These days if you want to find out what your favourite artist had for lunch, you probably could, along with their star sign, favourite colour and their thoughts about pineapple on pizza. The notion that music isn’t what it once was may well be an overused platitude that’s potentially off the mark, but there is no doubting that some of the spiritual mystique surrounding it has eroded.
Back in the day, stars like Jim Morrison were surrounded by an oeuvre of otherworldliness. These days a young Morrison would have a Twitter account, and his darkly poignant enigma would be blown to bits by a cat video or a ludicrous tweet straight away. However, some artists remain impermeably enigmatic.
They seem embalmed in the miasma of music’s deeply spiritual power and, if we’re honest, it is this mystery that can be so alluring to the audience. It is exactly what fans crave — something to chase.
In some cases, like the folk star Rodriguez, the passing of time has solved the mystery, but other times it proves persistent. Below we’re taking a look at the artists who either metaphorically or literally cut the shape of a cloaked conundrum with their evasive presence in the shadow of the music industries glaring spotlight, much to the bedevilment of fans and sleuths alike.
The ten most mysterious musicians of all time:
5. Niccolo Paganini
The term ‘rockstar’ is obviously a modern coinage. However, the definition therein can be applied to musicians dating way back into history. Niccolo Paganini is one such musician who embodied every rockstar trait in the book way back in 1782.
The Italian violinist was a drinker, a gambler, womaniser and all-around frightening free-spirit. But the devil is in the detail of his playing. The virtuoso star could apparently race through 12 notes per second with absolute precision, spawning rumours of divine involvement. However, owing to his devil may care persona, this divine interference was quite the opposite of heaven-sent. It was claimed that he achieved such ferocious speed because he murdered a woman, trapped her soul in his violin and used her guts as strings. Quite how that would aid speedy playing is up to the mystics to explain.
By the end of his career, he hung up his instrument and turned to the priesthood, so maybe he did have some repentance to do after all?
4. Syd Barrett
When it comes to outsider music, mystery is inherent. However, what sets Syd Barrett aside is that he actually enjoyed seismic mainstream success with Pink Floyd. Syd Barrett departed after two years with the band, and his life drifted into shadowy circumspect thereafter.
At one point in 1967, Syd Barrett indulged in a seven day LSD binge that caused his life to spin out of control. It is theorised that he developed several mental problems during this period, and he regressed into an insular realm of creativity and mystery. He quit the music industry not long after his 1970 final solo album Barrett.
In 1975 he would show up at a Pink Floyd recording session looking unrecognisable. In the space of a decade, he had gone from promising creative luminary to huge star, then descended into the dark depths of slipping sanity. During that journey, he produced some truly seminal masterpieces. However, these are mired the murk of mystery and sometimes rather darker overtones.
For instance, there is a reported story that he locked his girlfriend in a room for three days and slid her biscuits under the door for sustenance during a psychotic episode and other tales of walking 50 miles on foot to track down his mother. In the end, it has to be said that he was a creative force to be reckoned with who was sadly failed by fame.
The rebirth of vinyl has thrown up some great old records that are paradoxically new to the world and some truly fascinating stories. One of the records that has benefitted from feverish hunting by record collectors is the album Harumi and the mysterious artist of the same name whom very little is known about.
On the sleeve of the record, it is revealed that Tony Wilson produced it. The reason that is significant is that Tony Wilson is world-renowned. Before working with Harumi, he had produced records for Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, The Velvet Underground and Simon & Garfunkel. Aside from the production credit of Tony Wilson, the rest of the album is pretty much blank. It doesn’t have any musicians listed or even a date (although it is believed to have been recorded between 1967-1968).
After the record release, Harumi disappeared into the ether, which imbues its undeniable ethereal feel with an even deeper sense of spiritualism. Harumi, if you’re out there, then please do get in touch?
2. William Onyeaboar
William Onyeaboar is the funk-master of Nigeria who evaded the world’s spotlight, and seemingly he had every intention to do so forevermore. Between 1977 and 1985, Onyeaboar produced eight highly innovative and melodically infectious albums all on his own. And by all on his own, in this case, that entails the production and even the pressing and dispatching of the vinyl.
He garnered quite a following throughout Africa but disappeared from the music industry (that he was never really part of anyway) in 1985 as he became a born again Christian.
In 2013 his music was picked up by David Byrne‘s world music label Luaka Bop, and they released a compilation of his work entitled Who Is William Onyeaboar? The reissue sent fans of world music into a frenzy and the elusive electro hero was finally tracked down by BBC Radio 6 to give his first-ever interview.
1. Robert Johnson
As the legend goes, in the deep America South, the moon rose over the bayou, setting beasts and blues players howling alike, and through the mist roved Robert Johnson, bidding a solemn farewell to town and civility, “with a $10 guitar strapped to his back, looking for a tune”.
His doggerel hollering and sketch guitar playing had led to him being chased out of town like a pariah. And now he was a man on a mission, the despair of his past lay behind him, and his future stretched out on the warped paths ahead.
At the crossroads where four dusty black roads met, Johnson dropped to his knees, summoning the might to meet with his maker. He stretched out his guitar and up rose Lucifer with a bargain in tow. Unlike the tale of Tenacious D, Satan wasn’t offering the sort of songs you’d forget in a hurry. For the cost of Robert’s soul, Beelzebub would bestow upon him musical greatness.
Exactly a year later, he returned to the bluesy booze joints like a champion prodigal son with an extra string on his guitar; a songsmith virtuoso, the crowned king of delta blues and the forefather of rock & roll… till the devil took back what was rightfully his and Johnson became the first poisoned member of the 27 club.
In fairness, even the supposed truth to it is well and truly touched by mystery itself. His year of no return was spent practising from nightfall to morning in a graveyard “where there’s nobody to complain, and the spirits help the playing.”