Remembering Alan Merrill

The man who shared his love of Rock & Roll succumbs to Coronavirus at age 69

Alan Merrill (Art: Ron Hart)

Granted, Alan Merrill’s name alone may not mean a lot to most people, though it very, very well should be.

Back in the late ‘60s, he was one of many hopeful teenagers trying to squeeze out a modicum of success through a tenuous tie to rock and roll. His was not an uncommon tale of struggle and survival in a dog-eat-dog industry, but what was unusual was his ability to carve a rock and roll anthem that’s not only stood the test of time but still manages to convey a universal sentiment that’s relevant today as it was some 50 years before.

The song, “I Love Rock and Roll,” was, of course, made famous by Joan Jett and, given her brash read on the song, one she still sings proudly to this day. A cultural signpost, it helped define an entire generation.

Merrill died this past weekend from complications due to the coronavirus. He was 69 years old.  Jett shared the sad news on Twitter, saying, “I’ve just learned of the awful news that Alan Merrill has passed. My thoughts and love go to his family, friends and music community as a whole. I can still remember watching the Arrows on TV in London and being blown away by the song that screamed hit to me. With deep gratitude and sadness, wishing him a safe journey to the other side.”

Though born in the Bronx, Merrill wrote and first recorded “I Love Rock and Roll” when he was a member of the aforementioned British band Arrows. The group had a couple of other hits with Merrill as well — 1974’s “Touch Too Much” and a year later, “My Last Night With You.” Their success was such that they were given their own weekly television series on Granada ITV, but due to a falling out with their producer, Mickie Most, their output came to a screeching halt. And throughout their two seasons on TV, they found themselves in a marketing quagmire without any new product to push. 

RIP Alan Merrill (Art: Ron Hart)

That said, Merrill had honed his musical chops well before The Arrows. He tasted early success at the tender age of 14 when he played in a succession of bands at the iconic Cafe Wha? in New York’s Greenwich Village. In 1968, he successfully auditioned for the Left Banke, the group that staked its claim to fame with the massive hits “Pretty Ballerina” and “Walk Away Renee.” Sadly, the band broke up shortly afterwards and Merrill left for Japan where he became a teen sensation, having jettisoned his given name “Sachs” because his young fans tended to pronounce it “sex,” a definite no-no for any budding teen star. Nevertheless, he managed to record a solo album, Merrill 1, score a hit single with a song called “Namida” and even do some modeling for various popular brands. Trivia buffs take note — Tiny Tim covered Merritt’s song“Movies,” in 1972.

Still, he fared far better in the U.K. after joining the Arrows, who released the song he co-wrote with bandmate and guitarist Jake Hooker in 1975. A guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, and harmonic player, he formed the group Runner in 1977 with Steve Gould of Rare Bird, Mick Feat, formerly of Van Morrison’s backing band and Dave Dowle of Whitesnake. He later wrote and recorded with Rick Derringer, and he cane heard on three of Derringer’s albums — Good Dirty Fun, Live at the Ritz and Rick Derringer and Friends. Lou Rawls would later record another of his songs, “When the Night Comes.” Merritt’s subsequent eponymous solo album found him joined by such luminaries as Steve Winwood, ex Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor and CSNY drummer Dallas Taylor. 

Merrill later joined Meatloaf’s backing band and released a further succession of solo offerings beginning in the late ‘90s. He also saw a resurgence of stardom in Japan, courtesy of a series of reissued albums that continued through last year. Until very recently, he still managed to make occasional live appearances, play a handful of film and television roles, and put out a final solo album, On A Blue Avenue, in 2017. His last recordings, the theme song for the television series “Across the Pond” and a Valentine’s Day single, “Your Love Song,” were released in 2018 and 2019, respectively. 

Young Alan Merrill (Art: Ron Hart)

Alan Merrill’s wife Joanna recently took to social media to illustrate about the horrific circumstances of her husband’s death:

“Initially I didn’t think I could bear to burden everyone on FB with the announcement of my husband’s death. But since it is now out there, I’d like to say something about the awful truth about the treatment of the virus in a respected hospital, in NYC, in this COUNTRY.

“About 2 weeks ago, Alan felt like he was getting a cold and then the flu. I was immediately suspicious, and of course Alan being Alan, he told me I was getting hysterical for no reason. I nonetheless researched about what to do if you get the Cornavirus. Every article I read said that there is no help available unless you have severe symptoms -can’t breathe or you chest really hurts. Otherwise the hospital will not admit you or test you for Covid-19. And this was absolutely true.

“There was nothing I could do for Alan except watch him get worse. When he finally couldn’t breathe, was so cold he needed piles of blankets on top of him, and couldn’t sleep, I called an ambulance. The EMTs told me I wasn’t allowed to go with him into the ER, so there was no point in accompanying him. I didn’t know what was going on until an ER doctor called me an hour later. She said as far as she could tell (good thing she’s a doctor) he had the virus but he needed to be tested before he could be admitted to ICU. But that would take at least 10 hours.

“Ten hours later I didn’t hear back, so I called Mt. Sinai and was told he did test positive and would be moved to ICU so he could get better attention from the pulmonologists there. At 10:30 a doctor called me and told me they were actually NOT moving him since his body was shutting down because his lungs were too destroyed to work. I asked if he had to die alone, and the doctor said I could come say goodbye. When I got to the hospital I had to argue with 3 different security guards to let me go to the ER. I stood my ground and they went back to fetch a nurse who let me in. This was around 11pm.

“The doctor who called me came to meet me and apologized and said that his numbers were now better and he was going to be transferred to the ICU where he could get the care he needed. He was on a respirator and was sedated, so he was not in pain, or at least aware of the pain.

“My husband should have been moved to the place where the experts who who were there on the front lines could help him. Every 15 minutes I would ask when he was going to be transferred and they would say in the next few minutes, but that never happened. At around 2:30 am, they were finally ready to transfer him upstairs, and I left, exhausted, not willing to battle another group of security guards in ICU.

“I walked 3 blocks towards home and the doctor called me to say he was gone, his heart and lungs just stopped beating from all the pressure they were under.

“So the net net is he was only allowed in the hospital until he was most certainly dying, and then he languished in ER for 14 hours while they tested him for corona, which he obviously had, and struggled to find someone to take him upstairs to ICU. Maybe if he was there, he would have had a fighting chance at least for those 15 hours, but of course we will never know. And now I have to grieve alone in quarantine.

“I also want to relate that I asked the doctor if I should be tested since I was around Alan for two weeks. He said I came in looking like I did, the hospital would let me in. However, if I couldn’t breathe, I should come in and then they would admit me and test me. So essentially you have to be near dead to get help. I know there is no cure, but surely there is something they can do to alleviate the risk your lungs being destroyed, like sending oxygen to people’s homes?

“Please know that I write this not for sympathy, but to let you know the reality of this disease and our country’s lack of preparation for it.

“I urge you to REALLY take this seriously, and when the time comes, show your anger to the officials who knew this was coming and did nothing to prepare.

“Alan I can’t even begin to imagine the ways in which I will miss you. I am sure that you are so happy that you are getting the credit for writing one of the world’s most beloved anthems. Your family and the world is sadder without you.”

Still, it was that immortal song/love letter “I Love Rock and Roll,” as famously covered by Joan Jett in 1982, that ought to ensure his immortality.

So long, Mr. Merrill. Your adoration of rock and roll will remain true and secure forever. 

 

RIP Alan Merrill (Art: Ron Hart)

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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