Hope They Die Before They Get Old

The rock & roll tragedies that should have been

Illustration by Bob AulMick Jagger will be 59 years old when the Rolling Stones drag their saggy asses into Edison Field this fall. That's exactly how old Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison would be—if they hadn't spent the past 30 years being dead.

Forgive me my sentimentality, but I was in high school when those dinosaurs roamed the earth, and no matter how many times I'm reminded of their sudden, prime-of-life departures, I can't help considering all the music they never had the chance to make. And it never fails to fill me with gratitude, to remind me that it could have been so much worse: they could have lived.

Can you imagine the heartbreak of watching Janis Joplin hustle to keep up with Donna Summer during disco? Or enduring Jim Morrison's desperate version of Morrissey while he tried to catch on with new wave? How about Jimi Hendrix abandoning Electric Ladyland for the big-hair drama metal of Motley Crue or the short-fuse, smart-ass punk of Blink-182? Finally, think about all those dreadful, desperate comeback tours.

We love to think that our dearly departed rock heroes would have continued their artistic trailblazing if they hadn't been called away, but so much evidence—provided by those left behind—suggests otherwise.

Exhibit A is coming to Anaheim Stadium this fall at $50 to $350 per ticket. The Rolling Stones still may ultimately be remembered as the greatest rock & roll band of all time, but it requires a better and better memory every day. They've been a travesty of a shameless caricature for a quarter-century now.

If Jagger and the Stones had—oh, I don't know—crashed aboard the Concorde or something right after Some Girls came out in 1978, their impeccable reputations would have been guaranteed.

But it's not only the Rolling Stones. In fact, they're not even the best argument that Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison—and Ritchie Valens and Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Kurt Cobain—were fortunate to have checked out when they did.

The best argument is Rod Stewart, who is 57 now and destined to be remembered as a bottle-blond buffoon. But if Stewart had died in 1972 the world would have felt robbed of one of the could-have-been rock and blues interpreters of all time. Stewart's sandpaper-and-glue vocals gave depth and weight to legendary bands like the Jeff Beck Group and the Faces, and he launched his solo career with similar credibility, turning out stirring compilations like Gasoline Alley, Every Picture Tells a Story and Never a Dull Moment in the first three years of the 1970s.

But Stewart became a weenie on 1975's Atlantic Crossing and a total dork thereafter—forcing on us unforgivable sugar-coated shit like "You're in My Heart," "Hot Legs," "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" and "Tonight's the Night (Gonna Be Alright)." With that kind of catalog haunting his eulogy, it's kinda surprising that Stewart—now a complete has-been—hasn't killed himself.

What other rock-era musicians would have enhanced their place in history by getting there sooner? It's a long list, but here's a start.

Diana Ross is 58 now, and it's a tossup whether she's better known as an arrogant diva or as the model for Michael Jackson's plastic surgery. But if Ross had keeled over in 1975, the world would have lost the No. 1 female star of the time. Ross had graduated from the legendary Supremes, and her solo singing career had branched into acting—she received a Best Actress nomination for portraying Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. But then she started sucking. Anybody remember what a fool she looked playing young Dorothy in the film version of The Wiz? Paul McCartney turns 60 this month and has looked like Aunt Bea for several years—which is what he deserves for all those cagey "Paul Is Dead" publicity stunts he pulled when he was with the Beatles. If he'd actually died in 1971, just after his first solo album, we'd still be mourning the loss of the next Gershwin. Jimmy Buffett is 55 and such a total waste of space and protoplasm that you may not believe he put out three or four albums of sweet, funny, sentimental and even meaningful songs in the early 1970s. He shoulda died in 1976 because everything about Buffett changed to Royal Caribbean cruise-ship crap when he finally scored a hit with "Margaritaville" in 1977. Elton John is 55 and has remained annoyingly ubiquitous despite lots of chances to die. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it seemed he was having an onstage breakdown every other show. Of course, by then, it was already too late. John should have died in 1973—the year he released two good albums: Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Because in 1975, he released two simpering and hollow collections—Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Colonyand Rock of the Westies—that pointed him irreversibly toward Princess Diana tributes. We could have even gone for him croaking in 1972, the year John released his last great album, Honky Chateau. But it's not just his own stuff that has plagued us since. John was also responsible for the mid-'70s revival of Neil Sedaka and the one-hit-blunder of Kiki Dee. And lately he's been giving Ryan Adams a big head. The Eagles—individually and collectively—represent all that is wrong with the yuppification of rock. Their high-ticket reunion tours have emptied their music of all its value. This band was arguably America's best in the early to mid-1970s, epitomized by the 1976 release of "Hotel California," which is when a well-timed plane crash could have preserved them that way. Joe Walsh is 55, a prototype hard rocker who shoulda died when he left the James Gang in 1971. This guy was so good that joining the Eagles—even near their peak—was a step down. Now he's just a burnout. The Who have ended up right down there with the Eagles with their just-for-the-money reunions, although Townshend & Co. have pimped out a much greater legacy. They began as Mods in the '60s, simultaneously served as the godfathers of punk and led the way into synthesized album rock, and pioneered rock opera. They should have died in 1971, right after they released Who's Next—even if that would have cut seven years off Keith Moon's life. Sting is 51 and has outlived his usefulness by about a decade. The Police were a kick, and we kinda liked the jazzy solo stuff for awhile, but around 1991, Sting's backsliding music on The Soul Cages met up with his swelling arrogance to create an insufferable monster. Whitney Houston turns 39 this summer, but she never shoulda reached 30. Or maybe even 25. Whitney had it all—pedigree, talent, connections, beauty—and has pretty much blown it. After her debut in 1985 delivered four smash singles, she never developed from a vocal gymnast into a musical interpreter. She sang crappy songs crappily. Then she married Bobby Brown—as it turns out, a fate worse than death. Melissa Etheridge just turned 41 but shoulda bit it in 1993—the year "Come to My Window" came out. Since then, Etheridge has betrayed the gutsy promise she showed while rising through the small club scene—including now-famous gigs at Que Sera in Long Beach. Instead, she has become an obnoxious belter. In fact, come to think of it, there was really no need for "Come to My Window." It's pretty obnoxious, too. Bruce Springsteen is 52, and we might have remembered him as a fervent, sincere, working-class hero in the greatest tradition of the issues-oriented troubadour. But then he went and lived too long. Springsteen could have died and gone to heaven after Born to Run in 1975. But he was still grudgingly respectable through his Hey-Mister Trilogy—Darkness On the Edge of Town, The River and Nebraska. By the time he was roaring "Born In the USA," lots of us wished he had never been born in the first place. The Beach Boys were formed in 1961 and were on the charts by 1962. Forty years later, 61-year-old Mike Love is still fronting some version of the band in a gig at the Grove of Anaheim. The horror! This band defined the surf sound of the early '60s—mostly by marrying Chuck Berry with the Four Freshmen—but then Brian Wilson had a nervous breakdown in 1965, locked himself in his sandbox-filled studio, and emerged a year later with a work of genius: Pet Sounds. If he had been put out of his misery when he was 24, it would have saved all of us so much painful embarrassment in the years it has taken for him to reach 60. Michael Jacksonturns 44 this summer, and . . . Aw, 'nuff said.
 
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