Matthew L. Swayne on 'Haunted Rock and Roll Ghostly Tales of Musical Legends'
How did you get interested into rock and roll’s supernatural side?
I was born on Halloween -- which probably says a lot about my writing career. But I was also a fan of rock and roll. Eventually, I became interested in rock history, the roots of the music and the people who made it great. Led by other rock’s other supernatural writers, like R. Gary Patterson, I set out to discover if there were ghost stories and ghostlore about rock and roll. And, turns out, there’s a whole haunted history of rock and roll.
Why is rock and roll so haunted?
I think there are two aspects of rock and roll that make it so haunted. The first is its spiritual and cultural origins. Rock historians and musicologists will tell you that rock is a mixture of primarily two types of music -- the blues and country music. Both of these cultures -- African and European -- also have rich spiritual traditions and supernatural beliefs that, I believe, are reflected in rock music. From Robert Johnson to Amy Winehouse, you can see those traditions reflected in the ghost stories told about rock stars and musicians.
The second reason for rock’s haunted history is the number of tragedies that have occurred during its existence. There are accidental deaths, like Buddy Holly’s airplane crash, but there are also heartbreaking stories of death by misadventure and murders: from Brian Jones’ mysterious death (or possibly murder) to overdoses and suicides. Any good ghost hunter will tell you that if there’s a tragedy, a spirit is sure to follow. We find that throughout the book, too.
Are there any ghost stories from the early days of rock and roll?
I contend that rock and roll is the only art form that was actually created by a ghost story. The most famous bluesman, Robert Johnson, who most consider the grandfather of rock and roll, reportedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads so that he could taste the fame and fortune of a blues musician.
There are several ghost stories about Buddy Holly, the great musician of rock’s early days. He’s seen in clubs and bars that he used to play, as well as the field where his plane crashed in 1959.
Although Elvis Presley died in 1977, rock’s most famous founder has made up for lost time to join some of the other pioneers of rock and roll on the other side. His spirit has been spotted in Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, and Las Vegas, of course.
How about the 1960’s era rock stars?
The 1960s was when rock and roll blossomed; it was also a time of loss and tragedy, which led to several ghost stories. Some of the ghost stories I explore in the book, include at least two of several major stars who died when they were 27 in the 1960s and, in fact, died within a few months of each other. Jim Morrison, the Doors lead singer, and Janis Joplin were two of the big rock celebrities who died tragically, just as they hit the peak of their fame. For Morrison and Joplin, at least, their story continues. Witnesses have claimed to have run-ins with Morrison’s ghost in a few places, including his boyhood home and -- weirdly enough -- the bathroom of a Mexican restaurant in a building that once served as a recording studio and headquarters of the Doors. People also claim to feel Janis’s presence in the hotel where she died and in a studio near where she took her last breath.
Other 60’s ghosts in the book include Gram Parsons and Brian Jones.
John Lennon, who died in 1980, is reportedly haunting several locations -- and continues to reach out to friends, fans, and family.
Do the ghost stories continue? Are there contemporary tales of supernatural activity among current pop stars?
The ghost stories have continued -- and maybe even accelerated -- with the passing of more contemporary artists, like Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Whitney Houston. Cobain reportedly haunts a park close to the scene of his death and Houston’s mother is convinced Whitney tried to communicate with her shortly before she received word that her daughter died. The ghost of Winehouse drove her boyfriend from the home they once shared, according to other reports.
Overall, fans say these more recent superstars are supernaturally active.
What are some of rock’s most haunted sites?
Graceland is particularly haunted, according to dozens of reports and stories. The mansion is the center of ghost stories involving both Elvis and his mother, Gladys.
A ghost hunter who investigated one of rock and roll’s favorite clubs, Earnestine and Hazel’s, told me it is paranormally active.
First Avenue in Minneapolis, a nightclub that was home base for Prince, as well as the cradle of the city’s punk rock scene in the 1980s, is also haunted. Patrons and workers alike claim to have seen a ghost of a woman dressed in green in the bathroom and out on the dance floor. Besides the notorious lady in green, workers have reported that chairs and other objects seem to move on their own in the bar, phenomena that paranormal investigators appear to have confirmed.
You also get into some supernatural stories about rock, like curses and premonitions. What are some of those?
The curse of the 27 Club is one of rock’s most famous curses. An unusual number of rock stars seem to die without ever reaching their 28th birthday. They include Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. It’s one of rock’s big mysteries.
Another curse is called the Buddy Holly curse. People associated with Buddy -- people like his friend Eddie Cochran and protege Bobby Fuller -- met with misfortune.
What is ghostlore and what role does it play in haunted rock history?
Ghostlore is a type of folklore that involves spirits or ghosts. I guess you could consider the Headless Horseman, or the “Lady in White” ghosts that are subjects of lots of folk tales, as examples of ghostlore. Many rock and roll ghost stories fit this category.
Aspects of the Lady in Green at the First Avenue and several of Elvis sightings, fit the ghostlore model.
If ghostlore is just folklore, or made-up stories, why bother writing about it?
I remain an open minded skeptic. I try to approach the material as a journalist, which is my background. You tell both sides and let the reader fight it out. I do the same thing when I’m writing this.
Having said that, if all these stories end up just being folklore, I think it’s still important to preserve and think about. It says volumes about our culture and this cultural melting pot called rock and roll. Beyond that, rock and roll ghostlore shows the particular place that rock stars have in our society and history.
Do you consider all of the stories just ghostlore, or are there any cases that seem harder to explain than as simply folklore?
Certainly the first-hand accounts of witnesses, as well as my interviews with paranormal researchers go beyond folklore of ghost stories.
Also, the first-hand accounts of multiple witnesses to similar phenomena is interesting, too.
Brought to you by Llewellyn Books.