In his infamous 1979 Village Voice article “Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes,” Greil Marcus told of an unwelcome business proposal: “[A] promoter—probably the same one who appears in the last verse of ‘Highway 61 Revisited’—suggested that he and I collaborate on a book about ‘all the people in rock ‘n’ roll who ever died.’” The completist view was ostensibly possible at the time; rock was still young; it shouldn’t have racked up that great of a death toll. The project would require an encyclopedia, perhaps, but surely a single-volume one.
Marcus was quick to point out that, handed his demurral, the market didn’t choose to go hungry. Jimi, Jim, and Janis have since received their due many times over. Dave Thompson’s unreflective rock necrography, Better to Burn Out: The Cult of Death in Rock ‘n’ Roll, is but the latest of the lineage. At least he forgoes covering most of the usual suspects, instead honoring their memories with a five-minute Photoshop horror, the two-page “gallery of death.” He bemoans the last-graf mentions most rock-star exits receive, so his accounts of life and death tip the scales toward the latter.
Young Americans are Thompson’s book’s target demo. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Sublime’s Brad Nowell, Smashed Pumpkin Jonathan Melvoin, and Stone Cold Chili Pepper Hillel Slovak naturally get pride of place. Rockin’ ‘n’ restin’ indie forebears such as Joy Division’s Ian Curtis and the Germs’ Darby Crash provide immediate historical context. But Thompson considers himself a scholar of the loud and dead, so he also catalogs the final countdowns of the obscure (mishyped, out ‘n’ proud glam flop Jobriath), the British (flouncy ’50s songbird Alma Cogan), and the stupid (German metallion Gunther Dietz, who fired his lead guitarist, went on two hours late, and then expected fans to catch him when he dived off the stage—only to be peed on by one of the faithful instead).
Sadly, the whole thing reads like a contract quickie. Thompson may have more than 50 books to his credit—including Never Fade Away: The Kurt Cobain Story, published two months after Cobain’s suicide—but those numbers aren’t exactly to his credit, are they? Riddled with errors, Better to Burn Out confuses dead Kiss drummer Eric Carr with living Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley, moves the Govinda Gallery, host of a 1995 Stu Sutcliffe exhibit, from Georgetown to New York, gives Glenn Danzig a new first name (Hi, Gregg), provides endnotes for text that has been deleted, misspells “dysentery” and the title of a Smashing Pumpkins album, and offers Heavy Metal Kid Gary Holton his choice of two death dates (pick ’86—it’s later!).
It doesn’t help matters that Thompson is a miserable technician, the kind of editor’s nightmare who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about pronoun antecedents and dangling participles and who thinks “intemperate” means the opposite of what it does. He’s sloppy and inattentive, mentioning that “only Darby Crash and G.G. Allin ever succeeded in (or even attempted) turning their final breaths into their final performances,” then underplaying Allin’s OD and underreporting Crash’s.
Thompson is mystically impressed by coincidence (from one of the endnotes—heh, heh—”The first song murdered Beatle John Lennon ever recorded was Holly’s ‘That’ll Be the Day’; the last song Ricky Nelson performed before he perished in a fire on board his chartered aircraft was ‘Rave On.’ And in 1990, on the 41st anniversary of Holly’s death, Del Shannon played his last ever concert, fronting the Crickets.”) And Thompson’s authorial voice isn’t much better than his arithmetic. When not workmanlike, it’s by turns mechanically elegiac (“Jeff Buckley, one of Gone Again’s most shimmering guests, slipped beneath the waters of the Mississippi River….”), loopy (“Sutcliffe became a talisman of sorts, a spectral watchdog both guarding and guiding the band he’d left behind…”), and just plain dumb (“The only suspect missing was Winnie-the-Pooh, in whose house Jones was now living, and who was doubtless shocked to the core of his stuffing by the Bacchanalian excesses to which he was now a spectral witness”). Dunno about you, but I read that and am haunted by the spectral Nigel Tufnel.
And it’s too bad, because the author’s subject is one that engages music fans, and our concern isn’t mere blood lust. Clearly mistrustful of reviewer intent, the book’s press release scolds, “Dave Thompson maintains that an artist’s musical legacy—and not his untimely demise—is how he should be remembered.” Well, no kidding. We don’t obsess over just any poor sap who gets it in the neck. You don’t see massive, aisle-capping displays of Thick as a Brick: Foolhardy Construction Deaths in the East End, Unkempt, Uncorked: The Last Words of Disgraced Sommeliers, or Leveraged Buyout: Fallen Heroes of the Golden Age of Arbitrage. We care about rock death because we care about rock.
And we care about rock because we care about feeling alive. The music’s outsize vital force remains a mystery to players and listeners alike. It seems silly to believe in muses, but what else are you left with when so often a performer’s talent and drive, necessary but insufficient, leave the rock gods unpropitiated? And the muses favor both youth and accident. Artists often don’t know what has hit them when it all comes together. A bemused Stephen Malkmus was recently seen in print scratching his head over the acclaim heaped on Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted, an auspicious record slapped together under inauspicious circumstances.
Rock death is our primary metaphor for the unsustainability of rock transcendence. After the briefest of intervals, the music turns its back on the people who made it. (Actual rock-crit exchange: “I prefer the early stuff.” “It’s always the early stuff, isn’t it?”) This rejection may evidence itself in the workings of the market, but it shouldn’t be taken as merely an indicator of public caprice. The Oedipal movement of newer against older has been killing off musicians, literally and figuratively, since rock began (though AOR did its damnedest to slow the flow).
Death is but the most resounding fall from grace; less fatal means of expulsion are frequently no less final. Age distances creator from creation. Consider the ever dicey reunion/comeback attempt. To pull it off, an act has to successfully reimagine itself (the Raincoats, Pere Ubu); otherwise it’s doomed to hapless miming (the Sex Pistols), misbegotten adventuring (King Crimson), or glad-handing bonhomie (the Velvet Underground).
The part of Marcus’ Village Voice piece everyone remembers is the extensive list of individual passings, which saw each performer archly graded for past artistic contribution, projected future contribution, and exit style. (Heroin OD, “the common cold of rock death” got the deceased one point out of a possible 10.) The roster, whose appeal is universal and not as hideous a thing as Marcus supposes, was rather disingenuously grafted to an angry, heartfelt essay on “the cant word of the ’70s”: “survivor.”
Marcus was right to excoriate the artists and commentators who bestowed praise, often self-congratulatory, on folks who managed merely to stick around through the excesses of the rough-and-tumble rock life, but he failed to confront the historical forces at play in the genesis of the ’70s survivor cult. (And it was a cult, something people bought into for largely religious reasons; Thompson’s titular misnomer, on the other hand, denotes numbers but hardly design.) The previous decade had witnessed the forced maturation of the music as the counterculture sought to exercise its voice and distance itself from everything the Man held dear. Politicization forced musicians to shun their ’50s roots. A line was drawn between pop and rock ‘n’ roll, another between rock ‘n’ roll and “rock.” Squealing teenyboppers and flash-in-the-pan teen idols were instant relics. As political disillusion set in at the turn of the decade, rock became self-conscious about its disposability and its status as art. The early ’70s saw the rise of art rock, the rock opera, and the “serious” singer-songwriter. Longevity—survival—began to be equated with quality. Remnants of this shift linger today in a Rolling Stone that considers the umpteenth Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion cover-blurb material.
Survivorship, far from being obvious and bluntly factual, is instead quixotic. Everyone wants to keep riding the crest of greatness, but no one ever really gets to, even if he remains alive. Paul may not be dead, but how do you think of him? As vegetarian widower-knight? As pothead pop-oratorio scribe? Or as toe-tapping, Hofner-toting moptop who sang of girls, heartache, and fun? Rock memory consists of moments, isolated from the present, that we can teleport back to via film, tape, or disc, episodes that are infinitely repeatable—and permanently inaccessible.
Recorded, repetition cements rock fandom; live, it annihilates rock performance. A certain amount of practice ensures tightness; too much destroys the spontaneity of a medium that thrives on the unexpected. Those of us who attend concerts expecting something other than a live rendition of the record go hoping to see something that will happen only once, as something unearthly pops out of the discipline of a band’s routine.
When it happens, we mythologize it. Death intensifies the tale. The last time I saw R.E.M., the band was playing a high school auditorium in North Carolina, and the Minutemen were opening. Less than two weeks later, D. Boon, the punk trio’s rotund guitarist (and an entry on Better to Burn Out’s lamely unannotated calendar o’ doom) lay dead, thrown from the back of a van when his girlfriend dozed off at the wheel. (At least that’s the way I recall it; latter-day accounts have turned unnecessarily delicate.) There are other shows I recall as fondly, each as firmly locked away in the past, but in December 1985, a great set, compounded by my friends’ incomprehension and the impossibility of a repeat performance, became the stuff of personal legend.
If Thompson’s artless collage of deaths great and small—of young suicides and younger ODs, of older cancers, heart attacks, and kidney failures—implies any words of comfort for Boon and his comrades in extinction, they are these: Burn out or fade away, it’s always over sooner than you think.CP