Never Sing Ill of the Dead

Hereafter, tunes extolling departed musicians should assume they might have a chance in hell

If you believe in forever, you may also believe that somewhere beyond the stars is a rock 'n' roll heaven with one hell of a band.

Rest assured, you're not alone.
Though it's still too soon for Blind Melon fans to put a silver-lining spin on the latest rock 'n' roll-lifestyle casualty (singer Shannon Hoon, who was found dead of a drug overdose on the band's tour bus last month), think back to early August when Jerry Garcia's expiration date was posted. If some tie-dyed entrepreneur isn't already in the parking lot at Phish shows hawking a quickie single about Jerry joining some supergroup in the otherworld, it'll be just short of a miracle.

Ever since Caruso keeled over, hack songwriters have been penning maudlin tributes to departed entertainers. When Elvis Presley died, there were at least 70such morbid singles with titles like "Heaven Needs a Hound Dog Man" and "Welcome Home Elvis," usually produced with an angelic choir stashed conveniently nearby.

One such release, recorded by Elvis impersonator Wilgus J. Crayner, was called "My Heart's Content (Goodbye to the King)." The album depicted Elvis gleefully reunited with his dead mama Gladys and telling her how proud he is to be singing in the service of the Lord. No doubt "Ol' Shep," the faithful pup from the King's 1957 hit who was supposed to wind up "where the good doggies go," was there to lick Presley's blue suede shoes.

No take on the rock 'n' roll afterlife, however, was more offensive and insufferable than "Rock and Roll Heaven" itself. Released in 1974 on the Righteous Brothers' album Give It to the People, "Heaven" briefly restored Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield to Top 40 radio after an eight-year drought. The song was co-written by Alan O'Day, who scored a No. 1 hit three years later with "Undercover Angel."

If you only know the Righteous Brothers from the impassioned vocals on "Ebb Tide" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," then you probably think they could sing the telephone book and make it sound soulful. That idea goes out the window like a 1929 stockbroker once you hear how ridiculous the Brothers sound reciting the Dead Legends of Rock directory.

One thing's certain--there are a lot more dead rock stars than the paltry few the Righteous ones tell us about (Jimi, Janis, Otis, Morrison ... hold on--Bobby Darin? Jim Croce?).

Maybe Medley and Hatfield heard "Night Shift," the Commodores' dapper paean to dead soul singers, and realized, "Oh, shit! We forgot Sam Cooke!" Or maybe they noticed that the list of dead giants Dick Clark rattles off on his occasional American Bandstand specials keeps getting longer. In any case, they recorded a sequel to "Rock and Roll Heaven" that, astonishingly, is even tackier than the original.

You can just hear the promotional slogans--"The song you loved is back, now featuring ten new dead stars!" Thankfully, "Rock and Roll Heaven '92" (which was recorded in 1991) entered the charts somewhere near the Earth's core and sank from there.

Although the two "Heaven"s share the same miserable tune, only "B. Medley" gets a songwriting credit on the new version. O'Day probably heard the laughably metered lyrics Medley wrote and demanded his name be stricken from the recording.

Try warbling this unwieldy verse in the shower sometime:
Elvis loved us tender
John said, "Give peace a chance"
And Roy introduced us to his pretty woman
Jackie took us higher
Ricky took us down to "Lonesome Town"
In heaven's reign, the angels sing
When they all start to gather 'round.

When you're done playing "spot the rhyme," try grappling with the strange premise of both Righteous tunes.

Maybe you were raised to believe that once we shuffle off this mortal coil, we leave all earthly cares behind. Anyone who's seen a community-theatre production of Our Town is at least familiar with the concept.

Yet, according to the Righteous Brothers, deceased rock stars like Jimi, Janis and Otis (or Elvis, John and Stevie Ray) learned nothing in this world and are furiously scrounging for "another song, another place to play" in the next.

Come on, can't we change jobs in the afterlife? Joe the Shoe Repairman shouldn't have to go to Shoe Repair Heaven and fix everyone's busted sandals.

Most of the musicians in "Rock and Roll Heaven" died in a plane crash on the way to a gig or returning from one. And those who didn't overdosed like Shannon Hoon, shooting up on the bus to fight boredom between shows. The last time Otis Redding called his wife before his plane went down, he was pissed off about spending so much time on the road, and when R&B singer Chuck Willis kicked off in 1958, he had a double-sided hit--"What Am I Living For" backed with "Gonna Hang Up My Rock 'n' Roll Shoes." You think he was eager to entertain the angels?

And pity poor Jim Morrison. On Earth, he struggled to recite his sophomoric poetry at Doors concerts, but the teenybopper cries for "Light My Fire" drowned him out. To hear the Righteous Brothers tell it ("Sing a song to light my fire, remember Jim that way"), Morrison is chained to that damn song forever.

Wait a minute--what's a bacchanalian hell-raiser like Morrison doing in heaven, anyway? Were pride, lust and gluttony taken off the list of deadly sins sometime before 1971? And once the Lizard King leered and swaggered his way into paradise, you think he'd agree to share a stage with Bobby Darin? Come on, guys.

Sure, Monterey Pop and Live Aid had diverse lineups, but nobody forced the Who to actually play with Simon and Garfunkel (although the thought of "Dangling Conversation" ending in auto destruction and smoke bombs does make one's mouth water).

And another thing--according to the Righteous Brothers, God's house band has a glut of vocalists, one drummer (sadly, it's Dennis Wilson instead of Keith Moon), a few guitar heroes, and absolutely no bass players. Hey, down there--heaven needs bass players!

Apparently, the only pitfalls on the path to rock 'n' roll heaven are committing suicide or murder (no Spade Cooley, thank you). Self-destructive stars like Joplin, Morrison and Elvis drank and drugged themselves to death, but get off on a technicality because they didn't leave a note. However, don't bank on Kurt Cobain getting his wings in the inevitable "Rock and Roll Heaven 2000."

Clearly, "Rock and Roll Heaven" is designed for the living. So, please, the next time one of your favorite rockers is found stiff with a needle in his arm, forget about wringing out his persona for the last drop of entertainment value. He's already given enough, and you're better off believing he finally gets the help he needs at the great Betty Ford Clinic in the sky.

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