I recently picked up what I suppose could be called an artifact. The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll is a book, written by friend-of-this-blog Jeff Pike, that was published in 1993. The lengthy subtitle suggests where the book is headed: “Untimely Demises, Morbid Preoccupations, and Premature Forecasts of Doom in Pop Music”.
The date of publication is important, because the book marks a specific point in time, and reflects one writer’s sense of what rock ‘n’ roll meant then. (In this, it is similar to Greil Marcus’ anthology, Stranded, which gave a chance for some of the top critics of 1979 to choose a desert island album. Stranded is a fun book, but those writers who are still living would likely write about something entirely different in 2013, and the choice of writers would be different as well.) While much of The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll addresses past history, the perspective is always 1993, and this is interesting, a version of original source material … he’s not writing about 1993 with the knowledge of the past twenty years, he’s writing in the 1993 present.
I confess, I never quite understood the overarching theme of Death. There was/is a good essay about the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll and its eventual passing, and such an essay could be constructed from parts of this book. But for the most part, Death just seemed like an excuse to write about rock ‘n’ roll.
Whatever inspired the book, I’m just happy with the result. Pike is a terrific and insightful writer, and throughout I found myself reconsidering old chestnuts. The book’s structure includes short essays on various topics, from “Hellhound on His Trail” to “I Wanna Destroy”, usually accompanied by a series of paragraphs telling the stories of artists related to the chapter’s topic who had died. So, for instance, after a standalone chapter on “The Big Elvis”, we get a chapter titled “Little Elvis Deaths” that goes directly from a brief opener to a set of paragraphs on Bill Black, Roy Brown, “Big Boy” Crudup, Ral Donner, Wynonie Harris, Mario Lanza, Little Junior Parker, Jay B. Perkins, Webb Pierce, Doc Pomus, Gladys Presley, Vernon Presley, and “Big Mama” Thornton. You can learn a lot about Elvis and his influences just by staring at that list, and Pike’s comments are enlightening and fun to read:
Mario Lanza, died October 7, 1959, age 38
Opera singer, born Alfred Arnold Cocozza; from Philadelphia. Lanza, an opera singer, scored a series of pop hits in the early fifties (with titles like “Be My Love” and “Vesti la Giubba”) that evidently caught the ear of a youthful Elvis, or perhaps it was Colonel Tom Parker. In any event, in 1960, following his discharge from the army and with the determination to win favor as an adult entertainer, Elvis tackled the Lanza-like milestone “It’s Now or Never” – adapted from am 1899 Italian opera song “O Sole Mio.” It was overpuffed if enjoyable tripe (pure Elvis, after a fashion). It worked, for the most part. The song went to number 1 for five weeks and the teens he’d won earlier stayed with him as adults. By then, Lanza had died in Rome of a heart attack, blamed partly on his penchant (reminiscent of Elvis) for rapidly gaining and losing weight.
It’s a book worthy of at least one cover-to-cover read, but it’s also the kind of book you’ll pick up at random and jump back and forth, grabbing at this or that morsel. (If I’d bought this book in 1993, it would probably be marking its 20th anniversary as a book that rests in the bathroom, which is the highest possible compliment … after all, I usually have two or three Kael books in that same place in the house.) You never quite know what you’ll find … his comment on Flipper, in a paragraph about Will Shatter (“How anyone ever left their shows alive is not known”) is amusing to me, who did indeed see Flipper and lived to tell the tale, but my wife might have a different take, having also seen Flipper but wishing she’d been dead while the band was on stage.
The finest praise I can give for The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll is that I wished there was an updated version. I wanted to read about all the rock-n-rollers who have died over the past twenty years, I wanted to see what Pike might change from the original text … basically, I wanted to read more from this author. This being 2013, there is a substitute of sorts, to be found on his blog, “Can’t Explain”. Meanwhile, if you ever come across a used copy of The Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll, grab it.