DANCING WITH MR. D
Down in the graveyard where we have our tryst
The air smells sweet, the air smells sick…
I know his name, he’s called Mr. D.
And one of these days he’s gonna set you free!
Jagger & Richards
The history of rockers and their car wrecks, fatal and near-fatal, is long and rich. Race car driving and playing rock and roll have much in common, not the least of which is the marriage of danger and excitement.
Most stars would agree with Mario Andretti. “Except for death,” said the champion racer, “everything else is a minor injury.”
Elvis totaled his first Cadillac in 1956 and would have many more close scrapes. But that didn’t stop him and the Guys from playing Chicken in their Harleys at 120 mph on Elvis Presley Boulevard.
In addition to all the guitars and hotel suites he smashed up, Hendrix totaled six Corvettes in two years. Once, hurdling down the winding roads of Benedict Canyon, the unlicensed, severely nearsighted Jimi nearly flew off a cliff. He walked away from his Stingray cantilevered on a tree and promptly bought himself another.
Janis’s Porsche Cabriolet Super C with its psychedelic paint-job, “was her pride and joy,” remembered her producer, Paul Rothchild. “We both had Porsches. We’d race along Sunset Boulevard and Laurel Canyon. She was a lot crazier than I was – and I was nuts. She’d go against traffic on blind curves, with the top down, laughing, “Nothing can knock me down!”
Jerry Garcia who, like Lennon, lost his mother in a car accident, miraculously survived a crash of his own before founding the Grateful Dead. Later on, he was again spared when his BMW slammed through a freeway divider into oncoming traffic. Near the end, Phil Lesh, who had survived three near-fatal crashes himself, made the mistake of driving with a pissed-off, DUI Garcia to a detox facility. “To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever been so frightened in a car,” wrote Lesh. “… I had to wonder if Jerry was feeling suicidal – or murderous. I was shaky, and sweating bullets.”
Cobain enjoyed trashing stuff as much as the next guy, especially Strats, amps, stages, tour buses, and whatever five-star hotel was foolish enough to book him. As for driving, the son of the Texaco mechanic told The Advocate, “I’m not that bad a driver, and I get in a wreck almost every day.”
The most colorful and adventurous demo derby competitor was Jim Morrison. In his Mustang Shelby GT, the ghostly Blue Lady, he parked on the railroad tracks and played Chicken with locomotives. Otherwise, the Lizard King bailed out of speeding cars and jumped into the middle of freeway traffic, playing matador with semis.
From the ordinary mortal point view, this might have seemed like the Titanic looking for an iceberg. But Morrison and his ilk had a different take. Each seemed to believe that, since an early end was their fate, they – like Achilles, Crazy Horse, or Evel Kneivel — were unbreakable til the clock struck twelve.
Lennon thought he was driving with karmic insurance, too, at least at the outset. During the filming of HELP! in the Caribbean, he, Paul, George and Ringo chased each other around at 100 plus miles per hour in rented Cadillacs. “It was a terrific feeling smashing up all those shiny limos,” recalled John.
Returning home, George bought a Ferrari, and John — though almost legally blind – decided he had to have one, too. Pitting his Dino against his friend, Pete Shotton’s, Spitfire, he enjoyed what he called “the most fantastic kick I’ve had in ages!”, while Pete described the experience as “the most hair-raising experience of my life.”
Riding shotgun with the Beatle was even worse. ”John was an appalling driver,” wrote Cynthia Lennon to whom he gave a VW bug. “His passengers suffered a hideous rollercoaster ride… at breathtaking speed.” After shutting down Shotton, John took on Ringo in the drummer’s Facel Viga, but retired from Nascar after nearly crashing into another motorist at 150 mph. Finally, he traded the Ferrari in on a Rolls after his racing rival and fellow kamikaze, Tara Browne, ran a light and drove his Lotus through a lorry in Kensington. He blew his mind out in a car, sang John on Day in the Life for SGT. PEPPERS, he didn’t notice that the lights had changed…
Soon the Beatle nearly suffered the same fate. Driving his Austin Maxi with Yoko and their kids, he was grooving on the Scottish countryside when a ditch suddenly ambushed him. “We’re alive!” he cried, scrambling out from under the upside-down coupe with Yoko, her daughter, Kyoto, and his son Julian.
He got seventeen stitches and a sculpture out of it. Yoko installed the wreckage on a pedestal outside the living room of their Tittenhurst mansion, calling it “A Tribute To Survival.” Lennon’s near fatal accident occurred on the same day that his friend, the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, was drowned in his swimming pool.
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As if the stars were not dancing enough with Mr. D, most got regular notes from him in the form of death threats. The number was proportionate to the star’s fame. Elvis got the most, with Lennon a close second, followed by Garcia, Morrison and Hendrix. Janis and Kurt were mostly ignored maybe because potential assassins felt that they were already doing a good enough job killing themselves.
Elvis didn’t get too concerned about the early threats because they were mostly from boyfriends and husbands who couldn’t take a little competition. The JFK assassination changed the King’s tune. He now started collecting guns and bodyguards. Then, when the Manson murders went down, it was “as serious as a six-car pile-up,” recalled Lamar Fike. Hearing that he was on Manson’s hit list, Elvis, playing Vegas at the time, packed everybody up and took cover at Graceland. Now his gun collection turned into an armory worthy of Ford Dix, and his employees became the Secret Service.
“Goddammit, if anybody ever assassinates me, I want you guys to get to him before the police do,” he ordered them. “I want you to pull his eyes out, rip his throat apart, and kill that son of a bitch!”
Since childhood, Elvis had been plagued with nightmares about manglers and murderers. He later became nocturnal due to his paranoia. “I stay up all night, and I have my friends with me, and I feel comfortable,” he would later reveal. “In the morning when everybody else is up, I feel safe because it’s daytime – and then I can go to sleep.” Even then, he would sometimes crawl into bed with one of the Guys.
If the Manson murders woke up the King, a few months later Altamont roused the rest of the rock community. The Grateful Dead, an organizer of the free concert along with the Rolling Stones, refused to play after the Hells Angels’ homicidal mayhem set in. Now the great post-Altamont guns-for-guitars swap began. Jagger and Richards, whom the Angels put a contract out on, started packing heat and security teams. According to a 2008 BBC documentary, the motorcycle gang hatched a plot to assassinate Jagger in 1969 at his Long Island holiday retreat. Attempting an assault by sea, they might have succeeded had their boat not capsized in a storm. The days of All You Need is Love had given way to Let It Bleed and Sympathy for the Devil.
Though Jerry Garcia, a long time friend and champion of the Angels, left the speedway unscathed, plenty of death threats came his way in the next twenty years. By the time he got his last one before an Indiana concert in ’95, he’d become stubborn. Security begged him to cancel the Dead show but he refused, saying, “There’s no way I’m going to let that stop me; hell no. I’ve been getting crackpots all my life.”
Like Elvis, John Lennon got his first death threats early on. They came from drunk German sailors whose girlfriends he scored at the clubs. But he didn’t get his first official notice until ’66 after the Jesus-Beatles comparison. He took the threat pretty much in stride until, soon afterward, a psychic told him he would be shot down during his upcoming U.S. trip.
“I was totally paranoid the whole time,” he said of the Beatles’ last visit to the states which he dubbed “The Jesus Christ Tour.”
“Everywhere we played I was just waiting for something dreadful to happen.” On stage in Memphis, he heard a firecracker go off which he mistook for a gunshot. “My immediate reaction was to check meself to see if I’d been hit,” he recalled. ‘”Fucking hell,’ I thought. ‘At least they haven’t gotten me!”
John Lennon, signing DoubleFantasy
for his assassin, Mark David Chapman