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Plethora of musician deaths 'quite natural'

Interview: Dagmar Breitenbach
April 22, 2016

From David Bowie and Glenn Frey to Lynyrd Skynyrd and now Prince, so many music legends have recently died. DW spoke to the editor-in-chief of the German edition of Rolling Stone to get to the bottom of it.

People mourning at David Bowie's former home in Berlin Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

DW: Motörhead lead singer Lemmy Kilmister, Toto's Mike Porcaro, Blues guitarist BB King, Eagles guitarist Glenn Frey, pop titan David Bowie - to name just a very few - and now, Prince: It seems that an usually high number of music legends have died over the past months. But is that really the case?

Sebastian Zabel: I'd say it's a matter of age. Many musicians who died recently weren't that young, for instance David Bowie, who was also battling cancer. Most of these musicians are from a certain generation and aligned quite closely together on a time line. So it's actually quite natural.

Why are people often distressed and saddened by musicians' deaths? What is so special about them and their music?

Some of the deceased musicians were iconic figures in the world of music. Take Lemmy Kilmister, for instance. He was a very significant figure for heavy metal and for rock'n'roll in general, an artist who managed to combine punk and metal. David Bowie was a titan of pop culture. He left his mark on British pop music like no other, and that over several decades. Indeed, Bowie possessed a radiant energy that even touched the younger generation, people in their 20s.

Sebastian Zabel Copyright: Imago
People are used to immediate information , says Sebastian ZabelImage: Imago

And Prince? You won't find many people who didn't dance to Prince's songs in the 1980s, or listened to his tapes in the car. So mainly people who grew up in the 80s will mourn him. But even the younger people know Prince they've seen this crazy guy with the wild hair, pointy boots and purple clothes. He's an iconic figure.

Do you find it surprising that few have actually died as a result of their rock'n'roll lifestyles, but of disease and old age?

Drugs played a role in most artists' pasts - David Bowie, in particular - and Lemmy Kilmister consumed hard liquor to his dying day. Prince is an exception. As far as we know, he never took drugs. But today, many artists are well-behaved senior citizens. They do their shows on stage, but otherwise they go to bed early, drink milkshakes and watch TV. So it's not really that surprising.

Not too long ago, you would have heard about a pop star's death on the radio, or in the news, and read the obit the next day in the paper. Today's media bend over backwards to report as fast as possible, and from as many different angles a possible. Why the hype?

Death is a grand event. When a great artist dies, today's media takes a different approach than in the past, when readers had to wait for next month's edition to read the obituary. Today, everything is online, on Twitter and Facebook straight away, and people share their emotions and post their favorite songs.

Our problem at "Rolling Stone" right now is that the magazine has gone to print - with Udo Lindenberg, who turns 70, on the cover. Of course, a lot of readers don't understand that. They'll say, Prince just died, why isn't there anything on Prince. People are used to having everything at their fingertips right away, thanks to the media of our day.

Is that appropriate?

I believe it is. In a case like this, we used to meet in the schoolyard, or go to a bar in the evening to talk things over with our friends. Or we'd retire to our rooms and listen to the old records. There's nothing wrong about using the latest forms of communication today.

Sebastian Zabel has been editor-in-chief of the German edition of "Rolling Stone" since 2012.