's look book in 1985; they have three daughters, ages ten, thirteen and fifteen. "We'd spoken over the phone, and Yasmin said she liked Glenfiddich and Marlboro Reds," says LeBon, lying by the pool at the Four Seasons Hotel with a Perrier. "So I showed up to take her to a movie premiere with a carton and a bottle, half of which was gone on the way to the show." He takes a desultory look at the sky. "Doesn't that cloud look exactly like Crete?"
THE STREETS AROUND THE KODAK Theater in Hollywood are empty except for a bunch of trash a day after the Oscars, when Duran Duran climb out of a van at the back entrance to the Jimmy Kimmel show — a bunch of girls have gathered to do their Christ-has-risen routine at the front entrance. The members of Duran Duran didn't go to the Oscars themselves — it might be because they weren't asked, but all profess to hate Hollywood BS. "You come down here and look at these movie producers with the hair stuck in them and the face-lifts, and why are they so fucking important?" grumbles Andy. "I came here once to meet casting agent after casting agent," sniffs LeBon. "And I decided I didn't want to be part of Hollywood, because there's just too much ass to kiss."
John and LeBon sit down for an interview with a new soccer channel. "How has soccer influenced your music?" asks the producer. LeBon laughs. "How naff," he says. Then they mope through sound check; Rhodes refuses to show up for sound checks, and a dreadlocked keyboardist fills in. LeBon burps into the mike before a director tells them to line up on the edge of the stage for a still shot. "You can do anything you want to do," he says. "Just don't give the finger or grab your crotch."
"Can I grab his crotch?" asks LeBon, his hand creeping toward John.
They pose for the picture, and Andy pretends to grab LeBon's crotch.
Backstage, Nick tries on a series of suits while Roger lies down for a massage — a Chinese tui na, masseur has come on tour with them, to loosen them up before the shows. Andy goes off on a fifteen-minute rant about the U.S. government, apropos of nothing. "I tell you, they're going to change the American Constitution to let an Austrian Nazi who's admitted using steroids become president," he says. "And what's the difference between Elvis and the girl who's getting prosecuted for sleeping with a fourteen-year-old boy?— Why would Michael Jackson grab his own crotch if he was touching other people?— I tell you, they should legalize everything and print more money."
A staffer wants to know if they're ready for a show portrait.
"Well be ready for the picture when Nick and John come out," says Andy.
Rhodes pops out of the dressing room. "We've been waiting for a long time for that, haven't we?" he says.
Christina Ricci, the first guest, appears on the monitor. LeBon stops and contemplates her image. "She picks her roles quite well," he says.
"She's very good," says Rhodes. He cocks his head. "She does look a bit like a Japanese manga."
"She's fucking weird-looking!" shrieks Andy.
ON A BALMY SATURDAY NIGHT, every seat is taken in L.A.'s Staples Center, or at least that's what Duran Duran's manager is telling them. The band members gather backstage, each with at least one or two loved ones there to see them; Andy's nine-year-old daughter is near tears because she forgot her teddy bear. LeBon's energy is way up, and he's dashing about the dressing room doing vocal exercises. "I got rung up this morning by some weirdo," he says. "He said, This is Clive Davis. I've had dinner with Bob Geldof, and he says he can't get in touch with Donny Ienner, can you give him a ring?' It's like a Scooby Doo mystery."
Then he offers his wrist to smell. "Do you like my cologne? It's called Farts-A-Lot."
It might be the enthusiasm for the big crowd or the excitement about having so many people they know in attendance, but later the band members are mightily pleased about their performance and run off the stage and into a crowded afterparty, with gobs of mascara still on their eyelashes.
The next day, over a pot of green tea, John speaks slowly and thoughtfully. On one of his biceps there's a new tattoo — DD. He got it when they reunited. "I have to say, last night felt great," he says, nodding his head. "It was the best show I've played in twenty-five years."