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‘Heroin, handguns and ham sandwiches’ – Rock from six feet under

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“It’s better to burn out than to fade away” – Neil Young (1979)

“If Neil Young admires that sentiment so much, why doesn't he do it?” – John Lennon (1980)

British author Jeremy Simmonds admits that he has had an obsession with death, and in particular rock star deaths, for many years. “A very unhealthy obsession ever since I was young,” he told me in a recent phone call from his home in South London. “I’ve followed rock and roll for 40-odd years. I felt that there was a history that one could look at from six feet under.”

Years of freaky research fill nearly 900 pages of Simmonds’s newly updated book “Heroin, handguns and ham sandwiches: The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars” (Chicago Review Press). “This book has taken a lot of research to pull off,” Simmonds explained. “In many cases, I’ve been able to speak with people who were indirectly involved or who were related to the story.”

The book’s revised edition afforded Simmonds the opportunity to include deaths from the last six years in addition to modifying earlier entries as new information came to light. “Everything is fully revised from top to tail,” he said. “With this subject, there is always new information coming through, and I’ve gone through all of the entries and have amended and added new information whenever possible.”

While the primary focus of the book concerns rock-related deaths, Simmonds says the scope is actually much broader. “What I’ve tried to do is look at it from the perspective of artists who might likely hit the Billboard charts,” he told me. “I tend not to cover jazz because I think that’s another book in itself. This book covers deaths not only in rock and roll but in soul, hip-hop, R&B, country & western, pop, punk rock – you name it and it’s in there.”

The book’s title includes a reference to an urban legend connected to the death of “Mama” Cass Elliot, the late singer and member of The Mamas & The Papas. “The truth is that there was actually a ham sandwich present in the room where she was found, although Cass had not actually eaten any of it,” Simmonds said. “She died of natural causes. Obviously, she was a big lady and had suffered from health issues for some years. The ham sandwich was ‘exhibit A,’ but it was left untouched.”

One of the book’s more unusual entries concerns the tragic death of Mike Edwards, cellist for Electric Light Orchestra from 1972-1975. “His unfortunate death was just bizarre,” Simmonds said. “In September 2010, Mike was crushed by a six-ton bale of hay that came tumbling down a hill and landed on his car. The chances of that happening must be absolutely astronomical.” Another odd entry in the book concerns American R&B singer Tommy Tucker (his song “High Heel Sneakers ” hit #11 in 1964) who died from choking on noxious fumes from his wood floor polish.

Is there anyone active in music today that Simmonds sees as a shoo-in for a future edition of his book?

“If you had asked me that 10 years ago, I would have nominated Keith Richards, but that guy just goes on and on,” Simmonds told me. “He’s been cheating death for decades. Another one who falls into that category is Iggy Pop. These guys seem indestructible, as if they’re not made of flesh and tissue like the rest of us.”

I asked Simmonds if there were any entries in his book that he treated with an extra dose of reverence. “I’ve tried to treat everybody equally,” he said. “I think there are little flashes in the book where my personal love for a musician or a piece of music they’ve made comes to the fore. When I was in my teens, Joy Division was my favorite band, and the death of lead singer Ian Curtis made a personal impact on me. In the book, I might sort of trot around that. Also John Lennon’s death affected me greatly as it did millions of others.”

Due to the nature of the subject, Simmonds knows that some might take exception with information they find within, but he says that he tried to present the facts without offending. “I’ve done my best to cover their lives as best that I can and treat their deaths with a bit of respect, but there are stories that are going to leap out and I had to cover them in an entertaining way.”

“The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow” can be heard each morning on Big 104 – The Biggest Hits of the ’60s, ’70s & ’80s - airing on 104.3 FM, 104.7 FM and 107.7 FM.

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