“It’s funny the way most people love death. Once you are dead, you are made for life.”
So said Jimi Hendrix, the firecracker guitar god of the ’60s who burned out before ever starting to fade. He checked out, via gruesome asphyxiation, in Sept. 1970 at age 27 – and joined the dubious ranks of other music heroes who died at that tender age. “The 27 Club,” as it is sometimes called, also boasts Kurt Cobain (suicide), Janis Joplin (overdose), Jim Morrison (heart attack), blues godfather Robert Johnson (poisoned), and original Rolling Stone guitarist Brian Jones (drowned or murdered, depending on who you ask). You’ve probably seen posters of the higher-profile members sitting ’round a bar, laughing up into Marilyn Monroe’s cleavage; the forever-young visual is iconic in itself. (This despite the inaccuracy; Monroe died in her ’30s. But someone had to subtly reinforce the gang’s – and the buyer’s – heterosexuality.)
I don’t think about death much; I’m not Russian. Also, I’m at least 60 percent too boring to justify to my rock-and-roll fetish (my drug use is scant, though I do enjoy climbing on rooftops to scream “Almost Famous” quotes). But it’s hard not to ponder the flickering flame of life when the most celebrated people of our society can’t even keep their act together for three decades. It’s not even a phenomenon so much as a repetitive. There are even books about it.
Enter “Stairway to Heaven: The Final Resting Places of Rock’s Legends,” a glossy 160-page tome of tombs. Written by J.D. Reed and Maddy Miller, it crosses the country and even skips overseas to chronicle the graves, final stories, and legacies of our dearly departed. More so, it manages not to be entirely morbid; the book is a funeral in itself, as it shows death but also celebrates incredible lives. From Nico to Elvis to almost all the Ramones, the musical scenery of the last 70 years is noted by its final markers.
And it’s quite an education; the book is crammed with facts that may have gone unmentioned in more upbeat accounts. Who knew Waylon Jennings almost boarded the ill-fated plane with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens on The Day the Music Died, or that such a family feud exploded when Beach Boy Dennis Wilson died (um, after marrying his niece)? Also, fans mysteriously leave coins at the marker for Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopez of TLC, and comedian/bad-ass John Belushi’s marker reads, “I may be dead, but rock and roll lives on.”
More important than the text, which is packed to breaking with trivia, is the overall feeling of gratitude to the artists – it radiates from the pages. The flowers and trinkets from fans overflow at each tombstone, which is pretty reassuring – if death is inescapable, at least these generally tortured souls continue to go out in style. But, again, the age factor is omnipresent, and a harder pill to swallow – because most of the rock icons in Stairway to Heaven are just young, to the extent that we’ve already outlived them. They didn’t even make it to the big 2-7 – Nick Drake was 26, Billy Murcia (New York Dolls) was 21, Frankie Lymon was 25. The knee-jerk reaction, produced in the pages but felt beyond, is they shouldn’t have gone – which is a startling return to empathy after being jaded by the unrelenting force of death everywhere, to everyone. I don’t know; I think I’m in mourning right now.
Seeing that in one page after another is a difficult thing, because some of the ends were accidents but others came from recklessness and suicide; that seems the strongest link between them and us, so we are united. There are tons of young deaths not reported because they didn’t strike the right chords alive, but nothing speaks stronger to our age or creativity than feeling overwhelmed and unhinged.
It’s amazing to think of these cultural phenomenons, young as we’ll know them, as mere mortals, because we only have their legends now. We’ll never experience them as attainable people because their art is retroactively marked with that mythology. (Could they have achieved greater glory if they lived, or are they more important now in their early demise? Yes and yes.) This defines them, maybe more personally than we can know, because rock and roll caters to the manic side of personality. It’s our pursuit of ‘cool’ in every possible exchange – and unfortunately, that stock rises when breathing stops.
But ultimately, that’s what is so great about rock and roll. It’s a testament to the
people who live by it; rock elevates its disciples so high, it’s shocking when they fall to earth. Stairway to Heaven proved it, and seeing those tragically shortened lives, their path, is a hard one to take. But we seem to want it anyway because, like them, we can’t choose when we grow up.
Stacey Anderson is a Journalism and Music senior, KCPR DJ, and Strawberry Fields groupie. Catch her Sundays from 7-8 p.m. and Thursdays from 3-5 p.m. on 91.3 FM or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.