Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Music's Most Fateful Flights

Mews of the plane crash over the weekend that killed four people and severely injured former Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker and noted turntablist Adam Goldstein (aka DJ AM) serves as yet another sobering reminder that in the ever-unpredictable world of celebrity culture, fate can and often does play a significant hand.

This seems especially true when it comes to pop music, which over the decades has seen its fair share of unfortunate life-ending events specifically related to air travel. Some of the most famous have occurred "in the line of duty"--on the way to or from concerts, personal appearances, photo/video shoots, etc.--a fact that not only has magnified the tragedies for fans but also has frozen in time the lives of these stars inside our collective memory banks.

For example, in just a few months--February 3, 1959, to be exact--it'll be the 50 th anniversary of what's generally considered the most well-known of all music-associated plane crashes: the Clear Lake Iowa accident that took the lives of rock and rollers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and "Big Bopper" J.P. Richardson. Holly was only 22 and Valens hadn't even turned 18 when they perished, and as Don McLean so aptly put it in his song "American Pie," for anyone who grew up during rock's Golden Age, it would always feel like "The Day The Music Died."

Meanwhile, country music fans often point to the March 1963 Tennessee plane crash that took away superstar Patsy Cline along with fellow performers Lloyd "Cowboy" Copas and Harold "Hawkshaw" Hawkins as their own era-stamping equivalent. And soul music fans, not to mention music fans in general, all mourned the loss of Otis Redding (and four members of his backing group the Bar-Kays) after their plane went down near Madison Wisconsin on December 10, 1967--ironically, mere days after Redding had recorded what would be his classic posthumous hit, "Sittin' On The Dock of the Bay."

Sometimes a plane crash can carry added symbolism. When Swing Era bandleader Glenn Miller's plane disappeared on the way to Paris for a scheduled performance for Allied troops fighting in Europe in mid-December 1944, his death became a powerful emblem of American patriotism during World War II. And when Southern rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steven Gaines and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines lost their lives in October 1977 in a crash near Gillsburg Mississippi, it seemed that perhaps the band had had premonitions: their latest album Street Survivors had just been released featuring an original cover (later changed) that depicted the group standing in flames, and was eerily highlighted by a song about death called "That Smell."

As evidenced by the likes of singer-songwriters Jim Croce (1973) and John Denver (1997), former teen idol Ricky Nelson (1985), hard rock guitarist Randy Rhoads (1982), bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan (1990), and R&B vocalist Aaliyah (2001), musician-associated plane crash deaths cut across all styles and genres. Thankfully, the names of Travis Barker and DJ AM did not have to be added to this fateful list.