Book review of 'The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars'

This volume includes folks who weren’t rockers, but were blues, reggae and jazz artists, as well as nonperformers and those who never got close to stardom.
Publish date:

Jeremy Simmonds
The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars: Heroin, Handguns and Ham Sandwiches
Chicago Review Press, 768 pages, paperback

By Gillian G. Gaar

This book is a morbidly entertaining read, the kind of book it’s fun to flip through at random to learn the basic details about how your favorite entertainer shuffled off this mortal coil.

The title isn’t entirely accurate. The listing of the dead encompasses folks who weren’t rock artists at all, but blues (Lightnin’ Hopkins), reggae (Bob Marley), jazz (Miles Davis), and in clearest case of stretching boundaries, actor River Phoenix because of his “numerous connections to the music world” (he apparently recorded an unreleased album and has a track on a charity compilation). You’ll also find plenty of folks who never got close to being stars, and nonperformers like managers, producers and recording engineers, as well. Though strangely, the obituary for critic Lester Bangs doesn’t mention his own forays into music.

Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars

The book is set up chronologically, which makes it cumbersome to deal with; if you don’t know when someone died, you’ll be forever turning to the index to look it up. This edition has been updated, but many of the problems mentioned in Goldmine’s review of the previous edition (in 2008) are still apparent. There’s incomplete information; while birthplaces for most artists are mentioned, some are only lucky enough to have the country where they were born listed (for poor Keith Harwood, you’re only told he was born “circa” 1940). In the case of Lux Interior of The Cramps, the cause of death isn’t even given.

And the book still contains numerous errors. In the book’s intro, Simmons writes, “With thousands of dates to consider, one or two small errors may creep in.” But there are likely many more than that. For example, in the entry on Kurt Cobain, there are at least six factual errors (including getting his birthplace wrong). And if you know an artist well, you’re likely to find some kind of error in their listing. Karen Carpenter didn’t sign up for marching band to get out of geometry class, but gym class; Seattle band The Gits didn’t “often” open for Nirvana, they did so only once; Linda McCartney’s 1998 memorial service didn’t bring the surviving Beatles together “for the first time since 1981,” they’d already worked together on the Anthology project; Elvis was never offered a regular showcase on the “Grand Ole Opry,” he only appeared on the show once; while Brian Epstein didn’t always cut the best deals he could for The Beatles, the suggestion that made “almost no money” in the early days under his management simply isn’t true (even before they got a recording contract, Brian secured The Beatles enough money so they were each earning twice as much as than their parents).

While some of the errors are small, the fact that there are so many does compromise the book’s usefulness as a reference tool. So read it for fun, but rely on other sources if you’re doing research.