It Indeed Has Been A Bad Year For Rock and Roll

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“It’s been a bad year for rock and roll.”
— Chuck Prophet

Singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet, a regular on my Spotify playlist was bemoaning the deaths of David Bowie and Prince, among many others, when he released that song earlier this year. He is right.
Bowie died of cancer two months after releasing “Black Star” in January. Check out the video of “Lazarus” on YouTube. It is the haunting work of a brilliant artist who knows he will die soon.
Prince, one of the finest guitar players on the planet, died far too young of an opioid overdose at 57. One of his greatest performances was at the induction of the late George Harrison into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You can find a video of that on YouTube as well.

I Googled “Rock Stars Who Died in 2016.” It is what we do these days. No question is allowed to go unanswered. No matter how arcane the topic, somebody is going whip out a smart phone and find the answer. There is an entire generation of young people under, say, 19, who believe this is the way life has always been. When told differently, they generally shudder in disbelief. How could one live like that? The trick, of course, is finding reliable sources. Clearly, judging from the spate of fake news making headlines and fools out of the gullible, a dispiritingly large portion of Americans cannot tell the difference. But I digress.

Among the other fine musicians who passed away this year:

• Guy Clark, a fine singer and writer, who wrote “LA Freeway,” “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” and “Homegrown Tomatoes.” He and Townes Van Zandt were close friends and collaborators until Townes’ death at 52 from a heart attack almost certainly linked to his heavy drinking.

• Leon Russell, the white-haired keyboardist and singer, who made a modest comeback a few years back with a nice collaborative album with Elton John.

• Two members of the 1970s rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer died this year. Keith Emerson killed himself in March, apparently despondent over a medical condition. Greg Lake died earlier this month of cancer. In tribute, a lawyer at a board meeting I recently attended started singing, quite well, “Oh, what a lucky man he was,” which is about a soldier dying in battle. That slice of song got us to talking about who else in the music world died this year — hence this piece.

• Paul Kantner, co-founder of Jefferson Airplane, also died. I played “Worst of Jefferson Airplane” in high school incessantly. It is playing “White Rabbit” now on my computer speakers, thanks to Spotify.

• Glenn Frey, co-founder of the Eagles, died last January. That superband, which included East Texan Don Henley, was formed as a backup band for singer Linda Ronstadt’s 1971 tour. When the tour ended, the Eagles were born.

• Merle Haggard, the craggy-faced country singer famed for “Okie from Muskogee,” had a voice that just captivated me. He died on his birthday in April at 79. My favorite Haggard song is “That’s the Way Love Goes,” but there are so many. Just last year, he teamed up with Henley on the latter’s fine “Cass County” album on a fine song called “That’s the Cost of Living.”

• Sharon Jones died of pancreatic cancer last month at 60. Sharon Jones and her band, the Dap-Kings, rose out of obscurity with a reputation for high-energy live shows. I have watched a few on YouTube and regret not having seen her in person.

This is not an exhaustive list, just the musicians dearest to me. The most crushing loss, for me, was Leonard Cohen, the brilliant songwriter who released his final album at 82, a month before his death. It contains some dark songs that in retrospect make one believe Cohen knew death was knocking on the door. “You Want It Darker” contains the line, “I’m ready, my Lord.”

Cohen was interviewed by New Yorker editor David Remnick in a piece published in October. He talked about how he kept going: “Now it’s a habit. And there’s the element of time, which is powerful, with its incentive to finish up. Now I haven’t gotten near finishing up. I’ve finished up a few things. I don’t know how many other things I’ll be able to get to…”

I’ll miss these fine artists, but their music will long survive them.

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