How rock’n’roll was key to Anthony Bourdain’s work
You’ve probably noticed by now that chef, broadcaster and writer Anthony Bourdain meant a lot to people. Social media has been awash with tributes to the man since news of his passing last Friday night, and the ache of his absence will linger for a long time.
He meant a lot to me as well. I never met him, but his approach to travel and food lit a fire inside of me about those two same things. He showed me I had to step out of my comfort zone. And he showed me to some amazing restaurants.
I got into Bourdain through rock’n’roll.
An old tour manager introduced me to Bourdain’s first book Kitchen Confidential in the early 2000s, saying it would make me never want to eat in a restaurant again. That premise sounded terrible and the writer sounded like a douchebag, so I didn’t read it.
But the name kept popping up. Plenty of people who I respected would namecheck him. It was when he appeared on a podcast I love, the excellent Sound Opinions from WBEZ in Chicago, that I decided to give him a go.
By the time I got to hear, see and read what he actually did, I realised Anthony Bourdain was nowhere near as contrived as the self-styled Rock’n’Roll Chef I had pictured him to be. He was far more down-to-earth and far less pretentious than I’d expected.
He wasn't trying to be the poster boy of some gross 'dude food' movement. He wasn't a posturing egomaniac. He just wanted to share stories about parts of the world we might not yet know - we just happened to see it through his eyes.
Bourdain was all about food, sure. But he was also all about connecting with people. Which is probably part of the reason he was so passionate about music.
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As we grapple with the passing of yet another pop culture icon – a man who saw the world in such a heartening way, and who had the freakish skill of helping us to do the same – it’s a good time to celebrate the things he loved.
Here are just a few key musical moments from across his career that I think you might enjoy.
A musical upbringing
Bourdain was born into a very musical household, which showed him the power and importance of great music at a very young age.
If you showed up at school with a Cream or a Yardbirds album under your arm, it said something.Anthony Bourdain
“My dad worked at Columbia Records for a lot of the really great years of music,” he told the Archive of American Television.
“It meant I got all the Columbia and Epic records every month. I’d trade Jim Nabors records – sample copies of the records I didn’t like – for stuff on other labels.”
Vitally, his parents didn’t turn their nose up at any of the young Bourdain’s musical proclivities.
“My dad was super supportive of any interesting music, as that had been his passion since he was 15-years-old,” he said.
“Both parents, though they were classical and opera [fans], they were very open to any passion for any kind of music.
"Any kind of music I was into was good music as far as they were concerned.”
And from a young age he recognised that music was part of your identity.
“Music was who you were,” he said. “If you showed up at school with a Cream or a Yardbirds album under your arm, it said something.”
His punk roots
“I saw the Ramones at CBGB, the Dead Boys, the Voidoids. I used to cook for all those guys, I’d trade them a meal for concert tickets,” he told Entertainment Weekly.
Bourdain was 21 when punk hit. The perfect age to immerse oneself in such a visceral but still fledgling subculture.
In October 2007, he wrote an article for Spin magazine in which he recalled his memories of New York City in 1977. The shows he saw, the drugs he did, the bands he cooked for.
There’s nothing rose-coloured about Bourdain’s reflection of such a vital part of music history, and one that he happened to be smack dab in the middle of.
“The music and the musicians who started playing and hanging out with each other at CBGB were an appropriate reaction to the general feelings of hopelessness, absurdity, futility, and disgust of living in New York at the time,” he wrote.
Bourdain’s kitchens were reportedly always well soundtracked with great punk rock mixtapes. He had a few strict rules, which became just as famous as his declaration that one mustn’t order fish on Mondays.
If you play Elton John, Billy Joel, or the Grateful Dead, you will be fired!Anthony Bourdain — Entertainment Weekly
“If you play Elton John, Billy Joel, or the Grateful Dead, you will be fired!” he told Entertainment Weekly.
It’s testament to how beloved Bourdain was that Billy Joel didn’t care one bit, and visited his restaurant many times
“We have this sort of strange and tortured relationship,” Bourdain told Hamptons Magazine. “We're actually pretty friendly, we've had dinner a couple of times, and Billy knows full well I hate his music.
“If I come over to your house for lunch and you're playing ‘Uptown Girl’ and boogying around the pool, I'm turning around and heading back to my house.
“But I like him personally a lot. We've actually sat at a table together, I'm socking back the Negronis, and he was like ‘Really, you hate all my songs?’ ‘Yeah, pretty much.’”
Bourdain was a guest on Damian Abraham of Fucked Up’s podcast Turned Out A Punk in 2015, where the two get nerdy about the old days of punk rock (seriously, they move quickly and go deep) and Bourdain’s experiences being in the thick of it.
“It’s what rock’n’roll should be,” he said of the first time he saw the Ramones. “Simplistic lyrics, three chords and a powerful beat. It was the antidote to everything that was wrong at the time.”
They also touched on cooking, when Abraham asked him if there was any musician Bourdain would like to cook for.
“I would like to cook with Keith Richards,” Bourdain said. “He likes to cook British food. Famously, don’t mess with his Shepherd’s Pie.
“I’d like to make meat pies with Keith. And I’m working on it. It’s the one thing left on my bucket list and I hope we can do that some day.”
He used the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s ‘No Reservations’ for his show of the same name, which meant the New York punks have snuck their way into literally millions of living rooms over the past decade or so.
Josh Homme and Mark Lanegan recorded a version of ‘Beautiful World’ especially for Bourdain’s most recent show Parts Unknown. Bourdain and Homme had become friends after meeting in Europe and Homme was a regular guest on Bourdain’s shows.
But that didn’t stop the chef from lambasting his friend following last year’s photographer kicking incident.
And music was vital for Bourdain when it came to making television. It was never an afterthought.
“We talk a lot about music, even before we start shooting,” he told the Archive of American Television. “Unlike most travel shows, we don’t use much music library stuff.”
Bourdain respected musicians so much that he paid them perhaps the greatest compliment any creative person can: he put them on his TV show.
The Dead Weather appeared in an episode of Parts Unknown, where Bourdain caters a party at Alison Mosshart’s home.
Following the episode, Bourdain raved about Mosshart’s contribution to the program.
“If any ‘guest’ on our show should ever get a producer credit, it’s Alison,” he wrote for CNN.
“She single-handedly wrangled, coerced, cajoled and organized appearances by both The Kills and The Dead Weather on our show – a logistical feat on par with the invasion of Normandy. She opened her Nashville home, ‘Disgraceland,’ to us, our crew and an army of invited guests.
“She liquored us up on fine tequila, made sure that I, and every member of my crew had an awesome time in Nashville, and that we would, all of us, wake up with unexplained bruises and Mosshart-designed tattoos. No one has ever been nicer or more awesome.”
In 2010, New York cult hip hop group Das Racist made this bizarre appearance.
Canadian punk masters Fucked Up appeared on Bourdain’s shows a couple of times.
They show him around their native Toronto in The Layover.
And recorded a version of ‘Jingle Bells’ for the No Reservations Holiday special.
Bourdain hooked up with Sleigh Bells during SXSW in 2012 for an episode of No Reservations.
He chatted to Questlove about the history of electronic music for Parts Unknown.
The Black Keys sat down to eat barbecue with him in Kansas City during a 2012 episode of No Reservations.
There was this warm conversation about sports with shock rocker Alice Cooper.
There were punk heroes of yesteryear. New York Dolls’ David Johansen took Bourdain to a Sri Lankan café on Staten Island, and old friend Marky Ramone appeared on No Reservations twice – once at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame and another time to talk about Desert Island Records. You can read a good tribute from him here.
And then there was Iggy.
Iggy Pop was one of the first high profile people to make a public statement about Bourdain’s passing.
Bourdain did not hide his complete adoration for Iggy. You could tell Bourdain saw them as somewhat kindred spirits, though he clearly held the punk rock legend in the absolute highest regard.
“Of all the people I've met, I've never been more intimidated, more anxious, more starstruck than when I met Iggy Pop,” Bourdain wrote for CNN.
“I encourage anyone reading this to buy, first, the Stooges' classic Fun House, which functions as a reminder of what rock'n'roll should be about -- has always been about: sex, aggression, rage, self-hatred, frustration, heartbreak, love and the occasional burst of pleasure.
“Then listen to the song ‘Penetration’, on their album Raw Power, and feel your face melt right off your skull.”
We hope, wherever he is, Bourdain is meeting plenty more of his rock’n’roll heroes and showing them the kind of great insights he showed us over the past couple of decades.