Editorial: Welcome to the Era of Rock Star Mortality
That the deaths of David Bowie and Lemmy Kilmister occurred so close to one another felt poetic. As artists, Bowie and Kilmister were in many ways similar. Both defined an aesthetic. Both were known for their chemical and carnal excess. Both made music and art right up until their deaths. Both were sex symbols despite the fact that they weren’t traditionally attractive. Both were loved by everyone they met. And more than anything else, both seemed immortal. The deaths of each of these men were met with outcries of disbelief, even though the combined drugs they’ve done could kill an elephant. How could this happen? asked everyone you know on Twitter. But honestly, how could it not?
We’re all going to die. You, me, Dave’s mom, that punk bartender you pray has a crush on you. It’s one of the three things all humans have in common—we’re born, we’re made of meat, and we die. And as much as we like to think of rock stars as these Promethean demigods or brilliant mad scientists, who pluck inspiration out of the air and bestow it upon us so that we feel less alone, that’s all bullshit. Not only are they going to die, but they’re going to start dying by the dozens now. We’re entering the great age of rock star mortality. Get ready to write some obituary posts.
Let’s do a Wikipedia reality check. Mick Jagger is 72. So are Keith Richards and Jimmy Page. Paul McCartney is 73. Both Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper are 67. So is Stevie Nicks. Iggy Pop is 68. David Lee Roth is 61. Danzig and Angus Young are both 60. Axl Rose is 53. Tom Araya’s 54, while Kerry King and Rob Zombie are both 51. Kirk Hammet’s 53. Scott Ian and Tom G. Warrior are 52. Hell, Corpsegrinder is 46! These are all seminal musicians in our arena, and they’re getting on in years. That isn’t to say that they’re all going to die tomorrow, just that they’ve lived long lives and aren’t going to be around forever. Not only that, but there’s a whole class of them—especially the ones who survived the drug-addled ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s—who are going to start dying one after the other, in quick succession.
The ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s seem like the gauntlet for rock stars. If you could survive those times, you could live forever. So many of the artists from that era died early due to their excess—Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Bon Scott, Jimi Hendrix. Others, like John Lennon, were victims of the cultural turmoil that engulfed the world during this period. And then, of course, there were the horrible accidents, like Randy Rhoads and Cliff Burton. But all of these figures were killed by circumstance and behavior. Death caught them, rather than came for them. The lucky ones, though, made it out alive, but they are now faced with the same inevitability as the rest of us. They won’t be taken from us, they just have to go sometime.
Furthermore, this era of rock stars were the first rock gods. Elvis was awesome, but he never rode a motorcycle through a hotel, or snorted ants, or got a blowjob onstage. And even if he had done any of that, it would be covered up in an effort to avoid moral scandal. Meanwhile, everyone knows about every dirty detail of Led Zeppelin’s years on the road. By their heyday, there was a method to being a rock god, one that everyone wanted to be a part of. The rock stars of the ‘60s, ’70s, ‘80s, and even ‘90s who are about to leave us are the ones who seemed beyond humanity. Given how they lived, how could they die?
The ‘90s were a little different. Death felt darker, and more present. As with the ‘70s, rock stars were dying soon after making it big. B.I.G. and Tupac got blown away. Kurt Cobain did it himself. The heroin epidemic that marred that era felt more sinister and desperate than that of the ‘70s, maybe because it felt like we were repeating a mistake we’d made before, or maybe because it became fashionable in that sad grunge sort of way. The point is, the ‘90s didn’t feel as dangerous for the rock royals, who by that time were having kids, figuring their lives out, and making anti-drug PSAs. While the new class were tearing themselves apart, the old guard was focused on staying alive.
But that was seventeen years ago. They’ve lived. They’re older. They’re feeling the hurt of those crazy years. And there’s a whole class of them, who partied like maniacs and dreamt like poets and changed how we thought about the world, who are looking at a finish line. Rock and roll music may be ample nutrition for the spirit, but the flesh is weak. That’s the point of the Danse Macabre, those medieval woodcuts showing the skeletal dead frolicking amongst the living from all different walks of life. Peasant, priest, or king—doesn’t matter, they all go.
How they go will be interesting. It won’t always be like Lemmy and Bowie, who were pure in their lack of compromise. Vince wrote about how monumental the passing of a member of Metallica will be, but many fans will always remember Metallica as the guys who cut their hair and tried to kill digital music in its crib. Similar issues will arise with many of the artists who I mentioned above, who were known for being racist, or shitty to their lovers, or just complete and utter sell-outs. Not every great rock god will have candlelight vigils in their name; some will stoke more ire with their deaths than heartfelt remembrance. But no matter how it will manifest, the impact caused by their deaths will be massive.
So get ready. Hopefully the coming years won’t be like the past month—the law of averages dictates that it just can’t—but it’s going to get rough, and soon. We’re going to honor our dead gods hundreds of times over. We’re going to hear the younger generation ask why they’re so important. We’re going to ask ourselves where the next pantheon is, and when the youth point it out to us, we’re going to say, “HIM? THEM?” It’s going to be confusing, and ugly, and new. But it’s here, whether we like it or not, and we’re going to have to live with it. For a while, anyway. And then we’ll die, too.