Even if you’re already familiar with each and every story contained herein or well-versed in the podcast, the book is still very much worth checking out.
Unlike some other podcasts-turned-books, Disgraceland finds its creator, Jake Brennan, doing more than reprinting his show scripts. This helps make the book a supplement rather than a byproduct, which helps not only to justify its existence, but allows Brennan to take on a handful of stories he’s not already covered. Using an almost serialized approach in which the majority of these tales of rock ’n’ roll mayhem are tangentially linked either through their respective events or players, Brennan masterfully crafts a series of true crime vignettes that manage to take on elements of both the truth and the myth to find a new sort of middle ground that enlivens even the most played out of stories.
And of course that’s the risk one takes when approaching a subject like this. Anyone even remotely familiar with the darker areas in which pop music and true crime intersect will already be well acquainted with the stories in Disgraceland. But even if you already know the major plot points or can predict the beats, it’s the manner in which Brennan connects each that makes even the most staid of rock ’n’ roll true crime stories feel vibrant and new. Though reliant on primary or well-informed sources for his material, Brennan often enters the mind of each segment’s protagonist in order to provide a more hard-boiled narrative that gets under (and often into) the skin of the musician in question.
Using Elvis (Fat and Skinny, respectively) as a narrative bookend and metaphorical king at two specific points in his life, Brennan begins weaving his interlaced stories together with a speculative piece taking place within the drug-addled mind of the reigning if well-past-his-prime king. We’re then shepherded outside the gates of Graceland, where an even more tragic figure — Jerry Lee Lewis — has crashed his car into the palatial estate’s front gates in hopes of once and for all taking out the King. The event, which really took place, serves as a neat narrative device to dovetail the first two stories.
With his lead-in established, “The Killer” takes center stage and becomes, as with the podcast, Brennan’s first in-depth profile. And while there’s plenty to focus on with Jerry Lee Lewis in terms of sordid and outrageous behavior, the primary event here is the wildly suspicious death of his fourth wife, Shawn, at the aging rock star’s less than flatteringly-nicknamed estate just down the road from Graceland, and this lends the book and podcast its title. Using the March 1, 1984 Rolling Stone article “The Strange and Mysterious Death of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis” as his jumping off point, Brennan explores Lewis’ abhorrent behavior prior to and immediately following the death of his wife, the subservience of the local police force to the self-anointed king of rock ’n’ roll and what ultimately could’ve been avoided had Lewis not been continually granted the rock star privilege that allowed him to continuously get away with all manner of heinous acts.
In other words, it’s the perfect opening salvo in a collection full of rock stars not only behaving badly, but largely acting outside the realm of approved social norms, often allowed to get away with atrocious behaviors simply because of their pop cultural status. From there we get the usual suspects: Norwegian black metal; Sam Cooke; Sid Vicious; Phil Spector; Chuck Berry; Gram Parsons. All of these stories are fairly well-known, but Brennan manages to put a unique spin on each, often adopting more of an impressionistic approach than strictly chronological or linear narratives.
Such is the case with Gram Parsons, whose story flits back and forth between Altamont (worth its own entry) and his time in the south of France with the Rolling Stones (another peripheral figure who looms large without getting their own dedicated piece) to his final living moments in Joshua Tree to the illegal funeral pyre he would become, thanks to his friend and road manager, Phil Kaufman.
By the time Brennan returns to Elvis (this time Skinny) to close out Disgraceland, he imagines a world in which the King told off manager Colonel Tom Parker, a wildly dubious character who may or may not have murdered someone in his native Netherlands prior to fleeing to the U.S. – and assumed control of Presley’s career in a manner that would’ve negated the arrival of Fat Elvis and, theoretically, nearly everything that occurred between. As with much of the book, it’s more than a little speculative. But it also helps illustrate Brennan’s approach and what ultimately makes Disgraceland such an enjoyable read. Even if you’re already familiar with each and every story contained herein or well-versed in the podcast, the book is still very much worth checking out.