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
1995

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
1938

Elvis Presley — “Suspicious Minds
1969

Jerry Garcia: Grateful to be Dead

© Brandt Hardin

Every rock fan abandons sanity to star-worship at some point, but Deadheads took rock n’ roll deification to unprecedented levels. Following their favorite band became a spiritual vocation. Jesus had his multitudes, Marx had his Maoists, and Jerry Garcia had his Deadheads.  Through the magic of vicarious identification, the icon and his devotees become One.

According to Jerry’s followers, The Grateful Dead created more than endless, noodling tunes for acid-drenched white kids to spin around in circles to. For diehard ‘heads, Dead shows were a nomadic religious rite. The Dead’s ethos and aesthetic provided a cultural raft upon which the communal idealism of the 60s could keep on floating through the money-grubbing 80s, with Jerry Garcia—aka “Captain Trips”—at the helm.

The spiritual significance of The Grateful Dead’s improvisational live performances still reverberates through the hippysphere. Most of the Dead’s 2,314 shows were captured for posterity on coveted bootleg recordings which continue to stir whirlwinds of reefer smoke, acid dreams, and flailing dreadlocks from San Francisco to Jerusalem. Jerry Garcia saw himself as a free-styling musician with a powerful imagination and even more powerful appetite, but the caravans of societal dropouts who followed him back and forth across America regard him as a psychedelic shaman pouring forth an endless fount of positive vibes.

God only knows what sort of bizarre visions swirled in Jerry Garcia’s shaggy dome. He dropped LSD for the first time in his early twenties and never looked back from the bandwagon’s driver seat. Captain Trips ate enough acid to make playing a three hour bluegrass song seem like a pleasurable diversion. Everyone agrees that without the psychedelic revolution, The Grateful Dead would have never become world famous—as in the old joke:

—What did the Deadhead say to his buddy when the drugs wore off?
—Man, this music sucks!

How appropriate that Garcia came into the “love generation” limelight at Ken Kesey’s mind-twisting Acid Tests during the mid-60s. His band’s trippy take on popular R&B songs set the ambiance as soul-searching seekers had their psyches ping pong paddled by The Merry Pranksters’ clever skits, groovy visuals, and gallons of electric Kool-Aid. It was in this brain-mush stew that Garcia started cooking his one true love—the legendary Mountain Girl, with whom he would have his second daughter. The revelry must have been a welcome relief after his tough upbringing.

Jerry Garcia grew up in hardscrabble neighborhoods in San Francisco. A dark star presided over his youth. His father was swept to his death by rapids during a fishing trip, which Garcia claimed to have witnessed despite others’ insistence that he was not present. Jerry’s older brother accidentally chopped the boy’s finger off with an axe as he held a piece of wood, yet Garcia showed promise as a musician despite the injury—although any shot he may have had as a shadow puppeteer was surely ruined. At the age of sixteen he was thrown out of a windshield in a car accident which killed his friend. That was the pivotal moment, Garcia said later, which convinced him to stop lollygagging and dedicate himself to music.

The 60s were a time to share and share alike—particularly one’s drugs—so it is fitting that The Grateful Dead started out by living communally at 710 Ashbury under the guidance of Owsly Stanley, the LSD-brewing mad scientist whose innovations in live sound revolutionized the art of large-scale concerts. This interplay of individual genius and egalitarian idealism would characterize the Dead’s career for the next three decades. The band produced a fractal array of complex musical improvisations for the homogeneous horde, becoming fantastically wealthy as their perpetually migrating fans struggled to peddle grass and grilled cheese sandwiches. Throughout the 60s the Dead enjoyed only modest success with a dedicated cult following (their brief Woodstock performance didn’t even make it into the film,) but they would go on to become the embodiment of all that is hippy after the 70s boogied most of their peers into dancefloor sludge.

It was during that era of disco fever that Jerry discovered the vitalizing wonders of cocaine, trading mind-expanding trips for tongue-wagging insomnia. By the mid-70s the band’s following had swollen to include a new generation of nomadic dust bunnies dedicated to attend every last show—no matter how far the drive—and the starry-eyed “custies” to whom they plied their wares.

Shakedown Street was a spontaneous, if self-regulating open air market which sprang up in the parking lots outside of every Dead show. This lot scene was a sub-economy for otherwise jobless drifters. There were tie-dyes and teddy bears, skeleton posters and skull t-shirts, burritos and lightning bolts, magic crystals and hemp jewelry, and of course, more neuron-jiggling drugs than you could shake a didgeridoo at.

Despite being a commercial hub of intoxicants and scalped tickets, the lot scene offered the allure of communalism and togetherness, where the haves could bestow kindness and the have-nots could have fun, where an otherwise lonesome misfit could be with ten thousand of his closest friends. Dead shows were a universe unto themselves, a place apart from the soulless, confining, stingy mores of middle class life. The possibility of spiritual transcendence crackled in the air. Concert-goers sought out what they called the numinous “X-factor”—that peak moment when all the energies of the Universe would flow through Jerry’s twanging guitar. These kids were higher than giraffe pussy, wilder than a retarded bull-rider, and smellier than a gully dwarf’s fuzzy butthole. It was like amazing, brah.

As the 80s rolled around, Garcia was disillusioned at best with this hippy horde, but they desperately needed him. Despite his increasing devotion to side projects such as The Jerry Garcia Band and his enduring compositions with longtime friend and mandolin-player David Grisman, Jerry was tied to his fans on a cosmic level. He would have to console himself with melting tubs of Häagen-Dazs ice cream and continuous smoking of pure China White heroin, but Jerry would not let the Deadheads down.

In 1986 Garcia overdosed on sugary snacky cakes and fell into a diabetic coma. It was to be a long strange trip, during which he encountered insectoid creatures on a galaxy-hopping starship. Jerry actually had to relearn to play the guitar when he landed back on Earth, but apparently he’d learned a little something about concocting a catchy hook while in space. The Grateful Dead released In the Dark the next year, which propelled the group to phenomenal popularity. “Touch of Grey” was featured on MTV and the album sold like fresh barrels of Orange Sunshine. To the horror of hardcore ‘heads, the lot scene was suddenly flooded with jocks, preppies, and corporate shills. The Dead’s show became a parody of itself overnight, and Jerry’s passion for his creation continued to dwindle as his bank account exploded.

Unfortunately, money couldn’t buy Garcia his health. Despite lumbering attempts at dieting and repeated stints in rehab, Jerry just couldn’t shake his snack-n-smack habits. His cup overflowed with love, as evidenced by his three wives, four daughters, and countless friends, but his fat-clogged heart strained to keep pumping the heroin to his frayed nerves. He continued to tour when his health permitted, but frequently forgot songs he’d played a million times in mid-strum. Fortunately, most fans were too fucked up to care, but their bootlegs survive to tell the tale.

Jerry’s last tour in the mid-90s was to be fraught with disaster. Once again, America was sick of its freeloading hippies. Numerous locales viewed Garcia’s vagrant masses with suspicion, and local police began responding to any sign of defiance with heavy clubs and pepper spray. Even oldschool Deadheads were put out with the more belligerent spirits among them. They began circulating flyers urging tie-dyed punters to “cool out,” stop breaking shit, and for God’s sake, pick up at least a few pieces of trash on your way out of town! Despite every attempt to save the scene, the Deadheads’ portable Utopia would soon come to an end.

On July 5, 1995, the chaos peaked at Deer Creek Amphitheater in Noblesville, IN, where anarchic fans lost all sense of nobility. Thousands of ticketless revellers amped up on feelings of unbridled freedom smashed through the venue’s fence, hurling planks and bottles at security. “Fuck you” was the watchword of the day, and skulls were cracked by both police batons and flying debris. The band was disgusted, cancelling the next night’s show and publishing an open letter to all Deadheads. The letter urged fans to dismantle their Lord of the Flies lot scene or else the band would stop touring. As it turned out, the death of the Dead hinged on Jerry’s indiscretions, not the unruly tribe he had attracted.

Jerry Garcia checked into the Betty Ford Clinic soon after the Deer Creek riot, but left after only two weeks. About a week after his fifty-third birthday, Jerry decided to give sobriety one more shot and checked into Serenity Knolls treatment center. A nurse found him dead of a heart attack on the morning of August 9, 1995. His continuous intake of drugs and grub had taken its toll, and Garcia joined his friend Janis Joplin and The Dead’s four “hot seat” keyboardists in the Great Jam Band in the Sky.

News of Garcia’s death hit devoted fans like an unshakable bad trip. Many gathered at 710 Ashbury—the birthplace of The Grateful Dead—to contribute flowers and photos to a growing memorial. Twenty-five thousand fans gathered at an official public memorial in Golden Gate Park on August 23rd, where the rainbow of tie-dye was darkened by a cloud of black armbands. Deadheads shed a million tears which, if collected, could probably dose an entire music festival for a weekend. As per his last will and testament, half of Jerry’s ashes were poured into India’s sacred Ganges River; the other half were emptied into the San Francisco Bay.

One fan asked the big question on everyone’s mind: “What happens to a community when its messiah, when its icon is gone?”

Typically, he is resurrected in one form or another.  In the case of the Deadheads, many went on to follow Phish and Widespread Panic. Some retreated back into the ranks of the Rainbow Family where they continue to uphold the values of communal living off the larger social grid. Out in the wider world, Grateful Dead memorabilia continues to adorn music festival vendor stalls and college dorm rooms.  The Internet has bestowed access to once-rare live bootlegs upon the initiated and the profane alike.

It has been over a decade and a half since Garcia’s passing, and yet one still occasionally sees an old VW bus covered in skeletons and teddy bears sputtering down the highway, chasing dreams of a world where universal love breaks the chains of human depravity. Who knows? Perhaps they will find it at the end of the psychedelic rainbow.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

The Grateful Dead — “Ripple

Eat Shit and Die: GG Allin’s
First Name Was Jesus Christ

© Brandt Hardin

“There is only One True God,”
GG Allin told a cringing talk show audience, “and that lives within me—I am that God.” Five days later, on June 28, 1993, he was dead.

Covered in jagged scars and needle tracks, smeared with puke and his own shit, GG Allin proclaimed himself to be the King of the Underground, the Savior of Rock n’ Roll, beyond Good and Evil.

“I believe I am the highest power, absolutely. I am in control at all times. Jesus Christ, God, and Satan all in one.”

The craziest part is that multitudes of kids followed him faithfully. At his peak, the self-described scumfuc rocker bragged that his fanbase was a million strong. Jaded, alienated youth at its finest, throw away kids living out gutter punk fantasies, drunks and junkies, the maladjusted and the mentally deranged, the abused, the morbid, the lost, a sub-society of the anti-social—they needed a hero so badly, some let their superstar pee on their faces.

“I created myself inside the womb from the fires of Hell.”

According to his brother Merle, GG’s rural, religious fanatic father originally dubbed his son Jesus Christ Allin. The Allin boys were New Hampshire hicks, born and raised. Their father was an abusive recluse, at one point digging graves for his family in the cellar and threatening to fill them in the near future. Like many a hayseed in the late 70s, GG packed his bags and headed for the city in search of rock n’ roll, but he always appreciated his up-bringing. “That made me sort of a warrior soul at an early age.” By the mid-80s, he was an underground sensation.

On the surface, GG Allin appears to be a brain-damaged retard, but there is a cleverness to his songs that can’t be denied. Not surprisingly, the singer could hardly keep a backing band for more than a year. Only his brother Merle, who played bass, stood beside him to the end.

GG played at various times with the Jabbers, the Scumfucs, the Holy Men, the Texas Nazis, the AIDS Brigade, and a number of others before assembling his final band, the Murder Junkies. Nearly all of his songs were primitive punk rock, though he did a number of country tunes in the vein of the only hero he ever claimed, Hank Williams. A perusal of his song-titles shows the direction of his message:

  • Bored to Death
  • “Drink, Fight, Fuck”
  • “Anti-social Masturbator”
  • “Expose Yourself to Kids”
  • “Young Little Meat”
  • “Last in Line for the Gangbang”
  • “You’ll Never Tame Me”
  • “Castration Crucifixion”
  • “Suck My Ass It Smells”
  • “War in My Head – I Am Your Enemy”
  • “Die When You Die”
  • “Violence Now – Assassinate the President”
  • “Kill the Police – Destroy the System”
  • “I Am The Highest Power”
  • “No Room for Nigger”
  • “I Live to be Hated”
  • “Kiss Me in the Gutter”
  • “Immortal Pieces of Me”
  • When I Die

GG Allin’s albums spread through the punk scene like hepatitis germs on Sid Vicious’ syringe, but his true claim to fame was his ultra-violent stage show. “If you come to my show, you’re going to a war,” he proclaimed. “My mind’s the machine gun, my body’s the bullets, and the audience is the target.”

Going to a GG Allin show was like swimming in a sewer full of drunk Irishmen—you came out battered and smelling like shit. The singer usually took the stage in nothing but a studded dog collar. His shaved head, hairless torso, toothless maw, and thimble-sized penis gave him the appearance of an overgrown infant covered in jailhouse tattoos and throwing a temper tantrum.

“My rock n’ roll is not to entertain, but to annihilate. I’m trying to bring danger back into rock n’ roll, and there are no limits, and no laws, and I’ll break down every barrier put in front of me until the day I die.”

GG smashed bottles and sliced into his flesh like old newspaper. He would typically ingest laxatives and empty his bowels on stage, eating his own turds like a household dog before smearing the bacteria-infested feces into his self-inflicted wounds, which frequently put him in the hospital.

Geared up on dope and ear-shredding guitar chords, he tore into the audience throwing kicks and punches—along with handfuls of poo with all the fury of a pissed chimpanzee. GG even claimed to have raped both women and men on stage, although there were plenty of damaged goods in the audience who were more than willing to service their Savior.  He liked to brag about defiling girls barely in their teens.

“My body is the rock n’ roll temple,” he told Geraldo’s jeering audience, “and my flesh, blood, and body fluids are a Communion to the people—whether they like it or not.”

Some fans cheered, some puked, and more than a few beat the living damnit out of Allin. At one Texas show, fifteen kids fed him the boots at once, breaking his arm. Love him or hate him, such vile intensity has never been seen before or since.

“It’s not a performance, it’s a ritual.”

GG’s antics, on stage and off, got him arrested over fifty-two times in twelve states. “I’ve been to jail many, many times…and every time they put me in jail…I come out that much stronger.” In 1989 he did a year and a half in Jackson State Prison (MI) for assaulting—and allegedly raping—a female fan. He told Jerry Springer’s talk show audience:

“Okay, I cut her, I burned her, I drank her blood, but she also did the same to me! It was a consensual agreement, but in the courtroom they said I was to blame because I’m GG Allin. I’m the King of the Underground—they need to nail me to a cross.”

For all of his insistence that whiners should overcome their weaknesses instead of playing the victim, GG certainly groaned under the unfairness of his own cross like a true martyr. Much of his allure revolved around his repeated promises to kill himself onstage. Year after year, he assured fans that on Halloween he would off himself and take as many people in the crowd as he could with him.

“I will commit suicide on stage and the blood of Rock N’ Roll will become the poison of the Universe forever.”

There is an astonishing degree of mysticism to GG Allin’s performance art. His unconcealed indulgence of primal desires was juxtaposed with material simplicity that only a monk could appreciate.  Most rock stars make a pact with the Devil so they can enjoy lavish lifestyles and physical perfection.  Not GG.

“Pretty much everything I own [will fit] in a paper bag. To me, it seems like it’s the only way to live… So possessions don’t mean anything to me. I don’t need anything, so that way they can never catch me.”

Allin was profoundly self-absorbed, and yet his self-mutilation and disregard for things of this world are reminiscent of the fleshly mortification and renunciation common to the most stringent yogis of India, the shamans of tribal societies, or the Gnostics of the ancient Mediterranean.

“It’s like my soul is just, it’s just beyond this fucking Universe… It can’t be confined. It’s like I’ve got this wild soul, it wants to get out of this life. It’s too confined in this life, and I think, to take yourself out at your peak, if you can die at your peak, your strongest point, your soul will be that much stronger in the next existence.”

GG Allin’s turd-hurling rampage across America was conceived as an infernal ceremony.

“I believe you can make forces of good and evil work for you, to get what you want. I’ve done black masses that worked for me.”

Upon being released from Jackson Prison in 1991, he began to gather his emotionally crippled fans around him for the complete destruction of society as we know it, hastening the arrival of what Aleister Crowley would call the Age of the Crowned and Conquering Child. Talk show producers and club owners lined up to provide a soapbox for GG’s psychotic Christ complex.

“I have so much hatred because I look at these people, these robots, these conformists, these people that dress in these uniforms, and I’m sick and tired of it,” he told Jane Whitney’s disapproving audience.

“I am the Messiah, I rule the rock n’ roll underground. I’m bringing us to a revolution against the government, against the police, against any form of society that is trying to put us down and restrict us in any way, shape, or manner.”

The scumfuc kids went apeshit for his delusional rants.

In June of 1993, GG Allin went to see the culmination of his career in film, Todd Phillips’ Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies. Fired up on his own image, the 36 year-old singer appeared on The Jane Whitney Show with two 17 year-old girls who referred to him as “God.”

“I will die for him,” Wendy said to the consternation of a finger-wagging public. “He is my God, he is my daddy… On Father’s Day, my daddy gave me the great gift of letting me watch him masturbate and I got to piss in his mouth and it was the greatest father/daughter experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

All across America, hand-wringing housewives in the grip of the Satanic Panic prepared for the worst. Is this what children have become? Surely the world must be coming to an end.

On June 27, GG played a brief show at The Gas Station in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, after which he roamed the streets covered in blood with a gaggle of grubby fans trailing behind him. The only things missing were a donkey and some palm fronds. GG wound up at an apartment nearby, where he snonked a fat bag of heroin. His friends thought it would be funny to take pictures of themselves next to his unconscious body. The next morning, they realized he was dead.

The postmortem photo ops didn’t stop there, though. A few days later, GG Allin laid in his casket wearing nothing but his leather jacket and a jock strap that read “EAT ME”, which attendees pulled down to playfully diddle his wingy. They placed a microphone in one hand and a bottle of Jim Beam in the other, then crammed his mouth full of pills and tapped cigarette ashes on his discolored face as they remembered his life.

Sure, GG’s death was pretty anticlimactic for those who envisioned him cramming a stick of dynamite up his ass and blowing half the audience to smithereens, but they made the best of it.

GG Allin’s artistic career is viewed by some as the equivalent of a chronic sex offender who carries a video camera into a nursery, while others paint a more grandiose, metaphorical picture of American society eaten alive with sexual deviance and an unquenchable thirst for violence.

As I write this from a ghetto motel, listening to the sounds of tireless domestic violence above me, I am inclined to agree with the latter interpretation. GG’s work may have been decadent and disgusting, and I would undoubtedly shoot his ass and bury him in the woods if he ever moved into my neighborhood, but perhaps the artist should have the last word on his own demented legacy:

“Strip away all the shit from rock n’ roll and what you got left is me.”

© 2011 Joseph Allen

GG Allin and the Murder JunkiesBite It You Scum
1993