The Pain and the Glory
The American rock band Tesla toured with Def Leppard’s guitarist Steve Clark before his untimely death and later wrote a song about him called Song & Emotion, which began with the lyric:
“I see him there most ev'ry day,
A lonely man and his guitar.
In his eyes, I see the pain,
All the faces and the places,
All the trouble that he'd seen.”
But then they touch on what made Clark come alive and focus on the love he put into perfecting his art:
“Then he starts to play.
Suddenly the pain slowly fades away.
Tattered, torn and frayed,
There's a place within his heart,
He'll always save for the song and emotion.
Know he's got to his dyin' day.
Song and emotion.”
Clark was an alcoholic and his bandmates had tried to help him by holding an intervention to encourage him to halt his abuse. The guitarist agreed to enter rehab, but left without completing the programme and returned to the bottle. At the time of his death, he was on an agreed six-month break from the band, but as frontman Joe Elliott confirms they never thought of firing him, as he was just too important.
When Clark returned home for Christmas in December 1990, his father Barrie could see his state of deterioration and also tried to reach out to him as best he could. “I had words with him and said if he carried on drinking like this he’d kill himself, and he said ‘oh well I’m not bothered anyway,’ his dad said.
On the night of 7 January 1991 Clark went out drinking with his friend Daniel Van Alphen, who said later that they went to a local pub and then returned to Clark's home at midnight to watch a video. At some point Van Alphen left and Clark fell asleep.
The next morning Clark was found dead on his couch by his American girlfriend and model Lorelei Shellist. He was 30 years old.
His postmortem revealed that he died of respiratory failure caused by a lethal mixture of alcohol and prescription drugs, and morphine was found in his system. “He was mixing alcohol, prozac, valiums, coke - whatever anyone would give him - and his little heart was beating so hard to try and stay alive, but really he was slowly trying to kill himself ,” Shellist said. “When you combine all that pain with [the drugs] and the stress his heart gave out; I think he died of a broken heart.”
But just who was Steve Clark? And where did his pain come from?
Stephen Maynard Clark was born and grew up in Hillsborough, Sheffield. By the age of six his interest in music was clear, as he attended a Shadows gig at that time. By the age of 11 his father could see that he wanted a guitar and so bought him one on the condition that he learned to play it. This led him to classical guitar classes but by the time he was a teeenager he had already come across the genius of Jimmy Page at a friend’s house and decided that it was time to change everything: “I played classical guitar for a couple of years and then one day I heard Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin playing this riff called How Many More Times and that was it, I threw my classic guitar through the window and I said ‘that’s what I’m going to do, I am going to play rock music.’”
However, needs must, and Clark first had to join a business that manufactured train carriages when he left school. His four year apprenticeship was abandoned however when Phonogram offered Def Leppard a contract.
Clark had met Leppard’s original guitarist Pete Willis at college, when they connected over a music book Clark was reading. Willis asked Clark to audition for his band, but had to insist as Clark had not turned up to the first appointment. When he finally did appear, he played Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird and blew the band away with his interpretation. In the film ‘Hysteria: the Def Leppard Story’ Clark is shown throwing up in a toilet before his demo and, according to the movie and other testimony, this level of pre-performance anxiety never really left him.
It is worth recalling that this moment occured in January 1978 when punk rock was just beginning to emerge as a musical force. In the film the band are shown joking about doing less rehearsals per week and being a punk rock band as a result, but then one of them says: “I’d rather be the worst rocker in the world than be in a punk band”, and they agree to practise every night.
Clark also was a ‘rocker’ as his bandmate and fellow guitarist Phil Collen explains (Collen replaced Willis in the band in 1982 when he was fired).“He loved David Bowie but not so much the Mick Ronson stuff, he preferred Adrian Belew, who was one of his favourite guitar players […] and Robert Fripp. ” However Clark approached rock from a completely different angle. “When I sat down with him and saw what he was playing, the chords, melody and structure were unique; he interpreted it in his own way. You can see that in a lot of the riffs he came up with,” says Collen. “I used to listen to Van Halen while Steve was into Jimmy Page - he was more melodic, and the chord stuff was very different to how I played. So it was obvious who was going to take on what roles. You can hear the harmony chords on ‘Hysteria’, and the two together worked really well; we made an orchestrated sound.”
Aside from being a great guitarist, Clark was a talented songwriter and contributed to nearly all the music during his time with the band. His classical training helped him transform obscure pieces of music he would hear into something more commercial.
Leppard’s first album, 1980's On Through the Night, made the top 15 in the UK, while their second High 'n' Dry, released the following year, was slightly less successful. It was really with 1983’s Pyromania, which spawned Photograph – containing one of Clark’s greatest riffs - and Rock of Ages, that Leppard really broke through in the US, as the album hit number 2 on the Billboard chart. In 1984 Rick Allen was involved in a car crash and had his left arm amputated, but continued to play for the band during its most successful phase. This included Hysteria, the band’s fourth album, which consolidated their achievement in 1987, and became one of the biggest sellers in history. The songs Love Bites, Pour Some Sugar On Me, Hysteria, Armageddon It, Animal and Rocket all saw chart success across the world. Clark’s influence as ‘The Riffmaster’ - predominantly on Gibson guitars - and his chemistry with Collen, was undoubtedly key to the band’s meteoric rise. Clark once observed: "I do read and write and I know the rules of music which is great in a two-guitar band. Phil will play something if it sounds right, whereas I look at things and say: 'it's wrong to play that note; it's not musically correct.'”
If you would like to see Clark at his best around this time you could do worse than watch him playing live at Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, California, on 17 August 1988. Among other highlights, our video selection shows Clark showcasing his talent on his white Gibson twin neck EDS-1275.
Tragically, Clark did not live to be able to contribute much to Def Leppard’s enormously successful 1992 album, Adrenalize, though critically he did work with Collen on the track White Lightning, which talks about Clark’s drug addiction.
But what was the source of his pain that led to his death? Band leader Elliott provides a clue to this question in an interview with the Guardian newspaper: “By coincidence or torture, I often got the room next to Steve,” he said. “I could hear through the walls the pain he was in. I remember the night before one tour started, he was trying to smash his knuckles on the sink so he wouldn’t have to play, because he was scared to death of getting up on stage. And then we did the gig and he was like: ‘I’m fine’ - with bruises everywhere! It was fucking hard work to have to room next to him. We would never have kicked him out of the band because he was always apologising for being the way he was. He wasn’t an asshole by any means. He wasn’t angry or throwing things. He was always subdued or insular. So you always felt sorry for him.”
Some fans have also suggested that he lacked love from his family or that he was simply tired of life, but this is pure speculation. In the end, it is almost impossible to know the exact reasons why someone chooses to die, and organizations like the Samaritans caution against deciding on any one cause.
We also will never know what musical direction Clark would have gone in had he lived, although Collen speculates that he would have continued to hunt down catchy riffs in ‘quirky’ music: “Now with computers you can do amazing stuff with loops and samples and strings… Thai, Indian or African rhythms and all that stuff … I think he’d have gotten into that and played a lot of instrumental music, really cool movie soundtrack type stuff, because he was into that.”
We leave the last word with Clark, however, about how much he loved being in his band: “The good thing about Def Leppard is you can always do something new and without being totally out of bounds the fans seem to accept it… it’s just good rock music; we like to appeal to everybody.”
RIP Stephen Maynard Clark (23 April 1960 – 8 January 1991)