A story was told of a DJ who had themed music evenings; one of the favourites was “Dead Cool”, music that was “cool” and that was by artists who were dead.
Being dead does not seem to damage musical careers, the so-called “27 Club”, famous musicians who died at the age of twenty-seven, is a list of those who have become posthumous legends. Would Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix be regarded as they are if they were now septuagenarians instead forever young figures from celluloid and posters? Maybe. Their music would have changed and developed in the decades since their deaths, their 1960s recordings would have formed just an early part of their catalogue; but would they enjoy cult status?
Ever since ancient times, being dead has been good for one’s reputation. “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum”, “of the dead, nothing unless good” was the phase used in Diogenes Laertius’ book, “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers” published around 300 AD. The belief that one should not speak ill of the dead dates back much further though, around 600 BC Chilo of Sparta commented that people should not “badmouth the dead”. If people can only speak good of you, then, if you are a public figure, your reputation can only grow. Criticism will be regarded as sour grapes on the part of opponents, or, worse, as unjust behaviour when the object of the criticism cannot respond.
Politicians’ reputations tend to soar upon their demise. As a teenager in the 1970s, it was common to attend meetings of the local Labour Party and hear Hugh Gaitskell described as “the best prime minister we never had”. Had Gaitskell not died suddenly in 1963 at the age of 56, but had lived to win the 1964 general election, would those same people have remained so favourably disposed? In more recent times, Gaitskell’s place among Labour Party members has probably been taken by John Smith, the leader who died suddenly in 1994.
The tendency to lionize the departed is not confined to deceased public figures. In parishes, it is noticeable that some of the most difficult and cantankerous of people, upon dying, immediately gain widespread admiration and praise. “Wasn’t he a great character?”, “You don’t find may like him now”, “We won’t see his like again”. There is always the temptation to respond that they didn’t see much of him when he was alive, because they didn’t go near him, because they disliked him so much – but it is better to bite the lip.
Music might be “dead cool”, but were the deceased alive, whether they be musicians, politicians, or parishioners, their coolness might be a matter of opinion.