The Artist Died Too Young

On the morning of July 23, 2011, I took my older son to see the movie Cars 2. After the movie ended, as I was getting into my car, the breaking news came into my phone: 27-year-old Amy Winehouse had been found dead in her apartment. I sighed and thought, “What a waste.” But I couldn’t honestly say I was surprised.

The history of music is littered with artists who died far too young. Much younger than they should have. Ms. Winehouse’s cause of death is probably as much of a mystery as anything: she had no drugs or alcohol in her system at the time. I think she’d weakened her body too much with the life of a rocker and wild woman, but it really doesn’t matter. For some musicians it was drugs and/or alcohol. For others, it was their personal demons that finally caught up to them. For others still, it was the life on the road and the risks of constantly moving around. Then there’s the risks that are associated with simply being famous.

Whatever the causes of death, though, it doesn’t alter the fact that we lost a lot of talented musicians long before we should have. Looking back over the 150 songs I listed two months ago that I said you need to hear before you die, fourteen of them were recorded by artists who died far too young.

This blog post is about those fourteen songs and the loss that the greater musical community has, by the fact that the artists are no longer around.

Don’t Follow, by Alice in Chains
This song comes from their Jar of Flies EP. Prior to the release of this five-song CD, I admit that I lumped this band in with other grunge acts at the time. I liked (and still like) the musical style known as grunge but I didn’t see anything to make Alice in Chains stand out among the crowd until I heard these five tracks. Layne Staley, the lead singer for the band, had a sorrowful, piercing voice that, when set against a song as melancholy as this one (or, for that matter, “Nutshell,” from the same EP) you sit there, astonished and flabbergasted at the beauty and wonder of a song like this. Staley died on April 5, 2002 at the age of 34. I remember the shock of hearing this news; Alice in Chains has since replaced him with William DuVall; DuVall is good. May he achieve Staley’s greatness.

You Know I’m No Good, by Amy Winehouse
I’m not sure what else there is to say about Amy Winehouse. The girl was talented, with a powerful voice and a slew of personal demons to match it. If you’ve never heard anything she’s done, I would recommend either this song or “Rehab,” but you really can’t go wrong with just about anything she ever sang…

Across the Universe, by the Beatles and Working Class Hero, by John Lennon
I think most of us know the story about how John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan as he was returning home from a recording session on the night of December 8, 1980. He was forty. These two songs are my favorite songs of his, both with and without the Beatles. “Working Class Hero” may be one of the most powerful songs I’ve heard in ages. It paints a bleak, hopeless picture of life and how people are kept down and downtrodden and simply states that “a working class hero is something to be.” I remember reading a review of this song more than two decades ago that said — and I still remember the quote — that it “contains such a bitter flavor it would have been condemned as antiestablishment diatribe even without the obscenities.” I disagree. It is a song that points out certain realities and offers hope: “if you want to be a hero, well just follow me…”

The Mountain, by Dave Carter and Tracey Grammer
Dave Carter was 49 years old when he died of a heart attack on July 19, 2002. That weekend was the annual music festival hosted by WXPN, a Philadelphia-based public radio station (at the time it was called the All About the Music Festival; now it’s the XPoNential Music Fest). He and his wife, Tracey Grammar performed there one year earlier. John Flynn, one of the performers at the 2002 festival, stayed up all night learning “The Mountain” and played it on the stage the following day. He did an amazing job of it. It’s an amazing and powerful song to hear.

Sniper, by Harry Chapin
Harry Chapin’s best-known songs are “Cats in the Cradle” and “Taxi”. While both of these songs are good songs, neither one of them offers much of a glimpse of what the man actually wrote, sang, and performed. At some point in the future I will write a blog entry associated with songs from my list of songs to hear before you die, where the real intent of the inclusion of the song is to familiarize yourself with the artist. Harry Chapin belongs on that list too. Choosing the right Harry Chapin song for the list (thanks to my self-imposed limit of one song per artist) was … difficult to say the least. “Sniper” isn’t my favorite song of his. (“There Was Only One Choice” gets that vote.) But “Sniper” is an epic song by just about every definition. Just under 10 minutes long and it paints a powerful portrait of a psychopath, loosely based upon the story of Charles Whitman. In the mid-90’s, I purchased a DVD of a Harry Chapin concert and watched the DVD with my mom. This song was one of the songs he performed. When it was over, my mom, who had never heard the song before, gave a one-word review of it: “Wow!”

Harry Chapin died at the age of 38 in a fiery crash on the Long Island Expressway on July 16, 1981, while he was en route to a concert. The exact cause of the crash is not, and will never be, known. We do know that as he was outside of the Jericho exit, he was driving in the leftmost lane. He put his four-way flashers on as he slowed to about 15 mph. He tried to get out of the lane but nearly sideswiped another car so he got back into the left lane. Then he tried again and essentially cut off a tractor trailer that couldn’t slow down or get out of the way in time. It climbed the back of his VW Rabbit, setting the engine on fire.

Need You Tonight, by INXS
INXS is one of those bands that define the decade in which they were popular. Women roughly my age swooned (and may continue to swoon) over the boyish good looks and dark brooding melodies of the band, and the men roughly my age wanted (and may still want) to be them. Or, more specifically, their lead singer, Michael Hutchence. There was something about his overall style that demonstrated his tortured mind. In the end, it was anguish over a love triangle that led him to take his own life on November 22, 1997. And women roughly my age have been mourning his death ever since.

Lover, You Should’ve Come Over, by Jeff Buckley
It’s pretty much a given that every artist mentioned in this particular entry should be thought of as being tragic figures. In the case of Jeff Buckley, the entire family is entrenched in tragedy. His father, Tim Buckley (also a musician) died of a drug overdose at the age of 28. Jeff’s death was officially an accidental drowning on May 29, 1997, but his decision to jump into that river in the first place was … unusual to say the least. “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” is so beautiful, so haunting, so melodic… It’s a tragedy that he couldn’t do more.

My Mistake (Was to Love You), by Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye epitomized soulful, sensual, seductive music. Choosing a single song by him, I thought, was nearly impossible. Do I go with the well-known (and oft-covered) “Heard it Through the Grapevine”? One of the songs that practically seduces a potential lover for you (“Sexual Healing” or “Let’s Get It On”)? In the end, I decided I would go for one of his lesser-often played songs, which was a duet with Diana Ross of the Supremes and is an excellent example of a couple talking to and past each other. The real tragedy of Marvin Gaye’s life was what resulted in his own death: that his career took a different tack from his fathers, culminating in an argument between the two men and the father shooting the son on April 1, 1984.

About a Girl, by Nirvana
About a month before he killed himself, Kurt Cobain overdosed while on tour in Italy and the rumors started to spread that it was a suicide attempt. A month later, on April 8, 1994, I was in a friend’s apartment talking about I don’t remember what. I noticed that Kurt’s image was coming through on the TV (but we couldn’t hear what was being said) and I remember commenting, “At least he’s still alive.” I later learned how wrong I was. His official date of death is April 5. Of all of the deaths listed here in this article, I think I was most disturbed and saddened by this one at the time. There’s no shortage of quality songs that he put out among the four studio albums Nirvana released. This is my favorite song from their debut.

Hard to Handle, by Otis Redding
The history of music in the past 100 years or so is littered with artists whose deaths are a direct consequence of the fact that they spent more time in transit than the population as a whole. Buddy Holly. Ritchie Valens. The Big Bopper. Jim Croce. The entire band Lynyrd Skynyrd. Harry Chapin. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Otis Redding. The exact cause of the plane crash that took his life on December 10, 1967 was never formally established. And I’ll be the first to admit it: I never really cared for his best-known song, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. It doesn’t really give a good representation of what the man was actually capable of, musically. “Hard to Handle,” on the other hand, is one you can’t help but move to.

Crucifixion, by Phil Ochs
For a fuller discussion of the life of Phil Ochs, please see my blog entry about the movie There But for Fortune from last month. Phil is one of those artists that you really can’t go wrong with, in terms of the music. I chose “Crucifixion” at least partially for the same reasons why I chose Harry Chapin’s “Sniper”: it is an epic song in every sense of the word. There is a legendary anecdote about how Phil played this song for Robert F. Kennedy, who, about halfway through the song, was moved to tears because he realized that it was about his brother, John. Of course, neither man knew, at the time, that it would soon apply to Robert as well…

Don’t Stop Me Now, by Queen
Freddy Mercury, as an artist, was definitely ahead of his time. In some ways, music is still catching up to him. That’s why his death, from AIDS on November 24, 1991, represents such an outrageous loss. A song like “Don’t Stop Me Now” is one of those songs that you can’t help but love. As proof of that, my seven-year-old son loves it when this song comes on the radio. And it may be second only to “Bohemian Rhapsody” that illustrate exactly what the man was capable of.

The Visit of the Muse or Song about the Plagiarist, by Vladimir Vysotsky
Ronald Reagan once famously referred to the “Iron Curtain” behind which the Soviet Union persisted. This boundary was meant to imply that things that went on there were shrouded in mystery and secrecy. I suppose, to the west, that was true. Of course, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we in the west have come to know and understand more of what we might not have otherwise known. You can learn a lot from listening to music from the 1970’s and 1980’s — mainly, the era of Leonid Brezhnev — that came out of what was, at the time, the Soviet Union.

And at the front of the musical scene during that era was the actor/poet who picked up a guitar named Vladimir Vysotsky. If you listen to his voice, you’ll immediately recognize that his big weaknesses were alcohol and cigarettes. And the former is what ultimately killed him on July 25, 1980.

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine, a native Russian, about Vysotsky, or, more specifically, his death. Her reaction was that she was surprised he lived to see the age of 42. The man was so amazingly popular in his time (and it hasn’t really waned all that much in the more than 30 years that have since passed), that I questioned whether there existed any conspiracy theories about how the Kremlin might have tried to silence him. That’s not to say that they have to be believable (but we have to acknowledge the existence of similar theories about John Lennon), but surely the powers that be would recognize the potential danger he could have presented to the status quo. I was unable to find anything that comes close to the level of a conspiracy theory about this.

I chose this song because it captures the fleeting concept of inspiration. He talks about the poetry of Aleksandr S. Pushkin and how difficult it is to write a song before he ultimately ends the song by stealing a well-known line of Pushkin’s (from one of my favorite poems of his): “I remember a wondrous moment, Before me, you appeared.”

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