|Ten Thousand Motels
||Rock’s sordid past examined
Kevin Dalby - News Editor
Tuesday, July 31, 2007 issue
When the legendary singer and blues guitarist Robert Johnson died in 1938, he founded one of the most unfortunately selective clubs in music. Within six decades after the death of the Delta bluesman, who is often considered the “Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a slew of the genre’s most iconic and influential figures, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and Kurt Cobain, were dead, all under mysterious circumstances and all at the age of 27.
“They were not only great rock stars, but they were icons of their age. They changed the landscape of music,” said R. Gary Patterson, author of the book “Take a Walk on the Dark Side” and a one-time University of Tennessee student. Patterson will discuss the “Curse of 27” and other myths, legends and curses of rock ‘n’ roll on WUOT’s “Dialogues” Wednesday.
Patterson said 27 is such a looming age in rock ‘n’ roll that musicians such as John Mayer and Gretchen Wilson have publicly breathed sighs of relief on their 28th birthdays.
“It just hides in the background that a lot of rock stars are now familiar with 27,” he said. “Maybe there is a little supernatural soliciting, who knows, but it’s just a little odd that you have a lot of rock stars that die at 27.”
Patterson attended UT when rock ‘n’ roll was at its height in the late ‘60s. In 1996, he published his first book, “The Walrus was Paul,” on one of rock’s most notorious legends, the supposed “death” of Paul McCartney. After “Walrus” took off amongst Beatle-maniacs, Patterson started hitting up the talk show circuit. He said the popularity of his first book inspired him to investigate other dark alleys in music.
“I thought, ‘well, man, if I’m doing an urban myth in music, they’re so many of them that are so cool, why don’t I do another one?’ ” he said.
Patterson’s follow-up was titled “Hell Hounds of Their Trail,” which dug into the “27” myth. He has also worked as a consultant on the television series “VH1 Confidential.” His most recent publication, “Take a Walk on the Dark Side,” is an updated and revised edition of “Hell Hounds.”
Although Patterson’s books are full of dead rock stars, he said he does not try to focus on death alone.
“I think people misunderstand, because the one thing I don’t want to do is write rock obituaries. There has to be something that’s a little twisted that goes with it,” he said. “I’m always interested in something that might give you a slight chill when you read at night.”
Two of Patterson’s favorite topics are the curse of Buddy Holly and the curse of Led Zeppelin.
On Feb. 3, 1959, a plane carrying musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed, killing all on board.
In subsequent years, those who had “interesting contacts with (Holly) died mysterious deaths,” including a tale of cheating death and one improbably gruesome suicide.
As for Led Zeppelin, guitarist Jimmy Page’s fascination with the occult led him to purchase the mansion of occultist leader Aleister Crowley.
The British band started incorporating cryptic symbols into their albums, and one legend even suggests that the song “Stairway to Heaven” contains subliminal satanic messages when played backwards.
Subsequent years worth of unfortunate incidents culminated with the death of Zeppelin drummer John Bonham in 1980.
Although Patterson’s topics are not exactly lighthearted, hindsight plays a big role in the development of rock mythology.
“It’s just like taking ink on wall and asking what’s there,” Patterson said.
Matt Shafer Powell, the host of “Dialogues” and WUOT news director, offered his explanation for the emphasis on the dark side of rock music.
“Rock ‘n’ roll sort of embraces the darker culture and vice versa,” he said. “Even if you don’t believe all that stuff, it’s still just fun to read about.”
Wednesday’s show will be a departure for “Dialogues,” which usually focuses on more serious issues. That’s not to say that Patterson’s visit is purely entertainment.
“(Music has) played an important role in social change, but also personal change. I don’t know that we’re going to change the way anybody acts, but they might come in with a better idea of how rock ‘n’ roll fits in to that change.”
“Dialogues” will air Wednesday from 1-2 p.m. on WUOT 91.9 FM.
||Yes, John Mayer's risky lifestyle made cashing in his chips at 27 a real possibility. Why, an accident with a grocery cart was a strong probability!