Rock Star Deaths

Charlie Watts’ death on August 24th had a somewhat surprising impact on me. To be honest, I doubt that I’ve thought about Charlie Watts for more than a cumulative hour over the course of my life. Nonetheless, his death sank into my bones. It bothers me that I could feel so disturbed by the death of a pop culture figure; someone I didn’t know personally. I like the Rolling Stones but I’m not a massive fan. I have several of their albums and saw them in concert once. What’s more, I’ve experienced the death of several family members over the past three years and it feels wrong to let a rock star’s death bother me as much as the death of distant kin.

When it comes to rock star deaths, the first I remember was Elvis Presley’s. That didn’t really affect me because I was ten years old and hadn’t yet come to appreciate his music. However, I certainly noticed how it affected my mother, so much so that I still remember answering the phone when her friend called with the news. In addition, there was such a massive public outpouring of grief that the memory stands out as a significant cultural event. The next one in my memory is John Lennon’s murder, and that did affect me a great deal; in fact, it still makes me sad and it left a foul scar. I was 13 and a bonafide Beatlemaniac when it happened. My parents were out for the evening and I had Monday Night Football on the TV because a Beatles movie was supposed to air after the game. Like so many other Americans, I heard Howard Cosell announce Lennon’s death. I cried myself to sleep. My mother didn’t really understand at the time but later, after she’d seen people weeping at the shopping mall when a Beatles song played over the sound system, she did. 

The deaths of Elvis and John Lennon were different, though, because they were unexpected and tragic. Both were robbed of a full life, which was not the case with the 80-year-old Charlie Watts. Moreover, I think that the cultural meaning of rock star deaths changed in 2016. That was the year that seemed cursed – Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, and Sharon Jones were but a few of the names in the seemingly-endless litany of social media tributes. I distinctly remember folks writing that 2017 “had” to be better but, of course, it wasn’t. Every year since, we lose more rock stars who once embodied the energy, attitude, and presumptions of youth.

I know that every generation feels an emotional and psychological impact when famous people pass away but, arguably, this became amplified after World War II when Western teenagers began to consume popular culture more so than earlier generations. Television was introduced, rock and roll was born, and music became more than a form of entertainment – it expressed and shaped baby boomers’ values, becoming an important means of self and collective generational expression. As a member of Generation X, “the latchkey generation,” music was an important aspect of my formative years. Some lyrics helped to shape my worldview, while others gave voice to my emotions. Some music helped me to individuate and see beyond the confines of my hometown and the norms of mainstream culture. In short, music opened the world to me so that I could see for miles and miles. Oh yeah.

It’s not surprising, then, that one should mourn the death of public figures who had a significant impact on their sense of self. And, of course, musicians are important to us simply because of the pleasure their music brings. But I always like to look at symbolic factors, and I think this is especially true in Charlie Watts’ case. After nearly 60 years of making music, the Rolling Stones seemed at once aged and ageless, the personification of “rock and roll will never die.” Why are those Keith Richards jokes so popular? We love the fact that he cheated death. By all rights, he should have died decades ago and the fact that he didn’t is a sweet, seldomly-won human victory. At the same time, it’s a cruel irony that the quiet, gentlemanly Watts was the first core member of The Rolling Stones to succumb to mortality since Brian Jones died in 1969.

Some public figures seem like constants throughout our lives. We see them in the news and can mark our life’s events by the album or song that was popular at the time. When they die, it makes the world a little less familiar. Finally, it reminds us that “time waits for no one.”

Rest in peace, Charlie.

9 thoughts on “Rock Star Deaths

  1. Terrific read, Pam. So well stated. Feels like the fact that he didn’t die tragically or “before his time” made this one hit differently. More like we really are coming to the end of an era and not just to the end of individual journeys. I’m already dreading future passings.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This is a very thoughtful blog, Pam. I have a similar relationship with the Stones because I was a Beatles freak, and back in the day you were either with the Beatles or with the Stones:) I too was surprised by my reaction to Charlie’s death and I really think you hit the nail on the head here about why. It becomes more and more difficult to deny our own mortality. I really appreciated this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks so much for writing this Pam, and for giving voice to my thoughts! I am a music lover, and a casual Stones fan at best (a couple of greatest hits albums on vinyl?), but I like and respect Charlie Watts from afar. I also tend to celebrate an artists life when they seemingly die of old age. Charlie Watts lived to be 80, and did what he loved to do, for longer than most. That is to celebrated. We are, as you wrote entering (in the middle) of an era where all “rock stars” of the 60’s/70’s will fall…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks so much for writing this Pam, and for giving voice to my thoughts! I am a music lover, and a casual Stones fan at best (a couple of greatest hits albums on vinyl?), but I like and respect Charlie Watts from afar. I also tend to celebrate an artists life when they seemingly die of old age. Charlie Watts lived to be 80, and did what he loved to do, for longer than most. That is to celebrated. We are, as you wrote entering (in the middle) of an era where all “rock stars” of the 60’s/70’s will fall…

    Liked by 1 person

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