Since the end of the '80s, many of its musical artists have aged and matured in typical ways, either in or out of the business. Some, of course, dealt with that constant evolution better than others, while another group was silenced by sudden, accidental deaths. The list of such artists no longer with us will undoubtedly continue to grow as time passes, but for the time being here's a look at some of the most devastating and lamentable losses of '80s artists since 1990.
This is one of the first musical deaths that I remember with painful clarity exactly where I was and how it felt to hear the dreadful news. I was having my own serious problems at the time, but Stevie Ray Vaughan's tragic death in a helicopter crash seared through my blurred consciousness like one of his solos. Aside from having The Day the Music Died qualities (Vaughan taking a last-minute open seat on the flight after many other possibilities passed), the tragedy robbed the music world of an unbelievably talented musician who had conquered his addictions and had years of contributions left in him.
Quietly but forcefully, guitarist Steve Clark helped birth and maintain Def Leppard
's peak sound during the '80s, though it never seemed like enough people paid attention to his talent. That fact always made Clark's lonely death from a cliched blend of alcohol and pills that much more poignant for me. As the ravages of alcoholism began to take their toll on him during the late '80s, Clark became increasingly estranged from his bandmates. In fact, he was actually in the midst of a period of leave from the band at the time of his death, following repeated attempts by his mates to help him overcome his addictions.
As frontman of Queen
, a band that produced consistent, high-quality material through two full, separate decades (a rare rock and roll accomplishment indeed), the charismatic Freddie Mercury showered the music world with both his talent and his theatrical, sweeping personality. In addition, his highly publicized death from AIDS, a disease he had endured silently for some time, massively raised awareness among fans and the worldwide community of the growing affliction. Mercury's tremendous talent and the impressive amount of good will his work inspired continue to be an inspiring legacy for his memory and his band.
Prolific session drummer and founding member of Toto
Jeff Porcaro had the misfortune to die at least partly as the result of an allergic reaction he suffered while using a pesticide in his yard. That led some to latch onto the notion that he had died in a gardening accident, a claim that was unfortunately used at times to make light of the man's death. What's worse, when a coroner's report mentioned that a minute trace of cocaine was found in Porcaro's body, some jumped to the conclusion that the drug contributed to his death. In fact, an undiagnosed heart condition was the main culprit. Man, sometimes I hate people.
Probably rock music's most independent musical artist of all time, the one-and-only Frank Zappa spanned nearly three decades as an unwavering artistic force. As both a guitarist and composer of extraordinary range as well as one of rock's fiercest social commentators, Zappa made his most striking contribution to the '80s away from the stage and recording studio. Always a defender of free speech, Zappa directed his ire at the Parents Music Resource Center in a statement he delivered before the U.S. Senate in its 1985 hearings on music warning labels. His death from prostate cancer silenced a genuine American original.
As founding member and lead guitarist for one of the best and brightest post-hardcore, proto-alternative bands, Bob Stinson lent an air of anarchic edge to the Replacements that contrasted magically with the increasingly precise pop sensibilities of the band's frontman, Paul Westerberg. For this reason alone, Stinson's dismissal from the band (the reasons for it still remain unclear) in 1986 absolutely served as the death knell for this great band. Tragically, like other musicians finding themselves exiled from their band, Stinson didn't persevere very well and died from years of substance abuse. Same sad old story.
Heightened sensitivity and a caring nature have contributed to many untimely musician deaths over the years. Such was apparently the case for INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, who was found dead after hanging himself at a Sydney hotel. The coroner's report's conclusion of suicide stemmed largely from evidence suggesting that Hutchence had been particularly distraught just before his death over a custody dispute between his live-in girlfriend, Paula Yates, and her ex-husband, Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof. Drugs and alcohol were likely also involved, but reports of autoerotic asphyxiation remain unsubstantiated.
Though Ric Ocasek had always clearly been the leader and primary creative force behind the enormous success of the Cars
, bassist and singer Ben Orr functioned as the group's smooth-voiced ace in the hole, which is why Ocasek gave him so many of his songs to sing. Unfortunately, Orr's name probably remains one of rock's most unjustly lesser-known but still legendary monikers. A dedicated rocker to the end, Orr played music all the way up to a few days before his death from pancreatic cancer, playing a show with his rock supergroup, Big People, that surely too few had ever even heard of.
Far more people knew of the legendary accomplishments and early passing of the Clash
's Joe Strummer, but that's not the only reason so many people took his death so hard. Perhaps the most revered and influential original punk band of all, the Clash invaded the consciousness of fans with imagination and daring as well as its righteous social awareness. As frontman (and blood and guts) of the band, Strummer laid down a massive legacy despite more than a decade of limited activity. But what made his passing from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect most tragic was his recent vibrant output with the Mescaleros.
This is such a maddeningly ignored rock and roll death that I couldn't even confirm the exact date of birth or death of the Vandals
' original lead singer, Steven Jensen. But that's actually par for the course for the potentially shady manner in which Stevo was dismissed from the pioneering Southern California punk band during the mid-'80s and denied linkage with them ever since. But fans of the band's brilliant output from those days know that Stevo's vocals and charisma were a driving force in the hardcore scene. His death from a prescription drug overdose in Hawaii is a devastating epitaph to a vital '80s artist.