Friday, September 11, 2009

David Comfort's "The Rock & Roll Book of the Dead": Book Review

Seven flights with Icarus? This narrative investigates the last days of "The Seven," four of whom died at 27. All shared broken families, talent, hubris, and a fascination with displaying genius through mania.

While their stories already've been told, Comfort aims to chart a steady course between hagiography and exposé. He aims for an explanation of how each one went down the drain, and why they chose this direction. Neither saintly or sordid in its presentation, while all of the stars do wallow in excess admittedly, their childlike attraction to repairing their own broken homes and early estrangement with money, chemicals, sex, chattels and power does exert its own fascination for the rest of us. Living as celebrities, they retreated into isolation. They all wearied of the pressure to reconcile their talent with "the toxicity of fame," the demands to continue innovation in their music while somehow keeping it familiar, to churn out the old hits. "They died for their music as surely as they had lived for it"(4).

Comfort begins with Jimi Hendrix, whose long list of female conquests may have sucked him into doom; Monika Dannemann and his fearsomely conniving manager, Mike Jeffery, may have conspired to do Jimi in when he did not capitulate to their wishes. As in any tale based on secondary evidence and post-facto testimony, Comfort's own scenario may not convince all skeptics, but forensically he raises salient questions that remain about the way Jimi's body was found and those who may well have plotted to end his life so they could cash in on his estate.

After a segue exploring how "The Seven" shared childhoods shattered by parental estrangement, Janis Joplin's story unfolds, more straightforwardly than her one-time lover Jimi's. Comfort captures her appeal to all the loud, blowsy, frumpy women who saw in her a figure many men slept with, but then derided the morning after. He tells her famous return to her ten-year high school reunion with verve and imagines her own last hour in her hotel, all alone. This chapter blends into a follow-up study of the chemicals that seemed to constantly alter the states of "The Seven"; five would die alone after indulging, in their own vomit and blood and stench. Five dropped acid. All but Elvis consumed illegal drugs-- the King was different only in that, a law unto himself, "Nixon deputized him as a federal narcotics agent." Elvis loved reading the "Physician's Desk Reference."

Presley's familiar story of the road to excess that leads to the palace of Graceland gains needed energy by Comfort's regaling us with how Elvis and The Guys womanized and gluttonized, and with bits such as his brief flirtation with becoming a monk in the Self-Realization Fellowship, we get a side of the man not often seen. It's a sad tale, as with the previous chapter. Jim Morrison's eros-thanatos struggle killed him. Comfort gives him credit for his intellectual influence and mystical idealism even as he tells us evenly how Jim self-destructed willfully and heedlessly. Marianne Faithfull, frequent observer of those "dancing with Mr. D," said of a mutual friend posthumously: "Had he lived, he might have turned into a human being." (143) This epitaph arguably speaks for all the major and some among the many minor players in this saga of life at the top.

The next interlude examines how manic obsessions consumed each star. For Lennon, Comfort opines: "if Paul made the Beatles popular, John made them profound." (206) John's pain at being the misunderstood, unappreciated "real talent" doomed him to be as he admitted a "f[---]ing egomaniac," but Comfort locates in Lennon's ambition a lifelong frustration with complacency and conformity. Yoko Ono's own influence has been well documented, but as throughout this compendium, Comfort skillfully combines in his rendering of "the pornographic priestess" his research from a wide variety of biographies. Yoko emerges as what John called "me in drag."

Often wryly phrased (even if I cannot quote some gems here) with apposite citations and damning quotes about and from such as the obsessive couple in their "mind games," this remains an efficiently told, steadily paced study of the destructive factors that eroded the pedestals mounted by "The Seven." (One aside: the book's back cover promises "dozens of rare photos," but only sixteen b/w grace its single insert. The book does have footnotes, a bibliography, and index and is without any typographical errors, a welcome example for a genre often woefully under-edited.)

Comfort shifts into a novelistic mode briefly when reconstructing Janis and John's last hours, but this works well to vary the tone and he works as far as I can tell from the record. Comfort dutifully attends to rumors of conspiracies and mysteries that have been advanced. He fairly interprets the gossip, forensic reports, and secondhand coverage and firsthand reports about the death-driven motivations and fatal situations for all Seven.

The loss that Lennon represented moves into a section touching on spiritual yearnings as varied as Elvis and the SRF, Lennon's responses to Christ, Hendrix's Cherokee background, Morrison's Celtic and occult interests, Kurt Cobain's punk disbelief, and Jerry Garcia's non-theism. I agree when Comfort sets Morrison, Hendrix, Garcia, and Lennon closer to "a nondogmatic Buddhist or existentialist point-of-view" that sees death as not a closed door but "merely a change or dissolution of form." (241)

For Cobain, the facts concluding what's been supposed his suicide fail to convince many. His ambivalent sexuality, troubled childhood, artistic fixations, and urge to shock could be shared by Lennon, his role model of sorts, while Morrison, Jimi, and Joplin provided case studies for him in earlier outré behavior by those courting fame by notoriety. Kurt's more of a second-generation rebel, a janitor, a scatophile and an olfactorily driven layabout. Heroin after he signed a record deal with Nirvana enabled him to rise-- or fall-- to the levels of his predecessors. Courtney Love, whose father had early managed the Grateful Dead, by her ballsiness drove Kurt to try to match her own wallows growing up within rock music's sleazier side. "Just call me Yoko Love," his wife said. (264) She became fed up with what she saw as Kurt's hypocrisy against being a corporate sellout once his band made #1. Nirvana's fourth album her husband wanted to entitle: "I Hate Myself and Want to Die."

Certainly, as perhaps with Jimi's death, the circumstances seem to point to outside involvement in Cobain's end. As noted by Comfort, Nick Broomfield's 1998 documentary "Kurt & Courtney" unearthed possible leads. Comfort relates inconsistencies and what appears collusion to gain control over his estate involving the unfaithful Love, from whom Kurt had been seeking divorce. Hedged in by lawsuits and intimidation, those who may know the truth about Cobain's death may not be able to tell what they saw or heard.

"Love" in another guise moves the Seven along as they depend on lovers and family to sustain them and protect them from manipulators of their fame and income. The six men all needed women around them. Janis, bisexual like some of the Six, repeated her one-time lover Jimi's often ruthless abandonment of past supporters once she enjoyed success. Four wives married Jerry Garcia, but he left three after they cared for him; the fourth complained she could not get enough of his money out of him. He cried.

Garcia's, despite a 1986 coma, by then a CEO of "California's thirty-ninth largest corporation," the Grateful Dead. (302) Like Elvis, his road downhill may have been longer than those who died in the hippie era; unlike Elvis, Garcia became a bloated embodiment of that era's idealism turned commodification. Like Elvis and Hendrix a military veteran more or less, Garcia was old enough to be a Cold War draftee. Perhaps more than those two singers, Jerry earlier on encountered as he and a friend drove at "death charades" the real thing, when his friend died at the scene of the crash in which Garcia was flown through the windshield. "The death of the ego" inspired his band's folkloric name, and their rise in countercultural, lysergic San Francisco needs no repeating as they sought "a suicide in music" by relentless touring with most of the band on LSD.

After "twenty-five years of burnout," as Garcia sneered, he could not keep up the demands of touring, marketing, and performing. He was fickle with the women who nursed him; alimony, his fourth wife's spending, and child support ate up his income. He seemed unable to reconcile the cash cow he'd become with the band's utopian roots, and perhaps inside the greed that swirled around him in his entourage hastened his fatal heart attack while in rehab from the damage done his body.

Comfort concludes with the Seven's peers who survived. Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Keith Richards, and famously Mick Jagger, however, endured. Harrison, Comfort reflects, knew too that the Beatles rivalled Jesus for popularity. Yet, Harrison "rejected this, knowing that becoming a god in the minds of others or in one's own is a fatal condition." (336) Early death, as the Seven all found, represented not the triumph of talent and ambition, but the loss of humanity, as those who raced after fame found in its attainment their own lack of character. (Posted to Amazon US 9-11/09.) Author's website: "Rock & Roll Book of the Dead"


Tony Bailie said...

John, despite an already teetering book pile I'm going to have to get this. I read biographies of Lennon, Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin when writing The Lost Chord as I wanted my characted Gino Morgan to be a rock archetype... and the conspiracy theories around some of their deaths, particularly Morrision and Presley and the 'they are not really dead' myths that have sprung up around them, also fascinate me. Does Comfort touch on these?

Fionnchú said...

He does raise conspiracy theories for Jimi & Kurt. The latter case especially appears very suspicious; his widow's threats of legal and physical retributions seem to have silenced the skeptics. See the "Kurt & Courtney" documentary I mentioned for more speculation, albeit more far-fetched at times than the sober accounts Comfort favors.

As for Jimi, I had no idea of the mob influence that horned in on him and his drug-addled posse. Sinister indeed, and it adds to the sad ending so many in this book share, as the jackals close in.