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Rock and Roll Urban Legends

by Mike Rothschild

November 12, 2012

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Donate 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 manhe'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 goestheurban legendsurrounding 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'tentirely rule out thatthey might have recorded ademo 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 Aerosmithalmost 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 onthe Sunset Strip, it's made of musicians who died at age 27.Foremost areJim 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, theydied 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.

by Mike Rothschild

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