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Death Row: A View from the Cheap Seats

Simon Warner

. . .when you personally pass Jimi's age or John's, or Buddy's or Elvis', you realise just how fleetingly they basked in the limelight, and how briefly the candle of your own existence flairs then flickers.

Kurt Cobain

Witnessed Blakey's final drum roll and Miles' curtain call
Heard the last words of Ian Curtis
Saw Keith Moon before the fall
Gave the last rites to Tim Buckley as he wailed his final breath
Caught Jaco's fading rhythms
On the precipice of death
1; from "Nothing Prepared Me for You"

Death has been not so much a motif in the rock 'n' roll concerto as a fully blown theme; recurring through most, if not all, of its movements. But I must qualify that. I am talking about early death: artists snatched from the land of the living by excess, by the bullet, by the crumpling of crippled steel in speeding motor cars or burning airplanes. Mortality � life's far from imaginary friend � stalks the hallways of popular song in a curious reversal of the Faustian myth: you make a deal with the devil's music and then stand an even chance of shortening your time on the planet.

These thoughts come to mind when another significant figure joins the pantheon of the missing. Joe Strummer, dead at 50, outlived Holly and Hendrix, Sam Cooke and Jim Morrison, Marvin Gaye and Ian Curtis, Cobain and Michael Hutchence. But still, the Clash frontman's demise came as a bolt from the blue.

I suppose, as the rock generations expand to include grandfathers and great grandmothers, as we all get older, the very notion of old age itself changes. Once regarded as the ephemeral music of adolescence, pop, in all its many forms, now forms the soundtrack to lives both young and old. Rock and soul, country and reggae, disco and rap, are all utilised to remind us of our youth and also psychologically slow down the processes that may condemn us to the retirement home or the walled community.

When we're young, life appears to have an almost eternal quality � and there's a definite down-side to that. Nothing ever happens quickly enough. Everything means waiting: for alcohol, for sex, for love, for money, for liberty, for self-fulfilment. Youth employs rock and pop to crystallize those as-yet-thwarted, aspirations. The singers we cling to embody and express the very frustrations we are experiencing. Then we accelerate to adulthood and quickly realise that the scenery around us is flying by all too rapidly.

Then there is time's other trick. There won't be many nu metal adolescents who caught the news about Strummer and don't think he'd enjoyed an innings of near Methuselah proportions. Their feelings about the late Clash man were probably as distant as mine were when I first read about young casualties like Robert Johnson and George Gershwin from the pre-war years. They might all be giants, but they are extinct giants, lost in the Jurassic mist.

I recall when Lennon fell, I was in my mid-20s and thought that he'd not actually had a bad run, an outstanding life over a whole four decades. However, when you personally pass Jimi's age or John's, or Buddy's or Elvis', you realise just how fleetingly they basked in the limelight, and how briefly the candle of your own existence flairs then flickers.

In 1997 when my mother died � and losing a parent is as fierce a reminder of your own temporary state as you require � I wrote a song which, in part, reflected on a number of the late, great music-makers whose paths had crossed with mine over a quarter of a century. Recorded in 2001, "Nothing Prepared Me for You"* gathers fragments of memory, and few are more potent than recollections of great live performances.

Strummer's passing raised those spectres once more. It brought back my first ever concert � the Who at the Odeon Cinema in Manchester in 1971 with Moon � in full fury. It raised an image of Richard Manuel on a Wembley Stadium stage in 1974 with the Band, supporting Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I thought of Tim Buckley at Knebworth in 1975. It made me think of Joy Division's Ian Curtis at the Band on the Wall or the Factory in Manchester in 1979, and of Marvin Gaye at the Apollo Theatre in the same city in 1980. I remembered Jaco Pastorius at the Palace Theatre in 1981, Art Blakey at the International in 1987 and Miles Davis at the same Apollo in 1989.

Such wallowing, though, may be too morbid, too maudlin. Death comes to us all and to turn it into the only illuminating beacon of rock history is perhaps a mistake. After all, rock is also about survival. For every Eddie Cochran there is an Iggy Pop, for every Phil Ochs there is a Bob Dylan, for every Sid Vicious there is a Lou Reed, for every Patsy Cline there is a Johnny Cash, for every Janis Joplin there is a Joni Mitchell, for every Tupac Shakur there is a Snoop Dogg, for every Layne Staley there is a Chris Cornell.

For as bright an illustration as any of rock's drive in life, we need go no further than that enduring quintet of David Bowie, Elton John, Keith Richards, Rod Stewart and Ozzy Osbourne. They're still striving, still thriving � reminding us all that even over-indulgence � in wine, women and worse, doesn't necessarily ensure that the Grim Reaper has made an early appointment for all the best rock 'n' roll stars in his diary of the damned.

*Note to our readers: "Nothing Prepared Me for You" is part of a four song CD, entitled The Loft Space Demos, written and recorded by Simon Warner. The Loft Space Demos was available in a limited run. The song has been performed probably a dozen times in venues from Yorkshire to Scotland, and once during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

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