Thursday, July 5, 2007

Battle of the Living and the Dead

If you picked two all-star teams of guitarists, one in which everyone was still alive, and the other in which everyone was dead by the age of 40, which would be better? To choose up teams, we'll rely on the Rolling Stone list of the 100 greatest guitarists, selected by the redoubtable rock critic David Fricke, who knows way more about guitar players than I do. We'll start from the top, picking among the living and the dead until we get to a team of five guitarists.

First, the living:
B.B. King (No. 3 on David's list): 1925-
Eric Clapton (4): 1945-
Chuck Berry (6): 1926-
Ry Cooder (8): 1947-
Jimmy Page (9): 1944- Have I mentioned how much I hate Robert Plant's singing?

Now, the dead by 40:
Jimi Hendrix (1): 1942-1970. Choked on his own vomit.
Duane Allman (2): 1946-1971. Motorcycle, meet truck.
Robert Johnson (5): 1911-1938. The Devil made himself a good deal here.
Stevie Ray Vaughan (7): 1954-1990. Helicopter coming out of Alpine Valley theatre in Wisconsin, didn't make it past a skiing hill.
Kurt Cobain (12): 1967-1994. Sad, sad, sad.

You'd have to give the nod to the dead guys, wouldn't you? Cobain's a bit of a ringer, a better singer and songwriter than a guitarist, in my opinion, but Robert Johnson's third on his team, and it's easy to imagine him coming in at Number One overall. Plus I could have made it dead by 30 and everyone here still would have landed a slot, except for Stevie Ray, who would lose his spot to Eddie Cochran.

The amazing one to me is Duane Allman (seen above in his dentist's office), who had time in his brief life to head up his own band, play as a sideman in another great band (Derek and the Dominoes), and gain a rep as a great session guy playing with the likes of Wilson Pickett -- all before he turned 25. How much did you accomplish before you were 25?


MJN said...

I don’t have any specific beef with David Fricke’s ranking, but don’t you think that an early death tends to bolster the reputation of the deceased? Death in your prime guarantees that you avoid a long period of decline, and it prevents you from screwing up your legacy in some other way. Furthermore, you get the sympathy that comes from dying young. In my opinion, the same phenomenon causes John F. Kennedy to be overrated among U.S. Presidents.

If Duane Allman and Stevie Ray Vaughan were alive today, or whenever it was that David Fricke compiled this ranking, would they still occupy their respective positions? With all due respect to Duane and Stevie Ray (and David), I suspect that he may have slotted them a notch or two lower.

T. Nawrocki said...

While I am not unmindful of that concern -- see, for example, James Dean -- I have a hard time finding any specific applications of it here. Hendrix really was considered the greatest guitarist around while he was still alive; in his essay for this package, Pete Townshend talks about him and the other leading rock stars of the time going to see Hendrix play in London, and being blown away. And when people like Keith Richards were discovering Robert Johnson records in the early 1960s, I suspect more than a few of them didn't know whether he was alive or dead. Or cared.

And remember, it works the other way as well. If Clapton had died at 27, like Hendrix and Cobain did, his entire solo career would have been lost. If B.B. King had died at 27, you might never have heard of him.

Anonymous said...

Kurt Cobain made it on a list? Worst guitar player ever.