During my years in college and post-college, I spent a decade working in record stores and it was usually true that nothing could rekindle interest in a career like death.
A wave of customers searching for some act that had slipped from the radar of the general public usually didn’t bode well for the artist, especially if the customers making the requests appeared to be setting foot in a record store for the first time in years.
One morning, working with The Drunken Frenchman, we had several customers asking about Peter, Paul & Mary. I wondered aloud whether a plane had gone down with the folk trio on board.
As he had also worked in various record stores for years, The Frenchman realized it was entirely possible.
Ten minutes later, a customer came up to the counter asking him about Puff The Magic Dragon.
“Were they killed in a plane crash?”
He was quite concerned.
(in fact, a concert performance of theirs had aired on PBS the night before)
The store in which we worked was probably one of the thirty largest in the country. The top-selling albums each week would sometimes sell as many as five- or six-hundred copies.
The ripple effect when an act died was immediate.
I spent several years as the head buyer, responsible for ordering everything but classical and the news of a death would result in a phone call from one of the distribution reps.
Even for more obscure acts, I usually felt obligated to order – at least – a few token titles. If the artist had a catalog with releases on numerous labels, sometimes there would be three or four calls.
There were a lot of artists that shuffled on during those years who were quite notable – Frank Zappa, Kurt Cobain, Jerry Garcia – and a lot more of them who existed on the fringe.
(The Frenchman was particularly distressed over the passing of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Viv Stanshall)
It could be difficult to predict the Dead Man’s Bounce.
Our store didn’t see much of an uptick in demand for The Dead after Garcia died, but, then again, each month we would burn through a boxlot of Skeletons From The Closet: The Best Of Grateful Dead; another one in combined sales from the rest of their catalog.
When Blind Melon’s lead singer Shannon Hoon died in ’95 – just three years after the success of No Rain – it couldn’t revive interest in the band’s recently released Soup.
(I honestly believe that everyone was still sick of “the Bee Girl” video)
In fact, of all the artists that died during those years, the one whose death seemed to goose sales the most was one that I would have never expected – John Denver.
Here are four songs from acts whose passing occurred during those years when I was living in a slacker’s paradise, working in record stores)…
Traveling Wilburys – End Of The Line
from Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1
Roy Orbison is one of the few artists that I vividly recall my parents playing while I was growing up, so I was somewhat more familiar with him than a lot of my peers in 1988.
As that year wound down, I was working in my first record store and Orbison was in the midst of a serious comeback. In December, a heart attack took the legendary singer.
In early ’89, two months after his death, Orbison’s Mystery Girl album was issued and would spawn the hit single You Got It. Several months prior to his passing, he had also found success as one-fifth of the supergroup Traveling Wilburys.
Orbison had just passed away when Traveling Wilburys had released their second single, the lovely End Of The Line, and his fellow Wilburys noted Lefty’s absence with several poignant visual nods in the song’s video.
Stevie Ray Vaughan – Superstition
from The Real Deal: Greatest Hits Volume 2
The circumstances are fuzzy now, but a roommate were either discussing guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan or, perhaps, even listening to him in the record store where we both worked when we learned of his death.
(for quite some time, we felt somewhat responsible)
Sadly, Vaughan had finally gotten his life untracked, was playing better than he ever had, and had just fulfilled a life-long dream of recording an album with his older brother and fellow guitarist Jimmie when he perished in a post-gig helicopter crash.
A month later, Family Style, the lone album under the Vaughan Brother moniker would arrive to commercial and critical acclaim.
Personally, I thought that Vaughan’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s classic Superstition to be a particularly inspired choice.
Blind Melon – Galaxie
I might have been one of the few people at the time that didn’t reach a point where No Rain and the “Bee Girl” would provoke visceral, involuntary rage. I still find the song winsome and charming.
Their follow-up Soup had received good notices, but had struggled to find an audience when charismatic lead singer Shannon Hoon overdosed in late October, 1995.
As a fellow Hoosier, I felt especially bummed out at the news.
Galaxie, supposedly inspired by Hoon’s car, alternated between a melody that shifted from jittery to almost ethereal and back again with an effortlessness that hooks me again each time I hear it.
Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah
I’ve told tale before of the good fortune I had to not only see Jeff Buckley shortly before Grace‘s release but to also have a few drinks with the remarkably talented singer.
Like Nick Drake, the discovery of Buckley by most listeners post-mortem seems to have gained momentum more so over the years and as a result of continued praise from critics.
And, like Drake, Buckley’s slight body of work – Grace was the only album he released during his lifetime – left those new fans with the nagging void of unfulfilled promise.