Friday, July 15, 2011
It’s a fact of the rock biz— many successful rock musicians die young. It’s not usually just drugs and booze that do people in; it’s a lifestyle in which good food and sleep are not a priority. What happens when rock stars die— who goes up and who sinks? Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain seem to be the big winners in the posthumous sweepstakes— neither grew into full-on icons until they died. Why, over a long period of time, did Janis Joplin and her music go in the other direction, fading from view to the point of obscurity? It could be that the songs she sung, her own or otherwise, weren’t memorable enough. John Lennon’s fame has been consolidated, if not added to. Death has allowed Nick Drake to leap out ahead of someone like Gram Parsons, just through the unique aura of his presence and music. The sad truth is that there is some evidence to support Neil Young’s claim that it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Rock stars who put out good material for a brief period of time before delivering a seeming eternity of mediocrity bear out the claim.
What death can do is to rig things so that everything certain rock stars put on tape is released. The sheer amount of material Jimi Hendrix recorded was staggering— even if a lot of it was just jam sessions. Almost all of it saw the light of day after Hendrix’s death. Posthumous Hendrix was a cash-cow; and intermittently as compelling as the oeuvre of recordings released during his lifetime. For fans of Jeff and Tim Buckley, their respective deaths initiated a field day, where reissues were concerned. Jeff’s rereleases were moderate cash-cows, Tim’s less so. But rock star “death clubs” are generally a negative influence— they encourage young musicians to believe that self-destruction is inherently glamorous. For many reasons, most good rock writers do their best work before they turn thirty, or thirty-five. The simplest, most profound reason is that the human body can only bear so much. The traditional “write-record-tour” cycle is as physically taxing as it can possibly be. Rock writers who prosper past thirty-five generally have to lead very regimented lives. Sloppiness of any kind cannot be acceptable. Musical ideas can also be difficult to come by after a certain point; rock is mostly musically simple, and most writers only have so many new angles to begin with. On the other hand, if you set up a broad enough foundation for yourself at an early age, things don’t have to dry up— this is an advantage that works for Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, and others.
Rock people often fetishize deceased rock stars simply because they will always remain frozen in time. By remaining frozen, they embody their times more completely. Few in rock in my age-group can forget where they were the day Kurt Cobain’s suicide was revealed. It was a moment that defined rock in the mid-Nineties— disillusionment, drama, and lost innocence. As counterintuitive as it sounds, his death helped us. He took our emotions, and acted them out in an extreme way. For post-punk kids, Ian Curtis might’ve served the same purpose. It’s intriguing to wonder if, for the rock Boomers, the dream was really over until John Lennon was murdered. But Lennon’s death didn’t just end the dream; it framed the whole context of the Boomer dream, and what it was— ideals and excesses exploding against each other all the time. If Jim Morrison and his death could never signify the same thing, it’s because Morrison’s life was transmuted into something else by later generations— definite excesses as ideals, in and of themselves. If Morrison died “so that we might rock,” as the Lennon quip goes (intended for/about Sid Vicious), he was self-martyred by his own excesses. Lennon appears more innocent for that reason. Early death protects, and constricts— it imposes boundaries on rock figures that make them more human, easier to deal with. They can feel more companionable to rock fans, then living (and changing) rock stars; even if Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain and the rest had many potentialities that remained untapped and were destroyed by their deaths. There is a perceptible dichotomy in rock star ethos in general— the impulse to be immortal with death right around the corner. That life lived in the middle can actually be richer is something some rock stars have discovered.