ENFANT TERRIBLE: The Wild Childhoods of the Stars

 

OPEN SORE

MOTHERLESS SUNS

DADDY DEAREST

KILL THE FATHER, FUCK THE MOTHER

WILD CHILD

GROW UP & DIE

DUES 2 PAY THE BLUES

HOW THE STARS WERE BORN

***

“OPEN SORE”

LIL'ELVIS

3-year-old Elvis, with parents

Hendrix’s father, Al, once a dancer and Golden Gloves contender, was a Seattle gardener, a devout church-goer, gambler and boozer; his mother, Lucille, also a dancer, was the belle of the ball, and pulled the odd trick to make ends meet after another bout with the volatile Al.

Elvis’s old man, Vernon, was a bootlegger, an ex-con and, according to his wife, Gladys, “a work-shy, steer-coddled jellybean.” Gladys was a lively buck dancer, a part-time seamstress, and consumed great quantities of her “medicine” — Vernon’s shine – to calm her nerves.

Cobain’s father, Don, fixed cars at a Texaco service station; his mom, a flirtatious trailer park beauty, cleaned and maintained their double-wide in Aberdeen Washington, which Kurt later called “Twin Peeks, but without the excitement.”

The Hendrixes and Presleys collected Welfare; the Cobains barely managed to scrape by on Don’s check.

The Joplins were Texas backwater middle-class: Seth, once a bathtub gin brewer, now a world-weary bookworm, worked as an engineer at the Port Arthur Texaco refinery; Dorothy, an ex-flapper, registered students at the local community college and taught Sunday School.

Freddie Lennon, a lush, a bon vivant, and dreamer, shipped out from Liverpool as a steward in the merchant marine; in his absence, Julia Lennon partied, without birth control.

Joe Garcia, a clarinetist, got fired from his own jazz band, then took over a seaman’s bar in San Francisco; his vivacious wife, Ruth, helped him pour drinks and worked as a part-time nurse.

George Morrison, a fighter pilot, became the youngest admiral in the Navy; his wife, Clara, was a devoted helpmate, homemaker and a gracious hostess.

So, the parents of the Seven greatest rock stars in history were a mixed bag. The only common ground between them seems to be that they all enjoyed dancing and drinking.

As far as their kids went, though, there seemed to be a more substantial emotional similarity. Hendrix, Elvis, and Lennon adored their mothers. For Jimi, Gladys was his “angel in the sky.” For Elvis, Gladys was “my baby… my life.” For John, Julia was his “shimmering, glimmering… oceanchild.”

But the Beatle-to-be had also called the pretty, promiscuous Julia “a cocksucking whore.” Cobain and Garcia were also ambivalent about their own headstrong, sexy moms – loving them deeply, but disparaging their morals. Then there was the infante terrible, Jim Morrison, whose signature anthem – The End – was about fucking his mother and killing his father.

Strange. Because of all Seven, Morrison seemed to have had the most comfortable, wholesome, “normal” upbringing. But he called himself an “Orphan,” and said his childhood had been an “open sore.”

 

***

MOTHERLESS SUNS

 The beautiful 32-year-old Lucille died of a ruptured spleen and sclerosis of the liver in the same hospital where she had given birth to Jimi eleven years before. She had been found beaten unconscious in an alley behind a Seattle bar.

Before his own violent end, Jimi confessed: “Once in a while I may say ‘love’ to a girl, but I don’t mean it. … I’ve never truly been in love, the kind of love that lasts. The only person who ever really loved me was my mother. And she’s long dead.”

A broom is drearily sweeping up the broken pieces of yesterday’s life, he sang in The Wind Cries Mary for her, Somewhere a queen is weeping, somewhere a king has no wife.

Now King Al only had Jimi and his brothers and sisters – but wasn’t even sure if they were his own children. After he’d left for the army, Lucille had run off with her pimp leaving the four-year-old Jimi in a foster home. On discharge, Al reclaimed the son he had never met, but Jimi recalled:  “No one could ever know how I felt going off with this strange guy. I cried and cried. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

After the death of his own mother Elvis, like Hendrix, said: “I lost the only person I ever loved.” As they lowered her into the ground he had wept: “Goodbye, darling. I love you so much. I lived my whole life just for you.”

Years later, his father blamed him for her death. They were in Memphis Memorial Hospital together – Elvis again detoxing from narcotic addiction, Vernon recovering from a heart attack – when the old man told his famous son: “You worried your mama right into the grave!”

“Elvis broke down and cried,” remembered his cousin, Billy. “It about killed him.”

“After Elvis became famous, Gladys was never happy another day,” remembered her best friend, Lillian. “She never had peace no more.” Her mother and father had both died young, and tragedy had befallen many other family members. Elvis’s relentless touring, his explosive fame, and his hysterical fans terrified Gladys. “If you don’t slow down, you won’t live to 30!” she kept telling him. Gladys started popping pills to sleep, speed to wake up, and increasing quantities of vodka to cope until she drank herself into the ground like Lucille Hendrix.

When John Lennon was 16, his mother was run over by a drunk, off-duty policeman. “It was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” he recalled. I can’t get it through my head, he later sang in My Mummy’s Dead. It’s hard to explain. So much pain.

His father, Freddie, who himself had grown up in Liverpool’s Blewcoat Orphanage, had abandoned him at the age of five. Father, you left me but I never left you, he sang. I needed you but you didn’t need me. He later told an interviewer: “I soon forgot my father. It was like he was dead.”

Jerry Garcia was the same age when his father, Joe, drowned in the Trinity River while fishing. The loss “emotionally crippled me for a long time,” Jerry confessed. Calling himself “pathologically anti-authoritarian,” the boy broke windows in police stations, set wildfires, and started doing “candy” – dope. At wit’s end, his mother turned him over to her parents to raise. “Jerry was bereft… feeling that he was not loved, and that he was not worthy. These scars would never fade,” wrote the Dead’s biographer, Dennis McNally.

After graduating high school, Jerry stole his mother’s car, got busted and the courts gave him the same ultimatum they gave Hendrix in Seattle and for the same crime: jail, or the Army. No sooner had the two outlaws enlisted than they were deemed  “psychologically unfit for military service” and discharged.

Months after his release, Jerry was nearly killed in a car accident which claimed the life of his best friend. “It [the crash] was cosmic,” recalled the founder of the Grateful Dead. “It was where my life began. Before then I was always living at less than capacity. I was idling. That was the slingshot for the rest of my life.”

Fellow survivor, Alan Trist (future head the Dead’s publishing company), agreed: “This was when we were all coming into adult life. It had a profound effect on Jerry. It made him aware of life’s fragility. Of how things could be taken away.”

Nine years later, Ruth Garcia drove off a cliff.

 

 ***

DADDY DEAREST

Annabelle Garcia eulogized her famous old man like this: “He may have been a genius, but he was a shitty father.”

Julian Lennon, or even Sean, might have said the same thing about their own legendary father. Lennon felt like “the Empire State Building” after the birth of Sean and, as a “breadbaking househusband,” appeared to dote on his second son. But, in the end, he confessed to his confidante, John Green: “I tried the father bit and blew it. I hated the role, and then I started hating the kid because I thought he as the one who forced me into it.” As for his first son, Julian, the Beatle only saw him a handful of times after divorcing his mother. “Dad’s always telling people to love each other, but how come he doesn’t love me?” the boy asked Cynthia.

Elvis too was smitten by his daughter initially. But, according to “the Guys” – his live-in bodyguard brothers –Lisa Marie became for him little more than a plaything and trophy.

At first Kurt Cobain called his infant daughter “the greatest drug in the world.” But in his “suicide” note, he wrote: “She reminds me too much of what I used to be, full of love and joy… I can’t stand the thought of Frances becoming the miserable, self-destructive, death rocker that I’ve become.”

The only other parent of the Seven was Hendrix. He had two illegitimate children whom he never took the trouble to meet, much less to support. Morrison had nineteen paternity suits filed against him but only acknowledged one impregnation, to his second “wife,” Patricia Kenneally. He offered to pay for the abortion but didn’t bother to show up for the procedure. Janis Joplin had at least one abortion.

So, eternal youths, the Seven, not quite cut out for parenthood, never experienced its loving, life-giving powers which rescued other stars. But, ironically, they became the fathers, the guides, the pied pipers, of the greatest youth and freedom movement of history which began in the fifties and sixties with the birth of rock and roll.

Fittingly, these living legends – most of whom grew up on and loved comic books — took on the fantastic, magical names of child superheroes: Morrison became the Lizard King; Lennon, the Walrus; Elvis the King of Rock; Janis, the Queen of the Blues; Garcia Captain Trips; Hendrix, the Voodoo child.

 

***

“KILL THE FATHER, FUCK THE MOTHER”

Jim Morrison called his father, the youngest admiral in the history of the Navy, a “eunuch” and accused him of having molested him. The others weren’t any kinder about their old men.

Elvis, though he professed to love his daddy, considered him a “steercoddled” slacker and had threatened to kill him several times. Lennon called Freddie “a Bowery bum” and had threatened to bury him at sea. Cobain called Don “a fucking asshole.” In drunken rages, Al Hendrix beat Jimi regularly: “He was a brutal man,” recalled a childhood friend, “It was a rough scene. Straight up ugly.” Jimi never forgave his father for forbidding him to attend his mother’s funeral, but instead giving him his first shot of Seagrams 7.

An historic study of creative genius and the Oedipus complex has yet to be done. But, undeniably, art owes a debt to mama’s boys. The childish condition goes beyond an inordinate love and attachment to the mother, and hatred, estrangement, or resentment of the father. Figuratively or literally a compulsion to fuck the one, and kill the other  — Morrison’s mantra.

When once asked if he really wanted to fuck his mother, the Erotic Politician replied: “No, I want to fuck yours.”

The Doors’ producer, Paul Rothchild, explained it all like this to Crawdaddy magazine: “Kill the father means kill all of those things in yourself which are instilled in you and not of yourself… those things must die… ‘Fuck the mother’ means get back to the essence… the reality.”

In other words, embrace the nurturing, loving mother; reject the controlling, authoritarian father. And a rebel is born. All great artists are rebels on some fundamental level. More than that, the men among them tend to have strong female sides. Sensitive, intuitive, romantic.

The wo/men superstars of rock  – Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, etc. etc. – follow the original beacon: The King himself. Elvis, as has often been observed, would never have become the greatest pop phenomenon in history – the King – had it not been for his “androgynous” magnetism, especially for young girls. Elvis was 100% his adoring, immaculate mother’s child. “There wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them — they were the same person,” observed Elvis’s minder, Lamar Fike. His father had as much to do with the King as Joseph with Jesus. Vernon was at the Nativity and saw a star in the east, but that’s about it.

Elvis slept with Gladys till the age of 13. Later, his gossipy step-mother, the ex-wife of General Patton’s personal bodyguard, would say that he consummated with his Gladys, but it seems unlikely. Their relationship was one of cuddling, fawning, and babytalking. Later, he preferred being mothered in this way by the many starlets in his life, than having sex. He gave his first recording, My Happiness, to Gladys, his greatest worshipper, as a birthday present. This was followed by his hit, That’s Alright Mama.

“A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror,” wrote Freud.

When Gladys died, Elvis, then 23, wept inconsolably, “My life is over!” And, indeed, in many ways it was.

Wendy Cobain remembered being “totaled out” on little Kurt. High strung and high maintenance like the other stars as children, Kurt had an equally insatiable appetite for attention.  Then when he was 9, his parents divorced and “I went from being a happy kid to a seriously depressed kid,” he later recalled. “I HATE MOM. I HATE DAD,” he crayoned his bedroom wall. Before becoming homeless, he suffered torturous years with his mother’s macho boyfriends who called him “faggot.”

Five of the seven stars were bisexual. Kurt –who later “made out with half the men in Seattle,” according to his wife – often performed in skirts and panties. In spite of the theatrics, his struggle with his sexual identity was the greatest of all the stars. But this is the subject for another discussion.

 

***

WILD CHILD

I-M'SON

Jim Morrison, 19, mugshot (after drunk & disorderly arrest)

If age 5 was fatally pivotal for both Lennon and Garcia, it was the same for Jim Morrison. At about the same age, he experienced what he called “the greatest event of my life”: witnessing the slaughter of a truckload of Indians on a New Mexico highway one of whom, he believed, possessed his young soul, turning him into a wild child.

Later, the Lizard King sang in Rock Is Dead: When I was just a little boy, ‘bout the age of five I went to sleep, I heard my mama and papa talking… ‘We got to stop that boy, he’s gettin too far out, he’s goin’ wild, we gotta stop that child’…. Not your mother’s or your father’s child: Your wild child full of grace, savior of the human race.

Just as Ruth Garcia had turned her own incorrigible son over her parents, and Julia Lennon hers to her disciplinarian sister, Mimi – Admiral Morrison turned over his wild child to his own parents. But to no avail. “He hated conformity,” recalled Grandmother Morrison, a devout Methodist. “He’d try to shock us. He loved to do that.”

Kurt Cobain did the same after his mother, then father, gave up on him and kicked him out of their houses. He got into dope, vandalism, and graffiting public buildings with GOD IS GAY and ABORT CHRIST. The homeless future father of Grunge crashed under bridges, in abandoned cars, and on the couches of friends. One good Samaritan family that put him up soon changed the locks on their doors, saying that being under the same roof with him was “like living with the devil.”

Of the Seven, Janis had the most “normal” childhood. Her father, a petroleum engineer, and her mother, a Sunday school teacher, didn’t beat up on her, get divorced on her, abandon her, or palm her off on relatives. Though a pretty, bright, outgoing little girl, she suddenly changed in adolescence, becoming a hellraiser, foul mouth, and a rebel. Her mother called her a “harlot,” and berated her for “wasting” her life.”

“I was a misfit,” the hometown Texas wild child later admitted. “I read, I painted, and I didn’t hate niggers.”

After her high school graduation, instead of becoming a nurse or secretary as her parents had hoped, the future Queen of the Blues had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for alcoholism.

“I’m awfully sorry to be such a disappointment to you,” she wrote home several years latter from San Francisco where she was singing, shoplifting, tricking, and shooting speed. “Please believe that you can’t possibly want for me to be a winner more than I do.”

Months later, 87-pounds and on the edge of death, she was on a Greyhound bus back home, engaged to a mental patient and about to enroll in secretarial school.

Seven years after that, just before her OD, she was being hailed as “the greatest blues singer in the world,” but her mother told her, “I wish you’d never been born!”

 

***

HOPE I DIE BEFORE I GET OLD

 The shelf life of rock stars – like race car drivers, matadors, cliff divers, mountain climbers – tends to be short.

27 is the first cut-off point. Joining Janis, Jim, Jimi, and Kurt in Club 27, were the Stones’ Brian Jones, the Dead’s Ron McKernan, Robert Johnson, and other luminaries. All were only a few years removed from childhood when they died.

The next cut-off is the thirties: this decade notably claimed the Who’s Keith Moon, Zeppelin’s John Bonham, the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, Butterfield’s Mike Bloomfield, INXS’s Michael Hutchence, Bob Marley, Jeff Buckley, and the original bad boy of rock, Gene Vincent.

If a star makes it to 40 he is over the hump and his odds improve. But the fact remains: rock and roll is a young man’s profession. Though the over-40 group is substantial now, few of these veterans have anywhere near the fire they once did. But, rather then retire, some perform old hits posthumously.

As one of them, Peter Townshend, once famously said: “Hope I die before I get old.” But, after spending years at the effort, My Generation’s hero finally admitted “I haven’t been able to achieve that one great ambition I had when I was nineteen. But I’ve tried to compensate by actually making myself happy.”

Meaning that he somehow exorcised the teenage anger, angst, and alienation that had fueled his most powerful work just as it had done with most of his colleagues.

Happiness is nice but it rarely makes for great art in rock or any other form. Why? Because happiness becomes contentment, even complacency. Why create anything if you are satisfied with what is? You might sing a silly McCartney love song or a Simon & Garfunkel confection, but not a Lennon Revolution, a Morrison The End, a Joplin Ball and Chain, or a Cobain Rape Me.

These killer compositions were not the products of old age, much less of contentment. Happiness is static energy, Unhappiness kinetic. Static energy is not a creative force. Kinetic is. Kids are uniquely equipped to harness and channel it. The trick is to do so before it drives you off a cliff at age 27.

 

***

GROW UP & DIE

  Rock and roll is the only true art form created for and by the young – children. The Magnificent Seven remained children till the end, even the three longest lived– Lennon 40, Elvis 42, and Garcia a Methusalahn 53.

As if aging were synonymous with death itself, Elvis drugged himself unconscious on his 40th birthday after Walter Cronkite ominously announced the milestone on the Six O’Clock News.

“I don’t think of myself as an adult,” said the leader of the Dead in his fifties. “An adult is someone who has made up their mind.”

John Lennon stubbornly resisted adulthood too. “Grow up means: Shut up, clean up, dress up and die,” he declared. “Then you are allowed to live half-dead which is what most people do. That is the difference between a real artist and people going through the motions. I refuse to be half-dead.”

One of the secrets of survival for other rock stars has been starting a family. Mick Jagger once said, “You can’t have a career and a family,” but now he is a knight and the father of seven. Keith Richards, who claims to have snorted his father’s crematory ashes, resisted parenthood too, but now he’s a father of three. “What kids do is grow you up,” he said after having two daughters and resurrecting. McCartney is the father of five, Dylan six, Springsteen three, Townsend three, etc.

But the Seven were a different breed, resisting a loss of their own youth by having children of their own and taking the yoke of “adult” responsibilities. This had much to do with their own traumatic childhoods, no doubt; but it also had to do with a creative – some might say narcissistic — attachment to freedom, and repulsion from domestic routine and conformity.

“Parenthood wasn’t something he could participate in,” said Garcia’s first wife, Sara Ruppenthal, after delivering their first child. “He lived for music.” Years later he told his second wife, Mountain Girl, who bore him two daughters: “Having a family is probably going to ruin my artistic career.”

Many things can be said about procreation and parenthood, but one fact is undeniable: it is the greatest form of conformity on the planet. Otherwise there wouldn’t be 5 billion of us.

As the leader of the Dead knew, biological creativity can kill artistic creativity. But he and the others resisted this by remaining eternal youths. When divorcing his first wife, Sara, he said: “I don’t have to grow up and I’m not going to.”

 

***

DUES 2 PAY THE BLUES

         “What always worried me, John, was that you wouldn’t be so much famous as notorious. You were certainly that as a child…If the Beatles hadn’t come along, you could have ended up on the scrap heap.”

So said Aunt Mimi, Lennon’s guardian.

The parents of the most of the other stars might have said the same about the future prospects of their own problem children.

After dropping out of high school, Hendrix mowed lawns for his landscaper father, Al, for a $1 per day; he quit, got rejected for a grocery bagger job; got arrested in a stolen car; enlisted in the Army on a plea deal; then got kicked out of paratrooper school and blew all his severance pay within hours.

Three decades later, Hendrix’s fellow Washington homeboy and high school drop-out swept the floors of his alma matter till he got fired; then lost gigs as a wasted hospital janitor; then got shot down for a dog kennel shit scooper position, all the while sleeping under bridges and in junker cars.

The self-described “pathologically anti-authoritarian” Garcia, like Hendrix, enlisted in the Army on a stolen car plea bargain, soon got kicked out for serial AWOLS, then lived in hippie crash pads of Palo Alto while selling weed and the odd pint of plasma.

After a hospital detox for booze at 17, Janis became a bowling alley waitress, then a key punch operator, then hitched to San Francisco where she pursued a career as a dealer, occasional hooker, and panhandler, returning home as an 87-pound speed freak and apologizing to her parents for being “such a disappointment.”

Morrison “disinherited” his parents and enrolled in the UCLA Cinema program, telling friends he was an “orphan.” Then, after becoming the only college graduate of the Seven, he retired to a rooftop where he wrote poetry and ate acid all day.

Elvis, the original beacon for them all, and the only one blessed with parental love, promised to buy his mother a mansion, delivering her from the Memphis housing projects. But he had no idea how he would afford this. He had been fired as a movie theatre usher for absconding candy from the concession, then took a job driving truck for Crown Electric though he dreamed of being a Tennessee highway patrolman.

So all Seven miraculously resurrected from hellacious childhoods, escaping Aunt Mimi’s seemingly inevitable “scrap heap,” to become the greatest living legends of the century.

How in the world did it happen? And, in spite of the superstardom, did the wounds of their past rejections and hardships ever heal?

 

***

HOW THE STARS WERE BORN

Screen shot 2013-06-07 at 11.36.59 AM

When playing San Francisco folk dives on open-mike nights in 1965, the future Queen of the Blues wrote her parents, “Please believe that you can’t possibly want for me to be a winner more than I do.”

A year later, after winning her audition for Big Brother and the Holding Company, she wrote home again: “Dear Mother, from all indications I’m going to become rich & famous. Incredible! … Wow, I’m so lucky—I just fumbled around being a mixed up kid & then fell into this.”

She told her first Bobby McGee, Travis Rivers, who had arranged the original audition: “I know I’m going to be really big. Really, really big!” Her prophecy was fulfilled with her Ball and Chain apotheosis at Monterey Pop in 1967.

Hendrix’s own dream of stardom was fulfilled at the same venue. But his road to Monterey had been even rockier than Janis’s. “Aunty Dorothy,” the boy had once sobbed to his guardian, “when I get big, I’m going far, far away. And I’m never comin back. Never.” After playing for King Curtis and Little Richard on the southern “chitlin circuit,” the guitarist traveled to New York to hit the big time. But “I’d get a gig every twelfth of never,” he recalled. “Sleeping outside between them tall tenements was hell. Rats runnin’ all over your chest, cockroaches stealing your last candy bar.” Finally, he packed his Strat, his toothbrush, and one satin shirt and followed the Animal’s Chas Chandler to London, and on to Monterey. Two years later, the prodigal son did indeed return to Seattle and when the mayor gave him the keys to the city, he remarked: “The only keys I expected to see in that town were of the jailhouse.”

Before his own launch to stardom, Cobain had been a jailhouse regular for graffiti, vandalism, and public intoxication. But he still dreamt of being “a big star… and going out in a flame of glory like Jimi.” He was a penniless junkie and sleeping in his Dodge Dart when Nevermind broke the Top Ten and soon became one of the best selling albums in history.

***

Morrison climbed down from his rooftop bivouac and out to Venice beach one day and sang a poem to his ex-UCLA classmate, Ray Manzarek, who said: “Let’s start a rock band and make a million dollars.” Jim liked the idea. But the Doors’ demo tapes were soon rejected by every producer in LA. Finally, Electra paid them a pittance and Morrison, on acid, broke on thru to the other side at the Whiskey: he became an overnight sensation with the performance of his fuck-the-mother / kill-the-father anthem, The End.

Garcia was struggling with a jug band until he saw Hard Days Night and switched to rock. On seeing the Dead perform for the first time, the group’s future patron, Stanley Owsley, the biggest acid cooker in the U.S., predicted that they would be “bigger than the Beatles.” Soon after, when Warners offered a contract, Jerry declared: “I don’t need anything… I’ve got instruments, I know I can eat. We’re not sacrificing any of ourselves to do business.” Twenty-five years later, he and the Dead had become the 39th largest corporation in California. When another royalty check arrived at the office, Jerry would moan: “Oh no, not more money!”

The Can’t Buy Me Love / You Never Give Me Your Money Beatles – whom Garcia and all the others tried to top — got their start in Hamburg playing Prellied-out six-hour sets for wasted German sailors whom they later rolled for spare change in the back alleys. Their boyish charm and playfulness notwithstanding, the Beatles were known for their ruthless ambition, and Lennon later called his group, “the biggest bastards on earth.”

They sought to dethrone the biggest and most unlikely star – the shy mama’s boy from Mississippi, the King himself. Elvis refused to give audience to the British upstarts on their first conquest of America, telling his Svengali manager, the Colonel: “Hell, I don’t wanna meet them sonsabitches.”

On their second invasion, Elvis finally desisted. After the summit of the superstars, Lennon, deflated, said of his former hero, the King: “It was like meeting Engelbert Humperdinck.”

 

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