Del Shannon: Another Dead White Man with an Itchy Trigger Finger

Del Shannon: February 8, 1990

On February 8, 1990, one-time teen idol Del Shannon sat down in his rocking chair, removed the toupée from his graying skullet, and shot himself with a .22 rifle. He was 55 years old.  That most young readers won’t know Del Shannon’s name shows the difference between a rock star martyr and a troubling statistic.  However, anyone who has listened to a Golden Oldies station should know his one and only #1 single, “Runaway.”

Shannon’s cartoonish falsetto and keyboardist Max Crook’s space age Musitron gripped the youth of that black-and-white era by their gonads and applied a jarring electrical current.  At its peak in 1961, Del’s runaway hit (I had to say it) was moving more than 80,000 records per day. Considering the Dyonysian affection he received from groovy girls in the wake of “Runaway” (as seen below,) I hope Del went out with a satisfied smile on his face.

Statistically speaking, blowing your own brains out is a Caucasian activity.  More specifically, it is the domain of middle aged-to-elderly white men.

The New York Times published “An Accounting of Daily Gun Deaths” five days after the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre, putting the firearm-enabled tragedy into a national perspective.  Citing 2004 CDC statistics, Bill Marsh uses colorful graphics to show what a typical day of American gun fatalities looks like. 29,569 people died from gunshots that year.  Divided by 366 days, an average of 81 people died per day.  Each color-coded bullet represents one gun-related death on a generic day:

Pretty nifty, huh?  The graph breaks these 81 deaths down by age, sex, and race (Hispanics are dispersed across white and black classifications.) Assuming these trends have remained steady, four kids died today—two of which were murdered.

The gangsta-leaning folly of youth violence just put six young black men in their graves, while groaning depression prompted four young white men to turn their guns on themselves.

A black man is about as likely to get capped in full maturity as he was in his youth, while a white man becomes even more likely to shoot himself in his later years.  By midnight, seven paleface gunslingers approaching mid-life will have called it quits in their prime.  White men are also more likely to be murdered by guns later in life—perhaps because of their continuous belly-aching about the cruelty of a meaningless universe.

It comes as no surprise that if a black man has made it past 40, the last thing he’s gonna do is shoot himself. But today a whopping twenty-five middle aged-to-elderly white men cocked the hammer and followed the light to the end of the tunnel. We also see four sweet old white ladies tasting the blue steel, which doesn’t take into account those who emptied a bottle of pills or left the car running in the garage.

Catherine Barber – Harvard Injury Control Research Center

Suicide rates peaked in America during the 90s, when they began falling off in tandem with gun ownership until the around the year 2000.  Perhaps malcontents were waiting to see if the unbearable world would just end.  Well, it didn’t—and since 2000, suicides have increased steadily, at least among whites and Native Americans.

And I wonder…I wah wah wah wah wonder why so many aging white males choose to bite the flying bullet. I mean, we all know that getting old is tough but it beats the alternative.  As my grandfather was fond of saying, “At my age, you realize you’ve overestimated the pleasure of a good lay, and underestimated the relief of a good crap.” Time ravaged his body as it will everyone’s, and yet ol’ Pap took it like a man, keeping faith that the immortal soul is greater than this sack of shit and bones.

The pain starts in joints and old injuries. Before you know it, you grunt with every motion. You find yourself reading the news compulsively, balking at taxes, grumbling about politics.  And damnit to hell, these kids today!  They call that music?!  Of course, you’d diddle the cuties if you could, but you’re getting a bit long in the tooth for the young stuff.  Probably couldn’t keep it up, anyway. Not with that swollen prostate pressing against your bladder.  The mirror becomes your harshest critic.  Your hairs are hapless natives—your scalp is Manifest Destiny.  Those sexy suntans of years past have become deep lines and budding lumps of melanoma. Your torso is a ball of fur and sagging man-tits.

The best friends you ever had are either shells of their former selves or dead.  The workday brings a barrage of insults and indignity.  You’re just a number, and it ain’t Number One.  Maybe that’s why your kids never call and your wife cuddles the dog more than you.  Late at night, sodden with booze and regret, you caress old photos of the little runaway who wouldn’t stay.  The memories are fading.  The muscles atrophy.  Death wafts from gaping pores into your veiny nose.  Ascendant young lions are ready to take your wobbly knees out from under you at any moment.  So you decide to beat ‘em to it.  If you’re going to be a victim, why not be your own?  Click…bang.

I feel your pain—you vainglorious, self-absorbed asshole.   Sure, I’ll clean that up.  No problem.  Hope you feel better.

Del Shannon’s wife, Bonnie, found his body slumped in his bathrobe.  It was the pathetic end to a life of constant sorrow.  Del was big time #1—but only once.  After the British Invasion swept him off the map in the mid-60s, he fell into a dark depression that dogged him to the bitter end.  In 1964, he released his cover album Del Shannon Sings Hank Williams—one month before Hank’s sixth Death Day—which practically no one bought.  He turned to the bottle for support, famously saying, “I hated the taste of booze, but I liked where it got me—into oblivion.”

Del made repeated attempts at a comeback, to no avail.  You saw his face smiling, but his brow continued to frown. Still, he plugged away in earnest.  His last performance was five days before he died, at Buddy Holly’s 31st [Death] Anniversary Concert and Dance. Maybe the morbid romance of that event rubbed off on him, or perhaps there is a pharmacological explanation.  Two weeks before killing himself, Del began taking Prozac, which is now known to hurry chronic Eeyores along on their mopey race to the grave.  And of course, Del’s .22 rifle was there to provide instant gratification.

Considering the fact that someone, somewhere, commits suicide every 40 seconds, why should anyone care about Del Shannon?  Well, most people don’t.  But there is at least one person who was absolutely devastated.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

February 4: The Death Day of
Karen Carpenter

From Todd Hayne's "Superstar" (1987)

I’ve been listening to The Carpenters for three days straight. Does that make me a pansy? Of course not. These are sentimental love songs from a woman to a man—well, from Karen to me—and that’s miles from the pink-zone. Karen’s motherly voice pours suburban melancholy into my open wounds. I dare any road-hardened man to sit by himself—with a fifth of whiskey and a loaded gun—and listen to “Solitaire” as many times as I have. You’ll never make it out alive.

Karen Carpenter’s biography is as heart-wrenching as her wistful tenor. Her musical virtuosity was matched only by her willingness to be a victim to her controlling family, her conniving husband, and ultimately, to her own maniacal vanity, for which she starved herself to death. Randy Schmidt’s new book, Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter, weaves first-hand accounts of Karen’s futile quest to become a grown woman, which ended in her childhood home on February 4, 1983, at age 32.

Aside from being the hottest soft rock act of the 70s, Karen and Richard Carpenter were international icons of whitebread normalcy. The Prince and Princess of Square Perfection. Even with multiple hits on The Hot 100, the Carpenters lived with their smothering mother in Downey, CA into their mid-20s. When they finally struck out on their own, it was to move into a house together a mile down the road. Karen’s doorbell rang to the tune of their classic wedding song, “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Both siblings were too absorbed in their own careers to maintain long-term relationships, which prompted continuous allegations of incest. Richard went on to date his cousin, dispelling such nasty rumors.

A hyperactive overachiever, Karen toured with her brother incessantly. She sold over 100 million records, amassed about that many Mickey Mouse toys, and won hearts from Kansas to Japan. This worldwide success was never enough, though. All she wanted was to find Mr. Right and start a family. Karen was 30 when she met Tom Burris, a blond dreamboat with a picket fence smile—who had lied about his vasectomy, bullied her relentlessly, and milked her for millions of dollars. Karen had questionable eating habits for much of her life, but after Tom she just withered away. She died the day their divorce was to be finalized.

There is an old joke that if Karen Carpenter had eaten “Mama” Cass’ ham sandwich, they’d both be alive today. Of course, only a heartless monster would retell it. Anorexia is no laughing matter. Most American women are afflicted at some point in their lives. Mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. Just imagine the torment.

For Karen, the Passion Play opens in her pudgy teens. She goes on the popular Stillman Diet: drink eight glasses of water a day, cut out carbs, lose a few pounds. Years later, she sees herself on TV. There is a slight paunch beneath her dress. The whole world is watching! She has to be perfect. So she starts eating laxatives. Boxes of them. Hides them in her pillowcases, in her shoes. She burns a thousand calories a day running to the bathroom.  Her family begs her to eat, so she nibbles a shrimp salad to make Mommy proud—then crams a finger down her throat.

Courtesy of Brandt Hardin at

Her discipline is extraordinary. She restrains physical desire like an ascetic Hindu yogi. Count down to Absolute Perfection. 110 lbs. 95 lbs. 80 lbs. Why does she look so bloated in the mirror? Walk, walk, walk. Walk to buy more sneakers. Eat a raw mushroom, a leaf of lettuce, a grain of rice. Drink ipecac syrup to throw it back up.

Karen has to stay lithe and sexy for Prince Charming. She works so hard, her knuckles are scarred by yellowing, brittle teeth. Veins bulge beneath sallow flesh. As her hormones go haywire, fine hairs sprout from every pore. Her breasts wither away. Her periods stop. The life goes out of her deep, brown eyes.

The glamor is unbearable. Exhausting. She naps backstage, then springs up to sing, looking like Golem in a sparkling dress. Everyone is picking her apart. One more laxative. One more shot of ipecac. Then one day she goes asleep naked in her walk-in closet—surrounded by clothes that make her look fat—and never wakes up.

A thousand mourners attend her funeral. Tom Burris chucks his wedding ring into her casket. Mommy and Richard go on television to tell the sobbing world. Karen is resurrected as a Self-Abuse Superstar. Anorexia becomes a talk show buzzword for decades. Women, especially Oprah, are now empowered. Cue curtain. Go house lights.

From "Superstar."

Who was responsible for Karen’s senseless death? Blame the music industry for wearing her down to the bone. Blame the media for idealizing skinny-minis like Twiggy and Olivia-Newton John. It was her family’s fault for allowing it to happen. It was your fault for making fun of fat people. And even with all of this cruel weight bearing down on her, it was Karen’s fault for starving, walking, and barfing herself to death. Did no one think to blame God?

The social pressure to be beautiful is a cruel quirk of evolutionary processes. Put a slender girl beside a fat old lady, and studies show—surprise!—most males respond to the girl. Aside from the occasional Oedipus Complex or leather boot fetish, men generally prefer younger, more fertile women, and as a woman gets older she tends to put on extra weight. It is no wonder, then, that a young woman would exaggerate her youth, and an older woman would try to imitate it. Male attraction has shaped our gene pool since the Apes of Eden.

By Nature’s “perfect” design, a woman will snag a man during her nubile years and make babies, thus perpetuating the race. The father, now bound by his heartstrings, grows to love her Willendorf curves, and sticks around to rear his young in that cozy bastion once known as a “family.” But Nature is a messy bitch.

Humans have countless layers of thought, culture, and circumstance twisting these ancient instincts into various bizarre aberrations. Today’s barren, postmodern mating game requires rigorous maintenence. Techniques that were arcane in the 60s—crash diets, laxatives, diuretics, binging-and-purging—are now common practice for millions of females in America and Europe. How ironic that a woman would strive for ideal beauty and perpetual youth by starving herself until her health—the very essence of sex appeal and fecundity—is irrevocably dried up. People are kooky animals.

In life, Karen Carpenter was considered the model of American perfection. In death, her psychological affliction was plundered for the sensationalist freak show. A made-for-TV movie. An A&E Biography. A Current Affair. An article by me. Perhaps the most disturbing disorder is our morbid fascination. Rainy days and Mondays find us waiting for the media’s obituary parade, perhaps with a vague yearning to see our own names sparkling among the dead.

© 2011 Joseph Allen