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 3: The Death Day of
Buddy Holly

Courtesy of Jeffrey Bertrand

Anything cool you ever did, Buddy Holly did first. Those trend-lemming black specs? Buddy wore those when glasses were for nerds. Your hip, four-piece rock band? Buddy set that standard, son. Radical race-mixing? Buddy played with black musicians and married a Latina before such associations yielded multiculti cred—back when it got you bludgeoned by mongrels. Those teenage girls shaking hips by the jukebox? Buddy got the first slice of Miss American Pie, and by all accounts, she was home-grown cherry. And your tragic demise in the passenger seat of a hexed death-machine? Buddy beat you to it, dude. He’ll be worshipped forever, and you’ll be another statistic.

Like a sacrificial life-force, rock n’ roll was in Buddy Holly’s blood. His voice won over crowds from kindergarten on. As a teen in 1955, Buddy marveled at Elvis’ rockabilly performances, eventually opening for the King later that year. By ’56, he was recording his first singles in Nashville, which flopped. Undaunted, Buddy hooked up with recording studio manager Norman Petty, who nurtured Holly’s eclectic talents through the next hard year, and helped himself to Holly’s money when his singles finally topped the charts. Buddy’s career took off in September of 1957, only to crash in a spiraling fireball on February 3, 1959—along with stars Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. The Day the Music Died. That’s when record sales shot past the Sputnik.

Buddy Holly and the Crickets wrote hits about true love in an age of innocence. John Lennon was changed for life after seeing him play on TV. In fact, the Beatles’ name was inspired by the Crickets, and their first recording was reputedly a cover of “That’ll Be the Day“—whose lyrics sound like an emo suicide threat to an unrequiting lover.

Holly’s tunes echoed through subsequent careers. His chop-heavy “Not Fade Away“—a funny little ditty about male dominance, genital exposure, and an unshakable priapism—was played by the Grateful Dead a bazillion times before Jerry Garcia gave up the ghost. The list goes on and on.

A fascinating take on this all-pervasive influence comes from author Gary Patterson, of Knoxville, TN. His book, Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock and Roll Myths, Legends, and Curses, explores the morbid coincidences surrounding Buddy Holly’s passing. Although a few of his sources are sketchy, one gets the impression that Mr. Patterson has spent many a witching hour listening to his short-wave radio for voices of the dead—which is enough to keep me reading.

Courtesy of Brandt Hardin at

So get this: In 1957, the Big Bopper pulled a 122 hour sleepless Disc-A-Thon, after which he was carried away on a gurney. Did no one tell him that sleep deprivation can kill you? While suffering hallucinations, he claimed to have seen his own death—and apparently he enjoyed it.

On January 31 of that same year, 15 year-old Ritchie Valens missed school to attend his grandfather’s funeral. When he stepped outside, a flaming airplane fell from the sky and blew up in the distance. In a rubbernecking frenzy, his family piled into the car and followed the smoke. They arrived at Ritchie’s school, where the plane had smashed into his playground during recess. Young Valens had only just gotten over his fear of flying when he crashed two years later.

Not long before his fateful flight, both Buddy Holly and his young wife had simultaneous dreams involving plane crashes. That’s pretty weird, but here’s the real doozy, described in great detail in Dave Thompson’s Better to Burn Out: The Cult of Death in Rock n’ Roll.

In early 1958, British studio engineer Joe Meek—best known for his bizarre, yet effective recording techniques—held a Tarot session with Jimmy Miller and a mysterious Arab on a (presumably) dark and stormy night. As Meek flipped the cards, the Arab began writing automatically. The message read: “Buddy Holly Dies February 3.” Cue crackling thunder. After weeks of frantic searching, Joe Meek finally delivered the message to Holly in March, who replied with something like, “Thanks… weirdo…” and went on his way.

Scared yet?

With a pregnant wife and a flat wallet, young Buddy Holly joined the Winter Dance Party package tour in 1959. The bands traveled the frozen Midwest in a rickety bus with a broken heater, and after a wearisome performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy decided to fly to the next gig. Holly’s bassist, Waylon Jennings, gave his plane seat up to the sickly Big Bopper. Holly’s guitarist, Tommy Allsup, actually lost his seat to Ritchie Valens in a coin toss, inspiring Allsup to later open a bar called “The Head’s Up Saloon.” During their famous parting moment, Buddy yelled, “I hope your bus freezes over!” To which Waylon Jennings replied, “Yeah, and I hope your ol’ plane crashes!” Which, as we all know, it did.

The music didn’t just die that day—it was ground into a smoldering ball of split skulls, twisted steel, and yes, a torn scrotum. The papers related the story in grisly detail, creating the biggest, brightest, most fantastically heart-wrenching Death Icon ever—until JFK took over. AM radio stations were awash in innocent blood. Holly was 22, Valens was 17, the Bopper was 28. Dead babies, man, read ‘em and weep! Cry your fucking eyes out.

Buddy Holly’s death continued to reverberate through the music world, opening new doors and splattering them with blood. As Holly’s last release, “It Doesn’t Matter Any More,” sold by the truckload, his friend and fellow pop star, Eddie Cochran, was thrown into a full-on freak out. Eddie was supposed to be on the Winter Dance Party tour with Buddy—maybe even that doomed flight—but had skipped it to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. Convinced that the Grim Reaper was now after him, Cochran holed up in a dark room with Holly’s records, listening to them obsessively. He even recorded a weepy tribute called “Three Stars,” but refused to release it. Instead, he gobbled tranquilizers and became a general mess.

Ronnie Smith, on the other hand, got his moment to shine when he took Buddy’s place on the Winter Dance Party. Yes, the tour carried on—less three stars, and plus one Ronnie.

David Box stepped behind those goofy specs as well, joining Buddy’s former band, the original Crickets. After their single “Peggy Sue Got Married” failed to make an impression, Box went solo and headed for Nashville with stars in his eyes.

Wayward rocker Bobby Fuller also followed in Buddy’s footsteps. Under the guidance of Holly’s former manager, the shiesty Norman Petty, Fuller broke into the charts with the fatalistic classic “I Fought the Law,” written by Crickets guitarist Sonny Curtis.

Enter the Reaper.

On April 17, 1960—as the world celebrated Jesus Christ’s victory over Death—Eddie Cochran’s car hit a light pole. He was hurled into a field along with his Gretsch guitar. The instrument was found unscratched. Eddie was smashed to hell, and died in the hospital at age 21—surrounded by the Crickets, who just happened to be in town.

On October 25, 1962, Ronnie “the Replacement” Smith was found swinging from a self-tied noose in the drug-treatment ward of a nut-house. If he couldn’t be Buddy Holly, he could at least join him.

On October 23, 1964, David Box was on a flight to Nashville to cut his next single when the little Cessna Skyhawk took a fatal nose dive. Like Buddy, he was 22.

On July 18, 1966, Bobby Fuller was found in his mother’s car near her Hollywood apartment, beaten to a bloody pulp and doused in gasoline. Coroners even found gasoline in his stomach. It could have been the LSD, it could have been the fact that Fuller was schmoozing a gangster’s special lady, or it could have been the Curse of Buddy Holly. The Law that he fought called it an accident.

On February 3, 1967, Tarot-reading doomsayer Joe Meek—who had become convinced that the late Buddy Holly was feeding him riffs from beyond the grave—blasted his landlord’s wife with a 12-gauge shotgun. He then turned the gun on himself, transforming his face into “a burnt candle,” according to one witness.

And the bad juju doesn’t stop there.

On September 7, 1978, the Who’s drummer Keith Moon was found dead in the same London apartment that “Mama” Cass Elliot had died in four years earlier. Moon had spent the previous evening at the premiere screening of the fallacious Buddy Holly Story with Paul and Linda McCartney, as well as munching one Heminevrin pill for every year of his life. September 7 happens to be Buddy Holly’s birthday.

On December 30, 1985, the Ozzy & Harriet star turned cheeseball musician, Ricky Nelson, played Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” for his final encore. He died later that night in a fiery plane crash.

Finally, on February 8, 1990, Del Shannon, a Golden Oldies favorite who spent his last days wallowing in personal sadness and antidepressants, popped a .22 caliber into his temple.* His final performance was the week before—on February 3 at Buddy Holly’s 31st Anniversary Concert and Dance,* with the Crickets as his backing band. So now do you believe in black magic?

I can already hear the smug skeptics chuckling. Circumstantial evidence, you say. Meaningless connections. Happenstance. As if your paltry intellect could grasp the lattice of coincidence underlying mundane events. You think you’re the first brainiac to cut through the mystical bullshit? Step in line, pal. Remember how Buddy Holly casually dismissed Joe Meek’s dire prophecy? Looks like he beat you to voguish skepticism, too.

© 2011 Joseph Allen

* [2-6-11 - ed. note: Two corrections made.  Relying on Patterson, I originally wrote that Del Shannon used a shotgun, and that his last show took place at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.  It was actually a .22 rifle, and the Fargo Civic Auditorium in North Dakota.]