David Bowie, Paul Kanter, Maurice White, Lemmy Kilmister, Keith Emerson, Glen Frey, George Martin… these are some of the notable pop music figures that have died over the last few months—and those are just the ones off the top of my head. We have come to the age where social media tributes to our fallen rock heroes seem to be taking over from the perpetuation of the artform in practice. It’s almost like we’ve become the modern equivalent of the old-timers who always turn first to the obituary section of the local newspaper.
It’s no secret: rock ‘n’ roll as defined by that name in the mid-1950s, and hitting its popular and creative critical mass in the Sixties and Seventies, is getting a little long in the tooth. With so many of our heroes from the classic-rock era now creeping into their seventies, this passing of an era thru the passing of its great practitioners is only going to be felt more acutely the farther we get down the road. Oh sure, there’s still lots of rock to be had. “Legacy artists” tour the summer sheds each year, there are CD re-issues and vinyl to be hunted down in funky little shops, thriving local scenes and even a fair number of younger bands who have picked up the baton—though I’m not sure if I’ll be up for Tame Impala’s 30th Anniversary Tour, due in 2037.
Lemmy prepares to blast his way thru the pearly gates
Of course, it’s not just the slow and steady march of time that is at issue when it comes to pop music and mortality. Ever since February 3, 1958—the day we lost Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper but gained a Don McLean epic—who shuffles off the mortal rock coil and how has been a big part of the music’s culture. In 1971, Boston-based Fusion magazine, who also dabbled in publishing, placed a back cover ad for three books they were releasing (Ok, I’ve been going thru my old magazine collection again). One of them was called “No One Waved Good-bye” (where “some of your favorites write about the taste for death in the pop palette”) and I was able to find it for short money at alibris.com. This slim paperback is a fascinating look back to the early days of rock fans’ folkloric attitudes towards mortality. It stands in sharp contrast to Jeremy Simmonds’ 2006 tome “The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars,” a 600-page cataloguing of deceased demi-gods and laid-to-rest lesser-knowns.
“No One Waved Good-bye” came out so early in the game that the book has as its primary focus only four figures: Janis, Jimi and two Brians, Jones and Epstein. This is a more-steely eyed review than one would expect now and generally written in a discursive style more uncommon in our less literate, what’s-the-takeaway age. Edited by Fusion chief Robert Somma, contributors include rock scribe pack-leaders like Jon Landau, Lillian Roxon, Richard Meltzer and Al Aronowitz. Lou Reed also chips in with a piece and there is a probing two-way interview between Danny Fields and educator Jeff Nesin. “Ten years ago, dying was a faraway place, something that happened to other people,” Somma writes in the introduction to the earlier book, pointing out rock’s relative youth (Jim Morrison hadn’t even died yet!). Many of the writers here are reckoning with the effects of the scene’s wayward drug-and-drink overindulgences and the eternal paradoxes of fame.
Some detour off that now well-worn path and offer novel takes on the subject. Australian writer Craig McGregor notes the “intolerable pressures” on artists when “the media revolution force-feeds 20th century art to an early maturity” (comparing pop’s progress to the hyperdrive developments in mid-century jazz) and observes that talented but less emotionally stable practitioners are sometimes “crushed in the compression chamber.” The high-spirited Lillian Roxon, author of the seminal “Encyclopedia of Rock” and only two years away from her own sudden demise from a severe asthma attack, pays tribute to Janis in terms of her wayward sexual liberation and beauty-salon-denying, gypsy fashion sense (“Can you imagine going to Woodstock in a pantygirdle or taking hair curlers? If you didn’t look like Janis when you got there, you sure as hell looked like her by the time you left”).
Elsewhere, one gets a fresh sense of a more rigorous analytical style much less given to today’s lionizing. “There was clearly and blankly no real music left in Janis,” opines Neil Louison. Lou Reed dissects Jimi Hendrix’s dilemma about how to get his audience to move beyond the trippy theatrics that may have attracted them in the first place: “The lover demands consistency, and unless you’ve established variance as your norm a priori you will be called an adulterer.” Roger that.
Of course, Lou would live long enough to be elevated in an age of Rock Elders where long past aberrations are more easily overlooked or celebrated—yes, I’m looking at you, “Metal Machine Music.” He was still around for the 2006 publication of “The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars” (a 2nd edition came out in 2008). But there are plenty of names, both legendary and not so much, to fill out this volume and if a third edition were released today it would likely be the size of a cinder block. In his opening chapter, author Jeremy Simmonds kicks things off in the intro with a recounting, as best he can given the murky circumstances, of the death-by-poisoning of blues legend Robert Johnson back in 1938.
Early inklings of the dreaded “27 Club” of which Robert Johnson was a charter member
The mystery and untimeliness behind Johnson’s death sets the tone for the roll call to follow, which begins in earnest in 1965 (chronological by demise date). One repeated and unfortunate theme is the general unsavory nature of so many star deaths: the “justifiable homicide” of Sam Cooke, the unsolved killings of people like Bobby Fuller and Jamaican dub pioneer King Tubby, or barely punished ones like the shooting death of Felix Pappalardi by his wife, not to mention the many drug overdoses and high-speed accidents.
Each name starts with a brief bio and the high profile deaths are given lengthy entries. This will give the reader all they want to know and more about the unhappy, unusual or just plain sordid circumstances surrounding the last moments of everyone from Dennis Wilson to Sid Vicious to Gram Parsons to Kurt Cobain and so many others. In view of this, Simmonds’ books acts better as a reference work than something to read front to back. There are lots of interesting facts to be learned or reminded of (I didn’t realize there were some 60 copycat suicides in the wake of Cobain’s death) and even some of the more obscure entries can be at least instructional. Not many outside of the Jethro Tull fan base may care to read about their late 70s bassist John Glascock but the entry acts as “a stern warning to those who ignore dental problems” as a neglected tooth abscess led to a fatal heart infection.
But with its glib undertow, tipped off by the groan-inducing subtitle “Heroin, Handguns and Ham Sandwiches,” this book kind of buys into that “taste for death in the pop palette” a bit much for my tastes. Perhaps the morbid fascination with how it all ends for our pop heroes is part and parcel of the fan devotion and why we loved them in the first place. “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse” was never one of my favorite sayings, but at the rate we’re going the only alternative left will be the Rock ‘n’ Roll Rest Home. At least the doctors won’t have to wonder why we’re all hard of hearing.