“Rock-and-roll is the devil’s music!” was a familiar cry from the form’s birth in the 1950s on up through the peak hysteria of the 1980s’ “Satanic Panic.”
While pockets of protestors still exist who detect diabolical doings every time a rock combo plugs in and sounds off, widespread infernal fears of Satan lording over all that Chuck Berry, Elvis, and Little Richard first wrought have largely diminished in the mainstream mindset.
Perhaps, however, we’ve been too hasty to turn off the collective concern regarding rock’s occult underpinnings.
Bizarre, eerie coincidences have plagued rock-and-roll since the music’s first major tragedy—the 1959 plane crash demise of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper—on up though (and past) Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide, which unofficially marked the end of the classic rock era.
Be sure to exercise major freak out control now, as we look back on the 6.66 most mind-blowing and bone chilling “curses” in rock history.
The 27 Club
Think of a rock superstar fatally cut down in his or her prime. Odds are it happened when the fallen icon was 27 years old.
The unexplained 1938 death of proto-rock blues giant Robert Johnson might be considered the first induction into what’s now knows as The 27 Club. Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones, who drowned in 1969, then ushered it into the modern era.
Things turned truly spooky, though, between September 1970 and July 1971, when The 27 Club welcomed powerhouses Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison in rapid succession. Each died at age 27.
Since, then, The 27 Club has been relentless in pursuit of new members. Just consider this roster: the Grateful Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (1973), Badfinger leader Pete Ham (1975), Big Star’s Chris Bell (1978), Minutemen guitarist and vocalist D. Boon (1985), Gits singer Mia Zapata (1993), Nirvana game-changer Kurt Cobain (1994), Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff (1994), and one-of-a-kind songbird Amy Winehouse (2011)
Robert Johnson at the Crossroads
Rock’s earliest larger-than-life (and death) myth may be the tale of Mississippi blues great Robert Johnson obtaining his unprecedented, largely unsurpassed creative and technical genius under a midnight moon at a crossroad near the blues landmark Dockery Plantation, where he cut a midnight deal with the Devil himself.
In 1938, as the legend goes, the Devil collected on the pact, reaping Johnson’s soul when the guitarist expired under still mysterious circumstances (he’s popularly thought to have been poisoned by a jealous husband). As noted earlier, Robert Johnson was 27.
Beyond Johnson’s death being thought to have opened the gate to The 27 Club, tragedy has befallen the most prominent musicians who have covered “Cross Road Blues,” the guitarist’s song in which he sings of falling to his knees and asking the Lord for mercy at the spot where he supposedly made his Faustian bargain.
Eric Clapton popularized the song among rock fans in 1968 as “Crossroads” when he recorded with Cream. In 1991, Clapton’s four-year-old son Conor died after falling from an open window in Manhattan.
By 1969, the Allman Brothers Band took to tearing through “Crossroads” in concert. In 1971, after collaborating with Eric Clapton as Derek and the Dominos and a scoring huge hit with the live album At Fillmore East, Duane Allman fatally crashed his motorcycle into lumber truck that suddenly stopped short.
Come the mid-’70s, Southern rock gods Lynyrd Skynyrd adopted “Crossroads” into their live act. Three members of the band, including frontman Ronnie Van Zant, died in a 1977 plane crash that has taken on its own mythical proportions.
The Led Zeppelin Occult Curse
Whereas Black Sabbath is thought to be more overtly “satanic” than their heavy blues, metal pioneering comrades Led Zeppelin, the fact is that the heroes in Sabbath songs flee screaming from the Devil and his minions (think of Ozzy howling as Old Scratch sits smiling in the group’s eponymous track: “Oh, no! No! Please, God help me!”).
Zeppelin, on the other cloven hoof, was also said to embrace the darkest of dark side. Guitar wizard Jimmy Page fronted the supernatural spelunk as he obsessively studied the life work of notorious British sorcerer Aleister Crowley, even buying and living in Boleskin House, Crowley’s supposedly cursed castle on Loch Ness, in 1970. Page also collaborated with occult filmmaker Kenneth Anger on the infernal 1972 underground classic, Lucifer Rising.
As opposed to later heavy metal bands, though, Led Zeppelin avoided overtly invoking specific otherworldly evil in their lyrics. They chose instead to “signal” their connections through arcane symbolism and gestures such as Page’s glowing eyes in the concert film The Song Remains the Same and the “backward message” alleged to be implanted in “Stairway to Heaven” (to wit: “Here’s to my sweet Satan/The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan/He will give those with him 666/There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan”).
With all this Beelzebub buzz surrounding the band, rumors arose that Jimmy Page had sold his soul to the Devil and convinced his Zep mates Robert Plant and John Bonham to do likewise. As calamities began to rain down on the group several years into their superstardom, true believers cited the events as evidence of that devil’s deal.
The “curse” effect is said to begin with a July 1975 car accident in which Robert Plant and his wife, Maureen Wilson, drove off a cliff. The singer shattered his ankle and elbow, while Maureen barely survived her multiple injuries. The Plants’ two young kids also sustained serious wounds, but Jimmy’s four-year-old daughter Scarlet emerged from the wreck completely unhurt.
Worse horror struck two years later, almost to the day, when Robert Plant’s son, Karac, died at age five from a sudden viral ailment. The band’s 1977 tour had experienced a number of horrendous incidents, including savagely violent outbursts from both fans and Zep’s infamous strong-arm manager, Peter Grant. Karac’s death was the final, most nightmarish straw, and the band immediately came off the road.
Plant never wanted to sing again. Led Zeppelin stayed dormant for the next two years until Page convinced his frontman to get back in the saddle. Then, as the group rehearsed for a 1980 tour, drummer John Bonham spent an entire day bingeing on alcohol, prompting him to pass out and choke to death on his own vomit. He was 32.
After Bonzo’s demise, Led Zeppelin called it quits. The curse seems to have let up since then. For now….
The Curse of Buddy Holly
On February 3, 1959, Texas singer-songwriter Buddy Holly played a Clear Lake, Iowa show with, among others, teenage guitar sensation Ritchie Valens and gregarious disc-jockey-turned-rock-star The Big Bopper.
Afterward, the three headliners boarded a chartered flight for the next gig, but the plane went down in a lethal heap. At that moment, rock-and-roll lost its innocence—for the first time—on “The Day the Music Died.”
Buddy Holly’s plane crash instantly became the stuff of cultural iconography and legend, most familiarly immortalized by Don McLean in the epic hit, “American Pie.” The legacy of Holly’s unique talent and sophisticated style has touched every artful rocker to arise in his wake, from the Beatles onward.
However, it also seems that the touch of whatever cosmic darkness may have knocked 22-year-old Buddy Holly and his peers from the sky that night didn’t just stop there. The list of disasters to befall those in Holly’s expansive circle is genuinely sobering.
To begin with, Buddy’s wife Maria Elena Santiago was pregnant when he died. She promptly suffered a miscarriage.
Prior to embarking on his last tour, Buddy Holly left his signature group the Crickets over a management dispute. Vocalist Ronnie Smith replaced Buddy and hit the road with the band. Immediately upon coming home, Smith checked into a psychiatric facility. Several years later, he committed suicide by hanging.
In 1964, David Box, who sang for the Crickets after Ronnie Smith, died in a plane crash at 22, the same age Buddy was when he crashed and died.
Rockabilly phenom Eddie Cochran, a friend of Buddy’s and one of his most respected musical contemporaries, got killed in a British taxi accident in 1960. He was 21.
In 1966, Texas rocker Bobby Fuller, who worshipped Buddy Holly, recorded the Holly song “Love’s Made a Fool of You.” Fuller’s body was subsequently discovered drenched in gasoline, and stuffed in the trunk of a car. The coroner somehow deduced that Fuller’s demise was an accidental suicide. It remains an open mystery, with various fingers pointed at the Mafia, the FBI, and even Charles Manson.
Another Buddy Holly obsessive visionary UK record producer Joe Meek, who claimed Buddy visited him in dreams and guided his studio work, shot his landlady and himself to death in 1967.
Shortly after giving an Oscar-nominated performance in the acclaimed 1978 Hollywood biopic The Buddy Holly Story, star Gary Busey suffered a near-disastrous motorcycle accident. Ten years later, he’d crash another bike and endure horrendous brain damage.
Buddy Holly Story screenwriter Robert Gitler committed suicide before the movie even opened in theaters.
On September 7, 1978, Who drummer Keith Moon joined Paul McCartney for a London screening of The Buddy Holly Story. Later that night, he overdosed on pills and died at age 32.
September 7 is Buddy Holly’s birthday.
The Curse of Playing Guitar in Fleetwood Mac
Rumours, the 1977 monster hit that launched Fleetwood Mac to the heights of mega-stardom, is actually the group’s eleventh album. It’s also a radical departure from the band’s first late-’60s incarnation as a heavy blues ensemble led by guitar wizard Peter Green.
Fleetwood Mac’s good fortune in evolving into the quintessence of California pop via Rumours did not extend to Green or a number of other guitar players who have floated through the group. In fact, some paranormal conspiracy-minded types like to think that it perhaps happened at the very cost of those other musicians. That’s ridiculous, of course, but….
Peter Green’s first version of Fleetwood Mac enjoyed success and exerted huge influence up until the guitarist overdosed on LSD at a party in 1970, igniting an onslaught of unpredictable behavior and mental illness. He officially left Fleetwood Mac in ’71 and was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia. For much of the ensuing few years, Green underwent electroshock treatment.
Also in 1971, Mac slide guitarist Jerry Spencer overdosed on mescaline, prompting him to quit the band and join The Children of God, a nefarious cult that has long been associated with sexual misdoings.
A year later, new Mac guitar slinger Danny Kirwan repeatedly smashed his head bloody against a wall at a show. After refusing to play on stage, he went into the audience and jeered at his bandmates. Fleetwood Mac gave Kirwan the boot shortly thereafter. Ultimately, he suffered from severe mental health issues and became homeless.
After laying in wait for decades, the Fleetwood Mac curse swarmed up hard and huge in 2012. In the space of that year alone, Bob Weston, who replaced Kirwin forty years earlier, died from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage, and Bob Welch, who left Mac just prior to Rumours, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest.
The Curse of Harry Nilsson
Singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson rose to rock stardom throughout the late 1960s and early-’70s, peaking with his 1971 masterpiece, Nilsson Schmilsson. His legacy includes the radio hits “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “Without You,” “Coconut,” and “Jump Into the Fire,” as well as a succession of albums properly hailed in their time that continue to resonate today.
Nilsson was also a disastrous alcoholic who made a series of career-ending wrong decisions and whose negative energy may or may not have touched the fates of a number of rock stars with whom he collaborated and/or took out to get loaded.
The Nilsson curse seemed to strike power pop powerhouse Badfinger with particularly grievous power. In fact, Badfinger comes off as so cursed, they have their own curse.
In 1971, Harry covered a mostly overlooked Badfinger numbers, “Without You,” turning it into a monster smash and an enduring standard. Four years later, money woes drove Badfinger mastermind to hang himself in his garage. Driven mad by royalty payment issues specifically regarding “Without You,” bassist Tom Evans followed Ham’s lead, hanging himself from a backyard willow tree. Drummer Michael Gibbins, in 2005, died in his sleep. He was 56.
For a sold-out two-week run in 1974 at the London Palladium, “Mama” Cass Elliot rented Harry Nilsson’s home at 12 Curzon Place. She died there from a heart attack (and not, as urban legend has it, from choking on a ham sandwich). She was 32.
Four years later, Keith Moon rented the very same apartment that claimed Mama Cass. Nilsson reportedly feared the place was “cursed,” but in his 2012 autobiography, Who guitarist Pete Townshend recalls saying that was nonsense because “lightning wouldn’t strike the same place twice.” Alas, that’s just what happened, as Moon died in that abode. Like Cass, he was 32.
Finally, John Lennon was Nilsson’s best friend and closest high-profile creative collaborator. Lennon produced the 1974 Nilsson album Pussycats, and the two were among the most dreaded drunks in New York and Hollywood throughout that period. John Lennon, of course, was murdered at age 40 outside his Manhattan home on December 8, 1980.
6.66 The Curse of Drumming for Spinal Tap
Finally, so we can end on a lighter note (and hit that cool “6.66” number), let’s bow, as always, to cinema’s all-time great rock mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, particularly for how the film satirizes the notion of a “rock-and-roll curse.”
In one of the movie’s most uproarious scenes, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer, as Tap’s three core members, reminisce about the bizarre and hilarious demises of the group’s endless succession of drummers.
First, there’s John “Stumpy“ Pepys who died in “a bizarre gardening accident.” Next came “Stumpy Joe” who choked on vomit—“someone else’s vomit.” Then Peter “James” Bond spontaneously combusted on stage while Tap played a festival on “the Isle of Lucy.” At the movie’s end, we get to witness Joe “Mama” Besser go out in similarly explosive fashion on camera. The list goes on.
During a 1991 NPR interview, McKean, as Tap frontman David St. Hubbins, noted, “The most ironic thing would be if we all dropped dead on stage one day, except for the drummer.”