Four Faces of Michael Jackson

© Brandt Hardin

The only constant is change: the seed becomes a tree, the caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly, the world-famous pop star whose indiscretions brought shame in life becomes a pixelated god after death. Even before his deification, Michael Jackson was transformed from a cute black boy in the 70s into what Dave Chappelle calls a “white, ghoulish-like creature” by the late 90s. Perhaps this is an ominous omen of the Post-Human Age that is fast approaching. As fans consume MJ’s corpse on this second deathday like autograph-hungry maggots, at least they can take comfort knowing that one day they will all become beautiful flies.

Baby Mike

When little Michael Jackson came to the forefront of the Jackson 5, the pop world stood still for his love songs. How could such a young boy be so grown up? What does an adolescent kid from Gary, Indiana know about romantic love and relationships that gives him such passion and insight on the subject? Of course, little Michael knew nothing of love—but he did know that one false note would earn him a belt-lashing from his father, Joe, so he quickly learned to perform a convincing charade.

Joe Jackson was one mean son of a bitch. He beat all of his many kids relentlessly, boys and girls alike. If you pissed him off, he would beat your ass. If you made him happy, he would beat your ass some more, just to make sure you didn’t think he was going soft on you. Michael attributed his excellence in song and dance to his father’s strict discipline, but the emotional scars would rise to the surface in time.

Michael was completely isolated by child stardom like a self-obsessed midget in a doll house. His days were spent rehearsing under threat of beatings, his nights were spent performing with Joe watching backstage. La la la, boogie boogie boogie—backhand to the chin. What a life. Any spare time he found in between was spent mulling over his own flaws, consistently pointed out by his sadistic father.

Joe Jackson made fun of his son’s acne and called him “Big Nose” because of Michael’s wide, African snout. Little Michael couldn’t even bear to look in a mirror. To the world he was the cutest little button in the bundle. To his own eyes, he was a fucking monster. How ironic that the tables would turn completely at the hands of various inept plastic surgeons and the kazillion photos that would make him immortal.

The King of Pop

© Jeffrey Bertrand

The 80s came like a foaming wave of pop obsession, with Michael Jackson riding atop on a sequined surfboard. We saw him knife-fighting his way through “Beat It.” We watched him attempt to moonwalk away from accusations of sexual irresponsibility in “Billie Jean.” We were terrified at his monstrous transformation on “Thriller.” The yellow eyes, the prominent cheekbones, the button nose. I am still scared shitless.

The theme of “Thriller”—in which an otherwise normal guy morphs into a blood-thirsty beast, then later on, into a rotten, urban zombie gyrating his pelvis with lascivious pop star sensuality—is a striking metaphor for the primal urges we all feel from time to time. Beneath the fur, fangs, and grunts of classic monster movie villains are the disturbingly mundane desires that overtake men with weak impulse control.

The Werewolf is a symbol of unbridled violence and sexuality. The seductive Dracula is the wealthy noble who goes after virgin village girls, draining them of life and making them into slaves. Swamp Thing is a fish-smelling coonass who carries his buxom victim off to the marsh to have his way with her. Frankenstein’s monster is a stitched up freak that only a child could love. No wonder Michael could relate.

Thriller remains the best-selling album in the world, though Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream may soon break Thriller’s world record as the only album to have five #1 singles. The success of the album rocketed Michael Jackson into the farthest reaches of space, where his quasar continues to pour radiation down to Earth. Jackson’s choreography is impeccable, copied from the black street dancers of New York and Los Angeles. His vocals are at once impassioned and totally under his control. The beats were no joke, either—unless you count “Weird” Al Yankovic’s renditions. Michael Jackson was a pop genius, pure and simple.

By the end of the 80s, he was raking in millions of dollars. The entire world knew his name. Fans would risk life and limb to touch the hem of his garment. Grown men wore single sparkling gloves in imitation of their idol. Women would burst into tears upon catching a glimpse of his white smile. Despite his pious rhetoric, which stemmed from a devout upbringing in the Jehovah’s Witness sect, Michael Jackson had become a god on Earth with a halo of flaming hair and a spirit animal, “Bubbles” the chimp, to guide him on his way.

Wacko Jacko

© Jeffrey Bertrand

As his music matured, the King of Pop began to inject Messianic visions of One World under Michael into his songs. We would save the children and heal the world with love and indiscriminate acceptance of personal idiosyncrasies. That’s pretty cynical—and clever—when you consider the allegations of child molestation which surfaced against the singer in the early 90s.

Of course, young Jordan Chandler’s claims that Jackson enticed him at 13 years-old into kissing, wanking, and felating were dismissed by the legal system after an undisclosed monetary settlement closed the case. But after that, many of us began to wonder if Michael Jackson was really a wholesome secular Messiah, or just another smooth criminal.

Absolute excess is nothing new to the entertainment elite, but somehow Michael Jackson’s increasingly bizarre appearance made the prospect of child molestation that much more disturbing—for those of us who cried “Guilty!” anyway. Others were more charitable. Like Christians who are willing to go to blows at the suggestion that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman centurion, or neo-Nazis who maintain that Hitler was just misunderstood, obsessed MJ fans refuse to believe that their hero would ever stoop to buggering children.

If I ever had any doubts about MJ’s guilt, they were completely dispelled when Living with Michael Jackson aired in 2003. At the opening of the documentary, we see Michael sitting beneath a fine arts painting of himself as a muscular pagan god with alabaster skin. Youthful cherubs caress the painted pop star as he stares impassively at the viewer. The effect is chilling.

Over the course of the film we listen to MJ lie through his teeth about his plastic surgery. He claims that he is the biological father of his three children, then finally he denies any sexual misconduct with the twelve year-old boy with whom he holds hands and cuddles with on camera.

By this point, the plastic surgery is beyond obvious—the guy looks like Marilyn Manson with Tinker Bell’s nose for Christ’s sake. His hair is as straight and black as Eazy E, his eyes are slanted like media reports on Biggie Small’s death, his lips are thinner than Karen Carpenter, his cheekbones are higher than Sid Vicious, there is a dimple in his chin as deep as Patsy Cline’s vagina, and his nose is barely hanging on. Yet he looks the interviewer in the eye and tells him that God made him that way. Unless “God” is a metaphor for medical ingenuity and millions of dollars, I call bullshit.

Strike one.

Michael parades his pale children through the streets wearing carnival masks. All three are whiter than the blue-eyed Devil. He dangles baby “Blanket” from a fourth-story balcony, then crams a bottle into the squalling kid’s peachy face the next day, saying, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” staring with psycho almond eyes. When confronted about the baby-dangling, he denies responsibility, arrogantly stating that he was just being kind enough to let fans see his veiled rug rat. The kicker: Later on Michael not only claims to have contributed his own thoroughly African sperm to Blanket’s genetic make-up, he insists that the unpigmented infant’s mother is actually black!

Strike two.

At the end of the program, Michael defends himself against suggestions that it is inappropriate for a middle-aged man to share a bed with adolescent boys in his magical Neverland mansion, but I have lost all sympathy for him at this point. When he says, “The most loving thing to do is to share your bed with someone”—particularly impressionable, prepubescent boys—my Pervo-Meter is spitting out sparks and springs.

Strike three.

Dedicated fans rallied behind their golden idol. They kept chanting in unison, “Fuck the press, you’re the best!” Over the course of the 2005 trial, it became clear that the accuser Gavin Arvizo’s parents were as shady and opportunistic as Jordan Chandler’s parents had been in 1993. And who would deny that any parents willing to accept money to allow their child to sleep over at a celebrity robber baron’s mansion are untrustworthy?

The media was equally calloused—after all, how cruel do you have to be to make multiple teenagers world-famous for getting molested by Michael Jackson? Still, only a rube would buy into Jackson’s bald-faced insistence that he was an innocent victim of a worldwide conspiracy to rob him of his Messianic destiny. Nonsense. MJ was just another billionaire lab monkey with a button wired to the demented pleasure centers of his brain, and he just couldn’t keep his sickly bleached thumb off of that motherfucker.

They don’t call it a sick, sad world for nothing.

Michael?

Even after the “not guilty” verdict, Michael was ruined. Bankrupt, humiliated, and perhaps hungry for some Arab action, he high-tailed it to Bahrain where he was hosted by the sheik in his palace. Decadent elites of a feather?

Then in 2006, the incorrigible King of Pop(ping man-cherries) was ready for a comeback. He began recording with the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am in Ireland. The next year, he did a final interview with Ebony magazine. In 2009 he rounded up the roadies and geared up for yet another world tour. The Earthlings still loved their fallen angel—within two hours, over a million tickets were sold for MJ’s first residency stint at London’s O2 Arena. Then came the grand finale.

Just when you thought the cult of dead rock stars was a thing of the past, on June 25, 2009 Michael Jackson died of cardiac arrest. You have to wonder if the appropriately entitled This Is It tour was an intentional reference.  His personal physician stands accused of manslaughter for administering the anaesthetic Propofol, along with a cocktail of other pharmies, to relieve Jackson’s insomnia—which Propofol was never intended for.

The entire world went nuts. Every day, for days and days and days, all you heard were Michael Jackson songs. They played “Billie Jean” at bars. They bumped “Smooth Criminal” from their cars. They showed “Thriller” on TV. Billions of frantic searches for more information on the star’s death broke the fucking Internet.

Fans gathered to weep and mourn together at the Staples Center in LA, where MJ held his tour rehearsals. They left flowers and devotional prayers on his star on Hollywood Boulevard. Even now, they are gathering in his hometown of Gary, Indiana to honor their mutant Lord. Fans will forgive anything if you just make the hook catchy enough. Most people will cover their eyes and follow spiritual charlatans, corrupt political leaders, and yes, even pedophile pop stars over the edge of a moral precipice when the piper calls the tune. It’s just human nature. The technological creation that was Michael Jackson is no exception.

Fuck me once, shame on you. Fuck me twice… well, I guess that means I asked for it.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

Michael Jackson — “Thriller”
1983

Bradley Nowell:
Sublime’s Eternal Sun of a Beach

© Jeffrey Bertrand

If you didn’t know that today is the 15th deathday of Bradley Nowell, don’t feel bad. Millions of kids bought up Sublime’s 1996 self-titled album—released two months after the singer overdosed on you-know-what in a San Francisco hotel room—but most didn’t know he had died. Nowell is what you might call a late-start martyr, illuminating an otherwise seedy state of affairs with his posthumous halo.

What kind of asshole pawns his band’s equipment right before a gig, casually shits his pants on clonidine patches, and kills himself one week after his wedding and two months before his album goes platinum? A junky, that’s who.

That’s not to say that Brad wasn’t loved. His many friends, his wife, his one year-old son, and his loyal dalmatian absolutely adored him. He was the sort of shirtless surfer boy that has you laughing beer out your nostrils as he recounts the time you accidentally stuck your finger on his dirty needle while fishing for change under the couch cushion. It shouldn’t be funny, but it’s all in the delivery. Charismatic drug-addicts are a lot like cult leaders, lawyers, and cynical writers—totally lovable despite being self-centered pricks.

Bradley Nowell embraced elitist heroin chic like a hipster’s skinny jeans cling to his sweaty butt crack. All the dead rock stars were doing it, and Brad wasn’t about to be left out. Janis Joplin and Sid Vicious were immortalized with a spike to the vein like a nail in the palm. Just like GG Allin, Kurt Cobain, and Shannon Hoon in the early 90s, Bradley Nowell’s body was found stabbed full of more holes than a desperate fat girl who wields a pocket-knife on herself so the entire football team can get it on with her simultaneously. It was an attention thing.

Funny thing is, the wider world never cared about Nowell’s personal struggles until the year after his death. Before that he was just an evening’s worth of good vibe guitar licks bouncing around the Long Beach party scene.

Sublime sold more than 60,000 copies of their 1992 debut 40 oz. to Freedom out of the trunk of a car. They recorded their second album, Robbin’ the Hood, in an obscure Long Beach crackhouse. It was only after a local radio station repeatedly played their peppy single “Date Rape” in 1995—which playfully describes the karmic odyssey of a horny scumbag who goes from picking up victims at the bar to getting forcibly fucked behind bars—that Sublime was given their shot at the national spotlight.

Brad had to do a long stint in rehab to finish off his self-titled mainstream masterpiece, Sublime. The album is a brilliant mix of punk, folk, and reggae—polkeggae, if you will.  He kept it together just long enough.  Two days after his Vegas wedding, Nowell was back on the road and back on the smack, and within five days he was flat on his back and zipped in a sack. With one hot shot he traded his long dreamt-of success, his fatherhood, and God knows how many surfside barbecues for six feet of dirt and a bucketful of worms. Is there such a thing as buyer’s remorse in the afterlife?

© Brandt Hardin

To commemorate Nowell’s passing, my girlfriend and I spent last night listening to his last album under a sweet cloud of schmoke-well. As with “Date Rape”, the most popular tracks on Sublime obscure Nowell’s twisted subject matter with catchy, upbeat tunes. When I was a teenager, Sublime was just the stony soundtrack to my two joints in the morning and two joints at night, not a nightmarish voyage into the heart of darkness.  My, how perception changes with age.

We tapped our feet to “Wrong Way” and sang along to the story of some pervo protagonist driving off with a fourteen year-old prostitute who was broken in by her father and seven brothers, only to have this crafty Lolita steal his car as the cops drag him away. “Santeria” is another love song about reclaiming a street-stepping sweetheart by blowing her new boyfriend’s head off and slapping the shit out of her in full on caveman style. Great mood music for a romantic evening.

“April 29, 1992 (Miami)” is a relaxing romp through the Rodney King riots—a cracker loot anthem about snatching up consumer goods and burning down Babylon for fun. At one point Nowell becomes indignant that certain demographics are overlooked in the chaos:

They said it was for the black man
They said it was for the Mexican
And not for the white man

But Nowell finds that some pastimes transcend race:

It’s about coming up
And staying on top
And screamin’ “187 on a muthafuckin’ cop!”

By the end of the song, my girlfriend and I were ready to take to the streets with Molotov cocktails, but were too blitzed to be bothered. Besides, we had a riddle to unravel.

Sublime’s biggest feel good hit is undoubtedly “What I Got”. On the surface, the tune is as blissfully optimistic as any fortune cookie prediction. But the wise Chinese buffet-goer knows that you have to decode the otherwise vacuous message by adding “in bed” to the end, as in:

“You find beauty in ordinary things, do not lose this ability in bed.”

“Humor usually works at the moment of awkwardness in bed.”

“It takes more than good memory to have good memories in bed.”

“Ideas are like children; there are none so wonderful as your own in bed.”

Through a similar cryptographic analysis, we were able to decipher the true meaning of “What I Got” by reading between the lines:

Early in the morning, risin’ to the street
where there’s heroin
Light me up that cigarette and I strap shoes on my feet
to find heroin
Got to find a reason, a reason things went wrong
heroin?
Got to find a reason why my money’s all gone
because heroin
I got a dalmatian, I can still get high
on heroin
I can play the guit-tar like a motherfuckin’ riot!
which sounds like a drowsy musician struggling to play his instrument while on heroin

Life is too short, so love the one you got
like you would heroin
‘Cause you might get run over or you might get shot
up with too much heroin

[…]

I don’t cry when my dog runs away
because heroin is more important
I don’t get angry at the bills I have to pay
I pay my dealer instead
I don’t get angry when my Mom smokes pot
because nobody likes a hypocrite on heroin
Hits the bottle and goes right to the rock
Fuckin’, fightin’, it’s all the same
when you’re on heroin
Livin’ with Louie dog’s the only way to stay sane
other than heroin
Let the lovin’, let the lovin’ come back to me
or maybe just give me more heroin

Lovin’ is what I got
that, and a spoonful of heroin
I said remember that…

If only anti-drug campaigners had a sliver of the talent Bradley Nowell possessed, there might be no more drug users inspired to write music as powerful as Sublime made.  I often wonder if the drugs open artists up to their fantastic potential—as Nowell believed heroin did for him—or if the music in their souls is simply strong enough to pour out despite the dope.

Did Bradley Nowell shake off his mortal shitbag for sake of a stupid smack habit, or did he ride the Tao into the jagged rocks of Destiny?  Perhaps the answer is somewhere in between, as ambiguous as a Yin-Yang decal on a freshly waxed surfboard.

The ancient Tao Te Ching say: “True words are not beautiful. Beautiful words are not true (in bed).”

© 2011 Joseph Allen

SublimeBadfish
1992

How Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley
Attained Intravenous Enlightenment

It is an interesting coincidence that the respective coroners’ reports for Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley place both of their deaths on April 5, and that they were born within six months of each other just before the Summer of Love.  Yet these two Seattle icons made dramatically different exits.  Kurt went out with a bang in 1994, while Layne slowly faded away, finally disappearing completely in 2002.

They were suffering saints in my formative, pube-sprouting years, and I enshrined their brooding images in my superstar iconography. Inspired by rock n’ roll fantasies, I steeled my will against the Christ to whom eunuchs bow, tasted 31 flavors of fucked up, and my grandmother even gave me an old maroon cardigan to match my long blond hair. Monkey see, monkey do.  The result was the long-awaited loss of my virginity to an avid Hole fan and constant harassment from rednecks at school. Thanks, Grandma.

Then my heroes killed themselves. I never had to really miss Kurt or Layne, though, because the cd-player kept their souls spinning and drowned out the noise of the outside world. Those songs still bring back memories from my childhood.

^

Kurt

© Brandt Hardin at DREGstudios.com

Kurt Cobain was a lonesome, sensitive child. His parents always bickered with each other when he needed attention, leaving him to his only friends—an imaginary specter named “Boddah” and his gay pal from school, Myer Loftin. Naturally, he was bullied by local yokels for maintaining the latter relationship, setting him squarely against the surly sons of loggers and their masculine redneck values.

Kurt faced a cruel, predatory cosmos throughout those early years in Aberdeen, WA. It was a world populated with judgemental adults and their ruthless, piranha-like spawn, where harsh criticism and bathroom bitch-slappings lurked around every corner—a world which Cobain would never make peace with.

“I wouldn’t have been surprised if they voted me Most Likely to Kill Everyone at a High School Dance[,]” he mused years later.  “[B]ut I’m sure I would opt to kill myself first.”

Nothing seemed to satisfy the young man, so he left the comfort of home to seek enlightenment in the gutter. He bummed change like a wandering mendicant, did cheap drugs, surfed couches, and occasionally slept underneath the bridge. This bitter taste set him apart from the flavorless middle-class and their wealthy overlords.

Legend has it that Kurt bought his first amplifier with his father’s guns. His mother had tossed them into the river after a vicious domestic dispute, and Kurt fished them out to take them to the pawn shop. After a brief spell with a punk band called Skid Row, Cobain formed Nirvana with bassist Chris Novoselic, playing a particularly angsty variation of quirky garage rock which resonated with the wayward youth of Seattle.

In 1989 Nirvana was signed to the Sub Pop label, where they enjoyed moderate underground success. Kurt wrote in his journal, “Punk is musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want. Nirvana means freedom from pain and suffering in the external world and thats [sic] close to my definition of punk rock.”

Cobain’s choice of band names is compelling.  The original Sanskrit term simply means “to extinguish the flame,” as in the flames of desire. The Buddha used the word “nirvana” to describe the state of Enlightenment which frees the soul from this miserable karmic cycle of endless reincarnation.

The Buddha taught four Noble Truths, which come off to many Westerners as being extremely emo:

  • Everything is suffering.
  • Suffering is caused by desire, which chains every being to fleeting pleasures—and the subsequent sorrow of loss.
    Food? Fighting? Fucking? Friendship? Family? Freedom? Feelings? Fuggedaboutit!
  • The only way to end suffering is to end desire—to extinguish the flame.
  • To end desire, one must obtain Enlightenment through the Eightfold Path:

Right Understanding
Right Intention
Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration

According to the Buddha, there are no Absolutes to cling to—no heaven, no soul, no God. The Universe is plagued by eternal Entropy, and the only hope is to escape.  For Cobain, there was only one way out.

In 1991 Nirvana released Nevermind, and the teenage universe was suddenly cloaked in lumberjack flannel. The album—featuring an infant swimming toward a fishing hook baited with a pistol—eventually sold over 25 million copies worldwide, knocking Michael Jackson’s Dangerous into the Abyss of Not-Number 1. When not completely obtuse, the lyrics were sorrowful, paranoid, and incurably cynical.

Immediately, MTV cameras revolved around Kurt’s face like black-eyed cherubs. Rolling Stone indulged every painful memory and complaint. Teenagers across the globe were inspired to lament their own pathetic lives before they even graduated highschool. They were goaded to buck the fascist trends of corporate America by buying alternative commodities, and a few were even moved to blow their own heads off after Cobain’s suicide.

Kurt wasn’t trying to be a trend-setter, though. He surveyed the sea of Cobain-clones before him, and it made him sick to his stomach. Literally. The waifish, chain-smoking singer suffered from chronic gastroenteritis, which he medicated with heroin until his dying day. Burning guts. Nausea. Loss of appetite. Vomiting. Constipation. Mud-butt. All was suffering for poor Kurt, and the grunge crowd doted over his every tummy ache.

Kurt despised their sympathy, and claimed to hate the fame. He didn’t want “to be a fucking spokesman” for MTV’s alternative marketing scheme. Like the black-clad anarchists gathering in the Pacific Northwest in the 90s, he wanted to break the constraints of “evil corporate Oppressors” with Universal Enlightenment. In his wildest fantasies, Kurt was ready to start a Revolution, even if that meant breaking a few eggs.

One of the drawings in Cobain’s posthumously published journals shows a camoflage-clad soldier wearing a football helmet dangling from a noose. In one passage, he states (with grammatical errors left unedited):

“I am in absolute and total support of: homosexuality, drug use, in experimentation (although I am living proof of harmful results from over indulgence) Anti oppression, ie (religion, racism, sexism, censorship and patriotism) creativity thru music, art, journalism, Love, friendship, family, animals and full scale violently organized, terrorist-fueled revolution.

“You cannot de-program the Glutton.

“It would be nice to see the gluttons become so commonly hunted down that eventually they will either submit to the oppposite of their ways or be scared shitless to ever leave their homes[...]

“Arm yourself, find a representative of Gluttony or oppression and blow the motherfuckers head off.”

In a letter to Tobi Vail (drummer for Bikini Kill) composed just after the recording of Nevermind, Kurt wrote (without corrections):

“Yeah, all Isms feed off one another, but at the top of the food chain is still the white, corporate, macho, strong ox male. Not redeemable as far as im concerned[...]

“But there are thousands of green minds, young gullable 15 year old Boys out there just starting to fall into the grain of what theyve been told of what man is supposed to be, and there are plenty of tools to use. The most effective tool is entertainment[...]

“We can pose as the enemy to infiltrate the mechanics of the system to start its rot from the inside[...] And the hairy, sweaty, macho, sexist dickheads will soon drown in a pool of razorblades and semen, stemmed from the uprising of their children[...]

“Homophobe vaccectomy[...]

“The revolution will be televised[...]

“As you may have guessed by now Ive been taking a lot of drugs lately It might be time for the Betty Ford Clinic or the Richard Nixon library to save me from abusing my enemic, rodent-like body any longer.”

Drug addiction would take precedence over any of Cobain’s revolutionary aims.  As with the Buddha, the world hit Kurt like a hot kiss on a raw nerve, and he was eager to subsume all earthly desires under one.

In February 1992 Kurt married Courtney Love, the brash, bitchy frontwoman for the feminist fatale rock band, Hole—which was a much more appropriate title than her own surname. Love was also a junky, happy to slave over a hot spoon for her husband. It is telling that Kurt seemed to intentionally misspell the drug’s name in his journals, calling it “heroine.”

During one of the Buddha’s sermons, an earnest seeker asked the Awakened One, “What is Enlightenment?” The Buddha simply smiled and held up a flower. It must have been a red poppy.

The junky’s pursuit of Nirvana is like an opioid variation on the Eightfold Path.

  • Right Understanding: Opiates can kill the pain of desire, if only for a moment.
  • Right Intention: Seek a fix to annihilate one’s Self.

Not long after Kurt and Courtney’s daughter, Francis Bean, was born, an interviewer for Vanity Fair reported that Courtney had shot heroin while pregnant. The public reacted with disgust, and Francis Bean was soon taken into state custody for a short time. Unable to stem the tide of media criticism, Kurt and Courtney resorted to leaving violent threats on journalists’ answering machines. Despite the couple’s erratic behavior, they were awarded custody of their daughter in early 1993.

While he was disgusted with the world, Kurt was fascinated by childbirth. His last album, released in 1993, was called In Utero (though he originally intended to call it I Hate Myself and Want to Die.) He was obsessed with the ability of male seahorses to bear children, and famously said: “Holding my baby is the best drug in the world. I don’t want my daughter to grow up with people telling her that her parents were junkies.”

The situation quickly deteriorated from there.  Police were called to the Cobains’ Seattle home a number of times in 1993. On one visit they confiscated an arsenal of Kurt’s guns, which he claimed were for personal protection. On another occasion he was arrested for assaulting Courtney—who had quite a reputation for beating the shit out of her lovers as well. The Cobains’ nanny and various others close to the couple have claimed that Kurt was making plans to cut Courtney out of his will and file for divorce.

Nirvana embarked on a tour later that year, which ended abruptly in March 1994, after Kurt overdosed on Roofies and childrens’ sleeping pills in Italy. He was promptly flown back to America and checked into an LA rehab facility—from which he escaped over the fence. For days, Kurt Cobain was missing. Courtney Love even hired a private investigator, Tom Grant, to look for her husband.

Kurt was finally found by a maintenance man on April 8, 1994, behind the locked door of “the greenhouse” above the garage of the singer’s home in Seattle. A 20-gauge Remington shotgun was cradled in his arms, and a hole was blown through his head. There were syringes, baggies, and enough heroin to kill a small horse in his veins. No fingerprints were found on the gun or the bullets. A farewell letter addressed to his imaginary friend “Boddah” was placed beside his body.

Like Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Pete Ham, and Seattle riot grrrl Mia Zapata, Kurt Cobain was 27 when he died.

Conspiracy theories abound.  Some see an assassination by greedy record industry executives, who sold Nirvana albums at a rate of 50,000 a day in the wake of Cobain’s death. Tom Grant, P.I. believes that his former employer, Courtney Love, had her husband killed to secure her inheritance. Curiously, Hole’s new album was released two weeks later, entitled Live Through This.

On April 10 a crowd estimated at up to 10,000 gathered in Seattle’s Space Needle Park to pay homage to their newly christened rock star martyr. A recording of Courtney Love was played over a sound system, in which she alternately read portions of Kurt’s alleged suicide note, wept, and incited the crowd to deride her late husband for being so selfish. The devout followers burnt their flannel shirts, called their fallen angel an “asshole” in unison, and at least sixty-eight copycat suicides were recorded worldwide.

The last lines of Kurt’s letter to “Boddah” are particularly insightful:

I’m too much of an erratic, moody baby! I don’t have the passion anymore and so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.

peace, love, Empathy,
Kurt Cobain

^

Layne

© Brandt Hardin

Like Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley came to be portrayed as a Seattle-spawned Opiate Icon.  But unlike Cobain—about whom many millions of words have been composed—Staley’s life languished in obscurity. Many argue that Layne’s exacting musicianship far outpaced Cobain’s sloppy style, and that he did not receive the commemoration he deserved. Perhaps if Layne had gone out in an equally dramatic fashion, he would have become a celebrated dead rock star like Kurt. But whereas Cobain talked about hating the media while occupying the spotlight, Staley actually preferred to remain in the shadows, where he slowly slipped out of existence.

Like many of the kids who came to worship him, Layne had a sorry start in life, growing up in Kirkland, WA.  As with Cobain, his father left when he was only seven, an abandonment that would haunt the boy into adulthood. When Layne finally did reconnect with his estranged father—after the old man saw his son in a magazine—Layne encountered a withered junky who used his now-famous son to stay high.

Layne was attracted to the sex and drugs in rock n’ roll from the start. “I wanted to do blow, and I wanted to have those babes under my arms,” he said candidly during his last interview with Rolling Stone in 1996. “I didn’t know what blow was, and I didn’t know what sex was, but it looked impressive to me because it was written in [a rock music] magazine.”

He wasted no time pursuing his dream. After high school, Layne began playing in various glam bands before meeting guitarist Jerry Cantrell in 1987. They worked on a few different projects together, eventually moving away from the 80s metal sound with Alice in Chains’ first album, appropriately entitled We Die Young, in 1990. This was followed by the release of Facelift later that year—which would go double platinum.

Their second LP, Dirt, is generally considered to be Staley’s brooding masterpiece, even though most of the lyrics were written by Jerry Cantrell.  The album sold over six million copies, and remains one of the most influential albums of the 90s—after which every frontman began singing out of his tonsils.  It was soon followed by the sorrowful Jar of Flies, which was actually the first EP to go platinum in the US.  Staley contributed most of the lyrics on that album.  The meloncholy songs lull the listener into a contemplative stillness, and paint a desperate picture of a man whose innocence and joy has all but dried up.

It was Layne’s work with Mad Season in 1995, however, that yields the most insight into his state of mind.  Even the cover art was his own illustration.  You might call the mellow music ”crackhead blues”: songs about addiction, depression, and the disappointment that accompanies false religion.  It was a surprising success, selling more than a million copies.

Unfortunately, success was not as kind to Staley’s soul as it was his bank account.  It didn’t take long for the excess to wear him down. ”If I ever got a gold record, I was going to do my first line of coke on that. I had a great time riding around in limos and eating lobster and gettin’ laid[...] But I can’t physically or mentally live in that lifestyle constantly.”

Layne even claimed to have had a couple of near-death experiences which he thought might turn his life around.  “I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of where I was going to go if I did not follow through with [sobriety.]  That makes me sad for my friends who have taken their own lives, because I know that if your time is not finished here, and you end it yourself, then you gotta finish it somewhere else.”

This was to be Staley’s last magazine interview before dwindling into obscurity. He would lose his long-time girlfriend, Demri Parrott, to a drug-related bacterial infection later that year. After this, he simply withered away.

By 2002 he was living in Seattle’s notoriously drug-saturated U District. He became a complete shut-in, flushed with cash, and his only visitors were basically his drug dealers. His body was shattered, and his teeth had rotted down to black gums.  With one foot in the grave, he denied his body according to the Eightfold Path of the Junky.

  • Right Speech: Gets you the right amount for the right price.
  • Right Action: Keeps your dealers from thinking you are a narc.
  • Right Livelihood: Brings in enough income to get you to the next fix.

“My liver is not functioning and I’m throwing up and shitting my pants,” he told biographer Adriana Rubio, about three months before succumbing.  “I know I’m near death.  I did crack and heroin for years.  I know I have no chance.  It’s too late.”

On April 20 the police kicked in his door after neighbors complained of a horrible smell. They found Staley surrounded in drug paraphernalia, having been dead for at least two weeks. He was 34. Like so many before and after, he had turned his back on the world in pursuit of liberation. His family and friends were devastated. Incidentally, Layne’s last visitor, former Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr, died about a month ago from a methadone overdose on March 8.

“I believe there’s a wonderful place to go after this life,” Layne had said back in ’96, ”and I don’t believe there’s eternal damnation for anyone.  I’m not into religion, but I have a good grasp of my spirituality.”

  • Right Effort: Measure out the perfect amount for a good hit.
  • Right Mindfulness: Cook the goods slowly so you lose the cut but not the rush.
  • Right Concentration: Tie off, plunge the needle, and lay back in eager anticipation as the flames of desire flicker out.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

NirvanaLake of Fire
1993

Mad SeasonRiver of Deceit
1995

*[4-6-11 Ed. note: Some minor editing has occured since the original post.]

February 19: The Death Day of
Bon Scott

Courtesy of Brandt Hardin at DREGstudios.com

A man’s testes are many things to many people. They are objects of affection to be delicately caressed, vulnerable targets for an enemy’s swift boot, or bulging fashion statements in designer briefs. These throbbing organs generate a man’s ultimate purpose—they fuel aggression, propel the pleasure principle, and bestow a masculine pronoun. If his aim is true, future generations will revere his potent orbs as the very wellspring of Life itself.

AC/DC’s greatest frontman, Bon Scott, was extremely proud of his balls. He wore high-waisted skinny jeans to accentuate their curvature, and described them to his wife-to-be as “two hard-boiled eggs and a sausage.” He even wrote a song about them, tastefully entitled, “Big Balls.”

That’s just how Australians are, mate. It isn’t hard to find a bourbon-swilling brawler ready to prove his pair in the land down under. How fitting, then, that after drinking himself to death on February 19, 1980, Bon Scott would be exalted as the patron saint of Australia. He was their true-to-life working class hero, dead at 33.

It was a rough road to glorification. Bon bounced from job to job and band to band for over a decade before fulfilling his destiny in AC/DC. His work ethic was relentless. Never afraid to get his hands dirty, he scraped by laboring on fishing boats, driving tractors, and loading trucks at a fertilizer plant. But his struggle wasn’t just about grit and grime.

Though Bon’s first gigs were behind the drums with the bluesy Spektors, he soon found himself getting dolled up for the utterly unoriginal pop band, The Valentines. Those groovy years from ’66 to ’70 found Scott wearing Shakespearean bangs, poofy sleeves, and ball-shriveling bell-bottoms, all while singing backup to covers of “She Said” and “Build Me Up Buttercup.” Getting girly seems to be a rite of passage for hyper-masculine rockers. I guess it’s a long way to the top if you want to rock n’ roll.

During his four year run with the fuzz-faced folk band, Fraternity, Bon began to retune his energies to the Y chromosome. It was probably a surge of testosterone that fueled his brutal bike wreck in May of 1974. Estranged from his wife, wasted on Jack Daniels, and fired up on irrational fury, Bon hopped onto his motorcycle and crashed into an oncoming car, which landed him in a three-day coma with his teeth smashed out. This mishap shook him up, but it was only a rest stop on the highway to Hell.

Bon was still recovering when he saw the Young brothers—Angus and Malcolm—play their ferocious blues licks in an Adelaide club. They were introduced by mutual friends backstage. When it was suggested that Bon sit in on an AC/DC rehearsal, the fresh-faced Angus Young accused Bon—now in his late 20s—of being too old to rock n’ roll. Bon was quick to show the wee Scottish sprout what cock rock is all about. He tore his shirt off, screeched his heart out, and they offered him the vocalist gig on the spot. Bon told them he would think about it. His commitments to Fraternity and his love for his wife were still tugging at him, but ultimately, there was only one path to take. After all, he hadn’t grown that curly mullet to become a docile family man or play the recorder in some fucking hippie band.

AC/DC are often accused of being repetitive and two-dimensional, generally by those who lack sufficient levels of testosterone to feel the power. Their music celebrates the infernal joy of boyhood, and during their heyday, the riffs vibrated between the legs of a hundred million loose-living lassies. Three themes appear consistently in Bon Scott’s lyrics: rock n’ roll, Hell, and the testicular impulse. For example, he preached the devil’s gospel on “Let There Be Rock,” and “Rock n’ Roll Damnation,” and thumbed his nose at moralists—who consistently banned AC/DC from performing during their early days in Australia—with “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place To Be” and “Highway to Hell.” I am certain that if Bon had survived to make one more album, it would have been called My Rock n’ Roll Balls Are Hotter Than Hell.

Millions of eager, pubescent boys were prepared for the mysteries of sexual union by tracks like “Love at First Feel,” “Squealer” (an ode to taking virginity), “The Jack” (a euphemism for venereal disease), and “Night Prowler.” The latter—which describes the erotic desires of a nocturnal murderer—achieved tabloid infamy after Satan-worshipping serial killer Richard Ramirez was reported to be obsessed with it. And of course, there is my personal favorite, “Whole Lotta Rosie,” which is about making sweet love to a grossly obese woman, conjuring visions of “Mama” Cass wearing nothing but a dozen jelly donuts.

One may suspect this rock star bravado to be a campy pose, but Bon Scott lived every bit of his image. The man got more tail than Davy Crockett on a coon hunt. Life backstage was a whirlwind of groupies and booze, and Bon was never one to let an opportunity go to waste. Aside from reefer and the occasional snort to keep the party going, he wasn’t much of a drug user. In fact, you could say he was just a social drinker. The thing is, he couldn’t stand to be alone. Toward the end, he was guzzling Scotch like a desert nomad at a water fountain. “It keeps you fit,” he once quipped, “the alcohol, nasty women, sweat on stage, bad food—it’s all very good for you!” Maybe so, but Bon was as well-known for STDs at the urology clinic as he was for hits in the hard rock scene, and his diligent, if rapidly deteriorating liver became the subject of scientific curiosity. How fitting that his last televised performance was “Touch Too Much” on the BBC’s Top of the Pops (according to biographer Clinton Walker.)

Of course, there was more to Bon than the rock n’ roll caricature that eventually consumed him. He was steadfastly loyal to his family and friends, and sent hundreds of letters from the lonesome road. At the height of his international success—after the 1979 release of Highway to Hell—he regularly confided to those close to him that he longed for a stable home, a good woman by his side, and children to carry on his name. Behind that cunning leer was a deeply sentimental soul in search of solid ground to stand on. His last weeks were spent with Anna Baba, a Japanese woman he’d moved into his London flat. She barely spoke a word of English, but would cook him traditional meals and mother him through constant benders. He worked diligently on an upcoming album down to the final gulp. With a touching stroke of sincerity, his last recording was “Ride On,” a lament to the weariness of the endless highway.

As dawn broke on February 19, 1980, Bon flopped into the passenger seat of his friend Alistair Kinnear’s car after downing rows of whiskey doubles at the Music Machine in London. Unable to carry Bon up to his flat, Kinnear reclined the passenger seat, covered Bon with a blanket, and left him in the car to sleep it off. By the time Kinnear returned that evening, Bon was blue, having choked on his own puke. The certificate reads: “Death by Misadventure.”

Australia let out a collective cry of mourning. Breasts were beaten, whiskey shots were poured into the soil, and Highway to Hell echoed through the Outback with eerie poignancy. Bon’s ashes were interred in a Freemantle cemetery. Like Jim Morrison’s tag-covered grave in Paris or the syringe-and-cigarette-strewn park bench near the site of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Bon Scott’s grave has become an international destination for mullet-sporting pilgrims. A statue was erected in his honor, and an arch above the entrance bears his name. Hordes of fans converged at his gravesite for last year’s 30th deathday, blaring bagpipes and strumming guitars to invoke his spirit.

Sketchy conspiracy theories cast suspicion upon AC/DC’s next album, Back in Black, which was hastily released a mere five months after Scott’s death. Some questions are compelling: Who were the “two big men” that Anna Baba claims rifled through Bon’s flat the day after he died? And what happened to the notebooks that Bon had been filling with lyrics? His parents never received them. Some claim that Scott’s final lyrics were used for the album dedicated to him. I personally believe that his notebooks are being held in a subterranean laboratory beneath Graceland, along with the extraterrestrial corpses recovered at Roswell.

It is striking, though, that Brian Johnson was chosen to be the new frontman within a month of the funeral. Many fans were appalled by this swift replacement—but not enough to hurt record sales. Back in Black became the second best-selling album in the world behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Brian Johnson became Paul of Taursus to Bon Scott’s Jesus Christ.

And lo, the Evil One said, “Let there be Rock…”

© 2011 Joseph Allen

February 2: The Death Day of
Sid Vicious

Courtesy of Brandt Hardin at DREGstudios

John Simon Ritchie’s career with the Sex Pistols only lasted nine months, but through the miraculous power of media spin he was transfigured into the original punk rock martyr—Sid Vicious, dead at 21. Smeared across pop culture’s porcelain temple on February 2, 1979, he is immortalized in black leather, oily spiked hair, and dripping bodily fluids.

Next to him, rendered in blood-spattered stained glass, resides the junk-adled groupie who dominated him in life and defined him in death—”Nauseating” Nancy Spungen, dead at 20. Sid and Nancy. For three generations, vast segments of our disaffected youth have followed in their staggering footsteps, slamming syringe plungers to a rock n’ roll soundtrack and smashing up their little corners of an unbearably boring society. Oi! Oi!

The Sex Pistols left an indelible stamp upon the soul of punk rock. The genre’s grim sarcasm doesn’t gnaw much harder than vocalist Johnny Rotten’s “Bodies” or “No Feelings.” Their one true album, Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, is an enduring classic of cocky rebellion—for which Sid Vicious deserves no real credit, except for his sneering face. The bass guitar was, quite literally, a mere prop for his nihilistic persona.

The only song that Sid is remembered for is a garbled rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” This satanic dirge pays homage to the unrepentant ego at death’s door, and Vicious gave it a convincing go. The irony is that between Nancy’s nagging and the Sex Pistols’ manipulative manager, Malcolm McLaren, Sid Vicious did almost nothing his own way.

It’s not that Vicious’ image was a total fabrication so much as carefully cut fodder for the hype machine. Sid was raised by a junkie mother in the dregs of working class London, a scrawny misfit whose utter defiance was bullied into him by neighborhood toughs. He was born with a photogenic chip on his shoulder, and after his first gig with the Sex Pistols in April of 1977, Malcolm McLaren made sure the bulbs kept flashing.

While friends remember Sid as a scrappy little wiener, popular mythology emphasizes his assault on NME journalist Nick Kent with a motorcycle chain, his reputed mugging of an old lady at knife point, and the Texas crowd member who got his dome cracked by Sid’s bass guitar. Every snot glob dangling from Sid’s nostril, every self-induced laceration gushing over his torso, and every needle jammed into his arm was another photo op. Angsty teenagers still tack the posters up on their walls, many of which feature Nancy’s scowling, yet cherubic face beside him.

By all accounts—even her own mother’s—Nancy Spungen was a neurotic pseudo-nymph with a screeching voice and a sweet tooth for brown sugar. Of course, she had her shining qualities too. Unfortunately, no one remembers what they were. Leaving her comfy Jewish home at age fifteen, Nancy chased the dragon to New York City, where she took up the world’s oldest profession. She promptly wormed her way into the hip cliques of CBGB’s thriving punk scene, who quickly found her annoying and pushed her back out.

Rejected by the outcasts, Nancy followed an oozing trail of punk rock cock all the way to London, intent on nailing the New York Dolls’ drummer. She wound up with punk’s hottest poster boy instead. Jaded beyond their years, each found something new in the other. For all of his bravado, Sid was still fresh meat between the sheets, and Nancy had never been with someone who actually enjoyed her company before. He became a man and she became a lady as the cameras clicked on their heels.

It’s unclear whether Sid ever learned to play his instrument, but it was his energetic stage presence that counted. The musicianship problem was solved by turning down his bass and putting a session player backstage. After blowing England apart, the Sex Pistols hopped across the pond for an American tour in January 1978. Even without Nancy, it was a disaster. Tour highlights include Sid overdosing, going into a dope coma days later, and then carving “GIMME A FIX” into his torso when forced to detox. During their final, lackluster performance in San Francisco, Johnny Rotten growled, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” and stormed offstage. The Sex Pistols broke up soon after. Nancy stepped in to manage Sid’s solo career, which lasted all of ten minutes. By late 1978, Sid and Nancy were slumming around New York on royalties, where they would soon perform their gutter rendition of Romeo and Juliet.

No one doubts Sid and Nancy’s true love for one another. Beneath the manic consumption and mutual violence, there was an undeniable sweetness. Those black eyes and busted smoochers? They was jus’ love pats, mate. The throbbing, abscessed puncture wounds lining their veins? Relationships are built on intensely shared experiences, right? Through highs and lows, uppers and downers, black spikes, bleached bangs, and bloody leather—these crazy kids were made for each other.

So why did Sid stab her to death and then jab a fatal dose of smack a few months later? Well, it’s complicated. First off, no one really knows who killed Nancy. On the morning of October 12, in Room 100 of the grimy Chelsea Hotel, Nancy was found in her undies on the bathroom floor, having bled to death from a single knife wound beneath her navel.

Sid was the only person there when police arrived. In fact, he was the one who called them—after he went out to score some dope, anyway. The hotel scene was shady, the official statements were incoherent, and possible motives abound. If Nancy was anywhere near as shrill as her portrayal in the 1986 film, Sid and Nancy, I wouldn’t put it past Mohandas Gandhi to stick a knife in her gut, if only to shut her the fuck up.

In the beginning, everyone thought Sid did it. He told the cops as much, stating: “I stabbed her, but I didn’t mean to kill her.” Then later, he insisted he didn’t do it. He had eaten handfuls of Tuinol—a potent barbiturate—and passed out. In the end, he didn’t remember what happened.

According to interviews in the 2009 documentary Who Killed Nancy?, a third party was with the couple that night. Sid had recently received $25,000 for his recording of “My Way,” and there was cash all over their hotel room. When the cops arrived, the money was gone. Perhaps the mystery visitor killed Nancy and snatched up the loot as Sid snored.

To add another candlestick to Colonel Mustard’s drawing room, Sid’s mother claimed to have found a note in Sid’s jacket after he died, which described a suicide pact between him and Nancy. This raises the possibility that Nancy stabbed herself—presumably because she could no longer stand the sound of her own voice.

Whatever the case, Sid was charged with second degree murder and the judge set bail at $50,000. McLaren paid the money through Virgin Records, and Sid hit the streets. Within a week he was in Bellevue Hospital with a pair of slit wrists. His mother flew in to console him—with some soul-soothing smack—and McLaren made up t-shirts to sell in his London boutique that read: “I’m Alive. She’s Dead. I’m Yours.”

With his badboy image now solidified by a murder rap, Sid was swimming in New York floozies. His ego must have been on fire the night he assaulted Patti Smith’s brother. Sid was chatting up Todd Smith’s girlfriend at a Skafish show, when he decided to pinch her. Todd protested, so Vicious broke a Heineken bottle and proceeded to stab him in the face. Sid spent 55 days in Riker’s Island Prison before he was released on February 1, on another $50,000 bond.

Who knows what happened in those 55 days behind bars. Perhaps Sid did some deep soul-searching. Maybe he realized the life-shattering implications of an impending murder conviction. It’s also possible that larger, more formidible predators took Sid’s “punk” identification to its logical conclusion and did their own brutally deep searching of his soul. After 55 days of that, who wouldn’t seek some hardcore relief?

Whatever happened, Sid made the most of his first night of freedom, enjoying a spaghetti dinner with family and friends at his new girlfriend’s Greenwich Village apartment. Heroin users say that spiking a good hit is like returning to the comfort of the womb. How appropriate then that the perpetually infantile Sid Vicious got his last shot from his mother that evening. Lab results suggest that her love was as pure as the driven snow. Sid was pronounced dead on February 2, 1979 from “acute intravenous narcotism.” The groundhog must not have seen his own shadow that day, because Sid’s mother claimed to have spread his ashes over Nancy’s snow-covered grave. She went on to kill herself with an overdose in 1996. Never trust a junkie.

However tragic, Sid’s passing provided powerful inspiration for the music world. Nearly two years later—the day before John Lennon’s assassination, in fact—sado-punk Darby Crash paid homage to his hero with a fatal spoonful. In ’93, scumfuck rocker GG Allin went out the same way, breaking his vow to blow himself up onstage. The next year, death star Kurt Cobain kissed the hot end of a shotgun. He and his wife Courtney Love consciously fashioned themselves after Sid and Nancy, though Kurt was arguably late on the draw. (Coincidentally, both Kurt and Sid killed themselves after touring with the Buzzcocks, as did Joy Division’s rising star, Ian Curtis. Perhaps they should have called themselves the Buzzkills.) Most importantly, Sid Vicious’ decadent icon provides fashionable validation for thousands of unsung throw-away kids who shuffle off this mortal coil year after year, with a needle in one arm and a blue middle finger thrust to the world.

© 2011 Joseph Allen