10 Great Musicians Who Could Be Assholes
Article by Tony Sokol
Musicians are people too, most of them, and have problems like everyone else. Sometimes it's their troubles that make them turn to music in the first place. Other times it's the music that's the problem. Every genre has its masters, monsters and scoundrels. No matter what instrument they play, no matter how many instruments they play, once you take the axe out of their hands, there's no telling what they'll do.
Witty Beatle couldn't take a joke
The Beatles changed rock's foundation. Their wit highlighted press conferences and feature films. John Lennon's cut deepest, but not both ways. DJ Bob Wooler made a crack about a rumored affair Lennon had with manager Brian Epstein during Paul McCartney's 21st birthday party. Lennon responded by beating Wooler and had to stop himself before he killed him.
A Todd Rundgren comment during Lennon's "Lost Weekend" period turned ugly. Lennon responded to "Turd Runtgreen's howl of hate" with a scathing letter in Melody Maker but concluded "however much you hurt me darling; I'll always love you." Rundgren told Punk Globe "before it got too far we were on the phone and defused the whole thing."
Tony Hendra scored a satirical dig using Lennon's own words for National Lampoon Radio Hour. Hendra told Den of Geek while "promoting Radio Dinner" at "around the same time" Lennon "was promoting an album," someone at KRLA radio played "Magical Misery Tour" for the ex-Beatle, who "turned white" and "walked out of the studio."
The songwriter's greatest hits made vinyl. Lennon "Maxwell-Silver-Hammered" Paul McCartney and skewered Allen Klein, who made Bobby Darin his first million and took The Rolling Stones catalog out of petty cash, in A minor.
Lennon confessed he "used to be cruel to my woman. I beat her" in a song. Cynthia Lennon told ABC News the jealous guy saw her "dancing with a friend of his" and "smacked me, but that was the only time."
Eric Clapton handed out slow blues
Eric Clapton infected America with British blues but inflicted his pain on fellow musicians. Yardbirds' drummer Jim McCarty recalled being relieved when the blues purist quit the band after balking at the impure hit "For Your Love." The "moody" guitarist woodshedded on tour, "sitting in the van not talking to anyone."
The graffiti in London read "Eric Clapton is god," but he was a wrathful god. Clapton broke up the Cream because of one bad review in Rolling Stone that noted Slowhand's blues clichés. Clapton buried his blues with heroin, and hooked socialite Alice Ormsby-Gore with him. "It never crossed my mind that it was wrong," Clapton confessed, Ormsby-Gore later died of an overdose.
Clapton fell in love with Pattie Boyd, the wife of his best friend, Beatle George Harrison, penning the driving devotional heart-wrenchers "Bell Bottom Blues" and his signature "Layla" to win her. He'd tried to get close by dating Pattie's younger sister Paula but when she heard "Layla" for the first time, "she packed her bags and left my home in great distress. Because she realized it was about Patti and that I'd been using her," Eric later recalled to biographer Ray Coleman.
Ultimately, the shy Beatle moved out of the way and Pattie married Eric. According to Pattie Boyd's book Wonderful Tonight, Clapton didn't let her take money from Harrison as a matter of pride, and left her in financial straits after his lawyer took a lead.
Chuck Berry's tastes ran too sweet and not 16 enough
Chuck Berry invented rock and roll and taught it on the road. He toured with a guitar and a briefcase for money and threw local bands onstage to back him on short notice. His songs were three-chord classics most groups thrilled to squeeze through their fingers. That is, when they weren't being harangued for bending a string. Not even Keith Richards got away with that.
While every musician knows the backing, not many people hear the flip side. The man who wrote "Sweet Little 16" had troubled teens. In 1944, Berry was arrested for driving along in an automobile he carjacked at gunpoint after robbing three stores in Kansas City.
At the start of the 60s, Elvis was in the army, Jerry Lee Lewis was blackballed for marrying his young cousin, and Berry was in jail. Arrested for transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines for "immoral purposes," Berry was charged under the Mann Act. The guitarist said he had a real job for her. An all-male, all-white jury found Berry guilty and sentenced him to five years. Berry was convicted again on retrial and served two years.
Suspecting Berry of hiding a huge coke stash, police raided Berry's home and found pot, guns, cash and pornography in the 80s. Berry sued the prosecutor, and cut a no-jail plea deal. Spin's allegation that Berry's secretly filmed women in bathrooms never got to trial. Berry settled the class-action suit for $830,000.
Not all James Brown's moments were proud
James Brown put together the tightest funk band in soul, but if the musicians missed a beat they'd also miss their pay. The "Godfather of Soul," who kept Boston peaceful in a live broadcast the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, wasn't just cheap with his musicians. He had to pay $40,000 for wrongfully dismissing Lisa Agbalaya after she resisted the sex machine's advances. The ex-employee wanted damages to the tune of six times her yearly salary. Brown's mouthpiece told the jury she deserved no more than a week's pay.
A Chicago woman suffering from Graves' disease said she got it after Brown sexually assaulted her at gunpoint in South Carolina in 1988. The case was tagged "rag sheet fodder" and dismissed as frivolous. Brown was arrested for assaulting his ex-wife Adrienne Rodriguez and, according to the memoir Cold Sweat by Brown's daughter Yamma, also beat his second wife, Dee Dee.
Brown was electrifying at classic shows like Live at the Apollo, but his stagecraft was nothing compared to his moves on the street. In 1988, the man who taught the moves to Mick Jagger led cops on high-speed car chase from Georgia to South Carolina on tire rims. While he was acquitted of an assault with intent to kill charge, it took an Aiken County jury a little over three hours to find Brown guilty of two counts of aggravated assault and eluding police. Brown admitted he probably should have just pulled over.
John Phillips turned California Dreams into nightmares
The Mamas and The Papas' John Phillips practically invented rock festival shows. The Monterey Pop Festival was his baby. Phillips scored Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth even though David Bowie already delivered demos deemed perfect for the atmospheric parable of alienation. While this alone could land Phillips on a terrible person list, remember we wouldn't have the album Low.
But Phillips got even lower. In her 2009 memoir High on Arrival, his daughter, the actress Mackenzie Phillips, recounts a long-term affair of "consensual sex," and remembered waking up "from a blackout to find myself having sex with my own father" on the night before her first wedding."
The author of "California Dreamin'" even put it on tape, recording the song "She's Just 14" in New York with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger in 1977. Mackenzie's admission divided the family. Michelle Phillips admitted to Vanity Fair that "John was a bad parent, and a drug addict." Michelle was already on record saying John physically abused her, but all she would say about it was that "it was serious. I ended up in the hospital." She rejected her step-daughter's allegations because Mackenzie "had a needle stuck up her arm for 35 years."
John was the first to pass the syringe, having gotten Mackenzie started on drugs when she was 11. On July 31, 1980, Phillips was arrested in Manhattan for trading stolen prescription drugs to dealers in exchange for cocaine.
DMX had street cred to burn
DMX isn't bragging when he claims he's lived a hard knock life. An unstoppable force in hip hop, he partied his way up to movies like Romeo Must Dieand his own BET show. But then there was X.
DMX, whose real name is Earl Simmons, found out about a Denver fugitive-from-justice warrant while appearing in court for an assault charge in Yonkers. DMX said he was justified in the Yonkers assault because he was defending his wife, and had "no reason to run" from the concert stabbing and shooting incident in the Rockies.
After a tip DMX was running dogfights, deputies from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office raided his home and seized 12 pit bulls and hit him with seven misdemeanor animal cruelty charges. The police found no evidence of dogfighting but authorities said some of the dogs hadn't been fed. DMX faced similar charges in Teaneck, N.J. in 1999. They were dismissed after he agreed to record a PSA for an animal rights group.
The gangsta rap artist truly earned his street cred when he was charged for impersonating a Federal Agent for yelling "I'm with the FBI" at Kennedy Airport. He'd just crashed a sport-utility vehicle, complete with lights and sirens, through a parking lot gate. To make things more cinematic, he pulled blue privilege and told another driver he was requisitioning his car. DMX was also accused of sexual assault by a woman who was arrested for stealing his $30G watch.
Bing Crosby wrapped black and blue Christmases
Bing Crosby is the best-selling singer of all time. It takes an Elvis, four Beatles and the rhythm section of the Rolling Stones to equal one Bing. "White Christmas" alone dwarfs the British Invasions and the decade of grunge. And beloved? Some books claim Bob Hope detested his cash cow on-screen partner but at least they were friendly enough off-screen to get arrested together for illegal gambling. Hope even quipped about Crosby's penchant for picking bad horses. The feds thought Crosby was too beloved by mobsters, as singers often are, as well.
As loved as Bing was on stage, film, radio, and every other Christmas special made for over a half century, he didn't show much love at home. His son Nathaniel never even heard the word. Crosby didn't want his kids to grow up Hollywood brats. He put them to work, pulling 14-hour shifts baling alfalfa and vaccinating cattle on his ranches. In his memoir, his son Gary claims the crooner whipped him bloody if he had gained weight, and he ate every day. His sister Lindsay backed his story, but his brother Phillip called Gary a whining crybaby. Phillip's twin, Dennis agreed Gary was singled out for punishment.
The kids lived on an allowance from blind trust funds they couldn't touch until they were 65. Crosby's son Dennis was found dead in his home of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Lindsay shot himself to death after his inheritance ran out.
It's all a larf for Keith Moon til it costs an ear
Keith Moon may not have been the tidiest of drummers in early rock, but he was the busiest. He brought tension, dynamics and theatricality to the Who, and enough party favors for anyone in any room. Until he trashed it, tossing everything at hand or underfoot out windows without warning. Hilton Hotel staff still complain of post-traumatic stress flashbacks.
As dangerous on a surfboard as was at hotels, Moon the Loon was lethal behind the wheel. He drove his car into a swimming pool, his wife to distraction, and John Entwistle occasionally to the dentist. Moon killed his chauffeur, Cornelius Boland, by running him over with his Bentley while dodging a rock-throwing skinhead mob. Moon pled guilty to drunk driving, driving without a license and driving without insurance, but the court wiped out the charges.
The clown prince of the British Invasion also, ultimately, deafened lead guitarist Pete Townshend when he put a pinch too much gunpowder in his drum for an appearance on The Smothers Brothers Show. Townshend would complain about it for years, surrounding himself in a sound-proof cage during tours. He may even have considered it for a rock opera.
But Keith Moon's final collateral damage was himself, and his band. The Who were on the verge of several major releases in both music and film. Keith mixed the drugs he was taking to keep him off booze with alcohol.
Miles Davis spun hits into jealousy
Miles Davis was the king of cool, but lost it if you asked him about any other musician. Maybe he didn't chase critics with guns like in the recent biopic, it sometimes appeared nobody could do anything right by the man who went off on everyone in the jazz industry and media, one at a time.
Miles told Downbeat he could always tell an Eric Dolphy song because "nobody else could sound that bad" and asked critics to admit they had nothing to listen to when they brought up Cecil Taylor. In 1986, when Miles was modernizing his sound, he feuded with Wynton Marsalis. Things came to a head at the first Vancouver Jazz Festival. Marsalis came up on stage during Miles' set ready to blow nasty lip service to recent putdowns with his horn, but the band gave him nothing but dead air.
Miles also blew an ill wind at home. The trumpeter learned to slap his girlfriends by watching jazz great Billy Eckstine prove what a tough guy he was. In Miles: The Autobiography from 1989, Miles says he hit his first wife, Frances, before he realized what happened, and passed it off to jealousy. Frances categorized it differently, telling The New York Times she "actually left running for my life—more than once." Miles also admits he beat his second wife, Cicely Tyson. While the actress and activist played it off as artistic growth, the jazz legend didn't cut her much slack in his book.
Real Phil Spector mystery is why it took so long
In spite of being a soundboard legend, Phil Spector is iconic as the industry burnout with the wild hair on trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson. But the First Tycoon of Teen was already legendary for his lone gun approach to landing hits.
The man who invented the Wagnerian "Wall of Sound" imprisoned his wife Ronnie Specter in a fortress of fame, locking her in their mansion for safe-keeping. He showed his mother-in-law the glass coffin her daughter would lie in if she tried to leave. Phil also took Ronnie's voice. He forced the former lead singer of The Ronettes to stop singing. By the last year of their marriage, Ronnie said she didn't talk at all.
Spector, who committed the musical sin of putting strings on the Beatles' "Long and Winding Road," terrorized talent regardless of their power. He played mind games with John Lennon, calling about Watergate Tapes while holding the ex-Beatle's master tapes hostage. Producer Mark Hudson recalled a time when "Spector pulled out a large gun and started chasing John through the hallways" of A&M studios.
During 1977 recording sessions Spector pointed a gun at Leonard Cohen's chest and told him he loved him. "I hope so, Phil," Cohen measuredly responded. Marky Ramone downplayed the myth about how Phil kept the Ramones at bay in the recording studio, saying, "he did pull out guns on different people, but not at us."