[25 August 2011]
April 10, 1994 was my 27th birthday. That same week my generation’s greatest musical icon – Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain – ended his life with the same number of candles on his recent birthday cake. The music press went into high gear reporting the shock of Cobain’s tragic ending while simultaneously reflecting on its inevitability. After all, he was a troubled soul with a history of substance abuse, failed rehab stints, overdoses, and suicide attempts.
It didn’t take long before finger pointing began. In their grief, family, friends, and fans were reluctant to accept that their loved one died by his own hand. It was easier to blame someone else. Cobain’s marriage to Courtney Love was less than idyllic and she was loathed by many in the Nirvana community. This made her an obvious scapegoat. Eventually, conspiracy theorists floated the idea that Cobain’s death wasn’t a suicide at all, but that Love had him murdered.
While the music community mourned the loss of one of its giants, the spin moved on to Cobain’s legacy. He’d only lived long enough to spearhead three proper studio albums with Nirvana, but in the process was hailed as a revolutionary who’d birthed a new genre of music. Should he be immortalized alongside other musical icons who died at age 27? Was it fair to utter his name in the same breath as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, and Robert Johnson?
These are all plays straight out of the Rock ‘n’ Roll 101 handbook, specifically the chapter on how to handle a rock star who checks out in his or her prime. It goes like this. First, express shock over Young Rock Star’s death and report on the outpouring of love and respect from the musical community. While that reality is still sinking in, switch gears completely and report on the inevitability of said Rock Star’s demise. After all, in light of his or her habits and lifestyle, who didn’t see this coming?
Next, the public wants answers. Not only should they be offered gory and gruesome details as if this were an episode of CSI or some other crime investigation show, but supplied with detailed exploits of the Young Rock Star’s last days.
The fans also need a target upon whom to vent their anger. Why wasn’t the record company babysitting its star more? Shouldn’t the family have done more to intervene? How about that destructive relationship? Sure the Young Rock Star may have exhibited every sign of a death wish, but can’t we ultimately blame someone else for this?
With Young (now Dead) Rock Star barely in the grave, it’s time to focus on his or her legacy. After all, our beloved hero has been dead for days! It’s about time we move on and figure out our idol’s place in the whole of musical history. How should this Dead Young Rock Star be remembered? Also, to generate controversy, plenty of press should be afforded to detractors who callously lambast Young Rock Star as overrated.
The final matter is two-fold: 1) how can Dead Young Rock Star be immortalized with such a slim discography and; 2) how can record companies shamelessly profit on Dead Young Rock Star’s death by raiding the vaults for unreleased material?
Amy Winehouse’s recent death required anyone associated with the recording industry or music journalism to dust off their Rock ‘n’ Roll 101 manuals. A quick overview shows her story to be eerily reminiscent of Cobain’s. Tabloids salivated over her exploits with substance abuse, failed rehab attempts, and a not quite two-car-garage-and-picket-fence marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil. It didn’t take long before Winehouse’s father publicly blamed his daughter’s death on the ex-husband because he had introduced Amy to drugs.
Conflicting accounts emerged regarding events in the days leading up to her death. Had she gone on a drug-buying spree just the night before? Had a physician just proclaimed her to be in good health? Did she die because she was fighting so hard to overcome her demons that her body collapsed from alcohol withdrawl? Posing these questions naturally draws out anyone who ever partied with Winehouse, sat in on a recording session, or hung out with her in a seedy bar. All of them weigh in with their takes on what she was really like.
Even with the public still grieving, talk turned to Winehouse’s status in Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven. Does she deserve enshrinement alongside other musicians who passed on to that great gig in the sky, with only 27 years on planet Earth?
The matter of her slim two-album discography led detractors to say no. The jazzy Frank (2003) was critically hailed, but certainly not considered a game changer. The 2006 follow-up, Back to Black, was hailed as a landmark of both retro-soul and neo-soul. No, I’m not sure how it can be both, either. Whatever it is genre-wise, is Back to Black truly deserving of the “classic album” tag?
Whatever title was latched to her sound, it became the consensus that Winehouse launched a wave of white, British, female R&B/pop singers like Adele, Duffy, and Florence & the Machine.
Finally, there’s the “What will the record companies do next?” route. Winehouse hadn’t been dead a week before stories flooded the Internet about what was or wasn’t in the vaults that might see the light of day. Depending on the account, there’s the “let’s respect the family’s wishes” angle or the idea that if there’s a tape of Winehouse farting, let’s release it to the public – you know, because we deserve to hear it all.
Are there three albums worth of material? Is it just a handful of demos? When someone recently broke into her house, how much music did they steal? Will something be released before the end of the year? I think of the song “Paint a Vulgar Picture” by the Smiths: “At the record company meeting/ On their hands a dead star/ And oh, the plans they weave/ And oh, the sickening greed.”
What gets overlooked amidst the sensationalism are detailed expositions on what led to the tragedy. Why does our entertainment culture salivate over both the construction and destruction of its stars? Is the same quality that drives attention seekers to the spotlight what also causes them to self-destruct?
History is littered with artistic geniuses who could barely run their personal lives even as the world worshiped them. The urge to create is often a double-edged sword saddled with a propensity to destroy. Our greatest musical legends are often troubled souls who likely would have had difficult lives in or out of the limelight.
Through it all, however, we should never lose sight of some basics. The Rock ‘n’ Roll 101 Handbook doesn’t acknowledge that its Dead Young Rock Stars had parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends. They had their problems but were adored by millions. They made music which touched people’s souls and changed people’s lives. The Kurt Cobains, Amy Winehouses, and other musical geniuses who walked this planet for far too short a time deserve to be embraced. They were flawed, but they were also beloved.
R.I.P., Dead Young Rock Stars.
Dave Whitaker is the author of The Top 100 Songs of the Rock Era, 1954-1999 and No One Needs 21 Versions of “Purple Haze”…And Other Essays from a Musical Obesessive. He maintains a website (DavesMusicDatabase.com), blog, and Facebook page (all music related) with followers in more than 40 countries.