I knew a lot of currently dead rock stars
This year marks the 48th anniversary of my becoming the first full-time reporter/photographer covering the rock beat at The New York Times and, as such, the first full-time rock journalist of any major American newspaper or other form of major media.
I was high profile at the time, at least in New York music and publishing. I was called “a name writer” and didn’t have to be IDd to publishers.
Part of the reason that it was, you know, it’s The New York Times and you can’t understand the power of that institution unless you’ve labored in its vineyard. Said legendary Metropolitan Editor Arthur Gelb when he hired me, “we write the history of the world. In 200 years, when people want to know what happened in 1968 they’ll read your words.” O-kaay, what a year to start in.
Just a little pressure. I thought he was referring to me only until about a decade ago, when I had an email correspondence with Maureen Dowd in which she revealed “he said the same thing to me too.”
In the years that followed I met a lot of rockers, famous or nearly so. I've known and loved and praised, hated and insulted, been insulted by, run into, run from, abused substances, had my ears assaulted, or otherwise invaded the private spaces of a lot of rock stars who have since become deceased, snuffed it, ceased to be, rung down the curtain, kicked the bucket, croaked, shuffled off this mortal coil, or in one way or another joined the choir invisible.
The number of dead rockers -- some of them good and talented people -- of my acquaintance stands at 48. Keep in mind that this list is of the ones I knew, not all rockers. The total list fills volumes. There’s at least one huge site dedicated to it. Regarding mine, most were musicians, but a few were important music insiders. There are three recent additions, Leonard Cohen, David Peel and Gene Pistilli. Also this year I’ve added expanded commentary and another yarn. And, at last, internal links that work.
It's tempting to think that drugs were behind most of these abrupt departures. However, in many cases death came via largely unrelated medical problems -- heart attacks, strokes, or cancer, mainly. A number did die of overdoses of either drugs or alcohol, sometimes both. Others succumbed to crashes by aircraft, cars, and one by skiing into a tree. There was one fatal infection (I expected more). There also were murders and one suicide, possibly to avoid death by any of the aforementioned.
If you're adding up and tracking deaths per band, we’re talking about three-fifths each of Canned Heat and MC5, three-fourths of the Doors, half each of Sonny and Cher and the Who, one-third of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Peter, Paul and Mary, and a quarter of the Beatles. They were rockers who died, died. Here's the list, New Years Eve 2017 update.
SPIRITS OF ROCK STARS PASSED [sic]
Hoyt Axton -- folk and country singer and son of the co-author of “Heartbreak Hotel.” His own writing included “Joy to the World,” the worldwide hit by Three Dog Night which became the theme of The Big Chill, the movie that chillingly summed up my grad school experience and the years thereafter. (You’ll simply have to guess which one of them I was.) Of Three Dog Night, Hoyt dropped a couple of tidbits on me. Both concern their renditions of his song “Never Been to Spain.” They objected to using the line “but I kinda like the Beatles” because they considered themselves competitive with the latter. But they sang it. However, they changed his line “in Oklahoma, born in a coma” to “in Oklahoma, not Arizona.” Considering the political climate in Arizona lately, I’ll take the coma. He died of a heart attack in Victor, Montana, on October 26, 1999, two years after his mother drowned in a hot tub in Tennessee.
Steve Baron. Folk/rock/fusion singer, songwriter, guitarist, fixture on the national coffee house circuit for years, and a good friend. Of hepatitis at the Nashville hospital where he had a second career as a nurse after giving up his music career and burning his masters. Died March 2002. He never had a hit record but made my list due to his friendship with Pete Townshend and me and his contribution to one of the legendary moments in the annals of rock and roll in general and the Fillmore East in particular. See Cissy, Whitney, and life within the yurt.
Sid Bernstein -- August 21, 2013, at age 95. Sid was the soft-spoken concert promoter who brought the Beatles to the U.S. in 1964, where among other things they packed Shea Stadium and made me terrified of the power of massed 14-year-old girls on a mission. Of a shadowy figure moving about a dugout in the pre-concert terror, “That’s George! Only George stands up like that!” I last saw Sid in Zabar’s. Well, what would you expect?
Sonny Bono -- of skiing into a tree, January 5, 1998. Former Tin Pan Alley songwriter with extraordinary taste in women. You’d have to chat with her to fully understand that.
David Bowie – of liver cancer at age 69 on January 10, 2016, in New York. Well, okay. Complex subject. He was universally loved by rockers of my generation and the one after it – millennials I don’t know. He was the worst interview I ever did. I subsequently learned that he had the flu and shouldn’t have invited me to his hotel room. He answered everything as “yes” or “no” while sitting with some unnamed but probably hip-cult-star girl and the two of them ate Fiddle Faddle (upscale Cracker Jack). He didn’t offer me any, which I considered rude. Finally he said “I guess I’m just a boring person.” Pissed off, I left.
As I recall, I never wrote up the interview for my New York Times Special Features column. It never appeared in the Times. Instead I wrote a piece on Bowie's first New York appearance. Surf over and read “One more freak show -- David Bowie's famed Carnegie Hall appearance.” Ground Control to Major Dave: Have some Fiddle Faddle and chill.
Harry Chapin -- in a car accident July 16, 1981. Harry was one of life’s really good people, and I don’t say that simply because he was grateful enough for my career-launching review to put me on his Christmas card list and invite me to his wedding.
Leonard Cohen -- in his sleep after a fall at his home in Los Angeles, November 7, 2016. Where to begin with Leonard Cohen? Well, here: This story about Leonard Cohen has sex in it.
Jim Croce -- in a plane crash September 20, 1973. I have no recollection where and when I met him, only that I did.
Michael Davis -- played bass for MC5. Died February 17, 2012, of liver failure. Notes Wikipedia, "Sometime in the mid-1970s, Davis spent time in Kentucky's Lexington Federal Prison on a drug charge, where he was unexpectedly reunited with [MC5 guitarist] Wayne Kramer." God, I love rock and roll.
I got drunk with him and the rest of the band at a hotel lounge in Cincinatti in early 1969. The loung band kept asking "MC5" "MC4" "MC6" and asking them to come up and jam. That would have been some trip, wouldn't it.
John Denver -- in a plane crash October 12, 1997. Cooler than he has been painted.
John Entwistle of the Who, and the only one of them who was capable of standing still -- June 28, 2002 of a heart attack also involving cocaine and a prostitute. In Vegas, naturally.
Steve Ferguson of NRBQ. He was the guitarist who is credited with their eclecticism, which included rockabilly and experimental jazz. I was an unabashed NRBQ fanboy in their late 60s years, wrote them up as often as I could, and dragged Clive Davis to see them, which got them their first recording contract.
Then I dragged Hendrix to see them and they goofed on him. He threatened to throw a table at them, then walked out, shaking his head. That was the last time I ever saw him. I lost interest in the band thereafter. Steve left in 1970. He died of cancer, October 7, 2009.
Rory Gallagher -- Irish blues rocker, died June 1995, of complications of a liver transplant. I should have gone with him that night backstage at the Rod Stewart and Faces show in Anaheim when he said "come have a jar" and beckoned me toward his dressing room. But I had just had a jar with Rod and the boys during the ride from L.A. Also in the limo was a raisin saleswoman Rod has picked up at the hotel pool. Whatever happened with Rod, in the limo she had to endure a string of raisin jokes.
Jerry Garcia -- died August 9, 1995 of a heroin-related heart attack doubtlessly aggravated by his lifelong taste for junk food. We had a classic San Francisco rock conversation upon meeting in a soggy in an otherwise empty VIP area under a tent near the stage at Woodstock.
Sound of pop tops popping. Silent watching of whoever the fuck was onstage.
San Francisco rock.
Bill Graham -- legendary concert promoter and foul-mouthed pain in the ass. We had a rocky relationship but eventually made up. He died October 25, 1991, of a helicopter crash while returning from a Huey Lewis and the News concert.
Tim Hauser -- founder of the beloved jazz/fusion vocal quartet Manhattan Transfer, of cardiac arrest in his sleep at a hospital in Sayre, Pennsylvania on October 16, 2014. Their cover of "Java Jive" is one of those tunes that stays forever in your head. I lost touch with him after the first few years; he remained a respected advocate for vocal music. The band is still out there with a new lineup.
Richie Havens -- died April 22, 2013, of a heart attack at age 72. He was rock’s giant (6’5”) spiritual icon, supporter of childrens’ and environmental causes, and the man universally recognized for opening Woodstock by singing for three straight hours while the immense and restive audience waited for the rest of the acts to get there. His ashes were scattered from a small plane over the site of the 1969 festival.
Richie was my first rock interview, published in ’66 or ’67 in the East Village Other, which titled it “On Earth as It Is in Richie Havens,” such was the aura he projected. We hung out a bit. He showed me his paintings, which he kept in a pile atop the fridge. He got me into Slug’s, a blacks-only jazz club in Alphabet City, to see Sun Ra.
He told me about his teeth, which he lost to speed as a young man growing up in Brooklyn. While his denture was being made he used something like a hockey teeth protector, one reason that this basically happy guy never smiled for his early promo pics. The teeth protector and the eventual denture gave him a slight lisp that you can hear in his early recordings.
Being of NBA height, he had huge hands and long fingers that, I think, dictated his choice of open tuning on his guitar. It involves the ability lay a finger atop all six strings while using the thumb to sneak around the neck and hold down a couple of the bass strings. If you think that’s easy ...
The open tuning also allowed his signature sound, which was to strum faster than any other known human. I jokingly attributed that to the speed, but I was probably wrong.
Havens was a War Baby like me, having parents who dealt with raising kids in the Depression. In consequence thereof, he was, at least when I knew him, frugal. When he started to make it and the cash began coming in, he opened savings accounts at 10 or 12 banks around Manhattan, depositing $15,000 in each. At the time that was the amount to which the FDIC would protect your deposit. Richie was a wonderful man, but one who never quite got over the Summer of Love, if that bothers you. But he made one think that maybe, just maybe, “love one another” was a pretty good way to live.
Since his death a lot has been written about his Woodstock performance and his versions of “Freedom,” “Handsome Johnny,” and the other better known recordings. I think instead of his slowed-down “San Francisco Bay Blues,” which stands alongside Streisand’s take on “Happy Days Are Here Again” as being a majestic way to re-imagine a song. It occupies a prominent place on my iPod.
Jimi Hendrix -- died September 18, 1970, of a drug overdose. He would be humiliated by his surviving family's messy fight over his estate. See "Jimi, Harry and Me" elsewhere on this site.
Bob Hite -- six-foot, 300-pound singer for Canned Heat, died of a heart attack April 5, 1981. He proclaimed me “a freak” at a time when it was considered high praise. See “When Canned Heat Plied the New York Times With Weed,” elsewhere on this site.
Janis Joplin -- died of a heroin overdose October 4, 1970. That'll learn her for snarling at me. See “That night I was in England making a ham sandwich for Mama Cass,” also elsewhere in this blog. She butchered "Me and Bobby McGee," which of course became the version the public remembers. I wish I knew more intimate details about you, despite having also spend time with Leonard Cohen at the Chelsea Hotel. Not the same kind of time. Like him, I can't keep track of each fallen robin.
Paul Kantner – jutting-jawed guitarist for Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship and resident musician in Grace Slick’s crib. The couple produced actress China Wing Kantner. He died in San Francisco at the age of 74 on January 28, 2016 from multiple organ failure and septic shock following a heart attack. Grace and he were sitting behind me – weirdly in the topmost and absolutely worst seats in Madison Square Garden watching Cream -- when I turned around and said hi to Grace. He smiled faintly. History records him as having been a tad grumpy. Don’t you need somebody to love, Paul? Oh, got her.
Jerry Leiber, August 23, 2011, of cardiopulmonary failure. Do I really have to explain who Leiber and Stoller were? Let me just say “Hound Dog,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me,” “On Broadway,” "Spanish Harlem" and on and on. Of their songwriting partnership, Leiber said "I yelled, he played." They did it for me once, using an old upright piano, at the Brill Building, which also needs no explanation. That private performance was one of the most wonderful rock and roll moments I ever had.
John Lennon -- murdered on December 8, 1980, outside his apartment building, New York's 19th century landmark the Dakota, which also was the setting for "Rosemary's Baby." He would have enjoyed the subsequent deification. See “‘The New York Times’ Writes About Me” elsewhere on this site.
Ray Manzarek -- the Doors’ wooden keyboardman, of bile duct cancer, May 20, 2013. In an interview he compared himself to Miles Davis. Well, he played some of the same notes. It has been pointed out to me that I use some of the same words as James Joyce.
Linda McCartney -- one-time photographer (I bought some photos of Jim Morrison from her) -- and part-time, sort-of backup singer; I first saw her getting into the elevator at Andy Warhol's Factory. This was a year or two before she told Lillian Roxon she was moving to London with the intention of marrying a Beatle, any Beatle, and snagged the prize. She died April 17, 1998, of breast cancer.
Keith Moon -- the Who's wild man drummer; drowned in his own vomit following a drug overdose on September 7, 1978, surprising no one.
Jim Morrison -- died July 3, 1971, by one account of a heroin overdose and choking on upchucked sweet and sour pork, surprising even fewer than were later surprised by Keith Moon. He would have enjoyed the postmortem idolatry, especially since current cultists are building a religion around him.
Scott Muni -- legendary New York DJ and early pioneer of progressive rock radio. I forgive him for standing in the control room and making rude gestures at me while I was trying to record my awful weekly roundup of new releases. I sucked as a DJ, prompting colleague Jonathan Schwartz -- whose show followed mine on Sunday evenings -- to go on the air with the comment “everyone thinks they can be a DJ these days.” I also forgive “Scottso” for opening his show with “Elusive Butterfly.” (That was a lie. I don’t.) That “summer of love” cringe-inducer sucked even more than I did while saying the words “this is Mike Jahn on WNEW-FM, Metromedia Stereo in New York.” Scott died September 28, 2004, possibly of a stroke brought on by the memory of my attempt to jockey disks.
Murray the K -- died February 21, 1982 of cancer. The former Murray Kaufman was pure old show biz, even doing borscht bell shows before becoming a manic, howling top 40 DJ in New York in the late 50s - early 60s. That in and of itself would have kept him far from my list of elite dead rockers. But Murray transformed himself into one of the earliest proponents of “progressive rock” (as it was often called at the time), playing alternate tracks, albums cuts and generally doing all he could to promote quality rock. And he did it beginning in 1966, way before almost everyone else. Hey, things moved fast those days.
In the three years of Murray’s transformation, the Beatles went from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to “Strawberry Fields Forever.” During his manic, Top 40 days, he billed himself as “the Fifth Beatle.” He followed them into rock history. I have absolutely nothing bad to say about Murray the K except that in his West 60s apartment the dining room ceiling was upholstered. Seriously. Pleats of fabric radiated out from an immense central button. I suppose the effect was that of a sharkskin sunflower. Sitting at the table, I couldn’t help glancing up in fear that the thing would snatch up and swallow me, much like the homicidal begonia in “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Felix Pappalardi of Mountain, April 17, 1983, murdered in his East Side luxury apartment building. Never cross Fifth Avenue, gentlemen, I keep telling you. If the street sign doesn't have a "W" on it, you're in mortal danger.
Steve Paul, legendary proprietor of Steve Paul's Scene at 46th and 8th. It was there that many of the star-studded jam sessions you heard about took place. The Scene was three blocks from the Times and easy to drop in after work, which is to say at one in the morning. It was harder to remember what happened the next day. He died October 21, 2012, at a hospital in Queens, the cause curiously hard to find.
The Scene was the setting of my "documentary novel" -- I did that in those days -- of the same name. It was the latest attempt by Bernie Geis, the publisher who inflicted "Valley of the Dolls" on an unsuspecting world, to duplicate its success. "Expect to make $500,000," he told me. I made $8000.
What was even freakier than the Scene habitues who inspired me was the visit I got in the early 1980s from a representative of Dick Clark, who was interested in making "The Scene" into a film. Dick Clark producing a film version of "The Scene." Courtney Love would have been perfect for the role. What a long strange trip it's been.
David Peel -- of a heart attack at a Manhattan VA hospital on April 17, 2017. David Peel and the Lower East Side were street rockers with an East Village gestalt and an obscene outragiousness that now seems rather quaint. I met around the time that his LP "Have a Marijuana" was released in 1970. Those days it was shocking when he sang "Up Against the Wall [motherfucker]" and naughty when the tune was "I Do My Bawling in the Bathroom." It was customary back then for the hip to refer to the core sex act as "balling" and not "fucking," which was considered crude. Ever sensitive to societal sensitivities, Peel used the word "bawling." Some snickered.
Gene Pistilli, December 28, 2017. Founder of Manhattan Transfer and an all-around good guy.
Elvis Presley, August 16, 1977, drug overdose aggravated by too many fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches. He would have been embarrassed by the deification. See “A 'hunka hunka' of an anniversary.”
Billy Preston -- R&B keyboardman who became famous for keeping the Beatles from killing one another during the "Abbey Road" days, June 5, 2006, of kidney failure.
Paul Revere -- as in "Paul Revere and the Raiders," a mid-60s smash hit teenybopper band that dressed in Revolution War costumes and had several hits -- "Kicks" being the big one. He died of cancer at his home in Garden Valley, Idaho on October 4, 2014, age 76.
Of the Raiders, lead singer Mark Lindsay became a screaming teen idol and celebrated by renting the house where Sharon Tate and housemates were later slaughtered by the Manson Family. Actually, I'm not sure of the timing. As for Paul Revere, I went in for the interview certain I was going to hate him for the Revolutionary War getup and all the teeny fan magazine covers. I wound up loving the dude. He was a great guy with a good perspective on himself. BTW, his name was Paul Revere. Good luck wherever you are, Paul. One if by land.
Lillian Roxon -- August 10, 1973, of an asthma attack. An Australian, she was New York correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald, an early rock journalist and one of the connections between the rock and Warhol scenes. As such she was very good to know. She wrote “Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia” and was fun to chat with at the table at the front of Max’s Kansas City, where what I call the New York Rock Critics Circle assembled. She had a famous public falling out with Linda Eastman for marrying McCartney and then shunning all her old buddies.
Doug Sahm -- of the Sir Douglas Quintet and a dozen other bands and a very influential figure in tejano. He talked faster than anyone I ever met. His embullience let him sing the line "you're such a groove you blow my mind in the morning" and make you like it. From his hit "Mendocino." He died November 18, 1999, of a heart attack in a hotel room in Taos. I would like to think there was a bottle of Lone Star on the nightstand.
Fred "Sonic" Smith -- of MC5, later husband of Patti Smith (no blood relation). Died November 5, 1994, of heart disease.
John Stewart, of the Kingston Trio and a long solo career that included writing "Daydream Believer" for the Monkees, "July You're a Woman" for everyone, and "Chilly Winds," a tip of the cowboy hat to the glory days of folk's road songs, for his old mates in the Kingston Trio. Try his tune “Cannons in the Rain” if you get the chance. He died on January 19, 2008, of a stroke.
Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary, September 16, 2009 of cancer. The only folkie to come out of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene who actually grew up in Greenwich Village. We hit it off, an iffy sort of thing with people whose performance you have to review. Mary was a keeper.
Rob Tyner -- singer for MC5, died September 17, 1991 of heart failure while driving home from the grocery store.
Dave Van Ronk - "the Mayor of Macdougal Street" and early nurturer of many folksingers, including the young Bob Dylan. Only Dave could get away with singing "Swing on a Star" in a Village club. Good man. I had a cheeseburger with him, in the Village of course. He died February 10, 2002, of colon cancer.
Henry Vestine -- guitarist with Canned Heat; died October 20, 1997, of a heart attack.
Alan Wilson -- guitarist with Canned Heat. He killed himself in Bob Hite's backyard September 3, 1970.
Johnny Winter -- Died July 17, 2014. The Lone Star State's albino blazing blueser. He was quite a sight, black leather over pure white skin and hair. An article about him in Rolling Stone prompted Steve Paul to make a hasty call to be his manager and, successful, flew him to New York that same day or something like it to make his New York City debut.
Steve, the club’s maître ‘d Teddy and I raced through the Queens Midtown Tunnel, driving upside down like in "Men in Black," and picked him up at JFK. I recall walking through the terminal, high on THC, my boots a foot off the floor, later recalling it after reading "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- "The secret to flying is to hurl yourself at the ground and miss." We found Johnny, drove him straight to Second Avenue, the Fillmore East or somewhere else nearby, it doesn't matter, where he got onstage with a blues band, which one ... same thing, it doesn't matter.
Johnny played the frets off the other guitarist. I wrote that he was "the finest blues musician to ever play" the place, not sure that there ever was one. Clive Davis later grumbled that the line added $100,000 to Johnny's contract price. Johnny was worth it, Clive could afford it, and there began a long and respectful career.
Frank Zappa -- died of prostate cancer on December 4, 1993. He was rock's cranky innovator (House with a guitar before Hugh Laurie was House with a guitar) and first-amendment advocate who clashed famously with anti-rock activist Tipper Gore over censorship of rock lyrics. When I met him he was at a so-so New York hotel in bed with a naked groupie, pulling apart a barbequed chicken. He was wearing the same "PIPCO" tee shirt that he later wore on an album cover. Swallow that, Tipper.
Keith Richards lives on, thumbing his well-travelled nose at all the aforementioned.
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