Searching for rock revelations.
By Shelly Ridenour
MAY 26, 1998: Exposés have long been a part of the music business, not because truth is the hail hail holy grail of rock 'n' roll, but because we're all voyeurs. AC/DC speaks for the 17-year-old hedonist in all of us. Glamorous, seductive and nihilistic, it's the American dream of all the sex, drugs and power chords you can scoop up in fifteen minutes. But what goes on backstage, in the land of the All Access pass? Are our heroes - and villains - really as untouchable and bewitching as they seem on MTV, onstage and in Rolling Stone?
Like "The X-Files," the truth is out there; or at least exclusive and dubious interviews with wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, long-long uncles, distant cousins, groupies, maids, therapists, and hairdressers are out there. Anyone remotely associated with an artist is ripe for the publishers' picking. Francis Bacon once said, "No pleasure is comparable to standing upon the vantage-guard of truth." The more salacious and sensational that truth, the better. As ex-Eagle Don Henley wryly sings, "It's interesting when people die. Give us dirty laundry."
It used to be that fans were content simply refusing to believe their dead rock icons were six feet under. Jim Morrison is anonymously growing old on some tropical isle, while Elvis lives his life-after-death haunting Burger Kings across the country. There seems to be little contention that Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain is indeed dead as a doornail, however. So the bone Ian Halperin and Max Wallace worry in their new book, "Who Killed Kurt Cobain?," is a good old-fashioned murder conspiracy. Depending on how you look at it, the bone is either ridiculously lean and clean or intriguingly streaked with fat.
Did Seattle police bungle the city's most famous suicide case? Did grunge widow Courtney Love have her hubby offed because he was threatening to leave her, or leave Nirvana, or leave rock 'n' roll for good? And did the butler - er, nanny - do it? Halperin and Wallace, a pair of award-winning investigative journalists from Canada, don't so much answer these questions as they do dance around them with a spotlight, coyly raising their eyebrows all the while. The circumstantial evidence comes from Tom Grant, a Los Angeles private dick originally hired by Love; convinced she was actually hampering his investigation, Grant removed himself from the case but continues his probe to this day.
His findings, as seen on "Unsolved Mysteries" and countless tabloid "news" shows, are certainly intriguing. No fingerprints were found on the 20-gauge shotgun Cobain used to kill himself, nor were any fingerprints lifted from the pen supposedly used in writing the suicide note. The heroin levels in Cobain's blood were triple a lethal dose; forensic pathology experts say it would be impossible for someone who had just shot up this much heroin to pull the trigger - in essence, Kurt should've been dead before he killed himself. Also, the late El Duce of the Mentors, a legendary punk rock nihilist, claimed Love offered him $50,000 to off Cobain - and passed a polygraph test stating as much.
"None of these [findings] by themselves prove a murder took place," the authors admit, "but certainly offer a compelling justification for a new investigation or, more accurately, a first investigation."
An interesting, fleshed-out, and well-told story, "Who Killed Kurt Cobain?" also vividly recounts the singer's childhood in what he referred to as "the white-trash hell" of Aberdeen, Washington. Devastated by his parents' divorce, shuttled back and forth among half-interested family members, and suffering from debilitating stomach problems, Cobain spent his adolescence disappointing his athletic father, experimenting with narcotics and basement-brewed beer, and hanging out at early Melvins' practices. Kurt is painted as the poor, misunderstood soul (the chapter on his childhood is even titled "Lost Boy"), while Courtney comes across the scheming, manipulative, too-smart-for-her-own-good bitch. Maybe that's true, but Halperin and Wallace's words carry the weight of bias and a tone of disdain, crossing the line of journalistic integrity into the popular sport of Courtney-bashing.
Subjects who cooperated with the authors (Love wasn't one of them) get much more sympathetic treatment, and their credibility is certainly suspect. Love's father, former Grateful Dead manager Hank Harrison, has strong anti-Love opinions about the case and is ready to tell anyone who'll listen, even hitting the lecture circuit promoting his own book on Cobain. Harrison, long estranged from his daughter, never even met his son-in-law. Yet he calls Cobain a "Zen master," and, as Harrison see it, "Zen masters don't kill themselves."
By nature, then, "Who Killed Kurt Cobain?" is a skeptic's book. But even for those wary of the author's insinuations and sources, the book remains a thoroughly fascinating and entertaining read. Shorter on substance and long on, well, wind, is the revised edition of Boze Hadleigh's wannabe tell-all tome, "Sing Out - Gays and Lesbians in the Music World." Hadleigh has made a career out of chronicling rumors and accusations about silver-screen celebs in books such as "Gays in Hollywood" and "Lesbians in Hollywood." "Sing Out," first published in 1991, ostensibly strives "not solely to dish dirt or expose the secret lives of America's performers," but also to "chronicle the ways in which gays and lesbians have changed the face of the music world."
Unfortunately, Hadleigh flits about among not-so-juicy tidbits, largely focused on stars who were big decades ago. Less Rudy Vallee, more Melissa Etheridge, please. Conversely, blues legends Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Moms Mabley surely deserve more than a page (for a better source, see Eric Garber's "Tain't Nobody's Business - Homosexuality in Harlem in the 1920s"). And a single chapter doesn't do justice to the topic of gay composers (according to Hadleigh, running the gamut from Tchaikovsky, Handel and even Beethoven to Copland, Foster and Mahler).
Maybe to make more room he should've left out bits on hetero stars rumored to be gay: Alice Cooper ("the adopted female first name" led to "lavendar innuendos"); Hall & Oates ("both were attractive, so the rumors were strong"); and Duran Duran ("when the individual members contracted marriage, the groom was inevitably prettier than the bride"). And maybe Hadleigh got his book revisions mixed up; how else can you explain the endless ruminations on John Travolta, Lily Tomlin, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, et al? What "Sing Out" could use is a good editor. Hadleigh's writing style wants to be chatty and catty, but is instead flighty, flat and uncohesive. The book follows no particular timeline or logical pattern, often repeating itself as if telling a story for the first time. Too often, what Hadleigh calls evidence is both embarrassing and a set-back to efforts by groups like GLAAD. The worst: a single-sentence (but twice-told) bit about Bruce Springsteen in which the Boss was photographed leaving Tower Records with the rental video "Kiss of the Spider Woman." Hadleigh teases lamely, "perhaps Bruce is as open-minded as he is broad-minded?" Oh boy.
Anyone just looking for the naughty bits will be tantalized by seemingly well-substantiated reveals about David Cassidy, Rick Nelson and Sammy Davis, Jr. - but you can just pick up a copy of Star for that.
Hadleigh could take some lessons from NPR contributor Bruce Feiler, who expertly employs three subjects (superstar Garth Brooks, evolving diva Wynonna and rising hat-wearer Wade Hayes) to illustrate "the changing face of Nashville" in his book "Dreaming Out Loud," an above-board and behind-the-scenes look at contemporary country music. Feiler pulls no punches, offering a real warts-and-all look at a genre that, for all its drinkin' and cheatin' and heartbreakin', usually puts on a front of sequins, spangles and big hair. He never uses his pen to airbrush over the artists' insecurities or egos, even if you can occasionally read between the lines to hear his true feelings and frustrations. Country music fans will enjoy "Dreaming Out Loud" for its insider's view of artists in the studio, back stage, in the management offices and at photo shoots. Garth Brooks comes across as a big-hearted, introspective, down-to-earth family man, an image questioned by industry insiders accustomed to his ruthless, stubborn business acumen. Wynonna, on the other hand, is still suffering from public perception as a pouty, reckless business naif, trapped under mama's thumb. Behind the scenes, though, she assumes a sort of spiritual serenity.
Newcomers to the country music hayride will no doubt be amused by colorful tales of Fan Fair ("the annual backstage festival-cum-family reunion in which 24,000 die-hard country music lovers flock to Nashville in early summer for the chance to rub cheeks with their favorite stars"); the CMA awards (and the promo tactics the stars resort to); and an autograph-signing at a rural Okie Wal-Mart - at first kitsch, but ultimately pure entertainment. And both sides will enjoy Feiler's zippy, straight-forward style (occasionally bleeding into rainbow prose), which steps back and allows the performers' personalities to come through. Simply by describing the people and their actions, he never has to pass judgment.
Feiler has a remarkable eye and ear when it comes to recounting a scene, and a vividly distinctive voice with which to recount it. "Think of Faulkner's Snopeses hanging out at the food court," he writes, "eating fried chicken, and simultaneously cozying up to and smothering one another, and you get a sense of what it's like being around most country artists when they come in contact with even their most casual fans." Even better for readers looking for good dish, Feiler - an admitted late convert to country music - was granted a remarkable level of access to his subjects on all levels, from home and family to backstage and in the studio to business dealings with label heads and marketers. "Dreaming Out Loud" is impressively researched, thorough and credible. Feiler is the rare pop-culture author who, after turning over rocks, guitars and dead bodies, has found the truth: that is, he kept his eyes focused on both his subject and his own aspiration - entertainment.
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