Rock and roll, as a recorded medium, preserved for the ages, is a vessel for death, a way for the dead to communicate their eternal messages through the ages, shouting and screaming beyond the wall of sleep. A record is a dead sound, capturing an ephemeral moment that has long since dissipated into the æther; recorded sound emphasizes the way in which art captures moments of life and gives them immortality like a mosquito in amber. For rock and roll’s saddest suicide, Brad Delp’s three albums with the rock group Boston comprise a towering sonic tribute to the concept of pained masculinity and humbled love and loss, captured for eternity in sound.
It has been 10 years to the day since Delp killed himself via a complicated contraption involving a dryer hose and a few charcoal grills. He was found in his Atkinson, New Hampshire, home on March 9, 2007 by police and his fiancee with his head on a pillow in a bathroom filled with carbon monoxide; “J’ai une ame solitaire. I am a lonely soul,” read a note he left pinned to the neck of his shirt.
His is the voice that fronted 1976’s Boston, a gargantuan slab of rock that is as idiosyncratic as it is ubiquitous; pounding and yearning and earnest, Boston’s rock anthems, with their slashing guitar wizardry and vocal flourishings, have a powerful sheen that epitomizes either the best or the worst of the sound of the classic rock era, depending on your tastes. Boston followed up their debut’s gargantuan success twice, first with 1978’s Don’t Look Back, and then in 1986 with their long-delayed smash Third Stage; both were number one albums in America, both had multiple charting singles. Today, the most modest perusal of your radio dial will most assuredly reward you with the dulcet tones of Mr. Delp’s vocal pyrotechnics. But what was Delp trying to communicate with his music? Why is it that his death is so much sadder, upon further inspection, so much more devastating, than the pantheon of romantic suicides and premature deaths that litter the mythology of our popular music narratives?
Brad Delp’s three albums with Boston comprise a towering sonic tribute to the concept of pained masculinity and humbled love and loss, captured for eternity in sound.
Brad Delp was, at heart, just a singer; in Boston, the maestro was Tom Scholz, who not only wrote nearly all the songs but played nearly every instrument on the band’s recordings. Scholz was and remains an overconfident nerd with a defiantly independent streak who crafted every Boston tune to within an inch of its life, cramming pick slides and outer-space squeals into every audible space amidst the vocal harmonies, crunching guitar chording and triumphant solo phrasing. Delp worked on a few projects outside of Boston, but as far as that goes, he is mostly remembered for his long-time Beatles cover band, Beatlejuice, where for more than a decade, he proved to a nonstop slew of regional audiences that he was capable of executing the most utterly convincing Paul McCartney imitation imaginable.
But Delp’s legacy will always lie in the way that he was able to merge his vocal style and his inner soul with the music and lyrics of Scholz in a way that was completely and uniquely vulnerable, a rarity in the landscape of 1970s hard rock. “I understand about indecision, and I don’t care if I get behind/People living in competition, all I want is to have my peace of my mind” is the chorus to one of the most overplayed songs in rock history; yet it is worth pausing to ponder the fact that one the highest-selling debut albums in rock history made a hit single about not taking one’s career too seriously. Sure sure, lyrically it’s just Scholz taking digs at his old co-workers at Polaroid, where he toiled after finishing up at MIT whilst secretly plotting his rock and roll domination; but there has always been something about Delp’s deft enunciation that makes me believe that he does indeed understand about indecision, that he doesn’t care if he gets left behind.
Because whereas Scholz was an insecure music whiz, Delp was a more straightforward depressive redeemed by the power of music. “More Than A Feeling”, “Rock and Roll Band”, “Feelin’ Satisfied”: these are straightforward paeans to the format of rock and roll, but infused with Delp’s heartfelt gratitude — he knows deep down that he’d be nothing without the music that makes his life worth living. “I know what you’re saying is bad,” Delp intones on “Used to Bad News”, a song he actually penned himself for Don’t Look Back, “It’s not what I wanted but I’m ready for that.”
“I have had bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide since I was a teenager,” Delp wrote in one of his suicide notes found by police at his home; the line was meant as an explanation to the people he was close to in life, imploring them not to blame themselves for his actions. But in explaining his death, Delp is also giving us a glimpse into the pathos buried within the power and majesty of his work with Boston. If he believed in rock’s redemption, he also glumly accepted life’s (and love’s) disappointments and resignations.
There was a fair amount of confusion as to the cause of Delp’s suicide at the time; the rumor was that it was in some way related to Delp’s unhappiness with the business of Boston and/or some kind of disagreement with Scholz. This theory melted away when the banal truth was eventually revealed, a complicated tale having to do with Delp’s fiancée, her sister, Delp’s suspicions of being cheated on, and the discovery of a hidden webcam. Falling into a spiral of shame, panic and sadness, Delp quickly plotted his suicide, undetected by those around him. “I want to try and make you understand that I consider myself a decent person who made a dreadful error in judgment. I acted out of some impulse that is still not completely fathomable to me,” Delp wrote in an email to his fiancée’s sister, days before his death.
“I’m gonna say it like a man and make you understand” was the chorus to Boston’s comeback hit single “Amanda”, which came out in the fall of 1986 and managed to become a number one single smack-dab in the middle of the MTV era without a video ever having been made for it. Delp’s email to his fiancee’s sister reminds me so much of not just this line in this song, but of so many Boston songs that are lyrically preoccupied with Being A Man. “Amanda” is about the urgent need to show a depth of emotion that has long lay dormant; in the cosmology of so many Boston songs, there is a certain irony at play where masculinity is not the stoicism of submerging one’s feelings but the very act of breaking through that stoicism in the name of love. It’s the struggle toward honesty and forthright emotive sublimation that Delp and Scholz present as the threshold between the boy and the man.
In this sense, the most archetypal Boston song is Don’t Look Back’s“A Man I’ll Never Be”, an epic meditation on the distance between the fiction of the image of a man and the reality that he must hide in order to maintain masculine stability. “If only I could find a way, I’d feel like I’m the man you believe I am; It’s getting harder every day for me to hide behind this dream you see: a man I’ll never be.”
Over a swelling six-and-a-half minutes, climbing out of a luxuriant pool of tinkling piano swirls on a crushing rampage of mountainous guitar-shriek surges, “A Man I’ll Never Be” essays the masculine struggle between the warring poles of Honesty and Maintaining An Image of Strength. Lyrically, musically, emotionally, it is the pulling back of the veil only to reveal nothing, over and over again; Delp voices the honest anguish of a man trying only to repeatedly retreat within his own insecurity, swirling and swirling toward the center until there is nothing left.
Brad Delp died at the age of 55; his band, Boston, remains one of rock’s most successful acts in terms of radio play and album sales (and this week announced a North American tour that plays TD Garden on July 13), but their internecine intra-band warfare, general unwillingness to play ball with either the world of ’70s corporate rock or the MTV-led ’80s (as well as their general camera-averse nature) kept them from being the household name that so many of their ’70s and ’80s peers were able to become in the decades since. In many ways, then, it isn’t a shock that Delp’s death isn’t treated as a worldwide day of mourning ten years later. It is worth noting that, what with the recent spate of celebrity musician deaths turning generations of social media citizens into professional virtual pallbearers, little attention was paid to the suicides of Keith Emerson (keyboardist for ’70s prog titans Emerson, Lake & Palmer who put a shotgun to his head one year ago this Saturday) and Butch Trucks (drummer for the Allman Brothers Band who took his life in late January); both artists played in bands that filled stadiums in their heyday and continued to successfully tour for decades after their official career highs.
The message is clear: Suicide is an important component of popular music, but only when fit into the proper mythology of an early death. Just as recorded music captures the soul of an artist’s sound, so does their untimely young death capture their spirit at its youthful pinnacle, sparing us the awkwardness and indecency of seeing them age and/or put on weight. We as a mass audience lift the young artist aloft with our mania, let them capture our imagination with their song — and then like a mass psychic Bacchic rite, we tear them to shreds.
Celebrating rock often means celebrating these death rites, hoisting challices to those who gave all so that we may continue to enjoy our teenage rebellion long past its age-appropriate expiration date. But the truth is that life is sad and death is sadder; more importantly, these mythological figures were actually once real people with real lives that were complicated and tragic. We root for success but only to a point — because after all, we don’t know these people, really, right? Sure, in many cases: But with Brad Delp, the more you know, the sadder you feel, the deeper the loss — of a great singer, of someone who clearly was a nice person who just wanted to be able to play music to beat back the demons of depression. If his powerful musical legacy in Boston is now forever tainted by death, then so be it — the sadness I’ve personally felt in the last decade anytime a Boston song has come on, that choked-back tear I feel when I connect with Delp’s dark musical ambivalence, only makes his music more real, and paradoxically, more alive.