The cult of the good-looking corpse

July 26, 2011

Item: LONDON (AP) — The family of Amy Winehouse is preparing to hold a private funeral for the singer, who was found dead last week at the age of 27.
Family spokesman Chris Goodman said the private service for family and close friends will be held Tuesday at an undisclosed location.
A day earlier, an autopsy failed to determine the cause of the singer’s death. Police are awaiting the results of toxicology tests, which will take two to four weeks.
The soul diva, who had battled alcohol and drug addiction, was found dead Saturday at her London home.

By Philip Martin

No doubt the romance of dying young — the wish for extinction — is as old as the first sentient flickerings throwing shadows on the cave walls of our inner skulls.

Early death is not romantic — Neil Young lives and so does Johnny Rotten. It’s better to grow fat and slack, to become a middle-aged hasbeen touring your back catalog than to check out at 27. The cult of the good-looking corpse has been around at least since 18th-century English poet and forger Thomas Chatterton died at age 18 from arsenic poisoning.

Still, the lionization of the young dead is an indivisible part of the rock ethic. “Die young, stay pretty,” went the lyrics of a Blondie song. Pete Townshend once expressed the desire to die before getting old. Even the venerable Young, a consummate rock “survivor” whose elegies for heroin casualty Danny Whitten and suicide victim Kurt Cobain made for beautiful and haunting art, once sang, “It’s better to burn out than fade away.”

Death has historically been a great career move. It can turn a sloppy mediocrity like Jim Morrison into something like a rascal god, a Dionysian visage smoldering from the cover of Rolling Stone beside the legend “He’s Hot, He’s Sexy, He’s Dead.” They mobbed the record stores after Tupac Shakur’s murder.

Rock ‘n’ roll is a genre founded in blood and hype. It was born backstage in a Houston theater on Christmas Eve 1954, when a young Memphian named John Marshall Alexander Jr. chambered a bullet in his revolver, spun it around and snapped it closed. He put the muzzle to his head and pulled the trigger: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the late great Johnny Ace.

Johnny Ace was the first rock ‘n’ roller, Johnny Ace was the first rock ‘n’ roll death.

1954 was a transitional period, when the music we call rock ‘n’ roll was just about to emerge from rhythm and blues. Johnny Ace’s posthumous hit “Pledging My Love” is as good a candidate as any for the first full-blown rock ‘n’ roll song. Not because it was stylistically much different from any number of rhythm and blues songs that had been released in the previous few years — Jackie Brenston’s 1948 side “Rocket 88,” for instance, certainly had a rock ‘n’ roll feel — but because of the circumstances of its release.

“Pledging My Love” was a harbinger of a revolution in American popular music and culture. Postwar prosperity empowered an adolescent audience, allowing teen-agers to emerge as a potent market force for the first time in the history of the world. This emergent audience differed from their parents in that they demanded a specific musical performance of a song — a unique and distinctive performance against which all subsequent performances would be viciously judged. For the first time, recorded performances were more important than the songs themselves (in the mid-1960s, Mick Jagger sang, “It’s the singer not the song”). The posthumous success of Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love” made this clear: despite the availability of several cover versions, for the first time in the postwar era record buyers chose to make a ballad by a solo black male singer signed to a small independent label the definitive version. It was Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love” that was the hit; and Johnny Ace was Johnny Ace largely because of his Russian roulette suicide. (Or was it murder? Rumors abound.)

Six months later, the cult of the good-looking corpse was cemented when a tone-deaf bongo player named James Dean crashed his Porsche and was taken up bodily into the pantheon of pop heroes, a martyr to the wild life. (Dean was a rock star, despite his lack of musical acumen. And so was Sal Mineo, his co-star in Rebel Without a Cause and the singer of “Start Movin’,” (a vanity hit in 1957) who was stabbed to death in 1976. Natalie Wood probably wasn’t a rock star — she was too girly and too glamorous, but her drowning death argues for her street credibility.)

It wasn’t always death by recklessness or the impulse to self-extinction; the still-whispered rumor that a drunken Holly shot the pilot notwithstanding, a lot of rock deaths were purely accidental. Buddy Holly and John Lennon certainly didn’t ask for what they got; neither did Mia Zapata, the murdered lead singer of The Gits. Hendrix certainly could have imagined a better end.

Still, there is hardly a major rock ‘n’ roll band or artist untouched by early death. Brian Jones quit the Rolling Stones and drowned a week later. Keith Moon, probably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll drummer ever, overdosed on sedatives. Richard Manuel of The Band hanged himself in a hotel room. In 1980, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died at band mate Jimmy Page’s home in Windsor. Bonham had consumed what the coroner estimated as 40 shots of vodka in 12 hours and died in the same fashion as Hendrix and Bon Scott of AC/DC — he choked on his own vomit.

A dozen years before Lennon’s murder, elaborate rumors circulated that Paul McCartney had died and been replaced in the Beatles by a look-a-like, Billy Shears (who sounded more like Ringo, but never mind).

In the late ’60s and early ’70s junior high school hallways across the country buzzed with rumors of rock star death: Donny Osmond decapitated by a guitar string; Elton John pulling a Sylvia Plath down on his knees with his head in the oven. Most of the time the rumors were as false as they were wild, but after Janis, Jim and Jimi; after Duane Allman’s motorcycle crash (and a year later, Berry Oakley, at almost exactly the same spot), we came to expect our rock stars to check out early.

Jim Croce’s plane crashed after a concert in Natchitoches, La.; Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane went down — killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his back-up singer wife, Cassie — three days after they released an album called “Street Survivors,” which pictured the members of the band surrounded by flames and included a weirdly prescient song about death called “That Smell.”

Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious died from a heroin overdose while awaiting trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. His mother claimed she was the one who procured his fix.

We expect attrition in our rock stars. We aren’t surprised when River Phoenix twitches to death on the sidewalk in front of an ultra-chic nightclub, his body marinated in chemicals. Heath LedgerÆs death was accidental, but in retrospect, hardly surprising.

Scandal sells — in 1982, Gary Herman ripped off Kenneth Anger (author of Hollywood Babylon) with a book called Rock ‘n’ Roll Babylon, that provided a breezy survey of rock turpitude. (Famous groupie Pamela Des Barres later reprised Herman’s effort with a book called Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon.

Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be disposable party music, music for a doomed generation living under a nuclear shadow. Rock ‘n’ roll is by definition nihilistic and self-destructive, it’s about smashing things up and transcending the ordinariness of everyday life. Cobain’s mother was astute enough to identify the legion of forever young, forever dead celebrities elevated to pop sainthood by the circumstance of untimely death as “that stupid club,” but neither she nor anyone else was able to convince her troubled son not to apply for membership.

And now, it’s Amy Winehouse. Another gone too soon.


1 Comment

  • Comment by donmccrmck — Jul 27,2011 at 4:33 pm

    Excellent piece.

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