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

© Brandt Hardin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Brandt Hardin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2011 Joseph Allen

Jimi Hendrix“The Star Spangled Banner”
1969


Janis Joplin“Get It While You Can”
1970

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

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.]