Free, Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke makes the most of his new life

Simon Kirke

By 1980, drummer Simon Kirke had topped the charts with not one, but two legendary rock ‘n’ roll bands: Free, whose seminal hit “All Right Now” has been a go-to feel-good hit since its release in 1970, and Bad Company, the greatest hits of which are burned into the brains of anyone who came of age during the classic rock era.

The Ties That Bind UsHe'd seen addiction derail the former, and as the ringer on the Swan Song label — set up by and around Led Zeppelin — Bad Company had a ringside seat to the voracious appetites of two of rock’s legendary hedonists, John Bonham and Jimmy Page. Despite those cautionary tales, however, Kirke wasn’t able to avoid the tar pit trap of chemical excess, and when he finally shuffled into his doctor’s office that year, he was in bad shape, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

“I was sweating, even in the coldest of days, and I couldn’t breathe properly. I was a real mess,” he said. “The doctor put his hand around where my liver was and pressed, and I felt this jolt of pain. And he said, ‘Your liver is so swollen that it’s trying to leave your body. Your liver is saying, “I’ve had enough of this shit; I’m out of here!”’ Apparently, it was twice the size of normal.

“And he said, “you have to be honest with me: What is your drinking like? What is your smoking like?,’ because my fingers were brown from cigarette smoke. And so he said, ‘I recommend you go to rehab and clean up, which I did, because I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

It would be many years and more trials and tribulations before Kirke found his way out of that darkness permanently, but today, he hasn’t touched cocaine in almost a quarter-century, and he’s been sober from booze for more than five years now. He works with recovering addicts in New York City, primarily teens and young adults whose lives have been derailed by drugs and alcohol, and he continues to give equal attention to both his first love — music — and the thing that save his life: recovery.

The former made him a star, but the latter gave him perspective, he added.

“We have to embrace humility much more than the grandiosity of being well-known and respected and having people fawning over you, because those things can get into your head very, very easily,” Kirke said. “Being humble is something I try to do on a daily basis.”

Simon Kirke's rock 'n' roll fantasy

Simon KirkeAlthough born in London, Kirke spent his formative years in the English countryside, where the slower pace of life was a far cry from the bright lights and big cities of his rock ‘n’ roll fantasies. Possessed with a yearning to bash the kit for a rock ‘n’ roll band in some form or fashion, he developed a fastidious attention to detail that he knew was required to take him places, he said.

“I had ambition: I wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll musician and drummer, and that really helped me keep on the straight and narrow in my early years,” he said. “I was always on time for auditions, was always fit, was always ready at a moment’s notice to do what was necessary to get ahead. And it was only once Bad Company had achieved this phenomenal success in the mid- to late-’70s that I kind of loosened my grip on keeping myself in check.”

In looking back over his life for those telltale signs of an addictive nature, however, he can see that even then, there were tendencies toward recklessness: stealing a cricket ball from Woolworth’s, for example, and getting away with other things that were forbidden of bright young English boys became something of a thrill that would come back around later in life, once Bad Company became a global phenomenon.

Before that, however, he moved to London at 17 and fell in with the guys who established Free out of the city’s booming blues-rock scene. Founded in 1968, the band didn’t hit it big until two years later, when its third record, “Fire and Water,” featured “All Right Now.” By that point, the British Invasion of America — and the rest of the world — was well under way, and with Kirke keeping time, Free exploded in popularity. By the time the band broke up in 1972, Free — which would be named one of Britain’s “hard rock pioneers” by Rolling Stone — had sold 20 million records and played nearly 700 arena and festival performances.

Kirke and Free singer Paul Rodgers formed Bad Company a year later, and that group’s 1974 debut became the first U.S. release for Swan Song Records, the label started by the members and management of Led Zeppelin. It was an instant success, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and spawning the hit singles “Can’t Get Enough,” “Bad Company” and “Movin’ On.” In addition to Kirke and Rodgers, Bad Company featured Mott the Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs and King Crimson bassist Boz Burrell, making the band a bona fide supergroup that was immediately catapulted to the upper echelons of the arena rock circuit.

The same year Bad Company was established also happens to be the year that Kirke was introduced to cocaine, the drug that would nibble away at the edges of his sanity for the next two-plus decades.

“Whatever it unleashes in you, it’s something you spend the rest of your life trying to recapture,” he said. “It’s such a powerful experience to the system. What happened with me was in 1973, I met a group of Brazilians who were living in London, and they were wonderful people — in fact, I ended up taking one of them as my girlfriend for a couple of years. And one night, they broke out this white powder and gave me a hit.

“I understood that it was as pure as I would ever find, because it was from Brazil, and they had it sent over in FedEx packages to Brazil. So I took a couple of hits, and the hairs — not just on my arms, but all over me — stood up. And I said, ‘Hey, give me a beer.’ And then I said, ‘Give me another beer,’ because I realized with this stuff, I could drink more. So unfortunately, my first hit of coke was pure, and it instilled in me this desire.”

Superstardom and the mess of excess

At first, the acceleration of Kirke’s career with Bad Company far outpaced his addictive decline. Driven by larger-than-life manager Peter Grant, whose exploits and excess as part of Led Zeppelin’s management team are well-documented, Bad Company released one album after another in the 1970s, each charting a number of hit singles that cemented the band’s status as a rock ‘n’ roll juggernaut. None of them charted lower than No. 15 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and three of them — 1975’s “Straight Shooter,” 1976’s “Run With the Pack” and 1979’s “Desolation Angels” — all landed in the Top 5.

“We never played a bad gig, I don’t believe,” Kirke said. “We never played a bad show. We might have been a bit ragged every now and again, because we were all guilty of some kind of substance abuse in the early years of the band, but we never played a bad show. And I had kind of reached the pinnacle: platinum albums, playing all the arenas around the country, and we had money and the success I’d always dreamed about.

“But I had this substance abuse problem. It was like a big monkey on my back.”

With Grant in the driver’s seat, however, there was little room for a slowdown. Bad Company had become a brand as much as it was a band, and Kirke and his bandmates were the cash cows that had to be protected. As a result, anything they wanted was acquired by agents of the organization, and while the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle was certainly a party, it wasn’t the sort that allowed hangers-on and groupies like some of their peers, Kirke added.

“No one, and I mean no one, was allowed backstage, because there were all sorts of dealers, but we never knew what their stuff had in it,” he said. “Rat poison? Strychnine? Poor old Keith Moon (of The Who) got spiked at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, so we were protected, and anything we needed, we got through various sources who were connected through the organization.”

Looking back, his increasing consumption of cocaine was clearly a problem, but as a rock star surrounded by it on a daily basis, it didn’t seem like it at the time, he added. Back then, the drug served as a sort of currency among individuals in the industry who already had plenty of money.

“Everyone had it, and everyone did it you swapped albums for it, you traded it for this and that. It really was part of everyone’s lifestyle,” he said. “I think I realized there was a problem around about 1977, when I kind of looked forward to it, and I wanted more, and I started buying from several dealers, and it would soon run out.

“I didn’t care about the lack of sleep, because I was still in my late 20s, and I could stay up all night and still play the next day — a little ragged, but I could do it, and there were no consequences, because everyone else around me was doing it. There was no one who stood out to say, ‘You know what? I think you’re behaving like an idiot.’ We were all idiots!”

Simon Kirke gets clean and sober

Simon Kirke

Simon Kirke performs at the City Winery in Chicago.

Back then, copping to a drug problem seemed more like a sign of weakness than the actual display of strength that it is today. Those who developed a problem sought help for it in secret, and rather than proclaim their sobriety with pride, they simply retreated from the garish spotlight of bacchanalia.

“To be an addict meant that you were cloaked in stigma, and it was something you hid rather than uncovered,” he said. “You kind of lived with it, or spoke in soft tones about it in meetings. Now, it’s on people’s TVs — ‘I’m in a 12 Step program!’ There are meetings in (New York City) 24/7. I think the veil has been lifted off of addiction, and people see that it’s not something to be ashamed of.

“It’s something you embrace and confront, and you take steps to alleviate it. It’s never going to go away 100 percent, as we know, but a day at a time, you can keep it at bay.”

At the time, however, the only way out seemed to be to keep pushing on. Despite the success of “Desolation Angels,” the members of Bad Company grew weary of the grueling tour demands, and then in 1980, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died after a day of heavy drinking. Devastated, Grant withdrew from hands-on management, and Kirke began the 1980s in rough shape himself.

“What really started to point me south was the drinking that accompanied coke-taking, because I started drinking like a maniac,” he said. “That really started to tip me over the edge in terms of frayed my nerves. Plus, I was smoking a lot of cigarettes, my breathing was ragged, and I was a complete mess.”

And that, in turn, led to his first stint in rehab, and his introduction to the concept of addiction recovery. After 30 days, he said, he left treatment feeling better, and he attended his first 12 Step meeting — something he remembers to this day.

“I spoke, and I cried, and it was a big relief to be amongst similar-minded people,” he said. “But there was a certain ignorance coupled with arrogance, and after a few months, I started drinking again.”

He stayed away from cocaine for a while, long enough to see Bad Company through to the end of its halcyon run: The band released “Rough Diamonds” in 1982 and broke up shortly thereafter. Kirke and Ralphs would launch a new project a few years later, eventually recruiting vocalist Brian Howe for a second incarnation of Bad Company, which enjoyed another modest run of success in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Several years later, Rodgers returned to the fold, and Bad Company went through a number of stops and starts before getting back together permanently — minus Burrell, who died in 2006 — 12 years ago. In the years since, Kirke — who gave up cocaine for good in 1996 — gave up alcohol, and while he acknowledges the use of marijuana for medical purposes, he does so via a legal prescription and under a doctor’s supervision.

In that sense, it provides the relief his aging joints and their accompanying wear and tear from a lifetime of hard-hitting drum work require. His recovery may look a little different than that of others who have found freedom from addiction, but it is recovery nonetheless, and he’s so very grateful for it, he said.

“The lightbulb moment to really give everything up didn’t happen for many years,” he said. “I always thought I could lick it, could conquer it, and looking back, wow — what an idiot I was. It took me 30 years after I took up coke for the first time to really stop drinking and drugging.”

Keeping what he has by giving it away

Simon KirkeThese days, Kirke does a lot of rushing around.

“I’m compulsive and impulsive, and I say it’s became I’m making up for all those lost years!” he said with a laugh. “I’m 71 now, so who knows how much longer I’ve got? So I tend to rush around, trying to get things done.”

He still has an addictive nature, he concedes (“Anything I like, I tend to do in excess, whether it’s sex or guitars or shiny objects or cars. Right now, my addiction is coconut water — Harmless Harvest, and it’s the most amazing stuff!”), but he also directs that seemingly boundless reserve of energy into more positive endeavors, like using music as therapy for other recovering addicts. After all, he added, he knows how much it helped him during his recovery journey.

“When I was in one of my rehabs, I was desperate to play a guitar. I usually had a guitar with me everywhere I went, but obviously they weren’t allowing anything like that — no wires and sharp objects and shit,” he said. “I’d been there for about three weeks, and I went to the monsignor — one of the counselors was a priest — and made my case to him.

“I said, ‘Look, it would really help me if I could write some songs about my progress, my stay, my battle with addiction. Could you ask if I could have a guitar shipped from my house?’ When he said yes, my heart leapt. I had to sign a waiver that I wouldn’t hang myself with the guitar strings, but I cried when it arrived, and I took it to my room, and I wrote all these songs.”

Many of them found a place on his debut solo album, 2005’s “Seven Rays of Hope,” a record he hopes to re-record in the future. Sobriety, he added, helped him find his creative voice, and over the years, he’s continued to release records under his own name, including 2011’s “Filling the Void” and 2017’s “All Because of You.” They may not have notched the sales that his work with his other bands did, but they earned glowing reviews, and the positive reception and personal satisfaction were enough to push him to continue.

Recovery, in fact, has spurred him to do other non-music related projects. After his last rehab stint roughly 12 years ago, a friend put him in touch with Road Recovery, a New York-based nonprofit “dedicated to helping young people battle addiction and other adversities by empowering at-risk youth to face their struggles, while teaching them comprehensive life skills.” Many of the organization’s clients are teens, Kirke said, and music is often used in therapy sessions.

“I had spoken to one organization in New York just to share my story, but that had nothing to do with music,” Kirke said. “To be involved in music as a healing tool really appealed to me, so I went down there. At first, there were maybe a half-dozen kids in there, and I introduced myself by saying, ‘I’m Simon, and I’m an addict.’ By the fourth share, I was very emotional, listening to these kids.”

Simon Kirke: Sobriety opens many doors

Simon KirkeThat sort of introduction is a familiar one to Kirke, because every time he says it — in a 12 Step meeting, a Road Recovery group or to any other organization to which he tells his story — it does two things: It serves to remind him of the places of emotional darkness and pain to which he could return without sobriety, and it allows him to reinforce his recovery by giving it away.

“Working with kids — teenagers, and people in their early to mid-20s — as I do in Road Recovery, to see them trying to get sober and clean not just from their substance abuses, but from sexual and psychological abuse, from traumatic situations they are living through — to see them try to get a handle on this at such a young age, it blows my brain,” he said. “I’ve seen kids there who have four years clean, and they’re just 18!”

That they have their whole lives ahead of them, full of wide open possibilities, is a beautiful thing for Kirke to witness. Anything is possible for them, he said, just as it is for him — a second chance that he doesn’t take for granted. Although COVID-19 has kept him mostly sidelined at home, he’s been busier than ever at his Montauk studio, doing drum work for a U.K.-based band (Lone Rider), scoring an independent film and writing an entire album through Zoom sessions with fellow musicians.

Promoters are already making plans to get major tours up and running once a COVID vaccine is viable, and while that’s certainly something he looks forward to as part of Bad Company, he doesn’t feel he or his peers will be in any rush to endanger their fans. Once the all clear is given, however … anything is possible.

“I was talking with Mick Fleetwood yesterday, and we both agreed that when the starter drops its flag for all the bands to go back out on the road, there’s going to be a shitload of major bands wanting to go out and play!” he said. “We said to each other, ‘We should all go out, 10 of us, on a huge packet tour! The Eagles, Bad Company, Fleetwood Mac, The Who?’”

He laughs heartily, because while it’s another rock ‘n’ roll fantasy for the time being, it’s also a reminder that anything is possible, with the right amount of willingness, some hard work and the winds of recovery in his sails.

“Honestly, I don’t miss drinking, and I certainly don’t miss taking coke,” he said. “I’m very grateful for the life I have today, even though it took me a few years to get here. And I like being among like-minded people in a meeting, whether it’s one-on-one or through Zoom. To be amongst 20 or 30 people who all have the same thing in common, it’s very comforting. We’re all on the same page, and it’s a good place to be.”