Put another log on the fire, top that tankard of coffee, tea and/or antibiotics, and kick back with Please Kill Me’s Top 20 stories of 2021. We offer here the 20 most visited stories on our website for the past year. It’s an eclectic lineup, and we hope it reflects the widening net we’ve tried to cast over the past twelve months. How do you go from Ruth Underwood, the keyboardist for Frank Zappa’s various “Mothers,” to Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics, from Athens, Georgia, to Utopia Parkway. Captain Beefheart to Laura Nyro? We don’t know, either…but it seems to be working.
We are just about to put this year in the books.
The nation and the world are in better places now, at least compared to last year at this time, but there is a sense that we’re just treading water, waiting for the other shoe to drop, the darkness on the edge of town…
But, as his Tralfamadorian captor told Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-5, “That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times and concentrate on the good ones.”
And some good things did happen in 2021.
Like these stories, which YOU the readers decided were the best we had to offer. So, without further ado, we have culled the top stories, for those who might have missed them the first time around, or want to reread them (like leftover pizza and Thanksgiving turkey, they are even better the second time around). We present them in two parts over the next week and, one at a time, on our Facebook page.
11. RICKIE LEE JONES: THE DUCHESS OF COOLSVILLE IS BACK
Rickie Lee Jones was back in the spotlight this year with her compelling memoir, Last Chance Texaco, and a 40th anniversary box set and tour to celebrate her landmark release Pirates, the follow-up to her 1979 debut that put her, and her raspberry beret, on the cultural map, won her a Grammy and kicked off her career. Cree McCree spoke with Rickie Lee about her hardscrabble childhood, itinerant life, meteoric rise to fame, and the struggles that have tested her innate survival instincts.
12.RELIEF AND RELEASE: REVISITING WENDY O. WILLIAMS & THE PLASMATICS
The Plasmatics, fronted by Wendy O. Williams, may have been the most misunderstood rock ‘n’ roll band ever. Conceived as all of the following: performance art, social comment, consumer culture satirists, and rock ‘n’ roll band; the Plasmatics were impossible to categorize, falling somewhere between punk rock and Kiss/Alice Cooper (both bands were fans), their shows were a legendary as they were terrifying, featuring chainsaws, hammers, exploding cars and TV sets. PKM’s Adam Ganderson spoke with former ‘Matics Wes Beech and Richie Stotts and revisits the legacy of W.O.W.
13. UTOPIA PARKWAY: THE ENDURING MYSTERY OF JOSEPH CORNELL
Artist, filmmaker and writer Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was a mystery when he was alive and continues to mystify fifty years after his death. Best known as the “box artist,” he made assemblages that defy categorization but seem to resonate with viewers of all ages. He lived for decades in virtual anonymity in a working-class neighborhood in Flushing, Queens, creating his celestial masterpieces in a modest home on Utopia Parkway. And yet, he also touched and inspired other artists, writers, and musicians, as we discovered while writing this story.
14. HIAWATHA BAILEY: PANTHER, PUNK, CULT HERO
If you spent any time in the Detroit/Ann Arbor cultural scene in the last 50 years, chances are you know the name Hiawatha Bailey, the only Black and Native American member of the White Panther Party. He was on the front lines and rubbed shoulders with the Stooges, MC5, and John Lennon. Busted for drugs, when he was released from prison, he immediately formed a punk rock band, Cult Heroes, after being the roadie for the legendary Destroy All Monsters. A true PKM hero tells his own story, through Todd McGovern.
15. JACK KEROUAC: BASKING IN THE GOLDEN ETERNITY
By the time Jack Kerouac died at 47 in 1969, he’d exiled himself from the 1960s youth culture he’d partly inspired with the likes of On the Road and The Dharma Bums. Bloated by booze and reactionary politics, he bore little resemblance to that matinee-idol handsome ‘King of the Beats’. In death, though, Kerouac’s star has risen with each succeeding generation. Catherine de Leon, a self-described ‘Kerouac acolyte’ examined the posthumous power and lasting legacy of Lowell, Massachusetts’ most famous (and infamous) native son.
16. LAURA NYRO: THE MIRACULOUS MAGIC OF HER MUSIC
Though Laura Nyro’s songs are familiar to millions of people–through hit versions by Three Dog Night, the 5th Dimension and others–she herself remained in the shadows during her career as a singer, songwriter, arranger and muse. An elusive and mysterious figure, she continues to touch new generations with her music. Speaking with those who knew and worked with her, including Al Kooper, Felix Cavaliere, Steve Katz and John Simon, and those influenced by her, like Carol Lipnik and Syd Straw, John Kruth captured the essence of Laura Nyro for PKM.
17. LEONARD COHEN, PHIL SPECTOR: DEATH OF LADIES’ MEN
Leonard Cohen and Phil Spector were an unlikely pairing, to say the least. And yet, there they were, in an Los Angeles studio in 1976, both drinking heavily, both dealing with marital woes, but thrown together by an album project, Death of a Ladies’ Man that each hoped would restore their reputations. What could go wrong? Cohen’s biographer, Sylvie Simmons, picked up the narrative from there for PKM.
18. THE LOST TESTAMENT OF SAM BUTERA: THE RISE & FALL OF ‘THE WILDEST SHOW IN VEGAS’
Sax player and arranger Sam Butera was ‘Keith Richards to Louis Prima’s Mick Jagger’ once he joined the great trumpeter, singer and bandleader in Las Vegas in 1954. With vocalist Keely Smith, the group gained national attention with songs like ‘Just A Gigolo,’ ‘Jump Jive An’ Wail’ and ‘That Old Black Magic.’ Burt Kearns and Rafael Abramovitz sat down with Butera in 1991 and got the real story about the Mob’s connection to Vegas and the raunchy private lives of the musicians. The interviews were never published. Burt and Rafael shared them with PKM, in this popular post.
19. PINK FAIRIES: THE COSMIC ROCK FUZZ OF PUNK’S PIONEERS
The story of the Pink Fairies is like a trip down a rabbit hole into a psychedelicized wonderland that includes characters like Lemmy Kilmister and Hawkwind, Mick Farren and The Deviants, Twink, Larry Wallis, Steve “Peregrin” Took, Sandy Sanderson, the MC5, Eno and a host of other tripped-out pranksters. Adam Ganderson spoke with Paul Rudolph, who was there for all of it as a member of both The Deviants and Pink Fairies, and returned to tell the tale for PKM.
20. NILS LOFGREN: ROCK’S MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Nils Lofgren has been both a bandleader and a team player, and is equally accomplished in both roles. He has fronted his own band, Grin, and another throughout his 40-year solo career, but he has also been a valued member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and Neil Young and Crazy Horse (as well as Crazy Horse, sans Neil). One more high-profile collaboration, however, has gotten short shrift—his songwriting partnership with Lou Reed, which spawned Lofgren’s most recent studio album, Blue With Lou. Parke Puterbaugh talked with Nils Lofgren, ‘rock’s most valuable player,’ about Reed, Ringo, Neil, and more.