2016: The year the music started to die
What happens when “live fast, die young” becomes “grow old, die slowly”?
Like it or not, we’re about to find out. There’s a Great Cull coming, and rock ’n’ roll music will never be the same.
If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that even pop’s most seemingly immortal figures are, in fact, quite mortal and destined for the grave just like the rest of us. It was an annus horribilis that began on a low note with the death of David Bowie just three days after the release of his blackly magical 27th albumBlackstar on Jan. 8 — and basically stayed down there in the depths for the next 12 months.
The pop deaths just kept coming: Prince, felled at 57 on April 21 by something as impossibly prosaic as an opiate overdose. The Eagles’ Glenn Frey. Merle Haggard. Prince Buster. Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest. Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. Suicide’s Alan Vega. Sharon Jones. Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, whose twin departures from this plane rendered Emerson, Lake & Palmer a solo act within the space of just nine months. Canadian icon Leonard Cohen, too, of course, who predicted his own looming demise in Bowie-esque fashion with an album-length goodbye of his own, You Want it Darker, released just a couple of weeks before his very private death on Nov. 7 at 82 years of age. George Michael, announced on Christmas Day.
Scarcely a week would pass without the mention of another drummer here or another guitarist there of a certain age quietly saying goodbye forever — and this after the shock of the sudden death of whiskey-swillin’ metal survivor Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister at 70 just three days before the end of 2015.
The Canada-stunning announcement in May that Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip was fighting to survive against terminal brain cancer didn’t help matters much, either, even if the Hip’s triumphant farewell tour in the summer and the subsequent release of his noble Secret Path solo album in the fall proved inspirational rather than sad.
In any case, 2016 was not the happiest time to be a music fan. As the Georgia Straight put it, “About the only good thing that happened in 2016 was that Keith Richards didn’t die.”
Unfortunately, at some point Keith Richards, who just turned 73, is going to die, along with the rest of the Rolling Stones, who have played the poster boys for rock longevity for 50 years now but simply can’t keep it up forever. Time is on no one’s side, not even the Rolling Stones’.
And sadly, it’s only going to get worse.
Soon rock ’n’ roll’s entire first generation — the generation that made it the dominant musical force on the planet, anyway, although Chuck Berry turned 90 this year and they don’t come much more first-generation than that — will gradually leave us.
A world without David Bowie seemed inconceivable a year ago. Now imagine a world without Keith, without Mick Jagger (73), without Bob Dylan (75), without Paul McCartney (74), without Neil Young (71), without Pete Townsend (71), without Roger Daltrey (72), without Roger Waters (73).
It was no accident of timing that someone had the bright idea to bring all these oldsters together in California for the Desert Trip festival in October. It was a now-or-never kind of thing.
The opportunity to convene that group again will not present itself for long. And that fact makes you wonder for the future. As Syracuse University professor Theo Cateforis observed to AFP recently, in reference to the deaths of Prince and David Bowie: “Their passing allows us to reflect on what careers were like in previous eras — and that that kind of artist may be less and less frequent in the future.”
Still, while the loss of so many musicians over the past year has been a downer — as anything that forces one to repeatedly confront one’s own mortality tends to be — the graceful exits of Bowie and Cohen, as well as the life-affirming courage of our Downie in the face of the inevitable, have demonstrated that dying doesn’t necessarily mean defeat.
Now, obviously, you can’t beat the clock. But you can conjure amazing art from the contemplation of your imminent passing, as Bowie did with the wondrously cryptic and self-referential Blackstar and as Cohen did with the elegant, devilishly funny You Want it Darker.
You can use the time you have left to bring as much joy to yourself and to others as possible, as Downie and the Hip did this past summer, or to leverage your fate as an instrument of positive change, as Downie’s Secret Path has done by drawing the despicable legacy of Canada’s residential-school system out onto a mainstream platform.
It’s sad to lose our heroes, but we can take some comfort in knowing they maintained a commitment to artistry, that they never lost their passion for and their faith in the power of music until they took their last breaths.
Music is immortal, after all, even if we are not. That has to mean something.