Forty-three years ago today, at 5:50 pm on September 7th, 1978, a medic pronounced the 32-year-old Keith Moon dead. His body was found in his friend Harry Nilsson’s plush Mayfair flat in the West End of London. Mama Cass died in the same flat four years earlier, also aged 32. The medic called it at 5:50, but Moon probably died closer to 9 that morning. We know this because his girlfriend at the time, a Nico-lite model from Sweden named Annette Walter-Lax told investigators that Moon woke her up around 7:30 am and told her to make him breakfast.
Depending on your source, Walter-Lax either hopped out of bed and returned with a warm plate of leftovers or she refused Moon’s order. If you believe the former version, Moon sat propped up against the headboard, giddily eating lamb shanks while watching The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Robert Fuest’s dark British comedy, as if there are any other kind.
In the latter version, when Walter-Lax refused to make him breakfast, Moon barked, "If you don't like it, you can fuck off!" And then she fucked off to the couch.
Whichever version you believe, both scenarios ended with Moon reaching for the quart-sized bottle of clomethiazole on his nightstand, pouring out 32 tablets in his hand, and popping them in his mouth like a fist full of jelly beans. Walter-Lax would wake up around 6 hours later to find Moon’s cold corpse in their bed. Autopsy results released two weeks later found that Moon’s body had absorbed 6 pills, enough to kill anyone; the other 26 were still undigested.
The clomethiazole was Moon’s idea. It was a legitimate drug errantly prescribed to him by Geoffrey Dymond, a local doctor who had no medical records to determine how fucked up Moon really was. Clomethiazole is used when physicians are weaning someone off alcohol while under close observation. When Moon asked, Dymond just gave him a bottle of the drug instructing him to take one when he felt like drinking, but no more than three a day. The transaction was very casual. Considering Moon never took one of anything, especially pills, these weren’t very helpful instructions.
The clomethiazole; it was Moon’s latest attempt to get clean. He tried getting sober exactly a year earlier in September 1977 when Pete Townshend summoned the drummer back to London from Malibu for the Who Are You sessions after a three-year gap between albums. Moon attempted to lay down several tracks, but he had difficulty with his parts. He was bloated, out of shape, and while he attempted to record sober, he resorted to brandy to calm his nerves, which also crippled his drumming.
When Moon couldn’t sort out the 6/8 beat on "Music Must Change,” Townshend was forced to edit the drums out of the song. John Entwistle has also gone on record stating that Moon would just sit behind his kit, exhausted with a look of confusion and inability to come up with a drum pattern, all the time being disgusted with himself for letting his band down again.
Moon’s failures during the Who Are You sessions were preceded by his disastrous behavior during the drama-filled Who By Numbers world tour the previous year, where Moon was frequently found passed out over his drum kit. The Who’s management were constantly in Townshend and Daltrey’s ears, telling them they had to fix the Moon problem.
On top of it all, Townshend was fed up with life on the road. Besides having to worry about his tranquilized drummer falling face-first into his snare during gigs, he continuously fought backstage with Daltrey. Just before the Who By Numbers tour, Daltrey told a New Musical Express journalist that he was frustrated and unhappy with Townshend’s level of performance. Townshend just wanted to release solo albums, but he gritted his teeth and toured the Who By Numbers album for a full 12 months. It would be different with the next album, Townshend thought.
When Townshend announced the coming of Who Are You to the music press, he stressed that the band would not accompany the album with a tour due to the fact that Moon was far too unhealthy to take the road on, a statement Daltrey backed.
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During the summer of 1978, after the Who Are You recording sessions, Daltrey, Townshend, and Moon traveled to New York to promote the August 18th release of the album and made the rounds amongst the national news programs. Moon and Townshend pulled the short straws and on August 7th, 1978 they appeared on Good Morning America hosted by a painfully square, but earnest David Hartman. Moon would die exactly one month after the interview.
At the 4:45 minute mark, Hartman asks Moon, “Would you rather be on the road, Keith, rather than stay home?”
Moon, who got bored unless he had a tour manager keeping him to a schedule, says he preferred life on the road compared to having to spend time with himself at home. Moon’s boredom at home always led to drugs and alcohol and he knew the only cure to boredom was the road. That said, the road also always led him to drugs and alcohol. He couldn’t win.
Which brings us back to the bottle of clomethiazole. Moon thought that if he could stop drinking, get back to his fighting weight, and prove to Townshend and Daltrey that he could function without brandy, cocaine, and pills, he’d win his band’s favor back, and possibly get them back out on the road.
Moon gave sobriety another fresh start immediately after the botched Who Are You sessions. Despite Moon’s questionable performance, the LP was a critical and commercial success, going double platinum in the US and Canada, gold in UK, and peaking at 2 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart. Who Are You was the band’s best and fastest selling LP ever.
This new wave of popularity and success was the motivating factor in Moon trying to quit drinking again. It’s also why he and Walter-Lax rented out Nillson’s flat with the sole intent of using it as a rehabilitation center. A place where Moon could relax, watch old films, and avoid his vices.
It worked out well for a while. Moon was drinking and acting out less. He seemed perfectly charming, although a bit nervous during the aforementioned Good Morning America interview. Unfortunately, he lived in London, surrounded by bars and nightclubs filled with the city’s cultural elite. Moon felt like he had to be “Keith Moon” when went out and he eventually fell back into his old inebriated ways.
In an overdub session for The Kids Are Alright a week before he died, Moon was so wasted, the Who’s assistant Dave "Cy" Langston remembers that he couldn’t keep up with the band. “After two or three hours, he got more and more sluggish,” Langston recalled. “He could barely hold a drum stick."
That’s why Moon didn’t initially want to accept the invitation to a private screening of The Buddy Holly Story hosted by Paul and Linda McCartney later that week. He knew he’d be tempted to drink at the engagement so he declined, but Walter-Lax later admitted that she let Moon know she was mad at him for not taking her to what was being touted as the British social event of the season.
Not wanting to disappoint his new girlfriend, Moon had a dealer drop off a gram of coke at the Nilsson flat. After 10 or so minutes alone in the bathroom with the precious cargo his dealer sold him, an excited Moon rushed Walter-Lax out the door. Thirty minutes later, the couple were sitting in a small booth across the table from the McCartneys at Peppermint Park in Covent Garden.
Walter-Lax noted that Moon was lucid even though he snuck two flutes of champagne, thinking no one noticed. Others at the McCartney party corroborated Walter-Lax’s account of a relaxed, jovial Moon, adding that he seemed far more subdued than usual, although that probably just meant he didn’t take his clothes off and lay bare naked on the dessert cart.
Halfway into the screening, around 1 am, a restless Moon told Walter-Lax that he couldn’t sit through the film any longer and he wanted to go home. Before they went to bed, Walter-Lax said she prepared a late night meal for Moon before he fell asleep around 3 am. Then, as mentioned in the top paragraph, Moon woke up at 7:30 am and demanded more lamb. He died exactly one month after Who Are You was released.
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Rock and roll’s clown prince idiot savant was cremated less than a week after he died, on September 13th, 1978 at Golders Green Crematorium in London. His ashes are scattered in its Gardens of Remembrance alongside with the scattered remains of London luminaries Ronnie Biggs, Marc Bolan, and Peter Sellers.
The day after Moon's death, Townshend issued the statement to the press: "We are more determined than ever to carry on, and we want the spirit of the group to which Keith contributed so much to go on, although no human being can ever take his place."
Hearing that announcement, Phil Collins immediately scrambled out of the woodwork and pestered Townshend for the gig, but it was already promised to the former Small Faces and Faces drummer, Kenney Jones. Eight months after Moon’s death on May 2nd, 1979, the Who returned to the stage for the first time without Moon at the Rainbow Theatre in London.
There was a sense of occasion in the air of the Rainbow, and although Jones seemed nervous, the band launched into an irreverent rendition of “Substitute,” the entire audience jumped to its feet and no one sat for the next two hours.
The Who tore through a greatest hits setlist filled with absolute scorchers: “I Can't Explain,” “Baba O'Riley,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Who Are You,” “My Generation,” “Magic Bus,” “Won't Get Fooled Again” -- it was almost as if the band wanted to ensure nothing had changed, but it had and Daltrey knew it. He felt that Jones' drumming was wrong for the Who, something he mentioned often. Jones played straight and steady, while Moon was, well, Moon.
After playing on three Who albums and several tours from 1979 to 1982 including the band’s big Live Aid gig in 1985, Jones was replaced by Simon Phillips for the Who's 1989 reunion tour.
With the exception of the single “You Better You Bet,” the Who never reached the same artistic or commercial peaks they climbed with Moon. Years later, Townshend and Daltrey would both admit that the Who’s final two studio albums, Face Dances and It's Hard, should have never been recorded.
Forty-three years later, Moon is still arguably the greatest drummer ever and certainly more influential than anyone who ever sat behind a drum kit. While Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts quietly kept time in bespoke Savile Row suits, Moon ravaged his drums in the same casual mod clothing his fans were wearing. Before they even cut their first album, Moon was as much of a frontman as Daltrey.
The name Keith Moon doesn’t cause much commotion these days. If you ask anyone under 40 who the greatest drummer is, Moon wouldn’t even crack the top ten. Maybe when that Keith Moon biopic Jason Schwartzman once mentioned he was attached to gets made, Moonie will receive that post-mortem resurgence of fame that Johnny Cash and Freddie Mercury got decades after their messy lives were whitewashed for the silver screen. Maybe there’s a reason why the Moon biopic Schwartzman was attached to never went anywhere.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons