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Mythbusters! Local authors get to the bottom of showbiz legends

Mythbusters! Local authors get to the bottom of showbiz legends

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From overnight sensations and epic affairs to drunken arrests and unsolved murders, there are more legends about the music and movie industries than inquiring minds can count.

Two local authors have investigated 113 of them in a pair of new volumes that they will be signing at Subterranean Books on Oct. 25.

Daniel Durchholz, who co-authored “Rock 'n' Roll Myths” with Detroit resident Gary Graff, is a freelance music writer for the Post-Dispatch and numerous other publications. Joe Williams, the author of “Hollywood Myths,” is the film critic for the Post-Dispatch.

We recently brought Dan and Joe together to compare notes on show-business myths and legends. Here's a PG-13 version of their freewheeling conversation:

Joe: OK, Dan, let's settle this once and for all: Which of these industries is more scandalous?

Dan: That's hard to say. Is there a Hollywood equivalent to the myth about the guys in Led Zeppelin doing lewd things to a groupie?

Joe: That story was always hard to swallow, but unlike the legend about Jimmy Page selling his soul to the devil, you say it's confirmed by evidence. What percentage of the rumors in your book turned out to be true?

Dan: Not that many. Most of them are tall tales that got spread by word of mouth — like the idea that the real Paul McCartney was killed in a car crash in the mid-'60s. How about yours?

Joe: Actually, a lot of the stuff I investigated had a kernel of truth. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, the studios had publicists whose job was to cover up scandals. This guy named Eddie Mannix at MGM turned the murder of Jean Harlow's husband into a suicide. He probably did the same thing with George Reeves, who played Superman on TV and had an affair with Mannix's wife. When Wallace Beery killed the manager of the Three Stooges in a bar fight, the studio blamed it on college kids and sent Beery overseas for a year.

I've got chapters about box-office fiascoes and last-minute casting changes and insider stuff like that, but inevitably there are a lot of stories about foul play.

Dan: Most of the rock 'n' roll myths involve sex and drugs. We had to restrain ourselves with Michael Jackson, but we've got a chapter about whether Marilyn Manson had a rib removed so he could perform a particular sex trick. And you can't write a book about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll without multiple mentions of the Rolling Stones. We learned that Keith Richards really did snort his father's ashes, mixed with cocaine.

Joe: Keith Richards in the “Pirates” movies is an example that there's a lot of crossover between the two industries that we cover. Musicians like Will Smith have become movie stars, and movie stars like Zooey Deschanel have become musicians. Both of our books have chapters about Charles Manson, who had his followers kill a movie star because he was mad at people in the music business.

Dan: There's a myth that (Charles) Manson auditioned for the Monkees, and even Mickey Dolenz repeated it, but actually Manson was in prison when they were casting the TV show. But it's true that Neil Young tried to get Manson a recording contract and that some of the Manson family lived with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys.

Joe: Hollywood's making a movie about Dennis Wilson. I hope they get it right, because some of my favorite films are about music. In fact, the first movie I ever saw in a theater was “A Hard Day's Night.” Of course, that was before Paul McCartney died.


I was a rock critic before I was a movie critic, and I've met a lot of loony musicians. So I was surprised by how many of the fables in “Rock 'n' Roll Myths” turned out to be the storytelling equivalent of air guitar. Yes, there are drugs and debauchery, but in contrast to Hollywood, the youth-skewing music biz built a hype machine to make the musicians seem worse than they are. BY JOE WILLIAMS

1. “A Horse With No Name” is not about heroin: The folk-rock band America is one of my guilty pleasures, but based on their 1971 hit record about a horse in the desert, I always worried that they were cruising Ventura Highway to score drugs. But Dan's book says they were a trio of straight-laced army brats who met in England and wrote elusive lyrics to emulate their hero Neil Young. (Then again, why do almost all of their album titles start with the letter “H”?)

2. Brian Jones was murdered: He started the band, but Brian Jones was ousted from the Rolling Stones in 1969 by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Jones retreated to his countryside estate, where he spent a lot of time in the pool. That's where he teased and belittled a workman named Frank Thorogood until the guy snapped and drowned him, in front of several witness who waited years before squealing.

3. Sid Vicious was a mama's boy: After stabbing girlfriend Nancy Spungeon in a drugged stupor, attempting suicide and attacking Patti Smith's brother with a beer bottle, Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (aka John Ritchie) got heroin smuggled to his jail cell by his doting mother, Anne. As soon as Sid was bailed out, he promptly OD'ed, on Feb. 1, 1979. His mum later climbed a wall in a Philadelphia cemetery to spread his ashes over Nancy's grave.

4. Mama Cass Elliot did not choke on a ham sandwich: She had a voice like an angel, but Cass Elliot was built like a linebacker and couldn't compete with model-skinny Michelle Phillips for the affections of Mamas and Papas bandmates John Phillips and Denny Doherty. In 1974, Cass was a solo act. After celebrating Mick Jagger's 32nd birthday, she overdosed in her London apartment on tranquilizers and liquid cocaine. The ham sandwich was untouched.

5. Willie Nelson smoked pot at the White House: Maybe it's not surprising that unrepentant stoner Willie Nelson fired up a doobie before a show at the White House in 1978. But it's mildly scandalous that he was joined on his rooftop retreat by one of Jimmy Carter's sons, under the watchful eyes of the Secret Service. And it's downright shocking that Willie then coerced first lady Rosalynn Carter to sing a verse of “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.”


As a music guy first and foremost, I knew there’d be a lot for me to learn in Joe Williams’ witty and wonderfully written book. But as someone who’d just busted some rock 'n' roll myths in my own book and who thinks of show business in general as my beat, I was surprised at how little I knew about certain movies and movie stars, as well as the extent to which I’d gone along for years with some of the accepted myths. Here are a few examples. BY DANIEL DURCHHOLZ

1. Fatty Arbuckle was framed: I’m not certain that I’ve ever seen a Fatty Arbuckle movie. But one of the things I thought I knew about the rotund comedian was that his career was ruined when he was accused of raping and killing (by crushing her with his girth) a young starlet. Williams unspools the real story. Spoiler alert: He didn’t do it — but Arbuckle was banned by Hollywood nonetheless.

2. Jayne Mansfield did not lose her head: There’s a long list of mysterious and mythic movie star deaths, from James Dean’s car crash to George “Superman” Reeves’ unsolved demise and Marilyn Monroe’s implausible death by drug overdose. Williams deals with all of those, and more, including one of the more horrific Hollywood exits: that of Jayne Mansfield, a Monroe-like sex bomb who played a dumb blonde despite her genius-level IQ. Mansfield was killed in a car accident that was said to have decapitated her. Not true, though the real story is nearly as horrific.

3. Thomas Edison was a litigious jerk: Popular history has credited the famed inventor with a staggering series of breakthroughs, including the light bulb, audio recording and the motion picture camera. The actual origin of each of those items is complicated, but in the case of the movie camera, it was an Edison assistant who did the work while his boss stole the credit. Edison, it turns out, was shrewd about filing patents and suing for royalties, so much so that aspiring filmmakers seeking to avoid the flurry of lawsuits fled west to a place called Hollywood.

4. It took television to turn certain films into beloved classics: Williams names Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” as his favorite movie, which is interesting to me, because I’ve always hated it — with the exception of the nightmarish “Pottersville” sequence. To me, that looks like one swingin’ town that might have a music scene worth covering. But Williams makes a convincing case for it as a film that is not saccharine and sentimental, but a “superbly crafted depiction of the dark contradictions of the American Dream.” Significantly, the movie wasn’t a box-office hit, and it wasn’t until the copyright expired and it became a Christmas staple on TV that it wormed its way so deeply into the American consciousness. That goes for “The Wizard of Oz” as well, which began its annual run on the small screen nearly two decades earlier.

5. Hollywood is a state of mind: In the terrific final section of the book, Williams takes on myths and mythic aspects of the movie industry — the Academy Awards, the ratings system, film critics, foreign markets and the physical place known as Hollywood, Calif. Turns out it’s mostly not there. Or rather, the city is, but the studios and the stars themselves have mostly moved on. And anyone who doesn’t believe that might as well pull up a stool at Schwab’s Drugstore and wait to be discovered.


What Daniel Durchholz and Joe Williams will sign and discuss their respective books • When 7-8 p.m. Oct. 25 • Where Subterranean Books, 6275 Delmar Boulevard • How much Free • More info

Joe Williams is the Post-Dispatch's film critic. Follow him on Twitter at @joethecritic. Daniel Durchholz is a St. Louis music writer. Follow him on Twitter at @danieldurchholz.

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