New Angels in Rock Heaven

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

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.)

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.)

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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

Paul Atkinson, 59, liver and kidney disease. Guitarist in the Zombies, and later an A&R rep who signed ABBA, Bruce Hornsby, Mr. Mister, Michael Penn, Judas Priest and Patty Smyth.

PC: 8*, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 11

*Score encompasses Zombies and A&R careers.

Illinois Jacquet, 81, heart attack. Houston-bred jazz/R&B/rock and roll/blues saxophonist. Some credit Jacquet's sax solo on the Lionel Hampton tune "Flying Home" with being the first rock and roll music ever played. Jacquet also worked with Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis. Also once jammed with Bill Clinton.

PC: 8, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 11

Valfar, 25, froze to death while hiking through a snowstorm to family's rustic cabin. Singer in Norwegian death metal band Windir.

PC: 1, FC: 1, M: 10*. Total: 12

*Extra point for having recorded an unintentionally prophetic song called "Journey to the End."

Greg Shaw, 55, heart failure. Managed the Flamin' Groovies, published several magazines and founded Bomp!/Voxx records, which has released records by the Modern Lovers, Iggy Pop and Beachwood Sparks, among many others. Has been credited with coining the term "garage rock."

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

Mac Dre, 34, shot by AK-47-wielding assailant while driving down Kansas City freeway. Hip-hop MC; Northern California legend.

PC: 4, FC: 6, M: 2*. Total: 12

*Style point for getting shot by glamorous weapon.

John Peel, 65, heart attack. Legendary BBC DJ. First to spin U2, Roxy Music, the Smiths, the Fall, Rod Stewart, Blur and the Sex Pistols.

PC: 7, FC: 5, M: 1. Total: 13

Ray Charles, 73, liver disease. One of the greatest American musicians ever.

PC: 11*, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 14

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

Dave Blood, 46, suicide -- pill overdose. Bassist in the Dead Milkmen, punk band of "Bitchin' Camaro" and "Punk Rock Girl" infamy.

PC: 5, FC: 2, M: 7. Total: 14

Phil Healy, 31, car accident. Singer-songwriter and member of Delaware pop-rock band the Knobs. While fleeing the scene of an earlier fender-bender, Healy, whose blood alcohol level was more than four times the state's legal limit, ran head-on into a police car, killing himself and a state trooper. Healy's band did a song called "If I Die in a Car Crash" and was working on album called The Knobs Break Up and Die. If he was famous anywhere beyond the greater Dover-Wilmington metro area, this would be one of the great ones indeed.

PC: 2, FC: 3, M: 10*. Total: 15

*2004's Greil Marcus Rock Death Meter Method of Demise of the Year.

Derek Frigo, 37, apparent drug overdose. Guitarist in once-hyped glam metal band Enuff Z'nuff .

PC: 5, FC: 2, M: 8. Total: 15

Julian Brooker, 23, electrocuted. Brooker, the guitarist-cellist in the Brighton, England "progressive mathematical metal soundscapes" band Aped Bi Sapien, was joking around on a British railway line, pretending to touch the high-voltage third rail. Accidentally did and paid the ultimate price.

PC: 2, FC: 4, M: 10. Total: 16

John Whitehead, 56, shot. Philadelphia soul-R&B singer, songwriter and keyboardist who co-wrote and performed "Back Stabbers," "Wake Up Everybody" and "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now," the unofficial anthem for the Phillies when they edged out the Astros in the 1980 League Championship series.

PC: 7, FC: 1, M: 9*. Total: 17

*Not a rapper, thus the high score.

Robert Quine, 61, after death of wife, Quine committed suicide by intentional heroin overdose. He was the buttoned-down-looking punk guitarist with Richard Hell and the Voidoids and other punk and no-wave bands.

PC: 6, FC: 2, M: 9*. Total: 17

*Quine was not a heroin-shooter in ordinary life; he simply chose this relatively pleasant method of death.  

Rick James, 56, officially died of natural causes, but toxicology report read like the first few pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the man actually used meth while on a pacemaker!). Funk bassist-singer who gave us "Give It to Me Baby" and "Super Freak."

PC: 8, FC: 3, M: 8*. Total: 19

*2004 winner of Warren Zevon Award, given to musicians who continue engaging in the very behavior that got them in such sorry health to begin with.

Ol' Dirty Bastard, né Russell Tyrone Jones, 34, collapsed and died in Manhattan recording studio. After weeks of mulling over ODB's blood, and probably a couple of days' wait for the computer to finish printing out what was no doubt a lengthy report, it was found that ODB's demise was brought on by a combination of cocaine and the painkiller Tramadol. Outrageous hip-hop MC/founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan.

PC: 6, FC: 6, M: 10. Total: 22

Dimebag Darrell Abbott, 38, shot and killed on stage by deranged fan. Genius metal guitarist of Pantera and Damageplan infamy; hard-partying strip-club co-owner known as "The People's Rock Star."

PC: 8*, FC: 6, M: 10. Total: 24

*Point added for having best rock and roll name of all time.

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