Rockers lost, DJs found 

The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars traces four decades of rock star casualties. Plus: Groove Music explores hip-hop DJs.

Someone once said 50 percent of journalism was telling people that “Lord Jim is dead,” when they didn’t know Lord Jim was alive.

That’s sort of the case with this massive re-release of a reference book-cum-doorstop called The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars (Chicago Review Press, $24.95) by Jeffrey Simmonds.

Sure, all the rock star deaths of your youth are here: Buddy Holly, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain. But you’ll find enormously detailed and compelling accounts of the demise of a bunch of musicians you’ve probably never even heard of.

Up front, let’s put that ham sandwich thing to bed. Simmonds teases to it in his subtitle: “Heroin, Handguns and Ham Sandwiches.” This is an obvious nod to one of the more notorious rock deaths, that of Cass Elliot in 1974 while she was dining, flat on her back, in bed. A joking remark by the attendant removing her body sprouted the ham-sandwich canard, though Mama Cass died of heart failure. (Food was present in the room but not in her trachea.) She had a magnificent voice, but she carried 230 pounds on a 5-foot-5-inch frame, and eventually something had to give.

Did you know that Elliot, of the Mamas and the Papas, died in a London apartment owned by singer Harry Nilsson? Four years later, that same apartment was the site of another significant rock star death: Keith Moon, superhuman drummer of The Who. Moon provided the template for the rock star life, gobbling amphetamines and chugging vodka by the bottle. But it was a legal drug that killed him. He took 32 pills given him by a doctor to help slow his alcoholism. He came home to the Nilsson flat after a mild evening with Paul McCartney and a screening of The Buddy Holly Story. His girlfriend found him dead the next afternoon.

Perhaps a bit spooked, Nilsson sold the apartment.

The book debunks many myths — not just the ones involving ham sandwiches.

It also delivers full, reliable accounts of rock star deaths, like:

• Soul singer Sam Cooke, wearing only his underwear and one shoe, gets shot three times by a motel manager for the crime of banging on her door.

• Rick Nelson’s death in a plane crash is attributed to a faulty gas heater and not to the former teen idol’s freebasing of cocaine.

• Richard Manuel of The Band retires to his Winter Park Hotel room after a gig at the Cheek-to-Cheek lounge and hangs himself with his belt in the bathroom.

• John Lennon gets shot to death by an asshole.

• Johnny Ace, while playing Russian Roulette (or was he?), blows his brains out backstage.

This huge (822-page) book is all-encompassing and a bargain at any price. In addition to the usual cast of Rock n’ Roll Heaven, you’ll learn about the demises of Dudu Zulu, Jacob Killer Miller and Doris Kenner-Jackson. Every member of every doo-wop group gets his or her due, as do rappers and DJ’s.

With so much rock and death in one volume, The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars is the epitome of the perfect Christmas gift.

—William McKeen

* * * * * * * * *

The awkward moment when you realize you might be in love with a machine? I’m ashamed to say I’ve had a few of those. The original Nintendo Entertainment System stole my heart as an adolescent. The boombox made me swoon as a teen. As a hip-hop emcee, I thought I’d reached the apex of my electronic enchantment in college when I experienced the power a microphone can wield.

I was wrong.

My true sonic soulmate is none other than a turntable. While my epiphany came well before I read Groove Music: The Art And Culture Of The Hip Hop DJ by Mark Katz, the book does an excellent job of chronicling the turntable’s hip-hop origins, its acceptance as an instrument instead of just a playback device, and the birth of its namesake artform, Turntablism. The author — one part professor, one part DJ — also shows his readers how battle DJs can make turntables talk.

Groove Music expertly balances extensive research with interviews from legendary turntablists who helped mold hip-hop into what it is today. I’m not a DJ, but some of my best friends are, and I do consider myself a student of the genre. I was appalled at how little I really know about it. The book, along with its companion website, provides a historical overview of hip-hop itself while shedding light on the contributions of men and women you may not know.

Most importantly to this non-DJ who happens to own two sets of customized SP1200 Technics turntables, Katz’s book reminded me that it’s OK to love a machine.

—Infinite Skillz


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