Author: J.D. Reed, Maddy Miller
Publisher: Wenner Books
Year Published: 2005
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With a title like that, what aging rock music fan could resist? With a color photo of Jim Morrison’s grave on the cover and one of Strawberry Fields on the back, what’s not to like? Actually, I’m up a stump as to which demographic such books appeal (another example is Scott Stanton’s The Tombstone Tourist: Musicians). I never buy them – my brother gives them to me as gifts. I have a mild curiosity about them, mainly because I listen to music and I frequent cemeteries. But since I’m not much into celebrity worship, I can’t imagine ever buying one.
The title is a bit of a misnomer – “rock’s legends” apparently include rappers, country stars, punkers, R&B greats, and MOR crooners. While they may be legends in their own right, they’re not really considered rockers.
The book has relevance as social commentary, or rather documentation. In the words of the author:
“…I wanted to explore the forces that draw us to these graves, as well as tell the tales about the musicians, their last moments, and their final resting places…”
And this he does quite succinctly – generally a page of his text accompanies a few photographs by Maddy Miller for each of the dearly departed. In total, hundreds of photos (both color and B&W) effectively document the hundred deceased stars and their gravesites.
The book is engaging in a voyeuristic sort of way. Maybe you’ve wondered about the final resting place of your hero. Or perhaps you flip through the book only to find that some notable is buried (figuratively) in your own backyard! Bessie Smith’s remains lie a mile from my house – beneath a headstone that was donated by Janis Joplin.
Chances are, though, you’re not going to buy an entire book because there’s a picture of your hero’s gravesite in it. You already know his or her story, so you’re not going to learn much of anything new here. The content of the book is too broad to appeal in its entirety to most people. Even if you were a curious new Led Zeppelin fan wondering how Bonzo met his demise, you probably wouldn’t be interested in reading about Harry Chapin’s.
What is interesting about the book?
To me, the text and photos address an interesting aspect of our dealings with death – the visitations and the curious mementos left behind by visitors. From guitar picks on Stevie Ray Vaughn’s marker, to a leather jacket on Joey Ramone’s grave. In my own travels, I’ve seen such things as beads and writing on Marie Laveau’s crypt (New Orleans’ most famous voodoo queen) and burnt candles left at Jack Kerouac’s grave. Perhaps it helps people feel close to someone in death whom they would’ve liked to have felt close to in life. Whatever the reason, the practice is certainly less destructive than everyone chipping off a piece of marble.
What did I get out of the book?
One of the many offshoots of fandom is our memorializing of the dead. Why do people visit gravesites? Why do I, personally, visit gravesites? (hmm…and Andy Warhol’s yet…) While some of us simply choose not to let go, others feel compelled to honor the memory because of how their lives were touched by the deceased. Memorials do the departed no good, they are all for us. Don McLean was wrong–when Buddy Holly’s plane crashed, it wasn’t the day the music died. The music lives on forever, and is a lasting testament to the mark made on the world by these talented musicians.
Are the actual directions to the gravesites given? No, and I find this to be a drawback. If I did actually want to snoop around Nancy Spungen’s grave in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (near my house), I am directed by the author to consult other books or websites for specific directions. Most of these celebrities are buried in non-celebrity cemeteries around the world. It’s not like walking through the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California where you can’t swing a cat without hitting a star’s grave (which I’ve done, by the way, but without the cat).
I’m not thrilled with the way the book is laid out. The contents are not in alphabetical order. Rather, the deceased are grouped into clusters such as “The Circle is Unbroken,” “A Beatle and a Stone,” and “The King is Dead.” Sometimes its obvious who’s in what group, but if you don’t travel in those circles, all you can do is scan the index for your party. The book is not comprehensive. If you didn’t know that Curt Cobain and Tupac Shakur were cremated, you might wonder why their gravesites are not included here.
Who would “Stairway To Heaven” appeal to?
If I were to guess, it would be the person whose musical hero has died. From Johnny Cash to Lisa Lopes to the New York Dolls, you can see the hero’s grave photo, find out generally where it’s located, and learn a little about how the hero succumbed.
We all have our heroes, and we miss them when they’re gone. Be they writers, actors, or musicians, their graves are visited for a variety of reasons. How society honors its dead is really the take-home message here. Who is to say that a military burial with a 21-gun salute is any more honorable than half a million drunken people a year visiting the grave of The Lizard King (Jim Morrison) in Paris’ Pere-LaChaise Cemetery? The book is a testimonial to our enduring spirit of memorializing the dead, those who’ve enriched our own lives in some way or other. Mourning is a very personal thing – there is no right or wrong way to do it.
But don’t be stuck in the past. While its fine to honor the dead, it may be more productive to honor the living. Put some of this energy into discovering new heroes, or see the falling star one last time before he leaves the building. I did that with Johnny Winter a few years ago. Always was one of my guitar gods, and I always wanted to see him. But his albinism has caused him massively debilitating health problems, to the point where he’s barely able to perform on stage. So when the opportunity came to see him at the House of Blues in New Orleans a few years ago, what did I do? I went. He was like a corpse with motorized fingers, but he kicked ASS, man! It was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.