When rock and roll music was born in the 1950s it was performed primarily by young people for young people. A number of those young rock stars have grown old yet they continue to play vital, exciting rock music. It is sad for me as a fan, however, when rock musicians I admire pass away. As more “classic” rock musicians enter their 60s and 70’s, this will unfortunately become more common.
Two rock and rollers died in recent months and fans around the world have mourned their passing. Alex Chilton and Ronnie James Dio both made great music, but these two men occupied very different space on the rock and roll spectrum. Chilton won accolades as the teenage singer for the band the Box Tops who had a hit in 1967 with the song “The Letter.” He continued his rock career with the band Big Star in the 70’s—a band that several rock musicians in the 80s and beyond cited as an influence, including REM and The Replacements.
Dio gained popularity while singing in a band called Elf, but then moved on to join Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore in the hard rock band Rainbow. After leaving Rainbow, Dio replaced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath and helped revive that band. With Dio at the helm, Sabbath released two albums considered masterpieces in the heavy metal world, "Heaven and Hell" and "Mob Rules." After over two decades as a solo artist, Dio rejoined his former Sabbath band mates in recent years and toured under the name Heaven and Hell.
Alex Chilton died this past March of a heart attack at the age of 59. According to an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Chilton had complained of chest pains in the days preceding his death but did not seek medical attention because he had no health insurance.
Ronnie James Dio, 67, finally succumbed to stomach cancer in May after a number of brutal months fighting the disease with chemotherapy. His wife’s reports were often optimistic, even stating at one point that Ronnie might be able to re-join Heaven and Hell for their tour late in the summer. While not a stranger to controversy, especially regarding some of the imagery in his songs, Dio was a well-spoken gentleman and a humanitarian. In 1985, soon after Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie assembled the super group USA for Africa to record “We Are the World,” Dio gathered the top heavy metal artists of the day to record a song called “Stars” under the tongue-in-cheek moniker Hear’N Aid.
I was very lucky to see both of these men perform. They were both masters of their craft and took command of the live stage with an authority that induced arm hair to stand at attention. Some classic rockers devolve into lounge acts, but others approach performance as an art and truly respect and appreciate the audience. That is how I felt witnessing these legends perform—appreciated and grateful for the opportunity.
How does a fan memorialize rock musicians who have died? Occasionally I have been playing Dio’s and Chilton’s music since they both passed, pausing to reflect on the place their songs hold in my life. Their music invites my reflection—on memories and emotions, which slowly bubble up to my consciousness. I welcome this ritual—dare I say, it is even prayerful. It may be worthwhile for rock fans reading this to consider a spiritual ritual through which they could honor the lives of the musicians who have meant the most and continue to hold meaning even after death. In the next decade we will undoubtedly lose some of the seminal figures of rock and roll to age-related illnesses. There is much grieving to be done when creative voices are silenced forever.