'Disgraceland' Explores Musicians Who've Flirted With The Darker Side Of Rock 'N' Roll

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Jake Brennan's "Disgraceland: Musicians Getting Away with Murder and Behaving Very Badly." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Jake Brennan's "Disgraceland: Musicians Getting Away with Murder and Behaving Very Badly." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Elvis Presley. Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes. Sam Cooke. Axl Rose. Jerry Lee Lewis.

While the music of these artists doesn't sound alike, these stars actually have a lot in common. They've all flirted with with the darker side of rock 'n' roll.

In his podcast and now his new book, Boston-based musician Jake Brennan explores their stories of debauchery, crime and even getting away with murder.


Jake Brennan, host of the podcast "Disgraceland." His new book, which is based on the podcast, is called "Disgraceland: Musicians Getting Away with Murder and Behaving Very Badly." He tweets @disgracelandpod.

Interview Highlights

On why he wanted to turn the podcast into a book:

"The book opportunity came to me at a time when R. Kelly was heavily in the news, the Michael Jackson thing was bubbling up with that documentary '[Leaving] Neverland,' Ryan Adams, XXXTentacion — all of these sort of stars and their bad behavior. The media was sort of reflecting on these things like they were new and this behavior was new. I'm thinking, 'This stuff's been going on for years.' "

"I tend to believe that all of pop music is connected through the music, doesn't matter what the style is... I can trace it back. I can connect you from Norwegian black metal to Jerry Lee Lewis, even though they don't sound alike. I can find the strands that connect. Then I thought, well this behavior connects them as well."

In this Oct. 17, 1986 file photo, Chuck Berry performs during a concert celebration for his 60th birthday at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Mo. On Saturday, March 18, 2017, police in Missouri said Berry died at the age of 90. (James A. Finley/AP)
Chuck Berry performs during a concert celebration for his 60th birthday at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri on Oct. 17, 1986. (James A. Finley/AP)

On how often these artists got away with their transgressions:

"I don't know how you explain how you know they got away with things. Jerry Lee Lewis is special because he had his sort of hometown county, the law enforcement, on lock. He was the biggest thing in Nesbitt County — a small county in the South. He figured out a way to maneuver [the suspicious death of his fifth wife in the early '80s] so that it never came to light. It was also at a time when media wasn't what it is now, wasn't even close to it. So it was possible for this to kind of fly under the radar."

"In other cases, like Chuck Berry, he both got away with things — he settled out of court for his alleged crimes — but, on the other hand, Chuck, early in his career, did not get away with things. He was jailed and you could argue that it was motivated by race. That changed him and led to further transgressions down the line."

On whether he can still enjoy these artists music, after digging into their crimes: 

"Can you separate the art from the artist? Depends on the artist. Some of these artists, like Michael Jackson, for example ... Michael Jackson is bigger than R. Kelly ... or Jerry Lee Lewis. He's part of the culture of America. You can't avoid him. It's the same thing with Elvis Presley. As it comes to subjective tastes, who knows how big some of these artists are for people and how they hit them when they were young and in their formative years — what their music means to them."

"For me, I can look at it pretty objectively, separate it and still enjoy the music despite some of the insanity that happened around the creation."

This 1972 file photo shows Elvis Presley, the King of Rock 'n' Roll, during a performance. (AP Photo/File)
Elvis Presley performs in 1972. (AP)

On why TLC's Lisa Lopes is the only story centered on a woman's crimes in the book: 

"The truth of the matter is, historically speaking in the music industry, women have not behaved the way that men have behaved. So, I understand the need for balance in content but, in this case, I can't invent crimes that happened."

"Lisa Lopes ... she definitely committed a crime, burning her boyfriend's house down. I believe it was certainly justified. The shame of it all was she was the one who was arrested and she was the one who had to actually deal with that, in a way that he didn't. She was more culpable ... and he was abusing her. So it's messed up."

On how mental health issues and substance abuse factor into these crimes: 

"The theme of this book is 'the beast within.' All of these artists are driven by demons and sometimes substances are what helps them corral those demons, or what they think helps them corral those demons. You don't get James Brown, the greatest entertainer of all time, if James Brown as a child isn't raised in a whorehouse and hung upside down in a burlap bag and beaten with sticks as a form of discipline. If that doesn't happen, he doesn't become the entertainer he becomes. He also doesn't become as criminal-minded as he became."

"All of the drugs that happen in between ... I think it's self maintenance for people who are in this glaring spotlight, have to deal with intense adrenaline every night for performing in front of tens of thousands of people. If you're mentally unwell or you're depressed you can't deal with that in the right way. If there's drugs involved then it just makes for this horrible cocktail that the results are on the pages of this book."

On where he gets the information for these stories, which are often retellings: 

"I am pretty open about the fact that I'm not a journalist. I'm not pretending to be a journalist. I'm a storyteller. What I do is I go out there and I find sources, oftentimes they're direct sources... I'm trying to do it in my own voice and at the end of the day it's not journalism, it's entertainment."

This segment aired on October 3, 2019.

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