I majored in American Studies at Notre Dame, as did most of the starting lineup of our legendary football team. (In retrospect, I suppose that was out of default because the school didn’t offer a degree in Criminology.) Although I received plenty of flack from my friends who were toiling away in their pre-med and mechanical engineering classes while I was working on a multimedia presentation on the Coke vs. Pepsi “cola wars,” I stand by my choice of study. If nothing else, it freed me up to have a spectacular college social life.
Basically, any class with the word American in its title would count toward my major, so my academic schedule included The American Social Experience, 20th Century American Authors, American Film, American Popular Culture and American Folklore.
Those last two were among my favorites; the intersection of pop culture and folklore has always held a special place in my trivia-obsessed heart. I’m especially intrigued by urban legends — those secondhand, unverifiable stories that supposedly happened to someone who knows someone who knows the person recounting the tale. I could spend hours reading books that chronicle these myths. (Check out The Choking Doberman, The Vanishing Hitchhiker and The Mexican Pet if you are so inclined.)
My obsession most likely began the very first time I heard an urban legend which, of course, I accepted as 100% true.
I was in fifth grade, winding down from after-school tumbling practice (don’t judge) when “Love Rollercoaster” by the Ohio Players came on the radio. This song was a huge hit at the time and, while lyrically simple (“your love is like a rollercoaster, baby baby”), it was infused with that infectious, irresistible ’70s funk. There’s a part in the song that features various screams, presumably to mimic the “look, ma! no hands!” squeals from an actual rollercoaster ride. If you listen carefully, amidst the screams of merriment is one blood-curdling shriek. My elementary school bestie Mike told me that fateful afternoon that the record producer fatally stabbed his girlfriend at the studio while the song was being recorded. He planned it to perfectly coincide with the other screams so hers would blend in. Mike’s dad knew someone who knew someone who knew the guy who got away with this clever murder, forever captured on vinyl. I totally believed this.
Many years after the tumbling practice incident — although the song came out years earlier — James Taylor‘s “Fire and Rain” would become the stuff of urban legend. I was told by someone with inside information that James was in a mental institution where he met a nice girl named Suzanne. To cure Suzanne of her depression, they put her though a series of shock treatments (“Fire”) and cold showers (“Rain.”) This process almost killed her (“Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you”), but she was released only to die shortly thereafter in a fiery plane crash. (“Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.”) Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? Some aspects of this urban legend might actually have some truth to them, but there was definitely no plane crash. The Flying Machine was a failed band of which Taylor was a member.
My all time favorite song urban legend has to be Phil Collins‘ “In the Air Tonight.” While studying in London my junior year I met someone who knew someone who’s cousin heard this directly from Mr. Collins himself. Phil was walking through Hyde Park with his wife. A creepy guy jumped him, tied him to a tree and then proceeded to rape Mrs. Collins while making helpless Phil watch the whole thing. A year later, at virtually the very same place in the park, Phil heard splashing and someone calling for help from a nearby pond. He was about to rescue the guy when he recognized him as the rapist from the year prior. He wanted to let him die but decided to save him and give him a front row ticket to his concert that night. The guy showed up and Phil sang the song — which he had just written that afternoon — directly to the rapist: “Well if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand/I’ve seen your face before my friend, but I don’t know if you know who I am/Well I was there and I saw what you did, I saw it with my own two eyes/So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been/It’s all been a pack of lies.” You go, Phil! Way to turn the tables! In reality, this never happened, but Eminem even references it in “Stan,” so you know this urban legend’s got street cred.
There are countless other music-based urban legends — Paul is dead, Rod Stewart’s stomach pumping, Angie Bowie finding David in bed with Mick Jagger — but my favorites are the ones that surround actual songs, like the aforementioned “Love Rollercoaster,” “Fire and Rain,” and “In the Air Tonight.” And while we’re on the subject, has anyone really ever played Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz? And did Pink Floyd truly record their iconic album with that classic movie in mind? I’m totally calling “urban legend” on that one.
“Love Rollercoaster” by The Ohio Players
“Fire and Rain” by James Taylor
“In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins