Wednesday, January 19, 2011
The king of rock and roll died on August 16, 1977 on the bathroom floor of his mansion, Graceland in Memphis. Before his body was cold, his body guard Billy Mann snapped pictures to sell to the National enquirer for $18,000, and his woman of the hour, Ginger Alden lost no time in cutting her own deal for $105,000 to tell her story. That’s a lonely death.
The King of Pop died on the 25th of June, 2009 ostensibly from a heart attack caused by stress and drugs. Up until his death, he had been unable to sleep, and was being anesthetized by propoful, used by surgeons for general anesthesia, mixed with lorazepam for anxiety attacks. His doctor was later charged with homicide, essentially murder by sycophancy.
Brian Jones died on the night of July 2, 1969, drowned in his swimming pool under mysterious circumstances. By this time his liver and heart were enlarged by drugs and alcohol, and maybe sheer soul sickness. He’d already been kicked out of the band he’d created. In 1962 Jones had run an ad in a jazz weekly, looking for musicians for a blues band. Mick Jagger and Keith Richard had answered the ad. They managed to steal a jazz drummer and a bassist from other bands. No one knew what the group was called until Jones was on the phone with a club owner as he booked their very first show. The owner asked him what the name was so they could print some promotion posters. Jones didn’t know. It simply hadn’t occurred to any of them to come up with a name. Holding the phone to his chest, he bent down to a pile of Chess record albums on the floor, and pulled the one off the top, “The Best of Muddy Waters”. He looked at the song list on the back. His favorite Muddy Waters tune was “Rolling Stone Blues.”
And so it goes.
For we lesser mortals, especially those of us who aspire to the creative arts, the deaths of these men and the many like them are a mystery. They had what all artists secretly yearn for – wealth, fame and beautiful lovers. And yet it doesn’t work.
Keith Richards, reflecting on the death of Jones said “He was an asshole.” But went on to explain what seemed to be the problem. Maybe with all of them. He said Jones liked being a rock star, but at some point lost interest in being a working musician. A rock star is glamour. Being an ensemble musician is a job. To be really good at anything requires commitment to the art itself as an end in itself.
A while back I brought this video home from the library, “Woodstock” the directors cut. I’d seen this movie a dozen times over my lifetime, but this version was supposed to have stuff the theater version hadn’t. I was especially interested in seeing Jack Casady play the electric bass. Casady was the bassist for Jefferson Airplane, and was regarded then as the greatest rock bassist ever. Fans called him “god”. He was Ray Charles’ bass player when he was still in high school, playing in night clubs with a fake ID Charles had made for him, and going to class on the school bus with the kids in the morning.
Over time he became to the electric bass, what Hendrix was to the guitar. I just wanted to see him play their Woodstock set. The Airplane had been awake all night without sleep due to scheduling and technical screw ups, and had spent the wee hours back stage playing cards with Janis Joplin and the stage hands and frying their brains on everything that anybody handed to them. By the time the sound system came back in the early morning they were disheveled, and pie eyed and probably existing in some other dimension altogether, but they still pulled themselves together for a powerful set, with Casady down in the zone working his bass. My son was watching it with me, a young man with creative ambitions of his own. When Casady turned his back to the camera I saw a subtle but amazing thing. I pointed it out to my kid.
“Look at the back of the neck of Casady’s Guild Starfire. Look how he’s worn off all the paint right down to the wood with his thumb from working the fret board. Talents not enough. There’s no magic. Can you imagine how many hours of practice you have to put in, to wear the paint off an instrument? That’s the way you have to be someday if you want to be that good at something.”
Notably Casady is still alive and working. Jones is not.
I think before rock stars came along it was easy to believe in Heaven, a place where we would have our 72 dark eyed virgins, or be with Jesus living in mansions with streets of gold and gates of pearl just like in the songs. But these guys – they had that. They had that right here on earth. To my way of thinking, that puts the lie to this whole idea of heavenly bliss. Some of us just aren’t cut out for bliss. You give us bliss and we’ll screw it up until we suffocate on our own vomit.
The real lesson came later that night, after I’d gone to bed. I got up around two to take a leak and the lights were still on. My kid was watching Woodstock, and almost in tears. Not at the music but because of the crowd. Half a million people in one place, getting along and having a great time. He wanted to be there, he told me. He’d honestly felt he’d missed something very important. Sartre said Hell is other people, maybe, maybe not, but I’m sure Heaven is other people. People and a great purpose of some kind. Luxury isn’t going to make you happy. Luxury kills.
Before I go, one more thing. One more lesson from rock.
The Beatles were and still are regarded, as the greatest of all bands. When you ask someone from my generation what their favorite band was, they might say Crosby Stills and Nash. or Led Zeppelin. Yes, but what about the Beatles? Oh no – not counting the Beatles! Other than the Beatles. The Beatles were the great romance of my generation. We grew up together. We saw the lovable mop top fab four shaking their hair for the girls on Ed Sullivan and watched them grow into men, becoming ground breaking artists who revolutionized the way popular music was made and presented.
During their stage shows the Beatles always had this thing they did, which I’ve never seen any other band do. It was a courtly gesture, unique to that pre-punk era, and maybe unique to the Beatles. After the last number, whether performing for the Queen mum or a stadium of screaming girls, the men would stand straight and tall, feet together, and in a gesture almost Japanese, the greatest of all bands would bow deeply to their audience. They said thank you. They were always grateful that people would come to see them play. None of them ever died from drugs.
In that spirit I just want to take a moment; put my feet together, point my Waterman fountain pen down towards the stage boards, and give you – blog reader – a grateful bow;
Thank you for reading my stuff. Always.