Despite J. Edgar Hoover’s reported private penchants for flamboyant dress and unconventional erotic revelry, the founding director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was no fan of rock-and-roll music, nor the (as he perceived them) un-American antics of its purveyors.
Virtually at the exact moment when rock caught fire among teenagers in the 1950s, the FBI assigned agents to monitor its ever-so-dangerous progress. Decades later, even after rock not only failed to undo the republic, but also actually made it better, stronger, and loads more fun, the FBI continued to keep tabs on popular musicians.
Here now is a countdown of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Rock Stars. Check out your law-enforcement tax dollars at work, folks.
From top to bottom, the Beatles changed the world, often in ways that terrified the old guard. Enflamed by that fear, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover pursued ex-Beatle John Lennon with extra vigorous zeal throughout the musician’s residency in early 1970s New York City. On top of that, Richard Nixon perceived Lennon’s anti-war activism and influence on young voters as posing a threat to his 1972 re-election, and thus he supplied the feds with all the juice they needed to make a damning case.
As a result, FBI agents spied on Lennon constantly (uncovering salacious behavior such as John getting stoned and watching TV with crackpot Lower East Side folkie David Peel) and frantically pushed to legally deport John. One mitigating factor cited by the FBI was that Lennon’s effectiveness would be hampered by his “constantly being under the influence of narcotics.”
John Lennon’s struggles with the U.S. government proved to be long, ludicrous, and ultimately triumphant—for him! These episodes have been fascinatingly detailed in numerous books and documentaries, as well as an entire website dedicated to his FBI file. Imagine!
Elvis Presley’s FBI files are unique in the rock star realm in that their highlight is a 1970 letter from The King to The Prez in which Elvis begged Richard Nixon to make him a secret agent!
Despite and/or because he was deluded on any number of chemicals at the time, Elvis believed he could help bring down the collective threat posed against the U.S. by the hippies, communists, “the drug culture,” and the Beatles. In justifying his request for official state powers, Elvis noted: “I can and will do more good if I were made a Federal Agent at Large and I will help out by doing it my way through my communications with people of all ages.”
As one of pop culture’s most famously bizarre photographs bears out, Elvis got to meet Nixon in the one house one surprising afternoon, and the singer even came away with an honorary badge and phony title—which he then reportedly tried to put to use on occasion.
Other details of Elvis’s FBI file include letters sent in by concerned 1950s citizens regarding Presley’s sexual hyper-power over the youth of the time. Although the Feds kept the correspondence, they opted not to further act on investigating the King’s hypnotically gyrating hips.
Proto-punk radicals the MC5 exploded out of the same metal-begetting late-‘60s Detroit cauldron that conjured up Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, and the Stooges. Unlike their peers, though, the MC5 were explicitly left wing in their politics and ideas, which they expressed with firebomb intensity via their take-no-prisoners music.
When the MC5 played Chicago’s Lincoln Park as the city hosted the 1968 Democratic National Convention (which resulted in chaotic riots and landmark legal actions taking against activists), FBI agents stood in the crowd, silently filming the band wailing and flailing at full-force. The soundless footage is very disconcerting to watch and figures prominently in the terrific 2002 documentary, The MC5: A True Testimonial.
While the FBI kept track of San Francisco’s late-’60s psychedelic gurus Jefferson Airplane due to the group’s involvement with drugs, fiery lead singer Grace Slick nabbed her own individual file over an alleged plot to get President Nixon high. Specifically, Slick’s plan was to turn Tricky Dick into Trippy Dick by dosing the Nixon with 600 micrograms of LSD during a party at the White House. Weirdly enough, Grace actually had the means, motive, and opportunity.
It occurred when Tricia Nixon, the president’s daughter, organized a White House event for her fellow alumni of Finch College. Among them was Grace Slick, although she’d been invited under her original name, Grace Wing. In 2013, Grace revealed the details of her plan to CBS News, stating, “I’d be talking with Richard Nixon, and have the LSD in my fingernail, and just gesture over his tea cup. He would have been talking about the walls melting. We laughed just thinking about it.”
Slick showed up for the event, but security quickly gathered that she just didn’t belong there, and promptly delivered Grace to the sidewalk. On top of that, the president didn’t attend the gathering, anyway. Still, the FBI got one hilarious file out of the whole affair.
The FBI versus the Lizard King built to a fever pitch over the course of the late 1960s, culminating with Jim Morrison’s over-the-top—and out-of-his-pants performance with the Doors in Miami on March 1, 1969.
No document can possibly better sum up the occasion than Morrison’s FBI file itself, which states that the singer "reportedly pulled out all stops in an effort to provoke chaos among a huge crowd of young people. Morrison's program lasted one hour during which time he sang one song and for the remainder he grunted, groaned, gyrated and gestured along with inflammatory remarks. He screamed obscenities and exposed himself.”
Within a month, the Feds charged Morrison with lewd and lascivious conduct and labeled him a fugitive. He was ultimately convicted for profanity and indecent exposure. Somehow, America still stood when all was said and done, and the debate as to whether anything was actually, errr, whipped out has raged for decades.
For all his wild radicalism as an unprecedented musical genius, Jimi Hendrix’s FBI file runs a measly seven pages. The high points include youthful joyriding and a claim that Jimi loaded up his signature bandanas with LSD tabs, so that they’d time-release over the course of his performances while he worked up a sweat.
Nine Inch Nails
In 1989, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor was murdered on camera and the evidence was sent to the FBI after being labeled a “snuff film.” Of course, Reznor was just play-acting while making a music video for the NIN song “Down In It.”
Still, the clip’s gruesome footage, which took off in a balloon-camera and was then discovered by a well-meaning farmer, proved convincing enough that the feds opened a short-lived investigation in the video homicide. The FBI itself iced the case upon discovering that Reznor was, indeed, alive and chipper after he happily showed up to answer the investigating agents’ questions.
Feds who took John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” too seriously poked around the wholesome granola-and-granny-glasses ’70s folk-pop icon to see how severely Mr. Far Out was actually mixed up in drugs. Denver turned out to be a casual toker of some forest-grown green stuff, although—brace yourself—John’s blonde bowl-cut locks were spotted bopping about an anti-war rally.
FBI agents who could apparently hear over the deafening din of screaming teenage girls at a 1967 Monkees concert concluded that the Prefab Four were, in fact, potential agents of United States government upheaval. In one of the goofiest/coolest live performance reviews of all time, the Monkees’ FBI file describes their show as consisting of “four young men who dress as beatnik types using a device that displayed ‘subliminal’, ‘left wing’ and ‘anti-US’ images about the war in Vietnam.” And the squares who wrote that hadn’t even caught the opening act—Jimi Hendrix!
Over the next few years, the song became a garage band favorite with numerous covers hitting 45-RPM vinyl all over America, but particularly from up in the Pacific Northwest. Chief among those “Louie Louie” releases was the one by Portland, Oregon’s joyfully shambolic noisemakers the Kingsmen.
Their raucously out-of-control 1963 cover version became the definitive “Louie Louie” that continues to turn any room into a full-on blowout any time it gets played anywhere. So transcendently riotous was the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” on first impact, in fact, that the FBI promptly hurled kicked off an intense investigation of the song’s power, with a particular focus on what uptight parents everywhere believed just had to be ferociously “obscene” lyrics.
The Kingsmen’s words, in reality, are utterly indecipherable—the result of singer Jack Ely wearing braces and the studio microphone being hung too high in the first place. Kids who heard the song then—as kids always will—just made up their own dirty lyrics, thereby sending moms and dads nationwide into various tizzies. One caveat: at the 56-second mark, drummer Gary Abbott blurts out something just barely audible, reportedly in response to dropping his sticks. It may or may not be an F-bomb.
Regardless, from June until September 1964, FBI agents spent countless hours slavishly attempt to make sense of “Louie Louie” (a great way to spend your summer) before ultimately declaring the record “unintelligible at any speed."