This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
Ronni, the Web Mistress, recently sent me a book called The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars. It is subtitled Heroin, Handguns and Ham Sandwiches.
This column was inspired by that book and what an inspiration it is. Tasteless? This column is the very definition.
The first couple are of the “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded” category. The first of these is the late, great JOHNNY ACE.
Johnny was a proto-rock performer and soul singer. He was on a tour with Big Mama Thornton and they were playing in Houston on Christmas Eve in 1955. Johnny was a bit of a gun nut which freaked out the other musicians who asked him to put it away.
After saying the immortal words above he added, "See," as he put the gun to his head and BLAM. He had one hit in his lifetime and he really could have been a contender. This is that hit, Pledging My Love.
Another who liked his guns was TERRY KATH, the guitarist from the rock group Chicago.
Besides guitar, Terry played several other instruments and was one of the singers for the group. He eventually got heavily into booze and drugs.
One day he was imbibing at his roadie’s house and produced a revolver. It was clearly not loaded and he held it to his head and pulled the trigger several times as a joke.
Then he produced an automatic, removed the magazine and showed those present that it was empty. Terry then said exactly the same words as Johnny. However, it seems there was already a bullet in the chamber that he’d missed. The bullet didn’t though.
The song is from when the group was called Chicago Transit Authority. Apparently the organization with the same name objected to their using it and after the first album, they changed their name to the shorter version.
Here they are with I'm A Man. This’ll get your toes a’tapping.
JOHNNY BURNETTE was one of the original rock & rollers. He formed a trio with his older brother Dorsey and Paul Burlison.
Johnny may or may not have gone to school with Elvis - however, they lived in the same neighborhood and often got together to play music. Johnny remembered that Elvis was a good singer but, “He didn’t know but two or three chords on that guitar” was the way he summed up Elvis’s musical talent.
The music of the trio, called variously the Johnny Burnette Trio or the Rock and Roll Trio, was influential on many subsequent musicians. It was ahead of its time but not really recognized as such until later.
Johnny makes the grade today because one day he decided to go out fishing in a boat on Clear Lake, California. He didn’t switch on the lights on his boat and a larger cabin cruiser ran into him, unaware that he was there.
Here is that original trio with Tear It Up.
JOHN DENVER certainly had a thing about planes. Probably his biggest hit (for others rather than himself) involved a plane – Leaving on a Jet Plane. Peter Paul and Mary particularly come to mind as a great interpreter of that song.
John was an experienced pilot who owned and flew a Lear jet. He purchased a two-seater, fibre-glass, very light plane that had been modified. Modified a bit too much as it turns out as the controls were all in different places from where they should have been.
It seems that the switch for the reserve fuel tank was over his shoulder or somewhere silly like that. The previous owner had thought that was a good place for it. Or not, as he nearly killed himself as well.
John ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean. As it transpires, he'd had his pilot’s licence revoked and was serving a suspension for multiple drunk driving offences, so he shouldn’t have been up there that day.
As this is a rather tasteless column, I’ve decided to go along in that vein and use his song Fly Away to add further to the tastelessness. I believe that’s Olivia Newton-John adding the extra warbles.
CLAUDE FRANÇOIS was an Egyptian-born, French singer who was very successful in France but his appeal didn’t translate to the English speaking world.
He’s included in this category as one day, when he was taking a shower, he noticed that the light globe above the shower was on the blink. He decided to change the bulb - and you can see where I’m going with this - he didn’t turn off the shower while he was doing that.
Well, you can imagine what happened (or he wouldn’t be here in the column); electricity and water are not a good mixture when people are around. It rather raises a question in my mind: did he have a spare light globe with him when he took the shower? We’ll never know.
Before that, he once barely escaped an I.R.A. bombing at the hotel he was staying at in London (by seconds, apparently). Another time, a deranged fan shot at him in his home and another later burnt down his house (maybe the same one). He really was destined for this column.
One of his songs that was a massive hit in France but again, wasn’t heard much outside that country in its original incarnation, is Comme d'habitude. However, you may recognize it.
That familiar song of Claude’s was reworked by Paul Anka. He changed the lyrics and came up with My Way. You might have heard of that song. However, I wonder if this next version is familiar to you.
I didn’t think I’d play any music from folks who popped up after about 1973, but occasionally something strikes my interest and this is one of them.
I’ve always thought of the Sex Pistols as England’s version of The Monkees, only not as musically talented and with far fewer good songs. After all, they were put together by Malcolm McLaren, as The Monkees were by Don Kirshner.
The original bass player for the Pistols was Glen Matlock. For some reason, he was replaced by SID VICIOUS, known to his mum as John Ritchie. Sid couldn’t play bass (or any instrument) and Steve Jones, the guitarist for the group, overdubbed bass on all their records.
Sid was a nice quiet sort of lad who never got into any trouble and - sorry, wrong person.
He was an obnoxious piece of work who was a total waste of space on the planet and his death, due to a heroin overdose supplied by his mother, came none too soon. His mum supplied him with drugs! I could find no redeeming features about him at all (or his mum, if it comes to that).
His demise should have been earlier as he murdered his girl friend, Nancy Spungen, stabbing her many times, he claimed, in a drug-induced stupor. For some reason he was released on bail and it was then that he met his demise.
Given all that, you may wonder why I’m featuring him, besides the obvious fit for the column. It’s because he recorded the best ever version of the song, My Way. I know that pretty much all the readers today will disagree with me, but that’s okay.
GRAM PARSONS is in here not because of the way he died which was the usual sordid tale of overdose of drugs and alcohol. He’s here because of the immediate aftermath of his demise.
Gram wasn’t like all the other rock & roll kiddies in the sixties; he was from a rich family and he had a very significant trust fund behind him. Alas, he carried on the family tradition of indulging in alcohol and drugs – he could afford the best.
Towards the end of his life, Gram said to his fellow band mate from The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, Chris Hillman, and his roadie Phil Kaufman, that when he died he’d like to be cremated at Joshua Tree in California.
It seems that Phil took him seriously because after Gram died and his body was due to be flown back to New Orleans, Phil stole the body from L.A. airport with some (only vaguely semi-) official looking papers.
He drove it in a hearse to Joshua Tree and set fire to it, with a bit of help from some lighter fluid and petrol he picked up on the way. What remained of Gram was eventually buried in the family plot in New Orleans after this ruse had been discovered.
An appropriate song from Gram is surely In My Hour of Darkness with the marvellous Emmylou Harris supplying backup vocals.
Let’s say that you’re quite a famous musical performer and it’s coming up for your birthday. You think that it’d be rather nice to go home and celebrate with your family.
You don’t have to be a famous musician to realise that this could be quite a good idea - after all, what could possibly go wrong?
Well, what could go wrong is while you’re having a good time there in the bosom of your family, your father whips out a gun and shoots you. Dead. For no apparent reason that I can discern. With the very gun you gave him for self protection.
You might think that this is a bit far fetched but that’s what happened to MARVIN GAYE.
Okay, it seems they weren’t having a really good time but shooting your son is a bit extreme in my book. Marvin sings One More Heartache.
To my mind, anyone who rides a motorbike is automatically penciled in this column, particularly if they are young. I now have some whose names appear not merely in pencil but in indelible ink. The first two of these are DUANE ALLMAN and BERRY OAKLEY.
Duane was the lead guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band and Berry was their bass player. Duane was not only one of the guitarists for the band he was a much in demand session musician having played with Eric Clapton (that’s his slide guitar work on Layla), Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and many others.
Duane liked to ride his motorbike fast, too fast really. One day he was approaching an intersection and there was a truck crossing in front of him. Normally he could have avoided it as he was quite a skilled rider.
However, the camber on the road was rather unusual and he went skidding into the truck and then further on down the road, losing his helmet in the meantime (at least he was wearing one). He was rushed to hospital but died during surgery.
In an interesting coincidence Berry, almost exactly a year later in almost exactly the same spot (note the “almost” conspiracy lovers), approached an intersection with the same outcome. In his case it was a bus and his bike landed on top of him.
Incidentally, if someone offers you a job playing bass with the Allmans I’d think about it long and hard. Lamar Williams, who replaced Berry on bass in the band, died young of cancer almost certainly caused by exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam.
Later, Allen Woody (interesting name) suffered a heart attack while still in his forties. Oteil Burbridge, their current bass player, may possibly be looking over his shoulder (and not riding motorbikes). David Goldflies, between Lamar and Allen, managed to escape alive.
Here are the Allman Brothers Band when both Duane and Berry were still with them and the unmistakably distinctive Allman’s sound, Blue Sky.
Another who was keen on motorbikes was RICHARD FARIÑA.
Richard was a poet, songwriter, playwright, singer and author. One day after attending the launch of his book, he returned home celebrate the 21st birthday of his wife Mimi (Baez, sister of Joan and a fine singer in her own right).
Sometime during the party, Richard and another friend decided to go out riding along the winding roads around Carmel, apparently at speeds in excess of 100 mph. I needn’t go on.
Mimi died of neuroendocrine cancer in 2001.
Richard and Mimi usually performed and recorded with acoustic instruments but here they are in unusual territory with a full tilt rock band with a song called Reno Nevada.
Jeff Buckley really should be mentioned. He was recording his second album in New Orleans and late one night, after completing recording, he decided it would be a good idea to go for a swim in the Mississippi.
Anyone who has been to New Orleans, of which I’m one, would know that even in the middle of the day, even if you were a champion swimmer, this would be a monumentally stupid idea. What could go wrong did of course. I’m not playing anything from Jeff because I don’t have any of his music.