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Rock Death in 2003

Exhuming and scoring last year's pop-music demises

Live fast, die young and leave a pretty corpse. That juvenile commandment used to be one of rock and roll's golden rules. But today that attitude is itself dead before its time. Rock deaths ain't what they used to be.

Back in the 1970s, Village Voice rock scribe Greil Marcus wrote an essay -- which is among his collected works in the book Ranters and Crowd Pleasers -- in which he scored the deaths of the rock and roll notables who passed away over the course of the decade, and in a sidebar, those who met their maker before that. Marcus awarded points for past contribution, future contribution and manner of death. Past contribution measured the musician's output up to time of death, while future contribution projected their output had they lived.

Back then -- as now -- you scored major points for dying young or in an accident or by committing suicide, but tellingly, Marcus awarded zero points for a heroin overdose. Marcus described that manner of mortality as "the common cold of rock deaths." (According to Marcus's criteria, Buddy Holly is the all-time champ, and Ronnie Van Zant and Jimi Hendrix tied for 1970s "honors." Kurt Cobain would likely take the '90s cake, though perhaps Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tupac and Biggie Smalls would give him a bit of a run for his money. Selena may even have edged out Cobain, as getting killed by a deranged fan beats suicide. And you'd have to give Jeff Buckley the ultimate style points for wading out into the mighty Mississipp', never to return. Truly Byronic!)

A lot has changed since 1979. As former Press writer Brad Tyer noted when he stole Marcus's idea back in 1994 -- which I am going to steal again here -- the tried-and-true, narcotic-induced, drowning-in-your-vomit demise of yore is now the exception rather than the rule and has been for some time now. Accordingly, in his ranking of the rock deaths of 1993, Tyer's victor was fresh-faced actor/singer River Phoenix, who died on Halloween night with a few acres of Afghanistan's opium poppy output and a whole mountainside of refined Andean coca coursing through his veins.

Ten years after Tyer's list and 25 years after Marcus's, it's almost, but not quite, impossible to come across the traditional rock death. (Layne Staley was 2002, folks.) Cigarettes or plain old natural causes are more likely to bear them off this mortal coil today. Rock-death snobs face pretty slim pickings these days, as so many famous musicians are living as long as the rest of us and dying of normal and/or dignified ailments. (In what is likely a first for a musician of the hippie era, Skip Battin of the Byrds, the New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Flying Burrito Brothers died at 69 of complications due to Alzheimer's disease.)

And since the pop music landscape has changed a whole lot since Marcus and Tyer penned their pieces, we're throwing this one open beyond rock to include country, a little Latin music and hip-hop. After all, there's a new clichéd way to join the great majority: the rapper going down in a fusillade of nine-millimeter slugs. That's the common cold of rock deaths these days. If you're a rapper and you want style points for getting gunned down, make sure your assailants light you up with a Humvee-mounted machine gun or a rocket-propelled grenade or a battlefield nuke or something like that.

Past and future contributions are trickier things to grade. Johnny Cash gets a pretty high future grade since he was still releasing good stuff, but most older folks get low scores in that department. (What was Sam Phillips going to contribute besides salty and punchy interviews?) We graded youngsters pretty generously on their future contributions. Past contributions measure fame as well as merit -- we like Ten Grand a hell of a lot more than one-third better than Great White, and we'd like to give Earl King a perfect score for past contribution, but his fame doesn't warrant it -- and Great White had a hit once upon a time.

And if you think this is all really tacky, remember that next time you sit down to rank them while they're alive.

Robert Palmer, 54, suave rock lounge lizard. Heart attack.

Past contributions: 3, future contributions: 1, manner of death: 1. Total: 5

Little Eva, 59, lady who sang "Locomotion." Cause unknown.

PC: 4, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 6

Noel Redding, 57, Anglo-Afro'd Jimi Hendrix Experience bass player. Natural causes.

PC: 4, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 6

Maurice Gibb, 53, overlooked Bee Gee. Intestinal blockage.

PC: 5, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 7

Edwin Starr, 61, remembered mostly for "War! Hunh! What is it good for?" Heart attack.

PC: 5, FC: 1, M: 1 Total: 7

Bobby Hatfield, 63, Righteous Brother. Heart attack.

PC: 6, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 8

Barry White, 58, rumble-throated loverman. Kidney failure.

PC: 5, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 8

Hank Ballard, 76, real inventor of the twist, composer-performer of oft-banned R&B songs. Throat cancer.

PC: 8, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 10

Compay Segundo, 96, lovably crusty Buena Vista Social Club armonico player. Kidney failure.

PC: 8, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 10

Ruben Gonzalez, 83, Elfin Buena Vista Social Club piano genius. Cause unknown.

PC: 8, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 10

Don Gibson, 75, country singer and noted songwriter ("Oh Lonesome Me," "I Can't Stop Loving You," "Sweet Dreams"). Cause unknown.

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