6 Nov 2019

Author and podcast host Jake Brennan on his new book Disgraceland

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:08 pm on 6 November 2019

Misbehaving and rock and roll have always gone hand in hand. Sam Cooke, Jerry Lee Lewis, Phil Spector, Sid Vicious even Elvis have a dark side. New book Disgraceland: Musicians Getting Away With Murder and Behaving Very Badly, explores musical crimes in all their gory detail.

Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Page, Elvis Presley

Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Page, Elvis Presley Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Disgraceland started life as a podcast, in which host Jake Brennan delved into the demons and misdeeds of famous musicians. He's now turned it into a book, Disgraceland: Musicians Getting Away With Murder and Behaving Very Badly.

Disgraceland is named for Jerry Lee Lewis’ house in Memphis, which "stands in stark contrast to Elvis’ place up the street. Elvis’ place is the holy grail [where] music aficionados to go worship ... Jerry Lee has a different type of reputation in the south," Brennan says.

Lewis' list of misdeeds is long.

"It's insane I mean, he got away with shooting his bass player in the chest and married his first cousin who was a child at the time, there's a million other stories that didn't make it into the podcast or the book.

“I love the story about him crashing the gates at Graceland wanting to assassinate the King Elvis. I love the story of when they asked Jerry Lee after Elvis died if he had a quote and he said the only thing Elvis had that Jerry Lee didn't, was better pills.

“He’s just a maniac. And then of course, there's the very unclean business of his two dead wives and how they ended up dying and how those cases were handled.”

Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis Photo: CC 2.0

Elvis’ notorious manager Colonel Tom Parker features in the book.

“There was a lot of shady stuff regarding how the Colonel managed Elvis' career. We have to remember he made Elvis a ton of money, more money than anyone should have been making for the quality of art he was putting out.

“The Colonel knew that the real money was in film, not necessarily good films, so he had Elvis on this this constant production cycle of bad movie, bad movie soundtrack album - repeat, repeat, repeat.

"The Colonel wouldn't let Elvis tour, Elvis was offered tons of money to go play overseas and the Colonel wouldn't let it happen.

“The Colonel never went overseas to visit Elvis when Elvis was over there, stationed in the army in Germany. And there's a theory that I get into in my book that kind of talks about why that was and some of the nefarious reasons, potential reasons, why the Colonel wouldn't travel or let Elvis travel.”

  • Disgraceland: the death of Mr Wonderful
  • Despite the sordid circumstances surrounding soul star Sam Cooke’s death in 1964, it did little to damage his reputation, Brennan says.

    Sam Cooke

    Sam Cooke Photo: Wikicommons

    “Sam Cooke was shot by a woman that he attacked after he'd just attacked another woman; naked, broke into a hotel room, attacked her and was shot to death.

    “And immediately all of these conspiracy theories spring up, and I get why – it's because Sam Cooke was a very complicated character. He was great in a lot of ways, he broke down barriers around race that nobody had before. There was a lot to love about Sam Cooke.

    "But, we have to ask ourselves, in the era we're living in right now, with the 'Me Too' moment, if a male pop star attacked a woman naked and was shot, what would our reaction be to that right now?

    "I think it would be vastly different than what it was for Sam Cooke in 1964.”

    Satanic conspiracies have long surrounded Led Zeppelin, in particular guitarist Jimmy Page who was fascinated with British Satanist Aleister Crowley.

    “This sort of idea of people's auras and power and mysticism, it was big in the 70s ... people were kind of obsessed with this, especially creative people. And Jimmy was, as most people know, obsessed with Alastair Crowley. “

    Brennan says David Bowie met Page in the 1970s at the height of Led Zeppelin’s success and was spooked by the encounter.

    “David Bowie was one of these guys who was really fascinated by Jimmy Page and the success of Led Zeppelin. I mean, they were much bigger than David Bowie was at the time ... and Bowie wanted some of that action for himself.

    "So he sought Jimmy Page out and he sought to get close to him. But Jimmy Page's whole vibe flipped David Bowie out, freaked him out.

    "He had this experience with him where they're lining up rails of cocaine and trying to hang out and Jimmy Page just appeared demonic to Bowie, and Bowie forever swore off Jimmy Page.

    "From that point, whenever they're in the same room together, Bowie would leave.”

    Brennan has been immersed in music all of his life: “I was surrounded by it growing up and I was lucky enough that my dad's band opened for the Ramones when I was around 10 years old. I went to see that show and it definitely left a mark. It changed me.

    “I was fascinated with punk rock and rock n roll, and really all kinds of music from then on.”

    Disgraceland creator Brennan describes himself as a story-teller rather than a journalist.

    “A journalist is going out there and unearthing these stories themselves from first-hand sources, what I'm doing is relying on these stories that are out there from multiple sources, with multiple points of views and I'm pulling them together into my own editorialised take, one that is wholly unique to me, one that I'm not pretending to be you know, investigating.

    “I'm sort of going out there and looking at all the takes on these musicians and trying to tell their stories through the crimes they've either committed or have had happened to them.”

    Brennan quotes 'The Beast In Me' at the start of his book, a song made famous by Johnny Cash. 

    “That's the constant with all of these artists that I did find. That's why it's the underlying theme to the book.

    "It's the thing that makes these artists behave the way they behave ... [and]  it's often the exact same thing ... ‘the beast’, that drives them to create incredible music and make incredible art. It's very murky, it's very grey."

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