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From Kurt Cobain to Tom Waits: Normal jobs musicians did before they were famous

On the surface, rock stars may seem like people who are out of the ordinary and for many people, act like superheroes. Rushing in to save your day with a tune or an album, it’s easy to get lost in the mysticism of music. The reality is, they are just regular people with an extraordinary talent that has got the recognition that it rightly deserved. 

They weren’t plucked out at birth then put on a strict training regime to gear them up for dealing with the limelight, and most of your favourite artists did mind-numbing mundane jobs before reaching the big time. Below, we’re taking a look back at some of the jobs our favourite rock stars did before they became famous.

Whilst these musicians all grew up with aspirations to become the stars that they would eventually become, this wasn’t the route that their lives first went down. Many artists had to take the long road to reach success; this meant working whatever hours possible and ploughing it all into chasing a pipedream of being a professional musician. Whilst most people who do this don’t manage to achieve that wild aspiration, the names on this list managed just that.

Some of your favourite musicians found themselves working at places about as far away from the rock ‘n’ roll image as possible. However, these experiences gifted them all with a dogged determination to throw everything into making a success out of themselves.

This list features musical royalty members like Kurt Cobain, Tom Waits and Jack White. Figures who seem to have not had a life outside of music, but, they did some odd jobs before their music gifted them with a ticket out of that situation and into brand new horizons that they took full advantage from. Let’s take a look at this list, shall we?

Normal jobs musicians did pre-fame

Kurt Cobain

The late, great Kurt Cobain was bizarrely a janitor before Nirvana became a household name. When Kurt first met bassist Krist Novoselic, the singer was only about 17-years-old and spent his time grudging through his days as a janitor, hating every last second. That job paid for the band’s first demo as Novoselic later recalled: “Here was a man who would never clean his kitchen or take out the garbage, or do those kind of chores, but Kurt Cobain was not a lazy person. Basically, he cleaned toilets – that’s how he paid for that demo.”

In an interview Kurt was asked to talk about the correlation between grunge and the janitor business, somehow he had an answer, commenting: “It’s a fine mixture of cleaning solvents, not to be used in the toilet. When I was a janitor I used to work with these guys Rocky and Bullwinkle. They’d clean the toilet bowls with their bare hands and then eat their lunch without washing their hands. They were very grungy.”

David Bowie

David Bowie may have only been 13-years-old when he did this job, but it’s still remarkable to imagine that he worked as a butcher’s delivery boy. Bowie unsurprisingly didn’t get the job because he had a passion for making it in the meat industry, but he already had a dream of becoming a musician and this job was the first step for him reaching that goal.

He had seen Little Richard perform on television and was awed by his greatness at 10-years-old, from that day on he dedicated his life to becoming a star just like Little Richard. This job he got working as a delivery boy at the butchers was to pay for a saxophone which he was saving up preciously for and after all the long hours that went into saving up for the instrument, he sure as hell wasn’t going to take it for granted.

Ozzy Osbourne

Ozzy Osbourne’s pre-fame job is perhaps the only one on this list that isn’t surprising. Before Black Sabbath became rock gods he worked in an abattoir. The world-renowned singer worked in a slaughterhouse for 18-months in Birmingham between 1964 and 1965, and it may be an explanation as to why he had no issues with biting a bat’s head off or other repulsive stunts he’s pulled off over the years. Once you’ve worked in a slaughterhouse, you’ve seen it all.

He recalled in his memoirs: “I grew to like the slaughterhouse. I got used to the smell, and once I’d proved myself as puke remover they promoted me to cow killer. I can’t tell you how many man-on-cow deathmatches I had in the Digbeth slaughterhouse,” Ozzy recounts. “I had to shoot one bull five or six times before it went down. Fuck me, he was pissed off.”

Jack White

Jack White’s life before The White Stripes was in the upholstery trade, and he carries part of those years into his working life today. The former White Stripes man worked at a shop called Third Man Upholstery, the place’s slogan was the phrase, “your furniture’s not dead.” Now, White has carried the sentiment of that through to his record label called Third Man Records, with the slogan “your turntable’s not dead.”

White even use to hide messages in the furniture, telling NPR in 2011: “I started to write a little bit about, well, this is where I got this chair and the person who hired me to do it — a little bit of that. [And] maybe on the other side, underneath, I’d hide a poem or something like that. The zenith of that [was when] Brian and I had a band called The Upholsterers [and] for the 25th anniversary of his shop, we made a hundred pieces of vinyl. We made a record we stuff into furniture that you could only get if you ripped the furniture open. ”

Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker

Before Kevin Parker found fame with Tame Impala back in 2010, he worked as a law clerk and surprisingly absolutely adored this time, telling The Guardian: “I loved it cos I just got to walk around all day in total solitude all week.”

Parker didn’t care a great deal about the work; he wasn’t unhappy because the job wasn’t difficult. However, the music soon took over. The lack of effort and care he put into the job led to him getting warned about losing his job, instead of snapping into gear, he decided to quit. The Australian then got a job working at an off-license, but, his focus was on making it in music.

Patti Smith

Patti Smith had the most desirable job on the list before she made it in the eclectic New York scene of the 1970s. Before she was famous, she worked as a factory worker making toy’s, however, the novelty of working in a toy factory soon wore off for the singer.

The experience that she had working that job was, in fact, hellish and the stuff of nightmares rather than childlike dreams that making toys would entail. She later horrifyingly recalled: “The stuff those women did to me in that factory was horrible. They’d gang up on me and stick my head in a toilet full of piss.”

Tom Waits

Tom Waits’ job before fame was as a pot washer in Napoleone Pizza House in San Diego, he excelled in this role, and it didn’t take long before they promoted him to pizza cook. This time that Waits spent working in here was formative and he even penned the song ‘Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone’s Pizza House)’ about his time in the role.

Waits later recalled the pizzeria was “a stone’s throw away from Iwo Jima Eddie’s tattoo parlour and across the street from Club 29, Sorenson’s Triumph motorcycle shop, and Phil’s Porno. I thought I was gonna be a cook. That’s about as far as I could see. But what also happened was that I was mystified by the jukebox, and the physics of how you get into the wire and come out of the jukebox. That’s where that came from. I’d listen to Ray Charles singing ‘Crying Time’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ and I’d think, goddamn, that’s something.”

Courtney Love

Before she made it in music, Courtney Love earned a lucrative career as a stripper. Stripping helped fund her passion and the money she saved, she then ploughed into helping Hole launch their career. She once told LA Weekly: “I got to work in the day. To me back then, 300 bucks in a day was fine. I was able to do the kind of stripper economy which is … for every $5 I made, I would give Eric Erlandson three of them and that’s how we bought our van and we bought our backline. “

She commented on another occasion: “Stripping funded my band. There was a lot of temptation in terms of drugs back then. I was like, OK, when I make a million dollars, then I’ll do all the drugs I want. Which I did, by the way.”

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