If, like me, you happen to be a fan of obscure, anachronistic words and phrases (which I hope for your sake you're not because it's a passion that only breeds trouble), you probably already know that the common 19th century phrase "passing strange" is derived from the larger (by one syllable) 19th century phrase "surpassing strange." What does that have to do with anything, you ask? Well, calm the bloody hell down, and I'll tell you. It has to do with one of my other great passions---rock and roll. That's right. There are a lot of strange things connected to rock and roll. Don't even pretend to be surprised. And since today is my birthday, I'm going to indulge myself by sharing some strange rock and roll stories with you. So grab a beer (I'd suggest a cold Stella Artois or Carlsberg), bite another head off a bat, and put on your listening ears....or eyes, I should say. In which case you'll be reading, not listening. But you know what I mean.
Our first strange rock and roll story takes place on Feb.3, 1959, otherwise known as "The Day The Music Died", which is how singer/songwriter Don McLean refers to it in his classic 1970s mini epic of a song, "American Pie", which, coincidentally, is also sometimes referred to as "The Day The Music Died." That's because Feb. 3, 1959 was the date on which rock and roll icon and Texas homeboy Buddy Holly ("Peggy Sue", "That'll Be The Day") died in a plane crash in Clear Lake, Iowa along with fellow musicians Ritchie Valens ("La Bamba") and J.P. Richardson (aka "The Big Bopper"). Nothing so strange about that, really. The history of rock music is littered with the bodies of talented plane crash victims (Jim Croce, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Ronnie Van Zant among them). But what's strange about this particular plane crash is that two of the victims, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, were both haunted by recurring dreams involving plane crashes before they actually died in one. Intrigued? Let's start with Buddy Holly.
In 1958, several years after Holly and his band, The Crickets had their first chart success with hits like "Peggy Sue" and "That'll Be The Day", Holly met and married Maria Santiago, a receptionist for New York music exec Murray Deutch, the owner of Southern-Peer Publishing. The couple were, by all accounts, very happy together and looked forward to many years of togetherness sharing in Holly's success as one of the first great stars of the rock and roll music industry. There was just one niggling little bit of negativity. Shortly after their marriage, Holly began to have a recurring dream in which he and his new wife were standing on the rooftop of their apartment building in New York looking up at a plane which seemed to be coming toward them from a cloudless sky. Sometimes the dream would end at that point, with the images simply fading away, leaving Holly with a vaguely unsettled feeling after he awoke. Other times, the plane would land, and Holly would board it, unable to stop himself, and then it would take off again, with Holly looking sadly out the window at the receding figure of Maria still standing on the rooftop.
Holly told Maria about the dream and the sense of sadness he always felt after having it, but since it was a dream, there was nothing much that either of them could do about it. Presumably, they just put it out of their minds as Maria went on being the best rock and roll wife she could be, and Holly continued to write catchy rock and roll hits, the success of which, for some reason, never seemed to douse his predilection for wearing those nerdy black-rimmed glasses and bow ties. Interestingly, though, at the same time that Holly was having his unsettling plane dreams, his future tour mate, teen idol Ritchie Valens was having plane dreams of his own. However, Valens' dreams had started years before, when he was still an elementary school student in his hometown of Los Angeles, following a horrific incident in which a plane crashed into the schoolyard, killing several students and injuring several more. Valens might even have been among them if he hadn't stayed home sick on that particular day. But instead of rejoicing over that fact, Valens developed an intense fear of flying, which was somehow telegraphed to his younger sister who, shortly before Valens left on the fateful tour with Holly and Richardson, reportedly begged him not to go, telling him that she didn't want him to die. But of course, Valens went, and the rest is another sad chapter in rock and roll history.
What is also interesting about this strange story is that the three rock and roll stars weren't supposed to be on that plane at all. The plane, which was piloted by a 21 year-old local man (who was killed as well) had been charted by Holly because he was tired of riding in the poorly maintained, drafty tour bus that had brought him and the other musicians to Clear Lake and was supposed to take them to their next gig, which was 380 miles away in Moorhead, Minnesota. Because the plane could only accommodate three passengers, it was somehow decided that Holly, Valens and back-up musician Waylon Jennings would be the ones to go, leaving everyone else to endure another long bus ride. But Richardson, who was suffering from a mild case of flu, asked Jennings to trade places with him, which Jennings agreed to do, with the teasing comment, "I hope your old plane crashes." Which, of course it did. Jennings was reportedly haunted by that last remark for the remainder of his life. Perhaps that's the reason he wrote so many poignant songs? Just sayin'.
Our next strange rock and roll story involves 1960s soul singer Otis Redding, the man who gave the world songs like "Heard It Through The Grapevine", "Try A Little Tenderness", and, of course, "Sittin' On The Dock of The Bay", which turned out to be Redding's final hit. But as so often seems to happen in rock and roll, Redding's success was marred by sadness. A Georgia native, Redding was the son of a gospel singer and a housekeeper, both of whom supported his passion for music, which he indulged singing in the local Baptist church and, later, singing on a local radio station every Sunday night, earning a whopping six dollars for each performance. When his father contracted tuberculosis and died a short time later, Redding left school to pursue music full time. By the late 50's, he was touring the so-called "Chitlin Circuit" with an R & B band called Pat T Cake and The Mighty Panthers, which resulted in his being signed eventually to Confederate Records, where he had his first "race hit" with a song he wrote called "These Arms Of Mine." The success of that song led quickly to wider recognition for the passionate singer, and by 1965, Redding was a solid R & B star who had made enough money to buy a 300 acre ranch in his native Georgia, which he dubbed the "Big O Ranch." But even with a string of hits under his belt, Redding had yet to record the song that would afford him true iconic status. That auspicious event took place on December 6, 1967, when Redding recorded "Dock of The Bay" for Stax Records before heading off to tour with his band. As they always did at that point in Redding's career, the band was traveling in Redding's own plane, a Beechcraft H18. After playing a one nighter in Nashville, they flew to Cleveland, where they played two more shows and made plans for their next gig, which was to take place at the University of Wisconsin, near Madison.
Now here's where the story gets all strange. The band that was supposed to open for them at the Wisconsin gig featured quirky guitarist Rick Nielson, who would later make a name for himself as the quirky guitarist for the equally quirky rock and roll outfit known as Cheap Trick. But in 1967, the band with which Nielson was playing was called "The Grim Reapers." Shuddery, isn't it? Even more so because, on the day that Redding and his band took off for Wisconsin, the weather was very bad, and they were warned not to go, but Redding refused to wait. Three miles away from their destination at Truax Field, the soul singer's plane crashed into Lake Monona, killing all but one of the passengers on board. Redding died, on the third anniversary of his idol Sam Cooke's death, without knowing how hugely successful his last recording would become.
Our final strange rock and roll story features the inimitable Ellen Naomi Cohen. Never heard of her, you say? Well, that's because, by the time she became famous as one fourth of the 1960s powerhouse pop quartet The Mamas and The Papas, the former Ms Cohen had ditched her birth moniker in favor of the much catchier "Cass Elliot." Yes, we're talking about Mama Cass, whose throaty, alto vocal stylings provided the group with that special harmonic oomph that made music critics wet themselves, just as fellow "mama" Michelle Phillip's willowy blonde looks gave the group its sex appeal (and made adolescent boys wet their bed sheets). Oddly enough, though, Mama Cass's powerful, deep voice almost kept her out of the group. Back when the group was still an unknown trio playing one nighters in a string of bars and clubs, Mama Cass, who was an old friend of Mamas and Papas lead singer Denny Doherty, for whom she reportedly always carried a torch, approached group founder John Phillips and asked if she could join them. Phillips said no. Not because she was so heavy (I'm not judging her, just stating a fact), as it has sometimes been alleged, but because she couldn't hit the high notes in his songs. Phillips was nothing if not a control freak, and when it came to his music, he could be an absolute tyrant. (Which makes one wonder why he allowed his winsome waif of a wife Michelle to sing with the group since she really wasn't much of a singer, a fact that is readily apparent if you listen to the group's one song, "Dedicated", on which she was featured as lead vocalist.)
But we're not here to trash Michelle Phillips, who, despite her lack of vocal talent, still seems like a nice person. We're here to explain the strange reason that Mama Cass was finally allowed to join forces with the pop quartet. It was because of a lead pipe. One day, as she was walking past a construction site, a lead pipe fell off some scaffolding and hit Mama Cass on the head. She suffered a concussion and spent three days in the hospital, after which, inexplicably, she found that her voice had changed and that she was suddenly able to reach those soary notes that Phillips wanted her to reach.
But the strangeness doesn't stop there. Fast forward to 1974, several years after the Mamas and Papas had broken up amid a maelstrom of internal strife and conflict, including an affair between Michelle and Denny, as well as rampant drug use on the part of all four group members. Now a solo act, Mama Cass was in London, playing to sold out crowds at the Palladium. Her success as a solo artist reportedly meant a great deal to Mama Cass, who had long harbored doubts about her ability to attract a following on her own. In fact, she was so thrilled by her reception in London that she called former fellow mama Michelle from the flat in which she was staying and said something along the lines of "I just played to a sold-out crowd at the London Palladium. Now I can die happy." According to Michelle, "(Cass) had had a little champagne, and was crying. She felt she had finally made the transition from Mama Cass."
The phone call between Mama Cass and Michelle allegedly took place on July 28th, 1974. The next night, following another successful show at the Palladium, Mama Cass returned to her flat, went to bed, and died in her sleep at the age of 32. When her body was discovered the next day, there was reportedly a ham sandwich on the night stand next to her bed, which gave rise to the still rampant belief that she died after choking on the sandwich, despite the fact that a subsequent autopsy revealed no traces of food in her windpipe. Instead, Cass Elliot's cause of death was determined to be a heart attack, the probable result of a recent extreme weight loss of 80 pounds in eight months, which she supposedly achieved by fasting four days a week. Whether or not there was really a ham sandwich in her bedroom when she died is still a cause for speculation, especially since, being Jewish, it seems unlikely that Cass would have opted for a ham sandwich over, say, a bologna and cheese one. But the rumors persist to this day, sadly, overshadowing her otherwise triumphant last days as a solo artist, not to mention the much more interesting (and strange) fact that Who drummer Keith Moon died of a drug overdose in the very same flat four years later. The number of the flat? Number 9...the number immortalized by equally doomed rock and roller John Lennon in his nonsensical Yoko Ono-assisted contribution to the Beatles' "white album." It just doesn't get any stranger than that.
Well, there you have it. For now anyway. Remember...rock and roll will quite possibly save your soul, but it's almost always "passing strange."
If you're looking for a blog with meaningful content on the important issues of the day, you've come to the wrong place. This is the shallows, my friend. Nothing but shallowness as far as the eye can see. Let someone else make sense of things. I like it here.
- I love my grown children, miss all the dogs I ever had, and I cry at the drop of a hat, I believe in true love, destiny, fairness, and compassion. If I could be anywhere right now, it would be the ocean. My favorite city is New York, but I am always longing for London and craving more time in Copenhagen. I'm drawn to desolate places, deserted buildings, and unknown byways. I don't care how society perceives me as long as my gut tells me that what I'm doing is right. I am interested in paranormal things, spiritual things, historical things, and things that glow at night. I like to drink, I smoke when I write, I can't stand small talk, and despite my quick temper, I would rather kiss than fight. I'm selfish with my writing time, a spendthrift with my love. My heart has been broken so many times that it's held together with super glue and duct tape. The upside is that, next time, I won't be tempted to give away what I no longer have to give. But I will let you buy me a Pink Squirrel.
IN A WORLD FILLED WITH COMPLEX POLITICAL ISSUES, SOCIAL INEQUALITY, AND FINANCIAL UNCERTAINTY, I CONSIDER IT MY GIFT TO YOU, MY READER, TO OFFER THIS SHALLOW LITTLE HAVEN, WHERE NOTHING IS TOO SHALLOW, TOO INSIGNIFICANT, OR TOO RIDICULOUS TO JUSTIFY OUR ATTENTION. IN OTHER WORDS, IF IT'S NOT IMPORTANT....SO WHAT? NEITHER WAS MARILYN MONROE'S BRA SIZE. AND THAT STILL SELLS MAGAZINES, DOESN'T IT?