In late December I drew the short straw and got the unhappy task of collecting the names and biographies for the Music World Obituaries 2007 list. Sifting through the astounding achievements of lifelong careers and brief brushes with fame of those across the musical map led to a fair amount of contemplation of the life of a musician.
My guess would be that most musicians when not performing live lives much like the rest of us, where work and family mesh together into a kind of mellow routine. Just because you’re a musician doesn’t mean that you can ignore that the dog needs to be walked or that the kids need to get to soccer practice. No, I suspect that they suffer along like the rest of us when they have to call for a plumber or make an appointment with the dentist.
It is death that makes all the difference. Reggae’s Lucky Dube’s death comes to mind. He was 43 years-old when he was gunned down in October in an attempted carjacking while driving his kids across town in South Africa. Of course we were all shocked and horrified when we heard the news, and perhaps a little more shocked and horrified than we would have been if it had been some unknown person in our own town that was killed so horribly. Soon after Dube’s death the internet was hot with emails speculating on the dastardly crime committed upon Dube and the fate the criminals responsible should face when caught.
The lesson learned is that being famous doesn’t make you immune to the senseless crimes, tragic accidents or life-threatening diseases the rest of us face on a daily basis and nor should it. But being famous does mean that upon your death your life is parsed out for the world to ponder and scrutinize. The famous death becomes the personal map of successes and, more often than not, utter failures. My death won’t be accompanied by photos or stories of me during the overweight years doing a couple of lines of coke with a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand and a hooker in the other, not that any such photos of me exist – or at least I don’t think they do. The point is that for many musicians what is written isn’t always fair or kind. The deceased don’t get to refute stories of substance abuse or that one really lousy CD that was some flunky producer’s bad idea or that a marriage failed because of both parties.
This brings me to three extraordinarily horrific deaths in the music world this last year. Zayda Peña was the 23 year-old vocalist for Zayda y Los Culpables. She was killed in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound when she was murdered.
Sergio Gómez was a 34 year-old singer for K-Paz when he was killed. José Luis Aquino was a 33 year-old trumpet player for Los Conde; he was found beaten to death with a bag tied over his head. As things stand right now none of the murders have been solved, but there’s plenty of speculation that ranges from crimes of passion to revenge killings to assassinations linked to the underbelly life of the narcotic traffickers. We are at a place where these musicians cannot speak for themselves. It would be so easy to dismiss their deaths as part of the narcocorrido lifestyle and just let the reputation of their deaths, instead of as musicians, serve as the example to others.
I am more likely to take the musician’s side in cases like these. The thinking goes like this – you go where the gig is. For any salon singer during the heydays of Prohibition who got in the middle of gang warfare, or the blues musician who just started his set when a knife fight over a woman broke out or the court composer who survived only at the pleasure of his king, the life in music is filled with peril. Now, I would like to believe that William Congreve was right in that “music soothes the savage breast,” but I’m not that naïve. I’d bet that not too many seasoned musicians would believe it either.
We often admire and attack musicians for their excesses in the same breath. We envy their torrid romances with young starlets and scoff at their countless attempts at rehab. We cry over their songs, but ridicule them when they flop on stage or run to flab. We love and loathe them. We want to be them, but we’d be damned if we let our kids emulate them. And when they die, we are often equal parts of admiration and derision for them simply going to where the gig was.
I suspect the musician’s life is sometimes a lonely one; where traveling on the road takes its toll on family and friends or where devilish temptations just seem a whole hell of a lot more interesting than the boredom of a hotel room or where the companionship of someone who doesn’t much care about you, except for your fame or money, just looks better than being alone. If you don’t believe me go into a club in the middle of the day and turn all the lights on. Check out the luxury accommodations backstage, complete with leaky toilets and chipped paint. Take a good long look at the house tables with the cigarette burns and rank floors and the duct-taped repairs on stage. Now imagine an audience filled with rowdy drunks and /or bored Philistines and sing a song. And make it good.