In a blaze of glory

<strong>Number One in Heaven: the heroes who died for rock 'n' roll</strong>

Jeremy Simmonds <em>P

How would you like to check into the granite garden? I would imagine peacefully, at a ripe old age, with your loving family by your bedside. Not electrocuted by a faulty microphone in front of 1,200 people on the stage of Top Rank in Swansea, as was the Stone the Crows guitarist Les Harvey. Or in a small aircraft, having failed to find the reserve fuel tank, like John Denver. Or by choking on a cocktail cherry, as did Steve "Peregrine" Took of Tyrannosaurus Rex. That's how these three entered the eternal nightclub; and this huge, affectionate and strangely compelling chronicle considers them to be heroes, the humble foot soldiers sacrificed for the common cause in the great campaigns of rock 'n' roll.

If they died of liver failure (Phil Lynott, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan), they are quietly applauded for their commitment to the sauce. If they bowed out with a heart attack (Lowell George, Alex Harvey, Divine), then hurrah to their insomniac lifestyle. If their demise was self-administered (as many were: Joe Meek, Ian Curtis, Richard Manuel), there's a hushed, sympathetic tone. And if, like Leadbelly, they expired because of "amyotrophic lateral sclerosis", the author just scratches his head and moves smartly on in search of more rip-roaring sagas.

And there's no shortage of these, shot through as they all are with black humour, pathos and peculiar insight into the madness that fame can install. The Temptations' David Ruffin stumbled into hospital clutching a briefcase stuffed with $40,000 in cash and cheques. John Entwistle of The Who - "it's the way he would have wanted" - expired of cocaine-induced heart failure in the arms of a Las Vegas hooker who had declared him "unresponsive" in the morning. The heart-throb Claude François popped his clogs trying to change a light bulb while showering, news so distressing in his native France that two fans promptly committed suicide. Judge Dread collapsed on stage at the Penny Theatre in Canterbury dressed as Superman, and you wonder if he'd be here today if his ambulance hadn't required bump-starting on the way to the hospital. Janis Joplin, it's now believed, hit her head on a lamp stand, though clearly a cocktail of intoxicants encouraged her to do so. There was little surprise when Tupac Shakur was gunned down, as "he wasn't wearing the bullet-proof vest issued by his record company". And so lawless was the life of the country legend Gram Parsons that friends torched his heroin-stuffed corpse on a makeshift pyre in the Nevada Desert, the flames visible more than five miles away.

There is genuine sadness, too - the detailed account of the death of half of Lynyrd Skynyrd in a small plane is all the more ghastly when you learn that nearly 2,000 people swarmed to the crash site and stripped the wreckage of souvenirs. And you have to feel for the relatives of Iron Butterfly's Philip Taylor Kramer, whose remains were not discovered until four years after he'd disappeared, in a van at the foot of a ravine near Malibu.

But it's the lonesome death of Dennis Wilson that still lingers for me. Swimming off his yacht at Marina Del Ray, the Beach Boys drummer drank the best part of a bottle of vodka to try to insulate himself against a bitterly cold tide. As he dived, he realised the seabed was littered with his own possessions, thrown from this very mooring during a domestic with his second wife years earlier. He appeared out of the swell clutching a cracked and mud-stained framed photograph of himself with the woman in question, plunged back down, reappeared briefly as a ghostly figure swimming two feet below the surface, and was never seen alive again - having hit his head on the underside of the boat.

At least his passing was mourned, which is not always the case. Asked why he hadn't turned up for the funeral of his former band leader Rory Storm (of the Hurricanes), Ringo Starr was brief and to the point: "I wasn't there for his birth either."

Mark Ellen is editor of the Word magazine

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Planet saved?: Why the green movement is taking to the streets