Just five days before Del Shannon pressed a .22 caliber to his head and pulled the trigger, leaving his wife to find him dead in the den with the rifle next to his body at their home in Santa Clarita, CA, he played the last gig of his life on February 3rd–the anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death. He played it at the Civic Center in Fargo, ND–exactly where Buddy’s plane was headed the night it smashed into a frozen Iowa cornfield at 170 mph just minutes after taking off into a gusty snowstorm, leaving another wife to dig her way out of the wreckage of a broken heart just six months after marrying the man. She did, somehow–but not before miscarrying Buddy’s only child.
It was an especially inopportune time for Shannon to die–as if there is ever an “opportune” time. He had nearly completed a record with Jeff Lynne in the wake of Lynne’s monumental success producing The Traveling Wilburys’ debut and Tom Petty’s ridiculously successful Full Moon Fever album. Shannon was no stranger to success himself–his hit single “Runaway,” the song he would sing for the rest of his life, sold at a clip of 80,000 copies a day back in 1961–but, as with so many pop stars of Shannon’s era, the world with its ever-diminishing attention span quickly moved on to the next fad and the next (prog rock, punk, disco, new wave–none of them exactly suited to the quivering falsetto of a country rock has been.) Shannon’s response was not an unusual one: alcohol. Lots of it. Such cruel reversals of fortune are not easy on anybody, but for a former truck driver who worked his way out of a furniture factory and into the big time on nothing but raw talent, balls, and a song he wrote while working at a carpet store, it had to be an especially difficult wound to his pride.
Del Shannon Performing “Runaway” in 1988
(At 53 years-old, Shannon’s voice was in stunning form here)
Even more tragic was the quality of the music he’d been brewing with Lynne in those sessions, which produced the posthumous and poignantly titled Rock On! in 1991–an album that went on to become one of Shannon’s best-selling records. There was something about Lynne’s signature pop sound and the enduring miracle of Del Shannon’s voice that culminated in some of the finest music the man had ever made–tracks like “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am” or “Walk Away” restored Shannon to the throne of his forgotten legacy, one that Richard Cromelin described as “haunting vignettes of heartbreak and restlessness [that] contain something of a cosmic undercurrent which has the protagonist tragically doomed to a bleak, shadowy struggle.” How was anyone to know, though, that all along he was singing about himself, that somewhere amid all the gloss and syrup of early ’60s pop production stood a man alone with demons he could only face in front of thousands of fans. Maybe that’s what Joan Baez meant when she said that “the easiest relationship is with ten thousand people. The hardest is with one.”
That’s both the mystery and tragedy of Shannon’s premature demise. He took his own life just as it seemed he was catching on again. Tom Petty, a friend of Shannon’s who infuriated him by stealing the equally doomed Howie Epstein from Shannon’s band when Ron Blair quit The Heartbreakers in 1976, reconciled enough with him to produce his Drop Down and Get Me LP in 1982, which featured Shannon backed by Petty’s Heartbreakers (“His voice is like a siren,” Mike Campbell would say.) The album wasn’t exactly a commercial success, but it earned Shannon a minor hit with his cover of Phil Phillips’s “Sea of Love,” reawakening critics to the flame of a talent that still burned as brightly as ever. Shannon scored another hit a few years later when Michael Mann chose “Runaway” as the theme song for his short-lived TV drama Crime Story in 1986. And it was yet another irony in Shannon’s life that another legend who died in the midst of a stunning resurgence–Roy Orbison–left a spot open for Shannon on the next Traveling Wilburys album, a no-brainer given Shannon’s established relationship with Petty and Lynne.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” so many would say to themselves as they turned on the news the night of February 9th to learn that Del Shannon had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head the night before. But who can say what tormented voices swarm the mind of a man who puts the butt of a gun to his head with the full intention of finishing the job? It’s only nonsensical to we who have not fallen victim to those demons. Though Shannon had reportedly quit the bottle years before when he returned from a creative oblivion to pair with Petty for Drop Down and Get Me, no amount of resurgent glory was powerful enough to push away his pain. “I hated the taste of booze,” Shannon would tell the NY Times of his alcoholism, “But I liked where it took me–oblivion.”
Shannon’s widow, Bonnie LeAnne Tyson, blames her husband’s suicide on the anti-depressants he was taking at the time, a known impetus for suicide. As an article at antidepressantfacts.com puts it, the morbid legacy of psychiatric drugs in the lives of people like Shannon constitutes a “hidden war against artists . . . the powerful psychiatric drug Prozac, which WHO magazine described as the drug ‘thought by some to have a darker side,’ would bring his renewed hopes and dreams of a revitalized career to an abrupt end.” Bonnie would later argue that her husband was “a well-informed and physically healthy man and father, [who] died violently after taking Prozac for only 15 days.” Ultimately, one can’t help but consider the bleak irony with which Del Shannon himself became the “Runaway” he always sang about.
Special Feature: The day after Del Shannon died, his good friend Tom Lazaros wrote a song in his memory called “That Runaway Man.” Check out the video here. The Shannon-esque falsetto chants of “Why, Why, Why” in the background are absolutey heartbreaking.