A CONVERSATION WITH DAVID COMFORT,
AUTHOR OF THE ROCK & ROLL BOOK OF THE DEAD
1. An enormous amount has been written about each of these seven stars. What’s unique about your book? What can we learn from it that’s new?
A synthesis and analysis of nearly all this literature, The Rock and Roll Book of the Dead is the first to compare the seven stars in depth — both as artistic geniuses and as complicated, conflicted personalities. It is the first study of the dark and destructive side of the creative personality – in this case, rock’s “living legends.”
Whereas many other books microscopically concentrate on the small details of a star’s life, RRBD connects the dots — the most telling, provocative details – into a broader, more analytic view of the common ambitions and struggles of these artists. In spite of their many differences, we see how similar they were.
The purpose of this book is to resurrect the stars by revealing them as who they really were –human beings, not gods. Mortals with all the fears, frailties, insecurities, and conflicting emotions as the rest of us – but struggling to survive the crucible of fame, too. This is the central new theme: the hell inside the heaven of superstardom. How being a living legend can be a gilded cage, an Everest without oxygen. The theme is especially timely in light of today’s American Idol you’re-nobody-if-you’re not-a-star culture.
2. Because of its theme, some may presume your book is morbid, sensationalistic, or exploitative. They prefer to read about these artists’ creativity, not their dark sides. How do you respond to this?
The Rock and Roll Book of the Dead does indeed concentrate on the extraordinary creativity of the Seven. But the fact that all died young, four of them at age 27 cannot be ignored. Nor that all had contemplated suicide, and that at least two had actually tried (Hendrix, Cobain). Nor that four (Elvis, Lennon, Garcia, Hendrix) had miraculously survived horrific car accidents, and that the other three (Morrison, Janis, and Cobain) were kamikaze drivers themselves. Nor can any responsible biographer gloss over the fact that six died from drug abuse and that the seventh, John Lennon, may have done so as well (as he nearly did during his “Lost Weekend,” 1973-75) had he not been gunned down.
If these fatal attractions cannot be overlooked, how do we understand them in the context of the unparalleled creativity of the Seven? Quite simply, like other extraordinary but unstable artists of history – whether musicians, writers, painters – all had self-destructive tendencies.
Destructiveness and excess can be the other side of the creative coin. Freud’s life-drive / death-drive divide often at the heart of creative genius. As his student, Carl Jung, wrote: “Great talents are the most lovely and often the most dangerous fruits on the tree of humanity. They hang upon the most slender twigs that are easily snapped off.”
Even so, all seven were very spiritual people: they regarded death not as the end, but as a transformation, and even a new beginning.
3. What is so compelling about dead rock stars? Why focus on their deaths?
Of all modern performance artists –opera singers, instrumentalists, dancers, actors, acrobats, and even politicians, athletes, and evangelists — the rock star, combining all these disciplines, is the most electrifying. Others may get ovations, bravos, tears, gasps, or even awe from an audience, but the only artist who can incite mass hysteria is the rock star.
Witness the mobbing, the fainting, the stampedes, the rioting that surrounded Elvis and the Beatles.
The rock star’s performance reconnects us with our primal, ceremonial roots. His spell over a crowd is like the shaman’s – a tribe’s link to supernatural powers. The ecstatic energy in the shaman’s dance and song drives believers out of their minds, turning them into a single hypnotized organism which channels and boosts the energy of the performance itself. In Star Wars’ speak, the rock star, like the shaman, telegraphs “The Force.” In moderation, this Force is life-giving, in excess it can be a killer.
Jim Morrison called himself “the Lizard King,” a “shaman” and a “conjurer of dark forces.” He was obsessed with “breaking through to the other side” both on stage and in life. Similarly, his one time lover, Janis, lived and performed on what she called “the outer limits of probability.” When warned by friends that she would soon kill herself if she didn’t rein it in, she said, “Oh man, I can’t live that way. I want to burn. I want to smolder.”
That flame consumed her just as surely as it did Morrison and most of the others. It was their proverbial burning-the-candle-at-both-ends, larger-than-life lives that made them stars. To them, life unplugged was no life at all. They cranked their amps beyond the max and blew the circuitry. As if watching a slo-mo car crash and an epiphany, fans were transfixed and transported by their sound and the fury on and off stage.
Here is the profound irony of the deaths of these rock icons: it wasn’t really self-destructiveness that killed them, it was their insatiable, lethal lust for life. More than that, as other extremists will admit – skydivers, race car drivers, matadors – some men never feel so alive as when they are playing with death, working the bull close with a velvet cape. And there is no spectacle like it for those of us who are cautious livers.
4. What common traits did you find among the Seven which led to early deaths? Which will surprise readers the most?
These traits are treated in the seven Interlude chapters.
1. ORPHANS. Here we explore the stars’ traumatic childhoods: the premature deaths of parents, relatives, friends; the divorces and abandonments; the domestic violence and abuse. All of this led to a sense of loneliness, alienation, distrust, isolation and, later, to each star’s craving for love and attention. 2. STONED. All were major drug abusers. Heroin was partly or fully responsible for the deaths of six; four suffered many near-fatal overdoses. 3. CRAZY. All were hypersensitive, obsessive/compulsive, bi-polar, and manically wired. In spite of their enormous talent, all but Garcia battled crippling self-doubt. Though most preached peace and love, they could be violent and destructive. Hendrix, Morrison, Elvis, Lennon, and Cobain assaulted women, hospitalizing some. Morrison claimed to have killed a man in the desert. Cobain nearby beat a school bully to death. Elvis put a teen fan a narcotic coma, shot his doctor, and put a contract out on his wife’s lover. Lennon had nearly beaten several people to death and had threatened to kill his father. 4. MR. D. This chapter explores the fatal attraction of the stars. Many had a romantic view of the suffering, self-destructive artist which was reinforced by their voyeuristic fans. Said Janis, “Maybe my audiences can enjoy the music more if they think I’m destroying myself.” Meanwhile, most destroyed guitars, hotels, and their cars. 5. SOUL. All shared a great spiritual longing. Even and especially the seemingly most materialistic of them – Elvis. All were firm believers in the afterlife. 6. LOVE. Though worshipped by millions, not one of them found true and lasting love in their own life. All abandoned those who had truly loved and wanted to “save” them, gravitating to those who used them and helped destroy them. 7. LIFE. In the end all but John and Janis suffered from professional, personal, and creative burn-out. All had become trapped in and suffocated by their own superstar images, losing their humanity.
5. How have some immortals, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen for example, escaped the fate of crashing and burning? What is it that separates these icons from those you’ve written about?
These are good examples of two very different sorts of survivors. Springsteen was fortunate in not skyrocketing to fame the way each of the Seven did. He did not become a superstar until 1984 with Born to Run – a full nineteen years after he started performing. This gave him the time to ease into fame, the maturity to see and avoid many of the hazards that consumed his colleagues, and the wisdom to realize: “The biggest gift your fans can give you is just treating you like a human being, because anything else dehumanizes you. And that’s one of the things that has shortened the life spans, both physically and creatively, of some of the greatest rock and roll musicians.” Moreover, Springsteen was never the kind of insatiable, excessive personality that the others were; he’s always been very moderate about drugs; and he’s been a family man for many years. Today he says: “It’s the music that keeps me alive, and my relationships with my friends.”
Dylan, on the other hand, in many ways fits the prototype of the Seven. He became a superstar and pop icon within three years, at age 24. He soon became a junkie and freely admitted that he was self-destructive. Ironically, his 1966 near fatal motorcycle accident saved him. He recalled: ”I woke up and caught my senses, I realized that I was just workin’ for all these leeches…. Plus, I had a family and I just wanted to see my kids.” He didn’t tour again for eight years and, in the meantime, turned to religion and sober self-examination. “It was important for me to come to the bottom of this legend thing, which has no reality at all,” he decided. “What’s important isn’t the legend, but the art, the work.”
6. You state that all seven stars were drug addicts and that this was a significant factor in the death of all. Why did they become so addicted? Didn’t their family, friends, or managers try to intervene?
Hendrix, Janis, Morrison, Elvis, and Cobain all died of narcotic overdoses. Most had nearly fatally overdosed previously. Their drug habits took a huge toll on the health of each. Doctors had warned most that they would die very soon if they didn’t detox. Though some did temporarily detox, all soon fell off the wagon. They all became addicted to alcohol and/or narcotics (mostly heroin), because these were the only drugs which numbed them to the superhuman pressures and pains of their careers. Family, friends, and managers did indeed try to intervene and to reduce their habits many times, but the efforts of all failed.
7. At the time John Lennon was murdered, he had just released his first album in five years, and seemed to be optimistic and vital personally and professionally. Why do you write that he was self-destructive?
He himself admitted that he had nearly killed himself with alcohol and drugs during his “Lost Weekend” separation from Yoko. After their reunion, his 5-year “househusband” period was not a retirement as he told the press; he admitted to friends that he was creatively dead. The fallow period tormented him so badly that he confessed to suicidal thoughts. Yoko was about to divorce him in 1980 inspiring his tragic song Losin’ You. He freely admitted that “I couldn’t survive without Yoko.”
8. The Seattle Police and medical examiners all concurred that Kurt Cobain’s was “an open-and-shut case of suicide.” But you believe he was murdered. Why?
Due to his massive heroin overdose, Cobain would have instantly lost consciousness and been incapable of shooting himself. No fingerprints were found on the shotgun; handwriting experts agreed that the “suicide note” was a forgery; both the Seattle Police chief homicide detective as well as the chief medical examiner, were personal friends of his wife, Courtney Love.
Another friend of the widow, Elton Hoke, confessed that she’d offered him $50,000 to “whack my old man” and scored a 99% on a polygraph. He didn’t fulfill the contract but revealed who did: a punk Satanist and martial artist, Allen Wrench. The day after Hoke fingered Wrench, he was thrown in front of a train. He had last been seen driving with Wrench near the tracks.
Ms. Love had ample motive to waste her husband. Cobain was in the process of divorcing her, writing her out of his will, and disbanding Nirvana. A divorced Courtney would have been a penniless, careerless, disgraced divorcee. The widow Courtney earned $30 million outright, national sympathy, and a solo career. Years earlier, she had written her father a letter which said, “I’m going to marry myself a rock star and kill him.”
9. Who is more of nightmare spouse — Yoko Ono or Courtney Love?
Love by a long-shot. She was intensely jealous of Cobain’s enormous success, resenting him for her own comparative obscurity and struggle. Yoko Ono felt the same toward Lennon. But she did not abuse and belittle John privately, or humiliate him publicly with the malice and venom that Love did Cobain. In her own way austere, egocentric way, Yoko did indeed love and secretly admire John, at least before their separation in 1974. Love, on the other hand – though she confessed to having had a “girl boner” for “Pixie meat” when they first met – held Cobain in such vicious contempt that, in the end, he was trying to flee for his life.
10. You claim that Elvis Presley committed suicide. What makes you think so?
His bodyguards were about to release a tell-all exposé, Elvis – What Happened?, revealing the King to be a terminal drug addict with homicidally violent tendencies. He had terminal lupus and, to combat the deadly immunological disease, was taking huge doses of Cortisone which (though doctors were unaware of it then) commonly leads to suicidal depression.
Moreover, Elvis was nearly bankrupt. He was exhausted and hated touring. He had lost his rock and roll throne, was considered a has-been, and a Vegas nostalgia act. And, utterly alone in the end, he’d been abandoned by every woman he had loved.
11. Where does Michael Jackson fit in among the seven immortals? Did his death come as a surprise, or were you expecting it?
It was indeed surprising, but inevitable. In his 1988 autobiography, Moon Walk, Jackson wrote: “The way Elvis destroyed himself interests me, because I don’t ever want to walk those grounds myself.”
But the King of Pop apparently changed his mind about The King of Rock, the father-in-law he never met. His ex-wife, Lisa Marie Presley, recalled how in 1993 her husband told her “with an almost calm certainty, ‘I am afraid that I am going to end up like him, the way he did.’”
Each of the seven legends also predicted an early demise and most confessed to being “self-destructive.” Lisa Marie wrote of her “quest to save Michael from certain self-destructive behavior.” According to Jackson biographer, Ian Halperin, when Janet, Tito, and Randy staged a drug intervention on their famous brother in 2001, he sent them away saying, “I’ll be dead in a year anyway.” The star was indeed in desperate physical condition and taking many prescription drugs now –pain killers, tranquilizers, and sedatives. He had cancelled appearances due to “back problems,” “exhaustion,” and the “flu.” Elvis had done the same. Both Kings had been diagnosed with stress-related lupus, noted for such symptoms and many far more debilitating ones.
Michael completed several hospital detoxes but afterwards soon fell off the wagon again. So, too, had Elvis, Lennon, Janis, Garcia, and Cobain. Family and friends tried to get Hendrix and Morrison to detox, but failed.
Of all these living legends, the two Kings were unquestionably the biggest, and pressures on them proportional. Both too were trying to revive their careers against near impossible odds and in spite of their desperate physical conditions. Jackson’s friend and publicist, Michael Leaven, was not surprised by his tragic end, attributing it to “prolonged stress.”
This is a euphemism for how all the stars died. From the crushing pressure of public adulation and demand; from trying to live up to a near-divine image; from relinquishing all privacy; being the never-ending object of gossip and rumor; being surrounded by exploiters and parasites; and, in the end, finding oneself utterly alone in spite of the adoration of millions.