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How musicians die

It’s said that when the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker died, a huge clap of thunder shook the building where he ended his days. Parker’s death, while a tragic loss to music, wouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who knew him. He reached a mere 34 years old, though the coroner took one look at his ravaged body and concluded he must at least be in his fifties. Parker’s long-time heroin addiction was just one element in a life of varied and colossal substance abuse. But in the end it was most likely alcohol that killed him.

In this regard he resembled English contralto goddess Amy Winehouse. Her consumption of exotic and illegal drugs, including heroin, might have been on a scale to rival Charlie Parker’s, but it was ultimately vodka which proved fatal to the brilliant singer songwriter in her North London flat. Her cause of death was recorded as alcohol poisoning, bingeing after a period of abstinence. In its own way, her loss to the world of music was as profound as Parker’s.

I became preoccupied with the connection between death and music when I was researching my first Vinyl Detective crime novel Written in Dead Wax. After all, it was a murder mystery, and the McGuffin was a rare jazz record, situating music as the motive for the deaths unleashed. For the second novel in the series, The Run-Out Groove, it’s a rare rock recording which sets the story in motion, but naturally violent, unexpected and premature death is still inextricably woven into the narrative…

If you were going to analyse the most common causes of untimely demise in jazz musicians you’d find the top contender is drug overdoses, closely followed by automobile accidents — the immensely talented trumpeter Clifford Brown died on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the outstanding bass player Scott LaFaro on U.S. Route 20, revered tenor sax man Chu Berry outside Conneaut, Ohio, to name but three. For rock, pop or soul musicians it’s again drugs, but the humble car fatality tends to be replaced by plane crashes.

Of course, there are some outliers, such as Esbjörn Svensson, the Swedish jazz pianist who drowned while scuba diving, or American trumpeter Lee Morgan who — like soul legend Sam Cooke — was shot dead by a woman. And of course there’s the even more outré fate of Marvin Gaye, another legendary soul singer, who was shot and killed by his cross-dressing preacher father. (The killing of a child by his parent, filicide, is just about the rarest form of murder.) And of course it a was devoted/demented fan who shot and killed John Lennon.

But, by and large it’s drugs and travel, which rather than broadening the outlook of musicians puts paid to their eventful lives. Raw and tormented rock singer Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose, guitar god Jimi Hendrix of barbiturates. Overdoses also claimed Keith Moon of the Who, Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, Mike Bloomfield of the Electric Flag, Jonathan Melvoin of the Smashing Pumpkins, and Paul Gray of Slipknot.

Whereas one small plane simultaneously took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper when it ploughed into the frozen earth near Clear Lake Iowa, on February 3rd 1959 ("The day the music died," as immortalised in Don McLean’s song "American Pie"). Soul man Otis Redding also flew off into a slate grey sky, never to reappear, leaving behind his posthumous smash hit "Dock of the Bay." Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines of Southern rock giants Lynyrd Skynyrd saw their careers cut savagely short when the light aircraft carrying them ran out of fuel high over Gillsburg, Mississippi. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s album, Street Survivors, released three days earlier featured a cover photo depicting the band members in flames. It was hastily pulled from stores and the cover image replaced.

Of course, booze is itself very much a drug and it killed everyone from the great horn players Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan, and Fats Navarro, and the unforgettable singer Billie Holiday, to Jim Morrison of the Doors. Morrison ended his days in Paris, where his grave in Père Lachaisse Cemetery has become a shrine. It was this I had in mind, when I invented a similar site of pilgrimage — a rock star’s grave in Canterbury, which our heroes have to dig up and rob in The Run-Out Groove.

Vehicular death isn’t limited to denizens of the jazz demi monde, either. The automobile has claimed its share of rockers. Notably Eddie Cochran, while on tour in the UK in 1960, and British guitar star Marc Bolan of glam rock titan T. Rex. The scene of Bolan’s crash is the site of another shrine, in South West London, near where my character the Vinyl Detective resides.

Drugs continue to dominate, though, and real-life America is currently in the grip of a heart-breaking epidemic of addiction and deaths caused by (entirely legal) prescription meds. The terrible toll includes Prince, who met his lonely end last year in an elevator in Paisley Park.

But drugs and the rock life have thrown up the phenomena of a new kind of fatality — the living death that results when the mind and personality of a musician are destroyed by powerful psychedelic drugs. Syd Barrett, founder member and guiding light of Pink Floyd disappeared down a rabbit hole created by LSD and never emerged again. He was eased out of the band, but they never forgot him. And their song, "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" contains an unforgettable description of his eyes "like black holes in the sky."

I used Barrett as the basis for a character in my new novel, The Run-Out Groove, which charts the fallout from the classic era of British psychedelic rock in the shape of the band Valerian and the two sisters who formed its heart — one of them dead, the other lost in the ravaged landscape of her own mind. Not to mention the further deaths, both physical and psychic, which ensue for the other characters in the story.

But as with all the real people mentioned herein, and the Vinyl Detective himself, the most important thing for them is their music.

And that lives on.

Image: Wikimedia

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