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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.

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

D.O. Cannon, 26, Queens rapper signed to Murder Inc. Shot three times in the chest and leg in New York.

PC: 3, FC: 6, M: 1. Total: 10

Earl King, 69, New Orleans R&B legend, composer of "Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)" and "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights." Diabetes complications.

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

Floyd Tillman, 88, electric guitar pioneer and the composer/performer of the very first country cheating hit ("Slippin' Around.") Tillman also wrote "It Makes No Difference Now." Leukemia.

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

Nina Simone, 70, barbed-tongued jazz, blues and soul chanteuse. Died in sleep of undisclosed cause.

PC: 9, FC: 1, M: 1. Total 11

Wesley Willis, 40, mentally ill Casio maestro, writer of bizarre songs, indie rock icon. Leukemia.

PC: 5, FC: 5, M: 1. Total: 11

Camoflauge, 21, Savannah, Georgia, rapper. Shot twice in the presence of his toddler son while standing in front of his Pure Pain recording studio.

PC: 3, FC: 6, M: 2*. Total: 11

* Extra point rewarded for ironic studio name

June Carter Cash, 73, musician and wife of Johnny Cash. Heart surgery complications.

PC: 7*, FC: 3, M: 1. Total: 11

* Extra point awarded for keeping Johnny alive all these years

Matt Davis, 26, Ten Grand singer-guitarist. Seizure.

PC: 3, FC: 6, M: 2. Total: 11

Ronnie Dawson, 64, rockabilly legend. Oral cancer.

PC: 6, FC: 5, M: 1. Total: 12

Soulja Slim, 25, New Orleans rapper, formerly signed to No Limit. Shot twice in the face and five times in the chest in front of his mother's house.

PC: 5 , FC: 6, M: 1. Total: 12

Johnny Paycheck, 64, honky-tonker extraordinaire, respiratory illnesses.

PC: 7 , FC: 2 , M: 4*. Total: 13.

*Extra points for surviving an explosion a few years back in his hospital-room oxygen tent brought on by his lighting a cigarette inside. And he's also the only guy on the list to have been tried and convicted for shooting a man in the head after an argument over the best way to cook venison.

Sam Phillips, 80, Sun Records honcho, the long-bearded patriarch of rock and roll. Respiratory failure.

PC: 10, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 13

Ty Longley, 31, Great White guitarist. Perished in club fire, along with 85 fans.

PC: 1, FC: 2*, M: 10. Total: 13

*Points docked in spite of relative youth for playing with Great White.

Celia Cruz, 77, salsa queen. Brain tumor.

PC: 10, FC: 3, M: 1. Total: 14

Spekt 1, 23, up-and-coming San Francisco Bay Area rapper. Run over twice by a Chevy Tahoe.

PC: 1, FC: 5, M: 9. Total: 15

At last, a rapper comes up with a new way to die.

Howie Epstein, 47, former bass player with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Apparent heroin overdose. Arguably the most famous of the classic rockers to die in 2003 dies the ultimate classic rock death.

PC: 6, FC: 1*, M: 9. Total: 16

* Points docked for being an ex-Heartbreaker at time of death.

Johnny Cash, 71, American icon. Country and rock legend. Managed to stay contemporary for almost 50 years. Diabetes-related illnesses.

PC: 10, FC: 6, M: 1. Total: 17

Warren Zevon, 56, acerbic singer-songwriter. Lung cancer.

PC: 8, FC: 5, M: 5*. Total: 18

*Extra points for continuing to smoke heavily even after diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.

Gary Stewart, 58, honky-tonk great, known for "Backsliders' Wine," "Out of Hand" and "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)." Self-inflicted gunshot wound.

PC: 7, FC: 4, M: 8. Total: 20

Jeremy Michael Ward, 27, Mars Volta and De Facto "sound manipulator." Apparent drug overdose.

PC: 4, FC: 7, M: 9. Total: 20

Matthew Jay, 24, British pop/folk singer-songwriter. Defenestration.

PC: 4, FC: 7, M: 9. Total: 20.

Though little known on these shores, Jay was signed to Capitol and was often likened in the British music press to David Gray and Badly Drawn Boy; he had toured with Starsailor, Shelby Lynne, Dido and the Doves. On September 24, Jay jumped or fell from his seventh-story apartment window in Nottingham, England. The press release his label sent to the media tends to support the former supposition: "His act would appear to have been an impulsive gesture following a professionally difficult year and, perhaps, a difficult day."

The Exploding Hearts, various ages, Portland, Oregon-based punk band. Van wreck. Three of the four members of this rising group were killed while on tour after one of their members fell asleep at the wheel, hit the median, overcorrected and rolled the van.

PC: 5, FC: 8*, M: 10*. Total: 23

* Extra points given for future contributions since several of the members might have made something of themselves; extra points for manner since multiple members died.

Elliott Smith, 34, punk-folk singer-songwriter, Academy Award nominee, Generation X's Nick Drake. Self-inflicted knife wound in chest.

PC: 6, FC: 9, M: 10*. Total: 25

* Extra points for grisliness of suicide method

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