HOW THE STARS WERE BORN
HENDRIX, at Monterey Pop, 1967
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.
Jim Morrison climbed down from his rooftop bivouac and out to Venice beach one day and sang a new poem to his ex-UCLA film school 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.
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.
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 Warner offered a contract, Jerry said: “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. 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 gave in. 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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“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 earned a dollar a day mowing lawns for his landscaper father, Al; 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 until 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 junk 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 complete 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 join the greatest living legends of the century.
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After their initial launches, the Seven stars enjoyed a fame unprecedented in cultural history. Elvis and the Beatles even eclipsed Sinatra who called the King’s work “a rancid-smelling aphrodesiac.” Heartbreak Hotel and Love Me Do did in fact turn the teen world to hysteria.
“We felt like fucking gods!” said McCartney after the Beatles did Albert Hall. Lennon cracked that they were “bigger than Jesus.” Soon afterwards, he told his bandmates he needed a press conference to announce that he was Jesus. Paul was unsurprised: while tripping on acid with John, he had flashed on the Clever One as “the absolute Emperor of Eternity.”
A few years later, the King reclaimed his throne in his Aloha from Hawaii comeback performance, viewed via satellite by 1 billion people worldwide. Back at Graceland he moved clouds with his mind, watched the leaves of trees “tremble with my vibes,” and he preached to his “disciples” – the Memphis Mafia. “He was Moses with a cane coming down the mountain or John the Baptist greeting the Savior,” recalled Priscilla.
But, even at his peak, the bullied hillbilly boy from Tupelo wasn’t far below the surface. Said his Man Friday, Lamar Fike, “Elvis was the most insecure human being I’ve been around in my life. He took the cake. He was destiny’s child, but he was never prepared to be what he was.” His original producer, Sam Phillips, had been among the first to see it: “He felt so inferior. His insecurity was so markedly like that of a black man.”
Likewise, Lennon could never quite bury the orphan from Liverpool. “I was just a weird, psychotic kid covering up my insecurity with a macho façade,“ he later confessed.
After his divination as a Beatle, he went on: “Part of me suspects I’m a loser and part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.”
After the Fab Four break up, he called Beatlemania a “nightmare” and, with constant rumors of a reunion, raved: “Do we have to divide the fishes and the loaves for the multitudes again? Do we have to get crucified again? Do we have to do the walking on water AGAIN?”
Nowhere Man’s composer reached his lowest point during his separation from Yoko in 1975, when he confessed to nearly drugging himself to death, breaking down and crying to Phil Spector who had tied him to a bed, “Nobody loves me!”
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Janis never quite reached the death zone summit of megalomania. But she did call herself the greatest chick blues singer in the world. On a good day. On another day, she would echo Lennon: “Nobody really loves me, NOBODY.” She never forgot being called the Pig Girl of Port Arthur Texas, or being voted “the ugliest guy on campus” at college. In spite of the later public adulation, she told an interviewer: “If they know anything about anything, they know I’m not a star. They know I’m a middle-age chick with a drinking problem, man, and a loud voice… I’ll never be a star like Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan.”
But Hendrix was no less schizo about himself than Janis or the others. “I’m going to be the greatest,” he declared, but attempted suicide twice when he feared he wasn’t. His old Chambers Brothers’ bandmate remarked on how fame made Jimi “a changed man… he wanted everyone’s attention in the whole world.” The Experience’s bassist wrote of how he wanted to scream at Jimi on stage, “Stop being a star and play the guitar!” Sang Jimi, I used to live in a room full of mirrors. All I could see was me.
And then there was the Doors Lizard King who regarded himself as a latter day Alexander the Great and Neitzsche’s Superman. “We’re universally despised and I kinda relish the whole situation,” he said. “Why? We’re on a monstrous ego trip, and people resent it. They hate us because we’re so good.” But a friend spoke of Morrison’s “great periods of insecurity where he’d feel he was a fraud.” And the Door’s guitarist, Robbie Krieger, recalled the nights when he and the others had to talk him out of suicide.
Cobain called himself “an untouchable boy genius.” But “he felt unworthy of the international attention lavished on him,“ said a friend. Added his publicist: “People are treating him like God, and that pisses him off.”
Jerry Garcia agreed. When asked about the worshipful Deadheads, he said: “I’ll put up with it until they come at me with the cross and nails.” Garcia was the anti-star. He hated ego trips. ‘I’m just a guitar player,” he kept insisting. He knew he was good at it, but added: “I feel like someone who is constantly on the verge of losing it, or blowing it. I feel tremendously insecure.”
Even at the peak of his stardom, Garcia remained firm in his belief: “No matter who you are, you know yourself for the asshole you are.”
And perhaps this was part of the reason he was the longest-lived and least tormented of the Seven.