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.