“Elvis,” lectures Murray J. Siskind, attempting to stake out an academic niche in Don DeLillo’s black comic 1985 novel White Noise, “fulfilled the terms of the contract.” “Excess, deterioration, self-destructiveness, grotesque behavior, a physical bloating and a series of insults to the brain, self-delivered. His place in legend is secure. He bought off the skeptics by dying early, horribly, unnecessarily. No one could deny him now.”
The terms of the contract: an anodyne, clinical phrase that DeLillo turns malignant. How satirically or seriously should we take this passage? If satirically, who is it satirizing? If seriously, can it be that audiences see rock star excess, leading to horrible, unnecessary death, as a cultural contract? Or worse, that we want it that way?
In Bodies: Life and Death in Music, a memoir and, by turns manifesto, veteran music journalist Ian Winwood implores fans and readers to take these questions seriously. As Winwood explains,
Over the course of my career I’ve spoken with many scores of musicians whose behavior might reasonably be described as deranged… I’ve written about people who, like me, have seen the insides of psychiatric care facilities. I’ve transcribed with words of performers who have since taken their own lives. Drink and drugs are everywhere. Like a magnet, the music business attracts people hardwired for self-destruction; as well as this, it provides an unsafe environment for those who might not otherwise give it a go. A perfect monster, it is both the chicken and the egg.
The power of Winwood’s Bodies, then, is that it forces us to rethink seemingly self-evident assumptions about rock stars’ lives and deaths. One begins to realize that a list of rock lyrics about death is simply a list of rock lyrics. From the Who: “I hope I die before I get old.” From Metallica: “I have lost the will to live.” From Nirvana: “I Hate Myself and Want to Die,” although, in fairness, this song title’s words are never uttered. “In My Time of Dying”. “(I Just) Died in Your Arms”. “Try Not to Breathe”.
By the same token, a list of rock stars who died unnatural, premature deaths is simply a list of rock stars. For every David Bowie, who died of liver cancer in 2016 at 69—too soon but not tragic—there is a Naomi Judd, a Chris Cornell, an Elliott Smith, a Chester Bennington, a Keith Emerson, a Kurt Cobain, all of whom, and many more, died by suicide.
For every Chuck Berry, who died at 90, there is a Jim Morrison, a Jimi Hendrix, a Janis Joplin, a Billy Holiday, a Whitney Houston, a Prince, all of whom died of drug-related or -suspected early deaths. If this rate of, say, elementary school teachers, or product managers, instead of musicians, died by suicide and substance abuse, how long would it take to become a national emergency? But then again, as DeLillo and Winwood understand, this is how we want our rock stars.
In Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (2022), Presley’s longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), rejects the idea that Elvis (Austin Butler), at the age of 42, died of a drug overdose or drug-induced heart attack. He instead suggests that Elvis died for his fans, from his need for their attention, their adoration, their love. Even if this is Hollywood malarkey, the deathbed drama of an unreliable narrator, then why didn’t anyone take Elvis seriously when he sang, plaintively, believably, night after night, “I’ll be so lonely, I could die”? But more: why did Parker and everyone around Elvis stoke his insecurities and fuel his drug dependence? Was it just the money, as the film suggests, or the control? Or was it the terms of the contract—what we have come to expect and demand of our rock stars?
Alice In Chains released Dirt in 1992, and the album’s songs were a litany of heroin addiction and death: “Rain When I Die”, “Sickman”, Junkhead”, “Godsmack,” “Down in a Hole”. Recalling his 1993 interview, Winwood writes, singer Layne Staley “was the first obviously damaged person I’d ever met.” Staley and bassist Mike Starr would both subsequently die of overdose.
We want songs to be poetry, metaphors, and hyperbole. But what if they aren’t? What if they’re (also) cries for help? What if they’re (also) suicide notes?
We want our stars to be personas, ironically distanced and detached from their lyrics’ affectations and afflictions. But what if the characters they are playing are who they are? Or who they become?
Bodies: Life and Death in Music, despite its big title, does not really address these problems. It certainly will not answer everyone’s questions. It does not propose a solution. It is, however, one of the only works of criticism to raise rock ‘n’ roll’s morbidity as a systemic problem rather than one of individual aberration and accountability. Bodies aims to reframe rock addiction and death as a social problem rather than social expectation—the terms of the contract—or, worse, a gruesome, salacious form of entertainment.
In doing so, Winwood turns the usual, post-Romantic thinking on its head. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Layne Staley, Elvis Presley et al are not Byronic heroes, in dreamy thrall to Eros and Thanatos, worshippers of Dionysius and the Muses. They are not truth-tellers, saviors, or demigods, sacrificing themselves for art, for truth, for us. Their appetites for destruction are not sexy, not even OK. The bodies of the title remind us of the connection between our stars’ fleshly objectification and their subsequent corpses.
Winwood wants to remind us further that our idols are addicts, potential addicts, and real people struggling with mental health. Rather than protect them, every aspect of the music and fame machine enables their worst impulses, throwing gasoline—or alcohol—on their fires, if you will, because their continued performance is more important than their health and their lives. Dirt sells tickets and to Winwood’s retrospective regret, it sells magazines too. When James Hetfield of Metallica, in the documentary Some Kind of Monster (2004), takes a leave of absence from recording their next album to treat his alcoholism. Everyone involved worries about the life of the band, not the life of the bandmate. “A number of the band’s supporters,” Winwood writes, were disappointed that Hetfield “was no longer the person he used to be. ‘How much that hurt me is so amazing,’ [Hetfield] says.”
Winwood’s book doesn’t present these ideas in the way I’ve laid out, though. Bodies is repetitive, disjointed, nonlinear, and personal more than journalistic. This is not a criticism. The reiterations, the ramblings, become the point, and Winwood is an excellent writer. If, right now, you think that everything presented so far is already obvious—yes, of course rock stars are excessive; that’s what being a rock star means—then that is what Winwood’s broad, discursive approach attempts to work against. The very obviousness, the cliché, the way we instantly understand what DeLillo meant in 1985 about Elvis’ decline and demise, means that we, like Elvis, have accepted the terms of the contract. Or worse: we have offered them.
After reviewing decades of his interviews, and speaking again to members of Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, and many more; after chronicling his addictions, his near-death experiences, and his father’s death, finally, three-quarters of the way through Bodies, Winwood feels ready to deliver a thesis:
In the past, if I considered the matter at all, I guess I used to think that the bloodstains on the otherwise exquisitely woven tapestry of music were mere spillages. But the closer I looked, the more I saw them as being part of the fabric. In this new light, even the unlikeliest people can be a VH1 Behind the Music special waiting to happen. Pick a band, any band.
The reference to Behind the Music raises Winwood’s point even further. Not only do we accept unnecessary deaths as par for the star course, but we celebrate them. They entertain us. We crave them as the most satisfying conclusion to the rock ‘n’ roll story. Sure, a recovery, a comeback—the most typical Behind the Music ending—is fine. But the second most typical conclusion—not coming back, i.e., the narrative of Elvis—is even better. The truism is that growing old is bad but beats the alternative. True, unless you’re a rock star. Paul McCartney’s continued performances will never be as cool as John Lennon’s unlived potential. Bill Wyman’s quiet old age can’t compete with Brian Jones’ exquisite corpse.
How bad is the problem? Since Bodies was published in April 2022, as of this writing, only four months later, two more of Winwood’s recent interviewees, Taylor Hawkins, the drummer of Foo Fighters, age 50, and Mark Lanegan, singer of the Screaming Trees, age 57—appearing only a page apart—have died. In each case, Winwood was making a point about how Hawkins and Lanegan had, previously, only almost died but defied the odds and managed to recover. In a macabre reversal of Mark Twain’s apocryphal quotation, the reports of their survival were greatly exaggerated.
Winwood worries near the end that Bodies will leave readers “feeling depressed”, and so adds a “Bonus Track”, which reminds readers of the joy that music and musicians offer. But that hope also comes earlier and stronger, from Simon Neil, the Scottish singer, guitarist, and songwriter of Biffy Clyro:
Music saved my life. When I’m writing songs, when I’m not worrying about anyone else, that’s when I’m at my happiest…. I’m in a moment of pure unadulterated happiness and I don’t give a fuck what anyone else says. It’s me saying that I’m proud of who I am, And I’m proud of what we’ve done.
This is who we are.
Amidst all the bodies—more famous bodies than Neil’s—this message is easy to miss. Music, or at least the music business, Winwood fears, has wrought nothing but sorrow and carnage. But at the same time, all those songs, those lyrics, even those about death, even especially those about death, have improved millions of people’s lives. Elvis’s life, not death, brought joy to millions of fans. In the movie theater where I saw Elvis, the average attendee’s age was at least 70, and the film’s ending, even preordained, brought them to tears.
I’m convinced that “Fade to Black” and “Try Not to Breathe” have prevented suicides, not caused them. The Who, or at least two of them, are now old and, I assume, happy about it. Some contracts were made to be broken.