This is the first in a series of examinations of music legends and whether they are true or false.
Here is an archive of all music urban legends featured so far.
MUSIC LEGEND: Harry Nilsson’s coffin was lost during an earthquake
Harry Nilsson (he usually went by just Nilsson as a performer) was an acclaimed American singer and songwriter, with his most famous songs (either as a performer or as a songwriter or as both) probably being “Everybody’s Talkin’” (as in the theme song to Midnight Cowboy), “Without You” (as in “I can’t liiiiive if living is without you”), “Coconut” (as in “you put the lime in the coconut”) and “One” (as in “one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever know”).
However great Nilsson was, he most likely did not have the career, popularity-wise, that his talent “deserved” and was actually in rough financial straits (at least partially due to a crooked financial advisor who ended up going to prison for what she did to Nilsson’s finances) when he had a heart attack in 1993.
He was pushing RCA to put out a box set of his music, and he was just finishing up a new album (which I don’t believe has ever been released) when he died of heart failure in 1994 at the age of 54.
Let’s leave Nilsson for a moment and turn to our next player in this story.
Marianne Faithfull burst on to the scene in 1964 with a song penned by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Andrew Loog Oldham (the Rolling Stones’ manager) called “As Tears Go By.”
Soon Faithfull was involved in a much-publicized romance with Jagger, which lasted until 1970.
By the time she split with Jagger, Faithfull was heavily addicted to drugs, specifically cocaine.
During the 70s, while her singing career was in ruins, she developed a bout of laryngitis that, coupled with her constant drug abuse, rendered her once soprano voice to practically a complete 180 degree turn, and she is now a gravelly Deep contralto, but she is an acclaimed musician nowadays, despite her gruff voice.
Why do I bring Faithfull up?
Well, during the mid to late 90s, a story began circulating that an earthquake had taken place in Los Angeles after Nilsson’s death, and that his coffin had actually fallen from the funeral home into a crevice and was lost. So that when his funeral burial took place, they basically buried an empty coffin (as a replacement for the lost one).
Sounds absurd, right?
Well, it IS absurd and it is patently false.
However, the story originated in one of the more unlikely places – in Faithfull’s concerts!
From a review by Magnus Mills in the British paper, The Independent, discussing a 1997 Faithfull concert:
Then she sits down, lights up, coughs some more and tells us about her friend Harry Nilsson.
She and Harry did drugs together in the Sixties. “Real drugs,” she points out. “Not these modern confections.” Poor Harry survived the Sixties but later had the misfortune to be swindled by his accountant before dying in a dentist’s chair. If this wasn’t bad enough, he then disappeared in his coffin as the earth opened during the Los Angeles quake. Marianne Faithfull sings a song in memory of Harry Nilsson and promises him a line of coke. She likes to talk about Nilsson, Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and Allen Ginsberg as lost friends. She doesn’t spend time talking about herself.
Faithfull is correct that yes, the famous Northridge earthquake DID take place in Los Angeles in 1994, just a few days after Nilsson died, but that’s about it.
For instance, Harry was finishing work on his album when he went to bed the night he died. His producer was with him that night. Nilsson died in his sleep.
Similarly, the funeral of Nilsson was a matter of public record. Funeral attendees do recall tremors from the aftershocks while at the funeral, but there is no record of any funeral home being destroyed by the earthquake, let alone the one that Nilsson’s coffin was being held in.
MUSIC LEGEND: A Frank Zappa album was given a Parental Advisory sticker…even though the album was completely instrumental!
STATUS: True, with a Major Caveat
The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was founded in 1985 by four women, all the wives of prominent Washington insiders. The founding members were Tipper Gore (whose husband, Al Gore, was then a Senator and, of course, later went on to become Vice President), Susan Baker (whose husband, James Baker, was the Secretary of the Treasury), Pam Howar (whose husband, Raymond Howar, was a prominent Washington D.C. realtor) and Sally Nevius (whose husband, John Nevius, was the the Chairman of the Washington City Council).
The goals of the PMRC were multifold, but probably their most famous goal (mostly because it was actually achieved) was to have record companies place warning labels on albums that had explicit lyrics. The “parental advisory” sticker remains a mainstay in record stores today.
Iconoclast musican Frank Zappa (composer and performer of all different types of music – rock, jazz, electronic, orchestral – all sorts of stuff) appeared to testify at a Senate hearing in 1985 on the subject of labeling albums.
Zappa read the following prepared statement:
The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design. It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC’s demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation … The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs based on things certain Christians do not like. What if the next bunch of Washington wives demands a large yellow “J” on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?
In any event, the labels came into being and they are still around today.
One story that had made the rounds is that Frank Zappa’s 1986 Jazz from Hell album was given the dreaded “Parental Advisory” warning. The catch is, of course, that the albums is entirely instrumental!
So, is that for real or is it just a good joke about how lame the people who do censoring are?
Well, as it turns out, it WAS for real – just not in the way you might expect.
In 1990, the album DID get the sticker on it, however, it was NOT at the behest of the PMRC or any other organization. No, it was done purely on the retail side of the market, as The Meyer Music Markets (a record retail chain in the Pacific Northwest) decided on their own to put the sticker on the album.
So yes, an instrumental album by Frank Zappa DID get Parental Advisory stickers placed on it, but it was by a retailer, not any parent’s group or corporate decision-maker.
MUSIC LEGEND: Bob Dylan had to re-record a song due to worries about slander/libel.
How could I make it past this inaugural edition of Music Legends Revealed without featuring a legend about Bob Dylan?
“Hurricane” is one of Bob Dylan’s most famous songs from the 1970s.
It was co-written by Jacques Levy, and tells the story about the false imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
Carter was a boxer from New Jersey who was accused of committing a triple homicide in a bar in Patterson, New Jersey in 1966.
Some time around 2am on June 17, two black men entered a bar and shot and killed the bartender and a customer, with a second customer also dying a month later from her wounds. A third customer survived the assault, even though he was shot in the head (and lost an eye).
A petty criminal, Alfred Bello, was the first man on the scene, followed by a woman named Patty Valentine (then Patty Graham). They described two black men driving off in a car.
Their descriptions led to the police pulling over Rubin Carter and a friend, John Artis, about a half hour later. In their car, the police found a live .32 caliber pistol round and a 12-gauge shotgun shell – they both matched the two calibers used in the shootings
Carter and Artis were released, but about a month later, Bello came forward with the fact that he was actually with a partner in crime that night, Arthur Dexter Bradley. The police re-questioned both men and they both independently identified Carter and Artis.
And that was really about it – the guns from the car stop and the testimony of Bello and Bradley. That kept Carter and Artist locked up in jail for over 20 years (for Carter) and 15 years (for Artis).
In any event, in the early 70s, there began to be a bit of a movement to try to get Carter freed.
One person who was intrigued by it all was Bob Dylan, who wrote the aforementioned song, Hurricane, in 1975, which appeared on his 1976 album, Desire.
Right from the get go, Dylan did not exactly spend a whole lot of time getting the facts all the way correct. However, one specific line scared the suits at Dylan’s record company, Columbia (this actually was Dylan’s second album in a return to Columbia after a short-lived excursion with David Geffen’s Asylum Records for two albums), so much that they actually made him re-record the song!
Dylan said in the original version of the song that Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley were
“robbing the bodies.” Now, clearly, this was never ever mentioned by anyone, so if either Bello or Bradley pushed it, they might have a pretty good case for slander/libel.
So Dylan actually re-recorded the song while rehearsing for the Rolling Thunder Revue (his traveling tour at the time), using the musicians from the Revue. In doing so, he actually sped the tempo up, as well, giving us the song that we now know today.
Even WITH the edits, Dylan was still sued by Patty Valentine, who Dylan frames in the song as a knowing accomplice (if not an active one) in what Dylan proposes was a frame job on Carter. “And Miss Patty Valentine just nodded her head.” Ultimately, Valentine’s case was dismissed by a federal court (and the dismissal was held up on appeals).
Still, Dylan did not really acquit himself so well in the whole “facts” department with this song. Whether Carter was falsely arrested or not (and I personally lean towards “he probably was falsely tried and he should not have been imprisoned, but that does not mean that he did not actually do the crime”), Dylan could have presented the case with at least a LITTLE more facts and a LITTLE less just making things up as he saw them:
And the cops are puttin’ the screws to him, lookin’ for somebody to blame.
“Remember that murder that happened in a bar?”
“Remember you said you saw the getaway car?”
“You think you’d like to play ball with the law?”
“Think it might-a been that fighter that you saw runnin’ that night?”
“Don’t forget that you are white.”
Arthur Dexter Bradley said, “I’m really not sure.”
Cops said, “A poor boy like you could use a break
We got you for the motel job and we’re talkin’ to your friend Bello
Now you don’t wanta have to go back to jail, be a nice fellow.
You’ll be doin’ society a favor.
That sonofabitch is brave and gettin’ braver.
We want to put his ass in stir
We want to pin this triple murder on him
He ain’t no Gentleman Jim.”
Dylan visited Carter in 1975.
In 1985, Carter was freed from prison (after actually being convicted TWICE, both times mostly on the basis of Bello’s testimony) after a judge determined that the ruling was “based on racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure.”
The New Jersey District Attorney’s office could have pursued a third conviction, but since they were unsure of Bello being a good witness over 20 years after the fact, and since Artis has already been paroled, they decided to give up and dismiss the indictments in 1988.
Carter was finally a free man. He lives today in Canada, working mostly with foundations devoted to the wrongly incarcerated.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org