New Angels in Rock Heaven

Scoring the grim reaper's 2004 harvest

Music or connoisseurs of rock death, most of 2004 was a pretty bum vintage. That's not to say that nobody notable died -- after all, this was the year we lost Ray Charles. But for aesthetes of the grand rock demise, 2004 lacked the ludicrously romantic death of a wounded young romantic à la Jeff Buckley's fatal embrace of the Father of Waters, say, or the inconsolable Elliott Smith's forlorn self-gutting.

Since it didn't come at his own hand, Dimebag Darrell's demise belongs in another category of rock fatality. Still, his murder is the type of tragic end that puts you near the top of the Greil Marcus Rock Death Meter, which we polished off and restored (okay, perhaps "stole" is a better word) here last year.

Many years ago, Marcus started scoring rock deaths on three criteria: past contribution, potential future contribution and manner of death. Generally speaking, if your demise was tragic or ironic, you scored high in the "manner of death" category, with one exception: Since Marcus was writing in the late '70s, when heroin overdoses were ho-hum events, you got a one out of ten. Following the lead of former Press music editor Brad Tyer, who also "polished off and restored" Marcus's Rock Death Meter in this paper about ten years ago, I have decided that smack ODs have become unusual enough again for biggish scores -- usually an eight or nine, though perfect tens are awarded only under special circumstances. (Today, bullet-riddled rappers are the new, low-scoring rock death cliché; on the other hand, since he was a rocker and since it happened on stage, Dimebag Darrell's death was anything but clichéd.)

Very few careers go to 11. Brother Ray's was one.
Very few careers go to 11. Brother Ray's was one.

Back when Marcus originally came up with the concept, he had Buddy Holly as the all-time champ, and Ronnie Van Zant and Jimi Hendrix were tied at the top of the 1970s tables. I would probably throw Duane Allman in the mix with those two guys, and since then, I would submit that Kurt Cobain, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Selena, John Lennon and Jeff Buckley have joined them on the top shelf. (The assassinations of 'Pac and Biggie came before bullet-riddled rappers were passé.)

And then there's one Marcus missed -- namely, Johnny Ace, whose pistol-waving, quasi-Russian roulette death backstage at the Houston City Auditorium was exactly 50 years ago this Christmas Day. Blowing your own brains out while sozzled on vodka backstage at a packed house while you're one of the top artists in the country? That, my friends, is the rockest death ever, one that easily trumps the lonely suicides of Cobain and Smith and the transportation mishaps that claimed Holly, Van Zant and Vaughan. It even trumps Dimebag's demise, since devil-may-care recklessness always beats out being the subject of a pistol-packing nut job's ire.

By my estimation, last year's winner was Elliott Smith, who scored an impressive 25 out of 30. Could anyone top that this year?

Daniel "Dane" Maurice Riddick, 23, shot to death. Hip-hop MC.

Past contribution: 1, potential future contribution: 1, manner of death: 2*. Total: 4

*Extra point for irony -- he once performed on a CD benefiting at-risk youth.

Laura Branigan, 47, brain aneurysm. Tone-deaf pop singer; gave the world "Gloria" and "Self Control." Also, worked with Leonard Cohen and dueted on "I Believe" with Knight Rider/Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, who is huge in Germany as a pop star.

PC: 3, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 6

Izora Armstead, age unknown, heart failure. Rotund disco singer, one half of the Weather Girls of "It's Raining Men" fame.

PC: 3, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 6

J.J. Jackson, 62, heart attack, avuncular original MTV VJ.

PC: 4, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 7

Joe Barry, 69, natural causes. Cajun swamp-pop singer of tunes like "I'm a Fool to Care" and "Teardrops in My Heart." Before turning to religion late in life, Barry was a noted wild man -- he pioneered the art of wrecking hotel rooms decades before it became fashionable.

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

Doris Troy, 67, emphysema. Soul singer -- solo career's biggest hit was "Just One Look." Also sang memorable backup parts on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

PC: 7, FC: 1 , M: 1. Total: 9

Skeeter Davis, 72, breast cancer. Country/pop singer whose hits included "Set Him Free" and "The End of the World."

PC: 7, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 9

Terry Melcher, 62, melanoma. Co-wrote "Kokomo" and produced several of the Byrds' hits. Also worked with Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Beach Boys, Gram Parsons, the Mamas and the Papas, Bobby Darin, Glen Campbell and Ry Cooder.

PC: 7, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 10

Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd, 72, heart attack. Jamaican reggae producer who helped launch the career of Bob Marley and the Wailers and many other ska and reggae greats.

PC: 7, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 10

Isidro "El Indio" Lopez, 75, stroke/brain aneurysm. Singer and saxophone player; member of the Tejano Music Hall of Fame.

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

Johnny Ramone, 56, prostate cancer. Right-wing guitarist and founding member of the Ramones. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.

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

Raful Neal, 68, Baton Rouge singer-harmonica player. Godfather of Baton Rouge blues scene.

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

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