Mike Jahn


 

I knew a lot of currently dead rock stars

 

This year marks the 46th anniversary of my becoming the first full-time reporter/photographer covering the rock beat at The New York Times and, as such, the first full-time rock journalist of any major American newspaper or other form of major media. It was a dirty job -- forget Mike Rowe's sewers, septic tanks and oil spills -- but someone had to do it. Why was it dirty and depressing? Because I've known and loved and praised, hated and insulted, been insulted by, run into, run from, abused substances, had my ears assaulted, or otherwise invaded the private spaces of a lot of rock stars who have since become deceased, ceased to be, rung down the curtain, kicked the bucket, croaked, shuffled off this mortal coil, or in one way or another joined the choir invisible. 

I also learned that the ability to manipulate six wires is no guarantor of intelligence.

The number of dead rockers -- some of them good and talented people -- of my acquaintance stands at 44. A few are important music insiders. This year there are three additions who died in 2014. This year I’ve added expanded commentary and another yarn.

It's tempting to think that drugs were behind most of these abrupt departures. However, in many cases death came via largely unrelated medical problems -- heart attacks, strokes, or cancer, mainly. A number did die of overdoses of either drugs or alcohol, sometimes both. Others succumbed to crashes by aircraft, cars, and one by skiing into a tree. There was one fatal infection (I expected more). There also were murders and one suicide, possibly to avoid death by any of the aforementioned. 

If you're adding up and tracking deaths per band, we’re talking about three-fifths each of Canned Heat and MC5, half each of the Doors and Who, one-third of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Peter, Paul & Mary, and a quarter of the Beatles.

They were rockers who died, died. Here's the list, 2014 update.

SPIRITS OF ROCK STARS PASSED [sic]

Hoyt Axton -- folk and country singer and son of the co-author of “Heartbreak Hotel.” His own writing included “Joy to the World,” the worldwide hit by Three Dog Night which became the theme of “The Big Chill,” the movie that chillingly summed up my grad school experience and the years thereafter. (You’ll simply have to guess which one of them I was.) Of Three Dog Night, Hoyt dropped a couple of tidbits on me. Both concern their renditions of his song “Never Been to Spain.” They objected to using the line “but I kinda like the Beatles” because they considered themselves competitive with the latter. But they sang it. However, they changed his line “in Oklahoma, born in a coma” to “in Oklahoma, not Arizona.” Considering the political climate in Arizona lately, I’ll take the coma. He died of a heart attack in Victor, Montana, on October 26, 1999, two years after his mother drowned in a hot tub in Tennessee.

Steve Baron. Folk/rock/fusion singer, songwriter, guitarist, fixture on the national coffee house circuit for years, and a good friend. Of non-AIDS-related Hepatitis C, perhaps acquired at the Nashville hospital where he had a second career as a nurse after giving up his music career and burning his masters. Died March 2002. 

 

Steve was one of those talented people who never made it despite being promoted relentlessly by several heavy hitters ... friends Pete Townshend, Dennis Wholey, and, ahem, me. Pete talked him up and made the Steve Baron Quartet the opening act one the Who's arena tours. Dennis is a veteran TV talk show host, interviewer of presidents and prime ministers (currently on his syndicated PBS show "This is America & The World with Dennis Wholey" out of Washington), and best-selling author. I was ... well, you know. Steve and Dennis were two of the perpetrators of the late-sixties novelty hit record "'Wild Thing' with Senator Bobby.

 

Another of the weisenheimers behind "'Wild Thing' with Senator Bobby" was Chip Taylor, the pseudonym of the man who wrote "Wild Thing" and went on to sire many hits and who's brother,  Jon Voight, went on to sire Angelina Jolie.

 

On a follow up album, “Wilder Things,” Steve voiced Bob Dylan singing "White Christmas," anticipating Dylan's distressing mainstream shift by quite a few years. Steve recorded several albums of his original songs in the 70s and 80s, but none went anywhere.

 

Legendary in the annals of rock and roll in general and the Fillmore East in particular was the night of May 16, 1969. A small fire broke out in the adjacent building, calling for the evacuation of the Fillmore East in the middle of the Who's set. A fire marshall walked out on stage to tell the audience to leave. Pete thought he was a random lunatic and threw him off the stage. A few hours later I get this call in the middle of the night. It was Steve, saying "Pete's here. He threw a fire marshall off the stage and the cops are looking for him. What should I do?" I replied "keep him there until his lawyer can get there, but if you're worried you can bring him over here," which was three blocks away. I was, after all, with The New York Times, and if you can't rely on The New York Times to harbor a fugitive, what can you rely on it for? (Think Daniel Ellsberg, who was harbored, at least metaphorically, two years later.) Anyway, a lawyer was procured and the mess was straightened out. Pete apologized. 

 

In the 90s Steve wrote a pop R&B song and produced a demo CD. He got it to me, and I got it to my son, a record company guy who got it to Whitney Houston’s A&R man, who called it “a well-constructed song” but passed on it. Somewhat earlier Steve sang the demo of "For a Little While," a classic folk-country road song I wrote on my six-string. It's around here someplace. I'll be glad to play the tape for you. All you need is a reel-to-reel tape deck. Miss you, Steve. Dennis told me you were a wonderful nurse much loved by the colleagues and patients at the Nashville hospital where you eventually died.  

 

Sid Bernstein -- August 21, 2013, at age 95. Sid was the soft-spoken concert promoter who brought the Beatles to the U.S. in 1964, where among other things they packed Shea Stadium and made me terrified of the power of massed 14-year-old girls on a mission. Of a shadowy figure moving about a dugout in the pre-concert terror, “That’s George! Only George stands up like that!” I  last saw Sid in Zabar’s. Well, what would you expect?

 

Sonny Bono -- of skiing into a tree, January 5, 1998. Interesting man with extraordinary taste in women. You’d have to chat with her to fully understand that. 

Harry Chapin -- in a car accident July 16, 1981. Harry was one of life’s really good people, and I don’t say that simply because he was grateful enough for my career-launching review to put me on his Christmas card list and invite me to his wedding.

Jim Croce -- in a plane crash September 20, 1973.

Michael Davis -- played bass for MC5. Died February 17, 2012, of liver failure. Notes Wikipedia, "Sometime in the mid-1970s, Davis spent time in Kentucky's Lexington Federal Prison on a drug charge, where he was unexpectedly reunited with  [MC5 guitarist] Wayne Kramer." God, I love rock and roll.

John Denver -- in a plane crash October 12, 1997. Cooler than he has been painted. 

John Entwistle of the Who, and the only one of them who was capable of standing still -- June 28, 2002 of a heart attack also involving cocaine and a prostitute. In Vegas, naturally.

Steve Ferguson of NRBQ. He was the guitarist and the best. And is credited with their eclecticism, which included rockabilly and experimental jazz. I was an unabashed NRBQ fanboy in their late 60s years, wrote them up as often as I could, and dragged Clive Davis to see them, which got them their first recording contract. Then I dragged Hendrix to see them and they goofed on him. He threatened to throw a table at them, then walked out, shaking his head. That was the last time I saw him. I lost interest in the band thereafter. Steve left in 1970. He died of cancer, October 7, 2009. 

Rory Gallagher -- Irish blues rocker, died June 1995, of complications of a liver transplant. I should have gone with him that night backstage at the Rod Stewart and Faces show in Anaheim when he said "come have a jar" and beckoned me toward his dressing room. But I had just had a jar with Rod and the boys during the ride from L.A.

Jerry Garcia -- died August 9, 1995 of a heroin-related heart attack doubtlessly aggravated by his lifelong taste for junk food.

Bill Graham -- legendary concert promoter and foul-mouthed pain in the ass. We had a rocky relationship but eventually made up. He died October 25, 1991, of a helicopter crash while returning from a Huey Lewis and the News concert. 

Tim Hauser -- founder of the beloved jazz/fusion vocal quartet Manhattan Transfer, of cardiac arrest in his sleep at a hospital in Sayre, Pennsylvania on October 16, 2014. Their cover of "Java Jive" is one of those tunes that stays forever in your head. I lost touch with him after the first few years; he remained a respected advocate for vocal music. The band is still out there with a new lineup. Catch them if you can. Catch also Erin Dickens Geyelin, one of the original members of Manhattan Transfer, now a wonderful jazz singer.

Richie Havens -- died April 22, 2013, of a heart attack at age 72. He was rock’s giant (6’5”) spiritual icon, supporter of childrens’ and environmental causes, and the man universally recognized for opening Woodstock by singing for three straight hours while the immense and restive audience waited for the rest of the acts to get there. His ashes were scattered from a small plane over the site of the 1969 festival. 

 

Richie was my first rock interview, published in ’66 or ’67 in the East Village Other, which titled it “On Earth as It Is in Richie Havens,” such was the aura he projected. We hung out a bit. He showed me his paintings, which he kept in a pile atop the fridge. He got me into Slug’s, a blacks-only jazz club in Alphabet City, to see Sun Ra. He told me about his teeth, which he lost to speed as a young man growing up in Brooklyn. While his denture was being made he used something like a hockey teeth protector, one reason that this basically happy guy never smiled for his early promo pics. The teeth protector and the eventual denture gave him a slight lisp that you can hear in his early recordings. 

 

Being of NBA height, he had huge hands and long fingers that, I think, dictated his choice of open tuning on his guitar. It involves the ability lay a finger atop all six strings while using the thumb to sneak around the neck and hold down a couple of the bass strings. If you think that’s easy ...

 

The open tuning also allowed his signature sound, which was to strum faster than any other known human. I jokingly attributed that to the speed, but I was probably wrong.

 

Havens was a War Baby like me, having parents who dealt with raising kids in the Depression. In consequence thereof, he was, at least when I knew him, frugal. When he started to make it and the cash began coming in, he opened savings accounts at 10 or 12 banks around Manhattan, depositing $15,000 in each. At the time that was the amount to which the FDIC would protect your deposit. 

 

Richie was a wonderful man, but one who never quite got over the Summer of Love if that bothers you. But he made one think that maybe, just maybe, “love one another” was a pretty good way to live. 

 

Since his death a lot has been written about his Woodstock performance and his versions of “Freedom,” “Handsome Johnny,” and the other better known recordings. I think instead of his slowed-down “San Francisco Bay Blues,” which stands alongside Streisand’s take on “Happy Days Are Here Again” as being a majestic way to re-imagine a song. It occupies a prominent place on my iPod.

 

Jimi Hendrix -- died September 18, 1970, of a drug overdose. He would be humiliated by his surviving family's messy fight over his estate.

Bob Hite -- six-foot, 300-pound singer for Canned Heat, died of a heart attack April 5, 1981. He proclaimed me “a freak” at a time when it was considered high praise. See “When Canned Heat Plied the New York Times With Weed,” elsewhere on this site.

Janis Joplin -- died of a heroin overdose October 4, 1970. That'll learn her for snarling at me. See “That night I was in England making a ham sandwich for Mama Cass,” also elsewhere in this blog.

Don Kirshner -- pioneer assembler of boy bands, famously the Monkees. Of a heart attack January 17, 1991, in Boca Raton, Fla. Should have known it was bad karma to live in a place whose name translates as "mouse mouth."

Ronnie Lane -- of the Faces and Rod Stewart and Faces; died June 5, 1997, of multiple sclerosis. No doubt he had a jar with Rory Gallagher, who opened for Rod in a 1974 tour.

Jerry Leiber, August 23, 2011, of cardiopulmonary failure. Do I really  have to explain who Leiber and Stoller were? Let me just say “Hound Dog,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me,” “On Broadway,” "Spanish Harlem" and on and on. Of their songwriting partnership, Leiber said "I yelled, he played." They did it for me once, using an old upright piano, at the Brill Building, which also needs no explanation. That private performance was one of the most wonderful rock and roll moments I ever had.

John Lennon -- murdered on December 8, 1980, outside his apartment building, New York's 19th century landmark the Dakota, which also was the setting for "Rosemary's Baby." He would have enjoyed the subsequent deification. See “‘The New York Times’ Writes About Me” elsewhere on this site. 

Ray Manzarek -- the Doors’ wooden keyboardman, of bile duct cancer, May 20, 2013. In an interview he compared himself to Miles Davis. Well, he played some of the same notes. It has been pointed out to me that I use some of the same words as James Joyce.

Linda McCartney -- one-time photographer (I bought some photos of Jim Morrison from her)  -- and part-time, sort-of backup singer; I first saw her getting into the elevator at Andy Warhol's Factory. This was a year or two before she told Lillian Roxon she was moving to London with the intention of marrying a Beatle, any Beatle, and snagged the prize. She died April 17, 1998, of breast cancer.

Keith Moon -- the Who's wild man drummer; drowned in his own vomit following a drug overdose on September 7, 1978, surprising no one.

Jim Morrison -- died July 3, 1971, by one account of a heroin overdose and choking on upchucked sweet and sour pork, surprising even fewer than were later surprised by Keith Moon. He would have enjoyed the postmortem idolatry, especially since current cultists are building a religion around him.

Scott Muni -- legendary New York DJ and early pioneer of progressive rock radio. I fogive him for standing in the control room and making rude gestures at me while I was trying to record my awful weekly roundup of new releases. I sucked as a DJ, prompting colleague Jonathan Schwartz -- whose show followed mine on Sunday evenings -- to go on the air with the comment “everyone thinks they can be a DJ these days.” I also forgive “Scottso” for opening his show with “Elusive Butterfly.” (That was a lie. I don’t.) That “summer of love” cringe-inducer sucked even more than I did while saying the words “this is Mike Jahn on WNEW-FM, Metromedia Stereo in New York.” Scott died in 2004, possibly of a stroke brought on by an unfortunate memory of my attempt to jockey disks.

Murray the K -- died February 21, 1982 of cancer. The former Murray Kaufman was pure old show biz, even doing borscht bell shows before becoming a manic, howling top 40 DJ in New York in the late 50s - early 60s. That in and of itself would have kept him far from my list of elite dead rockers. But Murray transformed himself into one of the earliest proponents of “progressive rock” (as it was often called at the time), playing alternate tracks, albums cuts and generally doing all he could to promote quality rock. And he did it beginning in 1966, way before almost everyone else. Hey, things moved fast those days. In the three years of Murray’s transformation, the Beatles went from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to “Strawberry Fields Forever.” During his manic, Top 40 days, he billed himself as “the Fifth Beatle.” He followed them into rock history. 

I have absolutely nothing bad to say about Murray the K except that in his West 60s apartment the dining room ceiling was upholstered. Seriously. Pleats of fabric radiated out from an immense central button. I suppose the effect was that of a sharkskin sunflower. Sitting at the table, I couldn’t help glancing up in fear that the thing would snatch up and swallow me, much like the homicidal begonia in “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Felix Pappalardi of Mountain, April 17, 1983, murdered in his East Side luxury apartment building. Never cross Fifth Avenue, gentlemen, I keep telling you. If the street sign doesn't have a "W" on it, you're in mortal danger.

Steve Paul, legendary proprietor of Steve Paul's Scene at 46th and 8th. It was there that many of the star-studded jam sessions you heard about took place. The Scene was three blocks from the “Times” and easy to drop in after work, which is to say at one in the morning. It was harder to remember what happened the next day. He died October 21, 2012, at a hospital in Queens, the cause curiously hard to find.

Elvis Presley, August 16, 1977, drug overdose aggravated by too many fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches. He would have been embarrassed by the deification.

Billy Preston -- R&B keyboardman who became famous for keeping the Beatles from killing one another during the "Abbey Road" days, June 5, 2006, of kidney failure.

Paul Revere -- as in "Paul Revere and the Raiders," a mid-60s smash hit teenybopper band that dressed in Revolution War costumes and had several hits -- "Kicks" being the big one. He died of cancer at his home in Garden Valley, Idaho on October 4, 2014, age 76. Of the Raiders, lead singer Mark Lindsay became a screaming teen idol and celebrated by renting the house where Sharon Tate and housemates were later slaughtered by the Manson Family. Actually, I'm not sure of the timing. As for Paul Revere, I went in there certain I was going to hate him for the Revolutionary War getup and all and wound up loving the dude. He was a great guy with a good perspective on himself. Good luck wherever you are, Paul. One if by land.

Lillian Roxon -- August 10, 1973, of an asthma attack. An Australian, she was New York correspondent of the “Sydney Morning Herald,” an early rock journalist and one of the connections between the rock and Warhol scenes. As such she was very good to know. She wrote “Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia” and was fun to chat with at the table at the front of Max’s Kansas City, where what I call the New York Rock Critics Circle assembled. She had a famous public falling out with Linda Eastman for marrying McCartney and then shunning all her old buddies. 

Doug Sahm -- of the Sir Douglas Quintet and a dozen other bands and a very influential figure in tejano. He talked faster than anyone I ever met. His embullience let him sing the line "you're such a groove you blow my mind in the morning" and make you like it. From his hit "Mendocino." He died November 18, 1999, of a heart attack in a hotel room in Taos. I would like to think there was a bottle of Lone Star on the nightstand.

Fred "Sonic" Smith -- of MC5, later husband of Patti Smith (no blood relation). Died November 5, 1994, of heart disease.

John Stewart, of the Kingston Trio and a long solo career that included writing "Daydream Believer" for the Monkees, "July You're a Woman" for everyone, and "Chilly Winds," a tip of the cowboy hat to the glory days of folk's road songs, for his old mates in the Kingston Trio. Try his tune “Cannons in the Rain” if you get the chance. He died on January 19, 2008, of a stroke.

Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary, September 16, 2009 of cancer. The only folkie to come out of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene who actually grew up in Greenwich Village. We hit it off, an iffy sort of thing with people whose performance you have to review. Mary was a keeper.

Rob Tyner -- singer for MC5, died September 17, 1991 of heart failure while driving home from the grocery store.

Dave Van Ronk - "the Mayor of Macdougal Street" and early nurturer of many folksingers, including the young Bob Dylan. Only Dave could get away with singing "Swing on a Star" in a Village club. He died February 10, 2002, of colon cancer.

Henry Vestine -- guitarist with Canned Heat; died October 20, 1997, of a heart attack.

Alan Wilson -- guitarist with Canned Heat. He killed himself in Bob Hite's backyard September 3, 1970.

Johnny Winter -- Died July 17, 2014. The Lone Star State's albino blazing blueser. He was quite a sight, black leather over pure white skin and hair. An article about him in Rolling Stone prompted Steve Paul to make a hasty call to be his manager and, successful, flew him to New York that same day or something like it to make his New York City debut. Steve, Teddy and I raced through the Queens Midtown Tunnel, driving upside down like in "Men in Black," and picked him up at JFK. I recall walking through the terminal, my boots a foot above the floor, later recalling it after reading "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- "The secret to flying is to hurl yourself at the ground and miss." We found Johnny, drove him straight to Second Avenue, the Fillmore East or somewhere else nearby, it doesn't matter, where he got onstage with a blues band, which one ... same thing, it doesn't matter. Johnny played the frets off the other guitarist. I wrote that he was "the finest blues musician to ever play" the place, not sure that there ever was one. Clive Davis late grumbled that the line added $100,000 to Johnny's contract price. Johnny was worth it, Clive could afford it, and there began a long and respectful career. 

Frank Zappa -- died of prostate cancer on December 4, 1993. He was rock's cranky innovator (House with a guitar before Hugh Laurie was House with a guitar) and first-amendment advocate who clashed famously with anti-rock activist Tipper Gore over censorship of rock lyrics. When I met him he was at a so-so New York hotel in bed with a naked groupie, pulling apart a barbequed chicken. He was wearing the same "PIPCO" tee shirt that he later wore on an album cover. Swallow that, Tipper.

 




 

Watching “Dr. No” (1962) for the first time in years. Enjoyed the moment where the screen hero changed forever. Someone fired six shots at Bond to no effect. Bond “got the the drop” on him and, after a little repartee, the man picked up his gun and tried to fire again, but it was empty. Bond said “that’s a Smith & Wesson, and you’ve had your six.” And plugged him. Then put another in his back as he lay on the floor.

 

Not much, you say? But it was about the first time that a hero, given the option of beating the bad guy up, locking him in the cellar, lashing him to a tree, whatever, and calling the cops, as movie heros had done forever, simply shot him. Twice, the second time in the back as he lay on the floor. I remember it being remarked about at the time. What had happened to the movie hero? Most recently Lady Judy Dench remarked to the current Bond, “quite a body count you’ve racked up.”

 

Well, 1962 was the height of the nuclear annihilation scare. I organized a beer party in the college parking lot. We drank and looked toward New York City, 50 miles away, waiting for the fireball. But 2013 is the height of the ridiculous amateur politician. I look at the Twitter feed and giggle.  

 



Editorial
userpicTiananmen Square with tea bags
Posted by Mike Jahn

 

Oh God it was dreadful! Right outside my window there it was, the Government, driving down the road minding its own business when a middle aged man with a pot belly and wearing a crown of tea bags jumped out from nowhere and hurled himself in front of it! It was like Tiananman Square with tea bags. But the Government couldn’t stop. Blood and bile were everywhere. I went to call the ambulance but they were off rescuing a man who suffered a heart attack after finding out out that the golf course was closed. 

 




Carrie Underwood may be a country singer whose name suggests an old-timey traveling typist, but the song she made into a hit, "Before He Cheats," is the most adroit look ever into the Republican mindset.

 

Here's a precis, per Wikipedia:

 

"Before He Cheats" tells the story of a woman taking revenge on her potentially unfaithful boyfriend/husband.

 

"She imagines him hanging out and flirting with a 'bleach-blonde' girl, shooting pool, buying her a drink, dancing, and hoping to 'get lucky' with her. In retaliation, [the narrator] vandalizes his customized four-wheel drive vehicle by keying the sides, carving her name into its leather seats, smashing the headlights with a Louisville Slugger baseball bat and slashing all four tires. She hopes that this will make him 'think before he cheats' again."

 

Boy, doing $4000 worth of damage to my car would sure make me think -- about hopping the next bus to the first town with a lawyer in it. It would NOT make me fonder of this clearly unstable bit of trailer trash. 

 

What does this have to do with the Republican mindset? Well, you KNOW, don't you. Here we have a clearly unstable gang of House wreckers who would bring down the government by way of making it amenable to their pre-Industrial Revolution vision of America. (An action, BTW, that was considered treason when articulated by my gang of partisans in the 60s.) 

 

To make sure that our less fortunate citizens -- including the poor and immigrants likely to vote Democratic -- are put in danger of death by inability get care, the Republicans will take a Louisville Slugger to all that their constantly cited idol, Jesus, stood for.

 

So, my friends with visions of destroying the legally elected government of this land of the free and making a huge chunk of the population sick, learn to play guitar and go entertain the rest of the luddites at the Country Music Awards, where the old-timey typist is routinely applauded for advocating treason. Get the hell out of Washington.

 

 

 

 

 




Elsewhere in this narrative I printed my old man's description of his encounter with Dutch Schultz at the height of the Depression and in the waning days of Prohibition. Here in a 1975 column he recalls the effect of that especially ridiculous exercise in social engineering on our home town of Sayville, N.Y., lately best known as the place to catch the ferry to Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, the gay towns on Fire Island. He was a newspaperman before me, and in many ways led a much more interesting life. Here's his piece:


Slats Thompson and the Good Ship '100 Proof'
by Joseph C. Jahn


It's been 42 years, give or take a drink, since the Volstead Act passed into blessed oblivion, but there are old timers out my way who vividly remember Prohibition's effect on their lives.

Rum Row was only a few miles off the coast, and ships that passed in the night included small vessels (local registry) whose bilges were awash with illicit bottled goods. A good deal of maritime money passed hands, allowing some blue collar workers to live in the same baronial splendor as politicians and cops.

Slats Thompson was nonplussed when he stood before his draft board, at age 35, in 1941, and volunteered for the Navy. "Have you had any sea experience," the chairman asked.

"In small boats," Slats said. 

That was modest. Slat's old speedboat wasn't called "100 Proof" for nothing during her heyday on the Great South Bay. Not only was she the fastest boat around, but Slats enjoyed 100 per cent protection from the law due to his generosity to parties of the second part.

But rum running was only one manifestation of local interest in the outside world during Prohibition. The ' worst booze Manhattan speakeasies served their customers did not come from Rum Row. It came from stills in and about my town. The odor of booze was as familiar to discerning natives as the smell of salt in the seaborne air. 

Oddly enough, just about everyone smelled it but the constabulary. "They allus seemed to have bad head colds," is the way old man Phillips explained their inability to detect the odor of ersatz Old Granddad fermenting in farm houses and barns.

The constables' vision wasn't any better. Among the things they never saw were speakeasies. And their hearing was even worse. Among the night noises they never heard was the roar of trucks carrying booze from the speedboats to the city. The free-wheeling trucks shook our houses, but never stirred the law.

These activities brought interesting visitors to town, including gangsters like Dutch Schultz, who immediately fell in love with the environment. It was an ideal place, Dutch concluded, to dispose of the bodies of members of other gangs who dast hijack his trucks.  

More than one native peered into an abandoned car to discover the remains of a hoodlum with a neat round hole in his noggin. Did they report their findings to the constabulary? Only if they were very dumb. To be called as a witness in a gangland rubout was the closest thing to suicide. It made insurance companies very nervous, too. A chicken farmer who lived north of town was painting his front porch one Sunday afternoon when two dapper gents in a long black Lincoln stopped to inquire the whereabouts of the town dump. The chicken farmer's curiosity was whetted by the presence in the back seat of a third party who appeared to be in need of an undertaker.

"Three blocks to the east and turn north," he told the visitors. When the long black Lincoln pulled away, the painter got his family into his old flivver and hauled stakes. He returned a week later to learn from a neighbor that in his absence a very deceased person had been unearthed at the town dump.

"You missed all the excitement," the neighbor said.

"The hell you say," the chicken farmer responded, and resumed painting his porch.

Published in the Long Island Press, February 21, 1975


 




I'm currently reformatting my 1998 hardcover, "Murder on Fifth Avenue," into a Kindle edition. I just came upon this exchange between Captain Donovan and  Sergeant Moskowitz beneath the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.

"So what's with Christmas trees anyway?" Mosko asked, wondering if it wasn't time to break the spell.

"Its a nice tradition if you're not allergic to them and don't have cats," Donovan replied.

"I mean what's a tree got to do with Jesus or the Holy Land? I been to Israel a couple of times and I didn't see a single pine tree."

"This is a Norway spruce," Donovan replied. 

"I seen even fewer of them," Mosko insisted. 

"You want to know what the tree thing is about?" 

"Yeah. I figured you would know. Does it have something to do with the tree the Romans cut down to crucify him on?"

"I don't think so," Donovan said dully. "To the best of my knowledge, the Christmas tree is a pagan tradition from northern Europe. They used to bring a tree indoors every year before the snows closed in. It was a ritual to ward off evil and ensure that the trees outside would survive the winter."

"That still doesn't tell me what a Christmas tree has to do with Jesus," Mosko said.

"Nothing, okay? It has nothing to do with Jesus. What's a gefilte fish got to do with Abraham and Sarah?"

Mosko replied, "The day there's a seventy-foot gefilte fish standing on Fifth Avenue I'll tell you."




I knew a lot of currently dead rock stars.

This year marks the 44th anniversary of my becoming the first full-time reporter/photographer covering the rock beat at The New York Times and, as such, the first full-time rock journalist of any major American newspaper or other form of major media. It was a dirty job -- forget Mike Rowe's sewers, septic tanks and oil spills -- but someone had to do it. Why was it dirty and depressing? Because I've known and loved and praised, hated and insulted, been insulted by, run into, run from, abused substances, had my ears assaulted, or otherwise invaded the private spaces of a lot of rock stars who have since become deceased, ceased to be, rung down the curtain, kicked the bucket, croaked, shuffled off this mortal coil, or in one way or another joined the choir eternal. 

The ability to manipulate six wires is no guarantor of intelligence.

Put another way, many rockers’ tin ears seem to have metastasized. 

The number of dead rockers -- some of them good and talented people -- of my acquaintance stands at 33.

It's tempting to think that drugs were behind most of these abrupt departures. However, in many cases death came via largely unrelated medical problems -- heart attacks or cancer, mainly. A number did die of overdoses of either drugs or alcohol, sometimes both. Others succumbed to crashes by aircraft, cars, and skiing into trees. There also were murders and one suicide, possibly to avoid death by any of the aforementioned. This year there are three new entries, Hoyt Axton, Steve Ferguson, and Steve Paul as well as expanded commentary on many of them. 

If you're adding up and tracking deaths per band, we’re talking about three-fifths of Canned Heat, half of the Who, two-fifths of MC5, one-third of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Peter, Paul & Mary, and a quarter each of the Doors and Beatles.

They were rockers who died, died. Here's the list.

SPIRITS OF ROCK STARS PASSED [sic]

Hoyt Axton -- folk and country singer and son of the co-author of “Heartbreak Hotel.” His own writing included “Joy to the World,” the worldwide hit by Three Dog Night which became the theme of “The Big Chill,” the movie that chillingly summed up my grad school experience and the years thereafter. (You’ll simply have to guess which one of them I was.) Of Three Dog Night, Hoyt dropped a couple of tidbits on me. Both concern their renditions of his song “Never Been to Spain.” They objected to using the line “but I kinda like the Beatles” because they considered themselves competitive with the latter. But they sang it. However, they changed his line “in Oklahoma, born in a coma” to “in Oklahoma, not Arizona.” Considering the political climate in Arizona lately, I’ll take the coma. He died of a heart attack in Victor, Montana, on October 26, 1999, two years after his mother drowned in a hot tub in Tennessee.

Sonny Bono -- of skiing into a tree, January 5, 1998. Interesting man with extraordinary taste in women. You’d have to chat with her to fully understand that. 

Harry Chapin -- in a car accident July 16, 1981. Harry was one of life’s really good people, and I don’t say that simply because he was grateful enough for my career-launching review to put me on his Christmas card list and invite me to his wedding.

Jim Croce -- in a plane crash September 20, 1973.

John Denver -- in a plane crash October 12, 1997.

John Entwistle of the Who, and the only one of them who was capable of standing still -- June 28, 2002 of a heart attack also involving cocaine and a prostitute. In Vegas, naturally.

Steve Ferguson of NRBQ. He was the guitarist and the best. And is credited with their eclecticism, which included rockabilly and experimental jazz. I was an unabashed NRBQ fanboy in their late 60s years, wrote them up as often as I could, and dragged Clive Davis to see them, which got them their first recording contract. Then I dragged Hendrix to see them and they goofed on him. He threatened to throw a table at them, then walked out, shaking his head. That was the last time I saw him. I lost interest in the band after Steve left in 1970. He died of cancer, October 7, 2009. 

Rory Gallagher -- Irish blues rocker, died June 1995, of complications of a liver transplant. I should have gone with him that night backstage at the Rod Stewart and Faces show in Anaheim when he said "come have a jar" and beckoned me toward his dressing room. But I had just had a bottle with Rod and the boys during the ride from L.A.

Jerry Garcia -- died August 9, 1995 of a heroin-related heart attack doubtlessly aggravated by his lifelong taste for junk food.

Bill Graham -- legendary concert promoter and foul-mouthed pain in the ass. We had a rocky relationship but eventually made up. He died October 25, 1991, of a helicopter crash while returning from a Huey Lewis and the News concert. 

Jimi Hendrix -- died September 18, 1970, of a drug overdose. He would be humiliated by his surviving family's messy fight over his estate.

Bob Hite -- six-foot, 300-pound singer for Canned Heat, died of a heart attack April 5, 1981. He proclaimed me “a freak” at a time when it was considered high praise.

Janis Joplin -- died of a heroin overdose October 4, 1970. That'll learn her for snarling at me.

Don Kirshner -- pioneer assembler of boy bands, famously the Monkees. Of a heart attack January 17, 1991, in Boca Raton, Fla. Should have known it was bad karma to live in a place whose name translates as "mouse mouth."

Ronnie Lane -- of the Faces and Rod Stewart and Faces; died June 5, 1997, of multiple sclerosis. No doubt he had a jar with Rory Gallagher, who opened for Rod in a 1974 tour.

Jerry Leiber, August 23, 2011, of cardiopulmonary failure. Do I really  have to explain who Leiber and Stoller were? Let me just say “Hound Dog,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me,” “On Broadway,” "Spanish Harlem" and on and on. Of their songwriting partnership, Leiber said "I yelled, he played." They did it for me once, using an old upright piano, at the Brill Building, which also needs no explanation. That private performance was one of the most wonderful rock and roll moments I ever had.

John Lennon -- murdered on December 8, 1980, outside his apartment building, New York's 19th century landmark the Dakota, which also was the setting for "Rosemary's Baby." He would have enjoyed the subsequent deification.

Linda McCartney -- one-time photographer (I bought some photos of Jim Morrison from her)  -- and part-time, sort-of backup singer; I first saw her getting into the elevator at Andy Warhol's Factory. This was a year or two before she told a friend she was moving to London with the intention of marrying a Beatle, any Beatle, and snagged the prize. She died April 17, 1998, of breast cancer.

Keith Moon -- the Who's wild man drummer; drowned in his own vomit following a drug overdose on September 7, 1978, surprising no one.

Jim Morrison -- died July 3, 1971, by one account of a heroin overdose and choking on upchucked sweet and sour pork, surprising even fewer than were later surprised by Keith Moon. He would have enjoyed the postmortem idolatry, especially since current cultists are actually building a religion around him.

Felix Pappalardi of Mountain, April 17, 1983, murdered in the Riverside Drive building where I used to get my teeth fixed.

Steve Paul, legendary proprietor of Steve Paul's Scene at 46th and Broadway. It was there that many of the star-studded jam sessions you heard about took place. The Scene was three blocks from the Times and easy to drop in after work, which is to say at one in the morning. It was harder to remember what happened the next day. He died October 21, 2012, at a hospital in Queens, cause unknown at this time. I have a query out. Check back next year.

Elvis Presley, August 16, 1977, drug overdose aggravated by too many fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches. He would have been embarrassed by the deification.

Billy Preston - R&B keyboardman who became famous for keeping the Beatles from killing one another during the "Abbey Road" days, June 5, 2006, of kidney failure.

Doug Sahm -- of the Sir Douglas Quintet and a dozen other bands and a very influential figure in tejano. He talked faster than anyone I ever met. His embullience let him sing the line "you're such a groove you blow my mind in the morning" and make you like it. From his hit "Mendocino." He died November 18, 1999, of a heart attack in a hotel room in Taos. I would like to think there was a bottle of Lone Star on the nightstand.

Fred "Sonic" Smith -- of MC5, later husband of Patti Smith (no blood relation). Died November 5, 1994, of heart disease.

John Stewart, of the Kingston Trio and a long solo career that included writing "Daydream Believer" for the Monkees, "July You're a Woman" for everyone, and "Chilly Winds," a tip of the cowboy hat to the glory days of folk's road songs, for his old mates in the Kingston Trio. Try his tune “Cannons in the Rain” if you get the chance. He died on January 19, 2008, of a stroke.

Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary, September 16, 2009 of cancer. The only folkie to come out of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene who actually grew up in Greenwich Village. We hit it off, an iffy sort of thing with people whose performance you have to review. Mary was a keeper.

Rob Tyner -- singer for MC5, died September 17, 1991 of heart failure while driving home from the grocery store.

Dave Van Ronk - "the Mayor of Macdougal Street" and early nurturer of many folksingers, including the young Bob Dylan. Only Dave could get away with singing "Swing on a Star" in a Village club. He died February 10, 2002, of colon cancer.

Henry Vestine -- guitarist with Canned Heat; died October 20, 1997, of a heart attack.

Alan Wilson -- guitarist with Canned Heat. He killed himself in Bob Hite's backyard September 3, 1970.

Frank Zappa -- rock's cranky innovator (he was House with a guitar before Hugh Laurie became House with a guitar) and first-amendment advocate who clashed famously with anti-rock activist Tipper Gore over censorship of rock lyrics; died of prostate cancer on December 4, 1993.

 




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