But today's stars do miss out on something: the way death would have conserved their credibility. Endless exposure leads to public over-familiarity (and sometimes ridicule) and critical contempt, while elusiveness - as every shrewd star knows - can create its own demand. So we're slightly sick of Prince, but can't seem to get enough of Jimi Hendrix and all his posthumous 'rarities' and compilations. However jealously record companies guard them to avoid our checking the charts, sales estimates show that physical death clearly isn't cultural death.
The other good thing about early deaths is that they provide endless opportunities for anniversaries. A rock star who dies in his or her twenties can count on another 20 years of loyalty from their original fans, who like to remember their 'wild' years as each decade goes by. And nothing guarantees a set of new young fans more than the romance of a young dead legend.
So, on 1 April it will be 10 years since the death of Marvin Gaye, shot by his father, a clergyman, in the middle of a quarrel. In December it will be 30 years since Sam Cooke was shot and killed by a woman in a motel room - 'A Change is Gonna Come' was a posthumous hit in 1965. Next March, it will be 40 years since Charlie Parker died in New York. And next October it will be 25 since Janis Joplin died, less than a month after Jimi Hendrix.
Marvin Gaye is in for a sizeable birthday party next week, including that cultural mark of approbation, the Arena special. So here we pay our respects to him, and to a small selection of other legends. Like the original series of Star Trek, heaven's rocking guests, from the definitively famous dead included here to other deities such as Marc Bolan, Buddy Holly, and Roy Orbison - who controversially didn't make the cut - may well hover above us forever, their flaws growing more endearing with age.
Live career: Son of domineering minister, he was a honey-voiced Motown crooner and multi-instrumentalist who duetted with Diana Ross et al, then toughened up his act and sang about the ghetto, Vietnam and the environment, then retreated into sensual soul. All the while, his marriages combusted (he made an entire album, 1978's Here My Dear, about his divorce from Anna Gordy, sister of the Motown boss, and made its proceeds part of the settlement). He had trouble with taxes, thought about suicide and argued with his father.
Sell any records while alive? He had 38 hits and sold around three million albums.
Death: Aged 44. Shot twice in cold blood by his father, whom he'd hit in a confrontation on his mother's behalf, on 1 April 1984.
Did death seem a good career move at the time? No. His personal torment was still provoking beautiful, successful records.
Was it? Yes and no. His reputation has grown since, but it was big already and Motown had plenty of genuine new material ready for release.
Sell any more records? No posthumous hits, but two albums went platinum (a million copies or more) last year.
Anyone else cash in? Levi's hijacked 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' for Nick Kamen to take his jeans off to; The Big Chill used it to warm up its cold, white characters; rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg's album Doggy-style echoed his use of stagey street-talk on 'What's Going On'; a new musical, All I Need To Get By, revives his relationship and duets with Tammi Terrell; Motown starts a year of new and re-releases next month, while next weekend BBC2 will be presenting an Arena special, Trouble Man: the Last Years of Marvin Gaye (see Anniversaries to look out for). Marvin's daughter Nona has a career as a soul singer and Armani model.
Who's still listening? Discerning bedroom soul fans, white music critics, black rappers.
Sacred sites: His home on Gramercy Place in south-central Los Angeles.
Controversies: Did he get too rude? (By the end of his career he was writing songs like 'Sanctified Pussy' - which CBS refused to release, then renamed 'Sanctified Lady' - and climaxing his concerts with a striptease during 'Sexual Healing'.)
Anniversaries to look out for: Next month - 10 years since his murder; 1996 - 25 years since release of classic protest-soul album What's Going On.
Live career: Guitar prodigy rescued from rhythm & blues obscurity, brought to London to dazzle with noise and showmanship. Revolutionised blues, rock and psychedelia, then got bored and thought about jazz. Glamour stud and drug fiend.
Sell any records while alive? Not that many - only six UK hits and one (a cover of Dylan's 'All Along The Watchtower') in America. Less than 10 million altogether.
Death: Aged 27, like Morrison and Joplin. Suffocated on his own vomit in his sleep while drunk and sedated in the early hours of 18 September 1970. Girlfriend Monika Dannemann woke up to find him unconscious beside her in her Notting Hill flat, called an ambulance, and he died an hour later. Coroner returned an open verdict (see Controversies).
Did death seem a good career move at the time? No. He'd only released a handful of albums, was recording furiously and seemed capable of anything.
Was it? Probably not. Frustrated fan demand provoked a flood of posthumous releases, OK to start with, but soon barrel-scraping compilations and out-takes. However, death did prevent him from doing anything embarrassing subsequently - unlike the heavy metal bands he inspired.
Sell any more records? Currently three to four million a year.
Anyone else cash in? Father Al sold estate to secretive investors in 1972 (see Controversies). They appointed Alan Douglas, an old friend of Hendrix's, to milk the legacy; latest scheme is a multi-media (play along with Hendrix etc) tour of American college campuses this summer; Touchstone Pictures are planning a Hendrix movie, 'Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky.
Who's still listening? The under-20s, daring heavy metal fans, grunge musicians (he was from Seattle), rock critics.
Sacred sites: Monterey, California - site of howling, guitar-burning American debut at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.
Controversies: Who owns the Hendrix estate? (Al is trying to get it back, and a 25-year-old Swede, claiming to be Hendrix's son, wants a share of it.) How exactly did he die? (Hendrix's other girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham, says Dannemann called an ambulance belatedly so she could hide Jimi's drug stash. A recent Scotland Yard investigation found no evidence of this, and the Attorney-General has just ruled out another inquest.) And why? (Contemporaries wonder why a drug-savvy and apparently happy Hendrix took nine sleeping pills.)
Anniversaries to look out for: This August - 25 years since his Woodstock wail through the 'Star Spangled Banner'; August 1995 - 25 years since his last big blow-out at the Isle of Wight Festival; September 1995 - 25 years since his death.
Live career: Small-town Texas blues singer, lured to nascent hippie capital San Francisco in 1966 to front raw psychedelic band Big Brother and the Holding Company; became first counterculture - and female - rock star thanks to vocal acrobatics and voracious sexuality; slept with Hendrix at Monterey and Jim Morrison in LA, all the while taking escalating quantities of drugs to justify hell-raising image and blur personal pain.
Sell any records while alive? A modest three to four million: two big albums and singles in America; no hits in Britain.
Death: Aged 27. Overdosed on heroin late one night in room 105 of the sleazy Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood on 4 October 1970 - just over two weeks after Hendrix. 'I wonder if I'll get as much publicity,' she'd said on hearing of his death. She left dollars 2,500 to her friends in her will 'so that (they) can get blasted after I'm gone'. They held a wake, and did.
Did death seem a good career move at the time? No. After an artistic hiatus during 1968-9, she was recording her best work - despite, or rather because of, the feverish decay of her personal life. One of her last and strongest songs was called 'Buried Alive in the Blues'.
Was it? Maybe. She became an instant legend.
Sell any more records? Within months of her death, 'Me and Bobby McGee' became her only Number One. Three times as many albums released in death as in life, but only sells about 50,000 copies a year.
Anyone else cash in? Janis's sister Laura wrote a book about her, Love, Janis, which is to become a musical this year, accompanied by a tribute album and concert; Peggy Caserta, Joplin's main female lover, wrote Going Down With Jan; Bette Midler played Janis in a 1979 biopic The Rose; Janis's last boyfriend, her dealer Seth Morgan, based a character on her in his feted prison-written autobiography/novel Homeboy, before dying in a motorbike crash in 1990.
Who's still listening? Sixties nostalgics, daring blues fans, not many others (see Sell any more records?).
Sacred sites: Lagunitas, California, an old logging camp just over the Golden Gate Bridge, where Janis and the Holding Company set up one of the first communes; Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, where they played free festivals.
Controversies: Who owns her talent? (The Joplin family sued the producer of the 1991 musical Janis. The producer won, arguing, 'Janis Joplin is a part of our national heritage.')
Anniversaries to look out for: October 1995 - 25 years since her death.
Live career: Admiral's son, poet and Aldous Huxley fan joined trio of LA muses, formed The Doors and made malignant music during Summer of Love. Weird pop, mixed with meandering meditations on sex, drugs and violence led to escalating success and notoriety - and a quick burnout, splitting to write poems in Paris.
Sell any records while alive? More than 20 million.
Death: Aged 27. Alcohol-related heart attack in the bath of Paris flat on 3 July 1971 - officially (see Controversies).
Did death seem a good career move at the time? Yes - it was mysterious and bohemian; he'd left The Doors and was writing bad poetry.
Was it? Yes. Everyone forgot his ballooning weight and shrinking credibility; his image froze as a cool leather-clad lizard - he's had three posthumous Rolling Stone covers - and he established a new French fan base.
Sell any more records? A handy million a year at the moment.
Anyone else cash in? Francis Ford Coppola used Morrison's Oedipal epic 'The End' to climax Apocalypse Now in 1979; Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman wrote best-selling, hyperbolic biography No One Here Gets Out Alive in 1980; Doors drummer John Densmore wrote My Life With Jim Morrison And The Doors in 1990; Oliver Stone made bloated biopic The Doors in 1991.
Who's still listening? Gloomy teenagers, French people, adventurous CD collectors.
Sacred sites: Venice, California - Morrison's stamping ground, the seedy LA copy of the floating city; his graffiti-covered grave in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris - although only until 2001, when his remains are being moved elsewhere thanks to complaints about hippie pilgrims from families owning neighbouring plots.
Controversies: How did he die? (Some say it was heroin, or murder by a dealer; Sixties conspiracy buffs say it was the US government - the FBI did investigate him - as part of a series of assassinations of subversives.) Or is he still alive? (Only two people actually saw his dead body: his girlfriend, who died the following year, and a French doctor, who refuses to talk. Some say that Morrison faked his own death - something he'd talked about - to avoid a possible jail sentence for indecent exposure onstage in Miami; this story says that he was seen boarding an aeroplane in Paris on the night of his 'death'.)
Anniversaries to look out for: July 1996 - 25 years since
Live career: The sarcastic Beatle who co-founded the group, co-wrote the hits, said they were 'bigger than Jesus', married a conceptual artist, grew the longest hair, protested against Vietnam, then left. Solo, alternated between caustic experiments and married schmaltz.
Sell any records while alive? Over 250 million.
Death: Aged 40. Shot five times in New York outside his home after a late recording session on 8 December 1980 - by fan Mark Chapman, who he'd given an autograph to earlier that day. Chapman hadn't appreciated the 'Jesus' comments.
Did death seem a good career move at the time? No. He'd just ended a five-year writer's block.
Was it? Probably. Last LP Double Fantasy was mush, but it stormed the charts with his other posthumous releases. While the other Beatles - Paul McCartney in particular - have lost their lustre, Lennon is remembered as bright and brave.
Sell any more records? About 10 million a year, including Beatles material.
Anyone else cash in? Soundalike son Julian has a stuttering career; Capitol Records rush-released lots of posthumous material in 1980-1 (three No 1's); Albert Goldman couldn't resist another assault/biography in 1988; Backbeat, a film about Stuart Sutcliffe, the Beatles' first bass player, opens on 1 April; Capitol is planning to release a CD of 'lost' Beatles songs next year; Paul, George and Ringo are currently recording together for the first time since 1970, adding new music to rough tapes of Lennon singing, for a single or soundtrack to The Beatles Anthology, a 10-15 hour project due out on TV later this year or video next year; two rival sets of promoters are vying to unite them for a Lennon tribute/period revival at Woodstock or the Isle of Wight this summer; a new play about Lennon's life, Looking Through A Glass Onion, is touring Australia; Warners will release a Lennon CD-ROM later this year, with previously unseen film and photographs.
Who's still listening? People who thought Paul was trite.
Sacred sites: Abbey Road Studios, where his arguments with McCartney took place; the Dakota apartment building, West 72nd Street, New York - home for most of the Seventies. He was shot on the steps.
Controversies: Did he break up the Beatles? Was it OK for a socialist to have a paisley Rolls-Royce?
Anniversaries to look out for: December 1995 - 15 years since death; April 1995 - 25 years since Beatles split; June 1997 - 30 years since Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Live career: Handsome half-English Sixties ska star, who discovered reggae and Rastafarianism in the Seventies; added charisma, tunes and political militancy to become liberal figurehead and Third World's first rock star.
Survived assassination attempt, united warring factions in Jamaica, played at birth of Zimbabwe and smoked yards of ganja.
Sell any records while alive? More than 20 million.
Death: Aged 36. Brain and lung cancer at Cedars Lebanon Hospital in Miami while visiting his sick mother on 11 May 1981.
Did death seem a good career move at the time? No. A huge star in Britain and Jamaica, he was about to conquer America. Reggae's popularity was surging, and the boom in World Music was just around the corner.
Was it? Yes and no. He's even more sanctified now, but there's been ugly squabbling over his legacy (see Controversies) and reggae has gone materialistic and misogynistic in his absence.
Sell any more records? He's had bigger hits (such as 'Buffalo Soldier') dead than alive.
Anyone else cash in? Son Ziggy Marley has a Julian Lennon-style solo career; MCA records tried to buy Bob's estate in 1991 from the Jamaican government - he had died intestate - but Marley's family and Island Records, his old label, won the battle and set it up as a trust, the Bob Marley Foundation.
Who's still listening? Public schoolboys, stoned white American students, people who don't generally like reggae.
Sacred sites: The Bob Marley Museum at his house on Hope Road in Kingston, Jamaica; anywhere on the island on Bob Marley Day (6 February).
Controversies: Who owns the songs? (Bunny Wailer, sole survivor of Marley's original band, The Wailers, says he owns 20 of them and is suing the Foundation for pounds 1m.) Was Marley murdered? (One powerful figure in the reggae business has accused another powerful figure in the reggae business of plotting his death.)
Anniversaries to look out for: This September - 20 years since Eric Clapton's cover version of 'I Shot the Sheriff' reached Number One in America, introducing Marley's work to a mainstream white audience (although a lot of them must have thought it was a Clapton song - Marley never had a Number One of his own); May 1996 - 15 years since his death.
Live career: Camp ornament to, and then focus of, Queen's evolution from progressive rock bores to supple pop favourites; his cod-operatic struts and wails always undercut by irony and an eye for the charts. Became national institution.
Sell any records while alive? 100 million.
Death: Aged 45. Of pneumonia exacerbated by Aids, in London on 24 November 1991. Queen's 'The Show Must Go On' was in the charts at the time.
Did death seem a good career move at the time? No. Queen were enjoying another popularity surge and the first faint warmth of critical respectability.
Was it? Yes. He became a brave Aids martyr, an Aids prophet ('Killer Queen', 'Another One Bites The Dust') and London cabbies' only bisexual hero. Even John Peel played a Queen record in tribute. And everyone says they love Queen's screechy bombast now.
Sell any more records? A re-released 'Bohemian Rhapsody' went straight back to Number One; Freddie's solo work is big in Italy; a final album of Queen material should leave shops by the ton when it's released later this year.
Anyone else cash in? Lots of Queen covers by George Michael, Elton John etc, motivated - as rock tributes generally are - by a mixture of charity, respect and careerism; burglars recently stole unreleased Freddie tapes from Queen guitarist Brian May's house in Notting Hill, but abandoned them (after listening?) in a garden and park, where they were found and returned. Brian's band are a clumsy Queen facsimile.
Who's still listening? Everyone, now Queen aren't threatening to make any more records.
Sacred sites: Wembley - Queen made it their own, with 20 minutes of high-camp mayhem at worthy Live Aid.
Controversies: Should Freddie have come out of the closet? (He and his band didn't talk about his bisexuality, to avoid alienating the less enlightened sections of their fan base.) Should he have kept his illness a secret until two days before he died? (A terse press release ended a two-week feeding frenzy of tabloid speculation.) Were Queen knowingly ridiculous? And if 'yes', does that excuse them?
Anniversaries to look out for: 1995 - 20 years since the chart reign of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'; November 1996 - five years since his death.
Live career: White trash boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, looked like an angel and sang like a horny devil. A local, then American, then global star through talent and TV; lured by schlock movies and Vegas ballads, made a convincing comeback, then slowly bloated on cheeseburgers and dieting drugs.
Sell any records while alive? More than 400 million.
Death: Aged 42. Congestive heart failure while reading a book about sex and astrology on the loo at Graceland on 16 August 1977. His doctor claimed 'natural causes'; an autopsy found severely damaged arteries and liver (see Controversies).
Did death seem a good career move at the time? No. Its indignity underlined his sad Seventies decline.
Was it? Maybe. Languishing sales shot up and the Presley myth grew and mutated as fans reinterpreted it, from the bizarre (Elvis-Christ/Elvis-Hitler subcultures) to the fundamentalist (the 'Elvis is alive' industry). Dead, he's even more famous. He's escaped the clutches of Colonel Parker, his dictatorial agent. And he's not getting any fatter.
Sell any more records? 300 million in the first seven years after his death alone.
Anyone else cash in? RCA has released at least 18 posthumous albums, starting with 1977's Elvis in Demand; Southern photographer William Eggleston took some famously spooky pictures of the empty Graceland; Albert Goldman wrote an anti-Elvis polemic in the guise of a biography.
Who's still listening? Everyone, occasionally.
Sacred sites: Surprisingly small Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee; Sun Studios (also small, also in Memphis - Elvis didn't get out much), venue for his first and best recordings.
Controversies: Is he still alive? (American tabloids have said yes so often it's barely a controversy.) If so, where? (Usually in some overgrown Deep South trailer park, working at a petrol station or a supermarket.) And who's kept it a secret? (RCA, the US government, or the aliens who kidnapped him.) Or was he just a 'smug, stupid, embarrassingly self-conscious rooster' (Goldman) anyway?
Anniversaries to look out for: January 1997 - 40 years since his gyrating pelvis was censored on the Ed Sullivan Show; August 1997 - 20 years since his death; December 1998 - 30 years since comeback on NBC's Elvis TV Special. January 2004 - 50 years since he first walked into Sun Studios to make a record, reputedly for his mother's birthday.-
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