Photo courtesy of Image Comics
What’s rock ‘n’ roll without a bit of mystery? Whether or not we choose to believe every transdimensional thief who claims to own an unreleased Beatles album, there’s no denying the importance of the unknowable in rock music. Perhaps it’s because we want so badly to believe that rock stars aren’t like us, as if placing them on a pedestal and worshiping them as mythical creatures can convince us, even for just the span of a three-minute song, that life is something more than a mundane, seemingly random sequence of events. Or perhaps it’s because we need to make sense of the alchemical way in which a simple four-chord progression, in the hands of a Joe Strummer or a Kurt Cobain, can transform our everyday thoughts and emotions into blindingly powerful artistic statements.
Mystery has been an integral part of rock ‘n’ roll’s identity from the outset, expressed in everything from the crackle and hum of Chuck Berry’s electric guitar to the ghost-like falsetto of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, with countless other examples in between. Comics writer Joe Harris throws back the curtain on some of that mystery in his new Image Comics project Rockstars, the first issue of which hit shelves December 14th. Co-created with artist Megan Hutchison, Rockstars follows a pair of young investigators intent on uncovering a mystery surrounding a legendary band. Along the way, they uncover everything from dead groupies and human sacrifice to something far more sinister — a supernatural force that may connect every unsolved rock ‘n’ roll myth and conspiracy since the genre’s inception.
Harris, of course, is no stranger to mystery. Fans know him best as the author of the ongoing X-Files comics series, which he produces in continuity with the long-running sci-fi show (he also claims to have written a few horror movies in a parallel life). In anticipation of Rockstars, we asked Harris to write about what he considers to be the greatest rock ‘n’ roll mysteries of all time. While he can’t confirm that Kurt Cobain is alive, well, and living out his days in a Cuban bungalow with Tupac Shakur, he’s not about to deny it, either.
05. Led Zeppelin and the “Mud Shark”
I think my level of engagement and awareness when it comes to rock ‘n’ roll conspiracies began with the discovery of Led Zeppelin’s lascivious “mud shark” rumor. Honestly, there’s nothing darkly mysterious about this perennial tall tale involving Led Zeppelin, a willing groupie, and consensual sodomy involving a freshly caught fish from the Puget Sound.
Honestly, the truth behind it sounds both tame and gross all at once by today’s standards, but it’s one of those raunchy stories that helped make Zeppelin larger than life and really drew me in when I was a pubescent teenager with wide eyes and ears and lots (and lots) of feelings. We actually reference this rumor in the first issue of Rockstars, as it’s one a lot of people go to in their heads when they hear the premise for the comics series.
04. Pink Floyd and the Dark Side of the Rainbow
Most people have probably heard the whispers that the landmark Pink Floyd album The Dark Side of the Moon syncs pretty seamlessly with The Wizard of Oz. And it’s true: If you follow any of the Googleable instructions out there, you can watch the Scarecrow amble around with “Brain Damage/Eclipse” playing instead of “If I Only Had a Brain”.
But I’ve always been more intrigued by rumors that Pink Floyd were initially considered to score Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the story goes, they were mysteriously fired but went on to write their own version of the score anyway. It’s all hidden inside of the epic “Echoes” on their maturing Meddle album from 1971. This almost certainly never happened, but if people can still claim Kubrick helped fake the moon landing, I’m going to hold out a lit candle for Pink Floyd subversion.
03. The Grateful Dead, Acid Tests, and Project MKUltra
This particular urban legend centers around the LSD culture and Grateful Dead’s early days in San Francisco, along with rumored efforts by the CIA to infiltrate and quell a rebellious young population during the tumultuous days of the 1960s. The Dead were already the house band during Ken Kesey’s famous “Acid Tests,” but they’d go on to become a touring phenomenon, blasting out heretofore unheard levels of volume via a speaker array dubbed “The Wall of Sound.”
Their tours were never-ending circus processions with thousands of Deadheads following them from city to city, venue to venue, town to town. Were they unwitting outlets of government mind control, pumping out music that kept the drug-addled crowd pacified? Highly unlikely. But we know for a fact that the CIA has done worse than spike the brown acid at Woodstock, so I tend to see the Dead as unwitting historical victims rather than collaborators in some nefarious government scheme.
02. “Turn Me On, Dead Man” a.k.a. The Paul McCartney Death Hoax
The granddaddy of rock conspiracies is as big as the band that brought it to us. Paul McCartney supposedly “blew his mind out in a car” before he was rumored to have been replaced with a lookalike named Billy Shears (a name sung by Ringo in A Little Help From My Friends).
First, a disclaimer: I just saw McCartney live back in September, and Macca sounded almost agelessly spectacular and far from dead. Still, the sheer breadth of clues, both imagined and wished-to-be-real, involved in this entire Beatles saga is astounding. There are the myriad Easter eggs woven into the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album artwork and tracklist, the clearly intentional references in songs like “Glass Onion” on later albums, and so on and so forth.
What interests me most, however, is why the surviving Beatles would leave such clues to begin with. Were they struggling with the secret, forced into it by music industry powers-that-were (or worse)? That Paul’s alleged doppelganger would go on to co-write some of the band’s greatest albums is almost another conspiracy to consider altogether. Shit, McCartney just wanted to hold your hand and sing about yesterdays, but the hypothetical songwriting duo of Lennon/Shears brought us Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road!
01. The Forever 27 Club
The other common-knowledge rock conspiracy theory — that the Devil is out there collecting rock stars who die at the age of 27 as part of some sort of supernatural deal — is most certainly bullshit. Sure, you can trace the evidence all the way back to blues legend Robert Johnson at the proverbial crossroads and continue to find examples in Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and others. But all of that evidence conveniently ignores that plenty of other gifted artists, from Tupac to Selena to Sid Vicious, died tragically young before they ever got to 27.
We actually will be touching on this particular mystery in our comics series, but we’re hoping to pull off an oblique and unexpected take that exposes an even grander numerological meaning behind Janis Joplin and Brian Jones’ premature deaths. After all, taking those musicians so young doesn’t make a lot of financial sense for the Devil, who missed out on decades of potential earnings. This is the entertainment industry we’re talking about! The Rolling Stones are collectively 300 years old, just dropped a new album, and will tour to record gate receipts again soon enough. Brian Jones was dead at 27 and thus is missing all of that. Not the best return on Satan’s investment, I’d say.
For more rock ‘n’ roll mysteries, check out Harris’ Rockstars #1, now on shelves.