When Girls’ Christopher Owens first revealed, circa the release of the band’s debut album, Album, that he’d grown up in the Children of God cult, you could almost hear the collective intake of breath from music journalists everywhere (and, we suspect, from the band’s publicists, too). After all, it makes great copy: musician grows up in cult, overcomes weird childhood, makes great album, lives happily ever after. But really, when you read them, the truth is far more complex and less facile — and Owens’ stories of his early years are genuinely disturbing. Plenty of other musicians over the years have arrived at their music via lives that have been unconventional, to say the least. And so, with Girls’ new album due next week and streaming now at Hype Machine, here’s a selection of weird and compelling musician back stories.
A five-year-old Courtney Love famously appears on the back cover of The Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa, which gives a good idea of the sort of company her parents kept. She may or may not have been given acid by her father at the age of three, spent much of her childhood bouncing around the world, and was working as a stripper by the age of 16. She decamped to England shortly after, in search of the burgeoning post punk scene, and ended up forming unlikely friendships with Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope before overstaying her visa, stripping in the far East, and winding up back in the US to front an embryonic version of Faith No More. Say what you like about Love, but she’s lived one hell of a strange life.
We mentioned John Holland’s remarkable interview with Butt Magazine recently in our post on the future of witch house, so we won’t rehash it too gratuitously here — suffice it to say that a background that involves turning tricks for heroin, working at American Apparel, and maintaining an apparently ongoing sexual fixation with your bandmate and songwriting partner is not exactly the stuff of which being well-adjusted is made.
Plenty of musicians have had difficult childhood relationships with their fathers, but perhaps none more so than John Cale, through no fault of his own. His mother was a fierce advocate of the Welsh language, and brought her son up to speak only Welsh — a problem, since his father spoke only English. The poor kid finally started to learn English at primary school — to his mother’s grave disappointment, no doubt.
Christopher Owens has talked openly about his childhood in the Children of God cult, but that doesn’t make the whole thing any less jaw-droppingly fucked up. In 2009, he described to the Guardian one of the ways the cult made ends meet: by prostituting its women, including Owens’ own mother. “There was this thing called ‘flirty fishing,'” he recalled, “where the women met men for money. The cult basically convinced them it was fine to be hookers. It was like mind control — the women believed it was a good thing to do because they were physically showing these men they met the love of God. My mum had a lot of terrible experiences from that. I was there. We’d be hitchhiking our way around Japan or somewhere crazy and I’d have to wait in hotel lobbies for her. Sometimes we’d have to run away from violent people and she’d be crying, saying she didn’t like her life.” Um. Wow.
Coil’s music is strange enough — they once made an album whose songs were all named after esoteric psychedelics — but it seems positively conventional when you put it up against the story of its late-era viola player. He’s maintained a strong connection with the world of the occult since his late teens, a connection that pre-dates his musical career and apparently remains his day job, such as it is. In his occult guise, Breeze goes by the name Hymenaeus Beta, has edited several of Aleister Crowley’s works for publication, and is these days apparently the “Frater Superior” of something called the Ordo Templi Orientis (which was once led by Crowley).
Not that this is any sort of competition, but the Shaggs’ childhood was arguably even more fucked up than the Jackson 5’s, and that’s saying something. At least the Jacksons got to go to school. There was no such luck for the four Wiggins sisters of Fremont, New Hampshire, who in 1969 were withdrawn from school by their father Austin and set to work as musicians by their father on the basis of… a palm reading. A palm reading undergone by their grandmother years before, to be precise. The fact that they couldn’t really play, and had no desire to be musicians, didn’t discourage him in the slightest — and so the group made one album, Philosophy of the World, before disbanding when he died in 1975. Decades later, the record remains disconcerting and yet occasionally wonderful listening, a fittingly strange testament to one of the strangest stories in music.
Crazy parents are something of a theme here, sadly, and when your parents are the type of people who put “Jesus Christ Allin” on your birth certificate, you’re definitely starting behind the eight ball. The young Jesus Christ Allin was officially renamed Kevin at the age of 6, after his mother divorced his father — unsurprisingly, perhaps, since the family had lived in a remote cabin with neither electricity nor water, and where conversation was forbidden once the sun set. At 12, the already alienated GG Allin contracted Lyme disease, a debilitating tick-borne infection that can attack the central nervous system. And by 15 or so, he was dealing drugs and attending school dressed in drag. He refused to blame his upbringing for the way his life transpired, but still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Allin’s childhood was perhaps even more chaotic than his adulthood — no mean feat when you’re talking about a man who habitually ate shit on stage.
Not a great deal is known about Sun Ra’s childhood, save for the minor detail that he apparently started receiving messages from the “unknown forces of the universe” at the age of three. These messages may or may not have been related to the great musical epiphany of his early 20s, which manifested itself as, um, a trip to Saturn. The story has become the stuff of musical legend — in John F Swzed’s definitive biography Space is the Place, Sun Ra describes meeting people who “had one little antenna on each ear … [and] a little antenna over each eye”, who took him to “a planet that I identified as Saturn”. Whatever happened, the result was a 60-year career that encompassed some of the most whacked-out music you’ll ever, ever hear.
A less dramatic but no less life-changing musical epiphany came to Throwing Muses pioneer and Flavorpill fave Kristin Hersh via the most mundane of episodes – crashing her bike. As she describes in her book Rat Girl, Hersh was out riding her bike one day when she was hit by a car and came down on her head. The result: the songs which had previously danced around the edge of her consciousness became an irresistible cacophony in her head, forcing themselves into existence whether their creator wanted any part of the process or not. The songs came accompanied by synaesthesia, manic energy and, eventually, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
Perhaps the strangest back story of all, for the simple fact that… it’s just not there. Even now, no one seems to know where Jandek came from, although at least now people know what he looks like, which hasn’t been the case for the majority of his 30-year career. He’s only ever given two interviews, just started playing live in 2004, and still hasn’t officially revealed his real name (although the consensus seems to be that he is Sterling Smith of Houston, TX).