In April, for the first time in ages, I am going to a wedding. At least it will make a change from all the funerals. The middle-aged pop fan feels this all the more deeply, because few of our favourite musicians seem to make old bones. Or, more accurately, they make old bones, but at three or four times the speed that everyone else does.
Some of these rock deaths are relatively mundane: falling down stairs (Sandy Denny), car crashing into a tree (Marc Bolan), ski-ing into a tree (Sonny Bono). Others are bizarre. It was Chicago’s guitarist Terry Kath, of course, whose career came to a premature end during a boozy game of Russian roulette. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘it’s not loaded.’ Jim Morrison was always thought to have breathed his last in the bath, but it now seems to be widely accepted that the mighty drugs hoover overdosed in a nightclub, and various friends and acquaintances carried him back to his hotel room under cover of darkness. Half a dozen years later, the French singer Claude François really did die in the bath. The lightbulb was flickering so he decided to change it. On balance, he probably should have got out of the bath first.
These, though, are familiar and much- loved tales from the golden age of ridiculous rock deaths. These days, some musicians actually die of natural causes. And they are pegging out in ever-greater profusion. The recent departure of the Monkees’ Davy Jones (aged 66) swiftly followed that of Whitney Houston (48), which itself seemed to end the long period of mourning for poor little Amy Winehouse (27). Some funerals become a celebration of a life well lived, and you leave feeling faintly cheered, having shared this important ritual with other survivors. Other funerals, especially of those who have died too young or without hope or redemption, can be unspeakably gruelling.
Poor little Amy seems to have drunk herself to death with terrifying single-mindedness. Every photo of her from the last couple of years, skinny, wrecked, multiply tattooed, feels like a glimpse into the void. Of Whitney we know less, although her decline was longer and no less public. But how, why, and could something have been done? All sorts of tales have been floating around, and will go on doing so until the definitive muck-raking biography is nailed down a few years hence. What unites Amy and Whitney, though, is that neither seemed remotely vulnerable when they first emerged into the glare. Amy was bright and sharp of tongue and seemed to know exactly what she wanted. Whitney had talent, for sure, but she also knew what to do with it. In 1985 you would have had her mapped out for a 40-year career. It does seem the most ridiculous waste.
And yet the death that moved me most, for some reason, was Davy Jones’s. (At the pub quiz on Tuesday, as a tribute, we called our team ‘I’m A Bereaver’.) We can only guess at the strain that can be placed on a man by still being called ‘Davy’ when you’re nearly 70, but he could have been 90 and the death would still have come as a surprise. The Monkees represented youth as few groups have done, before or since. Admittedly they were created specifically to do this for the TV series that launched their career, but we shouldn’t hold this against them. (There is a fantastic article on the godlike genius of the Monkees by Robert Forster, once of the Go-Betweens and now a music writer of considerable flair. It is called ‘Sunshine On My Brain’ and easily Googleable.) Jones was young then, has been young ever since and, in our minds at least, died young, although of old age. If he can die, well, so can any of us. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
And it will get worse. A further glimpse into the void is supplied each Monday evening on Radio 2 when Paul Jones presents what he calls ‘an hour of rhythm and blues’. (It’s blues in the traditional sense, rather than the unspeakable horror of what now trades under the name ‘R&B’.) Every single week, some or other old bluesperson has popped their clogs: in fact, they are dying faster than he can pay musical tribute to them. It’s the future, in the sense that there isn’t one. Personally, I think it may be time to put a record on.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 17, 2012