Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Resquiat in pace, and thanks for the music in me, BUT - Why all the fuss?

The death of Michael Jackson this past week has reminded me of all the rock musicians who have passed in my memory. This is not a comprehensive list, of course. 50 years is a long time span, and there were hundreds of performers during that period, so it's not surprising that so many have died. It just seems that every few years I would hear of another favorite performer kicking. Until I was 17, noone in my family had died, so it was really the stars going out that brought mortality close to my thoughts. There also always seemed to be a personal connection I felt to many of these people, either because I watched them perform live at some significant point in my life or theirs, or simply because their music was my soundtrack. I remember the "Day the Music Died." I was in the back seat of my mother's Ford, driving into Manhasset, NY on Plandome Road when the radio announcer came on to tell of the death of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens in the same crash. That was a hard blow because "Chantilly Lace," "Peggy Sue," "That'll be the Day" and "La Bamba" were my four favorite songs. I was standing on Beacon Street in Brookline, MA when I heard of Jimmy Hendrix's death, and sitting in the living room of my father's house in Oyster Bay, NY when I learned of the suicide of Phil Ochs. There isn't much I can say about the subject without sounding vacuous and sophomoric. Like film stars, rock stars seem in some ways to exist in their own time when they first came into our consciousness, and each intrusion of the older reality into the present is almost more of a shock than hearing of their death, somehow.

And why does this seem significant? After all, in the 50 years since Holly fell from the sky, both literally and figuratively, somewhere between 3 1/2 and 5 billion people have died: great statespersons, doctors, beloved religious figures, artists of many kinds, mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers by the cattle carload. What in the world makes these 39 people and their ilk so damned special? I can only surmise that these were the people that I knew or knew of who died between the time I became aware and my 18th year, when my grandmother died. Noone I knew or was related to died during this period, went to Viet Nam, has any major dieases, so the idea of the termination of another human being simply did not seem real to me as a boy. We did not live in a neighborhood and so didn't even have the peripheral experience of close neighbors' tragedies. A sheltered life? Absolutely! Sheltered and incredibly lucky.

The death of an artist can even be considered less of a loss to the human race than that of someone wholly obscure. The artist, after all, has left a body of work that has at least the potential of living after him or her. All I have to do to experience the music of Buddy Holly, much in the way that I originally experienced it, is to put on one of those old 45s and there he is again. Most of the billions who have died since then have melted into the pool of past lives with barely a trace, perhaps some regret and grieving from a few souls who knew the dead person, but then nothing, just silence. The whole sum of that person's existence adds as little to that of humanity in general as the hypothetical Asian butterfy's wingbeats affect the hurricane in the Caribbean. I have never understood the need for who knows that keep the fans of these people sobbing obssessively through the decades, long after even the family has ceased to mourn. What image of glory or fantasized love or psuedo-religious fervor keeps the grief for the artist alive and fervent for so many years?

Stars that I do miss, but not so much that I lose much sleep over them.
In the order of their disappearance

Buddy Holly J.P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) Ritchie Valens Brian Jones
Janis Joplin
Jimmy Hendrix Jim Morrison Duane Allman Bobby Darin Jim Croce
Graham Parsons Cass Elliot Phil Ochs Elvis Presley Sandy Denny Keith Moon
Sid Vicious
Tim Hardin John Lennon Bill Haley Bob Marley Harry Chapin
Felix Pappalardi Dennis Wilson Marvin Gaye Jackie Wilson Ricky Nelson
Del Shannon Freddie Mercury Frank Zappa Kurt Cobain Harry Nilsson Laura Nyro Carl Wilson John Phillips George Harrison Joey Ramone Dave Van Ronk
Michael Jackson


  1. David, would you mind posting your URL in the webliography? I would like to use it, in our class, as an example for those who need ideas. I am certainly enjoying the entertainment. You are QUITE the writer. Thanks, Peggy
    What in the world are you wearing in your blog photo and what were you preparing for? look like Nanook of the North.

  2. Hey, I can tell we like a lot of the same musicians. I had a similar experience as you with experiencing death through my heros. Kurt Cobain, and Jerry Garcia are two people that come to mind that really had a big impact on me. It's a shame that so many great artists die young, but the lifestyle of a traveling musician is a tough one. All we can do is learn from their mistakes and cherish the artwork they gave us. Keep listening to the greats and share that love with your students.


  3. How frustrating! I posted a commnet last night to this and it clearly didn't work! Well, here I go again.

    I really like the angle you take on this utterly bizarre notion of the public caring so much about the tragic deaths of musicians. All (or at least most) deaths are tragic for family and friends, but like you say, pop in a CD and to the rest of us it should be inconsequental.

    So, I am able to follow your thinking and I am uh-huh'ing and such and then I get to your final full paragraph and I simply don't get it. You have brillaint points and are a very articulate writer (as I am sure you already know) but that last paragraph appears so out of place. I am curious why you included it and what it realy means. My critisism of this piece is that you have a solid message for your reader but then they end your piece trying to figure out what the last paragraph is in regards to rather than walking away really pondering your real message. In addition, if these deaths are so incidental, then why take all the time to post their names and pictures. It looks quite impressive, but doesn't match the true message of your writing. I would love to see revisions to this as I think it will make a fine essay.

  4. Well, the last paragraph is really a comment, not part of the piece. I agree that it does not fit, so I need to separate it more obviously. I wrote it after I wrote the piece and after I had collected the pictures of the stars I wanted to mention. I found it when I was looking for a way to put the stars in the order of their deaths. I was pretty outraged at their presumption. I mean, yes, Brian Jones died young, probably as the result of swimming while wrecked, but what about the rest of the Stones cavorting happily into their dotages? Point taken howmsoever, so I'll put in some obvious break.

  5. I also the the way you ordered this slightly differently. I like the little intro before the pictures and the last paragraph makes more sense to me now. I am still not a fan of that last paragraph... just my opinion, I don;t like the colors and the different font sizes and the anger... you may want to keep examining that.