5 Near-Deaths That Almost Changed Music History
Musicians die young all the time. I mean, not nearly as often as the average Ke$ha song would have you believe, but still, it happens. If we're continuing what I've decided is the "logic" from the previous sentence, it should stand to reason that, if so many musicians have been cut down in their prime, there must have been way more who almost died before they had a chance to shine.
(Music history has a real Mozart song about licking assholes clean. Oh, your teachers never mentioned that? Good thing The De-Textbook does.)
In fact, that is not only true, but true of some of the biggest names in music history. For example ...
Aerosmith Almost Rented the Plane That Killed Lynyrd Skynyrd
Sometime in early 1977, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry really wanted to rent one particular plane, a Convair CV-300, to use while touring that summer. Despite lots of pressure from Aerosmith's No. 1 and No. 2 in command, cooler (and likely less coke-addled) heads were called in to inspect the plane before any final decision was made. Not only was the plane itself declared unsafe, but the pilot and co-pilot were allegedly spotted passing a bottle of Jack Daniel's back and forth as the craft was being prepped for a flight. Needless to say, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were finally convinced and passed on the plane.
They needed something that could haul a little more rock.
As the old saying goes, one man's trash is another man's seemingly reasonable means with which to travel to Baton Rouge. That's exactly where Lynyrd Skynyrd was headed just a few months later on that same plane that Aerosmith had just rejected during a rare 1970s moment of clarity. As most of us know by now, the plane carrying Lynyrd Skynyrd crashed, killing several band members, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant.
In an eerie twist, the band had just released an unfortunately titled album, Street Survivors, with an even more unfortunate album cover photo:
When I set out to write this entry, the premise was simply to point out how dangerously close Aerosmith came to being the band flying on that ill-fated plane. Instead, I'm going to put forth what I assume will be a slightly more controversial thought on the matter. Here goes: I think Aerosmith should have been on that plane. And no, I don't say that because of what they did to the good name of Super Bowl halftime shows a few years ago.
I say it solely because of what it would have done for their status as a band. At the time of the crash, they were hot on the heels of releasing what are still considered four of the most perfect rock albums ever (Aerosmith, Get Your Wings, Toys in the Attic, and Rocks). They've had plenty of time to fuck it up in the years since, but with those first four albums, Aerosmith became rock royalty. If that was all we knew of their work, it would be nearly impossible to argue against Aerosmith as the hands down greatest American rock band of all time.
Later for this article, go listen to this right now.
That said, especially observant fans of the 'Smith (I bet no one calls them that) have probably noted that, in the timeline I'm working with here, there's a fifth, slightly less impressive Aerosmith album to talk about. Yeah, I know there is, and it only makes for an even stronger argument that God or fate or whatever you choose to call it wanted Aerosmith on that plane.
For starters, the album in question is called Draw the Line. Let's say, theoretically, that Tyler and Perry (heh!) ignored their crew's anecdote about the pilots pounding pre-flight whiskey and insisted on renting the plane anyway, only to have it crash and kill everyone inside. There would be no end to the hidden meanings people would attach to a title like "Draw the Line" when taken in the context of a hard-living rock band that died too soon. You could pontificate for days about it maybe being a reference to cutting a line of cocaine or an unintentionally prescient prediction that this album was going to be their last.
It's one of the most perfect career trajectories a band can have: a small body of mostly solid work, and then get out before you get old and start to suck.
Meanwhile, Lynyrd Skynyrd has been together and touring and making albums this whole time. Not even a plane crash that killed half the band could stop them. Did you know that? Do you think you'd know that if Ronnie Van Zant didn't die? Probably not, because a band like Lynyrd Skynyrd isn't going to even bother with trying to stay mainstream. Eventually, they blend into the background with all of the other "touring bands" of the world and life goes on. Their lineup barely matters, there's some random Van Zant brother on lead vocals, and who cares, you know? They sound good enough for state fair purposes or whatever. Would not taking that plane have changed the Lynyrd Skynyrd story? Probably not. The crash itself barely changed Lynyrd Skynyrd. They were always going to turn out to be the band they were going to be.
This is what Walmart greeters look like in heaven.
As for Aerosmith, choosing not to rent that plane only cost them the rare chance to be regarded as one of the most perfect rock bands ever.
If you need any more proof that some sort of Final Destination switch got flipped in the wrong order, ultimately saving Aerosmith and killing Lynyrd Skynyrd in error instead, check out that famous Lynyrd Skynyrd cover again, this time side by side with Aerosmith's Draw the Line:
So, having the facts that we do now, which album cover and title implies that one band just narrowly escaped death by plane crash and which one implies that, for some reason, the band wasn't available to be photographed (perhaps because they'd all just met a fiery demise)? Right, Skynyrd is surrounded by fire and debris, but they're also clean as a whistle and unhurt, not to mention standing. This plane did not kill Lynyrd Skynyrd. They survived.
At least they would have if Aerosmith had just gotten on that plane like death clearly wanted them to.
Kurt Cobain Almost Died a Few Months After Nevermind Came Out
What? Kurt Cobain almost died young? Get the fuck out of here!
I know, it's not going to blow anyone's mind to learn that, shortly after Nirvana's first performance on Saturday Night Live in January 1992, Kurt Cobain nearly died as the result of an overdose of heroin. It's probably the heroin part that takes even more sting out of the surprise. I mean, it would be one thing if he also shot himself in 1992 and just did such a terrible job that he was able to go on performing as if nothing had happened. Now that would be a story, right? Alas, this is just a dude who did lots of heroin accidentally taking too much heroin. It happens all the time.
That said, what would the Nirvana legacy be if Kurt Cobain had died that night? Take the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for example. They're being inducted with the 2014 class. They made it in on their first year of eligibility. Would that be the case if all the world knew of Nirvana was Nevermind? Sure, that was a pretty significant album, so they'd get in eventually. Probably not on the first try, though. The Sex Pistols only released one valid album, and as a result it took at least five or six years of eligibility before the hall finally gave John Lydon another reason to write a snarky letter like some kind of badass.
Ooooh, so contrary!
That said, who fucking cares about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame anyway? Still, if the Nirvana story had ended that January night in 1992, a lot of the things that helped the band build their legend would be missing. Their last (and arguably best) studio album, In Utero, would be no more, taking with it songs like "All Apologies" and "Heart-Shaped Box."
Also, that legendary MTV Unplugged performance never would have happened.
Oh! And Kurt Cobain never would have gotten around to putting a shotgun in his mouth. Once you take all of those fascinating details out of the Nirvana story, you're left with one album that, while still respected as one of the best ever, has (rightfully) taken a bit of a revisionist bashing from critics for sounding way more like an over-produced corporate rock album than the "revolution" it started might have made it seem at the time. That's not a strong argument for Nirvana retaining their status as one of the most important bands of the '90s if all of their other accomplishments are stripped away.
I'm not saying he'd be the guy from Sublime if he died in early 1992, but Rolling Stone probably wouldn't have called Kurt Cobain his generation's John Lennon either.
Jamaican Authorities Tried to Shoot Down a Plane Carrying Bono in 1996
A plane carrying both Jimmy Buffett and Bono was nearly shot down by Jamaican authorities who'd mistaken the craft for one used by drug smugglers. Jimmy Buffett covered the incident at length in his song "Jamaica Mistaica" ...
... which is exactly why I don't know all the details. I'm not learning shit if it means having to listen to an entire Jimmy Buffett song. I did round up this quote from Bono about the incident:
"I don't know how we came through it. These boys were shooting all over the place. I felt as if we were in the middle of a James Bond movie -- only this was real. It was absolutely terrifying and I honestly thought we were all going to die. Thank God we were safe and sound. My only concern was for their safety. It was very scary, let me tell you. You can't believe the relief I felt when I saw the kids were OK."
This would have been especially inopportune timing for Bono because, in 1996, U2 was at one of their lowest points creatively and commercially. Their 1997 album Pop was kind of a shitburger, and the ensuing tour (PopMart) was too, except with a giant silver lemon on top.
It's like they've never even heard of Spinal Tap.
Still, at least both were deemed good enough to bear the U2 name, which is more than can be said for Original Soundtracks 1, an album the band recorded prior to Pop that was so blatantly awful, they decided to release it under the fake band name Passengers so as to prevent fans from ever hearing it.
They say you're only as good as your last album, and that meant Bono was about to die a critical and commercial failure. Sure, time would have been kind and looked back on the stuff he did fondly, but with the specter of stuff like Zooropa and Pop hanging over the final chapter of the U2 legacy, would we have been more likely to mourn what we lost, or be thankful that we never got to see just how sad and desperate a formerly great band can get?
Instead, Bono lived and U2 mounted one of the most massively successful comebacks in rock history. By wisely shedding all of the electronic bloops and blippity-bleeps of their past two albums and returning to just playing instruments in a recording studio like a normal band, U2 managed to put together one of their greatest albums ever, a late-career gem called All That You Can't Leave Behind. You probably remember it as "that one with the song about having a beautiful day on it."
Not only did that album restore some much needed credibility to the U2 name, it probably extended the band's career by at least 20 years. Bono may not know how to open his mouth in public without annoying 98 percent of the people around him, but damn if he doesn't know how to capitalize on a second chance.
Oh, in case you're wondering why Jimmy Buffett isn't mentioned more in this entry, rest easy -- it's only because I think he sucks.
Elvis Survived a Tornado That Killed Hundreds in 1936
Everyone knows Waylon Jennings gave up a seat on the plane that eventually crashed shortly after taking off from a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, killing Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper (real name not Googled), and the guy who made Lou Diamond Phillips famous. That's the very definition of a close call, but if we're talking about deaths that would have changed music history, does Waylon Jennings really apply?
You're damn right he does, but we're tight on space here, so let's talk about another near-death experience that really would have changed country music forever.
In 1936, a category F-5 tornado ripped through the town of Tupelo, Mississippi, killing 233 people. Among the surviving residents was a tiny little baby Elvis Presley, born just a year earlier in 1935.
This is not a picture of the damage, but would you have known that if I didn't tell you?
While there aren't a lot of details about how he managed to survive, it couldn't have amounted to much more than not being in the way of falling debris. Whatever the case, there's no debating how greatly music would have been affected if there was no Elvis.
In fact, I don't think it's unfair to ask if "rock 'n' roll" would have caught on at all without Elvis. Like anything else, rock music was considered a fad, and as we all know, some fads die. If Elvis didn't survive that tornado and as a result was unable to fulfill his future obligation to make rock music palatable to white people, would anyone else have had star power to do it?
Well, if anyone could, it probably would have been this next guy.
Johnny Cash Fought an Ostrich and Lost Badly in 1981
You know who needs an exotic animal park attached to their home? People who grew up dreaming of owning and operating an exotic animal park. A dream like that sure as shit isn't going to afford you separate living quarters. Beyond that, if there's an exotic animal farm on your property, it's probably because you've finally started making more money than your drug habit can spend. If that sounds like you, I'd ask you to please keep the cautionary tale of early '80s Johnny Cash in mind.
Starting with that vest.
He had an exotic animal park at his Tennessee home, which probably seemed like a neat thing until a particularly brutal winter night required the man best known for singing about how much he loved his wife to suddenly take on the role of zoo wrangler, lest his prized collection of completely unnecessary animals succumb to the elements.
Well, unfortunately, one of them did. An ostrich. A goddamned ostrich. He had a bunch of them, actually, and that one was the hen, meaning somewhere in that animal park remained a grieving husband ostrich, and Johnny Cash had to convince it to come with him to a new place. Surprise! It didn't want to!
No matter how happy he looked.
"Too bad, city bird, this is Johnny Cash's land, and he's got a 6-foot stick that says you're getting your tail in that shed, pronto."
I put the previous sentence in quotes because, even if the words aren't exact, it has to be a thought approximately that stupid that prompted the Man in Black to attack an ostrich with a tree branch. He swung and missed, of course, and the ostrich responded in that adorably wacky way we've come to expect from those silly birds. He jumped into the air and jabbed his razor-sharp talon (about as big as a size-13 shoe) into Johnny Cash's chest, ripping him apart down to the stomach. That's what you think of when you think of an ostrich, right?
"It better be, punk."
Anyway, the only thing that kept Johnny Cash from literally having his guts emptied out onto the grass in front of him was the fact that, like any other country singer in the 1980s, he was wearing a gigantic belt buckle. That kept the attack from being an instant death sort of thing, and somehow Cash managed to use that same 6-foot stick to scare the bird away.
This was not just any ostrich, though, and it was not done trying to kill Johnny Cash. See, despite living for decades in the spotlight as a hard-drinking, hard-drugging kind of guy, by the time the MTV era rolled around, Johnny Cash was mostly sober. The problem is, recovering from having your chest torn open by a massive bird really hurts. While that pain is flowing through your body, no one would be so cruel as to suggest that maybe you're taking more pain pills than you should be.
Stacking them and shouting "Pill cake!" every time you take them is a little showy, though.
However, when the pain finally does subside and you're still taking the drugs, people will suggest on a regular basis that you cut back, and they can get bent every damn time, because you're Johnny Cash, and you earned this drug habit by consuming the life force of a renegade ostrich.
That train of thought eventually made its final stop in a U.K. hospital, where, thanks to years spent wallowing in the painkiller addiction that stupid ostrich cursed him with, Johnny Cash underwent surgery to have several feet of intestine removed. So, "gutting" achievement unlocked, I guess. I think that's another point you can award the ostrich.
Johnny Cash wasn't done, though! Not by a long shot. He was addicted to more than pain pills at the time of this unexpected stay in the hospital, so anything not officially prescribed on his medical records had to be smuggled in. That included a shit-ton of Valium that, for reasons we could not ever possibly understand, he decided to stash underneath the gauze covering the gaping surgery scar on his stomach.
No one will ever look here.
Here's a fun science fact to throw out at a bar sometime: Prescription medication is not made of steel. It will start to dissolve when it comes into contact with moisture. There's no word on how many Valiums Johnny Cash stupidly hid under that gauze, but when they inevitably came into contact with the blood seeping through that open wound, the effect they had when dissolving would have been a lot like injecting dozens of pills' worth of Valium right into your blood stream in one shot.
Of course, he pulled through once again, and the music world is way better off for it. While he'd definitely recorded the truly classic stuff decades ago by then, losing Johnny Cash in 1981 would have meant losing all of the late career stuff he did with Rick Rubin, including those songs he claimed ownership of from Trent Reznor ...
... and Glenn Danzig:
It would have been a damn shame to miss the Johnny Cash comeback of the '90s, but we almost did, because Johnny Cash just had to own a fucking ostrich.