Musicians sometimes lead intense and controversial lives, and sometimes this results in unusual deaths. Some are shocking, some are strangely mundane, and others are outright confusing. Either way, their fame tends to lend itself to their deaths being memorable, even if the version of events that people remember isn’t always accurate.
Randy Rhoads was a heavy metal guitarist who played for Ozzy Osbourne and Quiet Riot, before his untimely death in 1982. On route to Orlando, Florida, Osbourne’s band tour bus stopped on the property of a friend with a small airstrip and several aircraft. Rhoads went joyriding in a small plane flown by tour bus driver Andrew Aycock, along with the band’s hairdresser and seamstress, Rachel Youngblood. Aycock had promised to do nothing risky or daring, as Youngblood had a heart condition. However, this plan apparently changed as he began attempting to “buzz” the tour bus, where the rest of the band was asleep. On his third attempt, the plane clipped the back of the bus, tearing apart and spiraling into the garage of a neighboring mansion, whereupon it burst into flames. All three were killed.
Johnny Ace was an American rhythm and blues singer from Memphis whose popularity peaked in the 1950’s. He was a prolific star who enjoyed widespread commercial success. His death is another that is surrounded by a bit of myth:
Johnny Ace accidentally shot himself in the head with a .22 caliber pistol in 1954 backstage at a concert. Ace’s band members reported that he played with the pistol often, occasionally taking pot shots at road signs. He’d been drinking this particular evening, and after someone told him to be careful, he allegedly said “It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded, see?” before pointing it at his own head. As he smiled, the gun discharged, killing him immediately.
It was widely reported (and still is) that he died playing Russian Roulette, but this is untrue, the product of decades of rumors.
Cliff Burton was the original bassist for the legendary metal band Metallica. His early influence was vital in forming the band’s sound, and Burton was known for his use of heavy distortion and guitar effects. Burton performed with the band from their debut record (Kill ‘Em All) through their third album, Master of Puppets, all of which saw impressive commercial success.
Cliff Burton’s death is surrounded by some speculation and controversy. On the Master of Puppets tour, the band did not like their sleeping bunks on their tour bus. Burton and guitarist Kirk Hammett drew cards to decide who would take which bunk, and Hammett won with an Ace of Spades. Later that evening, the bus skidded and flipped. Burton was thrown through a window of the bus, which then rolled atop him. The bus driver claimed that they hit a patch of black ice, which many have expressed disbelief at. Singer James Hetfield claimed he thought the driver was drunk and that he had smelled alcohol on his breath. Hetfield also stated that he walked up and down the road looking for ice, but never found any. Local police also found no ice, and the road was apparently dry. One detective suggested that the driver may have fallen asleep, but the driver claimed to have been well rested. (The driver of the second tour bus confirmed this.) So, the exact circumstances of Cliff Burton’s death will likely never be known, but the story as we have it is already bizarre: thrown from a window in his sleep and crushed under a bus.
Cass Elliot, perhaps better known as Mama Cass of The Mamas & The Papas, a popular vocal group in the 1960s. After the breakup of The Mamas & The Papas, Elliot went on to achieve a highly successful solo career, releasing five studio albums and performing in frequently sold-out concerts.
In 1974, she played two straight weeks of sold-out shows at the London Palladium, receiving standing ovations each night. After the final concert of the series, she retired to her hotel room, where she died in her sleep. The actual cause of death was “fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity”, but rumors immediately swirled of something far more outlandish. Upon discovering her body, police noted that there was a partially eaten ham sandwich beside her bed. They speculated that perhaps she had choked to death, though the coroner’s report would later prove that no food was found in her trachea. By then it was far too late, and as so often happens the inaccurate but entertaining story was spreading like wildfire. The idea of Mama Cass choking to death on a ham sandwich is firmly lodged in pop culture’s memory.
Elliot Smith was an indie singer songwriter with a substantial cult following that was breaking into the mainstream as he neared his death. His music was featured prominently in the films “Good Will Hunting” and “The Royal Tenenbaums”, and his Academy Award nomination for a song from “Good Will Hunting” scored him a live award show performance.
Elliot’s music was often sad, but with a strong undercurrent of hope. He was a former drug user, a man who had seen dark times, and his death is controversial today. Within hours of his death, it was already being reported as a suicide, with websites claiming that he had stabbed himself twice. Perhaps suicide was a natural conclusion to jump to, at least on the surface. The coroner, however, did not rule it a definitive suicide, and a number of fans have considered the possibility of foul play. His girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, claimed that the two had a fight and she locked herself in the bathroom to take a shower. During this time, Smith supposedly wrote a hasty note on a Post-it note that read “I’m so sorry – love, Elliot. God forgive me.” Smith had made plans to work on his new album within days of his death, was out of rehab and clean for the longest stretch in a long time, and displayed defensive stab wounds on his hands. Chiba reportedly pulled the knife from his chest, accounting for her own fingerprints on it.
Smith’s early death has gone down as one of those mysterious deaths about which the details will probably never become clear. No intense police investigation was ever undertaken, and most people accept the suicide story as the correct one. Still, doubts remain.
Jeff Buckley was the son of musician Tim Buckley and a rising star known for his passionate vocal delivery and lyrical brilliance. Buckley’s singing was powerful, dizzying in its ups and downs, dripping style and raw talent. He is one of a few musicians whose death is remarkable not only for its unusual nature, but also because he is sometimes argued to have predicted his own death in song. In his haunting “Dream Brother”, he makes reference to a “dark angel shuffling in” and, most notably, being “asleep in the sand with the ocean washing over.”
In 1997, Jeff Buckley decided to go for a swim in the Wolf River Harbor in Memphis, wading out into the water fully clothed, singing the chorus to Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”. The friend accompanying him moved his guitar away from the edge of the water, then turned back to see him gone. Buckley drowned, and his body was recovered several days later.
Michael Hutchence was an Australian singer-songwriter and the front man for the popular 80’s rock band, INXS. To date they have sold over 30 million records, and Hutchence’s death in 1997 has become something of a strange legend.
The official cause of death was suicide by asphyxiation. Hutchence was found dead in his Sydney hotel room. He had tied a belt to the top of the door hinge’s locking mechanism and fashioned a makeshift noose, hanging himself. The coroner concluded that his suicide was intentional, as he had been distressed over his relationship with Paula Yates, with whom he had a child. Cocaine, alcohol, Prozac, and other prescription drugs were found in his bloodstream.
After his death, Paula Yates claimed that Hutchence might have hung himself accidentally, a result of autoerotic asphyxiation. This, of course, is the story that has caught on, and despite little to no evidence corroborating this story, it is has found its way into the annals of pop culture.
Steve Peregrin Took (who took his stage name from Lord of the Rings) was an original member of British glam-rock band T. Rex. After T. Rex broke up, Took spent more and more time under the influence of drugs and alcohol. In 1980, he was living with Valerie Ballet, who also enjoyed drugs. On the night of his death, Took and Ballet injected themselves with morphine. Not so long after, Took choked to death on a cocktail cherry, an oddly decadent piece of trivia somehow fitting for a glam rock legend.
Sam Cooke died very nearly naked, wearing one shoe and a sports coat when he was shot by a hotel manager in 1964. He is widely considered one of most influential pioneers of soul music, with his roots in gospel and R&B, and the circumstances surrounding his death are still in dispute today.
Cooke checked into the Hacienda hotel with Elisa Boyer, a woman he supposedly met at a bar (but who would later be arrested on prostitution charges.) After an altercation between the two, Elisa took her clothes as well as most of Cooke’s and ran from the room. Cooke charged after her in the clothes he had left – his jacket and a shoe – and burst into the hotel office, demanding to know where Boyer was. The hotel’s manager, Bertha Franklin, allegedly told him he did not know where Boyer was, but Cooke did not believe her and attacked her. After a brief struggle, Franklin ran for her gun, firing at Cooke. She claims Cooke said, “Lady, you shot me!” before charging at her a final time. He was beaten over the head with a broomstick before dying of the gunshot wound.
There is some debate as to what actually occurred. Elise Boyer claimed she believed Cooke meant to rape her and fled from the room in a panic, but many believe she tried to rob him while he showered. Either way, it was a rather undignified way to die for a man who sang with such dignity.
The death of Gram Parsons is more interesting for the events that followed it, not those that preceded it. He died of an apparent drug overdose, a common cause of death for rock stars. His stepfather, Bob Parsons, pushed for Gram to be buried in New Orleans, which through Louisiana’s Napoleonic code meant that he was much more likely to inherent his stepson’s considerable estate. Road manager Phil Kaufman had other ideas, instead deciding to follow through on Parsons’ last wishes – to be cremated at Joshua Tree, California (where he died) and for his ashes to be spread of Cap Rock.
So began a ridiculous caper. Kaufman and a friend procured an aging, beat-up hearse with no valid tags and loaded it up with alcohol, then found out when Parsons’ body was due to be transferred from the funeral home in Joshua Tree to a plane bound for New Orleans. Convincing airport authorities that they were supposed to take the body back, they loaded the body into their hearse at LAX and headed for the desert. Bizarrely, while Kaufman was signing transfer papers with false information, a police officer arrived. Kaufman was sure he was busted, but remarkably was able to convince the cop not only to leave them be, but to help load the casket into the hearse.
Drunkenly, Kaufman and his cohort attempted to leave, only to drive into the hangar wall. Again, strangely, the police officer did nothing, and they made their way to Cap Rock after a brief pit stop to fill a jerry can with gasoline. Kaufman saw lights in the distance and assumed the cops were onto them, so they lit the body of Parsons on fire, coffin and all, and drove off into the night as the makeshift pyre spewed ashes into the sky.
Immediately after the incident, rumors spread that the whole fiasco was somehow “ritualistic” and possibly Satanic in nature. Kaufman turned himself in shortly thereafter and was charged for illegally burning the coffin (but not the theft of the corpse, which was not a recognized crime in Joshua Tree.)
For some of these musicians, the circumstances of their deaths carry almost as much weight in the annals of pop culture lore as their contribution to the musical world. Perhaps this is because their deaths are so often representative in some way of the way they lived, and as such may tell us something about who they were off-stage, in their private lives, behind closed doors. One thing is certain: they won’t be forgotten.
Written by Christopher Moyer – Copyrighted © www.weirdworm.com