Nothing says rock and roll quite like dead rock stars. As crass or insensitive as that statement might seem, the fact remains that premature death has become as inextricably linked to rock and roll as the electric guitar.
Whether by pure accident, simple demand, or an even more distasteful form of commercial design, rock star deaths have also proven to be big business over the years. As the estates of such deceased artists as Elvis, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, and Michael Jackson demonstrate, it’s not at all unusual for rock stars to become even bigger commercial properties in death than they were in life.
In the cases of Jimi Hendrix and Tupac Shakur for example, their recorded output in death has exceeded the amount of music they released during their actual lifetimes. To paraphrase a famous magazine article on one such dead rock star subject, “they’re hot, they’re sexy, and they’re dead.”
Given the fact that dead rock stars remain such a hot commodity, a book like Thomas H. Green’s Rock Shrines was probably inevitable. For many fans of these artists, pilgrimages to their grave sites and other such historical markers — like Elvis’ Graceland Mansion and the Dakota Building (site of John Lennon’s 1980 murder) — are a necessary, if perhaps ghoulish ritual.
Rock Shrines is, for all intents and purposes, a fans guide to these very same locations. However, to call this book a mere Roadmap Of The Dead Rock Stars doesn’t begin to do it the justice it deserves.
Using the theme of these dead rock star shrines as a launching point, Green — a British journalist whose work has appeared in Mixmag and Q Magazine — has actually assembled a visually striking historical overview of premature rock deaths that is highly detailed, yet also quite readable.
Each of the book’s nearly two hundred individual entries is illustrated with beautiful photographs of both the stars and the shrines, along with a brief, but usually very complete composite of the artists’ work and impact in both life and death. What emerges is a picture often missed by a media eager to sensationalize the way many of these artists met their premature ends.
Not that the usually cited causes don’t get coverage here — because they do. These include the already well-documented cases of drug overdoses (Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison), murder (Lennon, Shakur, Marvin Gaye) and suicide (Cobain, Ian Curtis), as well as the equally sensational crashes by land (Duane Allman, Marc Bolan) and air (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Holly).
Where Rock Shrines rises above many similar books though, is by paying equal tribute to those who met their premature exits due to far more mundane causes, including prostate cancer (Frank Zappa, Johnny Ramone), heart disease (Joe Strummer, Roy Orbison), and brain cancer (Bob Marley).
In his narrative, Green also shies away from some of the more notorious posthumous controversies surrounding dead rock-star subjects like Sid Vicious, Elvis, and Kurt Cobain. There are no “Who Killed Kurt?” or “Elvis is Alive” speculations here. Somewhat more strangely though, he takes a similarly hands-off approach regarding the suspicious death of Brian Jones, even as evidence in recent years has raised questions about the official verdict on the death of the original Rolling Stone.
But getting back to the original theme of the book, Green does provide a most interesting map to those famous Rock Shrines. In addition to the grave sites and the mansions, these include such unlikely locations as the tree in London where Marc Bolan crashed his car; the hotel room in Sydney where INXS vocalist Michael Hutchence is said to have died from auto-erotic asphyxiation; and New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel — where, among other events, Sid Vicious is believed to have murdered Nancy Spungen.
In addition to the hundreds of photographs, there are also a number of plastic bags filled with memorabilia that are placed throughout the book. These include such items as the death certificates of Cobain, Bolan, and Dennis Wilson; original autopsy and medical examiner’s reports for Elvis and Jim Morrison (along with Jimbo’s Last Will and Testament); newspaper articles on Lennon and Hendrix from the day they died; handwritten lyrics from many of these same artists, and much more. Rock Shrines also features an introduction by noted author and former groupie extraordinaire Pamela Des Barres.
If this all seems a little creepy in places, that’s because, well quite frankly, it is.
Nonetheless, this is also often fascinating stuff, even if morbidly so. Given the task at hand, the author has also done an admirable job of putting the information together in an informative, yet tasteful manner. Lavishly illustrated and eminently readable, Rock Shrines is a beautifully assembled book that is a must for any serious student of rock history.
This review was published here.
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