Why are we so fascinated by dead rockstars?

Kurt Cobain’s final address on 171 Lake Washington Blvd, Seattle WA

“I want my rockstars DEAD!” screamed the late comedian and social satirist Bill Hicks in a particularly memorable segment of his stand-up show Relentless in 1991.

Similarly, U2’s Bono, at the height of the Irish mega band’s early ’90s ironic phase, quipped that: “if you give a pop star a shit pile of dough and he refuses to self-destruct, I think it is a bit wet. I think it’s part of the deal. If they don’t die on a cross by 33, I’d ask for your money back.”

Though both statements – particularly the latter from Bono – appear to have been said for effect, and are heavily dipped in humour and/or irony, they both seem to touch on something that is much more concrete and truthful.

Put simply, dead rockstars are cooler, more exotic and more interesting to many of us than those that are still alive and growing old gracefully (or ungracefully). Human beings, it seems, are a morbidly curious species whom are fascinated by tales of death, destruction, debauchery or just plain tragedy. Of course, it is true of political, artistic and Hollywood figures, but nowhere is it more resonant than in the realm of rock music.

 

Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France

‘Live fast, die young’

The mantra ‘Live fast, die young’, though first popularly linked to the life of Hollywood actor James Dean, has become much more synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll, and of excess leading to an early grave.

The list of rock casualties is near endless, with some very high profiles ones and many more besides, and they have been listed endlessly elsewhere. But what Bono was hinting at sarcastically in 1993 has somewhat sadly become true: we almost expect our rockstars to fall into an early grave; as a sign of authenticity of what many of us have come to expect them to be, and to do.

Even more specifically, there has been a particularly ghoulish obsession with the so-called ’27 club’- well regarded musicians who all eerily passed at the age of 27. This dubious club includes, amongst others, blues legend Robert Johnson, Jim Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, D. Boon, Brian Jones and Kurt Cobain.

Cobain’s mother Wendy Fradenburg Cobain O’Connor commented in the Aberdeen, Washington newspaper The Daily World at the time of his 1994 death that her son had “gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club.”  The comments were widely interpreted to have been made in reference to the 27 club, but there is a possibility she was referring to the suicides of Cobain’s uncles.

So notorious has the 27 club become in rock history that many cynics have suggested not only Cobain but British jazz singer Amy Whitehouse almost deliberately self-destructed and died at the age of 27, presumably in the hope of being compared to and remembered as fervently as the famous alumni. This contention seems not only far fetched, but cruel and disrespectful to the complex and increasingly traumatic lives both stars found themselves leading.

 

Enduring mystery

Visitors pay their respects at Elvis’ grave in Graceland, Memphis

As well as our expectations of drink and drug excess and living dangerously, there is also an enduring sense of mystery, and inevitable thoughts of what might have been had our heroes lived on, and not fallen into the willing hands of the Grim Reaper.

What direction would D. Boon, Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix have taken things had they not been beset by a tragic early death? Would Hendrix have created even more extreme vocabulary for the electric guitar than the one he left us with? Would Cobain have moved Nirvana into a more folky and bluesy direction as hinted at with his late obsession with Lead Belly? Of course, all these questions cannot be answered, but merely speculated upon.

Indeed, that seems to be part of the attraction; whether it is debate about what would of happened next or, as has proved to be so often the case, competing conspiracy theories about whether the rockstar was murdered, involved in foul play of some kind or even still alive. Elvis sightings are reported almost as regularly as UFOs, and the confusion over the last few days of several rockstars has even resulted in speculative movies such as Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and Gus Van Sant’s Cobain inspired feature Last Days.

Rockstars dying young has arguably been the single biggest factor in the proliferation of rock tourism. Visiting the Dakota Building where John Lennon was shot or making the pilgrimage to Père Lachaise to pay tribute to Jim Morrison on the anniversary of their deaths or birthdays has become the norm.

Elvis Presley fans likewise make the pilgrimage from all over the world to Graceland, where there are guided tours of the King’s stately former home.  Had it not been for all the shocking  moments in rock history it is doubtful such music pilgrimages would have become so fervent and widespread. But this seems to be the most positive aspect of our obsession with dead rockstars: the reflection and celebration of the lives of the many late musicians and the great music that they blessed us with.