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Take Five: Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and mythical performers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2012 - If you’ve ever wondered whether Ozzy really bit the head off of a bat, why certain stars insist on no brown M&Ms or whether Kurt Cobain’s death was murder or suicide, Dan Durchholz and Gary Graff have the answers – or at least a lot of fuel for discussion – in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Myths: The True Stories Behind the Most Infamous Legends.”

Did Johnny Cash ever serve time in the Graybar Hotel? Did Mama Cass choke to death on a ham sandwich? How did Donna Summer really come up with those soulful moans on “Love to Love You Baby”?

For rock fans, these are the eternal questions that, as Graff and Durchholz say in their introduction, “raise your eyebrows and drop your jaws.”

The pair, who have written several books together as well as shared a lifetime of experiences, view rock music not simply as entertainment but as a cultural life force that spawns legends.

They chose 57 of them to explore – sometimes to dispel, sometimes just to acknowledge that the truth may be out there but no one is able to find it.

Still, does it really matter whether Charles Manson once tried out to be a member of the Monkees before he turned into a killer? Do we need to know what happened to Sid Vicious’ ashes? Is it our business whether Brian Epstein and John Lennon had a stronger relationship than manager and star?

Maybe two of the artists Graff and Durchholz discuss have the best answer.

Jimmy Page, talking about Led Zeppelin’s fans obsession over the band’s alleged pact with the devil, put it this way: “If they want to believe all the rumors, let them. A little mystery can’t hurt.”

And when all is said and done, you can’t disagree with the kind of logic Frank Zappa employs with this eternal truth:

“You can’t write a chord ugly enough to say what you want to say sometimes, so you have to rely on a giraffe filled with whipped cream.”

We talked with Durchholz this week on the day the book was officially published. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the book come about? What are your favorite stories?

Durchholz: There are a lot of myths about rock and roll out there, and it begged for all of them to be gathered together in one space. Gary and I have been covering music for decades, and you hear these things bandied about over the years. We have talked to a lot of people involved in these things, and it just all came together.

I do have particular favorites that are the classics that people tell over and over, like the Led Zeppelin shark incident. A lot of them are extremely untoward – this is rock and roll, so in some cases it lives up to the sex and drugs and rock and roll image. Various ones involve Frank Zappa, like the “gross-out contest." One very famous one -- apparently not true, though only Stevie Nicks and her roadie know whether it’s true or not – involves a novel way of her consuming cocaine. With a lot of this stuff, it’s hilarious that people believed these things. That was kind of the draw for us. We wanted to explore things that made these people larger than life.

What were ones you thought were true that proved to be false, or thought were false that proved to be true? Were you able to pin down the truth on everything, one way or the other?

Durchholz: Not in every case were we able to get a definitive answer. Sometimes we went to sort out how these things first started, then propagated themselves over the years. One thing that was interesting were the various myths about Alice Cooper. The one where he bit the head off a chicken on stage has a kernel of truth to it.

When he was on stage, at one point someone would dump a bunch of feathers and they would blow across the stage. But one time someone set loose a live chicken or chickens – the story varies – and it went into the audience, and they tore it apart. It was an awful story, but it actually entered the realm of truth, that he tore off its head on purpose. The whole thing was kind of accidental, but it’s funny how it moved from an actual event to what we would say was mythical proportion.

Everybody would like to know what really happened to Brian Jones. Was he murdered? Was it death by misadventure? Did he just drown in a swimming pool? Even decades of police investigation weren’t able to reveal the truth, so we just laid out the history of how this was portrayed over the years in books and police accounts. I’m afraid we couldn’t come up with the definitive answer on that one, but it’s one of those where everybody would like to know for sure what happened.

How has the mythology of rock changed over the years?

Durchholz: The emphasis in the book is on classic rock artists. There are some newer ones, like the White Stripes and Ciera and Lady Gaga, but the emphasis is on artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s especially. Those artists had a lot of mystique and mystery about them. They were mostly inaccessible. Jim Morrison didn’t have a Facebook page. Elvis didn’t tweet. Because of that, the public didn’t know their whereabouts at all times. They weren’t on TMZ daily.

There was this mystique that grew up around bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. That is really part and parcel of their allure. In the age of YouTube and Spotify, everything is on demand. It’s part of an artist’s campaign to put as much out there as possible to connect with that artist, but in the ‘60s and ‘70s that wasn’t the case. Mystery was one of the ways to sell a band. It was not cool to know the truth about a band.

As a fan, I would prefer old style. That forces you to interpret things more yourself, both about artists as people and their material. They weren’t on TV or on a podcast somewhere explaining every lyric. As a music journalist, I much prefer it the other way. That makes life easier for me. I’d like them all to be true because that would make the world I live in on a daily basis a lot more entertaining.

It’s interesting how the artists themselves deal with some of these myths.

Durchholz:  They try to do either a complete clampdown and denial or make some efforts to get the truth out there. Sometimes an artist will just have fun with something and let it continue to propagate itself. An example of that would be Sting and his tantric sex exploits. What rock star in his right mind would deny something like that? There is more to the story, but he’s happy to let people run with that.

Certain people turn up time and time again, like Keith Richards. He is an endless source of mythic entertainment, whether he had his blood changed to kick heroin or whether he snorted his father’s ashes. He’s endlessly entertaining. Led Zeppelin was the same way, the Beatles were the same way, or Frank Zappa.

But one guy who is a little bit vexing for people who like to get to the truth of things is Michael Jackson. He’s in the book a few times, but mostly for things he propagated himself. These rumors started in various ways. Maybe there is a kernel of truth to them, maybe they’re outright lies.

He believed that if he made up something outrageous about himself, people would continue to think about him and buy his records. So you have him wanting to buy the bones of the Elephant Man or sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber. In a way it kind of backfired on him. It made him kind of a freakish personality that dominated the later part of his life. It kind of got out of control.

So just between us: Is Paul McCartney really dead?

Durchholz: I’ll answer your question this way – have you heard his latest album?

This was maybe our starting point because that is one of the most famous myths of all. The way that has played out over the years is kind of a template for everything we did in the book.

It’s hilarious the way fans just took that and ran with it, and even things that were completely accidental or unintentional were thrown into the mix, like album covers and photographs. I think that was all fan-generated. I don’t think the Beatles played into that at all.

But controversy does sell albums. Look at someone like Marilyn Manson. I don’t think any of his myths were self-generated, but what did this guy have to sell? It wasn’t mostly musical. This was a case where the sizzle was selling, not the steak.

Note: Durchholz has been as an occasional freelance writer for the Beacon.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.