12/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An Interview with Author David Comfort on The Rock & Roll Book of the Dead


Mike Ragogna: Since your new book discusses the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, and Jerry Garcia, of course, there's going to be a lot of controversy surrounding it since everyone wants to see their heroes in a good light. With all the information that's already out there, how does your book differ from others on the subject?

David Comfort: Well, take Lennon, for example. People want to know, "What was John Lennon really like?" There's no black or white answer to that, there's no black or white answer to any of these seven people. They had very volatile, changeable personalities. I mean, what John Lennon was like depended on whatever moment you met him, you know? He went to a shrink once, and the shrink said, "Even with your wealth, you couldn't possibly afford me because I'd have to charge you for each of your personalities." There's no simple answer to who John Lennon was. Sure, he was a great leader and a peacenik; on the other hand, he was an incredibly violent, narcissistic guy. That was the other side of him, and people just don't want to hear that.

MR: Is it possible most artists, to whatever degree, have to possess these negative personality traits in order to express and process their creativity?

DC: I think that's part of the message in my book. Creative people, by and large, are not sweet and lovable people. They can be, but they're struggling, conflicted human beings.

MR: Do you see creative people accessing the source of their art as some kind of opening of a gate, like a Pandora's box?

DC: To be a good creative artist, you have to open up the gates, break down all the fences, then all the wild animals come in. But you don't have any herd control with everything coming in. There's a lot of dark and there's a lot of light.

MR: Can you give some examples?

DC: I have the seven main chapters and the interlude chapters get into the metacomparisons of all these people. The one that really addresses your question is the second interlude chapter called "Crazy." It's about their neuroses and all the rest of it. All of them agreed that it was absolutely essential to be crazy, all of them almost worshiped letting their wild animals out. Look at Elvis. You'd think he wouldn't be one (of the seven), but his ID bracelet said "crazy." Hendrix talked about that (crazy), all of them did. It's a combination of something that's a bit warped, I suppose, and an enormous energy level. If the average person draws 10 amps, these people were drawing 200, and way more in front of audiences and from whatever drugs they were taking. Then you become a bit of a lightning rod, which they did.

MR: Didn't four of these artists die when they were 27?

DC: With the "27" phenomenon, we're dealing with youth here. Had they made it to 30 or 35, they may have been partially over the hump. There were certainly the excesses of youth, to invoke a cliché, and any normal person who took the kind of drugs they did and lived the kind of lives they did would have died within a year. Even at 27, these people enjoyed longevity. It's the classic example of burning the candle at both ends. You know, Morrison used to say, "The path of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," and he certainly lived that, as did Janis. You know, "The Outer Limits of Probability," and all of that.

MR: It seems that their creativity was as addicting as their drug habits.

DC: You get to this insatiability that these creative artists have. It's never enough, especially for Janis. When she was happy, she STILL wasn't happy, and her nerves were closer to the skin of anybody else's.

MR: Even Elvis fits into this category even though he's much older.

DC: It's this nervous-manic, hypersensitive kind of thing. All of these seven were the kind of people--where if you go to a dentist or doctor's office and they were waiting--their legs can't stay still. Their feet are jittery and s**t. They're just overamped. All of them said they were incredibly nervous as kids, and almost all of them, not surprisingly, were insomniacs. They just couldn't fall asleep naturally. They were so overamped by the crowd, who they were, all the drugs, and all the rest. And, of course, the ultimate climax of that is the Jackson story.

MR: Yeah, events in his life mirror some of what you mention.

DC: The usual chemotherapy for a superstar is heroine that turns you into a fetus. But Jackson went one step further with his propofol...he wanted to be in a coma just to get sleep.

MR: Do you feel Michael Jackson can be grouped with the others?

DC: A human being is their future and their past. His past was absolutely devastating to him. The old days of Thriller and of his epiphanies were WAY over. Those two molestation trials completely devastated the guy, just gutted him, you know? And the future? He knew that he was done. I think this was a suicide by doctor. He knew he couldn't do those gigs in London. At first it was 10, then it was 50, and he wasn't even booked to be on stage the whole time. Apparently, it was just thirteen minutes of a two-hour gig, but he still couldn't do it. I mean, they were talking about lung transplants for the guy. In any case, he was a dead man walking at 50 years old. It's such a sad testament, I mean, this whole society we live in--you're nobody if you're not a star. This is so resonant of all that.

MR: Did you see the footage of Michael's rehearsal that they broadcast for weeks following his death? He seemed pretty animated then.

DC: I'd like to know his blood chemistry the day of that performance. You know that during the performance before that one, he collapsed onstage and they had to carry him out. So, come on, what kind of speed or amphetamines was he on to be able to perform for that footage? And he eventually collapsed after that. Remember that last scene from El Cid where he's dead and they strap him to his horse to lead the charge?

MR: Other than Cobain, do you think any of the artists you discuss in the book had a death wish?

DC: No, I don't. I would hope that Cobain would be the alpha in terms of suicidal inclinations. Even as a kid, he said, "I have suicide genes." As you know, a lot of his relatives off'd themselves or there was self-mutilation and all the rest. He didn't get into the romance of that until much later, during the whole Nirvana thing, though you'd wonder about his seriousness about it. The whole punk ethic...there was quite a romance to offing yourself, and I think he played into that with all the photo ops with the gun in his mouth. But for some reason, again, it's this hypersensitivity that just devastated the guy and just pulled the rug out from under him psychologically, and then it was a deteriorating path after that.

MR: Did you find that many of these artists predicted their own deaths?

DC: A number of them predicted early deaths for themselves, and certainly, John Lennon was one of them. He may have been legitimately psychic. He said he learned everything he needed to know metaphysically through Yoko, and she certainly was really into all of that stuff. And he practiced to be more sensitive in that way. Just a few days before the Dakota thing happened, in one of his last interviews up in the apartment, there was a loud bang outside--maybe a muffler backfiring out in the street--and he said, "Another murder in the Rue Morgue!" And he said a lot of other things. In '66, during the "Jesus Christ" tour, you know, when he made the comparison between The Beatles and Jesus, a psychic told him, "You're going to be gunned down..." I think that was the first seed of that sort of portent that he had.

MR: Did Lennon exhibit any other signs of knowing how he would die?

DC: Well, when he was filming How I Lost The War, they accidentally shot him with a dummy bullet, and he said, "I knew this would always happen." And he told his assistant at the Dakota that he felt he was destined to be shot down, which he called a modern form of crucifixion. His assistant's uncle had been shot in New York, and John had him come into the Dakota, and fascinated, asked, "How does it feel to take a slug?" Even when Lennon was gunned down, Chapman talks about when they met eyes. This may be a little fringe material, but it could have happened. Lennon met Chapman's eyes and he said to him for a second time, "Is that all you want?" He kind of sensed that this was the exterminating angel that had arrived. He always had that paranoia about going down, and he thought it was his karmic destiny because, as he said, "I've lived a violent life, and those who've lived violent lives often are predestined to die violently."

MR: Would you say John Lennon led a violent life?

DC: Well, when he was a kid, he was a hitter. With all his insecurities, he didn't know really how to deal with people so he intimidated them. And he had that reputation. He was very passive aggressive in terms of his acid sense of humor and his destroying people with words, even early on. The first real incident of violence that I read about happened when they were all in Hamburg and doing these 4, 6, 8 hour exhausting sets, and they'd get into fights with German sailors when they were hitting on their girlfriends. They'd get in fights out in the alley. Lennon got into fights with several guys. He got into a fight with his good friend (Stuart) Sutcliffe. There was a scuffle, and I don't know if it was a mistake, but he kicked Sutcliffe in the head, and, of course, he died of a brain tumor and a hemorrhage a year later. Lennon always wondered if he caused that, if the injury to his head was the result of what he did. And there was that episode with the DJ at McCartney's 21st birthday. Lennon had just come back from Spain and his vacation with Brian Epstein. The DJ asked him, "How was your Spanish honeymoon with Brian?" and he completely lost it, and beat the guy to the edge of his life. He had to be hospitalized, The Beatles paid him off. He beat a lot of the women he was with. Then again, Hendrix beat women. It's a rock 'n' roll tradition. So yeah, he had a pretty prolific violent side.

MR: Hendrix also was violent?

DC: Like Eric Burdon of the Animals said, "I love Jimi, but one second, he's singin' about the underdog, and the next second, he's out in the alley beatin' the s**t out of some poor chic." He said, "He's a c**t, but that's why I love him." But Jimi came from a very battered childhood, his father beat the s**t out of him for years in drunken rages. So what goes around, comes around.

MR: What about Janis Joplin?

DC: You look at the childhoods, and frankly, you can't say they all came from super-traumatic ones. You've got to look under the covers to see the trauma there. And you wonder with Janis because she had a straight, middle class family. Her father was an engineer for Texaco who was a well-read guy, calm, and it was a religious family. So there were no real inklings of trauma. But, again, she's an incredibly hypersensitive girl. When she went into adolescence, apparently, they said she physically changed overnight from being a cute, outgoing girl to being a very moody, acne-ridden pudgy girl, and she took no end of s**t in school for this. It really hurt her badly, she became estranged from her parents. So where does it come from? I don't know, but she's quite an interesting person.

MR: What are your thoughts on Jerry Garcia since he doesn't fit into any of these prototypes so far?

DC: Well, of the seven, Jerry Garcia was the poster boy, relatively speaking, for mental health. He didn't suffer from the same kind of incredible neuroses the others did, and he didn't buy into the whole "divinity in the star" thing. An interviewer asked Jerry, "How do you feel about the Deadheads worshipping you?" and he said, "Until they come at me with a cross and nails, I'm okay. And then, I'm not gonna put up with it anymore."

MR: Most of these rock stars enjoyed their celebrity, right?

DC: Lennon completely bought into it. It wasn't just The Beatles/Jesus remark. A few years later, after Sgt. Pepper when he was doing a lot of acid, he called all The Beatles together and he announced to them, "I'm Jesus Christ, I want a press conference." So, he took it pretty seriously. And so did Elvis. When he was in Graceland, he said he saw the leaves of the trees trembling with his vibe, and he healed kids, or he thought he did. He heard the song of Jesus and the song of birds. Yeah, he bought it hook, line, and sinker, this whole divinity thing.

MR: Unlike Garcia.

DC: He maintained a level head. With the others, it's very easy to see their dark sides. It's much more difficult with Jerry Garcia. But, arguably, he was the only guy who grew up while all of them did their best not to grow up. They all had a major thing about youth, about being a kid.

MR: Do you believe the quest for eternal youth played into their self-destruction?

DC: Yeah, definitely. Especially with Elvis. On his 40th birthday, they showed a big picture in back of Elvis, and while he was watching it, they said, "Elvis. 40 and fat." And, of course, he was obese, he was looking old. He virtually collapsed and the guys had to carry him up to the bedroom, and he drugged himself out for days after that. He was incredibly sensitive about losing his good looks and his youth. And the consummate Peter Pan was Michael Jackson. But all the rest of them had a major thing about youth, you know, like that Pete Townsend thing, "I hope I die before I get old."

MR: But he did make it to his older years, and I bet he's glad he did.

DC: He said something to the effect of, "Well, I haven't lived up to my adolescent ambition, but I've compensated by making myself happy in my old age."

MR: When you think about it, it's amazing more addicted or self-destructive rock stars didn't die an early death.

DC: Eric Clapton talks about that, and he's right up there with the rest of them. He said, "...a snort of coke in one nostril, a snort of heroine in the other, a bottle of booze in one hand. I don't know how I survived it. If I tried it today, I never would." It is quite remarkable that these people lasted as long as they did, even to 27.