November is Conspiracy Month at Tea’s Weird Week. Shit is about to get real weird, real fast.
Last month I did a column titled “9 Music Conspiracies and Urban Legends,” where I wrote about some classics like Paul McCartney being dead, Elvis (and Tupac) being alive, the 27 Club, and more. There were some stories that didn’t make round one, so I thought I’d start “Conspiracy Month” with a sequel column. To preserve this list, I’m picking up numbering where I left off with number 10.
(10.) Ace of Base is Secretly a Nazi Band
I laughed when I heard this one. There’s no way the Swedish sugary pop of Ace of Base, omnipresent in the 90s, could be some white power message in disguise, right? But as it turns out, there’s a spot of truth in here.
It comes down to one of the band members, Ulf Ekberg, being in a band called Commit Suiside, a Gothenburg white power band that was around from 1983-86. Vice wrote a story on it here: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/rm35nr/ace-of-bases-secret-nazi-past
Ekberg has tried to spin his involvement, saying he wasn’t part of recordings where extremely racist lyrics were recorded but he also expressed this:
“I told everyone I really regret what I did. I’ve closed that book. I don’t want to even talk about it, that time does not exist in me any more. I closed it and I threw the book away in 1987. I took the experience from it, I learned from it. But that life is not me. It’s somebody else.”
Did Ekberg’s Ace bandmates see “the sign” of this troubled past before they hired him to the Base? That’s unknown.
(11.) A Couple Things About Marilyn Manson
I heard both of these urban legends while in high school (or shortly after). I don’t have time right now, but I’d love to look into how urban legends like this spread before the Internet. Radio shows? Written publications? Just a whisper campaign that spread across the country? Because these didn’t originate in the halls of my high school. Anyway, the first Marilyn Manson myth is that he is actually the child actor who played the character of Paul Pfeiffer on the 80s sitcom The Wonder Years. Paul was main character Kevin (Fred Savage)’s geeky sidekick. The actor was actually Josh Saviano, not Brian Warner (aka Marilyn Manson).
The other myth was that Marilyn Manson had removed one of his bottom ribs so that he could enjoy auto-fellatio. There are also myths that Cher and several other celebrities have gotten ribs removed to have a slimmer waist. Snopes wrote about it here: https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/getting-waisted/
(12.) Backmasking Satanic Panic
This is another one I heard in high school and was quite intrigued with. Certain records are said to have secret messages if you play the record backward. A classic example being The Beatles song “Revolution #9,” which if played backward is supposed to say “turn me on, dead man.”
In the great moral Satanic Panic of the 1980s and early 90s, the hand of Satan was seen everywhere– Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, and especially heavy metal. Hidden Satanic messages heard in rock and heavy metal were prolific. (Some bands later did put these hidden messages in, inspired by the hype). Led Zepplin was said to have an ode to Satan in “Stairway to Heaven” while the Judas Priest song “Better By You, Better Than Me,” was said to inspire suicide attempts. “You know Satan holds the keys to the lock,” is heard when you play the Cheap Trick song “Gonna Raise Hell” backward and “See you in hell!” is heard in the Grim Reaper song “Final Scream.”
As I mentioned, some later examples were probably added deliberately by bands after backmasking was established as a thing. Pareidolia is the wonderful thing where your brain sees faces, shapes, and items in woodgrains, architecture, pictures of fog, etc. It’s what’s happening when a lot of people think they have a picture of a ghost or a Bigfoot lurking in the woods. I’m not sure what the audio equivalent is, but I think that’s what’s going on with some of these.
VH1 has some clips of backmasking you can listen to here: http://www.vh1.com/news/52612/15-songs-satanic-backwards-messages/
(13.) The Killer Jerry Lee Lewis
Was Jerry Lee Lewis, nicknamed the Killer (for his throttling of the piano) actually guilty of murder? Lewis has been married seven times (so far). He had a famous controversy when he married his third wife, who was his 13-year-old first cousin, once removed in 1957. His 5th wife, Shawn Stephens, was found dead under mysterious circumstances in 1983. The couple had been married just 77 days.
It looked like there was blood underneath Shawn’s fingernails, bruises on her body, and there were scrapes on Lewis’s hands. There was blood all around the house. Shawn had called her mom the night before saying she wanted to leave Lewis, but he wouldn’t let her. Lewis was abusing alcohol and speed. Despite all of the pieces of evidence, Shawn’s death was dismissed as “an accident.” Did The Killer get away with murder? Tea’s Weird Week is not a court of law, but it looks likely.
For more, including how local law enforcement probably helped the case go away, I recommend listening to the Disgraceland podcast episode titled “Jerry Lee Lewis: The Killer and Getting Away with Murder.” It talks about other Jerry Lee Lewis myths including tales that he sold his soul, was a vampire that fought in the Civil War, and the time he drove his car into Graceland’s gates, trying to assassinate Elvis.
(14.) The Andrew W.K. Factory
I mentioned this in the last column I wrote when I mentioned celebrities being replaced by doppelgangers, but wanted to explore a bit further. The Andrew W.K. conspiracy alleges that Andrew is not a singular person, but a sort of Mall Santa persona that is franchised out to play different shows.
Her’es Andrew addressing his frustration with the conspiracy in a Sept. 2017 interview with Ashley Naftule of the Phoenix New Times:
This idea that I don’t exist … I really don’t know what to think of it. There are times where I’ve gotten really angry about it, where I’ve been really frustrated by it, and there are times where I just wish I could control what other people think of me. But there’s nothing I can do to control what other people think. There are other times where I think I can control that perception if I work really hard, but then I see other performers have similar accusations that there are multiple versions of them too …
It’s just this archetypal myth that people go through with all sorts of people. But it does seem to be specifically about music figures. I’ve never heard anyone say there’s more than one Michael Jordan. But with Paul McCartney and Avril Lavigne or Taylor Swift or me – I don’t know why that is. Nobody says, “Oh, there’s more than one Bradley Cooper.”
He’s right, though I can think of a couple non-musician doppelganger conspiracies. As I mentioned in my last column, See You On The Other Side did a doppelganger episode (“Avril is Dead“) where they addressed the conspiracy that the Ultimate Warrior was replaced by the WWF. There’s also a theory that a sick Hillary Clinton was replaced by longtime Hillary impersonator Teresa Barnswell.
Anyway, it is my belief that there is only one Andrew W.K. out there– no one else can party that hard.
(15.) The Curse of Jelly Roll Morton
I read this classic story in a comic by Robert Crumb, “The Voodoo Curse of Jelly Roll Morton,” originally published in Raw vol.1 no.7 in 1985. I read it in The Complete Crumb Comics Vol.16 (2002). The comic was based on an interview jazz great “Jelly Roll” Morton gave in 1938. Morton attributed his success to using hoodoo in New Orleans, but also told about how the hoodoo boomeranged back to him in Brooklyn when a co-worker in the music industry cursed him.
As business began to decline, Morton suspected a curse and found a mysterious powder hidden under the rug near the entryway of his office. He saw a mystic Madame Elise who told him to take a bath with some special oils and to burn all his clothes in a bonfire. But he continued to lose work and felt he never broke the curse.
#ClownWatch2019: September, 25, 2019: Fort Madison, Iowa: Continuing reporting on frightening clown sightings, police gave chase in Fort Madison back on September 25 after receiving a report of a “menacing clown.” The clown jumped a fence and escaped capture.
October 29, 2019: Not a clown mask, but worth mentioning. Today reports on an Indiana man, Evan Zimmerman, who likes to dress as Mike Meyers from Halloween and sneak onto people’s property:
“I’ll stand in random people’s yards and look at them through the window until they notice me standing there,” Evan revealed. “I carry a fake butcher knife.”
Evan, I’m not sure you thought this hobby through.
Next week: I’ll be on the road and reporting from a…uh…very interesting location.
I thought of the idea for this column when I saw a ridiculous (but kinda awesome) theory circulating on Facebook the other day that Jimi Hendrix and Morgan Freeman are one and the same. I’m wrapping up a book on conspiracy culture titled American Madness, which doesn’t delve too much into music theories, although there is one about Les Claypool of Primus (no, sadly it doesn’t involve playing “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” backwards). Maybe I’ll write more in-depth on all this someday, but meanwhile here’s a list of some conspiracy theories and urban legends involving musicians.
(1) Jimi Hendrix lit his guitar on fire and became Morgan Freeman.
As I mentioned, this story kicked off the idea for this week’s column (I added the flaming guitar bit myself as a good conspiracy needs embellishment). The theory suggests that Hendrix faked his death in 1970 and rebranded himself as Academy Award winning actor Freeman. As Snopes notes, the two do have a passing resemblance, but Morgan had already launched his acting career by 1964 while Hendrix was still touring, so we’re going to need to add time/space travel to this theory for it to make sense.
(2) Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil.
This is the most classic music myth I can think of. I’m adding Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, a biography on the blues musician (from one of my publishers, Chicago Review Press) to my winter reading list (as soon as I get through my fall one). Johnson, the story goes, was a mediocre guitar player until he disappeared from the juke joints he frequented for a period of time. When he returned, his music skills had increased incredibly and the story was that he sold his soul at the crossroads for his new abilities to old Hornhead himself. The stories and Johnson’s songs like “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Hellhound on My Trail” forever gave him a supernatural reputation.
(3) Elvis is alive, baby!
This is the first music conspiracy or legend I was exposed to as a kid, bored and waiting in line at the supermarket and reading the headlines of tabloids. The trashy reports of celebrity affairs had no interest to me, but the sensational tales of Elvis faking his death and being spotted at a 7-11 and numerous other locations did. An American classic– long live the king!
(4) But Paul is dead (and other doppelganger replacements)!
“Paul is dead” is such a beautifully complex conspiracy. There’s so much, so I’ll just try to cruise through the main talking points: Paul McCartney, the theory says, dies in a car crash in 1966. Afraid to lose their fan base, The Beatles and management decided to do the logical thing and replace him with a Paul McCartney doppelganger. But their guilt gnawed at them, so they dropped a number of clues hidden in plain sight in their song lyrics and album cover art, the most heavily dissected being the front and back cover of 1969’s Abbey Road. There’s a run down of the eight pieces of hidden symbolism on the album covers here: https://www.biography.com/news/beatles-abbey-road-album-cover-anniversary
Since then, there have been several other doppelganger theories, including one that says that Miley Cyrus died of an overdose and was replaced by a body double in 2010, that Avril Lavigne was quietly replaced with a clone in 2003, and that Andrew W.K. is actually several people who are franchised out to play the role, maybe in the same way Andy Warhol would have an impersonator show up at art events.
I recommend listening to my friends on See You on the Other Side podcast. They have an episode titled “Avril is Dead: The Strange Case of Pop Culture Doppelgangers” where they discuss Paul, Avril, and Andrew as well as wrestler the Ultimate Warrior and more.
(5) Kurt Cobain was murdered.
This was a conspiracy I watched play out as I was a Nirvana fan and a high schooler when Kurt Cobain killed himself. I found his death shocking and I experienced some sad disbelief. I think some conspiracies form because music is so important to us. When a musician dies before their time we can’t accept the grim reality. They were larger than life, larger than afterlife.
Over the years that followed Cobain’s death, a lot of “evidence” was hodge-podged together to suggest he was murdered, and most often the theories point at Courtney Love as the perpetrator. About six months after Cobain’s 1994 death, I went to see Hole play with Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails at the Riverside Theater. Some asshat was yelling “you killed Kurt!” at Love between songs. People needed to blame his death on someone and she was the convenient villain.
Shock rocker Eldon Hoke aka “El Duce” of The Mentors (and The Screamers), claimed he was hired by Love as the hitman (though he definitely shouldn’t be taken seriously). Two days after shooting an interview for the total crap conspiracy doc Kurt & Courtney, El Duce was found dead on the railroad tracks, decapitated, and with a high alcohol content. Of course this only led to more conspiracies.
(6) The 27 Club.
Kurt was then added to an elite theory of “The 27 Club,” a mystical group of musicians who died at that age, including Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and later Cobain and Amy Winehouse. Because of this there’s some mysticism about the number, a time when musicians are supposedly more vulnerable as they are on the cusp between still being considered young and about to turn a more “adult age.” But of course many great musicians have died at all ages.
(7) Who killed Tupac and Biggie…or are they still alive?
A lot of conspiracies linger because there aren’t satisfactory answers for closure, the JFK assassination being a prime example. Rap rivals Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG were murdered in 1996 and 1997, respectively, with both cases being unsolved and open. The list of alleged suspects who participated in the killings include Suge Knight, Puff Daddy, the LAPD, the FBI, and the Illuminati. Like Elvis, there are also legends that both rappers faked death, though most are typically about Tupac. You can find claims of people allegedly spotting Tupac in Cuba, Malaysia, and Somalia, among other places.
(8) Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlon Brando fled New York in a rental car road trip after 9/11.
This is a good story, but has never been proven. The tall tale says that Michael Jackson was performing in New York the week of the 9/11 attacks (that is true) and that his guests there for the show included Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando (also true). After the 9/11 attacks, a panicked Jackson rented a car and the three celebrities begin a madcap road trip toward LA. They got as far as Ohio (stopping frequently at KFCs to fuel Brando with fried chicken), before ditching the car for a private jet to California. This story only emerged in 2011, conveniently after all three of the alleged participants had died. Is the story true? Probably not. A former assistant to Taylor says she stayed for several days in New York after the attack. Another source says Jackson and entourage bunked in New Jersey before charting a private plane to head West.
Zadie Smith wrote a great short fiction based on this urban legend for the New Yorker titled “Escape from New York.”
(9) In the Air Tonight
I’m including this one because this is a myth I believed myself for many years. I accepted the story I heard about Phil Collin’s famous hit “In the Air Tonight.” I thought the song was about, as Eminem described it “that guy who coulda saved that other guy from drowning/ but didn’t then Phil saw it all/ then at a show he found him” Turns out the song isn’t about a death by drowning or any of that, but just Phil expressing his feels about a divorce he was going through.
Yawwwwwn dude. Conspiracy is sometimes way more interesting than reality.
There are many more ones I’m missing– the one about Ace of Base being white supremacists and some interesting rumors about Marilyn Manson, so I got a feeling someday this column will get a sequel.
If you’re in the midwest, tickets for Milwaukee Krampusnacht are on sale now. It’s an awesomely creepy and cool event. More info: www.milwaukeeparacon.com/krampus
My latest book is Apocalypse Any Day Now, available here: www.chicagoreviewpress.com/ApocalypseAnyDayNow