Why We Care About Musician Deaths
Big news: A landmark study out of Australia has proven that musicians die. Okay, I might have missed the point of this particular study, but bear with me.
According to a recent article in The Guardian, University of Sydney professor Dianna Theodora Kenny has taken on the task of categorizing musician deaths since 1950. Kenny mapped over 12,000 cases, documenting each individual's age, musical genre and cause of death.
What she's found is interesting but not really surprising. The most common age for musicians to die is 56, regardless of what the 27 Club may have led us to believe. In fact, Kenny states that more musicians have died at 28 than 27, so there you go.
She also found that musicians are more likely than the average American to die from accident, suicide or homicide, and that musical genre correlates with some causes of death. Over half of musician homicides over the last 65 years have occurred in the rap and hip-hop world, for example, and metal artists are the most likely to die from accident or suicide.
Blues artists account for the highest percentage of heart-related deaths, which makes sense considering all of those mean mistreaters stomping on their tickers. Cancer bunches up around the jazz and folk musicians, likely due to their longevity. (Important note: Correlation and causation are not the same thing. Playing jazz will not give you cancer unless you're rocking an asbestos saxophone.)
But that's all just numbers. Musician deaths have resonated with the public since the beginning of the recording era, sometimes causing us to mourn to a disproportionate degree given that we're talking about the passing of a total stranger. For example, when operatic tenor Enrico Caruso died in 1921 thousands of mourners turned out for his funeral. His body was even displayed in a glass casket for a time.
Country singers Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams were two of the earliest recording star deaths to drive record sales, but the history of rock deaths begins on Christmas 1954, backstage at Houston City Auditorium. Johnny Ace, a 25-year-old singer with a string of hits, was scheduled to play that night. As he relaxed in his dressing room with his friends, one of whom was Big Mama Thornton of "Hound Dog" fame, Ace played with a pistol.
To prove to his guests that it wasn't loaded, he put the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. That night Johnny Ace became one of the 11.5-percent of accidental deaths in the R&B column, or maybe one of the 1.6-percent in the suicide category. I guess it all depends on how Professor Kenny chose to count him.
The singer's label rushed out The Johnny Ace Memorial Album. His most recent single blew up, and his back catalog started selling again. Other artists began covering Ace's songs. Author Preston Lauterbach writes in his book The Chitlin' Circuit and the Road to Rock 'N' Roll: "No artist more poignantly signifies the rise of the record than Johnny Ace. He was worth more dead, a ghost voice on black vinyl, than in the flesh as a touring artist."
Keep in mind that Elvis didn't really breakout until 1956, so the sad tale of Johnny Ace is very deeply embedded into rock and roll's DNA, as is our impulse to scoop up records upon hearing the news. But chances are that unless you're way, way into music, this article was your introduction to Johnny Ace.
Why some musician deaths resonate short term and others resonate for generations can't be extrapolated from data.
Why some musician deaths resonate short term and others resonate for generations can't be extrapolated from Professor Kenny's data. We say that the 1959 crash that killed Buddy Holly also killed the Big Bopper and Richie Valens, never that the plane accident that killed the Big Bopper and Richie Valens also killed Buddy Holly. Something about Holly and Hank Williams resonates across the decades, whereas Caruso and Johnny Ace feel like ancient history.
Some of that resonance can be attributed to the size of the personality, and some is pure marketing. How well the estate of a deceased artist curates his or her image seems to be a sizable factor in their postmortem longevity. Jimi Hendrix released four albums during his short career and an additional 12 studio and 20-plus live albums since, never mind the box sets and compilations. Jeff Buckley only released one album, the magnificent Grace, but his estate has cobbled together 13 posthumous releases.
Buckley's father, Tim, was also a musician whose life came to a premature end. Before dying of a heroin overdose at age 28, the elder Buckley had released nine studio albums -- almost twice as many as Hendrix and the younger Buckley combined. Tim Buckley has had his share of posthumous releases -- all live recordings or compilations -- but he hasn't maintained space in the pop culture imagination the way that his son has.
One might conclude that cause of death rather than posthumous marketing explains the difference. Unlike his father, Jeff Buckley didn't die of an overdose but by drowning. That's something that can happen to any of us, so perhaps we project a bit. Then again, Brian Jones also died in a drowning accident and he's been relegated to a footnote in the Rolling Stones' history.
Inevitably, I think that both why we are fascinated by musicians' deaths and why some resonate for decades comes down to a combination of factors like talent, degree of celebrity and marketing. But I think that there's something else in the mix, too -- something much more personal.
I think that the ones that hit us the hardest are the musicians who soundtracked our lives. Brian Jones is much more than a footnote to the now elderly couple who met at a Stones show circa 1965. Layne Staley's passing means more to those whose adolescent struggle was a little less lonely thanks to Alice In Chains; others feel the same for Kurt Cobain.
When I hear that an artist from my personal soundtrack has passed, I'm taken immediately to the time and place that he or she was important to me. I relive that moment, be it good or bad, music playing in my head as clearly as it was at the time. I feel what I felt, see what I saw, smell what I smeledl.
When people who give us a gift like music are gone, it's natural for us to grieve regardless of whether we really knew them.
Music is that powerful. When people who give us a gift like that are gone, it's natural for us to grieve regardless of whether we really knew them. That's not a dimension that can be captured in Professor Kenny's research, and when it comes down to why we care about musicians' deaths, it's the one factor that matters most.