The list of hair-raising tales involving sex, drugs, and murder from the world of popular music is indeed a long one. From the harrowing assassination of John Lennon to the heroin overdose of punk pioneer Sid Vicious following his murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungen to the assassinations of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, these tragedies will forever echo throughout history. The severity of these stories, unfortunately, hasn’t stopped many media outlets from making them fodder for an endless barrage of half-baked books, documentaries, and unintentionally hilarious made-for-tv movies.
Seeing as these various harebrained takes on such tragic tales have provided very little substance for both learned music nerds and the generally curious alike, it is fortunate Boston-native Jake Brennan launched his podcast Disgraceland last year to fill this vast void in pop culture. With his affable, hyper-visual style of storytelling and exhaustive research, Brennan brings new angles to the stories listed above and many more, including the time The Who drummer Keith Moon accidentally killed his bodyguard or the cannibalistic practices of Texas rapper Big Lurch.
With season three of Disgraceland beginning on March 14, we got Jake on the horn to talk about the concept behind his podcast, his research process, and more.
TONY RETTMAN: There are so many stories at the intersection of pop music and true crime, so how is this the first podcast to explore their relationship?
JAKE BRENNAN: When I was first thinking of doing a podcast, I sat down to figure out what I was going to do. I knew from a technical standpoint that what little I knew about audio recording would get me through. I knew I loved music, but there are a million podcasts about music. So, if I wanted to stick in that genre, I would have to put a finer point on my approach. I’ve always been obsessed with True Crime, not as much as I am with music, but some of my favorite books and movies are on that subject. Then I thought about how all the stories I’m really interested in music were the ones about the seedy underbelly of it all. So, that’s how it came together right there: A podcast about true crime and music.
When I was about ten years old, I was on vacation at the Jersey Shore with my family and found this book called “Rock ‘N’ Roll Babylon” by Gary Herman. Do you have that book?
[Laughs] Yes, I do!
The book had the Rolling Stones on the cover, so I figured it was just about Rock. But when I got back to the hotel and opened it, it became clear this was not something a 10-year-old should be in possession of. There were pictures of Alice Cooper pouring champagne on a topless Stacia from Hawkwind and shots of Hank Williams lying dead in his casket. It was really harsh shit, but it definitely became the catalyst for me wanting to know more about the sleazier side of rock music. Did you have a similar book or story that sparked your interest in the type of stuff Disgraceland covers?
When I was 15 or 16-years-old, I had this Rolling Stone anthology book made up of stories from the magazine. There was this story in there about Jerry Lee Lewis and the possibility he might have murdered his fifth wife. That story never left me. I would tell friends about it as a kid and they wouldn’t believe me. I’d tell them, “It’s fucking true, go read it!” As I got older and met people who knew Jerry Lee, they’d tell me the truth of the story was even worse. I figured that would be the best story to kick the podcast off with, so I used that article from Rolling Stone as the main source. Thanks for bringing up “Rock ‘N’ Roll Babylon,” I’m going to dig up my copy to research some future episodes!
I kept the book throughout the years and once I got to an age where I could read it as a whole, it was mind-blowing to think this concept of Rock ‘N’ Roll debauchery wasn’t invented in the ’60s. The stories of country and doo-wop singers living these self-destructive, drug-fueled lives showed the beginning of this trend that continues today.
Showing that connection, as it goes through music history, is the backbone of Disgraceland. That and attempting to reconcile the artist with the art, but some people just don’t get it; they just don’t want to hear it. I can’t talk about Jerry Lee Lewis potentially being a murderous creep without talking about him being partially responsible for the creation of rock and roll. Sam Cooke was an amazing artist but he was most likely shot because he was trying to rape a woman. People don’t want to hear it. You can’t be complementary to the music and I think that has to do with the times we are living in. People don’t realize you would be hard pressed to find any super talented musician that wasn’t without their mental issues, especially in the ’70s.
That’s another thing I like about the podcast. As easy as it would be to simply concentrate on the rock stars from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, you also delve into stories from the ’90s and today. I had forgotten that story about Left Eye from TLC you covered in episode six.
I remember when that story came out and I thought it was awesome back then. That guy [NFL wide receiver Andre Rison] was a creep who continuously beat her, so she went to burn a pair of his sneakers and ended up burning his whole house down! I graduated high school in the ’90s, so I don’t really look back on those times with any great amount of nostalgia. But from doing the podcast and researching that time period, it proves to be interesting. On one hand, it might be the last hurrah for these types of stories, but it also opens up this whole new dialogue with rap beef and what happened to Tupac and Biggie.
Speaking of Tupac and Biggie, that’s a story that has been explored numerous times that you turned into an episode. You also tackle things like the assassination of John Lennon, plus you have a couple of episodes coming up this season which cover the suicide of Kurt Cobain. How do you present these stories from a fresh perspective?
If I’m going to do the story, there’s got to be an element that hooked me the first time I found out about it. What I take away from the deaths of Tupac and Biggie is how much the media was culpable for bringing those feuds to a boiling point. When I started to research for that episode, I looked at the story through that lens and there was a ton of stuff there to support my thesis.
The ’90s was the last era before social media gave everyone a window into an artist’s world. But Houston rapper Tay-K used it to his advantage, as I found out when Donald Glover mentioned him in a New Yorker interview. How did you find out about Tay-K before making him the subject of episode eight?
Well, to be honest, I probably would have found out about Tay-K the same way if it wasn’t for a friend who told me about his story. I caught up with the story just when his trial was getting underway. The way he was tweeting and recording, while he was on the run across the country, makes for a great story for sure.
The music has a way of making you find your way through it all to find your sanity.
Did you find it difficult to do that episode on Tay-K? Is it hard to tell a complete story without the distance of history behind it?
Yes and no. In a lot of ways, it’s easier because it’s super exciting, fresh content which revolves around a present-day phenomenon like social media. It’s harder in the sense there’s not a lot of information to piece it together since it was a story still unfolding. With Tupac and Biggie, you can find all kinds of wormholes to dive into and pull stuff out that the listener probably hasn’t heard before. With Tay-K, what I wanted to put a fine point on was this dual role of life imitating art and art imitating life. He was raised in a way that you can trace a direct line from NWA to him since his parents were a part of LA gang culture. I hadn’t seen people make that point yet with Tay-K, so I made that the basis of that episode.
The way Tay-K used social media to his advantage is what makes his story so intriguing to me.
It’s an integral part of both the crime and his escape for sure. The story isn’t compelling simply because he was a hip-hop artist who shot somebody, It was because he was a hip-hop artist who went on the run from the law and used Twitter to document his cross country escape as well as gather people to rally around him for support. We’ve never seen it before, but I’m sure we’ll see it again.
Your approach to the podcast is unique in that your animated way of storytelling pushes the narrative along, you’re not just regurgitating facts. How did this format come about?
Well, as I said before, I sat down prior to starting the podcast to weigh out my strengths and weaknesses. I didn’t have a lot of time or help from anyone else to schedule interviews with any artists and if they were still alive, who knows if they’d even want to speak with me about these times in their life? I didn’t have the money to license any of the music either, so I decided to tell these stories with a single voice. I started watching a lot of true crime television to notice what I did and didn’t like about how the narrator would lead the story. Also, one of my favorite movies is Goodfellas, which is the best example of a narrator telling the story with just their storytelling skills and the expression in their voice.
Have there been any stories you’ve researched only to realize halfway through there wasn’t as much substance as you thought there was in the beginning?
I know this is going to sound insane, but the Ike Turner episode I’m writing right now has been really difficult. The guy has lived such a crazy life, so it lends you the impression there’s so much out there about him, but it’s hard to find. What we already know about him physically abusing Tina Turner is already in a movie (What’s Love Got To Do With It, 1993) and in her book (“I, Tina,” 1986). But I found out enough about him and I’m happy with how it’s coming along.
Conversely, the Big Lurch episode about the hip-hop star who ate his roommate while high on PCP was something I wasn’t too excited about initially. I just thought it was such a crazy story that if I don’t tell the story, someone else will sooner or later. But once I started writing it and got into how his story was connected to the G-funk world and how he was trying to be on this whole horrorcore tip that was revolving around Eminem at the time. It became more than some dude getting high on PCP and eating someone’s face. So, that was a story I went in thinking I wasn’t going to find much, but did.
I have to admit ignorance to the Big Lurch story prior to that episode. How did you find out about him?
I didn’t know anything about Big Lurch until a friend told me about him. There was a rapper who was a cannibal and ate someone’s face? How did I not know about this? Then, as I delved deeper, I found out his producer was the son of Roger Troutman, the guy who founded the band Zapp.
And that dude died under some weird circumstances, right? Did he get shot by a family member or something?
He was found shot dead in front of his studio and his brother was found dead in his car a few blocks away and it was suspected it was some murder-suicide deal. I love how all these stories web together somehow. That fascinates me. You dive into researching one artist or one story and all this interaction happens.
In researching and writing these stories, do you ever get pulled into a dark place that’s hard to get out from?
Totally. The last season ended on the stories of Spade Cooley, Rick James and Big Lurch and I really regret that. All three of those episodes involve the abuse of women and it was really hard to research and write story after story after story where that is happening. It’s tough to pull yourself into that world and I was trying to write it in a way that wasn’t so tough on the listener. The upside with stories like that is the music in most of these cases is incredible and that’s always there for you. The music has a way of making you find your way through it all to find your sanity.
Are there any dream episodes you’d like to do but are unsure about?
I’d love to do a multi-episode series on R.Kelly but now’s not the time. That’s an instance where you have to see how the story plays out before you dig into it.