The history of modern music is draped in the power of myth and rumor, from the “Paul is dead” buzz to Led Zeppelin’s filthy mud shark incident. Sometimes, the stories that serve as the foundation for such mythos are so fantastic, so cool, or so flat out weird, it doesn’t much matter whether they’re true, they’re false, or they exist in the space in between the two realms. The fact they exist simply boosts the artist’s lore.
There are plenty of false stories out there. People believe Phil Collins helplessly witnessed a drowning, or that some artists sell their souls and then use satanic powers to hide hidden messages in their songs, and countless more. Some say that Roy Orbison was blind, Paul McCartney died and was replaced, 2pac faked his death, Marilyn Manson surgically removed his bottom ribs, Lady Gaga is a hermaphrodite, Beyonce faked her pregnancy... it goes on and on. It’s important to get to the root of some of these stories to determine where on the reality spectrum they fall.
The following tales are worth exploring because they’re so odd, they seem to teeter on the brink of “that can’t be real” territory. Yet as they demonstrate, when it comes to rock stars, even the most outrageous stories exist for a reason.
Verdict: Absolutely True
Harry Nilsson may be the most underrated talent of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The Beatles were raving fans of his singing and songwriting talents, which is all the validation needed regarding his skill. He was also a notorious party animal and a key player in John Lennon’s infamous “Lost Weekend” period in 1974.
He’s also the centerpiece of a spooky yet true story involving a London flat and the death of two separate music icons. He owned a flat in Mayfair, London, but hardly used it; instead, it became the de facto crash pad for his industry friends. Two of those friends were Mama Cass Elliot of the Mamas & the Papas and The Who’s drummer Keith Moon.
Both Mama Cass and Moon died in the flat in 1974 and 1978, respectively. Moon’s death was especially interesting – Nilsson, believing the flat was cursed, didn’t want Moon to move into the flat in the first place. After Moon’s death, Nilsson sold the flat to Who guitarist Pete Townshend.
Verdict: Accidentally True
In 1982, Ozzy was playing to a crowd in Des Moines, Iowa. It was a typical night and crowd of around 5,000 people, all pumped full of intoxicants including the rock star. A young high school student had apparently been trying to nurse an injured bat back to health at home and as we know that never works out. So he brought the bat with him to the concert after it had released its mortal coil for whatever reason. It was on Ozzy concert, do you even need a reason?
Apparently Ozzy had already bitten the head off of a live dove in front of record executives and the kid thought he could bait Ozzy into doing it again. So during the concert he chucked the bat on stage. Ozzy scoops it up, thinking it's a fake rubber bat and chomps off the head only to find out it was real. Of course, with 5,000 eye witnesses, word spread fast about what happened and further incited the idea of how dark and evil of a metalhead Osbourne was. But at the end of the day, it was accidental as Ozzy admits and he has no need to lie since he admits to much worse things daily.
Verdict: Potentially True
This story involving the lead singer of Blondie is one that’s twenty years in the making. Back in the early 70s, Debbie Harry was struggling to get a taxi to get to a New York City party, and she accepted a ride in a car that was offering her a trip from point A to point B. She quickly got the willies – she recalls the car not having handles or window cranks – and she somehow managed to pry the door open and escape the car as it was in motion.
Fast forward to 1989, the year notorious serial killer Ted Bundy is executed. Harry was reading about the execution, and suddenly she made the connection – Bundy was the guy that was driving the creepy, handle-free car in The Big Apple.
There are some circles that seem ready to dismiss this account, stating that the driver couldn’t have been Bundy. Yet the fact that Harry continues to recount this story with unchanging facts seems to add a lot of credence to its validity. At the very least, if it wasn’t Bundy, it seems clear that she escaped a potentially dangerous situation.
Verdict: Stupidly True
The cult nature of Depeche Mode’s following seems to be fertile enough ground for urban legends to plant and grow. So, it shouldn’t be surprising to find lead singer Dave Gahan is linked to a few legends. The one that stands out the most is also the most fantastic – he once believed he was a vampire and slept in a coffin.
Gahan will be the first to tell you that the band endured some wild times in the '90s and early '00s. So wild, in fact, he’ll acknowledge that him 'pretending' to be a vampire during those times is something he may have done, even if he doesn’t quite remember doing so.
Gahan will also admit that his giant double bed in Los Angeles was coffin-shaped, and this furniture seems to be the basis that fueled the coffin myth. And pardon the pun, this legend has some teeth – rumor has it that a coffin was delivered to Gahan while Depeche Mode was on a South American tour, and he used to take naps within its confines.
Verdict: Goofy & True
It’s common knowledge that the members of KISS will lend their name to anything if the price is right. From caskets to an ill-fated arena football team, the band’s tendency to slap their name and iconic logo on something – anything – is almost a parody of itself. The prime mover behind such action is clear – they’re all about self-promotion.
Their unmatched ability to sell out to further public consciousness of the band’s name and reputation is also the source of its greatest myth: they literally gave their own blood for the creation of a KISS comic book. Ordinarily, such a story would be so implausible, it would be instantly jettisoned as an urban legend. However, if there’s one thing KISS and their marketing prowess doesn’t do, it’s ordinary.
In 1977, Marvel Comics – yes, that Marvel – published a KISS comic as part of their ongoing Super Special series. Seizing the opportunity to further push the boundaries of their own fame, the band flew to upstate New York and dumped vials of their own blood into a vat of red ink. The blended ink was then used for the comics.
There's no denying the validity of this story. The band was savvy enough to have every step of the process witnessed by a notary public, and there were also photos snapped of the incident – photos later published in the comic book itself. Don't worry, though – the band has several other myths about them that aren't true (no, the band's name is not an acronym for "Knights in Satan's Service.")
Verdict: Sadly True
Time proved this myth as certain records were declassified or made public through the Freedom of Information Act. It turns out, like Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI had an extensive file on John Lennon, surveilling him around the clock, and even seeking to have him deported from the United States. Turned out the CIA had some type of involvement as well.
The reason for this was his vast influence over the impressionable youth and his opinions about the Vietnam War that differed from the governmental power structure at the time. His activism inspired others to join in acts of civil disobedience or outward displays of social dissatisfaction.
Some would suggest that Mark David Chapman, the man who assassinated Lennon, was a CIA agent, Manchurian candidate, or MKULTRA victim. This could be true but we'd never know because no government agency would keep that kind of paper trail around.
Verdict: Yeah... It's True
Keith Richards is a walking myth all by himself, simply because he’s still alive. Like Ozzy Osbourne, despite the copious amounts of drugs he’s consumed over the course of his lifetime, he still manages to walk the earth, inspiring Johnny Depp’s antics of Jack Sparrow and outliving musicians that look substantially healthier. Indeed, there’s a reason the saying “only cockroaches and Keith Richards will survive the apocalypse” exists.
When you’ve lived a life as over-the-top as Keef’s, there’s bound to be legends surrounding your existence. One of his most infamous legends is one that happened relatively recently, but its basis is so shocking, it’s quickly risen to the top of his legend. We’re of course talking about the incident where he allegedly snorted his father’s ashes.
After his dad Bert passed on in 2002, he held onto his ashes for six years. He eventually decided to scatter them around an oak tree he’d planted, but when he opened the box, what Richards called “a fine spray” flew onto a table. Not wanting the spray to go to waste, he wiped his finger on it and snorted what stuck.
Richards initially reported the incident to the press in 2007, and he reiterated it in his autobiography three years later. Because of its validity, it ranks as the weirdest story surrounding his legendary life. Considering there’s a long-standing (and false) rumor involving him getting a full blood transfusion to beat his heroin addiction, that’s saying quite a bit.
The situation with a lot of the mythology surrounding certain musicians entirely has to do with the slippery slope of stupidity of publicity stunts. When one pans out for an artist, it tends to normalize absurdity, which then has to be outdone in order to receive the same shock reaction.
But not all legends develop that way... Those that don't still strike at the core of what it means to be human and what we accept as normal in our society. And those tend to lie on the fringe, far enough outside of the realm of the acceptable, that they become music myths to be debated instead of accepted as the facts they are.