Life after Death: The Legacy of Suddenly Dead Musicians

Let’s get this out of the way: Some of my favorite musicians died before they were 35 – some musicians that I’m going to highlight in this column. Kurt Cobain pretty much ran my musical life back in elementary school; I would listen to every band he ever namedropped. “In Utero” is my immediate answer when anyone asks me what my favorite album of all-time is. However, I’m not going to be irrational and pretend that some of the mystique from the infamous shotgun suicide hasn’t contributed to some of Kurt and Nirvana’s legacy. It has – you can’t avoid it. Believe it or not, this happens more often than we’d expect.

Cobain was hopelessly addicted to drugs by the end of his life. Elliott Smith’s diet consisted mainly of ice cream before he stabbed himself. Jim Morrison’s body finally crapped out in a bath tub after years of being neglected. Tupac Shakur was pretty close to convincing everyone that he actually wanted to go out in the gunfire blaze that he did go out in. These are some of the most influential and remembered people in music. Yes, there are plenty of reasons to justify remembering them and their combined body of work is staggering, but how amplified was their work by their untimely deaths? And what realistically could’ve been?

Consider Michael Jackson, for one. There are plenty of people (including yours truly) that showered Jackson with praise after his passing for the immense legacy he left behind. Nevertheless, let’s not forget that Jackson has been America’s punching bag for the last decade. Think about it: a lot of these famous suicides were in the midst of similar miserable situations as Jackson was in more than ten years ago. Jackson was caught in a media waiting to see him fail, and for more than a decade his image has fallen to new lows in the public eye. Even the king of rock ‘n roll, Elvis Presley, had a similar demise to the king of pop, a gradual decline in productivity paired with a sudden death. Jackson and Presley were only fully appreciated after their deaths liberated them, after years of wallowing in mediocrity. Years that are often remembered sadly by their fans.

Often, in the case an of unfortunate passing, we like to think how it sucks that people that we look up to have been unfairly taken away from us. We also forget the overwhelming circumstances these celebrities are in that drive them to these untimely deaths. It’s easy to see the situation of Jackson as being exceptional as his output was next to nothing through the 90s and the majority of the 00s. But a pop star like Britney Spears, who has been touring all year, hasn’t helped herself much even with a chart-topping album. She’s still being tossed about by the paparazzi like a rag doll, and her image will never recover.

So, certain celebrities have faded, alive and well, but with their images fading with them. It goes without saying that dying young sucks, regardless what the cause is, but have certain musicians had their reputations preserved because of their sudden exits? Cobain, Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are some of the highlighted members of the Forever 27 Club that will never be forgotten because of their fast-paced lifestyles that ultimately contributed to their freeform music and saddening deaths.

But will you ever forget them? Will you ever remember a time that you didn’t care about them because they were irrelevant? Nope. The idea that “they could’ve kept making more” often transcends the idea that “they could’ve fallen so easily.” Hey, that’s the kind of optimism that’s fine by me. With how rare real consistent longevity is in music, sometimes it’s best just to accept and appreciate what we have had and dream of the more that could have become. As far as some of our idols that have passed on too soon, there’s only so much mourning you could do. After all, it did leave them, youthful and ambitious, immortalized in our minds. Burning out rather than fading away. It’s just a compromise we’ll have to deal with.