The Rumor Mill
“I have this friend who was in Atlantic City last weekend. She was gambling at the Trump Casino, and around 9:00 she walked to the elevators to go to her room. Right when the doors opened, four muscular African-American men in leather clothes stepped in behind her, edging to the far wall, out of her vision, and she nervously watched the doors close in front of her.” I almost audibly groaned as the story unfolded. Sitting at a barroom table in Orlando, Florida with a group of business associates who were involved in the construction of the Hard Rock Hotel, I felt like stopping this hyper, slightly drunk, storyteller (let’s call him Benny) in his tracks. I looked over to my friend, a construction manager for the project, and we both silently acknowledged what the others in our party were unaware of. We knew exactly how this story was going to end.
“So, the elevator isn’t moving. Suddenly, one of the guys tells my friend, ‘Hit the floor lady.’ She drops fast to the ground, practically spread-eagled, putting her arms up over her head in fear. The four guys got off the elevator. Later, she received a bouquet of flowers and a note. It said, ‘Thanks for giving us the best laugh during our stay here. Your room charge has been taken care of. Sincerely, Eddie Murphy.” Everyone at our table burst out in astonished giggles at Benny’s unique and name-dropping yarn. I’d heard the same scenario told to me ten years before. In the tale I first heard, musician Lionel Richie was the one who had sent the flowers. My construction buddy recalled being told the tall tale, but with Reggie Jackson and Wilt Chamberlain on board the hotel elevator.
Since the age of celebrity unofficially came into being at the start of the 20th century, rumors involving superstars’ behavior, proclivities, and associations have become a strong foundation of urban legend. Oftentimes, the tales center around something considered sexually taboo in the era of their circulation. Whether it was Rock Hudson secretly marrying “Gomer Pyle” Jim Nabors, or record mogul David Geffen tying the knot with Keanu Reeves, these offbeat yarns are created to induce the common retort, “You don’t say!” Some rumors leap beyond the mere ‘insider’ loop to awareness so high that they literally become a part of our collective national folklore. What one person can look at our friendly, four-legged pet, the gerbil, and not flash for a millisecond in some portion of their brain on the image of one of motion picture’s most beloved ‘officer’ and a ‘gentleman?’ Where this particular rumor began will probably never be known. Most authors of fabricated tales never come forward. But, if the spiel is offbeat enough, bizarre or ironic enough, the rumor will truly stumble forth with a life of its own.
Rock ‘n’ roll rumors have circulated for decades as well. The granddaddy of music world scuttlebutt is unquestionably the incessant sightings of Elvis Presley at gas stations and fast food joints around the globe. Expired rapper Tupac Shakur is slowly supplanting the King’s undead mantle with his own legendary set of sightings. With each new tale, the person telling the rumor will invariably shape it for credibility, attributing it to someone they actually ‘heard’ it from, a close personal friend. When I mentioned this article to a close personal friend of mine, he told me a mutual acquaintance of ours once did some remodeling work at Lionel Richie’s home and asked the ex-Commodore if the elevator story was true. Richie replied that he’d been approached by people from every nation over his career, all of whom had heard this wild tale. He laughingly claimed it was patently false. But, all of this is hearsay. I could just be spreading another rumor. Here are a few more of rock ‘n’ roll’s most notorious urban legends for your perusal. Enjoy, and pass the word.
Mick and Marianne take a little Mars excursion
In February 1967, British police, under the fanatical leadership of a drug czar commissioner, were tipped off that a wild party was taking place at the home of Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards’ sprawling Redlands estate. Nineteen officers dispatched to the grounds knocked on the front door, and Richards let them in. Mick Jagger, along with his girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, were in attendance, along with six other male friends. The lawmen searched the property, confiscated various drug-encrusted paraphernalia and left. A month later, Mick and Keith were formally charged and locked away in jail. After their trial in June, they were subsequently released, but by then, a tawdry rumor had already spread amongst the tabloids and was now being taken by fans and foes alike as the hard truth.
Marianne Faithfull believed the police embellished the bust to make her and the Stones appear overly decadent. “Their story was like this,” she wrote in her autobiography. “A group of dissolute rock stars lured an innocent girl to a remote cottage where, having plied her with drugs, they had their way with her, including various sex acts involving a Mars Bar.’ The first time I heard about the Mars Bar was from Mick shortly after the trial. Mick said, ‘You know what they’re saying about us in Wormwood Scrubs (the jail); they’re saying that when the cops arrived they caught me eatin’ a Mars Bar out of your (you can guess the rest, dear reader).’ I laughed it off, but my amusement began to wane when the damn story established itself as a set of British folklore.”
In fact, the only naughty event that occurred during the whole raid happened when Faithfull, who had just taken a bath and was wrapped naked in a bedcover, ‘flashed’ one of the officers under questioning. “The Mars Bar was a very effective piece of demonizing,” she later wrote. “Way out there. It was so overdone, with such malicious twisting of the facts…It was far too jaded for any of us even to have conceived of. It’s a dirty old man’s fantasy…a cop’s idea of what people do on acid.” Nonetheless, the rumor is continually perceived as fact in ongoing writings and retrospectives of the Rolling Stones’ debauched lifestyle.
There’s a Soccer in every crowd
One of the most scurrilous, inflammatory urban legends ever to spread like wildfire in every walk of life was the one about Rod Stewart. Everybody in the 1970s and ‘80s had heard this tale. It centered on the mod singer having to be hospitalized after collapsing during a concert performance with severe pains in his abdomen. When the physicians went to pump his stomach, they found a huge measurement of liquid common only to the male gender of the species. The assumption was made that he had ‘serviced’ an inordinate number of gentlemen over a very short period of time.
The story was ludicrously hard to swallow given that the amount generated by each man would be so insignificantly small. It would take Rod a full day, going absolutely nonstop, to acquire a full stomach’s worth, and even then the substance wouldn’t be toxic enough to warrant medical extraction. But, despite this obvious lack in logic, the story, as Rod later said, “went all around the f***ing world! What’s amazing,” he continued, “is that it never appeared in the press as far as I know. I never read it or heard it anywhere. I wasn’t even in the country at the time it supposedly happened. What could it have been? A fleet of f***ing sailors? Or footballers (soccer players)?”
Indeed, many have felt that it was Rod’s enthusiasm for the sport of soccer that may have contributed to the rise of such a damaging piece of gossip. In 1973, after meeting one of Manchester United’s star players, Denis Law, Rod allegedly made a point to comment on Law’s unusually prodigious package. Whoever set the rumor in motion may have used that instance as a basis to adapt the old story of the cheerleader accommodating a locker room full of football players into one of an eager Stewart ‘uniting’ with Manchester’s finest. Aligned with the hushed assertions he was a bi-sexual, this raunchy scandal went on to become one of rock’s all-time kinkiest rumors. Although the tale has been attributed to other stars like Mick Jagger, Elton John, David Bowie, Jeff Beck, The Bay City Rollers, David Lee Roth, Jon Bon Jovi, The New Kids on the Block, Fiona Apple, Alanis Morrisette, and Britney Spears, Rod’s association with the embarrassing fable has remained the most enduring over the years.
‘I Buried Paul”
Actually, what John Lennon was saying at the close of “Strawberry Fields Forever” was “Cranberry Sauce.” But that didn’t seem to matter to any of the thousands of Beatles conspiracy buffs (yep, I was one of them), who listened to every moptop record in 1969 in search of the ultimate, authoritative piece of evidence pointing to the disguised death of Paul McCartney. So-called ‘clues’ were everywhere. From the funeral-like cover of “Sergeant Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band,” to the backward masking of John’s mumbling on “Glass Onion” (“Paul is dead, man, miss him, miss him”). Teen magazines passed along every new telltale discovery relating to a car accident that the lovable Beatle was thought to have perished in.
In reality, the origins of the rumor began somewhere in the midwestern United States. The Illinois State University school newspaper printed an article citing some of the mysterious ‘clues’ around September 1969. A month later, both the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times pointed to one Fred LaBour, an undergraduate student attending the University of Michigan, who had supposedly submitted a term paper showcasing an assortment of evidential links found on Beatle albums that indicated Paul was no more. An anonymous caller apparently phoned a WKNR radio disc jockey in Detroit with the so-called album ‘hints.’ From that point forward, a nation, and subsequently world, filled with Hercule Poirets and Miss Marples tried to fathom the mystery surrounding the phantom expiration of Mr. McCartney.
As for the Beatles, who had just released their monumental album, “Abbey Road,” it served as a watershed of publicity for the record. Derek Taylor, the group’s publicist, decided to deal with the strange story by simply not denying it. For Paul, himself, he took to quoting Mark Twain, saying, “Rumours of my death are greatly exaggerated.” “It was a bit weird meeting people shortly after that,” he related in the Beatles Anthology, “because they’d be looking at the back of my ears, looking a bit through me. And it was weird doing the ‘I really am him’ stuff.” The conspiracy buffs still print books about the clues to this day.
Sorta’ rhymes with Zappa
As the leader of the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa liked to invent a lot of publicity. One of these stunts involved loading up the derriere of a stuffed giraffe with explosives and setting it off during his performance. But when the subject of the derriere turned to Zappa’s own, and that of a crude ‘contest’ he supposedly squared off with Alice Cooper over, the tall tale syndrome reared its ugly head once again. The oft-told myth centered around the two musicians daring to publicly ‘outshock’ each other. Cooper supposedly squashed live baby chicks in front of the audience, while Zappa allegedly topped the challenge by dropping trou, then dropping something else. As the tall tale proceeded, young Frank then collected a bowl and spoon, and well, I just can’t stomach the rest of the story.
“There never was a gross-out contest,” Zappa flatly denied in Playboy magazine. “That was rumor. Somebody’s imagination ran wild. Chemically bonded imagination. The rumor was that I went so far as to eat (!)…There were people who were terribly disappointed that I never ate (!)…But no, there never was anything resembling a gross-out contest.”
Speaking of Msrs. Zappa and Cooper, both men were assumed to have roots in on-screen normalcy before they attained eccentric qualities. The rumor that ironically morphs a nebbish personality into an outrageous one has been common over the decades of celebrity. For Frank, it was widely thought at the time of his early career that he was the son of Mr. Greenjeans, from television’s “Captain Kangaroo.” Actually, the son of the man who played the docile Greenjeans, Hugh “Lumpy” Brannum. Zappa explained the origins of the rumor in his autobiography. “Because I recorded a song called ‘Son of Mr. Green Genes’ on the ‘Hot Rats’ album in 1969, people have believed for years that the character with that name on the ‘Captain Kangaroo’ TV show was my ‘real’ Dad. No, he was not.” While Zappa’s true father was of Greek-Arabian descent and had grown up in a small Sicilian village named Partinico, Brannum was miles away, playing around farm fields in rural Illinois.
As for Alice Cooper, the rumor flew that he was actually the grown-up actor who had portrayed the wily Eddie Haskell on television’s “Leave It To Beaver” program. Again, the assumption was obviously false. During the period when Vincent Furnier changed his name to Alice Cooper and started freaking out hippies with his outlandish stage act, actor Ken Osmond had left Eddie Haskell behind and was a Los Angeles policeman. It’s true that Osmond returned to the entertainment world briefly in the ‘80s, but the stint was again to reprise his beloved role for the follow-up TV series, “The New Leave It To Beaver.” Osmond officially retired from the police force in 1988, while Cooper continues to tour as his spooky madman.
More recently, another geek-transformed-into-rock-superstar rumor spread when actor Josh Saviano, who played the nerdy Phil Pfeiffer on television’s “The Wonder Years,” was assumed to have gone on to become Marilyn Manson. “I’d get 20 emails a week,” Saviano told People magazine, “and it still hasn’t died.” Not that he minds too much. “What would you rather have,” he quipped, “people thinking you’re a dorky kid from ‘The Wonder Years’ or a satanic rock star? It’s way cooler for me.” Saviano got a political science degree from Yale in 1998 and subsequently sought ‘possession’ of a law degree.
Uncle Sam wants to rock!
As a variation of the celluloid geek turning into famed rocker setup, the rumor mill has kicked out the notion that one meek rocker, in particular, was supposedly a hardened killer. Just as the same legend had been attached to television’s comforting neighbor Mr. Rogers, insinuating he had once been a sniper in the Korean War, mountain-high singer John Denver was tagged with the ‘sniper’ rumor during his career. Although Denver’s father had been a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, and John did have an inkling to join the service at one time, his eyesight was so poor that the country-rock crooning balladeer wouldn’t have been able to nail an oncoming tank, let alone a lone sentry guard.
Another military brat, Jim Morrison of the Doors, was also suspected to be an operative of the CIA. While his father, Steven Morrison, was an admiral in the U.S. Navy, many rumor-mongers believed Jim was courted and then won over by Pentagon officials to spy on the ‘60s counterculture. Borderline theorists point to certain classified and declassified CIA files that indicate the operations of one James Douglas Morrison after 1971. When Jim died in a Paris bathtub that year, so many unsubstantiated stories arose about his mysterious demise that it’s a wonder he and Elvis aren’t laughing about it at some Tahitian bar. The fact that only his wife and a Paris physician saw his body before it was sealed in a coffin fueled the numerous assertions. A few of the rumors speculated that J. Edgar Hoover had his FBI kill Morrison because he had become a true leader of the Radical Left element. Still others believed Jim had perished as a result of occult forces. His interest in the black arts was certainly not unknown. He’d once drank blood with a wannabe witch. Either a jilted lover cast a spell, a shaman swooped in and plucked his eyes, or his soul was snatched by someone he’d owed in a previous ceremony. Regardless of each outlandish scenario, Morrison was supposedly ‘seen’ throughout the 1970s – at a bank in San Francisco, in underground gay bars, at a radio station in Louisiana. Essentially Jim Morrison has had almost as much spin put on his ‘death’ than the estimable Lee Harvey Oswald.
Draggin’ and Puffin’
A hilarious scene in the recent film “Meet the Parents” features Ben Stiller informing the uptight Robert DeNiro that his favorite song, “Puff, The Magic Dragon,” is actually an allusion to smoking pot. The Peter, Paul and Mary tune has had this rap affixed to its fabled creature ever since they released it in the drug-addled 1960s. It’s been acknowledged with a knowing wink by casual marijuana users everywhere in the last half century. But the gentle trio never set out to fashion a bong song. “It was my senior year during finals (at Cornell University in 1958), before the winter break,” Peter Yarrow recalled to Goldmine magazine, “that the basis of the song was typed out on a sheet written by Leonard Lipton, who was kind of my little brother in a fraternity…I guess we were all lonely, and yet we didn’t like the idea of fraternities, and so this was one of those fraternities of so-called losers…What I brought to it really was the sense, as opposed to the adventure story, of the idea of the loss of innocence, when I wrote, ‘A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys’ at the time…The idea was that this was a song that really had a sense of tragic, if you will, implications, like some of the great mystical stories. As we reach that point of growing up, it’s at best, a sad sweetness when we emerge as adults because we have to leave childish things, dragons, behind.” Yeah, but will the potheads ever buy that, Peter?
One Slick God
On January 25, 1971, Grace Slick, frontwoman for the popular Jefferson Airplane, gave birth to a baby daughter. News of the arrival resulted in the public being misinformed that this was quite possibly the new Messiah. Newspapers erroneously published the child’s name as ‘God.’ For years afterward, Slick was forced to live down this rumor which was perpetrated at the time by an overly eager, and very flustered nurse.
As Slick lay in her hospital bed with her newborn in her arms, the nurse, who happened to be Latino, entered the room with a certificate. It was a document that the staff had patients fill out with their baby’s birthdate, time, and name. The nurse asked Grace what her child would be called. “I noticed a crucifix around her neck,” Slick later wrote in her autobiography, “and spontaneously said, ‘god. We spell it with a small g because we want her to be humble.” The nurse was unsure of what Grace had actually said. “After hearing it a second time, deciding that the blasphemy was real, she haltingly entered ‘god’ on the parchment, probably expecting to go through her life repeating novenas for her participation in this profanity,” Grace related. “When she was through filling in the irreverent name, she ran to the telephone to call Herb Caen…” Caen was a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. “He published the information about the birth and the supposed appellation…”
The young girl didn’t grow up to perform any out-of-the-ordinary miracles, nor did she answer to the alleged Supreme Being moniker. Slick and the child’s father, rocker Paul Kantner, actually wound up naming her China. This clarification, fortunately, has not led to the protestations of a billion people.
Not Just Blowing Smoke
Like Stevie Nicks sings, “Stand back, stand back.” This rumor is a bit of a doozy. The talented Fleetwood Mac-er once had an enormous problem with a lily-white powder called cocaine. She apparently used the stuff like table salt. It’s no secret that she wrote the song “Gold Dust Woman” about her favorite indulgence. It’s not a mystery that she checked herself into the Betty Ford clinic in 1987, after her doctor informed her she was in danger of triggering a brain hemorrhage with all the sniffing scenarios. The septum inside the bridge of her nose supposedly had a hole the size of a small ball-bearing from the nasty substance.
What’s certainly not fact and, instead, was a rather novel, yet incredibly crass, bit of gossip circulating during her drug heyday was the rumor about her paid assistants. There wasn’t much depth or backstory to the piece of fiction. Since she allegedly was concerned about hurting her vocal chords with all the nasal intake of cocaine, it was whispered throughout recording studios and college campuses far and wide that Nicks hired personal assistants to blow the Peruvian powder up another orifice. Every flunky for a celebrity must suffer through a wide variety of humiliations to watch the back of their fickle boss, but this stretches the term ‘bringing up the rear’ a bit too far.
A Seemingly Unique Name
It’s not like Rod Stewart was in the group, but a Manchester-based outfit named 10cc did have some eerie similarities to the gossip-mongering surrounding Rod in the early-to-mid 1970s. With their only U.S. hit, “I’m Not In Love,” reaching the number 2 position on the Billboard chart, 10cc was certainly dogged by rumors that its name had something to do with a certain facet of lovemaking. The legend revolved around the measurement of a man’s pride and joy released during the act of whoopee. Embellished further, it was hinted that the standard measure was 9cc’s, but the boys in the band supposedly wished to up their machismo a notch.
In actuality, the group’s label chief, Jonathan King of UK Records, dreamt up the moniker, and it wasn’t during one of “those” dreams. He simply saw the name floating by in his slumber, with some hidden promise of it being the title for a star-making band. And for all the curious readers who have a hankering to know these things, the average male hot wax release measures in a paltry 3 to 4 cc’s.
The Carey-free Diet
Readers of the Chicago Tribune, The Toronto Sun, The Seattle Times, heck, even The South China Morning Post, awoke one day in 1996 to read about singer Mariah Carey’s startling view on keeping slim and trim. “When I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry,” she was quoted as saying. “I mean, I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.” Outrage was voiced by many a commentator, but the focus of their ire should have been directed at the perpetrators of this fictional quote.
A fledgling comedic dot.com website named Cupcake Canasta had printed a dummy interview with Mariah Carey. A British tabloid was the first to report the comments as fact. From there, it spread to the aforementioned ‘hard-news’ journalism outlets. The backlash against Mariah was palpable, and Larry Jenkins, a vice president for her label Columbia Records, immediately stepped forward to expose the hoax. “It is so malicious,” he protested to Mr. Showbiz. “It’s even sadder that legitimate media have picked up a fake interview, a bizarre form of humor from the Internet.” Mariah, herself, held a press conference in a bid for further damage control. “What was said was horrible and if anyone ever thought I would remotely say or think about anything like that, please understand I would not. ‘Cupcake’ treated it as though it was a real interview with real quotes. It’s not like they were saying things that I could laugh off. The Internet is a great thing, but it’s also a dangerous thing. I know people love it, but people in this position can get really screwed over.” Yes, it was a tasteless, politically-incorrect thing to say. But ‘fess up, you did picture her actually capable of saying it for a moment, didn’t you?
A Real Thrill Ride
Perhaps better remembered for their sexy album covers (who can forget the nude model drenched in honey on their LP of the same name?), The Ohio Players gave us funky backbeats and inspired the ‘yow’ vocal stylings of Cameo’s Larry Blackmon. The group’s big crossover hit, “Love Rollercoaster,” also gave way to rumors of mayhem and death. Just after the song begins, a faint-sounding, high-pitched scream can be heard in the background, underneath the jangly guitarwork. Ask any fan of the r&b scene in the mid-70s, and they’ll confirm that the shriek was considered one of terror.
A California radio disc jockey apparently hypothesized that the notable female sound was emitted by a woman who had been murdered outside the Ohio Players’ studio during the recording of the song. Like tics on a shaggy dog, listeners jumped aboard the rumor mill and started speculating the true reason for the so-called homicide. She went from being an unknown victim, to a cleaning woman at the studio, to the model from the ‘Honey’ cover, who had been horribly scarred during her photo shoot. Drummer Jimmy ‘Diamond’ Williams summed up the hysteria around the rumor to authors Adam White and Fred Bronson. “There is a part in the song where there’s a breakdown. It’s guitars and it’s right before the second verse, and Billy Beck (the band’s keyboardist) does one of those inhaling-type screeches like Minnie Ripperton did to reach her high note or Mariah Carey does to go octaves above. The DJ made this crack and it swept the country. People were asking us, ‘Did you kill this chick in the studio?’ The band took a vow of silence because that makes you sell more records.” Even after the smash LP went platinum, the rumor still endured for years thereafter.
Call 911, Charlie’s Cut Micky!
“Hey, hey, we’re the Mansons…” It’s kinda catchy, but trust me, it would’ve been a disaster. Somewhere deep in the origins of the pre-fab four, those lovable sitcom Monkees, lies the bogus claim that Charles Manson auditioned to be a member of the group. In the fall of 1965, producers for the soon-to-be hit TV series placed an open-call ad in the Hollywood trade paper, Variety. Over 400 applicants spilled onto the Screen-Gems studio lot in hopes of becoming an Americanized version of The Beatles. Legend has always held that one stark-raving loony named Charlie, the future mass murderer, showed up as well, with the desire to perform for screaming teens everywhere. The screams, alas, would manifest themselves in a different way four years later in the hills above Hollywood.
Debunking the rumor is easy. Charles Manson was locked tightly away in prison during this period. Having served time for auto theft, the bug-eyed drifter was released on parole from San Pedro, California’s Terminal Island facility in 1958. By 1961, he was found in violation of a probation when he forged a U.S. Treasury check. Snuggly incarcerated at the McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington State for 5 years thereafter, chatterbox Charles transferred back to Terminal Island for another year. He was finally released on March 21, 1967. By then, The Monkees were well into their second season, and Family man Manson was looking to recruit brainwashed followers who would convincingly sing, “I’m a Believer.”
A Ham-pered Experience
What kind of sandwich did Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas choke on? Almost everyone will shoot back the answer – ham. Her physician reported shortly after her death on July 29, 1974, that she “probably choked to death on a sandwich.” Sometime after the announcement, however, the rumor of her demise by pork facetiously crept into the lexicon of legend. It’s obvious that whoever began promoting this piece o’ pork image was making the rude association of a pig with that of the overweight talented singer. Of course, the true nature of Mama Cass’ passing did not concern ham. The official report wound up not even pointing to asphyxiation by sandwich as the chief cause of death.
A few days after her departure in singer Harry Nilsson’s London apartment, local U.K. pathologist, Dr. Keith Simpson, and coroner Dr. Gavin Thurston, ruled that Ms. Elliot had died of a heart attack, an arrest that was brought on by the stress of long-term obesity. For most of her career, Cass Elliot had wrestled with a weight problem, and at the time of her passing, her tiny 5’5” frame struggled to carry about 238 pounds. One would think that the official autopsy report would close the book on this particularly unflattering rumor, but the hacking on ham response still follows poor Elliot to this day.
Philled With Hate
In the hit song, “Stan,” by rapper Eminem, the focus is on the title character, a deranged fan, whose adulation leads to violence. During one verse, ‘Stan’ riffs, “I’m in the car right now/I’m doing 90 on the freeway/Hey Slim, I drank a fifth of vodka, ya dare me to drive?/You know that song by Phil Collins from ‘In The Air Tonight?’/About that guy who could have saved that other guy from drowning?/But didn’t?/Then Phil saw it all/Then at his show he found him?/That’s kinda how this is/You could have rescued me from drowning.”
What the Grammy-winning artist is alluding to in his crazed rap is one of the all-time head-scratching tall tales to come out of rock. So many variations have been spilled about the origins of Mr. Collin’s haunting “In The Air Tonight” that it’s difficult to relate the definitive rumor. The genesis, if you will, of the story centers around Phil happening upon someone off in the distance who was drowning. The singing drummer then spotted another witness standing nearby on dry land, not choosing to save the doomed victim. Different scenarios have Collins stumbling upon this instance while sailing in a boat, while standing on a cliff, or while running across a beach. The drowned individual oftentimes is made out to be Phil’s own brother, thus Collin’s anger, in both song and in real life, are made to be even more justified. The stretched story continues with Phil identifying the lone, uncaring observer later in life, somehow anonymously inviting the man to attend a front row view of his concert. Collins then debuted his spite-filled song, directing his emotional outpouring at the unsuspecting enabler of death.
As mentioned, this rock legend has been buffed and polished to include many other details since the days when Phil Collins first released the song on his 1981 solo album “Face Value.” The indifferent man supposedly either left the concert in the custody of a cop, or eventually lost his job and wife, or went home to simply commit remorseful suicide. A few tellings make the malevolent man out to be a rapist whom Phil walked in on while the perp perpetrated his act on Collin’s wife.
As with all strange tales, this one has instances of reality. In fact, Phil Collins’ wife was part of the reason behind the song. At the time of his writing the “Face Value” album, Collins’ was in the midst of an ugly divorce from his first spouse, Andrea. Many of the songs on the LP are snapshots of despondency and bitterness over broken relationships. “People ask me, ‘Aren’t you embarrassed? You’re putting your private life out for all to see,” Phil related to Goldmine magazine at the time. “It’s like I oughtn’t let people see that I was hurt, that I cry, that, I do ‘unmanly’ things. But I’m not embarrassed by it.”
As for the whole-witness-to-a-drowning scenario, it’s obvious the inventor of this rumor was not blessed with an original, creative mind. They simply read the lyrics to “In The Air Tonight” and just tweaked the imagery onto Collins’ own life. “Well, if you told me you were drowning,” the lyrics state, “I would not lend a hand. I’ve seen your face before, my friend. But I don’t know if you know who I am. Well, I was there, and I saw what you did, saw it with my own two eyes. So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been, it’s all been a pack of lies.” Lies indeed.
The Plane Truth
When the small Beechcraft plane carrying rock legends Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper did a cornfield crash in Ames, Iowa on February 2, 1959, legions of fans mourned the passing of rock ‘n’ roll’s innovative originators. For one singer in the early ‘70s, Don McLean, the event would be used to highlight the passing of our nation’s innocence. The eight minute, 36-second song, “American Pie,” was the anthem of a disenchanted generation, one who had seen violence erupt on campuses, campaigns, and in Cambodia throughout the 1960s. Although the rumor that sprang forth from this ditty was simply a minor misconception, many people to this day continue to believe that “American Pie” was the name of the aircraft that carried the rock trio to their fiery finale.
The 4-seater Bonanza-type aircraft that left Clear Lake, Iowa that wintry night only had the designation numbers N3794N on its side. The owner of the plane at Dwyer’s Flying Service never referred to it as ‘American Pie.’ McLean put the rumor to rest saying, “The growing urban legend that ‘American Pie’ was the name of Buddy Holly’s plane the night it crashed, killing him, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, is equally untrue. I created the term.” Case closed. “Bye, bye Miss American Pie.”
The Dark Side of Dorothy
“The lunatic is on the grass.” It’s a noteworthy lyric from a phenomenally successful album, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” With the mad giggle emanating from your speakers, one pictures a crazed man, seemingly docile, yet ready to bound off his patch of green at a moment’s notice and attack you on the sidewalk. For Roger Waters, the creator of the song, it seems he was probably thinking about…The Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Huh? What’s that you say? I don’t get the connection. For thousands of Floyd devotees in the 1970s, this assumption was perfectly clear. Many fans believed that the entire “Dark Side of the Moon” album was composed and performed to coincide with a screening of the fabled 1939 motion picture. Cuing up the LP at the correct moment for exact synchronization was a bone of contention amongst Floydian theorists. Do you drop the needle on the MGM lion’s first roar at the start of the movie, or his second? Hint: it makes no difference really because it’s a stretch to believe this album had anything remotely to do with Auntie Em, flying monkeys and fictional wizards.
Sure, there are some eerie similarities to lyric and image synchronization. The emotional, heart-wrenching instrumental tune “The Great Gig In The Sky” belts out just as the tornado in the film builds to its frenzy. Dorothy and her newfound Scarecrow friend decide to begin their journey down the yellow brick road, just as the lyric “Got to keep the loonies on the path” from the song “Brain Damage” emits from the album. The entire record ends with the sound of a beating heart, just as Dorothy meets the kind, but heartless, Tin Man. Glinda the Good Witch appears just as the band sings, “Don’t give me that do goody-good bulls***” on “Money.” But there are far more discrepancies than meaningful comparisons. During the same song, Pink Floyd sings about money being the “root of all evil,” yet we’re still looking at the “Good” Witch.
It’s assumed by Floyd devotees that Roger Waters wished to set this elaborate synchronization concept into motion when he devised the idea of “Dark Side of the Moon.” Fans believe he kept it a secret from Waters’ fellow group members. But the other three bandmates had a hand in composing several of the songs. Engineer Alan Parsons definitely shaped the timing and mix of this complex record and would have had to have been included in the scheme as well.
Even though the album cover had a monochromatic white light turning into a rainbow of color, much like “The Wizard of Oz” started out in black & white and jumped to Technicolor, advocates of the rumor were stretching believability. Frankly, if you dropped on Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Déjà vu” and synced it with Al Pacino’s “Scarface,” it’s likely you’d find some depth of meaning to “Our House” and Tony Montoya’s elaborate mansion. Suffice to say, as strong as the Floyd rumor circulated in the ‘70s, the vacuous ditties of N’Sync have more in sync with the Wizard of Oz than do the masters of album-oriented rock.
Let’s Welcome The Beatles, eh?
Oh Canada! Land of hockey, bacon, and…Beatles? After the release of an album on Capitol Records in August 1976, a freelance journalist named Steve Smith, seemed to think the Fab Four were again fabulous and recording out of Canada. When Smith’s article, entitled “Could Klaatu Be The Beatles…Mystery is a Magical Tour,” appeared in a Providence, Rhode Island newspaper, the assumption spread like wildfire. Unbeknownst to the three talented musicians from Toronto who made up Klaatu, they would soon be thrust into a global feeding frenzy.
The sonic imagery devised on Klaatu’s debut album (initially released as “3:47 EST”) certainly had kaleidoscopic music derivative of the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper” era. Highly melodic and painted with fanciful tales, the album stood in contrast to the light Southern California rock and burgeoning English punk wave that dominated the airwaves in late 1976. It didn’t help that any of Klaatu’s band member names were printed on the album cover. Capitol Records in Los Angeles had apparently signed the band solely on the basis of their music. Executives had neither met the group or seen them perform live. They were repped by a Canadian named Frank Davies. And Davies did nothing to dispel the rumor once it took root.
Coincidentally, Ringo Starr had released a solo album two years earlier named “Goodnight Vienna,” that had a link with the Klaatu name. In 1951, a landmark science fiction film called “The Day The Earth Stood Still” was released, and its plot centered around a visiting alien and his menacing robot. Veiled as an anti-nuclear war film, the words “Klaatu barada nikto,” a significant message in the plot (hey, watch the movie, I’m not going to spoil it for you) was an instant catchphrase amongst sci-fi buffs of the period. On Ringo’s LP, Mr. Starr is depicted wearing the alien’s space outfit standing next to the giant robot. The contention that Klaatu was now a re-formed Beatles recording under an alias took a major portion of its origins from this coincidence.
Klaatu, in fact, were three native Canadians who had tirelessly worked the club circuit around Toronto for many years. John Woloschuk, Terry Draper, and Dee Long had begun recording their debut album as early as January 1973 and taken three years to complete it. When the misconception about the band erupted, Klaatu was as surprised as everyone else. “Well, it was a little bit like having an albatross around your neck,” Woloschuk told interviewer Stephen Peeples, “because what would happen is that as the rumor strengthened and as the s*** was hitting the fan, there was more pressure being put on us to come forward. And one of the things that we had agreed upon when we first got together was that we weren’t going to do the picture-bio routine…We just wanted the group to remain sort of anonymous.”
Anonymity led to mystery, which, in turn, led to huge record sales. Capitol Records added fuel to the fire when they issued a press release containing the article of journalist Steve Smith without any further comments to refute his notions. “3:47 EST,” which was later simply titled “Klaatu,” wound up selling around a million copies in the United States alone. But once the press finally learned the identity of the three band members, the backlash was immediate and harsh. Fans convinced the Beatles had returned were outraged by what they perceived had been a calculated ruse. “…Once you make a bad impression,” Woloschuk moaned to interviewer David Bradley, “it’s really hard to live it down. And in actual fact, Rolling Stone Magazine named us the ‘Hype of the Year’ for 1977. And once we got that stigma attached to us, you know, you can’t shake it. The only thing we could have done was change our name and start over again, and I wasn’t prepared to do that.”
While Klaatu soldiered on for four more albums, including the inspired, creative LP “Hope,” not many consumers appeared in line to purchase their albums. They disbanded in the mid-80s. Of course, the Fab Four would re-form in the mid-90s, apparently not to be bothered by the fact that John Lennon had passed away 15 years earlier. It’s hard to tell these days which is more stranger, truth or fiction.
© 2001 Ned Truslow