Rock and Roll Urban Legends

London’s Royal Albert Hall, 1981. Phil Collins stalks the stage, as his band roars through the spare, synth-driven hit “In The Air Tonight.” Collins practically whispers the grim lyrics, bearing all of his focus down into the audience, specifically someone in the front row. He gets to the end of the stage, practically on top of the man he’s singing to.

At the song’s climactic drumbeat, a blinding spotlight appears on the confused, angry man in the front row, who runs out, hiding his face from the light. That night, rumors abound of a man who left a Phil Collins show early and hanged himself…

…or so goes the urban legend surrounding Phil Collins and “In the Air Tonight.”  Snopes has a much more detailed version of the story surrounding the song, along with its many, many iterations, and it’s one of rock’s most enduring, and inexplicable, urban legends.  There are many more, some of them with a grain of truth, some of them with no truth at all, and most equally as weird as the Collins story.

Legend: Waylon Jennings put a curse on Buddy Holly, leading to his death in the plane crash that took his life.

Verdict: True, but only if you believe in curses.

While history remembers the trio of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper being killed in a plane crash on “The Day the Music Died,” most people don’t know that future outlaw country superstar Waylon Jennings was also a member of that touring party, playing bass in Holly’s band. Holly had chartered a plane to take him and the band to the next show, and being a nice guy, Jennings gave up his seat on it to the Big Bopper, getting on the bus instead. While the band members figured out their travel arrangements, Holly chided Jennings, “I hope your ol’ bus freezes up!” to which Jennings replied, equally jokey “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes!” Which it did.

Thinking he’d cursed Holly, Jennings blamed himself for the crash and carried the guilt with him the rest of his life. But words and curses don’t make planes crash, and in this case, it was pilot error and bad weather, not the ill-advised joke of Waylon Jennings that sent Holly to his death. Jennings had nothing to do with the Day the Music Died, other than surviving it.

Legend: Charles Manson and the Beach Boys recorded a song together.

Verdict: Sort of true.

Before he was world-famous as a psychopathic murderer, Charles Manson was living in LA, as just another struggling songwriter. In 1968, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson had a chance meeting with two female members of the nascent Manson Family, picking them up while they were hitchhiking, leading to Manson and Wilson forming a strange friendship. Manson wrote a song for Wilson to give to the Beach Boys, the cheerfully titled “Cease to Exist.” Wilson liked the song, re-wrote the lyrics and titled it “Never Learn Not to Love.” The Beach Boys were struggling to find enough material for a full record, and included the song on their 1969 album “20/20” with the credit only going to Dennis. Manson was reportedly enraged by Wilson changing his lyrics, and though accounts differ as to what happened when Manson confronted Wilson, the strange songwriter was soon out of Wilson’s life, and went on to bigger things, namely carving a swath of destruction through Topanga Canyon.

The song was never taken off the album, and with Dennis Wilson the only credited writer, Manson has never made any money from it. But even without the Manson association, it’s one of the weaker songs on one of the weakest Beach Boys albums, and needless to say, the tune was left off the set list of the band’s recent reunion tour.

Legend: The Ohio Players’ hit “Love Rollercoaster” features the scream of someone dying.

Verdict: False.

How this one got started is a mystery, and like many urban legends, it has multiple versions. Some say the song contains the scream of someone falling off a rollercoaster, others that it’s a taped 911 call from a psychiatric ward. The most common version is that it’s the death scream of a woman being murdered in the studio by the band, but even the identity of the murder victim shifts, from a cleaning lady to the model on the cover of the album. Whatever the details, it’s all bogus. “Love Rollercoaster” became a hit because of its infectious melody and funky groove, not because it’s the audio equivalent of a snuff film.

Legend: Prince and Michael Jackson recorded “Bad” as a duet.

Verdict: Almost certainly false.

Back in the mid-80’s (shortly after Phil Collins didn’t witness someone drowning), Michael Jackson and Prince were at the top of their game and engaged in a fierce but mostly friendly rivalry. And while rumors swirled of the two of them disliking each other, they were actually friends. Here they are goofing off with James Brown on stage in 1983. In fact, Jackson originally penned the 1987 smash hit “Bad” as a duet to perform with Prince. It never happened, though, and various reasons came out as to why. Some speculate Prince thought the song would be a hit on its own, which it was. Others that Prince had qualms about the lyrics, specifically refusing to have “Your butt is mine” sang at him.

Whatever the case,  the version released on the album is just Jackson singing. We can’t entirely rule out that they might have recorded a demo of it, given the vast amount of unreleased material both artists have in their vaults. But with Jackson’s posthumous album “Michael” being released shortly after his death and not containing a duet with Prince on “Bad” or any other song, it’s pretty easy to assume it never happened.

Legend: The Guns N’ Roses track “Rocket Queen” features the sound of live sex.

Verdict: True

Legends abound of various songs featuring the captured sounds of sexual activities. One even involves another track from the aforementioned Beach Boys album “20/20.” Most are impossible to verify, but this one isn’t. It’s absolutely true. While recording their smash hit “Appetite for Destruction,” Guns singer Axl Rose brought drummer Steven Adler’s girlfriend, Andrea Smith, to the studio, and the duo engaged in activity that could euphemistically be described as “not drumming.” It was captured on tape during an incredibly awkward recording session, and included on the track “Rocket Queen.” Numerous people saw it, and nobody involved with the incident ever did anything but confirm it.

Smith later came to regret the incident and went through a long struggle of addiction before coming to grips with her weird claim to fame. Guns N’ Roses, of course, went on to a brief run of superstardom and a long, ego-driven slide into mediocrity, as befitting a lead singer who thought it was a good idea to record him having sex with his drummer’s girlfriend. Let this be a lesson to all of us not to engage in sexual activity with Axl Rose in a recording studio. Or anywhere else.

Legend: Aerosmith almost bought the airplane which later claimed the lives of most of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Verdict: Kind of true.

Various stories have swirled about Aerosmith almost buying the plane that nearly killed everyone in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Some versions even have the band members experiencing a premonition about the crash.

What actually happened is a lot less mystical, and is based on good observation and strong human resources. Right before the Skynyrd crash, Aerosmith’s assistant chief of flight operations (yes, that’s a job) checked out the Convair CV-300 that Skynyrd later chartered and deemed it unworthy of the Boston band, either because he saw the crew drinking or the engine caught on fire in his presence. Unfortunately for Skynyrd, they had no such luck, and spent years trying to pick up the pieces from the incident. Note to future rock stars: your assistant chief of flight operations might save your life one day, so check references.

Legend: Van Morrison wrote and recorded dozens of nonsense songs to break a record contract.

Verdict: True

In 1967, Irish troubadour Van Morrison was coming off the huge hit “Brown Eyed Girl” but was stuck in a brutally unfair record deal, and tangled in a dispute with his manager’s widow. Hence, Morrison was prevented from recording and performing in New York, stopping his career cold. Finally, he managed to get his contract bought out by Warner Brothers, but was still bound to the terms of his old deal, which required him to write and record an astounding 36 songs a year.

So Morrison did what many other artists would later do: pound out the dreaded contractual obligation record. Knocking out over 30 songs in one day, Morrison fulfilled his end of the deal, recording short, out-of-tune, nonsensical tracks about ring worms, Danishes and overdue royalty checks. These so-called “revenge songs” were useless to his old record company, and have never been released, but they did the trick, freeing Morrison up to start a run of albums that have rarely been surpassed in rock greatness.  A few of the “revenge songs” have found their way to YouTube and are worth listening to if you enjoy really bad songs recorded really badly.

Legend: The 27 Club

Verdict: True, and beside the point.

Rock’s most exclusive club isn’t on the Sunset Strip, it’s made of musicians who died at age 27. Foremost are Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, who all succumbed to drugs and/or alcohol, around the same time and all at the same age. This coincidence lead to the media dreaming up a mythical “27 Club” where rock stars of that age go when their time is up. Later, Kurt Cobain would take his own life at the same age, and combined with his mothers’ grief at him “joining that stupid club” the mythos of the 27 Club was revived. A cursory look at the Wikipedia page for the 27 Club reveals even more rockers who died at that age, finding dozens of untimely deaths over decades of music, most recently British soul singer Amy Winehouse. 27 truly seems to be an age of great culling in the rock world.

And while it’s true that many musicians, including four rock legends, a Rolling Stone, and members of the Stooges, Grateful Dead, Badfinger and Big Star all died at the same age, it denotes the occupational hazard of being a musician, not a curse. These rockers didn’t die because they were 27, they died because of drugs and alcohol. Some died in car crashes, showing the risk of spending months at a time on the road. A few were murdered.  Regardless, their age had nothing to do with their death, other than that’s the age they were at when they died. Moreover while there is a large number of musicians who died at 27, there’s a much larger number who didn’t. As in, almost all of them. Like everyone else, musicians die at all ages and from all causes. The 27 Club is coincidence taken as fact, clustered data points turned into a curse by rock fans who can’t make sense of the senseless.

Legend: Mama Cass choked to death on a ham sandwich.

Verdict: False.

This one has been debunked numerous times, so I won’t go into too much detail about it, but it’s a perfect example of how an ugly rumor can be turned into fact given enough time and repetition. A half-eaten ham sandwich was found by the body of singer Mama Cass Elliot in her London flat, leading the media to put two and two together and declare she choked to death on it. It’s not true, and never had any truth to it. In fact, Elliot’s death from a heart attack was probably due to the stress she put on herself through an extreme form of fasting, attempting to quickly lose a large amount of weight.

Like so many other urban legends, the ham sandwich rumor has become accepted as fact, despite it not being true in the least. Unlike Phil Collins’ drowning victim, or the woman murdered by the Ohio Players, this urban legend has a real victim behind it: a great singer who died before her time, whose legacy is burdened with an ugly, fat-shaming smear, and should be debunked at every opportunity.

HOWEVER…there’s another urban legend associated with Mama Cass’ death: that Keith Moon died in the same apartment four years later. And this one is absolutely true. Is it a coincidence or curse? We may never know for certain.

About Mike Rothschild

Mike Rothschild is a writer and editor based in Pasadena. He writes about scams, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and pop culture fads. He's also a playwright and screenwriter. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rothschildmd.
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11 Responses to Rock and Roll Urban Legends

  1. Anonymous says:

    I found it interesting, well written and I have absolutly no interest in rock music, so I was surprized that I enjoyed reading this.

      • Ash says:

        Sorry. Kurt Cobain did not kill himself. Its reckless and mindless in this day and age to just reference and exclaim that kurt is apart of 27 club. Its not the case of his death.
        There is information to gather on what is the case. Book ‘Love and death’ & song ‘Ill stick around’. Research and think a bit more.

        • Noah Dillon says:

          Totally baseless. The guy was a suicidal depressive heroin addict for years and there is precisely zero documentary evidence that any happened except that he committed suicide. He talked about suicide, sang about suicide, had photos of himself pretending to commit suicide, made a film of himself pretending to commit suicide. The whole idea as a conspiracy doesn’t even make sense, since he was far more valuable alive than dead. Love tried to gain control over the publishing rights for the music several years after he died, which you would think she wouldn’t have to do if she’d manipulated him into death, and she lost. I mean you’ve really got to be kidding.

          If you think he was murdered then you haven’t thought very hard about what’s being offered to you as “evidence” or the plausibility of the story that’s being provided, that Courtney Love, strung out junkie one-hit wonder could orchestrate a murder staged to look like a convincing suicide, leave no prosecutable trace of her involvement, have no family or friends of Cobain try to retaliate in any way, and still have a crummy, subservient relationship to the supposed prize she was trying to get, and could achieve this with the help of junkies and alcoholic lowlifes from Seattle’s gossipy, backbiting music scene. That’s beyond ridiculous. It makes no sense whatsoever.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Those nonsense songs from Van Morrison were actually release as “The Complete Bang Sessions” as a Disk 2 containing 31 “songs”.

  3. Mitch says:

    Oohhhhhhhhhhhh Sweet Pie of mine! – Love Axl

  4. Don says:

    A few months ago I googled Janis’s manager, Albert Grossman. I knew he also managed Dylan, and wanted to find out if he managed other famous musicians. In this bio I read of him online (wikipedia? not sure where), I learned he died in the 1980s. But THE most interesting thing I read in this brief bio was something I’d never read any where else, even the several bios of Joplin. Supposedly, he found out Janis was back on the needle, so 5 MONTHS before her overdose death, he took out an insurance policy on her for $200,000. THAT is very sketchy. And that no one has ever really mentioned that, or alluded to it, is even sketchier. What made me think he had her ‘offed was initially I read he chose to pay the premium of $3500 semi-annually (every 6 mos). So, she not only died 5 mos after he took this policy out on her, she even more conveniently died right before he had to pay the second premium for that year. Now, I just google him again a few minutes ago, and the wikipedia bio said it was $3500 annually. So, it was either changed recently or I read that info somewhere else. I think Janis was murdered.

    • Noah Dillon says:

      OK, not knowing pretty much anything about this case, there are a few things that jump out at me as suspect in the way this story is told and the conclusions you’re drawing from it.
      1. He also managed the far more profitable and valuable Bob Dylan? Seems like the more valuable person to take out a big insurance policy on. But Dylan wasn’t shooting dope.
      2. According to Wikipedia, your source, he found out about her heroin use in the summer of 1969 and she died in October of 1970. That’s far more than the six months you described. He’s also insuring someone who’s a chronic drug addict and alcoholic, and is flying a lot. It does not seem unreasonable to get a life insurance policy.
      3. Lots of people do this. A husband who gets a life insurance policy for his wife is not necessarily planning to kill her. If it were that simple then we should either outlaw life insurance or arrest anyone who takes out a policy. Walmart and other companies have been shamed for getting policies on workers in very dangerous jobs. It doesn’t mean they kill their employees. And the death of someone like Joplin would probably cause a ton of financial loss. And the high premium seems to indicate that the insurance company thought she was a high-risk client. There are present-day companies selling policies for, like, $20/month in 2017 dollars.
      4. There are very few people I can think of that would murder for $196,500. Seems like a bad idea.
      5. If losing another $3,500 is the big motivator, then why even wait five months? Why didn’t he just kill her the first week? It wouldn’t be any more or less suspicious, if you are already dubious of a five-month wait (which, again, it was more like 18 months).
      6. He didn’t even get $200,000. The insurance company sued him and they settled for closer to $100,000. And they would have every incentive to uncover a murder in this instance because if they do, they don’t have to pay. Plus they get to keep his premium payments, plus probably they get to sue him for trying to defraud them. And if they don’t, they end up losing whatever they pay for a settlement and lawyers, less just $7,000. And, as they went to court, and all the life insurance company’s lawyers and everyone looks at the timeline, certainly if they thought it was realistic to presume a murder based only on the fact that a drug addict died a year and a half after a life insurance policy was taken out for her, then they would have pursued that, right? It seems like it would be pretty simple, if that were actually a reasonable aim. But it’s not. It’s totally spurious.

      You often see this with fans responding to overdoses and suicides by rock stars. Janis Joplin was a drug addict who was sad. Kurt Cobain was a depressive drug addict. Chris Cornell was a depressed recovering addict. And so on and so on. And yet people find it so impossible to believe that depressed people commit suicide and that drug addicts overdose. They must have been murdered!

      • Don says:

        1. Yes, Dylan was a bigger star. Maybe he thought Joplin’s success wouldn’t last long, or as long as Dylan’s. Guess he was right. Also, I don’t know for sure but he (Dylan) probably didn’t shoot drugs (in those days).

        2. I don’t remember reading “he found out about her heroin use in the summer of 1969”. I remember it as he had them (the whole band) agree not to shoot drugs, and they did. I also remember reading that when he found out she was shooting heroin, HE DIDN’T CONFRONT HER. My guess — since his actions weren’t recorded on video — is he took out this policy WITHOUT HER KNOWLEDGE. Just a guess, but, neither of us have proof either way. And he took out this policy only FIVE MONTHS before she died. If that doesn’t ring alarm bells to you, you’re not worthy of the title “skeptoid”.

        It would ring alarm bells to me, big time. And being a streetwise Capricorn, my guess is Janis would have FREAKED OUT if she had known, and nipped that in the bud quickly.

        3. Yes, wives especially make sure their husbands are insured. Especially if she depends on his income, and they have children that need to be supported financially.

        But, he wasn’t married to her. He had an even bigger, more successful client. If she died, he’d lose the fee he earned by managing her. But, he could always manage someone else or several others, to make up for that loss in income. It’s business. She only “owed” him for his services (booking concert avenues, and the accompanying paperworks, contracts, etc., and what ever else he did for her). Not an income in perpurtuity. If you’ve used a lawyer, you’d understand.

        4. Like you, I don’t know anyone personality who’d ‘off someone for any amount, thank God. But $200K in the 1960s bought A LOT more than it does now, too. And we’ve all read in newspapers and online of people being murdered over MUCH less money.

        5. To me, taking out an insurance policy on someone for, to me, a large amount of money, and that person dying ONLY 5 MONTHS later is VERY suspicious. If she had died only a week later, even a trusting fellow like you would be suspicious, wouldn’t you? For all we know, he’d tried several times before he succeeded.

        6. Don’t you think the insurance company took him to court over this because they thought it was suspicious? Granted, they didn’t accuse him of murder. That would have really left them open to further litigation. Obviously, murder can be difficult to prove, so they used what ever excuse they thought might work.

        Yes, she was probably depressed. Probably not a lot of happy heroin users in the world. And she may well have bought a bag of unusually pure stuff, and her death was accidental. But, someone other than a family member who loved her made a lot of money from her death. If that’s not a reason to be skeptical… For all either of us know, she may have even been shopping around for “new management” as they say. From what I remember, this dude didn’t receive the customary 10 percent. It was more. If so, more reason to cash in while he could. Didn’t Janis sing, Get It While You Can…?!

        • Noah Dillon says:

          You can reread the Wikipedia entry. It says he took out the policy more than a year before she died. I don’t know where you got this five months claim from, but you could share it here. In any case, again, taking out an insurance policy isn’t a crime or evidence of a crime. My skepticism about this is more basic than the five month figure raising alarm bells: the claim itself raises alarm bells. It is apparently wrong, and the contention is that he killed her so he wouldn’t have to pay another premium? That makes no sense.

          I’d also bet that he didn’t tell the insurance company that she was hooked on heroin, and had they known, they would have freaked out and cancelled the policy.

          He didn’t get income in perpetuity. He got a payment less than was in the terms of the policy. I would guess that it would cover lost income from touring, appearances, a record, etc. that she was already obligated to. I could be wrong. But I also don’t need a lawyer to point that out it wasn’t infinite money. I also don’t need a flim-flam zodiac.

          You can look up why the insurance company took him to court. There was a dispute over whether the death was suicide or accidental overdose. Not murder. If they could demonstrate they he murdered her, they wouldn’t pay out. It wouldn’t be that they would say, “Oh, we think you murdered her, so let’s settle and we’ll pay you a portion of the money, and it’ll just be a loss for us—no big deal.” That makes no sense.

          And so your contention is that an insurance company believed that a client murdered someone for a fraudulent insurance payout, and instead of using the company’s likely team of lawyers to bring a rock manager to justice, they made a fallacious alternative claim in court so that instead of paying nothing and jailing an insurance cheat AND MURDERER, they would merely lose less money than if they paid the full amount? That makes no sense. Also: apparently, murder is, according to you, not that hard to prove. Which is it? They would have been open to further litigation by whom?

          And now you’ve introduced another baseless guess that she was seeking a new manager? Where does that claim derive from? Even if these claims are anywhere near true, and not just made up, are you asserting that she wanted a manager that she could pay more and he thought it would be better to murder a client than to try to renegotiate her contract? And how long did she shop around for new representation in this imaginary scenario? Between June 1969 and October 1970? I mean, this just gets sillier and sillier.

          She was a drug addict who overdosed. Her manager saw she was a drug addict and took out an insurance policy. That is an unsavory and perhaps morally suspect thing to do. I don’t know that I would do business with such a person, given the chance. But that’s not a crime. And it’s not evidence of a crime.

          One more question: Group life insurance is a pretty common thing for employers to use, insuring them in case of employee death. Are we sure that the policy premium was not high because it was paid to insure the entire band, the rest of whom lived? Hmmm?

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