I love a good conspiracy theory.
I mean, don’t get me wrong: I’m not into the loose-cannon, feverishly paranoid, life-is-one-big-false-flag thinking that has a stranglehold on today’s right wing. However, I do enjoy, now and again, picking over a good yarn that purports to get at some deeper, generally shadowy truth, hidden from us all, often in plain sight. Sometimes these tales are so far out and kooky they’re pretty much straight up comic relief; other times, they’re built on enough believable information to merit at least a moment’s consideration. In the end, they often make for pretty great stories. And who doesn’t love a good story?
I’m also a big fan of rock and roll. So it stands to reason that I would find the combination of the two — rock and conspiracy— a pretty delicious, if often disposable delight.
There are way too many rock and roll conspiracy theories to get into here, mostly because, for every rocker who died “before his time,” someone has invented a conspiracy theory to explain why. There’s a Jimi Hendrix conspiracy theory (his manager did it), several Michael Jackson conspiracy theories (including a Paul is dead-type story that claims he died in 2009 and was replaced by an MJ-style replicant), a Jeff Buckley conspiracy theory (his mom says he was too good of a swimmer for the official record to be true) and literally a million more. I couldn’t possibly cover them all here.
And while I’m not sure I buy any of the stories below, hook-line-and-sinker (honestly, some of them are just rifuckingdiculous), I do think a healthy dose of paranoia, countered with a measure of skepticism, is a good thing. So why not read up on all the possibilities, even if only to laugh at the most remote ones?
So here, for your reading pleasure — and I suppose, to judge for yourself— are eight of the greatest rock and roll death conspiracies ever.
1. Kurt Cobain
Courtney Love is a bit like the Nancy Spungen and Yoko Ono of grunge rock; a woman so hated by a contingent of her late husband’s fans that a surprising number of them blame her for nearly everything that went wrong in his life. In Love’s case, this extends to literal murder, and involves an intricate conspiracy theory that posits she literally paid to have her husband killed.
In the two decades since Kurt Cobain (according to the official record) died from a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head in his Seattle-area home on April 3, 1994, a countless number of both amateur and professional sleuths have implicated Love in his murder plot, resulting in a surprising amount of videos, articles and websites (OMG so many websites) dedicated to the subject. The theory goes like this: Love, realizing Cobain was pursuing divorce and/or retiring from music — both events that would result in the loss of millions — hired a killer to snuff out her husband so she could take over his estate. Among the key drivers behind this idea is Tom Grant, the private detective Love hired to locate Cobain in the days before his body was located, a period during which she claimed he’d gone missing after bailing from a rehab facility.
Grant, who says Love’s behavior gave him immediate reason to suspect she was involved, has spent the years since Cobain’s death trying to prove her guilt in numerous public forums. According to the P.I., the smoking guns include Love’s obstruction of his investigation; a handwritten note originally penned by Cobain to announce his retirement from music that Grant believes was later amended by someone else to suggest suicide; a toxicology report that proves Cobain, though once a heroin addict, would’ve been rendered too out-of-it to lift a gun and pull the trigger.
Also, as Gawker notes, no fingerprints were found on the gun or the pen used to write the aforementioned note (granted, that’s kinda weird). In any case, a new documentary, Soaked in Bleach, is centered on the conspiracy theory. (Love’s lawyers have been sending cease-and-desist letters to theaters around the country that might consider screening it.). Kurt & Courtney, the hilariously scatterbrained 1998 Nick Broomfield documentary, is a good place to start if you’re interested. And Tom Grant’s website gives a detailed blow-by-blow account of what he claims is “proof.”
2. Bob Marley
According to approximately 30 percent of stoners (I’m guesstimating here) Bob Marley was killed in a CIA plot to wipe out the world’s most famous revolutionary Rastafarian, lest his music bring the world together and create real social change. As the theory goes, American intelligence agencies were keeping tabs on the singer, and even arranged a hit in November 1976. (You can read about it here, in an article by Alex Constantine published in — wait for it — High Times.)
When that failed, the CIA resorted to an old tactic it had supposedly tried with Fidel Castro: poisoning his shoes (one estimate holds that the agency tried to assassinate Fidel 638 times in a series of cartoonishly ridiculous and ultimately unsuccessful ways). While the standard story is that Marley died of toe cancer resulting from a soccer injury, the conspiracy claims that in December 1976, while backstage at the Smile Jamaica concert, Marley was gifted with a brand new pair of boots. Lee Lew-Lee, a cinematographer and documentarian on the scene, reportedly states that when Marley went to put one of the boots on, a minor injury occurred: “He put his foot in and said, ‘Ow!’ A friend got in there…he said, ‘let’s [get] in the boot, and he pulled a length of copper wire out — it was embedded in the boot.”
Said wire, according to the conspiracy, was coated with some sort of cancer-causing agent. And the mysterious giver of the boots? If you believe the story, one Carl Colby had been spotted backstage, having gained access by claiming to be a member of the film crew, though he was never seen holding a camera. Colby is the son of William Colby, who at the time was the executive director of the CIA.
3. John Lennon
There are so many conspiracy theories around John Lennon’s death that chronicling them would be a book on its own, with some sections more believable than others. (One holds that author Stephen King was Lennon’s assassin; we should all be so lucky as to get high on whatever the founder of that theory was smoking.) It’s certainly true that the FBI kept files on Lennon. The last 10 documents weren’t released until 2006, the same year as the release of the documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which does a good job of distilling all the basics.
Without getting too far into the weeds, the most salient fact is that Mark David Chapman, Lennon’s killer, is said to have been a CIA-programmed killer — a “Manchurian Candidate” of sorts tied to the intelligence agency’s MK-Ultra mind control experiments (which were absolutely very real). Conspiracy theorists cite his involvement with World Vision International, a Christian missionary organization (and according to lore, CIA black ops killing-machine training ground), a group that pops up in so many diverse conspiracy theories it kind of makes your head spin. (For example, Reagan’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., was the son of World Visions’ one-time president John Hinkley, Sr., an oil industry titan who was purportedly close friends with Bush 41, who would’ve become president had the bullet met its intended mark.)
Conspiracists also note that Hinckley essentially went on a globe-trotting world tour with no reliable source of income, except for, you know, the checks the CIA must’ve been sending him. Also consistently pushed forth as evidence is the fact that after shooting Lennon, Chapman calmly stood reading Catcher in the Rye, which essentially figures as the “red button” used to give Chapman his marching orders. There’s so much more to this than I can get into here, including theories about multiple shooters, but the Internet has no lack of sites where you can read more. Lennon’s son Sean believes there was government involvement as well, saying in a 1998 interview, “Anybody who thinks that Mark Chapman was just some crazy guy who killed my dad for his personal interests is insane, I think, or very naive.”
4. Elliott Smith
I’m biased, but I’d say that Elliott Smith was one of the best songwriters of our age; a man who wrote beautifully sad, exquisitely crafted songs, mostly using just a 4-track. (His entire catalogue is just awesome, but Either/Or is so impossibly great it makes my teeth hurt.) That said, there was a reason he was known as Mr. Misery, and his drug addictions, heartache and depression were well known during his lifetime.
On Oct. 21, 2003, Smith’s girlfriend Jennifer Chiba called paramedics saying Smith, then 34, was in need of immediate medical attention; the musician later died at the hospital. In Chiba’s version of events, she and Smith had an explosive fight (she admitted this was not an unusual occurrence) from which she essentially escaped by holing up in the bathroom and showering. Per Wikipedia, “Chiba heard him scream, and upon opening the door, saw Smith standing with a knife in his chest. She pulled the knife out, after which he collapsed and she called 911.”
It was a story that stirred controversy from the beginning, and the swirling rumors only gained velocity after an autopsy declined to designate the death as a suicide, leaving open the possibility of a homicide. The Smoking Gun website highlights aspects of the report that have fueled the conspiracy theory, such as, “[t]he autopsy report cited the absence of ‘hesitation wounds,’ the presence of ‘possible defensive wounds,’ and ‘stabbing through clothing’ as atypical of suicide. In addition, the actions of Smith’s live-in girlfriend, musician Jennifer Chiba, were of concern to investigators…The medical examiner noted that Chiba’s ‘reported removal of the knife and subsequent refusal to speak with detectives are all of concern.’”
There’s more, of course, and a writer named Alyson Camus has dedicated a tremendous amount of effort to uncovering details that, at the very least, raise questions about the case. Recently, she started a Change.org petition requesting the LAPD either fully reopen the case or close the book on it.
5. Biggie Smalls
It’s been nearly 20 years since Biggie Smalls’ 1997 death, and there still hasn’t been a single arrest made in connection with the murder of one of the best MCs of all time. There have been, however, more conspiracy theories than you can shake a stick at. Shot to death in a drive-by as he rode in the passenger seat of a car in Los Angeles, Christopher Wallace’s death — which came roughly six months after rival Tupac Shakur’s murder (more on that below)— was in many ways the death knell of the East Coast/West Coast rap feud of the 1990s; back-to-back moments so awful they made everyone realize the futility of the whole terrible thing.
Most of the conspiracy theories around Smalls’ death allege some LAPD involvement; perhaps the most well-known involves former detective Russell Poole, who claims he left the Los Angeles force after top brass quashed his efforts to reveal corrupt cops had been among the shooters. Another former LAPD investigator, Greg Kading, who wrote a book in which he implicates another shooter (a man whose aliases include Darnell Bolton) also claims he handed in his badge after he was removed from the police investigation, presumably for coming too close to the truth.
Documentarian Nick Broomfield (same guy as in the Cobain case) made 2002’s Biggie and Tupac, which alleges Suge Knight — the former head of Death Row Records who is equally famous for not being the nicest guy — had both Shakur and Smalls killed, in the case of the former, to keep him from leaving his label; the latter, to throw cops off his scent. In 2002, Smalls’ mother, Voletta Wallace and his widow, Faith Evans, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the LAPD, essentially implicating two officers; it was dismissed in 2010. In the years following his death, the Notorious B.I.G.’s shadow has loomed large over hip-hop history. (His heir apparent, the Supreme Court’s Notorious RGG — aka Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg— spoke briefly about the rapper in a recent speech at Duke University.)
6. Tupac Shakur
While Tupac’s death is often spoken of in connection with Biggie Smalls, for obvious reasons, he holds the unique distinction of being at the center of a theory that suggests he’s actually not dead at all, but in hiding. Which would at least explain why he’s put out so many albums since he died. I mean seriously.
The rapper, who was supposedly killed in a drive-by shooting while he was a passenger in a car driven by Suge Knight, died on Sept. 13, 1996 — that is, if you’ve bought the Illuminati’s story. But according to a popular conspiracy theory, Shakur is actually in Cuba, likely residing with godmother and FBI Most Wanted revolutionary Assata Shakur, just keeping a low profile and enjoying not being famous. Gawker did a pretty great and hilarious unraveling of the whole theory early this year, which included a much-circulated picture purporting to show the rapper in the hours before his death, and a lengthy list of Conspiracy Red Flags it raises. Most are below:
- The picture above, said to be the last photo taken before the shooting, raises two interesting questions: If Tupac was shot on 9/7/96, why does the photo indicate it was taken on 9/8/96?
- Why are there no keys in the car’s ignition?
- 14 shots were fired, four of which hit Tupac. Knight, who is a considerably large man (around 6’4, 260 pounds) was not hit once. He was said to have sustained minimal injures from bullet fragments, but no serious wounds were recorded. Did Knight mastermind the shooting? (Believe what you will, but nobody’s luck is that good.)
- Since being shot at Quad Recording Studios on Nov. 30, 1994, Pac wore a bullet-proof vest almost everywhere. It seems odd, on such a high profile night, that he’d forego protection.
- The BMW from the photo does not match the BMW from the police investigation video.
- The streets of Las Vegas are typically jam-packed with an assortment of cars, people, and entertainers trying to earn a living. Tupac was shot two hours after the Mike Tyson/Bruce Seldon fight, and the streets, the strip especially, were likely congested with traffic that night. And yet, nobody spotted the white Cadillac?
- The official coroner’s report lists Tupac as 72 inches tall (6 feet) and 215 pounds. But the rapper’s driver’s license identifies him as 5’10 and 168 pounds.
- Afeni Shakur (Tupac’s mother) and medical staff are the only people who saw the rapper once he was admitted into the hospital. Years later, in a video interview, Afeni says, “In the end, he chose to leave quietly.” What did she mean by “leave quietly”? Was she implying Tupac had a hand in his removal from the spotlight?
- Tupac was reportedly cremated, and the man who cremated him retired after doing so. He has not been seen since, which, at the very least, is a little suspicious.
7. Jim Morrison
For nearly 40 years, the best known conspiracy theory concerning Jim Morrison’s death is that it was all a big hoax, a bit of fakery made up by the singer to escape the confining life of an international sex symbol and rock-and-roll star. Morrison, who was famously found dead in a bathtub in the Paris apartment he shared with girlfriend Pamela Courson, was supposedly seen by just three people in his post-mortem state (Courson; the couple’s friend, Alain Ray; and the doctor who signed the death certificate) before he was placed in a sealed coffin. With no autopsy performed and numerous reports that Morrison had previously declared to friends he would someday fake his own death, the conspiracy theory flourished. (Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek didn’t help matters when he said things in the press like, “I often wonder if his death has been an elaborate charade,” as he did in 2008.)
But in 2008, former journalist Sam Bernett claimed Morrison was definitely dead, that he’d seen the body, and that the singer had died of a heroin overdose at a club called Rock & Roll Circus in Paris. In a book called The End: Jim Morrison, Bernett claims Morrison arrived at the venue about 1am looking for heroin to take home to Courson. After scoring, he went into the bathroom, where he was later discovered in a stall, foaming at the mouth and sans pulse. Bernett says two drug dealers— employees of high-profile drug dealer Jean de Breteuil — absconded with the body, which they presumably took to Morrison’s apartment and placed in the tub in an effort to revive the singer.
According to Bernett, singer Marianne Faithfull was at the club that night and was aware of what was happening. Like Bernett, she was supposedly sworn to silence. Faithfull has recently come out with her own version of the story, one that implicates her ex-boyfriend de Breteuil, but claims the overdose took place at Morrison’s apartment. As Rolling Stone points out, the statute of limitations is way past for anything truly new to come out of the case, so new news won’t do much to change the state of things.
8. Lou Reed
In what is perhaps the rock-and-roll conspiracy theory to end all rock-and-roll conspiracy theories, I have to mention the one about Lada Gaga killing Lou Reed. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: According to this story, Lady Gaga desperately wanted Lou Reed to act as a creative consultant on her 2014 album Artpop, which was meant to be a near song-by-song homage to the Velvet Underground’s most beloved and influential tracks. Though Reed, lured by a $1.2 million fee, initially signed on to help guide the project, he quickly fell out of love with the music and began distancing himself from the record, going so far as to badmouth it to associates and friends.
Gaga, already enraged because Reed couldn’t seem to stop publicly gushing about Kanye’s Yeezy (if you haven’t read his glowing Talkhouse review of the album, you absolutely should), flew into revenge mode. The rest involves Gaga and her team, including some of the biggest executives in music, somehow infiltrating Reed’s hospital room following surgery for a liver transplant, poisoning him via an IV, and ensuring his negative words about Artpop would never reach public ears. (It’s pretty elaborate; there’s more here, if you really need it.) And yet, the album went on to disappointing sales, proving Lou Reed’s incredibly discriminating taste was right after all. And there you have it.