The Avalanche of Rock 'n' Roll Death

Posted December 26, 2017 5:41 p.m. EST
Updated December 26, 2017 6:22 p.m. EST

Andre Calilhanna, like countless youths before him, fell hard for rock ‘n’ roll. It was the early 1980s in suburban Maryland and his parents were Middle-Eastern immigrants who enjoyed classical music and had barely heard of Elvis Presley. Seeing Styx live at the Capital Centre, or drumming in high school bands, Calilhanna felt part of a vital American culture.

Three and a half decades later, rock is an aging genre with elderly practitioners. Dozens of his favorite rock stars have died. “With every passing year, it feels like the base of the pyramid that is my life in music is falling out from under me,” Calilhanna, now 50, wrote recently in a tribute to Tom Petty.

Eulogizing musicians has practically become a full-time second job for Calilhanna, who is the blog manager and editor for Disc Makers, which provides CD manufacturing and other services for independent artists. Since 2013, he has compiled a yearly record, noting each heavy-metal guitarist felled by dementia and ‘60s-era keyboardist lost to bile-duct cancer.

His 2017 list (so far!) numbers 33 musicians and industry icons, including Chuck Berry, Al Jarreau and Malcolm Young — plus 19 more whose obituaries he has not had time to write. And the death toll grows weekly.

“I sent an email out this morning and people wrote back, ‘Looks like we lost another one,'” Calilhanna said.

In the past few years, a staggering number of musicians have gone to the great gig in the sky. Bill Flanagan, the author and Sirius Radio host, described it as “an avalanche of death.” For some, it began with David Bowie, in January 2016. Before that year ended, so did the lives of Glenn Frey of the Eagles; Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire; producer and “fifth Beatle” George Martin; Merle Haggard; Leonard Cohen; Leon Russell; Billy Paul; and Sharon Jones, to name but a few.

Two founding members of Jefferson Airplane — Signe Anderson and Paul Kantner — expired on the same January day. Perhaps most shocking were the premature deaths of Prince, who at 57 still looked princely, and George Michael, who was found dead at home on Christmas Day at 53.

Flanagan backdates his period of constant mourning to 2013, when Lou Reed died at 71. “That was a kick in the head,” he said. “It seems like the kicks in the head have continued since then.”

This year’s bruisings include James Cotton, J. Geils, Chris Cornell, Gregg Allman, Chester Bennington, Glen Campbell, Walter Becker, Gord Downie and David Cassidy, though that is by no means comprehensive and the year is not quite over.

Several performers have appeared vital and present, only to drop dead. In September, Petty completed a triumphant summer tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of his group, the Heartbreakers. A week later, he suffered cardiac arrest at home and was medically unresponsive, then gone.

When Flanagan taped a tribute for CBS Sunday Morning, he was visibly stunned as he began, “I cannot believe I am doing a eulogy for Tom Petty.”

“Everyone’s reaction was: ‘I saw him last week! I saw him last month!'” said Flanagan, who knew the singer personally for 30 years. “The other thing is, he was an MTV-era star, so he seemed to be of the younger generation. And he never went away, he was always doing something new. This guy we counted on to be around.”

That Petty would not be around forever seems an obvious point. Sixty-six-year-old men with poor lifestyle habits die of heart attacks every day. They just are not the guy who sang “I Won’t Back Down.”

But at this point, as a middle-aged rock fan, with hip-hop and R&B having surpassed the form in popularity, you would have to be dead yourself not to consider the fading of the culture, and along with it, your own youth. Fifty years after the Summer of Love, we have entered the Winter of Ulcerative Colitis.

“As these canonical figures go, there’s a sense of ‘There goes my childhood, my youth, my early years,'” Flanagan said. “It’s hard. It takes a bit out of you.”

We rock fans have our grief rituals: Watching old concert and interview clips on YouTube. Going to Apple iTunes to download an artist’s back catalog. Holding an on-air wake so callers can share stories of how the music touched their life, like the ones Flanagan co-hosted on the Tom Petty Radio channel on SiriusXM, in the hours and days following the singer’s death.

The mourning is formalized at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland. “Given the frequency in the last few years, we have a protocol,” said Greg Harris, the museum’s president and chief executive.

When an inductee passes, Harris said, “we play their music all day in the museum and we lower the flags on the plaza,” as though saluting a fallen head of state. The museum also pulls from its archive related memorabilia to put on exhibit. “Right now, we have an amazing Rickenbacker guitar that belonged to Tom Petty,” Harris said.

And what about the musicians themselves, the ones who lived it and are still out there truckin’, if with balding tires?

Last year, drummer Carl Palmer lost his former bandmates Keith Emerson (self-inflicted gunshot wound) and Greg Lake (cancer) within months of each other, leaving him the only surviving member of the ‘70s progressive rock trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer. There is no ELP, without the E and L.

“Suddenly, the whole pack of cards is gone,” Palmer said. “How do you get over that? You don’t actually get over that.”

For Palmer, who also lost his good friend and former Asia bandmate, John Wetton, to cancer earlier this year, all the funerals in such a short span have strengthened his resolve to keep playing music (he is healthy at 67 and still touring), and to not go out as a rock ‘n’ roll cliché.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘I don’t want to die of a heart attack in a hotel room,'” he said. “It’s sad. Especially if it’s not a five-star hotel.”

When he recently finished putting together a new ELP box set, and the finality of the group’s life was made clear, Palmer realized something that rock fans might tell themselves to ease the bummer.

“All you’ve got is memories of the music,” he said. “Which is all you ever had anyway.”

If that does not provide solace, consider another truism of rock ‘n’ roll and life: Keith Richards will outlive everyone.