O Death. These blog posts actually started with Whitney Houston’s early death in 2012 and there is a wee bit mentioning the death of Monkee Davy Jones but I didn’t want it to be an obituary blog so hadn’t mentioned several high profile music stars passing. I broke this when David Bowie died. However many of us mere mortals will have had some bad news this year and yet life goes on and the clock keeps ticking steadily away like an old undertaker’s hammer driving the nails into a new coffin lid.
This past year had seen a proven spike of high profile deaths. It is normal to ask ‘who’s next? The (remaining) Who?’ Could it even be that we are approaching peak celebrity death? I don’t think so: There is a lot more to come… Television and radio made many more people stars and reached a global audience from the late 1950s onwards. Not just seeing photos and hearing the music but the whole thing. From the inception of Radio 1 to television and then Top of the Pops to the birth of the music festival. The mass production of records was a major factor also. Photographers and film crews followed artists, the music documentary was born. Heroes were becoming more accessible and you now knew what they looked like and what they sound like talking. Their personalities can shine through and we have become emotionally involved in an awful lot of people. It is heartening that most of the heroes from the 1960s are actually still alive. A lot of heroes from the 1950s’ Rock and Roll Boom are still alive too and the greats Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, with a combined age of 255, are still gigging.
Is it better to burn out or fade away? Sometimes you get a warning… Country music legend Glen Campbell did his farewell tour in 2011 following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and although still on the line, he is now nursed in a care home. He is reported to be in the end stages but doing fine. It is difficult to sell his records today. Maybe it will be easier when he has gone. It is sad to see that artists can sell really well after death but also nice that they get recognition. It’s a uncomfortable sensation. Should a shop display your recently deceased artists more to take advantage? We don’t in VoxBox really; maybe we should. After Freddie Mercury died in 1991, an Edinburgh record shop (Hot Wax) put all the Queen and Freddie Mercury solo records in the basement. Customers who came in and asked for them were treated to “If it wasn’t good enough to buy when Freddie was alive… You’re not getting it now he’s dead!” Bert was one of the great Edinburgh record shop owners. An archetype and it is a great anecdote but not a sensible business model then or now.
It’s remarkable that many great 1960s bands are still in one piece. All of Black Sabbath are still alive and a Rolling Stone hasn’t faded away for almost 50 years. Despite a diet consisting only of fags and Shepherd’s pie, Keith Richards is alive and climbing coconut trees. Saying that, these superstars and the MOJO Magazine sellers like Bob Dylan and Neil Young can’t last forever although the ability of these two in particular to create albums has accelerated. Maybe they feel the pressure of time. Perhaps it’s simply to pay for their recent divorces. Dylan got the Nobel prize which I think was well deserved and I think he has a while to go and I do want to read the sequel to his Chronicles: Volume I biography. I have a theory that he wants to die on stage hence the never-ending touring. Anyway the point of this is that I always think that the wrong time to celebrate a musician is after they are dead.
Maybe the media is just more focussed on reporting deaths just now. I remember watching the Six O’clock News waiting to hear the piece about Edinburgh guitar maestro Bert Jansch passing away a few years ago but it never came. I hung on through Reporting Scotland at half past. Nope. Then I watched the Channel 4 news hoping in vain. These days, I like to think he’d get a mention. It is not without irony that a man who wrote about the dangers of opiates should die of lung cancer. Those great old pics would often have a cigarette hanging from his lips. In drug terms, nicotine is the biggest killer of them all.
As an aside, there does not appear to be an excess of illegal drugs and even then, it is not usually ‘hard’ drugs that are killing musicians these days. Many of the premature deaths were of smokers and smoking is known to take an average of ten years off your life. Prince is now known to have died of a fentanyl overdose. Doctors are being warned off prescribing opiates like this for chronic non-cancer pain. Studies have shown they simply don’t work in the long-term so it seems an accident that should not have been allowed to happen. As to a doctor prescribing propofol to help a patient sleep? That is lunacy (Michael Jackson’s cause of death).
I was not surprised to find out that the BBC actually keeps a whole stash of pre-written obituaries and some musicians will have had their obituary written for decades. What Is Shane MacGowan up to these days? Does anyone care about him today? Van Morrison doesn’t look too healthy: Better play Astral Weeks again. Have you visited your granny enough this year? It must be a strange experience knowing there is an obituary and a collection of clips ready for playing once you are dead. Shouldn’t you be allowed to see it for a fact check? Hell, you could add an interview. That would be weird but compelling. “Hi, I’m David Bowie and this is my BBC death montage.”
The BBC actually produced a documentary on Shane MacGowan in 1997:
An older friend of mine has stopped buying the Grateful Dead box sets he loves as he might not have time to listen to them all. He was joking as he already has more Grateful Dead than he can listen to but illness can focus the mind. Not always in a healthy way so we need to be able to deal with knowing and caring about the life and death of more people than any group of humans have had to before. Working in the NHS some describe “compassion fatigue” and I can see that happening for celebrity deaths too. Will even more celebrity deaths be the saviour of newspapers as they knock out the 12 page spread on the dead stars in their souvenir editions or will we all get bored of mass grieving? In the future I’d like to see some newspaper journalists chased down for the disrespectful, often made up/speculation coverage. A “source” was quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying George Michael was a heroin addict. He wasn’t though. Was there a source or was it made up? After the toxicology is out, if negative, I think the author of the article should be investigated.
Ach I don’t know, maybe we shouldn’t act so shocked; “Grandpa died last week and he’s buried in the rocks, everybody still talks about how badly they were shocked…” (Dylan). We should celebrate the life and the successes, the 30 album glorious careers and the successful careers and burn outs of so many that have led chaotic lives in a harsh music industry. I was touched by Leonard Cohen’s letter written to long time muse Marianne when he found out she was ill and it is this kind of beautiful and poetic reflection that can help you take a step back and find a way to come to terms with loss.
For the year ahead, let us celebrate the career geniuses and the one hit wonders, the bums the punks, the old sluts on junk. And do it now. Dig out your favourite albums and play them. We don’t always do that enough. Keep in touch with those you care about as you never know if there is a double decker bus around the corner. Some of your favourite artists who were once superstars could easily now be answering their own emails these days. You can drop them a line and let them know what they mean to you. We are truly lucky to be able to share the planet with such talent. To be missed shows you have been doing something right.
Luckily, if you are 65 just now, you will probably live to be 85 or so and the odds are that if you are alive just now whatever your age, you will more probably than not, still be alive at the end of next year.
You can make tiny changes to Earth in 2017.
Start by quitting the fags again. We’d like our customers, like our rock stars, to stay alive those extra 10 years.
Happy New Year!
‘Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road’ Leonard Cohen