A compendium of dead rock stars and the tales of their demises is hardly an original idea. Nor are there many original, overarching ideas in this book. The vast bulk of the book’s 250 pages is taken up with a chronology of rock demises, from Robert Johnson’s murk-shrouded Mississippi Delta murder in 1938 to James Brown’s Christmas Day departure last year, each of which are appended to more or less standard bios of the artists. As bonus material, a trio of appendices offer up a top 50 of death songs; a list of 20 “reaper cheaters,” or survivors of close shaves; and five of rock’s most lethal occupations, one of which, of course is keyboardist for the Grateful Dead.
Unoriginal as all this is, I had a hard time putting Rock & Roll Heaven down. I was unable to find out much about authors Dimery and MacDonald, although it appears from what little bio I could grab from the jacket and the ‘net and some of their editorial choices for inclusion -- Zac Foley of EMF, Mickey Finn of T. Rex, and Brian Connolly of Sweet, are all in – that both are Brits. Their work is marked by dab hands at selecting photos you aren’t sick to death of, as well as telling quotes, such as this one by Keith Richards on Kurt Cobain: “I figured he was in the wrong business. What’s so tough about being lead singer in one of the biggest rock n’ roll bands in the world? You just deal with it.”
The appendices are also enjoyable. Did you know that Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro really did perish as the result of a bizarre gardening accident?
And yet it’s hard to recommend buying this book. Enjoyable as it was, it is deeply flawed.
The book suffers from some mind-boggling omissions. How can any rock author from either side of the pond justify the inclusion of EMF’s Foley and Rob Pilatus of goddamn Milli Vanilli while Duane freaking Allman is only mentioned as a footnote in the Lynyrd Skynyrd article?
That puzzler strikes at the heart of this book’s shoddy blueprint. Namely, what is a great rock death? To me, it should be one that comes leaving the audience wanting more. It should result from youthful folly. It should leave the artist’s fans hoping, dreaming that the artist is somehow still alive, or was murdered, as fans of Elvis, Tupac, Kurt and Jim Morrison still believe today.
While nobody insists that Duane Allman was murdered or is still alive, he was one of the driving forces behind one of the most popular rock bands on the planet, and he was in his early 20s when he perished in a motorcycle wreck. His death wracked his huge fanbase with grief, robbed rock of one of its most gifted ever instrumentalists, and inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd to write “Free Bird,” which is only something like the national anthem of the Deep South. So why does this man not have an entry in this book, when the authors have seen fit to include KISS drummer Eric Carr, Echo and the Bunnymen drummer Pete de Freitas, Viv Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and Billy MacKenzie of the Associates?
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For that matter, what was particularly “rock” in the grand sense about the passings of the beloved figures included herein, such as John Lee Hooker, John Peel, James Brown, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, and Nina Simone?
Peel, the youngest of that group, was 65 when he died, and each died of natural causes. If you are just going to include everybody who’s dead, irregardless of their age or manner of death, where then are the entries for Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and T-Bone Walker, among hundreds more?
Rock and roll death as a topic is a rich lode for ideas, but the closest Rock & Roll Heaven comes to a theme is to advise against engaging in bi-coastal rap beefs, dabbling with heroin, flying in dodgy aircraft or bad weather, playing with guns and enrolling in influential early American punk bands. And my mama told me all that along time ago. – John Nova Lomax
Rock & Roll Heaven, by Robert Dimery and Bruno MacDonald, Barron's Educational Series, 256 pgs, $24.99.