The Interview: Denis Leary

As Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll’s second season kicks off, the brash star tells us about wild nights with Steven Tyler, why hockey is too soft, and how he prepared for the role of a drug-loving has-been.

You’ve often talked about how you were once a regular at the Rat, the famously seedy rock venue in Kenmore Square. What was the best show you saw there?

I remember one night someone said, “You have to see this band from England.” And it was three fucking guys called the Police and they played the Rat and they were fucking astonishing. I don’t have to tell you how great that band was. The lead guy could sing, the drummer was crazy good, and the guitar player was beyond good. And I can still remember walking out to Kenmore Square that night with a couple of buddies who were in bands and they were like, “God, we suck.”

Are there any genres of music you can’t stomach?

Prog rock, and I can tell you the exact moment in time when it turned over for me. My older brother and I split a room growing up and each guy had to take turns playing their records. And I remember when my brother went from the same taste as me—rock ’n’ roll—to bringing home a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young live double album, a Yes live triple album, and Jethro Tull’s Aqualung. I was like, “Dude, I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing or what you’re smoking but this shit sucks.” So that and into the whole ’70s singer-songwriter phase with bands like Seals & Crofts. I fucking hated that stuff. That’s the only stuff I still can’t listen to. I mean, I cannot listen to fucking Jethro Tull. I can’t. That’s the only music that sets the hairs on the back of my neck on end.

Top five musicians of all time?

I’m not a fan of everything that involves the Who—I didn’t like Tommy and I wasn’t a huge fan of Quadrophenia—but Pete Townshend. I saw him at the Garden in Boston when they were on that Quadrophenia tour; he’s, like, 70 years old and the performance that he gave that night was insane. I’ve got to say Paul McCartney—that’s also insane to me. He’s singing those songs in the same keys that he sang them in when he was younger. Not only is he doing it live, which he doesn’t have to do, but he’s doing it really fucking well. I guess I’ve got to say Springsteen for probably the same reasons. This one is a long-term investment for me, but I think that chick Lady Gaga has all the tools to be a legendary lifelong performer because she can sing her balls off. She’s going to be around for a long time. And I dig that Adele chick. I think she’s great. And then, just because I’ve always had a thing for her, I think Chrissie Hynde [of the Pretenders]. First time I saw that chick perform, which was at the Paradise in Boston, I fell in love. There’s just something about her. She’s a real hero for me.

For one month you can only listen to one of the following: Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, or Katy Perry. Which do you pick and why?

Holy fuck. Goddamn. Really? Holy shit. Fuck. Wow. What a fucking rough choice. I have to go Taylor Swift and I have to admit that I was totally judgmental about that chick—and this is pretentiously stupid on my part—until Ryan Adams did that cover album of her songs. Like an idiot, that was the first time I went, “Hey, wait a minute, these songs are actually kind of cool,” which is really a sign of how judgmental I am.

You’ve said that in your older years you’ve come to realize that both Democrats and Republicans suck. With Trump and Hillary in the spotlight, which party sucks less right now?

I don’t know, man. There’s this strange attraction for comedic minds—you kind of secretly wish that Donald Trump will win and get to run the country because it might be the biggest shit show of all time. So as a comedian, you’re kinda licking your lips. But at the same time, what did they have, 17 Republicans in the early primaries? And all the Democrats. So it was like 22 people and there wasn’t one person out of all those people who I thought was a great leader. It’s kind of sad.

Any qualities about Trump that you like?

You can’t fault the guy for being able to sell product. He’s really good at hawking product. He’s loud. He’s boisterous. The hair is endlessly fascinating, and so is his personality in terms of attack mode. But I don’t think he knows a fucking goddamn thing in terms of how to run a country. Not the first fucking clue.

When was the last time you had a cigarette?

About five minutes before talking to you.

What’s your take on the vaping trend?

It’s funny you mention that, because there was a guy on my block vaping pretty early this morning. The amount of smoke or vape or whatever you want to call it that they’re inhaling and exhaling—it’s like the biggest bong hits I’ve ever seen in my life. I just don’t understand how that’s any better for you. I think smoking actual cigarettes and cigars is safer.

At what point in your career did you realize you had made it?

It was probably ’95 or ’96, when I was with Cam Neely at one of his golf tournaments. And fucking Bobby Orr walks up to me and goes, “Denis Leary, man, I’ve been dying to meet you.” I’ll never forget that moment. I was like, “Holy fuck, Bobby Orr just came up and said my name.” That still impresses my mother. When I was growing up, Bobby Orr was God.

You’re the narrator for Behind the B, a documentary-style show that follows the Bruins. Do you think hockey is getting too soft?

I do. In playoff hockey, that’s when they let the guys play and that’s the best hockey. There’s a lot more hitting and if there is a fight, the fight is for a fantastic reason. Whether they want to admit it or not, I do think they have a different set of rules in terms of what they call in the playoffs versus what they call in the regular season. It’s a contact sport—some of the hits they call are dirty hits but others are just a short guy getting caught in the wrong position against a guy who’s bigger. Guys like Scott Stevens and Cam Neely nowadays wouldn’t be allowed to hit the way they hit in the prime of their careers. I think it takes away from the game. It drives me crazy.

If you were starting your career now, do you think you’d survive this age of political correctness?

I don’t know. When I get on stage, and there are a lot of other guys who work the same way, I don’t censor myself. And I know for a fact the audience still responds to it. So I think the difficult thing today is working out the material. When you work stuff out, especially on tour, you have to go into some really dark territories to find where the audience won’t go with you. And the problem now is that everyone has their camera phone. So someone records something that might be three lines’ worth of material that’s very controversial and probably over the edge, and the next day everyone wants the comedian to apologize for it. Comedy and political correctness just never go together.