The Cult of Celebrity Death

"Too fast to live; too young to die - my, my!"
The Eagles

This past month or so has been brutal for celebrity deaths, particularly in the world of rock and roll. The tribute reel at the next Grammy awards is going to be lengthy and maudlin. In short order, we've lost Lemmy Kilmeister, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey and Paul Kantner. They were all artists of great talent who contributed to the world of entertainment and I am going to begin this little essay by saying some unpleasant things.

We make WAY too much of their deaths. Their contributions have been enormous but those contributions are still here. We didn't know them personally and the simple truth is their absence isn't really going to leave that much of a hole in our lives. You can still pop in a Motorhead CD or run your DVD of the Harry Potter series. Death doesn't revoke your ability to play a recording.

On top of that, it isn't like death took Gandhi away from us, yet again. Lemmy was a drunken womanizer, Bowie was apparently a major asshole to work for, and if you ever watched the documentary 'The History of the Eagles' you probably cringed at those scenes where Glenn Frey was vocally abusing Don Felder for the unpardonable sin of not knowing who Alan Cranston was.

I'd reveal something bad about Alan Rickman if I could find it. Apparently he was a rather decent human being.

Anyway, I've already heard the Sirius XM DJs tell us that these famous artists were taken from us too soon. But let's be frank - for someone who lived a rock and roll lifestyle, passing on in your 60s or 70s isn't really a shockingly early demise, is it? I mean we can't all be Keith Richards.

You want artists taken away too soon? Think about Buddy Holly who left us at age 22 after only three albums recorded over two years - and managed to produce over a dozen hit singles in that time. Being taken too soon applies to John Lennon, gunned down by a madman shortly after finishing what might be the greatest record of his career. Otis Redding had just recorded his first number one hit when he left us at age 26.

In my mind, 'too soon' even applies to the great Roy Orbison who left us at 52. His career was in resurgence on the wake of his 'Black and White Night' concert disc and the album 'Mystery Girl'. The 'Traveling Wilburys' project combined Orbison with the legendary names of Harrison, Dylan, Lynne, and Petty in a legendary pair of discs. Arguably the greatest voice in rock and roll history, I actually shed tears when I heard the news of his passing in 1988.

In retrospect, that's kind of silly. I never met Roy, apparently a really nice guy, and I still have a lot of his music available to me. I can even dig up his movie, 'The Fastest Guitar Alive' on YouTube. So why was his death particularly meaningful to me? It shouldn't be. He was a musician and a very talented one who produced some of the grandest, most melodramatic rock ballads of all time, but the man himself … I never knew him.

We benchmark our lives with the works of the famous and when they are gone, we are covered by waves of nostalgia as we force ourselves to relive those moments. This is a gift they leave behind when they pass, these celebrity icons. And we have every right to cherish them. To be honest, I'm not sure we have the right to mourn, even though we do. In truth, we don't know these people - we know their works. The artist died but the works live on and we are perfectly capable of enjoying them just as we always have.

And we eulogize them all the same. Even I.

Lemmy Kilmeister is the least known of the bunch, but to metalheads, he is a legend. The bass player, vocalist, and founder of the metal band, Motorhead, he was known as just Lemmy. You didn't need the last name. He was the only Lemmy ever - the only one we needed. Motorhead had a lot of songs but really just one well-known hit; the speed metal classic 'Ace of Spades'. He was rumored to be a hard-drinking, womanizing epitome of the rock and roll lifestyle. But those who worked with him and knew him swear he was a nice guy - a very good person to know.

He began his rock and roll career as a roadie and famously worked for Keith Emerson and the Nice. Lemmy once loaned Emerson a dagger that was used onstage to wedge down the keys of Emerson's Hammond L-122 organ during some of the keyboard player's theatrics.

I could write pages about David Bowie's career. When PBS created a documentary on the history of rock and roll, they devoted an entire episode to Bowie and enthusiastically branded him the most influential musician of the century. Overstated or not, there is no question that Bowie was a pioneer in the world of theatrical rock and glam. One of his fellow pioneers, Alice Cooper, eulogized him as a friend and rival, insisting they pushed each other to great lengths onstage.

In the late 70s and 80s, every glam, glittler, and hair-metal band owed Bowie a debt for making it acceptable to go onstage in lycra, eye-liner, and hairspray. Without Bowie, KISS was not possible. Twisted Sister could never have happened. The list is endless - Bowie made it exist. As a songwriter he was amazing. He has been covered by many; some of them arguably as famous as he is - and the covers never exceeded the originals.

I first saw Alan Rickman, like many Americans, in the movie 'Die Hard' as the terrorist villain, Hans Gruber. Today, a new generation of fans adore Rickman primarily for his appearance in the Harry Potter films. Personally, one of my favorite performances for Rickman was in the comedy classic, 'GalaxyQuest'. Rickman was brilliantly depressed and over the top at the same time.

But my absolute favorite performance of his was in a little-known film called 'Closet Land' in which he co-starred with Madeline Stowe. It was a dystopian political work about a children's author (Stowe) who is accused by the state of writing subversive literature and is systematically tortured, mentally and physically, to elicit a confession. Rickman plays the Interrogator and his performance in the film is brilliant.

And it is a damned hard film to find. The film itself - the story and the direction - were severely criticized and it was a commercial failure. But the critics praised the performances of the two cast members and Rickman, especially, did not disappoint.

And if you would prefer to remember him as Severus Snape, that's fine by me.

I suppose Glenn Frey's death is truly the end for the Eagles. They've lost members before and found replacements that were more than adequate. But let's be honest: you can only steal so many bass-playing tenors from Poco before the well runs dry. And when the death is one half of your guitars, one third of your vocals, and a major percentage of your songwriting, there's probably no way to recover.

The Eagles emerged from Linda Ronstadt's shadow as champions of the Southern California fusion of country and rock. They were contemporaries in the movement with Jackson Browne, John David Souther, and Neil Young but they soon established themselves as unique. That uniqueness was born on the strength of powerful vocal harmonies and extremely catchy songs written largely by Frey and his buddy, Don Henley.

As the band evolved, they moved gradually away from a country sound to more solidly rock-based which alienated founding member, Bernie Leadon. When Leadon left, many thought the Eagles were done but they rebounded stronger than ever with 'Hotel California'. Leadon's country guitar work was replaced with the solid rock foundation of Joe Walsh and the songwriting team of Henley and Frey produced some of their most iconic work. The band was at their peak of popularity when bassist Randy Meisner just got tired of touring and performing the same songs every night.

Meisner had been the bassist and a singer with Poco, one of the most beloved of all country-rock bands. When he left the Eagles, Frey and Henley quickly plundered Poco once again, luring their current bassist, Timothy B. Schmidt, to join the Eagles for 'The Long Run.' Once again, Frey and Henley produced some truly outstanding songs, augmented by vocal performances from Schmidt and Walsh, but by now, the band was tired. Both Henley and Frey felt the need to move on and do some solo work and even dabble in acting. Henley famously said the band would perform again "when hell freezes over."

Hell officially froze over in 1994 when the last iteration of the Eagles re-united. They were accused by many of making a cash grab, but there was no doubting their popularity. They wrote and released some new songs, but nothing that ever approached the popularity of their peak in the late 70s. And while the band managed to replace a couple of iconic members over the years, Frey and Henley were the constants and both must be regarded as irreplaceable. When they wanted to tour, the band toured. When they were off on solo projects, the band was on hiatus. With Glenn Frey gone, I think the Eagles are now officially retired.

Paul Kantner was one of the founding members of Jefferson Airplane along with vocalist Marty Balin. They were pioneers of the San Francisco hippie movement in rock along with their friends in the Grateful Dead. Jefferson Airplane headlined several of the greatest festivals of the late 60s and were the flagship band of the psychedelic rock movement.

In time, the band morphed into the more commercial Jefferson Starship and eventually just Starship. Paul Kantner remained with the band throughout and continued to be one of the primary sources of songwriting as well as his instrumental work. That generation of late-60s American rock performers is quick to recognize Kantner's influence as both a performer and songwriter. He had a profound impact on the American rock scene.

I know a lot of people are going to spend a lot of time telling us how much we've lost with the passing of these men. Personally, I think we should spend our time celebrating how much we've been left to enjoy as a result of their lives and their creative work.

And while I know this is not a politically correct thing to say, I'd trade them all to get back Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Otis Redding, and James Dean. Those guys were truly taken too soon.