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The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars: Heroin, Handguns, and Ham Sandwiches

Jeremy Simmonds

(Chicago Review Press; US: Nov 2012)

"Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

As pointy bearded poet John Donne famously noted, “Death comes equally to us all.” However, as Jeremy Simmonds’ The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars: Heroin, Handguns and Ham Sandwiches correctly points out, passing away quietly in your sleep is an entirely different experience from being stabbed 23 times (like Mayhem’s Euronymous), falling out of and being crushed by a bulldozer (like KC & the Sunshine Band’s Jerome Smith), or dying painfully after contracting anthrax from the animal skins on your bongos (like folk musician Fernando Gomez).


Death is one of our great obsessions. When we’re not fretting over our own impending demise, we’re likely to be ogling the unfortunate ways others have passed from this existence—or maybe that’s just me. Either way, The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars amplifies such gloomy infatuations and combines them with a few more of our great loves—namely, trivia, misadventure and a fair slathering of hedonism. With 800 macabre pages of chronologically arranged ‘necrographies’ covering a host of musical artists from the last 40 years or so, The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars is a substantial tome, both in content and context.


It takes a certain morbid personality to enjoy the litany of morose tales contained within this book. Some folks are philosophically uncomfortable with lurking around death’s door, and some may find reading detailed and wry accounts of the Grim Reaper’s arrival a tad lurid or disrespectful. However, while Simmonds’ book is darkly humorous in parts, his writing is infused with affection for many of the artists mentioned. For anyone who celebrates the lunacy of our brief existences, The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars is a treasure trove of intriguing minutiae, telling stories of musical identities that have passed on via means foul, fair or freakish.


Simmonds mixes pathos with jocularity, and an acute awareness of the absurdity of rock stardom as he chronicles 1,300 artists and the bizarre and/or tragic truths behind their demises. Each entry is preceded by an icon (or icons) denoting the cause of death; suicide, on-stage fatalities, ill health, murder, crime, drowning, alcohol abuse and drug-related deaths are all included. But while it’s all a banquet of buckets kicked and creative lives frequently cut short, spliced throughout are more lighthearted facts and charts—bumping up the already prodigious wealth of information.


That interspersion of epigrammatic vignettes lifts The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars above a simple inventory of catastrophe. Combined with the black humored approach, this saves the book from the dryness of many other exhaustively arranged compendiums. Some artist’s lives are gathered in voluminous multi-page entries, some are presented more succinctly, and others are gathered together in those aforementioned peripheral lists. That blend of short and punchy morsels, and longer, detailed passages is enormously beneficial, keeping things engaging, and breaking up what is a mammoth amount of text.


Although touted as the “bible of pop music’s dead”, obviously not everyone is here. The book skips entire genres of music, but Simmonds is clear about the criteria behind his picks, and the likelihood of inaccuracies creeping in here and there. Of course, stories of famous pop idol deaths are well known, and a plethora of musical idols are covered. But also covered are hundreds of artists from outside the mainstream, and reading about the lesser known tragedies and tribulations of infamous pleasure-seekers, cult and obscure artists, seals the book’s entrancing allure. While The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars is not the complete reference guide to every single notable death in the music business (not that it ever aimed to be), this updated and comprehensively revised 2012 version does add an extra 200 pages to its previous edition, granting ample room for new and extended entries.


The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars is a captivating, time-consuming, and fascinating page-turner, a physically capacious and emotionally weighty tome/tomb. It’s a triumphant feast of woe, mishaps, misery and artistic wonderments, and there are weeks of reading (and re-reading) here. A rich, often grim history is uncovered behind some of rock’s forgotten or overlooked losses, and the painstakingly researched nature of the book is bound to enthrall fanatical music and trivia fans. If you happen to be a touch on the ghoulishly obsessive side, that’s even better.

Rating:

Craig Hayes is based in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he is a contributing editor and columnist at PopMatters. Alongside his reviews and feature articles, Craig's monthly column, Ragnarök, traverses the metal spectrum. He is the co-author of PopMatters' regular metal round-up, Mixtarum Metallum, contributes to radio shows and numerous other sites, and he favours music that clangs, bangs, crashes, or drones. Craig can be found losing followers daily on twitter @sixnoises.


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