Stairway to Heaven

This past year has easily been the weakest of the three since we started stealing Greil Marcus's method of scoring rock and roll deaths. As with every year, the reaper's bushel includes some famous names -- Link Wray, Luther Vandross, Chris Whitley, Gatemouth Brown, Jimmy Martin and Jimmie Smith among them -- but 2005 lacked a Grand Rock Exit worthy of masters such as Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith or Johnny Ace. Or at least it lacks one from a famous name: Some musicians did go out with style, but none this year was beloved enough nationally to elicit the candlelight vigils, earnest radio tribute shows and insistence from the hard-core fan cult that they were either still alive or murdered that you need for a truly great Rock Death. (And thankfully, no musicians of note were murdered this year, either onstage or off.)

Regular readers of this column know the methodology of this tally: Musicians who died this year are scored on their past and future contributions as well as the "rockness" of their death. "Past contribution" is not to be confused with how good I believed an artist to be -- while that does play a part, it's more a measure of their popularity and/or influence. (So, yeah, I would rather listen to Gatemouth Brown over Luther Vandross any day, but I can't sit here and tell you that Gate was more popular or influential than Lufer, as much as I wish it were true.) "Future contribution" takes into account whether they were still touring and/or recording, and if so on either account, whether the shows or records still had vitality. And as for manner of death, the more ludicrously romantic and rebellious your end, the higher you score.

Generally speaking, the less a preacher would approve of your demise, the higher your rank, with a couple of exceptions. Back in the '70s when Marcus conceived this scorecard, he rightly called the heroin overdose "the common cold of rock death" and accordingly awarded it very low scores. The reverse is true today: The classic choking on your own vomit departure of rock yore is today as rare as cirrhosis among the Mormons. I would award a smack overdose a high score if only I could find one.


Rock deaths 2005

However, two new strains of common-cold rock death have taken the OD's place. The first I started taking into account years ago: the rapper who dies in a hail of gunfire. The other I just noticed this year: metal musicians perishing in car crashes. I combed over the excellent Web site for hours and found six rappers who died of gunshot wounds this year and seven metalheads who died behind the wheel. (I would have exempted Kurt Struebing of the band NME from the common-cold rule, since his end had style: He drove his car off an open drawbridge. Then again, this is the same guy who once murdered his adoptive mother with a hatchet and scissors, so you couldn't say this manner of leaving the planet was exactly unexpected.)

While hip-hoppers and headbangers were utterly predictable last year, the punkers and indie rockers offered up some pretty creative ways to go. One fell out of his dorm window while drunk -- the ultimate college rocker death. Another broke his neck in a stage dive. A third was backed over by an 18-wheeler, and a fourth drowned in a Utah cave. Members of three different Chicago bands were annihilated when a distraught woman rammed their car in a botched suicide attempt. The suicidal woman came away with a broken foot and three murder one charges. (Had the circumstances of this tragedy been different, had these guys driven an explosives-laden car into the offices of the local radio station that wouldn't play their songs, say, this would have given Johnny Ace a run for his money as the Rockest Death Ever. As it was, though, it was just senseless.)

Also in the punk and indie category are two contenders for 2005's Rock Death of the Year. Rock Halsey of the notorious and legendary San Francisco punk band Rock Bottom and the Spys was murdered in prison, where he was serving 24 years for meth dealing, and a Russian punk who was in a band called Sandinista! was stabbed to death, probably by members of a fascist St. Petersburg street gang.

We'll give Halsey a nine and the Russian kid a perfect ten, but it's most likely you've never heard of the Spys or Sandinista!, so they're both barred from a high overall score. Which brings us to the heart of the matter: the roll call of greats we lost in 2005, and how we lost them.

Texas rockabilly legend Sonny Fisher, 73, natural causes
Past contribution: 6, future contribution: 1, manner of death: 1. Total: 8

Goldband Records owner, operator and founder Eddie Shuler Sr. , 82, natural causes
PC: 6, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 8

Jefferson Airplane and New Riders of the Purple Sage drummer Spencer Dryden, 66, colon cancer
PC: 6, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 8

Foghat guitarist Rod Price, 58, head injury stemming from a fall after a heart attack
PC: 5, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 8

Cajun fiddler par excellence Rufus Thibodeaux, 71, natural causes
PC: 6, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 8

Bread founding member Jimmy Griffin, cancer
PC: 6, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 8

Molly Hatchet singer Danny Joe Brown, 53, pneumonia
PC: 5, FC: 3, M: 1. Total: 9

Blue Cheer founding member Jerry Russell, 60, myelodysplasia
PC: 5, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 9

Synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog, 71, cancer
PC: 7, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 9

Reggae singer-songwriter Justin Hinds, 62, cancer
PC: 5, FC: 3, M: 1. Total: 9

John Fred & the Playboys front man John Fred Gourrier, 63, kidney failure
PC: 6, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 9

Rock/rockabilly wildman and chicken devotee Hasil Adkins, 68, natural causes
PC: 4, FC: 4, M: 1. Total: 9

Manager, performer and songwriter Merle Kilgore, 70, cancer
PC: 7*, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 9
*In addition to working with Hank Williams and Hank Jr., Kilgore also co-wrote "Ring of Fire"

Traffic drummer and singer Jim Capaldi, 61, stomach cancer
PC: 8, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 10

Exotica patriarch Martin Denny, 94, natural causes
PC: 8, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 10

Austin musician and discoverer of Wayne Hancock, Don Walser and Kimmie Rhodes Tiny McFarland, 57, hepatitis C
PC: 6, FC: 1, M: 3*. Total: 10
*Hep C is the rock and roll disease, thus the extra points

Country, rockabilly, gospel and R&B pianist Big Al Downing, 65, leukemia
PC: 7, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 10

New Orleans R&B singer Shirley Goodman, 69, natural causes
PC: 7, FC: 2, M: 1. Total: 10

Country singer Sammi Smith, 61, emphysema
PC: 6, FC: 3, M: 1. Total: 10

Fat Possum bluesman Paul "Wine" Jones, 59, cancer
PC: 5, FC: 4, M: 1. Total: 10

Fat Possum bluesman R.L. Burnside, 79, heart attack
PC: 8, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 10

Smooth-voiced Cuban son singer Ibrahim Ferrer, 78, emphysema
PC: 8, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 10

Chicano music patriarch Lalo Guerrero, 89, natural causes
PC: 9*, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 10
*Extra point for inspiring Los Lobos to write "Mas y Mas," their most rockin' song ever

Old-time, country and bluegrass fiddler extraordinaire Vassar Clements, 77, cancer
PC: 8, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 10

Chuck Berry pianist and rock patriarch Johnnie Johnson, 80, natural causes
PC: 9, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 11

Jazz-funk titan Jimmy Smith, 79, natural causes
PC: 9, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 11

Soul-bluesman Tyrone Davis, 66, stroke
PC: 7, FC: 3, M: 1. Total: 11

Country singer-songwriter and championship rodeo cowboy Chris LeDoux, 56, liver cancer
PC: 6, FC: 4, M: 1. Total: 11

Jazz singer Shirley Horn, 71, diabetes
PC: 7, FC: 3, M: 1. Total: 11

Texas soul/R&B singer, songwriter and producer Willie Hutch, 60, causes undisclosed
PC: 8*, FC: 4, M: 1. Total: 13
*Extra points above and beyond his own recordings for writing songs like the Jackson 5's "Got to Be There," "Never Can Say Goodbye" and "I'll Be There"

Hard-edged bluegrass and country singer-guitarist Jimmy Martin, a.k.a. the King of Bluegrass and Mr. Good N' Country, 77, natural causes
PC: 9, FC: 1, M: 1. Total: 11

Soul/bluesman Little Milton, 70, stroke
PC: 9, FC: 3, M: 1. Total: 13

Rock, surf and rockabilly guitar god Link Wray, 76, heart attack
PC: 9, FC: 3, M: 1. Total: 13

Punk-funk pioneer Randy "Biscuit" Turner of the Big Boys, 56, hepatitis C
PC: 7, FC: 4, M: 3*. Total: 14
*See comment at Tiny McFarland's entry

Guitar Wolf bassist Hideaki Sekiguchi, a.k.a. Billy Wolf, 38, heart attack
PC: 6, FC: 6, M: 4. Total: 14

Smooth megaplatinum R&B crooner Luther Vandross, 54, stroke
PC: 10, FC: 2, M: 3*. Total: 15
*Extra rock points for report that he was using Krispy Kreme doughnuts as hamburger buns mere weeks before what proved to be his fatal stroke

Musical embodiment of the Gulf Coast Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, 81, cancer
PC: 9, FC: 2, M: 7*. Total: 18
*Extra points for refusing treatment for his cancer in favor of continuing to smoke pot and retreating from Katrina not to Houston, where M.D. Anderson awaited, but to Orange, because that was where he was from and where he wanted to die

Alternative roots-rock singer-guitarist Chris Whitley, 45, lung cancer
PC: 8, FC: 6, M: 5*. Total: 19
*Like Brown, Whitely tried to refuse to let a little thing like terminal lung cancer get in the way of his doing what he loved: playing music


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