An Old Wave of Music Death

by Bob Schwartz

The death of musician Bob Welch, former member of Fleetwood Mac, is the latest in a current series of deaths—natural and unnatural—in the pop music world.

A fascination with rock death arose from a cultural and demographic phenomenon. The 1960s saw the meteoric appearance of very young stars to very young audiences. When a plane crash took Buddy Holly at 22 and Richie Valens at 17, this deeply touched teenagers who had little experience of death.

The late 1960s took this to a new level. Not only were young artists dying, but they were dying in strange and often self-inflicted ways. In 1979 the Village Voice published the legendary article Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes, by music critic Greil Marcus (unfortunately not available online). Trying to both appreciate lost artists and skewer a fascination with celebrity death, Marcus scored the dozens of musicians according to past contribution, prospective future contribution and manner of death (heroin overdose received 0 points for manner, since he considered it “the common cold of rock death”).  Jimi Hendrix won, with perfect 10s for past and future contribution.

Some portions of the recent deaths bear an uncanny and all too familiar similarity to the worst days decades ago. If a Marcus-like list is to be made now, Amy Winehouse belongs near the top. Others who died too soon could join her there.

But there is something different about the latest wave. While some of the deaths are untimely, some of them preventable, and all of them tragic, we are now seeing a sort of bookend to the first days of the phenomenon. In the beginning, and in Marcus’ bizarre contest, most of the artists were in their twenties or even younger. While sixty may be the new forty, or whatever the baby boomer conceit is, many of these artists who are passing are in their mid- to late-sixties. They may not have died from getting older, but they were getting older. Even if this isn’t a wave touching shore, it is definitely out there on the horizon.

As Paul Simon, who is now 71, wrote forty years ago in a prophetic verse, “Everything put together falls apart.”