Rockers are mortal, after all

eagles-glenn-frey

It wasn’t always this way for me, but within the past couple of years the deaths of people I don’t know have taken on a whole new dimension. Whether I knew the person or not–and particularly if they were somebody famous for one reason or another– the first thing I want to know is how old the person was when they passed on.

Age is only a number, in death as in life, but it can serve as a measuring stick against our own mortality.  The wide majority of deaths in the news are still thankfully older than my age, as was the case with Glenn Frey’s passing today at 67. I’m still literally decades away from that number, so I can’t feel too bad for somebody who lived that long. And, to put a different spin on it, living one day as Glenn Frey must have been better than anything I could imagine, so spending a few decades in his shoes must have been out of this world.

But Frey’s death comes on the heels of David Bowie’s passing just a few days after his 69th birthday. Having been inspired by an article written by Neil McCormick about the inevitable passing of rock’s gods in the days and years to come, I looked at three groups of rock musicians:

  • Those who were born in the 1940s and were older than Bowie was when he passed away,
  • Those who were younger than Bowie but older than Frey when he passed away, and
  • Those who were younger than Frey but were still born in the 1940s, and are thus at least 65 years of age.

The findings were quite interesting. I’ve never inserted an excel spreadsheet into a post before, and I hope it works out. I’m going to insert the link to my findings after every paragraph, to make it easy for anyone who wants to see the full listing of musicians and their birthdays. The source of all birthdays is The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock, Third Edition, published in 2005. The list is not intended to be exhaustive, and in the event that I left out someone who belongs on the list, well, that’s what google is for. Birthdays before 1940 and after 1949 were not considered for this piece, so Tina Turner (born in 1939) and Peter Gabriel (born in 1950) are excluded.

First, the group that was older than Bowie has to be hearing the footsteps of Father Time, if they weren’t already. Living the life of a rock star probably has some multiplying effect that is impossible to quantify, but I can’t imagine that a year in the life of music legend is anywhere near the equivalent of 12 months for anyone else. It might seem to have a shortening effect on a someone’s life span, but Keith Richards is still going strong, so who knows what the story really is? And Mick Jagger’s onstage dancing have probably added years onto his life in exercise value, alone.

Rock Birthdays

But everyone who was 69 years or older when David Bowie passed away last week had to wonder how much longer they have left. For instance, Jimmy Buffet just turned 69 last Christmas, making him a couple of weeks older than David Bowie. The same can be said for Robby Krieger of the Doors, Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, all of whom reached age 69 in December of last year. David Bowie’s death has no direct bearing on any of their mortality, but I’m certain that each of these soon-to-be septuagenarians sat up and took notice, anyway.

Rock Birthdays

Others in the rock world who have reached 70 already include Bob Dylan (who will turn 75 in May), Paul McCartney (who will be 64 plus another ten years in June), Jagger and Richards (who are both 72), and Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, Pete Townshend, and John Fogerty. The rock pantheon is aging at the same pace as the rest of us, but their numbers will inevitably thin out over the coming few years.

Rock Birthdays

But those who are approaching age 69 later this year must have been thinking of their own mortality when Bowie’s death was announced. And now, the realization that Glenn Frey was even younger than they were must feel like a 1-2 punch. Many of them knew Bowie and/or Frey already, but they’ve now entered into what I call the Bowie-Frey Zone, which as of ten days ago didn’t even exist. They’re approaching their 69th birthdays–which is all the time that David Bowie got on this earth–with the realization that they’ve already outlived Glenn Frey by as much as a year and ten months.

Rock Birthdays

The names on the list of these rock stars is quite impressive:  Elton John, Queen’s Brian May, no less than three members of the Eagles (Don Henley, Don Felder, and Joe Walsh), Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, Brian Johnson of AC/DC, Sammy Hagar, Meatloaf, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Robert Plant, and Jackson Browne. If David Bowie’s death didn’t rattle them–from a sheer numerical standpoint–it’s likely that Glenn Frey’s did.

Rock Birthdays

And the final group of musicians I looked at can take some comfort from the fact that Glenn Frey was older than them: Ozzy Osbourne, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Gene Simmons, Paul Rodgers, and both Hall and Oates. A majority of ZZ Top is on this list, as well.

Rock Birthdays

So what does all this mean? I’m not sure, exactly, but I can give one short story that seems a bit relevant here. Last summer, I was having some work done on my teeth, and as I was laying there with my mouth wide open, and nothing else to do, my mind started wandering to death and rock stars. I began with the Rolling Stones, and the death of Bobby Keys at the age of 70. He wasn’t officially in the band, but he played on some of their most well-known songs, and that’s a pretty significant thing.

I then started to mentally go through different bands, as bits of my tooth were flying through the air, thinking of who had passed on from each of them. I came to the realization that most bands have experienced death in one way or another, and that rock and roll does appear to extract a toll from those who live the life, whether onstage or out in the audience.

Neil Young once sang that it’s better to burn out than fade away, and after seeing him tear up the stage at Farm Aid 30 last summer, I can confidently state that he’s not fading away anytime soon. So maybe age is just a number, in some sense. It’s true that rock and roll can never die, but its principal practitioners aren’t getting any younger, either. I’m afraid that none of us are.

 

Yes I’m back

At the end of a long and uneventful commute to work this morning, I had to stay in the car for an extra minute or so. I was in the middle of listening to AC/DC’s Back in Black on the radio, and nothing I could find in the office would be any better than that.

It’s funny what you can remember sometimes. This morning, once I turned the car off and headed into the building I work in, I recalled the very first book I ever read as part of a class. It was 1981, and I was struggling to get through eighth grade. I was a geeky, awkward kid, and I was transitioning into adolescence. It sucked to be me back then.

But I was beginning to get into music a little bit, and AC/DC was a big part of that. Back in Black was, and probably always will be, the album that I could always put on and listen to, start to finish. I wonder if, in the thirty-plus years since the album came out, that there’s ever been a day where a rock station like the Loop in Chicago hasn’t played at least one song from it. It wouldn’t surprise me if the answer to that was “no.”

So back to the geek-boy for a moment. My 8th grade teachers had assigned us all to read “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck. I’m not sure how I learned of the existence of Cliff’s Notes, but I acquired a copy to help me understand the parts of the book I didn’t get. Cliff actually helped me get through high school, now that I think about it.

But on the cover of my Cliff’s Notes for “The Good Earth” were dozens of handwritten AC/DC logos, including the lightning bolt between the letters in the middle. I just thought that looked especially cool, so I made sure to include it. Somewhere on this planet there’s a Cliff’s Notes covered with AC/DC logos, courtesy of a confused and awkward young kid in Springfield, Illinois. I actually smiled at the thought of this, too.

So whenever one of the songs from that album, or any other song that AC/DC ever did, comes on the radio, I make sure to listen to it. And I’m glad that music takes me back, not to a time that I would ever want to re-live, but at least to a time and a place that I can still remember, while appreciating all that’s happened since then.

A Sure Shot for the Rock Hall

To me, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a fraud. Rock and roll began as an expression of rebellion, and that gleaming building on the waterfront in Cleveland is anything but rebellion. Some of the bluesmen who helped to create rock and roll are enshrined there, but too many of them have been lost to history, unrecognized for their contributions.

Rock and roll was born when white folks began dabbling in “colored” music during the 1950s. The best Broadway show I’ve ever seen, Memphis, tells a fictionalized story about this time and place. It’s still playing in New York, and there’s also a touring company out there somewhere, but it’s well worth spending some time and money on if you have the chance.

But back to the hall of fame for a moment. The continued exclusion of KISS from the hall makes no sense at all. If there’s any better expression of the rock ethos than “Rock and Roll all nite,” please tell me what it is. But beyond that song, there’s a whole Army (literally) of fans out there who go to the concerts (with or without face paint on), buy the merchandise that has made Gene Simmons and the others rich, and keep the band going so that they’re more than an REO Speedwagon-type nostalgia act.

The first concert I went to as a 13-year old was KISS and the Plasmatics, and the clothes I wore that night probably still reek of pot. And the most recent concert I’ve seen was also KISS, at the United Center in Chicago. That might change when the Wall comes to Wrigley next summer, though. I’ve seen a lot of shows in between, but KISS brings it to the stage as well as anybody, and better than most. Why that’s not hall-worthy is beyond me.

But with this year’s nominees, there’s one I feel strongly about in a good way, and one I feel strongly about in a bad way. The good way goes first. With my non-existent vote for the Rock hall, I would put the Beastie Boys in, without a doubt.

A rock purist might disagree with me on this, because they aren’t a band in the Led Zeppelin mode of drums, guitars, and bass. That’s true, but they sampled Led Zeppelin repeatedly on their first album (which was my introduction to the group, even if I can’t listen to it anymore, since catchy and goofy isn’t a good mix). They clearly appreciate Zeppelin, and I can appreciate that.

They’ve also sampled the Beatles, Bob Marley, AC/DC, the Ramones, and many others. Their song “High Plains Drifter” is essentially the Eagles’ “Those Shoes” with a story told over it. They’re brilliant at what they do, and they couldn’t do it without rock records to draw from. Grandmaster Flash is already in, and Bono has given his blessing to Public Enemy, so there’s no reason why the B-E-A-S-T-I-Es shouldn’t be there, as well.

The one I feel strongly against is Guns n’ Roses. If you could just put one album in, I’d be fine with Appetite for Destruction being enshrined. Start to finish, it’s as good as anything that’s ever been released when it comes to rock and roll. And if you could put one video in, I’d cast my vote for “November Rain.” It’s head and shoulders above any video that’s ever been made. But the band itself now seems to consist of Axl Rose (which is an anagram for “oral sex” by the way) and whoever he can find to play with him.

Slash, Duff MacKagan, Steven Adler/Matt Sorum, and Izzy Stradlin are the band’s so-called “classic lineup,” but I promise you that not one of them would show up for the induction ceremony. No, it would just be a vanity night for the cornrowed Axl Rose, and a night in the spotlight for guys who didn’t write or record any of their classic work. Can you name any of them? I sure can’t. It gives me no great joy to say this, but putting Axl and his traveling sideshow in the Rock hall would be a mistake.

I’m curious to know how it all turns out, though. Heart is also on the ballot, along with Donna Summer (a true WTF moment for me), Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and others I can’t think of right now. But there’s only two that matter to me this time around.

A rock and roll miracle

I’ve been on vacation with my family for the past week, and haven’t had any time to blog lately. But it’s late at night, and I’m in the business center of a Holiday Inn that apparently doesn’t limit its internet usage, so here goes:

Country music has never been my thing. I live in a city with just one country station, and people who like that sort of music know where they can go to find it. And everyone else knows where to avoid it. But every so often, when I find myself out on the road and far from home, things get more complicated than that. As they did recently somewhere in Wisconsin.

I had just come from House on the Rock near a town called Green Field (a fitting name, I suppose) and was heading for points west. The exact location of my destination isn’t really important, but I will say that my preset stations weren’t doing me any good. And then the country takeover of my radio set in.

And so, after going up and down the dial looking for something I could listen to, I heard just a few bars of AC/DC’s “Rock and Roll ain’t Noise Pollution,” as follows:

Heavy decibels are playin’ on my guitar/ We got vibrations coming up from the floor

Well, just listenin’ to the rock is givin’ too much noise/ Are you deaf? You want to hear some more 

And that was all. It faded out and I wasn’t able to hear anything else. At the drop of a hat, I was back to sorting through country stations again, which I did for another ten minutes before turning the radio off in defeat.

Those few bars of rock, in a sea of other music I couldn’t listen to, were like giving a few drops of water to a man lost in the desert. My favorite album ever, my favorite song on the album, and the introductory words that set the philosophical stage for the entire genre itself. Yes, rock and roll will never die–as the song itself says later on–but has morphed recently into things I don’t fully recognize. But at least they still play AC/DC on the radio once in awhile, and I’m good with that.

I want my remains cremated and scattered around the earth when I die, but if I were to have a tombstone, I want it to be engraved with AC/DC’s words of wisdom, and the title to the track that “Johnny” is playing here. Enjoy it, indeed.

It’s just-a rock and roll, yeah