Wednesday, July 11, 2012 / 8:11 AM
St. Louis Magazine freelance contributor Dan Durchholz is perhaps our town’s ranking rock journalist, and his latest book, Rock ‘n Roll Myths: The True Stories Behind the Most Infamous Legends, co-authored with Detroit scribe Gary Graff, is a hoot. Durchholz and Graff get to the bottom of oft-told tales about Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (is it really synched to the movie The Wizard of Oz?), Van Halen’s backstage rules about M&Ms (no brown ones allowed) and Crosby, Stills, and Nash lighting up a joint inside Jimmy Carter’s Oval Office.
Tell me about some of your favorite rock ‘n’ roll rumors, from your book.
We divided the book up into little sections, like the sex and drugs that are inevitably part of rock ‘n roll, and then there are a lot of death stories, like death by misadventure and fake death, and the deals with the devil. I have favorites in each category. I’ve always been drawn to the Faustian myth of Robert Johnson, and that seems to have transferred to later rockers, too, like Led Zeppelin with Jimmy Page’s dabbling in the occult, and Black Sabbath. So that one always appealed to me. It’s such a great story. Then the other ones are so absurd and tawdry and you want them to be true, like the Rod Stewart one about having his stomach pumped of semen, and the Stevie Nicks myth that she had so blown out her nose with cocaine that she had to ingest it via a straw, with a roadie blowing it up her bum. She has vehemently denied this over the years. But you think in these cases, why Stevie Nicks? Why Rod Stewart? These are the kinds of stories you hear about a classmate that you don’t really know. So these rock stars can either choose to laugh about it, or to fight it to the death. It’s interesting to see how people handle these kinds of things when people say them about them. Stewart kind of laughs about them, but Stevie gets kind of angry about them.
How did you research these stories?
Part of our goal was not simply saying this is true or false, because sometimes we don’t even know. Unless you are the coroner reporting on Brian Jones, you don’t know, and even he might not know some things. We’re trying to show how these rumors developed and how they propagated. For research, we relied on some interviews we’d done in the past, and also some new work. I had one interview I’d done years ago where I’d talked to Johnny Cash. I asked him if he’d ever been in prison, and he hadn’t, but he told me he had spent a couple nights in jail.
One of my favorite stories in the book is about the time that a metal pipe fell on Mama Cass’s head, and afterwards her vocal range went up three octaves.
Yeah, that’s one that’s strange but true. I think that may have come from a biography or an old Rolling Stone story about her.
There is so much salacious fun in this book.
You can’t really shock me under normal circumstances. But as we were going along, I was a little shocked at how tawdry everything was. I wound up inscribing a copy of the book to my mom, “Mom—you taught me better than this.” [Laughs.] But it’s just part and parcel of rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe it wouldn’t mean as much to us without the great stories. So many of these stories are about artists from the ’60s and ’70s, because they were inaccessible then. They didn’t have a Facebook page or go on TV a lot. The only way to get to them was through the music. They were distant figures, and you just had to imagine what were they like. There are some more current stories in the book, but some of them are actually self-manufactured, like that the White Stripes were brother and sister. Michael Jackson somehow thought that letting people know about sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber or buying the bones of the “Elephant Man” would work for him, but he lost control of the narrative, and he turned from this great superstar into “Wacko Jacko,” almost like a circus geek of some sort.
I had no idea some people think Bob Dylan faked his famous motorcycle accident.
Yeah, some people believe that it wasn’t as severe as Dylan made it out to be. In the telling of it sometimes, you hear it’s a near-death experience. But others feel it wasn’t that bad, and he was using it as an excuse to step away from the spotlight. I think he may not have even gone to the hospital, which suggests it wasn’t that bad. So a legend grew around it. In fact maybe he just wanted to shut down because of all the craziness in his life, from being the quote-unquote “spokesman for his generation,” which he didn’t want to be.
You and your co-author Gary Graff have previously written a few books together?
Gary and I did this rock ‘n’ roll consumer guide, a big compendium called Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, where we had over 100 writers contribute. Gary and I edited that. In 2010 we did Neil Young: Long May You Run: The Illustrated History, and we did an update chapter and it’s coming out in paperback this September.
I hadn’t realized that Willie Nelson is such a serious dope smoker he has actually “smoked out” Snoop Dogg.
Well, if you get on Willie’s tour bus, I’m not sure you have to really do anything. You can just breathe the air. [Laughs.]
You’ve interviewed legendary rockers in your career. Can you tell me your favorite three?
Johnny Cash in person, Ray Charles over the phone, and Keith Richards over the phone, though Keith and I just spoke about [Chuck Berry collaborator] Johnnie Johnson. I couldn’t really ask Keith at the time if he famously transfused all his blood to kick heroin; it wasn’t on the agenda.
A lot of these stories I want to believe—it enhances the myth of the celebrity.
In Keith Richards’ case, the life outstrips the myth. That certainly was true in the case of him snorting his father’s ashes, which he apparently did—he admitted it in his recent autobiography. But when the story came out, everybody freaked out, because it was like cannibalism, and the next day the Rolling Stones’ press machine went into action and denied the story. But really, you almost can’t make up anything so outrageous that Keith wouldn’t have done it.
What about Ozzy biting the head off a bat?
That was just a horrible mistake. I guess he didn’t think someone would bring a real bat to a concert. [Laughs.]
When I was in grade school the rumor was that everyone in the audience at an Ozzy concert would spit in a bucket and then Ozzy would drink it.
That’s another form of the “grossout contest” myth. We’ve heard that one involving Alice Cooper; someone saying that he tore a chicken apart onstage, and there’s actually a kernel of truth to that one. It’s in the book. Years later, that turns into the myth that Marilyn Manson wouldn’t start a concert until a puppy was sacrificed.
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