OFFBEAT: The days the music died

Michael Jackson's death is part of a long, sad story in rock and roll. Don't get too attached to your favorite musician, because he'
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010

Michael Jackson's death is part of a long, sad story in rock and roll. Don't get too attached to your favorite musician, because he'll probably die young.

You can tell something about a person by asking which pop star's sudden death affected him the most.

For many people in my parents' generation, it's Elvis Presley, the original rock star.

Elvis was only 42 when he died Aug. 16, 1977. (Michael Jackson was 50.) The young reporters I work with probably cannot imagine how big Elvis was. There was no Internet and little cable TV when Elvis died, but I remember plenty of hoopla.

My mother was not a fan. She remembers telling my dad during the 1950s to come quick, and see the "hoodlum" who was appearing on TV.

Many other people did not feel the same way. When former Beatle John Lennon was interviewed in the early 1970s, he talked about how much he loved Elvis. When the interviewer asked if Lennon liked anyone contemporary, Lennon shot back, "Is he dead?" Many people have recorded Bob Dylan's songs, but Dylan's favorite cover was Elvis' version of "Tomorrow Is a Long Time." Dylan said, "Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail."

John Lennon's death shocked me the most.

I am a huge Beatles fan, to the point where I've repeatedly bought their often-shoddy solo albums, and I was very upset when John Lennon was gunned down on Dec. 8, 1980. I found out when Howard Cosell abruptly announced it during a "Monday Night Football" game I was watching. Friends called me long distance to discuss it.

Lennon was only 40, still making good music. Thinking about the songs he might have written boggles my mind.

The most upsetting experience for my wife, Ann, was when her favorite singer, John Denver, 53, crashed his plane off the California coast in 1997.

When my wife was in college, she and a friend traveled to Aspen, Colo. They were there to visit a relative of Ann's but were well aware Denver lived there, and made a joke of looking for him: "Look, there's John Denver!"

One day, it really was him. When the pair asked for a photograph, Denver obligingly posed, one arm around each girl, as a friend of Denver's snapped a picture. A framed photo now sits in our guest bedroom.

What is it about rock music, anyway? Can't anybody stick around?

And should musicians be allowed to board airplanes? Buddy Holly (whose band, The Crickets, inspired the band name The Beatles) was only 22 when he died in a plane crash in 1959. Otis Redding was 26 when he died in a plane crash the day after appearing on TV in Cleveland. Blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan died in a helicopter crash in 1990. And then there's Jim Croce, Ricky Nelson, Ronnie Van Zant, Patsy Cline ...

Is there a major band or major style of rock music that isn't associated with premature death? Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones -- he actually had formed the band -- was found at the bottom of a swimming pool. Jimi Hendrix might have kept on changing music if he hadn't died in 1970.

Multiply the names you recognize 10 or 20 times to gain some idea of what's happened to music.

The Gin Blossoms, an alternative rock band, made one really good album, "New Miserable Experience." The possibility of making another one just as good evaporated forever when the band's best songwriter, Doug Hopkins, fired from the band for alcoholism, committed suicide.