In print: rock 'n' roll, the life that kills | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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In print: rock 'n' roll, the life that kills

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You'd think people would know better by now. If history has taught us anything it's that a life devoted to rock 'n' roll can only end badly. Spiraling success ultimately leads to plummeting failure, and each year of fast living is just another nail in the coffin. But thanks to a new book by Jeff Pike, a few aspiring rockers may learn this valuable lesson and save themselves before it's too late.

The Death of Rock 'n' Roll is a witty and informative reference guide that traces the historical relevance (or irrelevance) of people who tempted fate by making the devil's music. With the extended subtitle Untimely Demises, Morbid Preoccupations and Premature Forecasts of Doom in Pop Music, the book gives brief biographical sketches of the few somebodies and many more nobodies of rock who went out with a bang, or slowly faded away before Satan called in his contract.

"Along with sex, drugs, and haircuts, death has set the tone for rock 'n' roll since its earliest days," writes Pike in an introduction to the bizarre ironies his research uncovered. "Is there something about the trappings of rock 'n' roll--the drugs and alcohol, the obsessions of the fans, the life on the road--that is inherently fatal or dangerous? Or is it that those people attracted to rock 'n' roll already have a lifeline that peters out approximately at their middle finger, and are destined for early death no matter what their career choice?" In a nutshell, he says, the answer is yes and yes.

For the couple of years he was working on the project, Pike kept a notebook handy at all times and would jot down names of likely candidates as they came to him. When he started compiling the details, the facts didn't always match up with the choices in his head. "I was surprised about who was dead and who wasn't," the 38-year-old journalist told me. The angle intrigued him even more when he began uncovering legends that were alternately ludicrous and sublime.

"The hardest to write about were the ones like Elvis and Jim Morrison and Hendrix, because they've been written about to death, so to speak," said Pike. "The ones I liked best were the really weird stories." One of them is the ballad of the Singing Nun, whose benign popularity from the 1963 hit "Dominique" could hardly have foreshadowed the suicide pact that took her life and that of her lesbian lover in 1985. Or there's the mysterious case of the singer Sir Walter Scott, who had one hit with his band Bob Kuban and the In-Men in 1966. Seventeen years after "The Cheater" made the pop charts, Scott's wife and her lover murdered him execution-style and dumped his body in a cistern. "That's so great," said Pike. "I really got into that sorta sleazy pulp thing."

One of the more convoluted tales is the saga of country-pop singer Johnny Horton, whose death, Pike suggests, has the makings of genuine occult legend. "A lifelong believer in the dark forces," reads Pike's account, "Horton suffered premonitions of his own death early in 1960 and began to behave erratically, canceling engagements and refusing to fly anywhere." Horton, who was married to the widow of fellow early bucket kicker Hank Williams, was killed later that year in a head-on collision outside Austin, Texas. He was on his way home from a gig at the same club where Hank had played his last date on this side of the Pearly Gates.

The Death of Rock 'n' Roll is divided into free-form chapters that loosely group the deceased into genres, geographic areas, or periods. Interspersed between the irreverent titles ("Necro-Orleans," "The Motown Morgue," "Country Corpses," etc) are indexlike lists of names and causes of death (heroin overdose, brain tumor, organ failure, plane crash, hanging, etc). It's an amusing read that's meant to be browsed through or kept on hand as a reference for the next argument about who did or didn't choke on their own vomit.

"When you try to say profound things about rock 'n' roll you end up sounding ridiculous," admitted Pike. "But there are so many life-and-death things that are involved. People are just so deeply committed to it and talk about it in such profound terms." Sometimes too profound. Just ask Danny Rapp, leader of sock-hop kingpins Danny and the Juniors, whose two hits, "At the Hop" and "Rock 'n' Roll Is Here to Stay," were boppin' sensations in the late 50s. As an oldies lounge act 25 years later, Rapp wasn't so sure anymore when he sang the line, rock 'n' roll "will never die." Alone in a hotel room, he shot himself in the head.

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