Dead First

We rank musical deaths, embrace Failure and remember the Old School

New Angels in Rock Heaven
For connoisseurs of rock death, 2004 was a pretty bum vintage. That's not to say that nobody notable died -- after all, this was the year we lost Ray Charles. But for aesthetes of the grand rock demise, 2004 lacked the ludicrously romantic death of a wounded young romantic -- à la Jeff Buckley's fatal embrace of the Father of Waters, say, or the inconsolable Elliott Smith's forlorn self-gutting.

Since it didn't come at his own hand, Dimebag Darrell's demise belongs in another category of rock fatality. Still, his murder is the type of tragic end that puts one near the top of the Greil Marcus Rock Death Meter, which we've polished off and restored (okay, perhaps "stolen" is a better word).

Many years ago, Marcus started scoring rock deaths on three criteria: past contribution (PC), potential future contribution (PFC) and manner of death (MOD). By my estimation, last year's winner was Elliott Smith, who scored an impressive 25 out of 30. Could anyone top that this year?

Johnny Ramone, 56, prostate cancer. Right-wing guitarist and founding member of the Ramones. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.

PC: 8, PFC: 1, MOD: 1. Total: 10.

Valfar, 25, froze to death while hiking through a snowstorm to family's rustic cabin. Singer in Norwegian death-metal band Windir.

PC: 1, PFC: 1, MOD: 10*. Total: 12.

*Extra point for having recorded an unintentionally prophetic song called "Journey to the End."

Mac Dre, 34, shot by AK-47-wielding assailant while driving down Kansas City freeway. Hip-hop MC; Northern California legend.

PC: 4, PFC: 6, MOD: 2*. Total: 12.

*Style point for getting shot by glamorous weapon.

John Peel, 65, heart attack. Legendary BBC DJ. First to spin U2, Roxy Music, the Smiths, the Fall, Rod Stewart, Blur and the Sex Pistols.

PC: 7, PFC: 5, MOD: 1. Total: 13.

Ray Charles, 73, liver disease. One of the greatest American musicians ever.

PC: 11*, PFC: 2, MOD: 1. Total: 14.

*Very few careers go to 11. Brother Ray's was one.

Dave Blood, 46, suicide -- pill overdose. Bassist in the Dead Milkmen, punk band of "Bitchin' Camaro" and "Punk Rock Girl" infamy.

PC: 5, PFC: 2, MOD: 7. Total: 14.

Phil Healy, 31, car accident. Singer-songwriter and member of Delaware pop-rock band the Knobs. While fleeing the scene of an earlier fender-bender, Healy, whose blood alcohol level was more than four times the state's legal limit, ran head-on into a police car, killing himself and a state trooper. Healy's band did a song called "If I Die in a Car Crash" and was working on an album called The Knobs Break Up and Die. If he was famous anywhere beyond the greater Dover-Wilmington metro area, this would be one of the great ones indeed.

PC: 2, PFC: 3, MOD: 10*. Total: 15.

*2004's "Greil Marcus Rock Death Meter"Method of Demise of the Year.

Rick James, 56, officially died of natural causes, but the toxicology report read like the first few pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the man actually used meth while on a pacemaker!). Funk bassist-singer who gave us "Give It to Me Baby" and "Super Freak."

PC: 8, PFC: 3, MOD: 8*. Total: 19.

*2004 winner of Warren Zevon Award, given to musicians who continue engaging in the very behavior that got them in such sorry health in the first place.

Ol' Dirty Bastard, né Russell Tyrone Jones, 34, collapsed and died in Manhattan recording studio. After weeks of mulling over ODB's blood, and probably a couple of days' wait for the computer to finish printing out what was no doubt a lengthy report, it was found that ODB's demise was brought on by a combination of cocaine and the painkiller Tramadol. Outrageous hip-hop MC/ founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan.

PC: 6, PFC: 6, MOD: 10. Total: 22.

"Dimebag" Darrell Abbott, 38, shot and killed onstage by deranged fan. Genius metal guitarist of Pantera and Damageplan infamy; hard-partying strip-club co-owner known as "The People's Rock Star."

PC: 8*, PFC: 6, MOD: 10. Total: 24.

*Point added for having best rock & roll name of all time. -- John Nova Lomax

Dwelling on Failure
You probably know Ken Andrews as the producer/engineer behind the board for records by Pete Yorn and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, or perhaps as the sleepy-voiced singer/guitarist for Year of the Rabbit and On. In the early '90s, with bassist Greg Edwards, Andrews was half of the quirky brains behind a little-known act called Failure. Together they crafted some of the most uniquely appealing rock you've never heard. Failure blended uncanny melody and bizarre harmony with gorgeously distorted guitars and straightforward pop sensibilities over the course of three albums. When record-label problems and a heroin habit began getting in the way of progress in 1997, Failure disbanded and the glorious rock with the odd tilt stopped coming -- until now. Andrews has just released a fantastic CD/DVD collection of lost Failure tapes and footage entitled Golden (available at

B-Sides: How's Greg doing these days?

Ken Andrews: He's doing good. He's got this band called Autolux and is pretty absorbed in that project. The record came out a couple of months ago. I don't know how much touring they've done, but they've done some.

He's healthy and happy, I hope.

He's all cleaned up. He's been clean for about two years now.

Was Failure's uncanny dissonance something you consciously crafted in the songwriting process, or was it just naturally there?

It was definitely a natural thing for us. That started before the band even formed. There were three or four demos I was working on by myself that featured what would become Failure's signature dissonance. Very melodic, but harmonically teetering on the edge. Those demos became the jumping-off point for the band. The whole idea of that was fully realized on [the last album] Fantastic Planet. That record best represents what Greg and I came up with together.

You did some editing for the DVD in Golden, and I know you did some time in film school. Any plans to do more film work?

No, I'm sticking to music. I have a few new songs done for my solo project On, and also a few done for a potential Year of the Rabbit album. It's hard to say from year to year, but this year is going to be a much smaller percentage of working on my own music and a bigger percentage of producing and mixing other people's music.

I have to ask -- and I know a lot of people are wondering -- who or what is the song "Stuck on You" about?

It's about a song. It's not about a specific song, exactly, just any song that gets stuck in your head. When I was thinking about it, there were a couple of songs floating around in my head that were almost annoying me. I think the instrumental hook of that song is kind of trying to be one of those types of songs. You's kind of annoying, but it sticks in your head. -- John Goddard

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