Well, this ought to be interesting.
Since January 2016, I have been compelled to write no less than 15 blog tributes about rock music heroes who have passed away in that time span.
Glenn Frey, David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, George Michael, Chuck Berry, Gregg Allman, Tom Petty, Fats Domino, and others — you know the long, sorry list.
But this week, two of the most disparate popular music figures you could possibly imagine died within a few days of each other, giving me the opportunity to somehow tie them together in one unusual blog obituary.
One: Malcolm Young — co-founder, rhythm guitarist and chief songwriter of hard rock titans AC/DC — died at age 64 after a three-year battle with early-onset dementia. He was a dedicated professional, a commanding instrumentalist and a tireless performer whose name appears on 90 percent of AC/DC’s formidable catalog, which happens to rank among the best selling in rock music history.
Two: Teen idol David Cassidy — lead singer and nationwide heartthrob of the 1970s TV show “The Partridge Family” and a recording/touring sensation in his own right — died at age 67, following complications from liver and kidney failure as well as dementia.
The musical output of these two stars couldn’t be more different. AC/DC plays pounding, bone-jarring hard rock featuring larynx-shredding vocals and anthemic riffs. Cassidy’s catalog swings between bubblegum pop and covers of ’60s “adult contemporary” fare. I’m hard pressed to come up with a more radically abrupt songlist segue than going from “Hells Bells” to “I Think I Love You.”
Still, Young and Cassidy had a few things in common. They have both sold many, many millions of records over the years, and both enjoyed vast legions of frenzied fans who would very likely have been happy to sell their grandmothers in order to get front row seats and back stage passes to their concerts.
AC/DC, in fact, have sold more than 150 million albums, ranking them in the top three most commercially successful acts of all time. This astounds me, simply because, while hard rock has a fiercely loyal following around the globe, a greater majority of the public are decidedly not enamored with AC/DC or other bands of their ilk.
David Cassidy, meanwhile, had a shorter period of peak popularity (at least in the U.S.), but in 1971, his fan club had a bigger membership than The Beatles and Elvis Presley combined! In the pantheon of teen idols, from Fabian and Donny Osmond to Leif Garrett and Bobby Sherman, Cassidy arguable tops them all.
Personally speaking, these two artists had one other thing in common: I didn’t like their music. I never did, and probably never will.
When you look at it retrospectively, readers shouldn’t find this surprising. In both cases, I wasn’t part of their target market demographic. In 1970, when “The Partridge Family” debuted on TV and on the Top 40, I was 15, and already past the point where I might have been willing to listen to bubblegum teen-idol stuff. In 1979, when AC/DC exploded on American rock fans’ collective consciousness, I was 24, and pretty much past the period when I was receptive to the monolithic, ear-splitting sound of two-chord hard rock with shrieking vocals.
But just because I didn’t care for their songs doesn’t mean I can’t show respect for their considerable accomplishments.
Cassidy was the son of Hollywood actor Jack Cassidy, who helped pave the way for his son to pursue an interest in acting. He debuted in a forgettable Broadway play called “The Fig Leaves are Falling,” which was by all accounts a flop, but producers took note of the 17-year-old Cassidy and invited him to Los Angeles for some screen tests. Those led to parts on such late ’60s TV dramas as “Bonanza,” “Adam-12” and “Ironside,” and those, in turn, caught the attention of the producers of a new program based on the real-life family musical group The Cowsills. Noted actress Shirley Jones, who happened to be David’s stepmother, had been cast as the matriarch Shirley Partridge, and eventually Cassidy won the part of Keith Partridge.
His undeniably pretty face and easy-going manner made him extremely attractive to young girls everywhere, but as it turned out, he could actually sing, too. So, while the rest of the Partridge Family lip-synched their way through the performing segments and were replaced by session musicians on recordings, Cassidy was providing the lead vocals, and he was responsible for the success of The Partridge Family’s first three singles and first three albums, which rocketed to the Top Five of the U.S. charts.
Naturally, he soon went solo, reaching the Top Ten in six countries with his cover of the ’60s pop anthem “Cherish” and the same-named LP. His concert appearances with a backup band of seasoned pros were packed with tweens and teens, and he quickly matured into a polished performer and crowd pleaser.
“He has an instinctive command of audiences,” said his manager, Ruth Arons, in 1972. “The way he leaps out and bounces around on the stage, his little yellings of ‘I love you’ – it’s exciting, and theatrically effective. He projects a joyful, affirmative sexual appeal. He is not, as some critics say, a hoax that’s being foisted on the public – a figment of someone’s imaginings, a put-on. He’s not a make believe performer.”
But he soon tired of his teen idol status and hoped to be taken more seriously by the hip rock culture, even granting an in-depth, revealing and controversial (for its time) interview that put him and his naked body on the cover of Rolling Stone. But it didn’t work. The fact that he simply couldn’t shake his original image frustrated him greatly, and it helped exacerbate an ever-increasing abuse of booze and drugs, which haunted him for most of the rest of his life. He resurfaced periodically to ravenous crowds in various comebacks and nostalgia tours in the ’80s and ’90s, but by 2010 things spiraled out of control for him as he was charged with multiple DUIs and his health deteriorated.
Conversely, AC/DC, Australia’s most popular export, had no such immediate adulation here in the U.S. They were at first shunned by their American label, even as they built enthusiastic support at home and in Europe. It wasn’t until the band’s fifth LP, 1979’s “Highway to Hell,” that they caught on in the U.S., and their fame exploded like a California wildfire. With Bon Scott caterwauling away on vocals, Angus Young contributing fiery lead guitar solos and brother Malcolm providing the steady rhythm guitar, AC/DC vaulted into the Top 20 album charts.
At precisely the worst possible time, Scott then died of alcohol poisoning, and the group almost called it quits, but they regrouped, added vocalist Brian Johnson, and continued their mercurial rise by releasing “Back in Black,” a quasi-tribute to Scott and a juggernaut hard-rock manifesto that went on to sell an incredible 50 million copies worldwide (22 million copies in the U.S.), making it the second-highest-selling album of all time (after Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”). Two more Top Five LPs quickly followed — “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” (a reissue of the Australian 1976 album with Scott) and 1981’s “For Those About to Rock” — and AC/DC found themselves among the hottest concert draws in the world, including the U.S.
The band plugged away throughout the ’80s as leaders of an ever-growing hard-rock/heavy-metal genre that included rivals like Ozzy Osbourne, Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. My 31-year-old son-in-law, a producer/songwriter, described AC/DC this way: “They were good-mood, fun, almost cartoonish hard rock. It was kind of indulgent and gimmicky, the riffs, the song titles, but it was smart business because it was a brand that worked. Many of their best songs are the ones everyone wants to turn up to 11 and sing at the top of their lungs.”
Malcolm Young, though, had also developed an alcohol problem, so he wisely checked himself into a rehab program and cleaned up his act, returning to the band’s lineup after just an eight-week absence. To his credit, Young maintained sobriety for the rest of his life, and he remained the reliable linchpin on stage for several tours in the 1990s and 2000s, and as the band’s most consistent songwriter.
Sadly, early-onset dementia was one more thing Cassidy and Young had in common. In Cassidy’s case, he confessed he had a feeling he’d be afflicted with it, as it had stricken both his grandfather and his mother. Because of an inability to remember words and/or chords, both men were finally forced to retire from public appearances several years before their deaths last week.
No word has emerged yet from the AC/DC camp as to whether the band intends to soldier on without their co-founder, but the odds are good they will. Indeed, they’ve been touring and recording for nearly a decade with Young on the sidelines, and have even recently replaced longtime vocalist Johnson with ex-Guns ‘n Roses frontman Axl Rose on stage and in the studio.
As for Cassidy’s legacy, well, he is remembered fondly by women who were of an impressionable age at the time he was in the eye of the media storm. And, as his ex-manager put it, “No matter what happened later, he still did something special that few artists have achieved.”