The word legend possesses several meanings: a beacon of light, the key to deciphering a map, an individual who achieves astonishing levels of fame in his or her field, and finally, of course, a story. This particular definition brings to mind the tales we have stored in our collective consciousness, and the legends we have woven and painted to represent our most notorious of notorious icons, all in some way tinged and tainted. theirs are the stories replete and teeming with pitfalls that include substance abuse of astronomical proportion, drunken public tirades, frequent or recurring altercations with law enforcement; revelations of latent racism, sexism, classism and anti-Semitism; allegations of spousal abuse, child molestation, or even murder; and of course the often abrupt and equally incendiary culmination of it all: a bullet to the brain, a needle in the arm, a car in a ditch, etc. Is it the darker angels of our nature that draw us to these characters? Do we see a bit of ourselves in them? We must, otherwise how could we be so gripped and compelled by their seemingly willful desire to train wreck their lives and the lives of those around them? Here, we explore these legendary rebels and what it is about them that makes their stories so terrifying, delectable, and heart-wrenching.
“You only live once. And the way I live, once is enough.” Words of wisdom? Perhaps not. Coming from the mouth of Frank Sinatra, this axiom translates more like self-fulfilling prophecy. Indeed, the legendary king of croon could teach us all a thing or two about how to seemingly careen toward our own demise, yet inexplicably rise up like a phoenix to be reborn again and again. There is something compelling, albeit indelible, about his irreverence toward and disregard for convention. It informs and imbues the music he made with aspects otherworldly, inimitable and ultimately timeless, which placed him among legends (and maybe even preserved him into old age). The life he led was sordid from the start, demarcated by illustrious highs (awards, accolades and comebacks that beat every odd imaginable), and cavernous lows (rampant alcohol abuse, failed marriages – most notably to Mia Farrow, whom he married at the age of 50 when she was 21 – and that one time he hired the mob to beat up his drummer). Yet unlike many other legends of similar stripe, Sinatra’s life spanned nearly the length of the entire 20th Century.
The same cannot be said for the likes of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, both of whom died at the cursed age of 27 after airing their emotional instability in the public realm for the entirety of their short careers, and after they had each successfully (though perhaps not by design) parlayed their respective images as fuck-ups and lost souls into the art they made, letting those images shape for us the very meaning and context of their legacies. Cobain’s suicidal leanings arguably preceded his reputation as the father of the grunge movement, all of which in turn colored the entire opus of his work and the ethos of his existence in darker, more ominous shades. Would his music have the same meaning now had he not lived his life in a state of rebellion against life itself? Would his music feel as profound as it does now without our sentimental attachments to his life story? We’ll never know. What we do know, however, is that he is the epitome of a distinct and ultimately seductive artistic archetype: he whose self-hatred begets something more beautiful than the sum of its parts. Many aspire to this; scant few achieve it. Winehouse achieved it, in many ways, in the same manner as Cobain: by simply living outside the parameters of social etiquette. She would not got to rehab, no. She would not play the role of the once twisted, now absolved rock star that emerges from the abyss of drug abuse happier, healthier and redeemed in eyes of the media. Instead she threw it all back into the faces of those who tried to contain her, and made better music the further she sank. These stories—the stories of artists who recede into their own doomed worlds to be swallowed, rather than progress into some Aristotelian and ideal iteration of themselves—scare us as much as they beguile us.
“It’s alright letting yourself go, as long as you can get yourself back,” spoke Mick Jagger, once upon a likely drug-fueled time. With Mick, we find an example of a living legend who has followed his own advice, traipsing in and out of that doomed world throughout his career, seemingly straddling the line between life and death with the grace and ease of a trapeze artist. After all, his rumored pact with the devil is what he claims kept him from following suit with his rock star cohort who have lived hard and died young. Perhaps it’s this very mythology that has helped keep The Rolling Stones’ popularity unparalleled and undiminished over half a century. There has never been a band more emotionally polarizing in history than the Stones. Those who love them are fanatical, and those who don’t often seem to take issue first and foremost with Mick’s willful, unabashed impudence. Charming and annoying all at once, he represents the type of legend who could get away with murder and still have throngs of women lined up around the block to marry him.
Michael Jackson is a legend among legends. His is the first name to roll off of the majority of the lips of those asked who tops their list of influential entertainers. His status is untouchable, and the mark he made in history could damn near qualify him for sainthood. Monuments will be erected in his honor, likely for the rest of time. This ubiquitous reverence for him is what makes his story so strange and beautiful, and is also what makes the tension between his brightest and darkest aspects so dichotomous. His childhood was snatched from him too early, and in a shamefully public manner. This is likely the causal tie to his subsequent fascination with children as an adult, and the unsubstantiated yet mighty compelling allegations of child abuse, for which he was eventually tried and acquitted. His psychological unravellings (the whitening of his skin, mysterious outings as a Muslim woman, and the construction of his massive fantasy-themed residence called Neverland Ranch) were displayed for the entire world to see. His music, however, remains and will remain sacred in pop culture’s hallowed halls forever.
Whitney Houston’s story is somehow uplifting and depressing in equal measure. Her voice is singular among R&B and pop stars. She ruled the 80s and 90s with her unmatched beauty, energy and talent, and was crowned in 2009 by The Guinness Book Of World Records as “the most awarded female act of all time.” Yet her self-destruction began forming long before that, when she married Bobby Brown in 1992, who as far as the public eye is concerned, roped her into a world of drugs that would eventually take her down. By the early millennium, she was visibly beginning to come apart—losing roles, missing shows, and generally displaying odd behavior, culminating in her infamous interview with Diane Sawyer in which she declared that she “makes too much money to ever smoke crack,” though admitted in the same breath to using large quantities of cocaine. Her musical career systematically fell apart throughout the early 2000s as she continued to spiral. The world thought she finally hit rock bottom with the atrociously distasteful reality TV show she produced with Brown, which was followed by their subsequent divorce and her relative disappearance from the media. She reappeared in 2009, however, as hopeful for a comeback as the rest of the world was. Instead she wound up dead in a bathtub in 2012 after accidentally drowning in the midst of a drug-induced stupor.
Sid Vicious is one of history’s more mysterious and legendary disasters, perhaps due to his brief lifespan. Rock and roll’s bad boy incarnate, he defined for the world what it means to not give a fuck, nearly inventing an iconic sneer to serve as an emblem of this sentiment. Not as if we needed the reminder. He basically emerged from his mother’s womb shooting heroin (much of which she herself supplied for him over the course of his short life). In fact, during much of the recording of The Sex Pistols’ first album, Never Mind The Bollocks, Vicious was lying in a hospital bed receiving treatment for hepatitis C (which he contracted from intravenous drug use). After allegedly murdering his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in their room at the Chelsea hotel, he was ordered into rehab on Riker’s Island. The night of his release, his mom threw him a party, during which he procured and consumed a lethal dose of heroin. Though he was more legendary for the insane life he led than for his contribution to music, The Sex Pistols, and therefore punk rock as a movement, wouldn’t have been the same had it not been for him.
Jackson Pollock, legendary for spearheading Abstract Expressionism, met his end upon crashing his car into a ditch after day drinking with his mistress, Ruth Kligman. In her memoir, Kligman (who survived the crash) claims that he would not take his foot off the gas pedal as they began careening off the road. This, along with Pollock’s notorious moodiness, has led many to question whether he wasn’t in fact on some sort of unconscious suicide mission when he got behind the wheel that day. Heralded as one of the most famous painters in American history, he was as notorious for his work as he was for his volatile personality (he was posthumously diagnosed with bipolar disorder). His alcoholism was as much a fuel for his creativity as it was a necessary crutch, required to mitigate the depths of his artistic brilliance. He invented a style of painting that remains unrivaled in its ingenuity (it is said that it is literally impossible to replicate his drip paintings). For Pollock, the artistic process he would undertake to make them was a journey into the mires of his own psychological world, which he often couldn’t get back from. That famous admonition of Mick Jagger’s, to go ahead and lose yourself but be damn sure to find a way back, was something Pollock failed to heed to his own demise.
Jean-Michel Basquiat distilled the world down to something simultaneously prophetic and quotidian through his art. He was a pioneer in his exploration of sociopolitical and racial tensions through painting. His talent, outspokenness, and his adamant interrogation of deeper truths about the individual granted him iconoclast status at a shockingly young age. Unfortunately, much like Pollock, the burden of this inner searching was immense and at times unbearable. He found solace and reprieve through substance abuse. As his depression deepened, so did his heroin use, and despite a brief go at sobriety, he was found dead in his studio from an overdose at the age of twenty-seven.
Woody Allen is perhaps one of the most prolific and recognizable directors in the contemporary history of cinema. At the age of 78, his career has spanned half a century. He has produced over 40 films, in many of which he’s also starred. He has won countless awards, including four Oscars. There is an entire floor of his publicity agency dedicated to his own personal PR. Yet, his reputation remains complex, spotty and questionable. He is not a fuck-up, per say, in terms of the typical over indulgence, self-worship and obsession with excess that we so often see from other legendary rebels. His dark side comes with more insidious connotations – he is simultaneously claustrophobic and agoraphobic, if that says anything. And what must be the millions upon millions of dollars he invests in said PR has paid off with gusto, as he is perhaps the only man in modern history that can get away with marrying his girlfriend’s daughter. For background: he has wed three times, and has generally conducted very public and sordid romantic relationships, many of which have resulted in multiple adopted and biological children, the two most infamous of which are scandalously linked to each other.
In the early 80s he began a courtship with Mia Farrow who was his muse for the decade. However in the early 90s, they parted ways after she found erotic photographs of her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi, in Allen’s home. Soon thereafter, he married the twenty-year-old to the horror of the public. Though he adamantly and perhaps justifiably defends his actions (“What was the scandal? I fell in love with this girl, married her. We have been married for almost 15 years now”) there is new information emerging that casts a different light on things. Allegations that he molested a daughter he and Farrow adopted are currently swirling in the media, and the typically mum Farrow has given her first interview in decades in which she speaks directly about Allen, stating that she feared for her life after she found out about his affair with her Soon-Yi. Ronan, Farrow and Allen’s only biological child, summed up this nutso family best, when on Father’s Day 2012 he tweeted the following: “Happy father’s day – or as they call it in my family, happy brother-in-law’s day.”
“I’ve hacked off so many people in Hollywood, who the hell would give me an Oscar?” Among icons from the movie world that have led lives demarcated by bad behavior, Mickey Rourke stands out. In the 80s he was a golden boy, skyrocketing to fame based on roles in films like Rumble Fish and 9 1⁄2 Weeks. He left acting in the 90s to pursue professional boxing. this makes sense, as he is clearly a man who needs an outlet for his aggression. In 1994, he was charged with spousal abuse against his then wife, Carré Otis, and though horrifying, this almost seems pale in comparison to his behavior over the course of his spotty career. He is known to have been drunk, violent, and unpredictable to the point of achieving pariah status in the industry. Director Alan Parker has said that working with Rourke “is a nightmare. He is dangerous on set, because you never know what he is going to do” – hardly a ringing endorsement. Yet Rourke’s story turned out to be one of redemption— the kind of redemption that Hollywood flocks toward like a moth to a flame—when in 2009 he emerged (with what can only be described as an alarming amount of facial plastic surgery) as the star of The Wrestler, for which he was showered with awards and praise. Only time will tell if Rourke really has turned over a new leaf.
Mel Gibson is the living, breathing argument that actors are really just normal people who are great at pretending. On screen, Gibson is larger than life. He won two academy awards for his work in Braveheart, and has received reams of accolades. He captivates and seduces, and reels his audiences into the various universes that he creates through his roles. Yet off screen he’s anything but a charmer. Arrested back in 2006 for drunk driving, the manically devout Catholic decided to show the world his true colors when he lit into the officer on duty (whom he famously referred to as “sugar tits,” perhaps not realizing that women are allowed to be cops too), launching into an anti-Semitic and racist invective, which proceeded to go viral.
They say that life imitates art. In James Dean’s case, this was proven pretty patently. Most famous for his role in Rebel Without A Cause, the film nearly prophesized his own death, as he died by crashing his Porsche head-on into another vehicle at 85mph. At twenty-four years old, he only lived long enough to act in three films, yet such was his impact on the medium, that he became the first actor to posthumously receive an Oscar nomination.
“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” Earnest Hemmingway single-handedly shaped an entire literary cannon, published seven novels, and won a Nobel Prize in literature and a Pulitzer for fiction. He traveled to war zones, managing to present at both the Normandy Landings and the Liberation of Paris, fought tooth and nail for the disenfranchised, and survived a bushfire, anthrax poisoning, as well as two successive plane crashes which left him in chronic pain. his status as a legend is indisputable, and unassailable. He also happened to be an epic drunk (there is a classic cocktail which bears his namesake). He married three women, purportedly plagiarized 19th century Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, had more affairs than he could likely count, and generally behaved like a bull in a china shop wherever he went. He was found dead at the age of 61 after blowing his brains out with his favorite shotgun—a poetic end to a life defined by as much good example setting as bad.
Charles Bukowski on the other hand set mostly terrible examples. A reprobate and degenerate, he lived more like a derelict, wild animal than a human. “What matters most, is how well you walk through the fire,” he once proclaimed. Indeed, Bukowski seemed to face this very trial each day he lived, struggling to contain what one could only imagine must have been a debilitating misanthropic worldview (“I don’t hate people. I just feel better when they aren’t around,” he’s known to have said). He didn’t gain any notoriety until his late forties, after Black Sparrow Press began publishing his work. Until then he had held a job at a post office. Despite the alcohol-soaked sponge that was his mind, his poetry moved mountains. Despite his slovenly, antisocial lifestyle, women would show up on his lawn to lobby for a chance to sleep with him, which invariably provided him with fodder for his writings, which in turn fortified his inexplicable sex appeal. Miraculously, Bukowski lived into his 70s.
Hunter S. Thompson didn’t make it quite that far before calling it quits, so to speak, when at the age of 67 he shot himself in the head. The last sentence of his suicide note read, “Relax—this won’t hurt.” It seems what really hurt him, rather, was the imperative to stay alive. The stress he likely experienced in capturing the world through his keen yet terrifying lens eventually got the best of him. He never finished high school, because he was busy serving out a prison sentence for abetting a robbery. He went on, however, to launch a successful career as a journalist—one which he conducted with frightening single-mindedness, even constructing a new style of journalistic research called “Gonzo”, wherein the observer immerses himself so deeply in the story he wishes to tell that he becomes part of its very fabric. Thompson’s pieces almost always turned out more like ethnographies written by an LCD-addled genius (which he was), the most famous of which, was “Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas,” serialized in Rolling Stone Magazine and eventually collected into a book and adapted into an iconic film, with Johnny Depp in the lead role. Regarding his rampant and defiant use of and love for substances, he once said, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” Per his own wishes, his ashes were blown out of a cannon at his funeral.
So what makes a legend legendary? What can we learn from this motley crew of fucked up legends, these case studies in rebellion? First and foremost, what they show to us is that legendary status isn’t achieved solely by those who strive to do good things in life. It is not necessarily defined by those who guide humanity toward the light, so to speak. There is a whole cast of legends that in fact guide us toward the darkest, most insidious nooks and crannies, both out in the world and deep within ourselves. Theirs are the stories we love to hate, and hate to love. They are stories played out by people who crash their cars, marry their daughters, say awful things on the record, drink themselves into oblivion and refuse to apologize for any of it, all the while making beautiful art. Is the world better off for their contribution to it? No one can say, though it is certainly more colorful.
Article by Marianne White for The Untitled Magazine “Legendary” Issue 7