Friday, February 06, 2009

Oh, Death!

Tom Waits sounded old when he was young. Now he is old, he looks old and he still sounds old and even crankier than he ever was.

Kurt Kobain looked incredibly young, like a little kid lost in a world het never made. He sounded young and pissed off too. Then he killed himself and entered the legendary world of rock musicians who died young.

Buddy Holly set the bar for rockers who die in plane crashes. After him came Ritchie Valens, Otis Redding and some guys in the Bar-Kays, some members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Denver, who had the kind of career of a guy who ought to have died in his sleep, and Stevie Ray Vaughan who went all modern and died in a helicopter crash.

Keith Richards kept getting older and older, piling wrinkle on wrinkle and allegedly using his body as some kind of medical experiment, yet has never stopped rocking because like a shark has to keep moving, Keith has to keep rocking or he will die.

Lots of rockers, famous and not so famous, have died from all kinds of drug overdoses or the nasty side effects of taking too many drugs too often.

Eric Clapton too heroin and became an alkie, and survived it all and is now a senior citizen in the rock'n'roll old age home and like a veritable Keith-clone he keeps on playing the blues.

I was so angry when I heard Chris Whitley had died. I think he liked a drug as much as the next guy and perhaps a little more and then he shuffled off the mortal coil because his body forsook him. He was once featured in Time Magazine as member of a new peer group of American roots musicians who were harking back to old school blues and country music. Some said he wanted to make a pact with the Devil.

That leads us to Robert Johnson who is the most famous barely known musician in the blues field and one of the most influential too. There are only two known photographs of him. It took me a long time to get into his harsh, doom laden music and now I believe he is the modernist in music, the man who brought a backwoods music into the 20th century and made art of it. Not many White people ever saw or heard Robert Johnson perform live but lots of spotty teenage blues fans think he is a deity.

More grunge musicians, or maybe they were post-grunge, died drug related deaths, like Shannon Hoon from Blind Lemon, who died just when the band was starting to become really successful. He sang back up on some songs from the Use Your Illusion I and II double albums by Guns 'n Roses whose members were no strangers to substance abuse, yet only the first drummer was fired for being too untogether. Layne Staley from Alice in Chains flirted with disaster for a long time for succumbing. They were grunge before grunge took off, and I never liked their music.

The drummer from Smashing Pumpkins was fired for not being able to handle his drug addiction.

Danny Whitten, Crazy Horse's lead singer, guitarist and songwriter died from a drug overdose, as did one of their roadies. These deaths inspired Neil Young into writing a whole album of dirges that is still some kind of milestone of doom laden depresso music that not many people want to listen to voluntarily. The album, Tonight's The Night, sold poorly. Strangely enough, these drug deaths did not stop old Neil completely from taking a drug or two of his own. It is rumoured that when he went on stage for his turn at Winterland, on the Band's Last Waltz concert film, coke crystals could be clearly seen around his nostrils and they had to be airbrushed out in post-production.

Neil Young also wrote a song about the death of Kurt Kobain.

Bob Dylan took lots of drugs in his time. Speed, weed, LSD, cocaine, to say the least but he survived all of them and all kinds of airplane flights. He had a motorcycle crash but by now it is trite that the damage was inflated to give him time off from incessant touring and to allow him to get his head together in Woodstock so that he could write the songs on John Wesley Harding and The Basement Tapes. Late in life he had a kind of medical scare where there was some expectation that he might not make the age of 60 but now he and the Rolling Stones are way up there in the never say die rocker stakes.

Southern Rock had its casualties too though these ol' boys liked their weed and their Jack Daniels better than drugs, they were probably not totally immune to substances either. Back in the day everyone did everything they could lay their hands on. The thing of it is that the Southern rockers seem accident prone more than anything. Duane Allman and Berry Oakley from the Allman Brothers Band both died in motor cycles creepily close to the same spot and on more or less the same day a year apart. Younger brother Greg Allman was a bit of a cocaine hound in the Seventies but survived. He probably does not ride a motorcycle or is very careful when he does.

Brian Wilson is still alive, having long outlived his younger brothers Denis and Carl. Denis drowned, probably because he was wasted when he swam, and Carl died of a heart attack or something. Some say that Brian was de facto dead to the world for a very long time and that indeed his talent had died while he was still shuffling around like reclusive retard. Recently he has made a big comeback with some new solo material and his reworking of "legendary" Smile suite of songs that was supposed to have put Sergeant Pepper to shame but was never released in the form Brian's vision envisaged until his late period attempt to do it.

John Lennon was shot, cementing the genius legend forever. Yes, well, what did he ever do after John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, not to mention the Beatles years. Someday soon someone is going to take a long objective look at Lennon's creative output and is going to put the myths to rest, as Albert Goldman almost did, except that no one liked his attempt to put a fresh spin on the picture of Saint John so many people fondly hold. Lennon coasted on his status as Beatle for a very long time, way beyond his sell by date and produced a bunch of crap for his final album which only sold strongly because of his untimely death. As was the case with Elvis Presley, Lennon's death was the best career move he ever made in later life to secure his waning status.

Sadly George Harrison could not win his battle against cancer, which also goes to show that living healthily is no guarantee of anything in life. He also made some really crappy music after the purged his creative closer with All Things Must Past. I guess George was a great guy, who loved Monty Python and who could play a mean rockabilly guitar solo but he was no great shakes as a songwriter. No loss to the world of music, just a loss to the world.

I kind of like the idea that Bon Scott from AC/DC and John Bonham from Led Zeppelin both almost literally drunk themselves to death. Ron "Pigpen" McKernan from the Grateful Dead also terminally abused his liver. Brett Mydland, who followed in Pigpen's footsteps as Grateful Dead keyboardist also died from drug related abuses. Jerry Garcia was a long time dragon chaser and crack head whose heart could no longer handle the shit and gave up on Jerry. Now many remember him only because of the Cherry Garcia flavour produced by Ben & Jerry's' ice cream. Many others remember him as the resident guitar genius continuously on display in an endless series of CD releases of Dead live concerts.

One of the weird true death stories in rock connect father and son, Tim Buckley and Jeff Buckley who had rock careers several years apart and both of whom died too young. Tim at least had a relatively long career and left a number of fine albums behind while Jeff managed only one official, though wonderful, album and various releases of outtakes and unfinished material, and some live stuff. Jeff drowned; Tim mistook a lethal combination of heroin and morphine for cocaine. It is a moot point which death was the more tragic. At least Jeff Buckley had a very good looking corpse.

The so-called unnecessary deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin always loom large and seem to serve as salutary lessons in the price of excess and hedonism, but they were probably both completely accidental and almost incidental to the lifestyles of the two dead rock stars. To my mind both of them died at exactly the right time for their place in posterity. They had achieved the heights of stardom and their brand of creativity and who is to say they would have improved during the Seventies? I do not think so. Spare us a jazz funk obsessed Hendrix or a Joplin doing time in Las Vegas.

Brian Jones outlived his usefulness to the Rolling Stones and his meagre talent and there was really no future for him. Sid Vicious was a cartoon and had no purpose beyond his iconic role in the Sex Pistols. One cannot imagine that he would really have mastered the bass or become a singer-songwriter.

Jim Morrison went into exile in Paris to get his shit together and then died in mysterious circumstances to the extent, like the Elvis Presley scenario, many believe that Morrison faked it all to escape from the spotlight and that he is somewhere in the world writing poetry and fucking young girls. I bet the other, less popular members of the Doors are pretty pissed off about this. They had recruit Ian Astbury from The Cult as a make-do-Morrison just so they could hit the nostalgia trail and make some money again.

The late great Johnny Ace died from the after effects of badly played Russian roulette and inspired Paul Simon. Hank Williams died in the back of his car, body riddled with consumption, wracked by alcoholism and a fast life, and inspired a bunch of country stars and rockers, and his grandson Hank Williams III.

Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson from Canned Heat got wasted, laid down next to some railroad tracks in the winter and died from exposure. He was also depressed because he was really going blind. Some years later Wilson's cohort in Canned Heat, Bob 'The Bear' Hite died from a heart attack induced by obesity and an unhealthy lifestyle. Both of them were collectors of blues records.

Somehow Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf died almost peacefully after long lifetimes of playing first the juke joints, lounges and backstreet halls and then the clubs and stages of the wider White audience where they made more money in relative old age than in their younger days.

The biggest death of all is owned by Elvis Presley. He died too soon yet he died much too late. He had no more purpose in this world, yet his death served a greater commercial purpose than his life ever did and now the Elvis Presley Estate is one huge enterprise that never needed the Colonel to run it or steer it into profit. There are images everwhere of the young Elvis, the mid-Sixties Elvis, even the Aloha from Hawaii Elvis in his weird jumpsuit and cape. There are DVD box set of all his movies. There are endlessly recycled collections of his tunes. This is an Elvis universe and we only live in it. He's been gone for almost 32 years and people still see him everywhere in the most remote corners of the earth.

There is always Good Rockin' Tonight because Elvis made the breakthrough. Some say the music died with Buddy Holly, I say the music died with the Big Bopper.





















Johnny Hughes, author of Texas Poker Wisdom, a novel said...

Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Joe Ely, and the Cotton Club
by Johnny Hughes,
January 2009

Elvis Presley was leaning against his pink, 1954 Cadillac in front of Lubbock's historic Cotton Club. The small crowd were mesmerized by his great looks, cockiness, and charisma. He put on quite a show, doing nearly all the talking. Elvis bragged about his sexual conquests, using language you didn't hear around women. He said he'd been a truck driver six months earlier. Now he could have a new woman in each town. He told a story about being caught having sex in his back seat. An angry husband grabbed his wife by the ankles and pulled her out from under Elvis. I doubted that.
Earlier, at the Fair Park Coliseum, Elvis had signed girl's breasts, arms, foreheads, bras, and panties. No one had ever seen anything like it. We had met Elvis' first manager, Bob Neal, bass player, Bill Black, and guitarist Scotty Moore. They wanted us to bring some beer out to the Cotton Club. So we did. My meeting with Bob Neal in 1955 was to have great meaning in my future. I was 15.

The old scandal rag, Confidential, had a story about Elvis at the Cotton Club and the Fair Park Coliseum. It had a picture of the Cotton Club and told of Elvis' unique approach to autographing female body parts. It said he had taken two girls to Mackenzie Park for a tryst in his Cadillac.

Elvis did several shows in Lubbock during his first year on the road, in 1955. When he first came here, he made $75. His appearance in 1956 paid $4000. When he arrived in Lubbock, Bob Neal was his manager. By the end of the year, Colonel Tom Parker had taken over. Elvis played the Fair Park Coliseum for its opening on Jan. 6th, with a package show. When he played the Fair Park again, Feb. 13th, it was memorable. Colonel Tom Parker and Bob Neal were there. Buddy Holly and Bob Montgomery were on the bill. Waylon Jennings was there. Elvis was 19. Buddy was 18.

Elvis' early shows in Lubbock were:
Jan 6th 1955, Fair Park Coliseum. Feb 13th. Fair Park, Cotton Club April 29 Cotton Club June 3: Johnson Connelly Pontiac with Buddy Holly, Fair Park October 11: Fair Park October 15: Cotton Club, April 10, 1956: Fair Park. Elvis probably played the Cotton Club on all of his Lubbock dates. He also spent time with Buddy Holly on all his Lubbock visits.

Buddy Holly was the boffo popular teenager of all time around Lubbock. The town loved him! He had his own radio show on Pappy Dave Stone's KDAV, first with Jack Neal, later with Bob Montgomery in his early teens. KDAV was the first all-country station in America. Buddy fronted Bill Haley, Marty Robbins, and groups that traveled through. Stone was an early mentor. Buddy first met Waylon Jennings at KDAV. Disk jockeys there included Waylon, Roger Miller, Bill Mack, later America's most famous country DJ, and country comedian Don Bowman. Bowman and Miller became the best known writers of funny country songs.

All these singer-songwriters recorded there, did live remotes with jingles, and wrote songs. Elvis went to KDAV to sing live and record the Clover's "Fool, Fool Fool" and Big Joe Turner's "Shake Rattle and Roll" on acetates. This radio station in now KRFE, 580 a.m., located at 66th and MLK, owned by Wade Wilkes. They welcome visitors. It has to be the only place that Elvis, Buddy, Waylon, and Bill Mack all recorded. Johnny Cash sang live there. Waylon and Buddy became great friends through radio. Ben Hall, another KDAV disc jockey and songwriter, filmed in color at the Fair Park Coliseum. This video shows Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis, Buddy and his friends.

Wade's dad, Big Ed Wilkes, owner of KDAV, managed country comedian, Jerry Clower, on MCA Records. He sent Joe Ely's demo tape to MCA. Bob Livingston also sent one of the tapes I gave him to MCA. This led to a contract. Pappy Dave Stone, the first owner of KDAV, helped Buddy get his record contract with Decca/MCA.

Another disc jockey at KDAV was Arlie Duff. He wrote the country classic, "Y'all Come." It has been recorded by nineteen well-known artists, including Bing Crosby. When Waylon Jennings and Don Bowman were hired by the Corbin brothers, Slim, Sky, and Larry, of KLLL, Buddy started to hang around there. They all did jingles, sang live, wrote songs, and recorded. Niki Sullivan, one of the original Crickets, was also a singing DJ at KLLL. Sky Corbin has an excellent book about this radio era and the intense competition between KLLL and KDAV. All the DJs had mottos. Sky Corbin's was "lover, fighter, wild horse rider, and a purty fair windmill man."

Don Bowman's motto was "come a foggin' cowboy." He'd make fun of the sponsors and get fired. We played poker together. He'd take breaks in the poker game to sing funny songs. I played poker with Buddy Holly before and after he got famous. He was incredibly polite and never had the big head. The nation only knew Buddy Holly for less than two years. He was the most famous guy around Lubbock from the age of fourteen.

Niki Sullivan, an original Cricket, and I had a singing duo as children. We cut little acetates in 1948. We also appeared several times on Bob Nash's kid talent show on KFYO. This was at the Tech Theatre. Buddy Holly and Charlene Hancock, Tommy's wife, also appeared on this show. Larry Holley, Buddy's brother, financed his early career, buying him a guitar and whatever else he needed. Buddy recorded twenty acetates at KDAV from 1953 until 1957. He also did a lot of recording at KLLL. Larry Holley said Niki was the most talented Cricket except Buddy. All of Buddy's band mates and all of Joe Ely's band mates were musicians as children.

Buddy and Elvis met at the Cotton Club. Buddy taught Elvis the lyrics to the Drifter's "Money Honey". After that, Buddy met Elvis on each of his Lubbock visits. I think Elvis went to the Cotton Club on every Lubbock appearance. When Elvis played a show at the Johnson Connelly Pontiac showroom, Mac Davis was there. I was too.

The last time Elvis played the Fair Park Coliseum on April 10,1956, he was as famous as it gets. Buddy Holly, Sonny Curtis, Jerry Allison, and Don Guess were a front act. They did two shows and played for over 10,000 people. Those wonderful I.G. Holmes photos, taken at several locations, usually show Buddy and his pals with Elvis. Lubbock had a population of 80,000 at the time. Elvis was still signing everything put in front of him. Not many people could have signing women as a hobby.
Many of the acetates recorded at KLLL and KDAV by Buddy and others were later released, many as bootlegs. When Buddy Holly recorded four songs at KDAV, the demo got him his first record contract. It wasn't just Lubbock radio that so supportive of Buddy Holly. The City of Lubbock hired him to play at teenage dances. He appeared at Lubbock High School assemblies and many other places in town.

Everyone in Lubbock cheered Buddy Holly on with his career. The newspaper reports were always positive. At one teenage gig, maybe at the Glassarama, there was only a small crowd. Some of us were doing the "dirty bop." The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal had photos the next day showing people with their eyes covered with a black strip. Sonny Curtis mentions that in his song, "The Real Buddy Holly Story." When Buddy Holly and the Crickets were on the Ed Sullivan show, the newspaper featured that. The whole town watched.

Buddy was fighting with his manager Norman Petty over money before he died. They were totally estranged. Larry Holley told me that Norman said to Buddy, "I'll see you dead before you get a penny." A few weeks later, Buddy was dead. When Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, it was headline news in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Over 1000 people attended the funeral on February 7, 1959. Buddy was only twenty-two years old. His widow, Maria Elena Holly, was too upset to attend. The pall bearers were all songwriters and musicians that had played with Buddy: Niki Sullivan, Jerry Allison, Joe B. Mauldin, Sonny Curtis, Bob Montgomery, and Phil Everly. Elvis was in the Army. He had Colonel Tom send a large wreath of yellow roses.
In 1976, I was managing the Joe Ely Band. They had recorded an as-yet -to-be-released album for MCA Records. I was in Nashville to meet with the MCA execs. They wanted Joe to get a booking contract and mentioned some unheard of two-man shops. Bob Neal, Elvis' first manager, had great success in talent managing and booking. He sold his agency to the William Morris Agency, the biggest booking agency in the world, and stayed on as president of the Nashville branch.

I called the William Morris Agency and explained to the secretary that I did indeed know Bob Neal, as we had met at the Cotton Club in Lubbock, Texas when he was Elvis' manager. He came right on the phone. I told him the Joe Ely Band played mostly the Cotton Club. He said that after loading up to leave there one night, a cowboy called Elvis over to his car and knocked him down. Elvis was in a rage. He made them drive all over Lubbock checking every open place, as they looked for the guy. Bob Neal invited me to come right over.

Bob Neal played that, now classic, demo tape from Caldwell Studios and offered a booking contract. We agreed on a big music city strategy: Los Angeles, New York, Nashville, London, and Austin. Bob drove me back to MCA and they could not believe our good fortune. The man had been instrumental in the careers of Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Johnny Rodriguez, and many others. The William Morris Agency sent the Joe Ely Band coast to coast and to Europe, first to front Merle Haggard, then on a second trip to front the Clash. The original Joe Ely Band were Lloyd Maines, Natalie's father, steel guitar, Jesse Taylor, electric guitar, Steve Keeton, drums, and Gregg Wright, bass. Ponty Bone, on accordion, joined a little later. The band did the shows and the recording. The recorded tunes were originals from Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

However, some of the William Morris bookings led to zig zag travel over long distances to so-called listening clubs. When I complained to Bob Neal, he'd recall the 300 dates Elvis played back in 1955. Four guys in Elvis' pink Cadillac. When Buddy made some money, he bought a pink Cadillac. Joe Ely bought a pristine, 1957 pink Cadillac that was much nicer than either of their pink Cadillacs.

When I'd hear from Bob Neal, it was very good news, especially the fantastic, uniformly-rave, album and performance reviews from newspapers and magazines everywhere. Time Magazine devoted a full page to Joe Ely. The earliest big rock critic to praise Joe Ely was Joe Nick Patoski, author of the definitive and critically-acclaimed Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. After one year, MCA was in turmoil. Big stars were leaving or filing lawsuits. We were told they might not re-new the option to make a second record. MCA regularly fired everyone we liked. Bob Neal thought the band should go to Los Angeles for a one-nighter.

He booked the Joe Ely Band into the best known club on the West Coast, the Palomino, owned by his dear pal, Tommy Thomas. We alerted other record companies. They drove back and forth to L.A. in a Dodge Van to play only one night. Robert Hilburn, the top rock critic for the Los Angeles Times, came with his date, Linda Ronstadt.

The Joe Ely Band loved to play music. They started on time, took short breaks, and played until someone made them stop. Robert Hilburn wrote that Ely could be, "the most important male singer to emerge in country music since the mid-60s crop of Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson." The long review with pictures took up the whole fine arts section of the biggest newspaper in the country. Hilburn praised each of the band individually. He was blown away when they just kept playing when the lights came on at closing time. After that, several major record companies were interested.

The last time I saw Bob Neal was at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco on February 22, 1979. Little Pete, a black drarf who was always around Stubb's Bar-B-Q, was traveling with the band. To open the show, Little Pete came out and announced, "Lubbock, Texas produces the Joe Ely Band!" Then he jumped off the elevated stage and Bo Billingsley, the giant roady, caught him. Bob Neal, the old showman that had seen it all, just loved that.

This comment originally appears on Anyone may make copies of this one article or post it on any web site. Thanks to Chris Oglesby and Larry Holley.


Rebecca Davis Winters said...

You wrote:

"Al 'Blind Owl' Wilson from Canned Heat got wasted, laid down next to some railroad tracks in the winter and died from exposure. He was also depressed because he was really going blind."

You should check out my book on Blind Owl Wilson. He did not die from exposure next to railroad tracks, but rather, from a combination of brain trauma and barbiturate intoxication, in the woods in Hite's Topanga Canyon backyard.

Nor was Wilson actually "going blind"... he had suffered from poor vision all his life but this was corrected by eyeglasses.

Please check out the essays at and give the book a try for more info!