Rock Death in the ’70s: A Sweepstakes

"Do not the dead deserve an accounting at least as irreproachable as the survivors receive with each week’s edi­tion of Billboard?"


I think it was about five years ago that I noticed the term “survivor” had become the cant word of the seventies. The word used to denote one who lived through a concrete threat to life — a fire, a natural disaster, a plane crash. (You know the old joke: A plane from Texas crashed in Mexico. Where do they bury the survivors? Ha, ha, ha. They don’t bury survivors!) As a description of one’s identity, the word fit only one who had undergone conditions at once so harrowing and so remarkable that it could be said with some certainty that the experience had marked — indeed shaped, or reshaped — the individual’s personality irrevocably, to the point where everything else — parentage, intelligence, vocation, etc. — became secondary. Thus the word could be applied fairly to many victims of concentration camps (though not, say, to the Japanese victims of internment in the U.S. during the Second World War, since the threat of violent death was not present, and starvation conditions did not exist), to certain political prisoners, victims of torture, and to some who had escaped famine, epidemics, or wars (though the word would not automatically apply to soldiers: One might say, “He survived the Battle of the Bulge,” but one would not , when asked to sum up such a person, respond, “Oh, he’s a survivor”). The term implied no particular approbation, let alone celebration. It was a statement of fact, suggesting not moral neutrality but a moral limbo.

Today all of this has changed. “Survivor,” perhaps first corrupted as a reference to those who had taken part in some of the willful adventures of the 1960s, now applies to anyone who has persevered, or rather continued, any form of activity, including breathing, for almost any amount of time. One who keeps his or her job for a couple of years is “a survivor.” A couple who have celebrated a fifth anniversary are “survivors.” An actor or actress who, though without a role, can still get booked onto the Carson show once a year is “a survivor,” and will be identified as such within five minutes of conversation (“You’re a real survivor, Elizabeth Ashley!” “You’re a survivor yourself, Johnny!”) Anyone, in fact, who is not legally dead is a “survivor” — and those who are legally dead, but later turn up among the living, are preeminent survivors.

It must be emphasized that the word now definitely does imply praise, and that (paradoxically, one would think) it has been severed from authentic contexts of will and endurance altogether. Indeed, the world has acquired certain class-bound, Social-Darwinist, and racist tones. It is applied to virtually any white, middle-class person, regardless of lack of achievement or lack of hardship, but is almost never used anymore to designate one who has suffered real adversity, and surmounted it. To use the word in such an old-fashioned manner would recall its original moral connotations — the suggestion that the word “survivor” bespoke a world in which morality had been defeated, suspended, or destroyed — and the ’70s use of the word has subverted the reality of morality: the sense that one’s life is a product of choices made within a hard context of conditions that one does not choose and probably cannot change, and that the proper response to such a fact is struggle.

The ’70s version of “survival” trivializes struggle, mocks it. As Bruno Bettelheim wrote in 1976, in an attack on Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties and Terrence Des Pres’s much-touted The Survivor (a study of Nazi concentration camps), the present-day celebration of “survival” is a self-justification for those who today do not wish to consider the problems [the camps] posed, and instead settle for a completely empty “survivorship.” Survival is elevated above all other values: “Survival is all, it does not matter how, why, what for.” Bettelheim might have been writing in a dead language; use of the term multiplied exponentially after his article appeared.

I became especially interested in the new application of the word in rock and roll, because it appeared everywhere: as a justification for empty characters, washed-up careers, third-rate LPs, fake comebacks, burnt-out brain-pans. (This is not even to mention the use of the word in current fiction, where it became a surefire way to make vaguely neurotic, white, middle-class protagonists seem heroic in their depression, inadequacy, and cowardice.) I grew obsessed with the phenomenon — it seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the decade, for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. I couldn’t get away from the word; week after week, it arrived in the mail. Grank Funk’s Survival. The Rolling Stones’ “Soul Survivor.” Barry Mann’s Survivor. Cindy Bullens’s “Sur­vivor” (a great recording, and ruined!). Eric Burdon’s Survivor. Gloria Gaynor’s cheesy “I Will Survive.” Adam Faith’s I Survive. Randy Bachman’s Survivor. Georgie Fame’s Survival. Lynyrd Sky­nyrd’s Street Survivors (the only band made to pay for the conceit). Just a couple of weeks ago, the Wailers’ Survival. Every time, an artist covering him or herself with glory (just as novelists continued to cele­brate their hapless autobiographical char­acters and their lack of anything worth saying). So I railed against it all; I wrote about the word every time I came across it, tried to kill it.

Like Bettelheim, whose efforts were far more prescient and more probing than mine, I got nowhere. The word, or its perversion, gathered momentum, and it gathers momentum still. Look through this issue of The Village Voice, and you will find it; look through next week’s, and you will find it again.

And so, as an envoi to the ’70s, I decided there was only one appropriate gesture: a piece about those who were not survivors. If the concept cannot be discredited per­haps it can be turned back on itself.

So let us get down to bones and teeth.

One might think the enormous toll the rock and roll life has taken in the last decade gives the rock use of “survivor” some credence: when so many have fallen, to continue must be a real accomplish­ment. But this is not true — what we’re faced with is still a replacement of values and standards by a fraud on both. To perform in the context of the death of one’s fellows may be an act of nerve or per­severance, worthy qualities both, although it’s more likely a refusal to surrender pos­sibilities of financial reward and personal adulation. But in any case such a per­formance accomplishes nothing and says nothing by itself. The word “survivor” is used to hide these truths, and to hide the banality, falsity, stupidity, and enervation of what a performer’s perseverance may actually produce. When Brian Wilson made his famous “return” in 1976, he received unanimous acclaim as a survivor (of, it turned out, himself); that made it almost incumbent upon fans and writers not to examine what he had returned with too closely: survival, dayenu. Today, when writers and fans call Neil Young “a sur­vivor” they didn’t even know they’re insult­ing him, because Neil Young, so obsessed with rock death, is performing to tell us that survival is never enough.

When rock and rollers call themselves “survivors,” it is because they want the attention and approval the term now brings, or because they want to distract us from the question of whether or not their work is worthy of attention or approval. It is no homage: anyone can wear the crown of survivor, and by so doing mock those who are not around to wear it, and tacitly devalue whatever they might have left behind.

If this were not reason enough for an anomalous gesture — a study of rock death — the evidence is piling up that such a gesture might not be without its com­mercial possibilities. It was only a few months ago, after all, that a promoter­ — probably the same one who appears in the last verse of “Highway 61 Revisited” — ­suggested that he and I collaborate on a book about “all the people in rock and roll who had ever died.” It was just weeks after that that I received a new book called Those Who Died Young, which grants almost the same status to the likes of James Dean and Brian Jones as your aver­age survivorship journalist might bestow on James Taylor. Given the obscenity of the survivorship cult, then, why not an equal, no, a further obscenity: why merely make a study of rock deaths when one could rank them? If, as the just-issued Jimi Hendrix Christmas EP (heard “Little Drummer Boy” yet?) indicates, necrophagy in rock is a tradition at least as honorable as that of the survivor’s greatest hits album, do not the dead deserve an accounting at least as irreproachable as the survivors receive with each week’s edi­tion of Billboard?

Rock deaths, therefore, have been rated on a tripartite scale: Nonsurvivor’s con­tribution to rock and roll up to time of death; contribution nonsurvivor would have made in the time after death had death not occurred before the allotted three-­score and ten; and manner of death. Up to 10 points could be scored in each category. Points were awarded generously in the first category; strictly in the second. Cal­culations in the third category were by their very nature somewhat subjective. Information, almost all of it taken from news clippings, was always sketchy; cor­oners are prone to attribute the mysterious death of any long-haired person to “drugs.” Factors taken into account in­cluded respect for tradition, degree of choice, imagination, degree of violence, drama, uniqueness, appropriateness, and divine intervention. Death by travel, a genuine risk of rock life, rated fairly high. Death by heroin, on the other hand, rated low — it has been called “the common cold of rock death” — save when special circum­stances were involved, such as murder. Death by heroin onstage (see Stephen Holden’s rock death novel, Triple Plati­num), as opposed to death by heroin in a cheap room with a chenille bedspread and, outside the window, a neon sign flashing “HOTEL,” would have scored well, but no such incident has been recorded.

Blues, gospel, country, and authentic folk performers were not included in these calculations unless they had some direct connection to rock and roll, like a hit. Mere influence on rock and roll was not sufficient to bring these people the finan­cial rewards generally available to (if not always secured by) rock and roll performers, and thus it has been decided to withhold the concomitant lack of respect. As for the symbols, RD stands for Rock Death; PC, Past Contribution; FC, Future Contribution; M, Manner of Rock Death; and T, Total Score. Rock Deaths are rated in ascending order — but only for suspense.

Have a nice day.

Miss Chrissie, age unknown, 1972, formerly of the GTOs, Frank Zappa–backed “groupie-rock” band, hero­in. 1 0 1 2
Vinnie Taylor, 25, 1974, Sha Na Na guitarist, drugs. 1 1 1 3
Tommy Bolin, 25, 1977, former Deep Purple and James Gang guitarist, drugs. 3 0 1 4
Brian Cole, 28, 1972, former Association vocalist, heroin o.d. 3 0 1 4
Rich Evers, 31, 1978, Carole King songwriter, cocaine o.d. a 2 1 2 5
Scott Quick, 26, 1976, Sammy Hagar band guitarist, “drug seizure.” 2 2 1 5
Tim Buckley, 28, 1975, singer-songwriter, accidental heroin o.d. b 1 0 4 5
Jimmy McCulloch, 26, 1979, former Wings guitarist, drugs 3 2 1 6
Ross Bagdasarian, 52, 1972, Chipmunks creator and multivocalist, natural causes. 3 0 4 7
Billy Murcia, New York Dolls drummer, age unknown, 1972, drugs 3 3 1 7
Lowell George, 34, former leader of Little Feat, drugs. 4 2 1 7
Mike Patto, 36, 1979, former Spooky Tooth, Boxer, and Patto vocalist, throat cancer. 2 1 4 7
Gene Davis, 58, 1970, Fats Domino band member, car crash. 1 1 6 8
Terry Kath, 31, 1978, Chicago guitarist, Russian roulette. c 1 1 6 8
Bill Chase, 39, 1974, leader of Chase, “jazz-rock” band the members of which wore long-hair wigs, plane crash. d 0 0 8 8
Van McCoy, producer, songwriter, and solo artist (“The Hustle”),
age unknown, 1979, natural causes.
3 1 4 8
Phil Reed, age unknown, 1976, Flo and Eddie guitarist, probable suicide in leap from hotel window. e 1 1 7 9
Don Robey, 71, 1974, head of r&b and gospel labels Duke and Peacock, natural causes. f 8 0 1 9
Ron “Pig Pen” McKernan, 27, 1973, Grateful Dead organist and vocalist, cirrhosis. 3 1 5 9
Cass Elliott, 32, 1974, former Mamas and the Papas vocalist, choked to death on sandwich, inhaled vomit. 3 1 5 9
Stacy Sutherland, 31, 1978, former 13th Floor Elevators guitarist, shot to death. 3 0 7 10
Charlie “The Redman” Freeman, 31, 1973, legendary Memphis rocker (see Stanley Booth’s “Blues for the Redman”) and Dixie Flyers guitarist, drug and alcohol abuse. 5 3 2 10
People’s Temple Band, 1978, suicide/murder, in concert, with audience, by cyanide. 1 1 8 10
Pete Ham, 28, 1975, former Badfinger singer, suicide by hanging. 2 0 8 10
Donny Hathaway, 39, 1979, songwriter, singer and piano player, defenestration. 2 2 7 11
John Rostill, age unknown, 1974, former Shadows guitarist (not an original member), electrocuted in studio by guitar. 1 1 9 11
Bobby Darin, 37, 1974, heart failure during surgery. 5 1 5 11
Mal Evans, 40, 1976, “Sixth Beatle” (road manager), shot to death by Los Angeles police (“justifiable homicide”) while preparing memoirs. g 3 1 7 11
Billy Stewart, 32, 1970; vocalist (“Summertime”), car crash. 3 2 6 11
Tom Wilson, 47, 1978, former CBS producer (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “rock” version of “Sounds of Silence,” etc.), heart attack. h 6 1 4 11
Chris Bell, 27, 1979, of Big Star, car crash. 3 2 6 11
Rick Garberson, age unknown, 1979, Bizzaros drummer, carbon monoxide poisoning. 3 3 5 11
Clarence White, 29, 1973, former Byrds and Burrito Brothers guitarist, car crash. 3 3 6 12
Graham Bond, 37, 1974, legendary British bandleader, later with Ginger Baker’s Air Force, fell or threw self under subway train. 4 1 7 12
Pete Meader, 35, 1978, first manager of the Who, Mod crusader and philosopher, pill o.d. probable suicide. i 4 0 8 12
Paul Kossoff, 25, 1976, former Free and Back Street Crawler guitarist, heart and kidney failure. j 3 2 8 13
Nick Drake, 26, 1974 singer-songwriter, accidental overdose of Elavil. (PC and FC ratings by Ed Ward.) 4 5 4 13
Peter Laughner, 24, 1977, Pere Ubu founder, alcoholism. 5 5 3 13
Florence Ballard, 32, 1972, former member of the Supremes, coronary thrombosis while on welfare. 6 0 7 13
Danny Whitten, 29, 1972, Crazy Horse guitarist, heroin. 7 5 4 13
Junior Parker, 44, 1971, r&b pioneer (“Mystery Train,” “Feelin’ Good,” “Driving Wheel”) heart. 7 2 4 13
Rory Storm, 32, 1972, former leader of the Hurricanes, Ringo Starr’s pre-Beatles band, double suicide with mother. k 3 0 10 13
Jim Croce, 30, 1973, plane crash. 3 3 8 14
Robbie McIntosh, 24, 1974, Average White Band drummer, heroin o.d. at the hands of another, manslaughter conviction obtained. l 3 3 8 14
Freddy King, 42, 1976, bluesman (“Hideaway”), heart and ulcers. 6 4 4 14
Jimmy Reed, 50, 1976, r&b legend, natural causes with alcohol abuse. 8 1 5 14
Ray Jackson, 31, 1972, Stax songwriter (author of “If Loving You Is Wrong”), producer, and piano player. 5 4 5 14
Berry Oakley, 24, 1972, Allman Brothers Band bassist, motorcycle crash. m 4 3 7 14
Bobby Ramirez, 23, 1970, White Trash drummer, beaten to death in Chicago bar because of his long hair. 2 2 10 14
Slim Harpo, 45, 1979, r&b singer (“Baby, Scratch My Back”), heart attack. 6 4 4 14
Lowman Pauling, age unknown, 1973, former leader, guitarist, and writer (“Dedicated to the One I Love”) of the “5” Royales, natural causes presumed. 8 2 4 14
Marc Bolan, 29, 1977, former leader of Tyrannosaurus Rex, later T. Rex, car crash. 5 3 6 14
Les Harvey, 23 or 25, 1972, Stone the Crows guitarist, electrocuted onstage by microphone. 2 3 10 15
Al Wilson, 27, 1970, Canned Heat singer and writer (“On the Road Again,” “Going Up the Country”), probable suicide by sleeping pills. 7 3 5 15
Keith Relf, 33, 1976, former Yardbirds lead singer, electrocuted by guitar at home. 7 0 9 16
Phil Ochs, 35, 1976, suicide by hanging. 5 3 8 16
Cassie Gaines, 29, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd backing vocalist, plane crash. 3 5 8 16
George Goldner, 52, 1970, founding rock producer (Crows, Frankie Lymon, Chantels, Red Bird label), heart. 10 2 4 16
Tammi Terrell, 24, 1970, Motown vocalist solo and with Marvin Gaye, death officially attributed to brain tumor. n 6 0 4/10 10/16
John Ritchie (Sid Vicious), 21, 1979, former Sex Pistols bassist, death attributed to heroin o.d. o 5 1 1/10 7/16
Keith Moon, 31, 1978, Who drummer, accidental overdose of sedatives. 10 3 4 17
Jim Morrison, 27, 1971, Doors lead singer, “drowned in bathtub in Paris.” p 7 4 6 17
King Curtis, 37, 1971, stabbed to death. 6 4 7 17
Clyde McPhatter, 38, 1972, former lead vocalist of the Dominoes and Drifters, solo performer, liver, kidney, and heart disease with alcoholism. 10 2 5 17
Steve Gaines, 28, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist, plane crash. 4 6 8 18
Janis Joplin, 27, 1970, heroin o.d. 10 7 1 18
Sandy Denny, 31, 1978, former Fairport Convention and Fotheringay lead vocalist (also guitar and drums), cerebral hemorrhage after fall downstairs. q 9 5 6 20
Al Jackson, Jr., 39, Hi and former Stax drummer, shot to death 8 6 7 21
Gram Parsons, 27, 1973, country-rock pioneer (International Submarine Band, Flying Burrito Brothers), drugs. r 7 7 7 21
Paul Williams, 34, 1973, former Temptations vocalist, shot to death. s 8 3 8/10 19/21
Elvis Presley, 42, 1977, multiple drug abuse after lifetime of professed clean living. t 10 7 5 22
Duane Allman, 24, 1971, sessionman and Allman Brothers Band guitarist, motorcycle crash. 9 8 6 23
Ronnie Van Zant, 28, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd lead vocalist and writer, plane crash. 6 9 8 25
Jimi Hendrix, 24, 1970, inhalation of vomit after use of sedatives, complications due to poor emergency treatment. 10 10 5 25

Thus, rock death in the ’70s. If no one matched the all-time scores of Buddy Holly (10-8-8) or Sam Cooke (10-9-8), there was at least no dearth of attempts. Rock death made the decade what it was: without plenty of nonsurvivors as a yardstick, survivors and their chroniclers (for, after all, when one praises another as “a survivor,” the praise rebounds upon oneself) would have no standard against which to measure themselves. It shows no disrespect to those who are gone, then, to give ourselves a little pat on the back for having outlasted them; by so doing, we help keep them dead.

a. One M point added for oddity.

b. Involuntary manslaughter conviction obtained; three M points added.

c. As the means to the very first rock death, that of Johnny Ace in 1954 (see Don Robey), Russian roulette is worth eight M points. As Kath’s questionable rock status had the effect of demythicizing the act, however, he is docked two points.

d. Though, as with Terry Kath, Chase’s questionable rock status has the effect of diminishing the overall impact of the plane crash rock death, and would thus warrant a two-point reduction in the M score, he has been awarded two M points for appropriateness, which make up the difference: the plane that did him in was making a Vegas run.

e. First known instance of musician-as-TV-set rock death.

f. It has long been rumored that rather than shooting himself while playing Russian roulette, Johnny Ace was in fact shot by Robey. Were this provable, it would affect Robey’s score, though it has been impossible to determine in precisely what manner. It should be noted that while death by natural causes before the age of 70 is worth four M points, it is worth one M point thereafter.

g. Two PC points added for Beatle association.

h. Two PC points added for Dylan association.

i. Two M points added for appropriateness, given centrality of pills to Mod lifestyle.

j. Died once previously: in 1975, but was revived after 35 minutes. Four M points added for necrophilia.

k. Two PC points added for Beatle association.

l. Two M points added for Cher involvement.

m. One M. point added for augmentation of minor tradition of Allman Brothers rock death, which began the previous year.

n. According to widespread belief, Terrell’s brain damage really resulted from a beating by one of any number of famous entertainment figures. Deduct six M points for disbelief in this explanation.

o. Ritchie/Vicious’s death is rumored to have resulted from a hot shot, i.e. murder. Deduct nine M points for disbelief in latter explanation.

p. Should it be established that, as has long been rumored, Morrison is still alive, he would either gain four or lose six M points, but since it’s impossible to determine which, these factors have not been taken into account.

q. Two M points added for uniqueness.

r. Body stolen and burned in desert. Add six M points for melodrama.

s. Add two M points for belief in Mob involvement.

t. Four M points added for shock value.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 9, 2019