The Grim Reaper’s Hit List
This morning, I learned of the death of Jon Lord of Deep Purple. I saw him with Deep Purple in 1985 and 1987. I even got to hang out on their tour bus for a few minutes. It is harder to accept the deaths of those musicians whom I have seen perform. With their music, they become part of our life experiences, but by attending their performances, they become a part of our good memories. Whenever I hear “Smoke of the Water,” I’ll think of Lord’s mustachioed countenance. I wrote this essay a few years ago when Michael Jackson died. It is from my music essay collection, The Colordeaf Chronicles.
I was surprised at my reaction to the death of Michael Jackson. The last time I seriously listened to his music, we both had medium brown skin and wide noses. But Michael, who was two years younger than me, was a part of my preteen and early teenage years. My first concert, in 1971, was the Jackson 5 at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. Also, his passing was a few months after the death of my cousin Darrell, who was about a year younger than Michael, with a birthday ten days after Jackson’s. With both of these deaths, I feel like part of my childhood is gone. As a little girl, Darrell was like a brother to me. Michael was the symbolic little brother of many African American girls who grew up in the late sixties and early seventies.
When I called my best friend Mary on the night of Jackson’s untimely demise, she did not share my feelings. Sure, she liked the music, but she is seven years my junior. As a young Caucasian girl in the Steel City, she did not feel the same attraction to the Jacksons as I did. But there are many musicians we have both felt close to over the years. We started to ruminate over which musician deaths have affected, or will affect, us the most. Since we are both middle aged now, we have to prepare ourselves for the time when the creators of the soundtracks of our lives will be called back to the Ultimate Creator, or wherever it is that dead rock stars go.
Mary has been most affected by the murder of John Lennon, one of her childhood idols. As a worshipper at the altar of the big bloated blimp in the seventies, the death of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham in 1980 was the death that rocked my world. In the eighties, we used to go to Grateful Dead shows together on the East Coast, and the death of Jerry Garcia stunned both of us. A few years ago, I called Mary when I heard about the death of Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright. Her mother, who was with her when she got the call, couldn’t understand why we were so upset about the death of someone we didn’t even know. But Wright’s death was also the death of a dream, the dream of a full scale Pink Floyd reunion. A few years earlier, we had watched Pink Floyd perform in London, sharing the moment on television and by telephone even though we were thousands of miles apart.
But we do know our favorite musicians. We know them through the music they have shared with us over the years. After thinking about the many musical deaths we have lived through, we agreed that the loss of musicians in our favorite bands and the loss of musicians we had seen live or met would be the worse.
Eric Clapton may not be God, but he is the closest thing on four strings. After decades of sharing his personal triumphs and setbacks, his passing would be heartbreaking. Mary met Clapton about ten years ago, getting his autograph on the “Crossroads” booklet accompanying the boxed set I bought her one year for Christmas. Mary’s favorite band is Yes and the death of Jon Anderson or Alan White would be a big blow to her. In fact, I promised to come back to Pittsburgh to console her when those musicians head to the pearly “Gates of Delirium.” Led Zeppelin is still my favorite band, and when Jimmy Page goes to wherever fans of Aleister Crowley go, I don’t know how I will react. But I will need my friends around me. In 1985, our friend Kathy was devastated when Robert Plant cancelled his Pittsburgh concert, so I know that when he does buy that “Stairway to Heaven,” I will have to take bereavement leave back to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Elton John was my first rock and roll love, and when the sun finally does go down on him, it will leave my life a lot less bright. Even though I was never a big Stones fan, the loss of Mick and Keef will be the end of an era and leave a little less “Satisfaction,” in the world. There are other deaths that will also be hard for me to take, such as the demise of past and current members of CSN&Y, Genesis, the Moody Blues, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, the original remaining members of the Grateful Dead, and every hot, hair sprayed pretty boy I liked in the eighties that did not go on to star in a reality show. And I’m sure you can come up with your own list.
As the years go on, the angels in Rock and Roll Heaven will be standing room only. But we will always be left with the music, which was what we had at the very beginning. That is the reason why Amazon sold out the Michael Jackson catalog so quickly after his death. After the smoke clears and the television tributes fade, I will still remember the strong, high, clear voice of a little boy from Gary, Indiana. We “never can say goodbye” to those who entered our hearts with the tunes they carried.