Earlier this week I added Nevermind to my 20 Albums selection. I had considered overlooking it as the death of Kurt Cobain was not one I wanted to exploit – in any way. I loved the band (Nirvana) when they were active and as a result I can not even listen to them comfortably now.
It was the first rock death that I experienced that actually meant something to me and my immediate group of friends (amongst millions of others I strongly imagine). The passing of an artist that showed genuine talent and real passion for their earnest craft can hit hard.
This afternoon I had an afternoon sleep and left Radio 5 on in the background. I was stirred by “breaking news” which I imagined would be more tragic news relating to the tragedies in Norway. It transpired that Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her flat in North London. I’m no fan of the artist, but it was terrible to hear. It gave me a bolt of odd energy. I got up immediately and checked Twitter. There were a stream of Amy Winehouse related tweets.
A theme seemed to be emerging of the “rock stars dead at 27” variety. Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, the list continues. I have always said that 27 is the best year of your life to my peers. You have youth, energy, strength and a level of real wisdom. You’re not old in any capacity, but of an age to be taken seriously. To die so young for anyone, famous or not is a tragedy.
These themes got me thinking about rock deaths and their impact on me. In 1977 I was on holiday with my whole family. I was very young and returned from the beach where i’d spent the whole day with my Grandfather. We’d had a great time making speedboats in the sand. I can still recall it clearly. When we returned to our holiday residence my Mum was in floods of tears. My Grandfather asked what was wrong, my Aunt said “Elvis is dead”. With the room in an awkward silence I asked, “who’s Elvis?” This only prompted my mother to burst out in an even bigger wail. I was distressed by the situation but still didn’t know who the hell he was!
In December 1980 I got up to go to Junior School to find my Mum again crying. She had the Radio 1 on. Mike Read was on and you could tell from the tone of his voce on the airwaves that something had happened. It transpired John Lennon had been shot dead. Again, I didn’t know who he was. Then I learned he was in The Beatles, it made sense, I knew my Mum was a huge Beatles fan. I trundled off to school hoping she’d be ok.
I’d have to forward to 1986 to go to the first rock death where I was saddened myself. Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy died. l had Thin Lizzy’s Hits LP, the one with the cartoon cover. It meant something to me, i’d had Heavy Metal compilation tapes since the early 80’s and I liked practically everything i’d heard. A great frontman and as rock n’ roll as you get.
It seems a huge step forward timewise to 1988 but this is down to me being 18 then and more clued up, whatever. Hillel Slovak wasn’t afforded the press space of higher profile deaths and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were not a huge band back then but on the underground scene this had a real impact. To me this was a true warning about the dangers of dabbling too far.
In 1991 I was shocked by the death of Freddie Mercury. I never liked Queen at all but he was an incredible artist and a great frontman, that I cannot deny. With hindsight he should have come out about his illness to highlight the cause well before he did? Surely this would have helped the blind stupidity and homophobia some showed towards the illness?
Kurt Cobain is the rock death that hit me the hardest. It just numbed you. Now I could see why Elvis and John Lennon’s passing made my mother so upset. I never cried over it, maybe I needed to? It made you actually angry. The music became almost secondary, you just wanted this creative genius to be still with us no matter what. The fusion of earnest alternative music steeped with referential nods to great music before it whilst kicking open so many doors for other bands deserves utmost respect.
Kristen Pfaff (Hole) followed shortly Kurt after and it seemed the “grunge” (I hate that term) era was coming to a very toxic ending. Again, a real loss.
When Joey Ramone died in 2001 I was strangely not that upset. One of the best bands of all time but somehow it seemed that his fade from the spotlight was preparing us for this. A legendary frontman from a one off great band. It irks me David Beckham now wears Ramones T-Shirts but the band never had any “real” huge success when they were active.
It’s perversely fitting that Dee- Dee Ramone died the following year. Again a true underground rock n’ roll anti-star that did things his way and went too far down narcotic avenue.
When Joe Strummer died in 2002 it looked like all the old punks were on their way out way too soon. I never was a massive Clash fan but they’re a monumental band and he always srtuck me as a genuine artist. Did you see The Clash reform for the Yankee Dollar? No you did not.
Someone I was a massive fan of was John Peel. I saw him Gaye Bykers On Acid gig in 1987. He was surrounded by people giving him tapes, etc. I was way too humble to approach him and just say “hi” or something. His legendary radio shows shaped my youth and opened my ears. Shortly before his death I saw him walking through Digbeth on his way to The Custard Factory presumably for a Radio 1 thing. I was on the bus and saw him, on his own, with a Tempest Record bag just walking through Digbeth. I thought, i’ve got to get off and say hello or something, but again I didn’t. If I had spoken to him I imagine i’d have said “great show” or something equally dumb and he’d have maybe replied in that cheerful accent “well, thank you very much” and dawdled off. I loved the fact that despite his position, he’d STILL been out buying more records. That says it all. A real loss. R.I.P. Mr. Peel.
The Michael Jackson death was one that strangely crossed him back over to everyones hearts. I’m not going to dwell on accusations, etc, this isn’t the place. It was a stunning moment. I always imagined he’d lived way longer than me. For me his true great work was the Thriller album. In pop senses it woke up the 80’s. The videos. The music. Billie Jean has a beat that no pop song still can surpass. The thing that always struck me about him was when interviewed he occasionally beatboxed. This raw exposure showed the music actually flow from him. He lived and breathed it. This was the raw art. He had his problems, but then again, don’t we all?
Right. I’ve rambled on way longer than planned. I’m not even sure what i’m rambling on about. I guess a rock death wakes you up. It’s wrong, they’re no more important than anyone else, but the fact the music can touch you makes it personal.
On an out note i’d like to add that Paul Gambaccini, as bland as he may initially appear, becomes a great voice in such times. Yes, he’s radio quiet and all, but the humble respect and knowledge he shows hits the spot in times of such sad passings is second to none. On the radio today he was accurate, knowing, understated but so respectful whilst citing all the facts regarding Amy Winehouse. His importance to the music industry, in his not over the top manner became apparent to me today.