- Feb 22 2023Ozzy Osbourne, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, 28th April 1982.
Jailbreak! 12 Locked Up Rock Stars
Jailbreak! 12 Locked Up Rock Stars
By living out the ‘sex, drugs and rock’n'roll’ fantasy, it might sometimes seem our music gods exist beyond regular society’s legal boundaries. Even so, there are countless hitmakers who’ve found themselves in jails, prisons and penitentiaries due to their unwise choices. We’re not just talking a minor Rolling Stones spliff bust or a low-level grunge rocker DUI here either - the following 12 artists’ crimes include serious stuff: murder, sex with underage prostitutes and illegal flower-picking…
The moustachioed walrus who lent harmonies to classic songs by The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young served time in a Texas state prison on drugs and firearms charges during the ‘80s. Having made a name for himself as a peacenik activist, Crosby seems like a strange candidate for a weapons wrap, but the singer was packing a .45 (and a quarter gram of coke) when arrested in a Dallas nightclub in 1982. Crosby served five months of a five year sentence at Lew Sterrett Justice Centre in 1986, using the time stuck in a cell to kick his cocaine habit. To honour his former friend cleaning up, Neil Young returned to the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young fold for 1988’s American Dream album.
Given one of James Brown’s female employees once suggested he’d told her the government had implanted him with “bull testicles” to make him “harder and stronger” in the boudoir, nothing should be too surprising when it comes to the Godfather Of Soul. Even by these standards, ending up in jail after complaining someone used your private bathroom is still pretty far out, right? On 24 September 1988, Brown had a day he’d rather forget. Agitated by the thought someone had dropped a ‘funky drummer’ in his personal toilet in a Georgian office complex, Brown stormed into an insurance seminar in an adjacent space, waved around a rifle and ranted at the shocked attendants. Fleeing in his Ford pick-up truck, Brown led police on a chase across the border into South Carolina before returning to the Georgian side of the Savannah River. Maybe he was just trying to act out a favourite scene from his 1980 film The Blues Brothers, but the high speed chase (up to 135 kilometres an hour) involved Brown ramming multiple police vehicles and ended with the Soul Brother Number One driving on his rims after police shot out his tyres. On 15 December he began a sentence relating to his meltdown at South Carolina’s State Park Correctional Institute, before eventually being paroled in February 1991 after serving more than two years.
Covered by everyone from ABBA to Zeppelin, Huddle Ledbetter was not just the grandaddy of rock, but also the forefather of bad-arse musos getting in trouble with the law. Lead Belly’s guitar prowess came to the attention of music archivists John and Alan Lomax in 1933 while he was serving time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for attempted homicide. Ledbetter had already done a stint for killing a relative in a violent fight and would do more jail time in 1939 after a stabbing, but with the Lomaxes’ support he spent his last 10 years of life making waves in the folk scene rather than rotting in prison. He died in 1949.
Detroit proto-punks MC5 created a blueprint for political rock rebellion with 1969’s breathless 2:41 punch of “Kick Out The Jams”, but within three years the band was all but finished. Guitarist Wayne Kramer replaced the rock world with the criminal realm, paying for his heroin addiction by dealing drugs and committing burglaries. "I had seen The Godfather one too many times,” Kramer told NPR in 2018. “I'm driving around, carrying a pistol, eating in restaurants to talk about business.” Kramer ended up going down for selling cocaine to undercover feds, thrown in Lexington Federal Prison, Kentucky in 1975 aged 26. Released in 1978, a year after The Clash wrote “Jail Guitar Doors” about the guitarist’s predicament, Kramer has since put a large amount of time into the Jail Guitar Doors charity, providing musical instruments to inmates as part of their rehabilitation.
He alluded to having the Devil in him in The Stone Roses’ classic tune "I Wanna Be Adored", but Manchester icon Ian Brown’s sinful ways caught up with him in February 1998 when he was jailed for an air rage incident. The "Fools Gold" singer had been “threatening and abusive” to an attendant on a flight from Paris, saying he’d chop off her hands if she waved them around in front of him. Magistrate Alan Frost was scathing of Brown, suggesting "had the pilot not locked the cabin door, other passengers' safety might have been in jeopardy.” Brown's bandmate Aziz Ibrahim put it all down to a misunderstanding of Brown’s “Northern wit”, but the singer ended up spending two months in Strangeways Prison alongside murderers and sex offenders. A silver lining to the situation: estranged Stone Roses guitarist John Squire sent Brown some Maltesers. "It was a nice offer,” Ian later noted, with this peace offering perhaps being integral in The Stone Roses re-forming in 2011.
The chief songwriter behind The Mamas & The Papas’ blissful harmonies and Scott McKenzie’s hippie serenade "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)", John Phillips was also convicted of drug trafficking in 1981. In the wake of creating the soundtrack to David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell To Earth film in 1975, Phillips had kept his addictions quenched by trading opiates, syringes and prescriptions pads. After a series of deranged incidents - including an attempt to burn his own house down and crashing his car on a cocaine binge - Phillips was looking down the barrel of serious time inside. He managed to get away with serving just 30 days in a low-security prison after appearing on Phil Donahue’s popular talk show to detail his shameful exploits and show off his scars from years of intravenous drug use. Beside him on Donahue's couch was his daughter Mackenzie Phillips, who the degenerate was later accused of raping and cultivating an incestuous relationship with.
Ozzy Osbourne first served time when he was a teenage burglar and was also arrested in 1989 for attempting to murder his wife Sharon, but it’s his 1982 arrest in San Antonio, Texas which remains his most memorable run-in with the law. While 40 years of retelling now has it Ozzy pissed on hallowed historic site The Alamo, it’s somewhat inaccurate. He was indeed thrown in jail for public urination (while wearing Sharon’s clothes, no less), but the incident actually occurred over the road from the site of the famous 1836 battle during the state’s War Of Independence. Osbourne relieved himself in a large pot adjacent to the Cenotaph, an obelisk erected to formally honour the battle, with town officials shocked at the act of desecration. Photographer Tom Sheehan, who was on location snapping photos for Melody Maker magazine, said Ozzy was shaken when he was finally released from lock-up, since the police had put him in a cell with a homicidal husband who was still covered in his dead wife’s blood. Ozzy was banned from San Antonio until he made a public apology in 1992, with the bat-chewing rock star returning to The Alamo in 2015 for a History Channel special about the site.
While he is on record as having punched an ostrich, started a forest fire and transported a guitar case packed with prescription pills over state lines, it was actually Johnny Cash’s nocturnal floral interests which legally brought him unstuck. On 11 May 1965 Cash was arrested in Starkville, Mississippi after trespassing on private property to pick flowers in the dead of night. He was locked up in the local cells, providing the inspiration for his song “Starkville City Jail", which featured on his famous At San Quentin album. The town officially pardoned the late singer at the Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival, held in Starkville 42 years after the arrest.
The father of rock’n’roll saw the inside of a cell a few times in his lengthy career, with Berry copping a five year sentence in the early 1960s after transporting a 14-year-old Mexican prostitute across state lines for sex. While the original conviction was overturned due to the judge’s racial vilification, Berry still ended up serving 20 months behind bars. The "Johnny B. Goode” writer was back serving time in the late ‘70s due to tax evasion, but it was a raid on his Missouri estate in 1990 - which turned up drugs, guns and a stash of home-made porn tapes crafted from cameras hidden in the female toilets at his Southern Air restaurant - which received the most media coverage. Berry denied knowing who had made the tapes, escaping any charges relating to the perverted videos after paying US$1.3 million in damages (plus extensive legal fees) to litigants.
The list of female musicians who’ve been thrown in the slammer is a lot shorter than their male counterparts, but Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde has been arrested a number of times due to her animal rights activism. In 2003 she managed to shut down a Parisian street after smearing fake blood across the front of a KFC with fellow protesters, but was then hauled off to a cell for her efforts. It followed a 2000 incident in a Gap store in New York City when she slashed up leather goods the chain was selling. “I’ve been doing animal rights [for decades], I’ve gone to jail,” she proudly admitted to The Australian in 2018. Careful Chrissie - another arrest and you might end up "Back On The Chain Gang”…
If there was ever any doubt about Motley Cre’s lack of taste, releasing a compilation called Music To Crash Your Car To despite frontman Vince Neil having served time for vehicular manslaughter takes the cake. Partying with fellow glam act Hanoi Rocks in December 1984 during a four-day bender, a drunk Neil drove his Ford Pantera sports car to pick up more booze. Travelling up to 65 miles per hour in a 25 miles per hour zone, Neil collided with oncoming traffic, killing his passenger, Hanoi Rocks guitarist Razzle, and injuring occupants of the other two vehicles. Convicted in July 1985, Neil paid a $2.5 million dollar fine, completed 200 hours of community service and served just 20 days jail over the incident. “That's the power of cash,” Neil admitted to Blender magazine. “That's fucked up."
Here’s a Rick James story which never became a humorous Dave Chappelle skit: in 1993, the "Super Freak" singer was found guilty of two separate kidnapping charges. During a week-long crack binge in 1991, James and his girlfriend Tanya Hijazi held a 24-year-old hostage as their sex slave, intermittently burning her with a crack pipe. In a case of drugged-out deja vu, James and Hijazi kidnapped another woman while out on bail and subjected her to 20 hours of beatings. After infuriating the judge for falling asleep twice during his trial, James was convicted of a number of charges but found not guilty of torture. He was released from Folsom Prison in 1996 after serving two years of a five year sentence. Cocaine is a hell of a drug...
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