Ronnie Van Zant: This Bird
You Cannot Change

© Brandt Hardin

In my home state, a gigantic Confederate flag billows in the wind above Interstate 40 about halfway between Nashville and Knoxville. I have never gotten an adequate explanation as to why the controversial flag flies there or who raises it every morning—some say it is the work of Southern traditionalists, others claim it is the Ku Klux Klan—but I choose to believe that it is a tribute to the memory of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s beer-swilling singer, Ronnie Van Zant. His deathday is October 20, so without argument, today the crimson flag flies for him.

Ronnie Van Zant was born in Jacksonville, FL, where he formed a band with his fellow longhairs in high school. They eventually named their group after a crotchety gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, who had ragged them day after day about their girly locks. The coach lost a promising athlete and the world gained a Southern rock martyr. Ronnie was a born scrapper who dreamt of becoming a pro boxer like his idol, Muhammad Ali. Of course, he also harbored childhood dreams of becoming a baseball player or a stock-car racer, but like boxing, you can’t participate in those sports with princess hair. Not so for rock n’ roll. Van Zant’s fate was sealed.

Lynyrd Skynyrd did their best to distinguish themselves from the overshadowing popularity of the Allman Brothers’ brand of Southern rock. Where the Allman Brothers jammed for hours on end, Lynyrd Skynyrd composed tight, chop-heavy tracks (with the exception of “Freebird,” whose solo is long enough for you to leave the venue to buy a pint of Jack Daniels and return in time to hear the end of the song.) Still, both groups played for the War of Northern Aggression’s sore losers and their descendants, bending the black man’s Delta blues to the absolute limits of whiteness. Their redneck connection was cosmic, brother. Van Zant even dedicated “Freebird” to Duane Allman, who was shredded in a motorcycle accident in 1971.

Lynyrd Skynyrd were one of the last bastions of working class White America by the ’70s. In an era of urban unrest, racially charged domestic terrorism, and the doldrums of disco, Lynyrd Skynyrd held fast the hearts of hillbillies. The rowdies were roaring for more in the autumn of 1977. Skynyrd released Street Survivors on October 17, whose album cover showed the band blazing in badass poses, about to embark on their “Tour of the Survivors.”  Three days later, it all came crashing down.

The “Survivors” tour found the band traveling in a modified 1948 Convair 240 (known as the CV-300) which hobbled through the air like a drunken buzzard. On October 19 the plane—dubbed Freebird—shot an alarming stream of flames from the engine, prompting the band’s new back-up singer, Cassie Gaines, to refuse to set foot onboard again. The guys talked her out of her stubborn paranoia, however, and on October 20 she was coaxed into flying from Greenville, SC to Baton Rouge, LA. That afternoon, the rickety Convair went down in the same Mississippi swamps that spawned Robert Johnson.

According to the surviving keyboardist, Billy Powell:

Our co-pilot…had been drinking the night before and, for all I know, may still have been drunk…We hit the trees at approximately ninety miles per hour…everybody was hurled forward. That’s how Ronnie died: he was catapulted at about eighty miles per hour into a tree [and] died instantly of a massive head injury…I saw [the co-pilot] hanging from a tree, decapitated. Then I saw Cassie, who was cut from ear to ear. She bled to death right in front of me.

Paramedics arrived in time to save most of the crash victims, and to witness the nearly 3,000 bipedal vultures descend on the wreckage, stripping the site of every piece of morbid memorabilia they could sink their pink claws into. The same sort of carrion would break open Ronnie Van Zant’s Orange Park mausoleum on June 29, 2000 and lay his body on the ground. It is unclear whether they also stole the fishing pole that Van Zant was buried with, or if so, whether the grave-robbers caught any decent fish with it.

The cover image for Street Survivors was so eerily appropriate that the MCA record label pulled the album from shelves and replaced it with a less prescient cover. A few thousand copies of the original album are still in circulation among collectors. My mother has a copy hanging on her wall. It’s the sort of decoration that will keep you awake at night as the ghosts of Skynyrd stare down at you. Superstitious fans got the same screaming willies as they listened to Ronnie Van Zant sing from beyond the grave:

Whiskey bottles and brand new cars
Oak tree you’re in my way…
Can’t you smell that smell
The smell of death surrounds you…

On the tenth deathday of Ronnie Van Zant in 1987, the newly reformed Lynyrd Skynyrd hit the road, complete with most of the crash survivors and Ronnie’s younger brother, Johnny Van Zant, among other new additions. One by one the original members dropped off over the years, but Lynyrd Skynyrd continues to tour today as a sort of tribute band with serial rights.

Soon after 9/11, my brother and I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Band play a free concert in Knoxville. The arena was full of rebel flag-bearing rednecks for whom the classic rock staple “Freebird” never gets old, and the event was sponsored by Budweiser—back when it was still an American-owned company. Between songs, Johnny Van Zant touted his jingoistic support of American troops and American military aggression as he waved an American flag above the cheering crowd.

At the peak of the show, an enormous Confederate flag backdrop came down behind the band. I remember feeling a mixture of Southern pride and shame, which generally go hand-in-hand. But no matter how out of place I felt, it was nothing compared to the one black guy whose chunky white girlfriend had popped a rebel flag hat on his head and dragged him out to the concert. It’s amazing what a man will do for love.

Perhaps Ronnie Van Zant was smiling down on us from heaven that night with an etheric Texas Hatter’s hat shading his eyes, admiring the thousands of crackers floating in his Southern rock soup. Everyone knows that ancestral spirits love being remembered. Ghosts feed on memories.

So call your local classic rock station right now and request “Freebird.” Play extended air guitar solos along with the radio. If you see a concert tonight, demand that the band play “Freebird.” Otherwise, crack open a beer, jump behind the wheel of a pick-up, and drive around drunk listening to “Freebird.” Do it for Ronnie Van Zant!

Show a cop your middle finger and yell, “Freebird!” Invade a pet store and release the parakeets and cockatiels, crying,“Freebird!” Sculpt a bird you cannot change out of titanium and smash it through a restaurant’s glass window. Then, at the top of your lungs, tell the shard-covered patrons what you just gave them.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

Lynyrd Skynyrd — “Freebird

Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin:
Sexual Liberation for Our
Tabloid Generation

© Brandt Hardin

Rumor has it that Jimi fucked Janis in the Filmore’s rancid backstage bathroom after Monterey Pop. The southpaw guitarist could reputedly fill more than a concert hall to max capacity, though with Janis that’s a questionable accomplishment. Jimi got a piece of every chick within cock’s length—which was far-reaching, according to the Plaster Caster groupies who made a ceramic mold of his womb broom—and Janis gave her crumbling cookie away like a socialist girl scout. Two free lovers making a cosmic connection over a commode.  Given the direction of pop culture in ’67, it seems inevitable that these two would bump uglies in San Francisco, and perhaps fated that three years later they would die on opposite sides of the planet within sixteen days of each other, both at the age of 27.

Neither star had it easy coming up in the 50s. Skinny, half-Injun Jimi wandered the working class neighborhoods of Seattle, WA, shoplifting groceries and getting thwacked by his old man until he finally broke free to enlist in the Air Force. Chubby, pimple-faced Janis got bullied around her little hometown of Port Arthur, TX before ditching her bland, middle-class folks for the paisley hordes of Haight-Ashbury.

By the mid-60s, Jimi had toured his way from Nashville to New York, playing back-up for Little Richard and King Curtis with an envious eye on the spotlight. Janis was jamming West Coast concert halls, as well as jamming needles with her new lover, the lead guitarist for Big Brother & the Holding Company.

In June of 1967, Jimi and Janis shared the bill for the Monterey International Pop Festival, the San Fransisco shindig now credited for bringing cutting edge rock n’ roll out of the idealistic underground and into the corporate profit margin.

The youth culture of “liberation” flowered during the Summer of Love, and Monterey Pop was to be its ultimate cross-pollination. ABC got the film rights. Over a thousand journalists were given tickets and encouraged to spread the word. The country was in the throes of political unrest, the Vietnam War, and black urban riots—it was high time for Middle America to tune in and turn on to sex, drugs, and trendy digs. Monterey Pop was about bringing the liberating power of music to the masses. It was also a jam session of the dancing dead, where Otis Redding, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Mama Cass, and Jerry Garcia got down as though tomorrow would never come.

Monterey Pop was Joplin’s big breakthrough into the mainstream. She had bummed around San Francisco for years at that point, playing background tunes for the trippy hipster dances, scraping for a dime, and getting poked by everything from strange dick to dirty needles. By the next year, she was a national star.

Janis was an unlikely sex symbol—a kinky-haired, acne-scarred, gravel-voiced shrew swilling a bottle of Southern Comfort. Most reasonable men would prefer raw liver in a greasy rubber glove. And yet, everyone who saw her perform was transfixed by the oozing sexuality upon which her bare feet slid into the spotlight. Her performance had more balls than a billiards table. Record executives noticed, and soon she was whisked off to New York with her band in tow, where they would begin recording Cheap Thrills.

By the time he took the stage at Monterey Pop, Hendrix had already been discovered in Greenwich Village by ex-Animals bassist, Chas Chandler, who immediately invited Hendrix to London where he joined two ‘fro-sporting white boys—Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. Monterey Pop would be the American debut of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The left-handed guitarist had already created a sound that no other player could touch, but he pulled out all the stops for San Francisco. After a brief introduction by Brian Jones, Jimi humped and stroked his guitar like a six-stringed wing-wang. He played with his teeth, he played behind his head, he lit his fucking instrument on fire like a child sacrifice to Moloch. The cameras were rolling, the journalists scribbled furiously, and America was ready for a new high priest to preside over their Electric Church.

Jimi and Janis were sizzling icons of the liberation generation whose brief lives momentarily transcended society’s polar opposites: black and white, man and woman, right and wrong. They are remembered today for crossing race and gender barriers that few had dared breech before them.  Jimi was the black man dressed in girly regalia who played the white man’s rock n’ roll. Janis was the butch ball-buster who reached into the soul of black blues and darkened it with the black hole in her soul.

Jimi and Janis are remembered for their fashion sense, their intelligence, and their revolutionary artistry, but perhaps more than any of these, they are renowned for screwing more ass than a blind carpenter turned loose in a proctology clinic. Jimi’s music throbs with phallic dominance, while Janis’ songs drip desperate sexual desire. These two fucked so many people so many times, you have to wonder when they ever had time to write music.

In the early days of his career in Nashville, when a guitar was as hard to come by as a decent day’s wage, Jimi preferred the company of well-off sugar mamas. He hopped from bed to pocket book, and always had a good breakfast in the morning.

Once he made it to Harlem, he fell in with the whores and strippers, most notably sixteen year-old Diana Carpenter. She kept Jimi afloat by turning tricks until the night he came home to find a john choking her in the bathroom. Later on, when he found out she was still whoring behind his back, Jimi whipped her viciously with a belt, exclaiming, “I’ll show you that fat meat is greasy!”—whatever the hell that means. Diana was pregnant with his first (known) daughter, Tamika, at the time, but the young prostitute was shipped back to her parents in the Midwest after the police caught her picking up a john, forever separating the guitarist from his firstborn. Jimi immediately consoled himself between the legs of his first white girlfriend, Carol Shiroky, whom he soon climbed over for the next chick with no remorse.

Though she denies any hanky panky, the first high-class broad that Jimi fell in with was Linda Keith, who was dating Keith Richards at the time. In May of ’66 she turned Jimi on to LSD at a small party, and Jimi never looked back from that cosmic vision. At one point in the evening he caught a glimpse of the future in the mirror where he saw Marilyn Monroe staring back at him. It was through Linda’s high profile connections that Jimi was able to break free of traditional Harlem R&B and move into the eclectic scene of Greenwich Village. In an uncharacteristically sentimental moment just days before he died, Jimi presented Linda with one of his guitars. Inside the case was every letter she’d ever written to him.

Jimi met Kathy Etchingham on the day he arrived in London, and considered her one of his girlfriends up until a few months before he died. Of course, Hendrix continued to spread his seed freely, but he didn’t like the idea of Kathy getting out and about with the boys, especially when he was drinking. On one occasion at the Bag O’ Nails club in London, he found her talking on a public phone and assumed it was a lover. He snatched the phone from her hand and proceeded to beat her face with the receiver until Paul McCartney and John Lennon pulled him off. This wouldn’t be the last time a woman caught the foul end of a drunk Jimi’s bottle of booze.

Everyone knows that loose women gravitate toward rock stars like rubberneckers on fresh roadkill, but Jimi was exceptional in his promiscuity and stamina. It was not uncommon for him to be found in bed with four or five groupies at a time, even as he maintained “steady” relationships with various girlfriends, such as strung out super-groupie Devon Wilson or Latina Playboy bunny Carmen Borrero. Producer Ronnie Spector called Jimi the “black Hugh Hefner.”

Jimi was all about acid and aliens for the most part, but after the trips started wearing on his nerves, his taste for heroin/cocaine cocktails grew steadily. It was better for him than the booze, apparently. The first time jealous Jimi smashed the lovely Carmen in the face with a liquor bottle, he sent her to the hospital, where they barely saved her eye. The second time, he nearly threw her out of a window. But that didn’t stop him from drinking, which didn’t discourage him from sniffing up dope, which made for a nice come down from all the psychedelics.

© Brandt Hardin

Most needle junkies have the libido of a deflated soccer ball, but Janis Joplin’s hardcore heroin habit didn’t keep her from smearing knobs across the Northern Hemisphere. She took on big men and little guys, gorgeous hippie chicks and frumpy junkies like herself. Southern Comfort got the conversation going and heroin was the foreplay. When it was all over with, her pillow was there to soak up the lonesome tears.

Janis always talked about wanting a man she could hold on to, a decent man, a husband, a father, a soul mate. She was so self-conscious about her looks and her weight, but she wasn’t about to let that stop her from test driving every cock on the market. I suppose nobody told her that square husband/father types don’t usually go all in for a turbo-slut. That probably wouldn’t have stopped her, anyway.

People who knew the bold singer always said “she’s got balls,” “she was ballsy,” or “man, what a set of balls,” but it’s possible they were just looking at the wrong person’s anatomy, because Janis’ pussy was backed up with more testicular traffic than an L.A. freeway. She claimed to have fucked “thousands of men,” “a few hundred women,” plus every member of Big Brother & the Holding Company. Janis fucked guitarists and gypsies, hitch-hikers and harlots, law students and long-hairs, bikers and bassists, con artists and space cadets, football stars and fuck ups, singers and songwriters. She did two-ways, three-ways, and four-ways with the casual air of a Sunday brunch. In fact, she was scheduled for a nice three-way with two long-term partners the night that she died. Bob Seidemann, who snapped her “first hippie pin-up girl” photo (and also fucked her), had this to say (about her soul, you pervert):

“Whoa, it’s too big for me, I can’t fill that hole. I’d be shoveling all day…That was [Janis's] tragedy—she couldn’t fill that hole.”

My imagination is filled with scenes of Janis and Jimi in that pube-strewn Filmore bathroom, his bulging black battering ram showing the beginnings of a blister, towering, looming, then descending down to a bush bigger than his afro. Janis’ spine-shivering screech echoes off the tiles as Jimi wraps her sagging bat-wings around his balls like a fleshy pink turban. Total liberation, man. Groovy.

Both singers were showing tremendous tour fatigue by the time they shared a bill again at Woodstock in the summer of ’69. Janis had left Big Brother & the Holding Company behind to become a bigger-than-life rock n’ roll starlet, poised to spearhead the uprising of obnoxious banshees everywhere. Surrounded by Haight-Ashbury clones in Upstate New York and locked into an endless string of stages, hotels, and heroin, Janis was coming down with a bad case of the blues. To top it off, there was nowhere at the festival to get her spike on in private. She was so strung out at that point that she dragged her lesbian lover through scraggly clumps of Plebeian detritus into a porto-potty piled high with hippie turds, where they both shot a fat bag of smack. Life is just one adventure after the next.

Joplin was so plowed when she hit the stage that her shambling performance was left out of the documentary film which solidified that moment in American history as one of peace, solidarity, and brotherly love (although “Work Me, Lord” was added in a more recent edition.) Hendrix’s war zone rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” on the other hand, is often referred to as the defining moment of the Flower Power Sexual Psychedelic Political Racial Religious Revolutionary Love Generation, even though only a handful of groggy kids stuck around that morning to see him perform it.

Unfortunately, his new, all-black group had only been rehearsing for two weeks by the time of the festival, so the rest of Hendrix’s set was a disjointed disaster. Under pressure from his Afrocentric comrades, Jimi had jettisoned his cracker backing band months before to branch out on his own.  A few days after (Pecker)Woodstock, Jimi booked his new, racially pure outfit for a free R&B music festival in Harlem.

Within moments of parking in Harlem, some asshole stole Hendrix’ guitar.  Luckily, the thief’s more aesthetic-minded homeboys somehow got it back in time for the show, which was a total disaster. Black Power types called Jimi’s girlfriend a “white bitch,” assaulted her, and tore her shirt. The hostile crowd booed, threw eggs and bottles him, and that was before he started playing. Only a few hundred stayed to watch the performance. His new, all-black group disbanded soon after.

To make matters worse, Jimi had just returned from a trip to Morocco with bad juju on his back. During an otherwise splendid vacation with his new richy rich pals, Jimi had his Tarot read by an old clairvoyant woman who often worked for the King of Morocco. The first card she turned over was the Star, which seemed promising enough. Then she turned over the Death card. Jimi was terrified. “I’m going to die!” he yelped.

Everyone tried to reassure him that the Death card can mean many things, like new beginnings and rebirth, but Jimi was inconsolable. His sophisticated chums even tried to convince him that Tarot cards are just a bunch of baloney, but Jimi wasn’t hearing that either. This was a man who read The Urantia Book daily, a channeled text which details the epic struggles of extraterrestrial spiritual masters—such as Jesus or Lucifer—for the Soul of humankind. Nobody was gonna tell Jimi about superstition. Death was upon him, man. It was in the cards.

Janis had about all the living she could handle as well. She continued to tour in the months after Woodstock, but her heart just wasn’t in it. She wanted to quit the business, quit shooting heroin, and quit giving out pieces of her heart like moldy bread in a soup kitchen, but she was locked in to the end. She took off for Brazil to get clean, where she fell in love with a law student who tried to convince her to travel the world with the Peace Corps. They ended up back at her place in California instead, where he left her when she immediately got back on the arm-dope. She had an album to record with her new band, anyway.

Jimi Hendrix’ last recording sessions were at his own Electric Lady Recording Studio (named after his previous album) in New York with the reformed Jimi Hendrix Experience, sans Noel Redding. Jimi then embarked on a brief but wearisome European tour, after which he returned to London with his new girl toy, figure skater Monika Dannemann.

On the night of September 18, 1970, the exhausted star ate a tuna sandwich, drank some wine, swallowed a handful of her Vesperax sleeping pills, and within hours, he choked to death on his own vomit. His last song, “The Story of Life,” written the night he died, was found scribbled in Dannemann’s hotel room. The lyrics led a few to believe that his death was no accident:

The story of Jesus
So easy to explain
After they crucified him,
A woman, she claimed his name
When each man falls in battle
His soul it has to roam
Angels of heaven
Flying saucers to some,
Made Easter Sunday
The name of the rising sun
At the moment that we die
All we know
Is God is by our side
The story
Of life is quicker
Than the wink of an eye
The story of love
Is hello and goodbye
Until we meet again

When Janis heard the news, she reportedly balked: “He beat me to it.” Two weeks and two days after his death, Joplin left the recording studio where she had been working on the track “Buried Alive in the Blues.” She called her new boyfriend, who was supposed to join her that evening, but he had decided to stay on at Janis’ house to play strip pool with a few waitresses. Her longtime lover Peggy had also decided to skip their planned three-way in favor of cozying up with her own bag of dope. Furious, Janis returned to her hotel room and shot a hot syringeful. She was found dead of an overdose the next morning, October 4, her nose broken from crashing on the nightstand.

A few days earlier, Janis had mailed a recording of “Happy Trails To You” to John Lennon for his birthday, who received it as an eerie message from beyond the grave. The completed tracks from her new album were released as Pearl three months after her death, which included the prescient track, “Get It While You Can.” Her posthumous album sold more copies than all of her previous albums combined.

Hendrix once told an interviewer, “We play our music—’Electric Church Music’—because it’s like a religion to us.” Jimi may not have been tethered to sensible reality on many occasions, but he certainly nailed that one.  The phallic marble shrine that now marks his grave outside of Seattle still draws thousands of pilgrims every year to pay homage by leaving crayon graffiti and guitar strings to the ancestral spirit of their Electric Church, perhaps praying for one more piece of pussy before death sweeps them away.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

Jimi Hendrix“The Star Spangled Banner”

Janis Joplin“Get It While You Can”

Tupac Shakur Lived by the
Mic and Died by the Gun

© Brandt Hardin

Tupac Shakur was admired for being extraordinarily handsome, extraordinarily intelligent, and extraordinarily pissed off. On September 13, 1996, with five studio albums under his belt and a dozen bullets under his skin at the age of 25, ‘Pac was pronounced extraordinarily dead. Fifteen years later, his high ideals and low brow gangsta swagger continue to inspire the world’s disenchanted to raise up out of despondency—or at least, to raise up their weapons.

Tupac did time in prison before he was even born. His mother, Afeni Shakur, a radical Black Panther, was released just a month before she went into labor. She was acquitted for her alleged part in a Panther bombing conspiracy, but his grandfather (also a Black Panther) was convicted of murdering a school teacher and his stepfather spent four years on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. ‘Pac came up from revolutionary fire on both the East and West Coast. It only makes sense that he would climb out by becoming an actor, a ballerino, and an aspiring rapper during his years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. After his debut with Digital Underground in 1990—who took him on as a roadie, then a dancer, then a rapper—it wasn’t long before all eyes were on him.

At different times in his life, every man shows multiple faces to the world. Browsing through the hundreds of photos taken during ‘Pac’s life, we see every possible persona: Happy Tupac, Sad Tupac, Silly Tupac, Pissed Off Tupac, Sly Tupac, Romantic Tupac, Gangsta Tupac, Guilty as Hell Tupac, Intellectual with Spectacles Tupac, Reborn in All White Tupac, Confused Tupac, Concerned Tupac, Indifferent Tupac, and of course, the Always Thoughtful Tupac.

It’s hard to say what Tupac was thinking when he fumbled and dropped his loaded pistol during a skirmish at a Marin City music festival in 1992, which allegedly went off and fatally wounded six year-old Qa’id Walker-Teal as he pedaled his bicycle down the street.  Once the weight of the matter had sunk in, it was never far from his conscience. He was less apologetic about the 1993 incident in Atlanta when his driver nearly hit two off-duty police officers as they crossed the street with their wives. The cops confronted Tupac aggressively and so the rapper popped a cap in one of their asses—literally. Having spent his early years being beaten down by life’s little insults, it was a triumphant moment indeed.

Every gangsta rapper talks about “comin’ from the real” and “bein’ real.” Not content to be lumped in with the average G, Tupac left the East Coast fold and signed with the infamous Death Row Records on the West Coast, proclaiming himself to be “the realest.”

“We’re just being who we are,” he maintained. “It’s beyond good and evil. It’s Thug Life.”

Thug Life was so near to ‘Pac’s heart, he had the words tattooed on his stomach with a bullet in place of the “i.”  Jon Pareles—sounding like the biggest cracker on the cheese plate—described Tupac’s position thusly in The New York Times: “In some raps, Mr. Shakur glamorized the life of the ‘player,’ a high-living, macho gangster flaunting ill-gotten gains.”

To hear Tupac tell it on his later records, you’d think he left a pile of dead gangstas in his wake that would stack to the moon. His unique style is so impassioned, so convincing, so enthralling, that it is hard to listen without feeling the youthful desire to unleash total violence on your enemies. One envisions Wrathful Tupac, Blood-soaked Tupac, Absolutely Invincible Tupac.

Despite such brash claims, Tupac’s gangsta bona fides were called into question by ostensibly “realer” detractors. Was he a true G or just a former ballerino playing out his violent fantasies in a campy performance of The Thugcracker? While in prison on sexual assault charges, Not Guilty as Hell Tupac did a bit of backpedaling, telling Vibe magazine:

“This Thug Life stuff, it was just ignorance. My intentions was always in the right place. I never killed anybody, I never raped anybody, I never committed no crimes that weren’t honorable—that weren’t to defend myself.”

The years spent as Accused Sodomite Tupac—from the date of the alleged rape in late 1993 to his release from prison on appeal two years later—were to become a dramatic turning point in the rapper’s state of mind. Tupac claimed to be the victim of an opportunistic set up by a “dumpy” groupie; his accuser claimed to be the victim of a humiliating gang rape instigated by the rapper. No one but God can judge ‘Pac at this point, but the jury found him guilty of sexual abuse.

On November 30, 1994, the day before Tupac’s sentencing for sexual assault, he walked into Quad Recording Studios in Manhattan where Biggie Smalls and Puffy Combs happened to be upstairs. Two gunmen in army fatigues drew on Tupac and his crew, demanding their jewelery. Tupac refused, so one of the men popped five bullets into him. One of the shots went straight through his nutsack. Bloody and confused, Tupac found himself upstairs with Biggie and Puffy. Tupac later claimed that the two were completely aloof toward him before the ambulance arrived, as though they were surprised that he made it upstairs. Until his death two years later, Tupac suspected that the East Coast rappers were somehow involved in the shooting.

Despite Tupac’s pitiful, bullet-riddled, wheelchair-bound presence in the courtroom the next day, the judge sentenced him to hard time in Riker’s Island Prison—where he became the first artist to have an album reach #1 while behind bars with Me Against the World. He wound up serving only nine months before his appeal, but it was long enough for the rapper to recover his potency and return to his radical roots. He immediately began recording All Eyes on Me with Death Row Records upon his release on bail.

“What I learned in jail is that I can’t change,” Tupac told a KMEL interviewer in April 1996. “I can’t live a different lifestyle—this is it…All I’m trying to do is survive and make good out of the dirty, nasty, unbelievable lifestyle that they gave me. I’m just trying to make something good out of that.”

Despite the relentless violence of tracks like “Hit ‘Em Up”—in which he promises to rain bullets on Biggie Smalls and the whole of the East Coast in a Rambo-esque tirade—Tupac would redeem himself to liberal observers by trying to help ghetto kids turn their lives around through mentoring and organized sports. As his social consciousness and dramatic delusions of grandeur gained momentum, he began to refashion himself as a militarized revolutionary icon.

“I’ll follow any great man, black or white,” he stated in his last interview. “I’m gonna study him, learn him, so he can’t be great to me no more…

“[I'll take] the discipline, the seriousness, and the bond that the Mob has, take the enthusiasm, the morals, and the principles that the Black Panthers had…take the ‘all of us as a team’ that the police have…[take the] ‘whatever we got to do to be Number 1” that the United States has…

“That’s what makes me unstoppable…

“I didn’t get that power from guns, because there’s no guns in jail, I got that power from books, and from thinking, and by strategizin’—that’s what I want little niggas to see…

“When the East Coast, and the West Coast, and the Middle Americans get together we got power…and that’s when we closer to Armageddon…

“I’m the future of Black America.”

On September 7—coincidentally, the birthday of Buddy Holly—Tupac attended a Mike Tyson boxing match at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas with Death Row founder Suge Knight. After the fight, Tupac and his entourage spotted an alleged Crip “Orlando” Anderson in the hotel’s lobby, who had supposedly robbed one of their homies at a Foot Locker some time earlier. Anderson immediately became the guest of honor at a Death Row boot party.

'Pac's final photo op

Satisfied that justice had been served, Tupac climbed into Suge’s BMW and set out for Club 662 followed by a convoy of riders. A photographer snapped the famous last photograph—Do I Know You, Muthafucka? Tupac—about twenty minutes before a white Cadillac pulled alongside the convoy and peppered Suge’s BMW with hot lead. Suge made it out with a flesh wound on his dome, but bullets slammed into Tupac’s hand, leg, and torso, shredding his right lung. After fighting for his life for six days, ‘Pac no longer had to wonder if heaven has a ghetto.  His murder stirred up various accusations of police cover-ups, conspiracy theories, and false leads, yet his killers still remain at large.

The media unleashed a sensationalist frenzy that put the national spotlight on gang violence—stoking the mythical rivalry between the East and West Coasts—and exalted a new rock star martyr to the right hand of Elvis Presley. Three weeks later, Death Row released the first of eight posthumous ‘Pac albums under the pseudonym Makaveli, entitled Don Killuminati: The Seven Day Theory. The tracks were written and recorded in three days and then mixed over the next four days. The album’s cover is perhaps the most brazen facsimile of the Christ image ever produced by pop culture, given the circumstances. Surrounded in mystique and subject to endless synchronistic interpretations, Don Killuminati sold 664,000 copies in its first week and over four million to date.

Tupac’s story continues to inspire various disillusioned and angry youths across the globe with his tragic mythos and fierce lyrical skill, which keeps him enshrined as another secular Son of the digital God. His meteoric rise and abrupt fall reveal the grinding contradictions between empathic idealism and the craven animal impulses that arise in every human heart.  His own ideas on the nature of good and evil are poignant:

“I’m the religion that to me is the realest religion there is…I think that if you take one of the “O’s” out of ‘Good’ it’s ‘God,’ if you add a ‘D’ to ‘Evil’, it’s the ‘Devil’…

“The bible tells us that…because [God's chosen] suffered so much that’s what makes them special people. I got shot five times and I got crucified to the media. And I walked through with the thorns on and I had shit thrown on me…I’m not saying I’m Jesus but I’m saying we go through that type of thing everyday. We don’t part the Red Sea but we walk through the hood without getting shot. We don’t turn water to wine but we turn dope fiends and dope heads into productive citizens of society. We turn words into money. What greater gift can there be?”

It’s easy for uptight folks to write Tupac off as a failed messiah, a whining hypocrite, a narcissistic fruitcake, or a wannabe warlord, but we’ll let him have the last word on his legacy:

“[If] you saw a rose growing from concrete, even if it had messed up petals and it was a little to the side, you would marvel at just seeing a rose grow through concrete. So why is it that when you see some ghetto kid grow out of the dirtiest circumstance and he can talk and he can sit across the room and make you cry, make you laugh, all you can talk about is my dirty rose, my dirty stems and how I’m leaning crooked to the side—you can’t even see that I’ve come up from out of that.”

© 2011 Joseph Allen

2Pac ShakurDear Mama

Stevie Ray Vaughan
Flies On Little Wings

© Brandt Hardin

Stevie Ray Vaughan was not a rock star in the conventional sense. For one thing, he had tremendous talent, which has become less of a prerequisite for stardom since disco laid waste to rock n’ roll in the 70s. For another, it doesn’t appear that he was a total self-indulgent prick, at least not to the embarrassing degree that the brightest stars reach—or that I do, for that matter.  Stevie Ray seems to have been a good guy.

Sure, before he supposedly got sober, Vaughan laced his whiskey with enough cocaine to develop bloody, bubbling holes in his stomach. He also named his band Double Trouble—will we mock him for that for the rest of eternity? He was a Texan, after all, what do you expect? And yes, when his marriage dissolved in his early 30s, Vaughan began keeping company with a nubile 17-year-old model from New Zealand. Some people judged him for his taste for tadpoles, but that just comes with the territory in rock ‘n roll. What about his crone wife, Lenora? “Lenny” snorted up Stevie Ray’s meager record royalties and commenced to gobble cock like a biomorphic turkey/rooster hybrid. Who is the villain of that story, really?

Stevie was a master blues guitar shredder who crashed and burned in his prime on August 27, 1990. He exploded on a fucking ski slope in a helicopter, for Christ’s sake! So I think we should all just give him a break. Yeah, I could fill pages making sport of the guy. I could poke fun at his gummy, Chicklets-jammed-into-Silly-Putty smile or the gayer-than-AIDS scarves he always wore, but really, I’d be a petty asshole to even mention them. So let’s just stick to the music, shall we?

Like his hero Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s prefered ax was a Fender Stratocaster, which he customized to the smallest detail. His favorite was a 1963 model that he and his guitar tech, Rene Martinez, called “Number One” and Stevie Ray called his “First Wife.” “Number One’s sidekick” was a Strat given to him as a gift from his wife, Lenora, which he dubbed “Lenny.” The rest of his small touring ensemble included “Butter,” “Red,” “Charley,” and a just few other cherished guitars. It is arguable that Stevie’s greatest loves were his instruments. Even when the strings broke or the pickups crapped out, they were better behaved than any human could be. Not that Vaughan made his relationship with guitars easy.

Anyone who has picked up a guitar knows that playing even medium gauged strings can feel like you’re doing fingertip push-ups on a bed of nails, but Vaughan played the heaviest gauges. Rene Martinez says that Vaughan started with a .013 and ended up with a .060. Combined with the incredibly high action on the bridge, Stevie Ray often came off stage looking like he’d just tried to feed a rabid badger by hand. That’s how he got such a snappy tone in his performances. His hands were phenomenally strong, so he still pulled off smooth bends that would have the Devil toting his fiddle to a Georgia pawn shop.

Stevie Ray’s gritty blues belongs in a bar, not on a page or computer screen, but here we are. His gravelly voice cried out to the Texas stars, “Gimme a drink, gimme a good woman, and if you fuck with either of them, gimme a fight then, you bad mambajamba!” You, dear reader, shouldn’t be reading morbid blogs your so-called “smart” phone right now, says Stevie—you should be making your way to the nearest honkytonk and dominating the jukebox with SRV tunes, even if that means scrapping the local hip hop fans for the right to get redneck. But if that’s not in the cards and you prefer to YouTube your way to rock n’ roll in total isolation, ol’ JoeBot be right here with you.

It is so difficult to describe a song in words. That’s why the most boring segments of otherwise great books—like Steppenwolf or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—are when the author tries to use words to describe music. If Hesse and Wolfe couldn’t really render a song in literature, it would be foolish for me to attempt it.

I only know Stevie Ray’s songs from frequenting bars—usually the ones with dead animal heads on the wall and no hint of any awareness of import beers. I never knew the man, and I barely know anything about his story. But I do know a roadie who claims that he was working at the Alpine Valley Music Theater the night that Stevie Ray Vaughan’s helicopter whirled through the fog and smashed him into a billion tears.

My roadie friend is a sociopathically loquacious, yet oftentimes charming man with whom I have exchanged many fascinating anecdotes in the dark shadows of the steel. He is an AWOL Army vet who took up cage fighting and sky-diving in his late 40s to offset the depressing deterioration brought on by his chemotherapy—a true fighter. He says that he has relics from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s last show, but is currently collecting clothes and food for the Northeasterners who have just been slammed by Hurricane Irene. When I finally catch up with him, I’ll have photographs for you to marvel over.

Until then, enough with the words. We’ll let this eternally influential guitarist speak for himself from beyond the grave…

© 2011 Joseph Allen

Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Life Without You

Robert Johnson Opened the
Gates of Hell for Elvis Presley

The Devil and Robert Johnson

© Brandt Hardin

Even after the abolition of slavery, life in the Mississippi cotton fields was brief, brutal, and as boring as an aging preacher’s Sunday sermon. No wonder fieldworkers sought the fleeting comforts of cheap moonshine and loose women at the Saturday night juke joints.

Robert Johnson could mix it up with the best of them, but he was never one for hard work. His bizarre, spider-like fingers weren’t intended for cotton-pickin’ and penny-pinchin’. They were made for crawling across guitar necks, whiskey bottles, and the legs of middle-aged sugar mamas. If Johnson was going to suffer hell to make a dollar, it would be as a wayfaring musician. His road was full of adventure and ecstasy, but ended in hell just the same. On August 16, 1938, Robert Johnson became another silent corpse wrapped in the shrouds of rock n’ roll mythology.

As legend has it, Robert Johnson obtained his profoundly influential guitar licks after trading his soul to the Devil at a dark, isolated crossroads. As usual, Ol’ Scratch came through with the goods, but America was still dragging itself out of the Great Depression and debt-collectors were ruthless. Why should Satan be any different? Johnson had enough time to make his name as a blazing live musician and to record forty-two immortal tracks before Satan came to collect the player’s soul at the prime age of 27.

Like the crossroads myth, Robert Johnson’s handful of recordings would not surface until many years after his death. Also like the myth, these forty-two recordings have been open to interpretation and elaboration ever since. His slick slide guitar style was first taken up by black blues players. Son House, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker were among the many to follow those smoking hoofprints to notoriety. Ultimately, it was only when Robert Johnson’s work was unearthed and re-released during the Delta blues revival of the 1960s that the man and the myth came into their own. White rock stars—Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Paul McCartney—rode Johnson’s Afro juju to the top of international charts, where the fires he unleashed burned the soul of Western civilization.

As a journeyman guitarist, Robert Johnson was the laughing stock of his juke joint peers. His unorthodox style sounded like a stray cat shaken violently in a metal trashcan. After a brief hiatus, Johnson returned to the scene with a totally unique style in which he would hammer a rhythm with his thumb while picking a slide melody with his fingers. Johnson’s recordings may sound like the goofy meanderings of a slap-happy simpleton to the average listener, but in those days he was the bee’s knees. No one had done anything like that before.

An offhand and perhaps jealous remark by Son House was the start of the crossroads myth, when he said that Johnson had “sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for learning to play like that.” The location of this diabolical deal came from Tommy Johnson via his brother:

“If you want to learn how to play anything…and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to…where a crossroads is…. Be sure to get there just a little ‘fore 12 that night…. A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar, and he’ll tune it. And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you. That’s the way I learned to play anything I want.”

Just as an enterprising black man of large stature might make a few bucks by hanging around a crossroads to dupe superstitious guitar students, so the media myth-making machine was able to turn a profit by misattributing Tommy Johnson’s statement to Robert Johnson. The rest is sketchy history, but as with many myths, Johnson’s crossroads story remains poignant.

© Jeffrey Bertrand

By all accounts, Robert Johnson was a diehard rake. His first wife was a girl in her early teens who died while giving birth to a stillborn child. After that tragedy, Johnson would not be tied down. He wandered from town to town, seducing local women for bed, booty, and breakfast. This song and dance took him from the reeds of Memphis to the towers of Chicago. Hopping trains with crisp suit and a guitar under his arm, Johnson knew how to get around cheap and still sleep in a warm bed. His usual prey were plain, aging bar-hoppers who could not resist his sharp dress and blistering guitar licks. Johnson was one of a special breed that sings while playing rhythms and melodies simultaneously—who knows what sort of sexual percussions he could hammer out in the bedroom.

The only thing he loved more than pulling another man’s woman was a stout glass of whiskey. Amped up on booze and ego, he frequently found himself in bar room brawls, usually over another man’s woman. He was just as quick to take on a gang as he was to fight one-on-one. Unfortunately, he was a skinny blues player in dapper attire, not a street tough, which meant that he took a lot of ass-whippings for his efforts—as did many of his friends who stood up to defend him. Apparently, victory in battle was not part of his deal with Ol’ Scratch.

Johnson’s solid reputation as a smoking live guitar player led him into the hands of ARC producer Don Law, who recorded Johnson’s first sessions in San Antonio, TX in 1936. The results were thrilling, and Johnson was as proud as a purple puppy. One night, as Don Law ate in a restaurant with his wife, he received a phone call from jail. Robert had been arrested for vagrancy and needed bail. Law made arrangements for the player’s release, and an hour later received a second call. Johnson had immediately found himself a hooker, but there was a problem. “She wants fifty cents and I lacks a nickel.” Rock n’ roll excess has come a long way since the Depression era.

Johnson left Texas with a hundred bucks in his pocket and his earthly immortality encased in acetate. After wandering the highways for a spell, he returned to Dallas in 1938 to record a few more sessions with Don Law. It was then that he laid down his nefarious tracks “Hell Hound On My Trail” and “Me and the Devil Blues.” They are both about the troubles of hopping from town to town milking old maids for muff and money, but the second is more direct—an infernal, if playful ode to the burning core of all phallocentric rock n’ roll shenanigans:

Early this morning
when you knocked upon my door…
And I said “Hello, Satan. I believe it’s time to go.”

Me and the Devil
walking side by side…
I’m going beat my woman until I get satisfied

She said you don’t see why
that I be dog her ’round
(Now baby, you know you ain’t doin’ me right…)
It must be that old Evil Spirit so deep down in the ground

You may bury my body
down by the highway side…
So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride

Robert Johnson was found dead in a Mississippi plantation house at the age of 27. He officially opened the doors of the 27 Club to all later members: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Pete Ham, Kurt Cobain, and most recently, Amy Winehouse. Rumors abound about the cause of Johnson’s death—everything from bad moonshine to poisoning by a jealous lover to syphilis—but one thing seems certain: he chased excess to its logical conclusion.

I have no doubt that Robert Johnson was among the multitude of artists who met Ol’ Scratch at the crossroads of the human soul. If the kingdom of God—on His better days, anyway—is benevolence, mercy, chastity, discipline, and unwavering faith, then the domain of the Devil must be the vast expanse of human potentialities between these virtues and the Void.

The fires of Hell burn in humankind’s lust, greed, gluttony, and wrath. The flames come on warm, like sweet liquor on a dry tongue, and everyone gets a little taste. Most turn back there, but plenty more linger until they are scorched into a disfigured husk of what was once human. You could say that Robert Johnson opened wide the gates of Hell for every rock star martyr to come.

Enter Elvis Presley.

Elvis Presley: The King of Dead Rock Stars

© Jeffrey Bertrand

Elvis Aron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935—just an hour as the crow flies from where Robert Johnson would die a few years later. Elvis’ twin, Jesse Garon, was a stillborn herald to the King of Rock n’ Roll. Elvis would later claim that he took his dead brother’s power at the moment of his own birth, making Elvis a god.

The surviving Presley twin spent his earliest years in a shotgun shack—like ‘at genu-wine white trash. When Elvis was still a boy, the Presleys moved into Memphis’ Lauderdale Courts housing projects. His over-protective mother, Gladys, would walk him to school every day. She frequently took young Elvis to church and feverish Pentecostal revivals, where he would get his first taste of true showmanship. But this doting couldn’t stop the boy from finding his way to Beale Street.

Memphis night life exposed Elvis to every sin under the sun, if not in the flesh then at least in song. Presley grew up with gospel and loved country, but he was head-over-heels in love with the dark and dirty blues. Years later, his records would be shunned by white stations for being too bluesy and passed over by black stations for being too country. Such racial quibbling wouldn’t be enough to stop Presley, though. He was destined to become the King of Rock n’ Roll.

Still a fresh-faced teenager in 1953, Elvis walked into Sun Studios where he cut his first singles to bring home to his mother. Some time before, producer Sam Phillips had quipped, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Phillips heard the Call of Cthulhu in Elvis’ early attempts and immediately brought the boy into the Sun Records fold. Within three years, Elvis Presley was the most famous motherfucker in the world at age twenty-one.

Many fans agree that Elvis’ early years were his most inspired. The rockabilly swagger of “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Heartbreak Hotel” had the nation swinging its hips in imitation of their lascivious leather-clad icon. Who knows how many pregnancies this lip-curling Dionysus inspired? Elvis was derided by pious commentators as an uncouth cuckoo, but the former carnival huckster “Colonel” Tom Parker knew exactly what that meant. Elvis was the goose who shot golden sperm, and Colonel Parker wasted no time taking the loony bird under his wing and managing his brilliant, if debaucherous career.

Then in 1958, Presley was called to serve his country. He got a clean cut hairdo, a uniform, and a rifle. Within a few months, he was on a plane to be stationed in Germany. For snooty connoisseurs—including John Lennon—Elvis’ enlistment marked the end of his meaningful contributions to rock n’ roll, but without a doubt, it was a fine stepping stone for a budding pussyhound.

Presley was known to fool around with the wild black girls of Beale Street and various squealing groupies in his youth, but Europe would take him to depths unknown. The photos of Elvis published in Private Elvis after his death show the young soldier between the folds of Moulin Rouge mammaries and under the tongues of various spooky-toothed Euro whores. Hey, man, be all that you can be, right?

As it happened, it was during his time in Germany that the twenty-three year-old singer met the pubescent American girl Priscilla Beaulieu, who at fourteen was offered up to the rising star by her mother as a sort of child bride. Dog will hunt! From then on, Priscilla would fool around with Elvis—even play “dress-up video sex games” with him—but they never had sex until the time of their wedding ten years later, when Priscilla became pregnant. According to her next lover, Elvis’ karate coach Mike Stone, the celebrity spouses never had sex again.

After the excesses of the 60s had desensitized the nation, Elvis’ gyrating pelvis seemed pretty innocent in comparison. He wasn’t there to burn wombs with great balls of fire—he was there to love you tender. At the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Elvis was widely regarded as the universal sex symbol for Miss Norma McNormalson.  Not the brightest eyes, but man, you could break a cinder block over his square jaw.

For the duration of his god-like superstardom, Elvis’ PR team labored to portray him as a sweet lil’ mama’s boy with an angel’s voice and a heart of gold—even when he wore mutton chops and gaudy rhinestones during his final, bloated Vegas years. No doubt this was true to some extent. He did move his parents into Graceland where they lived out the rest of their lives in comfort and splendor. He was known to write checks for many poor souls who needed his help—sometimes for four or five figures. “Nnnnnnew Cadillac!” I mean, goddamn, how many pictures did he take with feeble old ladies and snot-faced little kids? On his best days, the man was practically a saint!

Then there were his other days. For all of his spin as a good ol’ boy from tha holler, Elvis certainly had peculiar tastes behind closed doors, and I’m not talking about peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Albert Goldman’s Elvis is a tabloidesque lost gospel that peels the rhinestones off of Presley’s shades and replaces them with all kinds of dirty little gems.

According to blabbermouths within the Memphis Mafia—the King’s heavy-fisted retinue—Presley was a pervo of Pan-like proportions, plying his pretty polly with pillow fights and Placidyls. Like many rock stars, he liked ‘em in their screamin’ teens—you know, he couldn’t go on with suspicious minds—but unlike his peers, he mostly liked to watch. He threw orgiastic parties and regularly brought out the video camera for posterity’s sake.

Toward the end of his life, the tattletales of his inner circle alleged that the only thing that could rouse the King’s hunk ‘a hunk ‘a burnin’ love was to watch women—and occasionally men—love themselves tender and true. Listening to his flaming gay hair-dresser and “personal spiritual advisor,” Larry Geller—whose craftsmanship is responsible for that immaculate black mop in both life and death—lisp on and on about his intimate relationship with his patron, one gets the impression that Elvis’ pelvis was swinging every which way. Surely it was the drugs.

From Elvis’ first drinks on Beale Street to his first speed given to him by the Army to the cornucopia of uppers, downers, laughers, screamers, and the brain-blasting pants-creamers his doctors prescribed to him in his later years, the karate-chopping King stayed high as a plastic baby Jesus punted into orbit. No wonder he was shooting holes through television sets and dreaming of demolishing skyscrapers. He was a walking chemical bath. Of course, the rest of America was not far behind.

Of all the bizarre rooms in the King’s white trash palace, including the unnerving “Jungle Room,” I am most intrigued by the one they never show you on the tour of Graceland. I asked the tour guides, “Don’t we get to see the Death Throne?”  But they just rolled their eyes at me.  It seems like that would be the climax of the tour. After all, Elvis’ Death Throne is the rock n’ roll Golgotha. On August 16, 1977, the King climbed up and crucified himself on this sacred commode. The world will never be the same again.

A roadie friend of mine was working on Willie Nelson’s tour at the time. Willie took the stage in Memphis on August 16, 1977, but the audience was inconsolable. Willie turned to his tour manager and barked, “Never book me in Memphis the night Elvis dies again!” Little did he know that the weeping crowd would never let their King die.

My favorite appraisal of the religious significance of Elvis’ death and tabloid afterlife comes from Jim Goad’s The Redneck Manifesto:

“Pop stars are the devotional fetish items of modern worship in ways identical to which saints were venerated in the Middle Ages. Dead pop stars all the more so. But unlike most resurrected idols, Elvis had already started to rot before he died…

“If he had lived, it wouldn’t have been pretty. Elvis with a grape cluster of hemorrhoids and a hearing aid. The Lord snatched him up not a moment too soon. Elvis wasn’t so dissipated or old at the time of his death that it’s impossible to imagine him in heaven achieving an erection. Up at the right hand of God, Elvis can stay hard forever.”

© Brandt Hardin

But many white trash believers refused to envision Elvis up in heaven. Sons of God don’t just die! Surely Elvis was pulling everyone’s leg. The tabloids which once graced every check-out aisle before the Internet rendered them obsolete—The National Enquirer, Weekly World News, The Star, The Sun—kept Elvis Presley alive with a new sighting every week, like Jesus in the last chapters of the Gospels. And millions of people bought it. Many of them even bought into it!

The most remarkable moment of my tour of Graceland, which Greil Marcus calls “a 1957-77 version of King Tut’s tomb” in Dead Elvis, was Presley’s gravesite next to his meditation shrine. A few other visitors stood or knelt silently before the supposed final resting place of the King. One of them, a woman in her forties wearing waist-high khakis, was on her knees weeping into folded hands. Scattered around the grave were numerous offerings left by reverent fans—mostly photographs and figurines—upon which they had scrawled direct messages to Elvis, like prayers to a saint or letters to Santa Claus. I asked one of the security guards how often these prayer offerings are made, and she told me that people still leave dozens of them every day. That must be one hell of a bonfire at the end of the month.

Elvis’ posthumous sales continue to fill record industry coffers. Between merchandising, television rights, books, CD/DVD sales, and legal downloads, the King’s estate still raked in upwards of $60 million last year. If Robert Johnson was the Devil’s phonographic child, then Elvis was the televised Son of God. The Internet Age has yet to produce such an Earth-shaking rock star martyr. But then, this tech era is still young, and the new media’s crosses are ready and waiting.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

Robert Johnson — “Me and the Devil Blues

Elvis Presley — “Suspicious Minds