Now that 2010 has passed it’s only fitting that we turn from the battle at hand to assess our casualties. Understandably, the death of pop musicians saddens us disproportionately to the loss of all other familiar strangers. After all, they’ve spoken to and for us in secret ways and in private places throughout our lives, giving us inspiration, diversion and solace.
Of the dozens who have fallen this past year these, in my opinion, stood tallest.
(Jan 13, 2010) – Jay Reatard, like an idiot savant, did the math for us: garage punk + powerpop = The Buzzcocks + a better sense of humor. Schooled by the indomitable Oblivians, Jimmy Lee (Jay) Lindsey began recording at age fifteen. At seventeen he created the Reatards and did that thing that punk band kids do by using the name of his band as his last name. In the last four years, as a solo artist, Jay released over a dozen singles, three EP’sand two full-lengths of hook-riddled jangle and crunch. Like a Karate Kid movie montage he improved rapidly without the logical amount of effort.
A truly original life came to a sadly clichéd end on Jan. 13 when Jay Reatard’s body was found full of cocaine, alcohol and unrealized potential. He was only 29.
(February 15, 2010) – Doug Fieger, as leader of The Knack, was never forgiven for co-writing a hit song. That song, “My Sharona”, was just too damn catchy. It was and is ubiquitous. Even when it wasn’t playing, just the mention of it would start it bouncing around in your head like a sneaker in the dryer. Erroneously lumped into the pejorative New Wave tainted sub-genre of Skinny Tie Powerpop simply because they, well, wore skinny ties, The Knack delivered punchy, perfectly crafted, three minute bursts of energy more akin to the early Kinks than to Squeeze.
After a protracted struggle with lung cancer, Doug Fieger passed away on Feb. 15 at the age of 57. We should remember him as one of the few brave souls who stood in stubborn defiance against the synthetic, day-glo disposability of the early ‘80s.
(March 8, 2010) – Mark Linkous, a man called Sparklehorse, was an indie rock cause celebré. His hauntingly beautiful if slightly askew music, culled from the depths of the dark Southern forest, garnered the allegiance of Radiohead, Danger Mouse, The Flaming Lips, PJ Harvey and Grandaddy to name a few. But each joint venture seemed more of an intervention than collaboration; as if his friends hoped to forestall the inevitable.
On March 8, Mark ended his life by firing a shotgun into his heart. He has now joined the tragic ranks of Nick Drake, Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith and Vic Chesnutt; whose music gave us so much hope and happiness that they hadn’t any left for themselves.
(March 17, 2010) – Alex Chilton’s particular variety of cult status was built on his incomprehensible lack of success rather than the well-deserved obscurity of so many others. Having gotten those pesky hit singles out of the way in his teens with the ‘60s blue-eyed soul group The Box Tops, Chilton joined the band that would become Big Star in 1971. During the course of the following six years and three albums Big Star created a Rosetta Stone for three generations of guitar pop to follow. Doomed by the incompetence of their fledgling record label the band would’ve been relegated to the status of a rock geek trivia question had it not been for the incessant name checking by a growing number of famous acolytes. Sung about by the Replacements, claimed as an inspiration by R.E.M., imitated by the Posies, Matthew Sweet and Teenage Fanclub, and covered by everyone from Elliott Smith to Wilco, Big Star belatedly lived up to their name. After the band’s dissolution Chilton busied himself as a solo artist and studio musician, permanently solidifying his street cred in 1980 by producing The Cramps debut album.
On March 17, 2010, at the age of 59, Alex Chilton suffered a fatal heart attack. With the deaths of his Big Star songwriting partner Chris Bell in a 1978 car crash and founding bassist Andy Hummel who succumbed to cancer in July of this year, Big Star have become, like the Ramones, some sort of Bizzaro-World Spinal Tap where only the original drummer survives.
(April 8, 2010) – Malcolm McLaren was, despite all claims to the contrary, the architect of punk rock. By combining the shambolic abandon of his former managerial charges; The New York Dolls, with the post-apocalyptic look of Richard Hell, and the sneering defiance of the council-flat squatting dole recipients who frequented his King’s Road bondage boutique, he codified the disparate elements of rebellion into an unlikely commodity. In his guise as visionary cynic and provocateur he assembled a seemingly talentless cadre of miscreants who he dressed, guided and named. The Sex Pistols awoke the music world from its lethargy, challenging their followers, both fan and musician alike, to reinvent themselves. As their manager McLaren kept his band in the headlines, never missing an opportunity to shock or alienate the straights.
On April 8, 2010, McLaren lost his life to mesothelioma. Without him Peter Frampton and The Eagles might have succeeded in their quest to suck the life out of rock ‘n’ roll.
(December 17, 2010) – The music of Captain Beefheart (neé Don Van Vliet), like the Theory Of Relativity is celebrated by many but understood and appreciated by a precious few. Along with his Magic Band, Beefheart created a cacophony similar to the sound of Howlin’ Wolf prison raping Ornette Coleman in mid sax sqwonk while their fellow inmates loudly stomped their feet in Morse code around them. Even less strictly commercial than his high school pal; Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart blazed the trail for every avant guarde, outsider and experimental artist of the last forty years (yeah, I’m talking to you Animal Collective!).
After 28 years of retirement from music Don Van Vliet died of multiple sclerosis-related complications on Dec. 17 at the age of 69, but the Captain will live on forever.