Welcome loyal listeners, curious content seekers, and auditory adventurers, to The Flyover Podcast, thank you so much for taking the time to join us for the next hour of conversation, comedy, and music.
This week’s episode, “Only the Good Die Young,” is a tribute to the many, many musicians who have sadly left us far too suddenly and too soon.
If our last episode was the spiritually cleansing power of the first rays of sunshine and life-affirming joys of spring, then this week is April’s grey clouds and weeklong showers that remind you of the flip side of the coin.
You can’t celebrate life without at least a little acknowledgment of the inevitable. It’s what you folks listening in California right now will never be able to understand: it’s the three months of suffering through mortality-inducing darkness and cold that makes you truly appreciate the glory of beautiful weather and life. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves in the rest of the country. Who needs perfect weather twelve months out of the year, anyway?
You want to spend an hour divorced from reality? Hey, you could always take a day off of work and try to figure out whatever the hell’s going on during “Let’s Make a Deal,” that oughta do it. You want an hour of mindless pop to help you temporarily forget the tragic suffering of this mortal coil? There’s always a Top 40 or oldies station you could listen to, but be careful, you might hear Kesha’s “Die Young,” Eric Clapton’s aching “Tears in Heaven,” or Pearl Jam’s cover of “Last Kiss.”
Nah, you want to stick with us, we’ve got what you need. Like these first three songs, filled with indelible melodies, memorable choruses, and a healthy dose of reality.
(Billy Joel – Only the Good Die Young)
(Vampire Weekend – Diane Young)
(The Shangri-Las – Leader of the Pack)
Five years ago this week, I was teaching a first grade class in an elementary school in New Jersey. In the middle of my lesson, the doors to my room burst open like it was six in the morning on Black Friday. Shocked, every head in the room turned to my coworker who rushed in with an exasperated look on her face.
A million thoughts were running through my mind, but not one of them prepared me for what she said: Prince had died.
It seemed…impossible. Prince couldn’t die, that just…how? How could Prince die?
Like David Bowie, who passed away only three months earlier, Prince didn’t even seem of this Earth. How could he die? He had just started his new Piano & a Microphone Tour, and I was planning to see him perform in Philadelphia the following week. He was still at the absolute peak of his powers, still looked like he did 30 years ago…how was this possible?!
Listeners of this show, those of you who know me, know how much I love Prince. To suddenly have to reconcile with the fact that there would never be another new song, awe-inspiring concert, acrobatic guitar solo, oddball television interview, to have those things just immediately taken from you? From the world?
That’s what makes this “dying young” thing so difficult. BB King was incredible, still howling his greatest blues triumphs late into his 80s. But, when he died, he was 89. It was sad, sure, but he didn’t have twenty good years left. Chuck Berry. Little Richard. They’re rock and roll Gods, but they lived good, long, rewarding lives. And, of course, when we’re all dead and gone, Keith Richards will undoubtedly be saying the same thing about all of us.
But, Prince? The guy who was still creating new sounds at Paisley Park and mesmerizing audiences all across the country?
I immediately thought back to the first time I saw him live, in July of 2004 at the Meadowlands. At that time, I was still pretty focused on classic rock, already having seen two dozen Springsteen shows, but also checking off The Stones, The Who, Petty, Dylan, and more. I wanted to see all the greats, as many as I could, as often as I could. I was a stone cold rock and roll junkie.
But, when my friend offered to take me to a Prince show, I paused. Sure, I knew Prince. I knew “Purple Rain” and the big hits, but other than him turning his name into an unpronounceable symbol and wearing assless pants that one time, I didn’t know much else.
“You’re going to love it,” my friend said. “If you don’t, I’ll pay for your ticket.”
Long story short, I paid him. I would have paid him twice what the ticket cost. I was an instant convert. How could you not be?
Prince played guitar like Hendrix. Danced like James Brown. Sang like everyone in between. That night, he played a few songs off his return-to-form “Musicology” record, which he gave away with each ticket, as well as all the hits you’d have hoped for: “Let’s Go Crazy”, “I Would Die 4 U”, “When Doves Cry”, “Purple Rain,” you name it. He challenged his band with some off-the-cuff covers of Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood” and Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” which was as surprising as it was amazing.
But the thing that stays with me most was the solo acoustic set in the middle of the show that started with “Little Red Corvette” and “Cream,” and concluded with a song I didn’t yet know but immediately loved, “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” I had never seen a performer so sure of himself, so confident and effortlessly cool. He could take you anywhere, and he knew it. I was transformed, it was magical.
And the women at this show, my goodness. I was used to Springsteen shows, you know, a bunch of middle-aged, overweight New Jersyians in baseball hats spilling beer on their t-shirts and complaining that he isn’t playing the old stuff when he just got done playing a song from 1973, not beautifully tan women in perfectly-fitting, red-sequined miniskirts.
They, too, were transformed, though likely in a different way, especially when Prince brought out his undeniably sexy falsetto on songs like “Kiss” and “Adore.” He played those too, just an unbelievable evening.
He also played this song, which took on a new, deeper meaning on April 21st, 2016.
(Prince – Sometimes it Snows in April)
(Marvin Gaye – I Heard it Through the Grapevine)
(INXS – Don’t Change)
These next two musicians were no strangers to hard living, both transformative artists whose substance abuse cut them down before their 30th birthdays.
Hank Williams died at 29 years old en route to a concert in West Virginia after years of heavy drinking. When concert promoters told the sold-out crowd that Williams had died, the crowd actually laughed, thinking it was just another excuse from the erratic performer. But, when the musicians waiting in the theatre started singing Williams’ “I Saw the Light,” the mood turned somber, as the crowd realized the disturbing truth. They could have just as easily sung his final single, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” which seemingly predicted his depressing fate.
There doesn’t seem to be any statistical evidence to suggest that turning 27 years old leads to an increased chance of untimely death, but as we know, in the world of music and art, it can often be an ominous age.
In 1938, Robert Johnson, just a few years after his infamous deal with the Devil, opened the door to the “27 Club,” several years before Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and our next artist were even born. Jonathan Brandis. Anton Yelchin. Basquiat. All 27 when they died as well.
Your twenties are a tough time in your life, and for these artists proved to be an unhealthy combination of being young while having the entire world at your feet. The need to test your limits while also believing yourself to be invincible; we’ve lost far too many to the excesses of fame. If only they could have had someone to help them see the light.
(Hank Williams – I Saw the Light)
(Jimi Hendrix – If 6 Was 9)
When Jan Berry, along with Brian Wilson, wrote “Dead Man’s Curve” and recorded it with his partner Dean just a few days after John F. Kennedy’s life was tragically cut short in 1963, he may have known he had a hit on his hands, but he never could have guessed it would turn out to be a personal prophecy.
On April 12, 1966, Berry crashed his Corvette Stingray into a parked truck just a few yards from the actual Dead Man’s Curve in Beverly Hills. While he was lucky enough to survive, his career was essentially over, suffering massive brain damage and paralysis due to the crash.
That’s another unglamorous club for entertainers: those who sadly perished in motor vehicle accidents. Jan may have survived his infamous crash, but Duane Allman, Eddie Cochran, Harry Chapin, Michael Hedges, and Lisa Lopez wouldn’t have the same luck, their auspicious careers all cut dramatically short.
John Denver, Ricky Nelson, Aaliyah, most of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Otis Redding, all died in airplane accidents, silencing voices that had only just started to reach their potential.
The most famous, of course, was on February 3rd, 1959, the day the music died, when the plane that held Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP “Big Bopper” Richardson crashed, killing them and the crew instantly. Buddy Holly, of course, had a string of hits by age 22 that any artist would be lucky to have in a lifetime. Ritchie Valens was famous for songs like “La Bamba,” “Donna,” and “Come On, Let’s Go.” The Big Bopper? Well, you know him:
“Hellooooo baaaayyyyybeeeee. Will I…what? Can I…what?”
What you may not know is how some of the passengers came to be on that plane in the first place.
While there is only a rumor that Dion DiMucci, of “Runaround Sue” fame, gave up his seat on the plane to The Big Bopper after a fateful coin toss, there is plenty of corroboration that Waylon Jennings decided not to fly on the plane, opting rather for a bus ride to the next concert.
When Buddy Holly found out Jennings wouldn’t be flying with them, he said to Waylon, “I hope your old bus freezes up.”
In response, Waylon turned to his friend, jokingly, “Well, I hope your plane crashes.”
(Otis Redding – My Lover’s Prayer)
(Aaliyah – Are You That Somebody)
(John Lennon – Peggy Sue)
You just heard John Lennon performing the song that made the late, great Buddy Holly famous, “Peggy Sue.”
John Lennon, that’s another tough one. Shot down in the prime of his life, just as he had started to conquer his lifelong demons and was becoming a great husband, loving father, and, above all, happy. Forty years old. When he died, his youngest son, Sean, was only five years old. He would never get to see him become an artist of his own, nor would he get to grow old with the woman he so proudly, and publicly, loved.
Last December marked 40 years since his untimely death, that would have been half his life ago. Think of all the music he would have made during that time. All the things he missed that his fellow bandmates went on to see and do, like the reunion he no doubt would have taken part in when those three finally worked together again in the mid-90s. The causes he would have championed. It’s a death that continues to be painful, all these years later.
I’ve always felt a certain, unearned kinship with Lennon, probably because he died on December 8th. My birthday? December 7th, and for most of my adult life, I would find myself in New York City on that day, Lennon’s adopted hometown. I’d often make the walk from Penn Station up to The Dakota, just across the street from the famous “Imagine” mosaic in the Strawberry Fields of Central Park. There would always be flowers laying in tribute and dozens of fans taking pictures, mournful yet celebratory.
For whatever reason, however, I’d never been in the city on December 8th. So, a few years ago, before being lucky enough to take in Springsteen on Broadway, I flew in from Chicago and met with a friend of mine to finally do just that. As we approached West 72nd Street, we began to hear what sounded like live music, and what looked like hundreds of enchanted onlookers.
It didn’t matter that temperatures were freezing that December 8th, everyone was right where they wanted to be. Several musicians with acoustic guitars took turns leading the crowd in song, from Beatles’ classics to Lennon’s solo work. Everyone in the crowd knew every single word, singing along as if sending an hours-long prayer to Yoko Ono across the street, and to her husband above.
As if straight out of a movie, a light snowfall fell as the musicians played “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” It was one of the most beautiful, and perfect, afternoons of my entire life, the kind of thing that could only happen in New York City.
I could spend an entire hour on that Central Park afternoon. It was…perfect. The unspoken connection shared among strangers, some of whom had traveled just a few blocks, others who had just arrived from Europe. They just wanted to be a part of this moment. They wanted to believe in our collective better angels, the best of us. They wanted to feel the spirit of something, and someone, that was greater than all of us.
They wanted to keep that spirit, and the man who gave their own lives meaning, in their hearts, if only for a little while.
And so, we did.
(Warren Zevon – Keep Me in Your Heart)
The Flyover Podcast is recorded and produced by Kyle Pucciarello in Chicago, Illinois. For more information, please visit www.theflyover.site, @official_flyover on Instagram, or email us at email@example.com.