Why We Mourn the Passing of our Music Idols
A Piece of Us Dies with Them
I write this as I mourn the death of the musician, singer, artist, guitar god and legend who I have idolized for more than 50 years — Leslie West.
“Leslie who?” you say. Admittedly, unless you are a hard core rock music aficionado, you would have no idea who Leslie West is. But to me, Leslie West and his music have been woven into the fabric of my life and soul since I was 16 years old. More on Leslie later.
I write not to talk about my Leslie West, but rather, yours.
We all have our favorite musician or singer who has carried us in song through good times and bad. Unfortunately, many of them have passed all too soon, not so much due to age, but rather to the excesses of success. Life on the road with unlimited funds and lots of down time make for a dangerous combination. Years of drugs, alcohol, late-night parties, one-night-stands, hot cars and private planes ultimately take their sometimes deadly toll.
No generation has been spared the sorrow. The world came to a disbelieving halt on that August day in 1977 when we learned Elvis Presley had died at 42.
The Woodstock Generation has suffered the passing of so many of the shining stars who performed at Yasgur’s Farm on that August weekend in 1969 — Joe Cocker, Alvin Lee, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens and Janis Joplin.
Thirty-two years after Elvis’s passing came the untimely death of the son-in-law he never knew — Michael Jackson in 2009.
Two of the Beatles are gone as is Jim Morrison. And in recent years we lost the likes of Johnny Winter, David Bowie, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, (two thirds of Cream) Eddie Money, Tom Petty and Eddie Van Halen.
Why do we mourn the passing of our idols? On the surface it makes no sense. We never personally knew them and they certainly didn’t know us. Except for a few instances, we never even met them so we certainly had no personal relationship as we do with family and close friends.
Sometimes our mourning borders on the bizarre. The gravesite of AC/DC lead singer Bon Scott is not only included on the list of Australia’s classified heritage places, it is also one of the most visited sites in Fremantle. Ex-Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones’ metal casket is buried 12-feet deep in Cheltenham (England) Cemetery to prevent exhumation by trophy hunters!
We mourn them because while they don’t know us, we certainly know them — perhaps better than we know some of our family members and close friends! They are a part of who we are.
Sociologist Jacque Lynn Foltyn of the National University in California says it best with, “These are our ‘intimate strangers.’ We may have been following them for decades, grown up with them. When they die, we mourn as if we knew them, because they have been part of our lives.”
Foltyn goes on to say, “Music and emotion are connected, and music evokes emotion. Singers are connected deeply to our emotional life, and the poplar music that tends to mean the most to us is the music of our youth. That’s the time of our romantic and sexual awakening, so singers become part of our coming of age.”
We also mourn the things that are never going to happen again. You may have seen your favorite artist live in concert several times over the years. You can remember how you felt as that person took the stage and you said, “Oh my God, it’s him!” That’s never going to happen again.
You probably bought every album or CD your favorite artist ever made. There will never be another one produced.
And finally, if you have been following the artist for decades, his or her death is a reminder of your own mortality. You perhaps discovered the artist when you and he or she were in your teens. Now, all these years later you’re both in your 50’s, 60’s or even 70’s. When the performer passes it gives you cause to look in the mirror and ask yourself, “How close am I?”
Back to Leslie West, the lead guitarist and frontman for the band Mountain. If you don’t recognize the band, you’ll perhaps recognize their biggest hit, “Mississippi Queen.”
My relationship with Leslie began in 1969 when a 16-year-old me traded The Worst of Jefferson Airplane album to my friend Paul for an album and band I’d never heard of, Mountain Climbing. Over the years I have seen the band more than a dozen times, bought all their albums/CD’s and thanks to my job as a television anchor, I’ve had the occasion to speak with Leslie a time or two.
He died December 23, 2020 at the age of 75. The cause of death was reported as heart failure. But those of us who idolized him also know of the years of weight issues (approaching 400 pounds) and his refusal to deal with his diabetes which eventually cost him his leg and life. There were also years of drug abuse.
As with your idol, mine has left me with the music and the memories.