THE ROCK AND ROLL BOOK OF THE DEAD
The Fatal Journeys of the Rock’s Seven Immortals
A truck driver, a bowling alley waitress, a janitor, a paratrooper, a homeless poet, a hippie guitar teacher, a penniless art student: all had humble beginnings. But the Seven were destined to become the pioneers of modern rock and roll. Cultural icons. Apostles of the pop Vatican.
“We’re more popular than Jesus Christ,” said John, later declaring that he was Jesus Christ – claims that later led to his murder.
“Jesus shouldn’t have died so early,” said Jimi, “and then he would have gotten twice as much across.” Four died at the age of 27, forming “Club 27.” Most had premonitions of an early end. ‘I’m gonna be dead in two years,” declared Morrison matter-of-factly at 25. ”I’m not sure I will live to 28,” said Hendrix.
Destructiveness is the mysterious dark side of many creative geniuses. Each of the Seven had a fatal attraction. All but one had attempted suicide or threatened it. All became addicts. Most died of drug abuse. Had one not been fatally gunned down, he may well have met the same end.
“I’m going to be a superstar musician, kill myself, and go out in a flame of glory!” exclaimed Cobain. He called his group Nirvana, defining the term as “the total peace of death.” Garcia, a student of The Tibetan Book of the Dead named his band The Grateful Dead. Morrison called his group the Doors, a gateway to the other world, and described his music as an “invitation to dark forces.” Lennon, obsessed with the specter of “instant karma,” said that when he finally met the reaper, “I’ll grab him by both hollow cheeks and give him a big wet kiss right on his moldy teeth.”
Much has been written about the founders of modern pop music but no title explores the mystery of their great commonality: their dark journeys to tragic ends. The Rock and Roll Book of the Dead is distillation of every extant biography, weaving diverse points of view of insiders — as well as the words and music of the stars themselves — into a single, dramatic tapestry. A wealth of generally unknown and shocking facts are revealed. Elvis committed suicide. Both Hendrix and Cobain were murdered. Other revelations abound and are conclusively documented though official cover-ups persist.
The book traces to childhood trauma the fatal attraction of each artist. Lennon’s mother was killed in a car accident. Both Elvis’s and Hendrix’s mothers died from drinking. Garcia watched his father drown. Cobain insisted he had “suicide genes” due to the number of relatives who had taken their own lives. At age four, Morrison witnessed a highway carnage which he later called “the greatest event in my life.” Like so many current artists, all Seven were obsessed with becoming stars. But, once achieved, the stardom became a gilded cage for each.
The pressures on these legends were crushing. The fans demanded that they continually create music that was revolutionary, new, and yet cloned from the old hits. They were expected to perform night after night, year after year, with the same level of artistry, energy, and enthusiasm. In spite of their resistance, they became commercial enterprises, hundreds and even thousands of employees depending on them. Being mobbed by fans, chased by paparazzi, harassed by the press soon lost its novelty for them. They were surrounded by hangers-on, headcases, and unscrupulous handlers. Public commodities, they had little privacy and no time to themselves.
For each, drugs provided a temporary escape from the divine expectations of their audiences. Without doubt, these musicians were geniuses and voices of the greatest youth movement in cultural history. But they were not gods. The usual fate of earthly dieties, real or imagined, is well known: martyrdom.
“Maybe my audiences can enjoy my music more if they think I’m destroying myself,” said Janis before her fatal overdose.
The more famous the stars became, the more isolated, lonely, and self-destructive they became. Though worshipped by millions, all suffered ill-starred romances – abandoning those who had truly loved them, and gravitating to those who used them and buried them.
As the careers of the Seven prove, being a living legend can be a heaven turned hell. But, due to their overpowering ambitions, none realized the toxicity of fame until it was too late and each suffocated in their superhuman images. They died for their music just as surely as they had lived for it. Though the careers of most had been brief, in the end most were exhausted, drained, burnt out.
At 43 Elvis was bloated, nearly broke, collapsing on stage, and addicted. The suicidal Cobain was quitting Nirvana, divorcing Courtney and writing her out of his will. Lennon was about to be divorced by Yoko, his “cosmic twin,” whom he said he couldn’t live without. Janis, who OD’d six times in her last year, was contemplating suicide. Before his swan song concert, a wasted Hendrix told his bandmates, “I’m dead already.” After thirty-three years of relentless touring with the Dead, Jerry Garcia, a twenty-year addict, muttered, “Why live?” And, when quitting the Doors, the alcoholic Jim Morrison spoke for all when he said, “I don’t want to be a rock and roll star anymore, I hate it.”
As John Lennon sang before “getting off the merry-go-round,” “Fame, puts you there where things are hollow; Fame, what you like is in the limo; Fame, what you get is no tomorrow.“
Star biographies come in two varieties: the eulogy or the exposé. The first kind, often authorized by family, enlarges on legend and shuns critical information. The second kind, often denounced by insiders, diminishes its subject, while overlooking the positives. Like kings and queens of old, today’s royalty – the stars — have their subjects on one side, and their enemies on the other, and both know that the pen can be mightier than the sword.
The greater truth of an historic personality does not adhere to either extreme or to any prejudice. So here, for the first time, these personalities will be portrayed from an impartial point of view committed not to adulation or defamation, but to the truth. Just gimme some truth now,” sang John Lennon, on Imagine. All I want is the truth. This work is dedicated to that call.
The Rock and Roll Book of the Dead contains more dramatic and controversial information about the magnificent Seven than any other work. They are revealed as brilliant and charismatic but deeply conflicted and troubled human beings—very different from the legends we thought we knew. But, in the end, it is their very humanity and struggle which inspire our love and compassion, not their legend. In our age of American Idolatry, this exposé will afford even the most ardent fans a stunning new perspective on the too often tragic price of super-stardom. Part rags-to-riches tale, part love-and-loss drama, part murder mystery, part exposé and penetrating analysis, The Rock and Roll Book of the Dead is a revolutionary addition to the greatest rock literature of our time.
WHY THIS BOOK IS LIKE NO OTHER
When The Rock and Roll Book of the Dead was first sent to publishers they asked: With all the rock titles about these legendary seven stars, why write another? Are you bringing something new to the table? Something intriguing? Thought-provoking? Challenging? Outside the box?
The answer was and is a resounding yes on all accounts. Else I wouldn’t have undertaken the decade-long task of researching and writing it.
Readers look for many different things in a book. But all seek one thing above all else: a work that is truly new.
New comes in two forms: new facts or new interpretation. Hundreds of biographies have been written about Mozart and Beethoven, for example. Original biographers exhausted the facts of their lives many years ago, but enlightening biographies continue to be written. How? They connect and contextualize the existing facts in a different way – telling a deeper and entirely unique story about a legendary personality.
Recent portraits of the stars –Norman’s on Lennon, Cross’s on Hendrix, for instance– have been factual retreads of their predecessors. A few negligible new factoids are spliced into their enormous bulk, but a fresh perspective is sadly lacking. If a biography is a forest of trees, these works give us one shrub at best, while doing nothing to change or sharpen our view of the larger picture: the complex wilderness that was John Lennon, or Jimi Hendrix. Or Presley, Joplin, Morrison, Garcia, or Cobain.
The Rock and Roll Book of the Dead is dedicated not to minutae but to changing the face of the forest itself and revealing these legendary personalities individually and by comparison in a way that has never before been seen.
“Rock and roll books,” Frank Zappa, of the Mothers of Invention, famously observed, “are written by writers who can’t write, for readers who can’t read.”
Well, not exactly. But the genre has yet to boast any Pulitzers. Though this book has no such lofty ambition, it has been written for readers who not only can read, but who like to be challenged and explore deeper themes. In this sense, it is a thinking man’s rock title. It also invents its own genre: neither a simple biography, or collection of biographies, it is the dramatic study of seven very different lives unified in their struggles and their common tragic ends.
The book is unique in its outsider perspective. Most of the biographers of these seven stars are family members, friends, lovers, employees. Indisputably these insiders have the facts, but many also have an agenda: to support and reaffirm the almost godlike mythology of these stars. All Seven were geniuses, pioneers, and titans – but deities they were not, and never tried to be. In portraying them as such, insiders become air brush artists, eulogists. They do a disservice to the reader in search of unbiased truth, no less than to the Seven, all of whom were smothered by such deification.
As Bruce Springsteen once said: “The biggest gift your fans can give you is just treatin’ 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.”
This book is dedicated to Springsteen’s proposition. Its unique purpose 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.
As John Lennon sang before “getting off the merry-go-round,” Fame, puts you there where things are hollow; Fame, what you like is in the limo; Fame, what you get is no tomorrow.
But in fact, Lennon and the others, spiritual pilgrims all, got more than tomorrow. They got immortality. But Why? How? And at what price? The Rock and Roll Book of the Dead is the first title to answer these deeper questions.
It is also the first to explore the fatal similarities of these seven stars underlying their differences. All endured lonely, traumatic childhoods. All were volatile, hypersensitive, compulsive, bi-polar. All suffered disastrous affairs and/or marriages. All were consumed by a love-hate for their celebrity. All became drug addicts. All battled creative and spiritual emptiness. And, from early on, all lived in the shadow of death, and most felt predestined to an early end.
As I explore these themes and others in future blogs, I welcome any and all other voices in the discussion – questions, observations, clarifications, corrections, polemics, harangues.
After the publication of The Rock and Roll Book of the Dead in 2009, I contacted prominent biographers of the stars, asking if they might like to review the title. Several declined to do so because of the focus of the book: Death. They felt that any such title would be “doom and gloom,” morbid, and exploitative. They preferred a focus on the stars’ vitality and creativity.
This study 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,” 1974-75) had he not been gunned down by a demented reborn Christian.
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 Seven had self-destructive tendencies. When his lover, Linda Thompson, asked Elvis what his greatest fault was, he told her: “I’m self-destructive. But there’s not a lot I can do about it.” The other six stars freely admitted this, too.
Each was a high-wire artist working without a net in the world’s most explosive and dangerous business: rock and roll. Living on the edge stoked their creative fires and made their art all the more urgent, intense, and mesmerizing to fans. They all lived and rocked the way they drove: at 200 mph and passing on blind curves (the way Janis, Jim, and Jimi did down Mulholland; and Elvis on EP Boulevard). In the end, they all died by rock and roll just as surely as they had lived for it.
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.”