Monday, November 22, 2010

On 27 dead rock stars

Back in 2005, with a little help from my friends, I launched an online pop culture magazine called White Noise, named after the Don DeLillo novel. You can still read a good chunk of what we published on the Internet Archive, but since this blog serves as my de facto online writing portfolio, I thought I'd re-publish some of my pieces (with footnotes!) here. This one was written for our List Issue and I'm rather proud of it, since it basically distills everything I'd learned about rock and roll up to that point into a single article.

27. John Entwistle
On June 27, 2002 in Las Vegas, Nevada, the night before The Who were set to launch their umpteenth reunion tour, bass wizard John Entwistle invited a prostitute up to his room and snorted some cocaine, thinking he was still a 20-something rock star. His body disagreed and shut down that same night. You've got to admire the rock star stupidity of it all. Entwistle was 55.

  1. 26. Karen Carpenter*

Karen Carpenter began seeing a psychiatrist in 1982 to help her in a long battle with anorexia nervosa. Carpenter began putting on weight but the strain was too great for her badly damaged body and on February 4, 1983, she died of a cardiac arrest. The Carpenters' singing drummer was 32.

25. Nick Drake
Listening to Nick Drake's bleak masterpiece,
Pink Moon, it's hard to imagine that his overdose on antidepressants on November 26, 1974, was an accident. Posthumously Drake has become one of rock's most revered singer-songwriters, inspiring artists like Jeff Buckley, who drowned on May 29, 1997, and Elliot Smith, who stabbed himself on October 21, 2003. Drake was 26.

24. Gram Parsons
Former Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother Gram Parsons overdosed and died on September 19, 1973 in Joshua Tree, California, but more interesting is the story of what happened to his body afterward. Parsons was set to be buried in Louisiana but former road manager Phil Kaufman and a friend managed to steal the body from the Los Angeles International Airport and burned Parsons' remains in Joshua Tree, resulting in a $700 fine for Kaufman and the friend. Parsons was 26.

23. John Bonham
The hard-hitting Led Zeppelin drummer drank far too much and slept the wrong way on September 25, 1980, which resulted in him choking to death, simultaneously killing Led Zeppelin. He was 32.

22. "Mama" Cass Elliot
One of rock's strangest legends is that Cass died by choking on a ham sandwich. It's not true. She died of a heart failure on July 29, 1974 and was 32.

21. Bon Scott
The gruff-voiced AC/DC vocalist was asphyxiated by his vomit after a night of heavy boozing on February 19, 1980. He was replaced by Brian Johnson, who sounded exactly like him. Scott was 33.

20. Paul McCartney
Ever notice that McCartney's back is turned on the back cover of
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? Or that he's barefoot and his eyes are closed on the cover of Abbey Road? Or that John Lennon says "I buried Paul" duing the coda of "Strawberry Fields Forever?" All proof that McCartney had died in a horrible car crash on a Wednesday morning at 5 o'clock (as they day began) . This is, of course, rubbish, but it's fascinating rubbish and the website Paul Is Dead** does a great job of documenting the whole legend. McCartney is 63, alive and well and adds to his reputation as the Lame Beatle a little more every day.

19. Ronnie Van Zant
Three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, including singer and primary songwriter Van Zant, were killed when their plane crashed outside of Gillsburg, Mississippi, on October 20, 1977. The rest of the band was seriously hurt but survived and eventually reformed, but they shouldn't have. Van Zant was 29.

18. Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye was shot and killed by his father, Rev. Marvin Gaye Sr., on April 1, 1984. The two had never got on well and the murder was the end result of an ugly argument. Gaye was a day away from his 45th birthday.

17. Duane Allman
On October 29, 1971 the Allman Brothers Band's lead guitarist went out for ride on his motorcycle in Macon, Georgia, was forced off the rode by an oncoming truck and crashed to his death. Almost a year to the date, Allman Brothers Band bassist Berry Oakley died in a crash just a few blocks away. Allman was 24.

16. Sam Cooke
No one knows exactly what happened at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles on December 11, 1964. The only thing that's certain is that by the end of the night the inventor of soul music, Sam Cooke, was dead, shot to death by motel manager Berta Franklin, who says she was defending herself. Cooke was 33.

15. Keith Moon
Pills, alcohol, prostitutes, broken bones, exploding drum sets, and driving cars into swimming pools are all part of the legend of Moon the Loon, so it's actually surprising The Who's maniacal drummer lasted as long as he did. On September 6, 1978, Moon returned to his London home after attending a party hosted by the not-dead Paul McCartney. He ate a steak and took 28 Heminevrin, a drug prescribed to help him combat alcoholism, which toxically combined with the alcohol in his system and killed him sometime the next afternoon. The Who still perform live, but no one knows why. Moon was 32.

14. Ian Curtis
The morose Curtis, whose epileptic seizures often blended seamlessly with his spastic on-stage dancing, remains one of pop music's greatest enigmas and rock historians still speculate as to why the Joy Division vocalist hanged himself on May 18, 1980. The remaining members of Joy Division went on to form New Order. Curtis was 23.

13. Otis Redding
Soul music lost its greatest voice when Redding's plane crashed into a Wisconsin lake on December 10, 1967, killing him and four members of his band, the Bar-Kays. He was, remarkably, only 26.

12. Bob Marley
Doctors conducted tests after the King of Reggae's toenail fell off, and they discovered a form of skin cancer. They suggested amputation, but Marley, a devout Rastafarian, refused on religious grounds. He quietly suffered for nearly four years, before succumbing on May 11, 1981 in Miami, Florida, robbing the world of an extraordinary and unique talent. Marley's former Wailer bandmate Peter Tosh died seven years later, shot in his Jamaican home by burglars on September 11, 1987. Marley was 36.

11. Sid Vicious
If Sid Vicious was still alive, most of us wouldn't know his name. A man with only tenuous connections to music, Sid Vicious is referred to as the Sex Pistols' bassist, but most of the songs on their one and only album were recorded by a session musician. Vicious was punk rock's poster-boy, a self-destructive hedonist who lived his life fighting, fucking, and getting fucked up. His heroin overdose on February 2, 1979 in New York didn't surprise anyone. He was 21.

10. Tupac Shakur
9. Notorious B.I.G.**

One of the great hip-hop myths is that rapping provides an outlet for black urban youth to escape the ghetto. But for Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., the fame and fortune provided by their careers in hip-hop only sunk them deeper into the violence plaguing America's inner-cities. The end result: premature deaths for both men.

At 11:10 p.m. on September 7, 1996, as he was making his way home after a Mike Tyson boxing match in Las Vegas, Tupac was hit by four bullets fired from a white Cadillac while his car was stopped at an intersection. He died six days later at the University of Nevada Medical Center. He was 25.

On March 9, 1997, Biggie Smalls sat in the passenger seat of his SUV after attending a party held by Vibe magazine in Los Angeles, when a vehicle pulled up beside him at a stoplight and the men inside opened fire. Biggie was rushed to hospital, but it was too late. He was 24.

Both cases remain open, will likely never be solved and the scars of these murders will stay with hip-hop and black America.

8. Brian Jones
7. Jimi Hendrix
6. Janis Joplin
5. Jim Morrison

It began with the tossing of a Stone and ended with the slamming of a Door. In between there was the end of an Experience and the cracking of a Pearl.*** In the span of just two years, rock and roll's liberating ideals of a free mind, free body and free soul came crashing down in a storm of drug-related deaths, adding "dying young" to the maxim of "Sex, drugs and rock and roll."

It began on July 3, 1969, when Brian Jones, the founding member of the Rolling Stones was found dead in his swimming pool in Essex, England, just one month after he'd been kicked out of the band. Jones, who already had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, drowned while drunk and stoned on sedatives.

Next was the man who, when he made his American debut at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, embodied all that was good about the psychedelic rock movement: idealism, fearlessness, and a desire to create unity through music. But by 1970, drugs, money problems and an inability to decide on a musical direction left Jimi Hendrix in a purple haze. On September 18, 1970, Hendrix took nine Vesperax sleeping pills at his London apartment and died choking on his own vomit.

The next casualty came just weeks later. She was the queen of Southern blues who couldn't resist a bottle of Southern Comfort, rock and roll's first heroine who met her maker in a needle filled with heroin. Janis Joplin wasn't the most consistent performer but when she was on, no one could come close to matching her unhinged passion. On October 4, 1970, Joplin shot up a large dose of extremely pure heroin in Los Angeles and never recovered.

Finally, the man who once said: "I see myself as a huge fiery comet, a shooting star. Everyone stops, points up and gasps 'Oh look at that!' Then--whoosh, and I'm gone... and they'll never see anything like it ever again, and they won't be able to forget me--ever" made good on his words. For some, he was rock and roll's greatest poet, an explosive combination of raw talent, moody good looks, and leather pants. For others, he was a leather pants-wearing drunken lout who spewed juvenile babble over cheesy organ riffs. On July 3, 1971, Jim Morrison died in the bathtub of his Paris home, reportedly from a heart attack, surely caused by drugs and alcohol. His Paris grave remains a popular tourist attraction for baby boomers and stoners.

They were all 27.

4. Kurt Cobain

Like any proper rock and roll death, Kurt Cobain's passing is a mystery. Those who suggest Cobain was murdered (at the behest of Courtney Love) have a decent case to go on. But suicide fits the Cobain mythology so much better.

Kurt Cobain played the role of tortured rock star better than anyone before or after him. It was a role he desperately wanted to escape, but it was the role everyone needed him to play. He spoke to that generation of long-haired kids in flannel who felt just as disaffected, bored, angry, and helpless in the plastic, soulless, hopeless society they lived in as he did.

But those kids had Kurt Cobain, and Kurt Cobain had a bad stomach, heroin and Courtney Love. And those kids, the ones who loved Kurt most, had inadvertently made him a part of that same society they railed against. Kurt Cobain, the Anti-Superstar, had become the Anti-Superstar Superstar. In his note, Cobain famously quoted Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My", writing "it's better to burn out than to fade away." In rock and roll, that's the truth. But it's still really fucking sad. Kurt Cobain, dead of a gunshot wound to the head on April 5, 1994, was 27.

3. Elvis Presley
2. Buddy Holly

On February 3, 1959, a plane went down during a snowstorm near Clear Lake, Iowa, killing all four passengers, including 17-year old Ritchie Valens, the 29-year old Big Bopper and 22-year-old Buddy Holly.

If the hip-swiveling Elvis, with his raw, sexed-up baritone and country boy good looks was the brawn of the rock and roll revolution, Buddy Holly was the brains. He was rock and roll's first singer-songwriter and the first artist to combine the creative and performance aspects of the form, but will forever be remembered as the skinny, bespectacled kid with the disarming smile, an innocent genius immortalized by that fateful plane crash on the day the music died.

Holly's death marked both the end of one era in rock music history and the beginning of the next. The '50s, the decade that spawned rock and roll in America, were ending and the early revolutionaries were disappearing. Elvis had joined the military and Holly was dead. But on that rainy island across the Atlantic, kids everywhere were picking up guitars, inspired equally by Elvis' raw sexuality and Holly's musical creativity, and the seeds of an even greater revolution were planted.

But Elvis would not be a part of this revolution. After finishing his military service, the King returned with a series of weak films and even weaker songs. Easily manipulated by his manager Colonel Tom Parker and blinded by his own desire for wealth and fame, Elvis became everything rock and roll stood against. The Elvis of old briefly re-emerged at the end of the '60s but it was already too late**** and The King would soon descend into a haze of prescription pills, bad jumpsuits, shotguns, and fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. He was found dead in his Graceland home on August 16, 1977, but was gone a long time before that. Elvis was 42.

1. John Lennon
On December 8, 1980, around 11 p.m. local time, John Lennon stepped out of his car outside his New York City apartment and was shot four times by Mark David Chapman, a deranged fan who that same day, had Lennon sign one of his albums. Lennon was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

Lennon's death is more closely related to Buddy Holly's than to the deaths of his '60s rock contemporaries, because it was completely innocent. Lennon did indulge in his fair share of rock and roll excess in the late '60s and early '70s (he had a particular affinity for LSD and was briefly addicted to heroin) but spent the last part of his life at home raising his son Sean, eating fish and baking bread. In 1980, Lennon was in the early midst of a dramatic comeback that was cut short by Chapman's madman murder. Although conspiracy theorists suggest Chapman was brainwashed by lunatic right-wingers, the truth is even scarier: John Lennon was killed because he was famous.

For Beatles fans-come-lately like me, there is no memory of where we were the day he was shot. For us, John Lennon was always dead. But that doesn't make it any easier to understand. He was 40.

*I have no idea why I included Karen Carpenter.
**Way to tokenize, Ursi.
***Way to overwrite, Ursi.
****I think I glossed over this 1969/1970 Elvis revival too quickly. The records he made in Memphis in this period are deadly.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Mamma Cass would have given that ham sammich to Karen Carpenter they might BOTH still be alive!!

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

weird coincidence-both Mama Cass and Keith Moon died in the same London flat, which was owned by Harry Nilsson.

5:49 PM  

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