The sandwich is the most rock ‘n’ roll of foodstuffs, unless you were to count whiskey as a food, or possibly some sort of exotic game, like wildebeest or possibly shark meat, and then only if you killed it yourself (what up, Ted Nugent?). The sandwich can express a punk-rock DIY aesthetic or reach Lear-jets-and-Cristal levels of gourmet. It can feed lots of people quickly and is the perfect festival food for its relative affordability, portability and the fact that nothing goes down better after a day of sweating excessively, experimenting with illicit substances, and listening to bands who you didn’t know existed before this morning but now love more than anyone or anything else in the world quite like a slightly-burnt grilled cheese.
As such, the sandwich has worked its way into rock mythology and lore in a number of ways, from the aforementioned grilled cheese becoming woven into depictions of the stoner-festie stereotype in film and television, to Warren Zevon’s famous last words (which I wrote about in the first edition of this column). There are the sandwich tales tied directly to modern musical titans and their cult of personality, from their association with the bloated excess of a rapidly-falling star (Elvis’ predilection for the hurts-so-good fried peanut butter and banana concoction) to likely untrue raunchy backstage tales that nonetheless birthed images of immortal rock lotharios (not an actual sandwich, per se, but we’ll count the infamous “shark sandwich” yarn involving Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, a groupie and a mud shark). Even Spinal Tap had their Zeppelin-referencing album title, Shark Sandwich, a work so abysmal, the only review the audience hears consists of just two words: “Shit sandwich.”
But the sandwich’s position in the rock pantheon is perhaps most significantly sealed by its implication in the deaths of two of the genre’s greatest figures of the Woodstock era: Mama Cass Elliot and James Marshall Hendrix.
The death of Mama Cass, in particular, has become entrenched in myth and is the subject of several countercultural conspiracy theories. She was pregnant with John Lennon’s love child. There was an FBI assassination plot against her. But the one about a ham sandwich was the one that stuck, and perhaps that’s the most telling. Yes, there had been a sandwich on her nightstand (its contents are up for debate, although ham is most commonly mentioned in the urban legend, a jab at her weight), but she hadn’t touched it. The ham sandwich rumor spread, and even though the actual cause of death (a heart attack, the result of years of obesity, crash dieting and experimenting with drugs) was revealed a week later, the legend persists to this day.
Death becomes rock stars, of course, but in the case of Mama Cass, the ham sandwich story has had a particularly unfortunate implication on her legacy. In the memetic word-association game we play, “ham sandwich” will always be associated with her, almost to the point of surpassing her music with The Mamas and the Papas or the fact that she was a sex symbol of her time in spite of her weight. There is a whole generation of people who appreciate, play and write about music who have seen Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery that haven’t seen Mama Cass’s Cheetah magazine cover, which inspired much of the look of the film. On the cover she’s naked and unashamed and radiant, covered partly in daisies, looking very earth-motherly. That her death has become a biting and untrue meme in part because of her weight is a shame, letting subscription to myth, as it often does, take the place of real appreciation of the music she left behind.
Jimi Hendrix’s death, on the other hand, actually was in part due to the sandwich he’d had for his last meal: tuna on white bread, with wine (you always need a good white with a fish dish) and plenty of Vesparax sleeping pills. His demise had a lot to do with the drugs in his system of course, but it was an innocuous tuna on white that shot through his gullet and up his throat while the poor guy was unconscious that caused him to suffocate. Jimi Hendrix, rock idol to millions, from musical scholars to 12-year-old’s trying to strum out “Purple Haze” on their used guitars, killed by a tuna sandwich.
Like Mama Cass, Jimi Hendrix’s death made him immortal and gave birth to the same loads of conspiracy theories (most famously that his manager had him killed, a story fabricated by a former Animals roadie). But unlike Mama Cass, Hendrix’s cause of death wasn’t the catalyst for a number of legacy-detracting jokes about tuna sandwiches.
Rock star mythology is a tricky and often deceptive business, and often something so simple—a sandwich on a nightstand, a story about a mud shark, an ill-fated meal chased with sleeping pills—becomes central to the lore.