The shelf life of rock stars – like race car drivers, matadors, cliff divers, mountain climbers – tends to be short.
27 is the first cut-off point. Joining Janis, Jim, Jimi, and Kurt in Club 27, were the Stones’ Brian Jones, the Dead’s Ron McKernan, Robert Johnson, and other luminaries. All were only a few years removed from childhood when they died.
The next cut-off is the thirties: this decade notably claimed the Who’s Keith Moon, Zeppelin’s John Bonham, the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson, Butterfield’s Mike Bloomfield, INXS’s Michael Hutchence, Bob Marley, Jeff Buckley, and the original bad boy of rock, Gene Vincent.
If a star makes it to 40 he is over the hump and his odds improve. But the fact remains: rock and roll is a young man’s profession. Though the over-40 group is substantial now, few of these veterans have the fire they once did. But, rather than retire, some perform old hits posthumously and/or compose retreads.
As one of them, Peter Townshend, once famously said: “Hope I die before I get old.” But, after spending years at the effort, My Generation’s hero finally admitted, “I haven’t been able to achieve that one great ambition I had when I was nineteen. But I’ve tried to compensate by actually making myself happy.”
Meaning that he somehow exorcised the teenage anger, angst, and alienation that had fueled his most powerful work just as it had done with most of his colleagues.
Happiness is nice but it rarely makes for great art in rock or any other form. Why? Because happiness becomes contentment, even complacency. Why create anything if you are satisfied with what is? You might sing a silly McCartney love song or a Simon & Garfunkel confection, but not a Lennon Revolution, a Morrison The End, a Joplin Ball and Chain, or a Cobain Rape Me.
These killer compositions were not the products of old age, much less of contentment. Happiness is static energy, Unhappiness kinetic. Static energy is not a creative force. Kinetic is. Kids are uniquely equipped to harness and channel it. The trick is to do so before it drives you off a cliff at age 27.
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Rock and roll is the only true art form created for and by the young – children. The Magnificent Seven remained children till the end, even the three longest lived– Lennon 40, Elvis 42, and Garcia a Methusalahn 53.
As if aging were synonymous with death itself, Elvis drugged himself unconscious on his 40th birthday after Walter Cronkite ominously announced the milestone on the Six O’Clock News.
“I don’t think of myself as an adult,” said the leader of the Dead in his fifties. “An adult is someone who has made up their mind.”
John Lennon stubbornly resisted adulthood too. “Grow up means: Shut up, clean up, dress up and die,” he declared. “Then you are allowed to live half-dead which is what most people do. That is the difference between a real artist and people going through the motions. I refuse to be half-dead.”
One of the secrets of survival for other rock stars has been starting a family. Mick Jagger once said, “You can’t have a career and a family,” but now he is a knight and the father of eight. Keith Richards, who claims to have snorted his father’s crematory ashes, resisted parenthood too, but now he’s a father of three. “What kids do is grow you up,” he pointed out after having two daughters and resurrecting. McCartney is the father of five, Dylan six, Springsteen three, Townsend three, etc.
But the Seven were a different breed, most resisting a loss of their own youth by having children of their own and taking the yoke of “adult” responsibilities. This had much to do with their own traumatic childhoods, no doubt; but it also had to do with a creative – some might say narcissistic — attachment to freedom, and repulsion from domestic routine and conformity.
“Parenthood wasn’t something he could participate in,” said Garcia’s first wife, Sara Ruppenthal, after delivering their first child. “He lived for music.” Years later he told his second wife, Mountain Girl, who bore him two daughters: “Having a family is probably going to ruin my artistic career.”
As the leader of the Dead knew, biological creativity might kill or compromise artistic creativity. But he and the others resisted this by remaining eternal youths. When divorcing his first wife, Sara, he said: “I don’t have to grow up and I’m not going to.” At his funeral, Jerry’s daughter Annabelle recalled: “He may have been a genius, but he was a shitty father.”
Lennon felt like “the Empire State Building” after the birth of Sean and, as a “breadbaking househusband,” appeared to dote on his second son. But, in the end, he confessed to his confidante, John Green: “I tried the father bit and blew it. I hated the role, and then I started hating the kid because I thought he as the one who forced me into it.” As for his first son, Julian, the Beatle only saw him a handful of times after divorcing his mother. “Dad’s always telling people to love each other, but how come he doesn’t love me?” the boy asked Cynthia.
Elvis too was smitten by his daughter at first. But, according to “the Guys” – his live-in bodyguard brothers –Lisa Marie became for him little more than a plaything and trophy.
At first Kurt Cobain called his infant daughter “the greatest drug in the world.” But in his “suicide” note, he wrote: “She reminds me too much of what I used to be, full of love and joy… I can’t stand the thought of Frances becoming the miserable, self-destructive, death rocker that I’ve become.”
The only other parent of the Seven was Hendrix. He had two illegitimate children whom he never took the trouble to meet, much less to support. Morrison had nineteen paternity suits filed against him but only acknowledged one impregnation, to his second “wife,” Patricia Kenneally. He offered to pay for the abortion but didn’t bother to show up for the procedure. Janis Joplin had at least one abortion.
So, eternal youths, the Seven, not quite cut out for parenthood, never experienced its loving, life-giving powers which rescued other stars. But, ironically, they became the fathers, the guides, the pied pipers, of the greatest youth and freedom movement of history which began in the fifties and sixties with the birth of rock and roll.
Fittingly, these living legends – most of whom grew up on and loved comic books — took on the fantastic, magical names of child superheroes: Morrison became the Lizard King; Lennon, the Walrus; Elvis, the King of Rock; Janis, the Queen of the Blues; Garcia, Captain Trips; Hendrix, the Voodoo Child.