Life is a mystery, as the poet once said.
This is true even in its most sublime moments, which is a big part of why it’s so precious. There are no guarantees and no promise that all the threads in a single life will be neatly tied up at the end of it, or indeed anywhere along its length. The history of songwriting has certainly plumbed the depths of this aspect of our existence, helping us to be aware of it and to come to a closer understanding of it in our own lives.
But in the lives of some songwriters, this concept of mystery goes one, and sometimes several, steps further. The murky, the undefined, the undisclosed, the unsolved may or may not be a part of their work in an overt way. But in their own lives, it’s a different story completely, with unexpected, discontinuous, and undetermined elements to their lives and careers that either have been mysteries to the listening public, or remain to be so today.
With that in mind, here are 10 songwriters who’s lives, myths, personas, are connected with the unpredictable and mysterious nature of life itself. Some are tragic. Some hold the quality of triumph, too. Some have since stepped from the shadows. Some remain lost in the void. Some you’ve heard about. Some you haven’t. Either way, these ten songwriters embody the various mysteries that are as compelling or even more so than the songs they left behind.
The crown for the most mysterious bluesman may be up for grabs, considering how many of the greats in the twenties and thirties never even got a chance to record. But of those that did, not many beat Robert Johnson for his sheer mystery and mythic scale. The legend has it that his guitar skills made a quantum leap in a very short time, connecting Johnson with the myth that one may sell one’s soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for one’s heart’s desire in a Faustian pact. The story is so interconnected with Johnson that he has become a disembodied spirit of that particular myth more so than just a musician who recorded 29 songs before his death in 1938 at the age of 27 (yet another musical myth narrative) after downing a poisoned drink.
As much mystery that surrounds Johnson that captures the imagination, most of that mystery is down to a simple and mundane lack of documentation. Only three images were ever taken of him, and his life story is often peppered by tall tales told during the rediscovery period of the 1960s that tended to fill in gaps that perhaps weren’t there. Maybe the reason for this lack of documentation was simply down to the fact that he was a black man in the rural American South, with not much mind given to his humanity, let alone his artistry. He never got the chance to be rediscovered like many of his peers outside of the recordings he left behind. If he had, maybe the story of his fast rise to King of The Delta Blues Singers would have been even more fascinating.
Learn more about Robert Johnson right here from this article by Vanity Fair.
Well connected with the music industry and even with the film industry, Jim Sullivan certainly had star potential. It was through his connections that he was able to record his debut album, complete with appearances by members of the Wrecking Crew. The album, U.F.O, was released on a small label in 1969, and explored the gamut of folk, rock, and country that connected to the burgeoning scenes of similarly oriented singer-songwriters that were emerging from that period in musical history. But, Sullivan never became known as widely as his peers, even considering his mysterious fate.
In early 1975, after recording a self-titled second album and continuing as a club act, Sullivan took a trip alone in his Volkswagen beetle from Los Angeles on his way to Nashville. Somewhere in New Mexico, he simply disappeared. His car was found abandoned containing his personal effects and no clue as to where he’d gone. His remains have never been found. Assumptions have been made about his disappearance, even including theories about alien abduction which echoed the title track to his first record.
In the mysterious curiosity stakes, Lewis’ L’Amour album is hard to beat. Recorded in 1983, not much was known of the man called “Lewis”, a pseudonym. The music on the record is defined by ethereal piano, minimalist acoustic guitar, and atmospheric synthesizers, matched by a hushed Brian Ferry-esque voice that sort of mumbles the lyrics rather than sings them, not unappealingly. The cover of the record presents us with an aggressively Aryan-looking soap opera heartthrob figure who proved to be an enigma wrapped in a mystery even by those with whom he made the record. Not much was heard from him or about him after he skipped town upon completion of the cover photo shoot (paid for via bounced cheque, no less). That was until L’Amour was discovered in an Edmonton flea market one day by a collector who spread the word.
Apparently, obscure records experts Light In The Attic traced the name “Lewis” back to a Canadian stockbroker living in Calgary called Randall Wullf, who had recorded a number of albums under other pseudonyms, and amazingly another one other under the Lewis name in 1985. With his whereabouts uncertain, royalties of his music are currently held in escrow until he makes himself available again, wherever he happens to be. Whatever the circumstances, the record he made is remarkable for its singular nature, connected to seemingly no other musical streams at the time it was recorded. It conjures up a wasted, post-debauchery comedown vibe without even a single atom of effort. But neither can one’s ear find purchase in the music. Like its creator, it just sort of steals away after it’s over as if it were never there.
Learn more about Lewis and his record from this article from The Guardian.
Sometimes, the work of a songwriter is more famous than its writer. Eden Ahbez was one of those cases, being the writer of “Nature Boy”, made famous by Nat King Cole in 1948 and recorded by many others since. But what most don’t know is that Ahbez was really talking about himself when he wrote that song. Eden Ahbez was a man who rejected society and its mores and lived, literally, off of the land during a time when that whole “get back to the land” movement of the sixties was a full twenty-five years away. He made at least one of his homes under the second “L” of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, a figure in shoulder length hair, beard, and white robe, living on a diet of raw food and sleeping outside by choice.
He recorded his album Eden’s Island in 1960, even then preceding the hippy movement by half a decade. “Full Moon” as taken from that album is a spoken word piece that stands as something of a manifesto to his way of viewing the world. The mystery surrounding this man is perhaps not as dramatic as other stories. The incongruity of what amounted to a very successful pop songwriter for Frankie Laine, Eartha Kitt, and even Sam Cooke living like a sort of western-style renunciant is perhaps mystery enough. Yet maybe too, the predatory music industry being what it was and is perhaps might offer a clue to his motivations. He died in 1995 at the age of 86, the result of injuries sustained after a car accident in what might have seemed an ironic and highly symbolic turn of events, given his attitudes to modernity.
Learn more about Eden Ahbez at this Eden-themed site.
Most of a certain generation associate Chuck Barris with being the host of 1970s variety/game show The Gong Show, the pinnacle (valley?) of lowbrow (to say the least) evening TV during that era. But even earlier than that and over a varied career at various echelons of show business, Barris was also a songwriter. His most famous tune is “Pallisades Park” as recorded by Freddy Cannon in 1962, and later to be covered by The Ramones, among others. The song’s narrative perhaps betrays Barris’ motivations for getting into show business in the first place; that’s where the girls are.
But the mystery behind Barris goes deeper than that. At some point in his career and during the height of his period as a game show and variety show producer and host in the sixties and seventies, Barris purportedly served as an assassin for the CIA, a claim he made in his 1984 autobiography Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind. The story is retold in George Clooney’s movie of the same name starring Sam Rockwell as Chuck Barris and taking its subject’s word at every turn, particularly on the whole killing people for the government front. Was Barris on the up and up? Was he simply pulling a prank on his readers by adding a characteristically outrageous layer to his life story to appeal to lowbrow expectations? It’s a mystery. As for real world proof of the facts, the CIA denies that Barris ever worked with them. But, then again they would say that, right?
Learn more about Chuck Barris’ unique career by reading this article from Salon.
The twee and lilting sounds of the late sixties and early seventies and the singer-songwriters associated with that era had something of a forebear in Connie Converse. Working in an office job to sustain herself while in New York, and on the coffeehouse and poetry scenes there, Converse recorded several songs at the end of the 1950s with the help of a friend, Gene Dietch who owned a portable tape recorder. On the tape, you can hear Dietch prompting her which songs to sing next, with her voice accompanied by just her own acoustic guitar. The music has a sort of timeless and ghostly quality. But the approach and delivery also seems to look forward to that bucolic sound associated with early Joni Mitchell, Judee Sill, and Bridget St. John. That, and the fact that she was singing about herself and her personal feelings during a time when songwriters just weren’t doing that.
The mystery of her lack of success isn’t really a mystery, maybe. At the time the recordings were made, this kind of sound just wasn’t commercially viable. The real mystery is similar to the one described in the life of Jim Sullivan above. One day in 1974 and after long having given up her ambitions as a professional songwriter, Connie Converse decided to pull up stakes and drive off in her car (like Sullivan’s, also a VW bug; what is it about these cars?) in search of a new life. Somewhere along the road she disappeared, never to be heard from again. By 2009, a compilation of her work How Sad, How Lovely became sought-after listening, in large part thanks to NPR play and Spotify that called attention to her prescient sound.
Learn more about Connie Converse’s work and its resurgence right here.
Rock music is littered with figures of a certain brand of tragic romance. Richey Edwards was practically the poster boy for this in the early to mid-1990s. As guitarist and chief lyricist for Manic Street Preachers, Edwards was a Byronic figure that seemed to visually represent the band’s sound and worldview that traded in the issues of the disenfranchised and the alienated. As such, his lyrics were the perfect fit to the music that his bandmates laid down behind them. But Edwards’ sense of darkness and isolation were not just about lyrical effect. They came from his own struggles.
Prone to self-destructive tendencies fueled by bouts of mental illness, a severe drinking problem, and a debilitating eating disorder, Edwards story is a pretty common one in the history of rock music when it comes to tortured artists. What is not common is the way he left the band. Edwards’ car was found in a large service station near the Severn Bridge in 1995, a crossing that connects Wales with England. He was 27 at the time and a day shy of going on a US tour with The Manics. His disappearance seemed to be meticulously planned by Edwards as such, and not as a suicide. For years after, “Richey sightings” became an item of pop culture lore in Britain, with no definitive or conclusive story about what happened to Richey Edwards to discourage them. He was declared legally dead in 2008 after a lack of conclusive evidence as to his whereabouts. All the while, his three bandmates in the Manic Street Preachers have quietly set aside his part of the royalties should he ever re-emerge.
Learn more about Richey Edwards’ career and disappearance as contemplated at the time he was declared dead at this article from The Guardian.
Bobby Fuller was unlike most “Bobbys” by the early to mid 1960s in that he was not a teen idol but rather a skilled songwriter, imaginative arranger, and deft record producer in his own right, and at a very young age. “I Fought The Law” is a sort of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens meets sixties garage music amalgam and certainly his most recognizable hit. By 1966, his star was rising with his band The Bobby Fuller Four helping American rock ‘n’ roll get back to its roots completely independent of the so-called British Invasion, drawing on his rich musical inheritance as a Texan instead. The song ended up invading England when The Clash recorded it in 1979 based on Bobby Fuller’s version, since recorded dozens of times by others. But, just as things were looking up for Fuller, tragedy struck. Fuller was found dead in his car, with the cause of death and circumstances around it being undetermined.
Initially, it looked like a suicide. Fuller was found with a hose in his hand attached to a can of gasoline, implying death by asphyxiation. But there were details beyond appearances that indicated that his death was more sinister. Many stories began to circulate about the causes of Bobby Fuller’s death as a result, with one of the most compelling and widely believed (despite a total lack of evidence) being that Fuller had been killed by a jealous club owner with mob ties for flirting with said club owner’s girlfriend. Even today, there are no new insights as to what happened in any detail, with investigators at the time settling on the suicide narrative to the possible detriment of other more plausible explanations that may or may not have included murder.
To learn more about Bobby Fuller and his mysterious demise, read this article from The Guardian.
Many people in Elliott Smith’s life were saddened by news of his suicide in 2003, but many still were not surprised. He spoke openly about ending his own life at multiple points in his life. He wasn’t someone to hide his issues, self-medicating with hard drugs and with alcohol while showing signs of undiagnosed mental problems. Even with that in place, his talent was undeniable, pouring every ounce of feeling into his folk-based-with-Beatles-flourishes music, and even (very incongruently!) being nominated for an Oscar for best song in 1998. Yet, his problems persisted that no amount of commercial success could heal. The stories about his death being a murder began to circulate nonetheless almost immediately afterward.
Smith’s death was officially ruled as a suicide, although the circumstances at the time were considered to be suspicious. One fact to contribute to the murder theory was an absence of “hesitation wounds”, possibly indicating that his injuries were caused by an assailant and not himself. Some accounts chalked it up to drug dealers, although that contradicts the assumptions around Smith having kicked drugs around that time. The identity of any perpetrator of a crime remains to be very unclear, and certainly unsubstantiated to date. On the whole, the story is shrouded in mystery even now, although it may be a shroud as created mainly out of shock due to the suddeness and extremely violent nature of his death. Conspiracy theories circulating about Elliott Smith’s death persist even today, although luckily for most not overshadowing the singularly eloquent music he left behind.
For more details on Elliott Smith’s death, here’s an article from The Guardian.
In the record collections in every household in South Africa and many in Australia too, a copy of Rodriguez’s 1970 album Cold Fact could be found filed with copies of Abbey Road and Blonde On Blonde. But in his native America, no one had ever heard of him or his album. Even where he was popular and where his music was the most celebrated, Rodriguez the man was nothing but a ghost. Not even his most die-hard fans knew much about him, with stories spreading about his suicide in various violent and imaginative scenarios. And yet, unlike some of the songwriters listed above, death and disappearance was not the end for Rodriguez. It was the beginning of a quest for his fans.
While he was being mythologized in South Africa, son of Mexican immigrants Sixto Dias Rodriguez was an unassuming part-time musician and odd jobs labourer in Detroit. It was this experience living in the crumbling Mid-West city that fed Rodriguez’s songwriting about the plight of the inner city poor, of which he was one. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that South African fans, many of whom had drawn from his work in resisting Apartheid, decided to ignore the rumours of his demise. Instead, they proceeded to track him down. This amazing story was very well documented in the film Searching For Sugarman, which presented the mystery of an elusive and thought to be dead superstar who turned out to be simply a very talented songwriter who chose to live very simply, shunning the worldly delights of fame and fortune. In this, Rodriguez’s mystery has been solved, although his story still resonates as being mythical even after the fact.
You can learn more about Rodriguez at sugarman.org.
Everyone loves a good mystery, right? In the history of music, a lot of great artists or at least ones with miles of sheer character have fallen through the cracks. I think this is indicative of something that perhaps we don’t think enough about. The fact is that the music we celebrate as the soundtracks to our lives are often only a very thin slice of what artists out there somewhere are producing. We won’t get to hear most of it. And further, the very lives of those songwriters who have crafted songs which we do know and love are thin slices in their own right, hiding multiple chapters that may even be equal in intrigue to their careers in music for sheer fascinating detail.
Life itself is a mystery of course, as mentioned above, full of tragedy, triumph, and tumult. But however much we know about it or don’t know, it’s vital to have music to listen to along the way, leaving room for the idea that behind it may lie stories of which we are unaware.