American Culture

Intimations of mortality: Bowie, Frey, Kantner…

Where is it now? The glory and the dream…? – Wordsworth

Dr. John the Night Tripper (image courtesy Wikimedia)

So. We start with a digression of sorts.

I went to see Dr. John, the iconic New Orleans musician, over the weekend. He gave a great show. His band was killer and he covered the full range you’d expect: blues, jazz, zydeco, rock ‘n roll, boogie woogie. Of course, he did the two most well known hits “Right Place Wrong Time” and “Such a Night.” And he did them splendidly.

The most powerful moment of the night, though, came not during the closing number and encore but just after. Monsieur Rebennack took a curtain call, moving from one side of the stage to the other, waving and pointing to the audience as he basked in well deserved appreciation of a fine show.

It was not what Dr. John did but how he did it that made the moment haunting.

Once away from the piano, the audience got a dose of the reality that’s been beating Boomers over the head since 2016 began. Rebennack doddered around the stage like the 75 year old he is, guided and supported by his trombonist. It was a beautiful, heartbreaking reminder that we’re going to spend the next decade saying goodbye to a generation of incredible musical talents.

Intimations of Mortality Recollected from Misspent Youth, to paraphrase a pretty good English poet.

Bowie, Kantner, Frey (image courtesy

As we all know, I write much more about books than about music these days. I’ve just finished  Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wife, Book 2 of Sigrid Undset’s saga of medieval Norway. It’s a magnificent work – but more about that later.

I have been thinking a good bit about what immortality is. Reading the work of a Nobelist such as Undset is one genesis of such thinking, of course. But literature is a well established art form. Measurement of both its achievements and the artists who make them is simple enough. Not really, of course, but for the sake of argument, we’ll say it is.

Popular music is another matter. Subject to fad and fashion, pop music has been treated as disposable product more than art form. Its popularity in its various manifestations rises and falls. Rock music, a subset of popular music that was once perhaps its most successful genre, if measured in terms of cultural penetration and sheer staggering financial success, may now, in fact, be nothing more than a niche genre if not a dead one if critics are to be believed.

So the widespread and heartfelt response to the deaths of three of the rock era’s great stars over the last few weeks has been something of a surprise. Certainly one could expect a large response to the death of David Bowie – he’d kept his illness as secret as possible and so his passing came as a shock. Further, Bowie was a rock artist whose career – and whose periodic re-inventions of himself and his career – were enormously influential.

In interviews Bowie always projected all the qualities that we hoped great rock musicians possessed – intelligence, curiosity, sophistication. His endless inventiveness and willingness to subordinate his ego to musical achievement (re: Tin Machine) made him a figure of singular importance.

Beside all this Bowie was an accomplished actor and painter. Whether this legitimizes his legacy more than that of his late peers, I can’t say. But in most minds he was equated with that other great Renaissance man/rock icon, John Lennon. Pretty sanctified company.

As great a star as he was, the response to the death of Glenn Frey of The Eagles was more muted. Perhaps this is because Frey and his musical partner Don Henley were known as hard-nosed businessmen in a hard-nosed business. Frey, as fine a songwriter and singer as he was, seemed distant in ways that Bowie, despite his shape shifting and intellectualism, did not. Frey and his cohort maintained the aloofness often associated with rock stardom during the classic period.

Frey’s work was deeply admired and The Eagles are probably the single greatest influence on contemporary country music. But Frey’s death felt more a reminder of what rock music once was than Bowie’s even though Bowie had effectively retired and Frey and The Eagles were touring regularly. There is a poignancy to this which I am not sure I can explain. And it raises the question that I hinted at – if one of rock’s biggest groups loses its leader and the response is as muted as it was to Frey’s death, what does that say about rock’s cultural currency? And its longevity?

On that melancholy note we come to Paul Kantner. One of the counterculture’s heroic figures, Kantner’s songs for Jefferson Airplane and Starship are rife with protest, politics, psychedelics. They have, sadly, for far too many, achieved a status not unlike that Kantner describes in The Airplane classic, “Crown of Creation”: “…a place among the fossils of our time.”

Indeed, Kantner himself had become something of a relic, still living a hippie-fied life in San Francisco, touring regularly with an ever changing version of Jefferson Starship, playing the great old anthems to fellow gray-haired Boomers. One wonders what went through his mind as the band played “Volunteers”: “One generation got old/One generation got soul….”

Maybe one generation did get soul. But it got old, too. And now it’s dying off. That generation has spent its entire life claiming that its music was immortal. As the musicians who made that music disappear, all that will be left will be their music.

Whether that music will be as mortal as its creators remains an open question.

7 replies »

  1. Well, we aren’t going to have to say good bye for very long, because we’re right behind them. 🙂

    Actually, just learned two of my literary friends are now in home hospice, killing time while they die. For some reason, all of my closest writer friends are dying–three lung cancers (one a non smoker,) one heart attack, one breast cancer. Whether it’s death or infirmity, while our rides may not be here yet, they’re texting to say they’re getting close.

    I guess I’m left with the immortal words of Jimmy Deselle after he sunk the multi-million dollar dredge and was facing ruin, “Fuck em if they can’t take a joke.”

    • It’s the damndest thing, isn’t it, Otherwise? We’re rapidly reaching the age where attending funerals will parallel that period in our youth where we attended weddings one after another. My deepest sympathies on the coming losses you face.

      There’s quote by John Gay, author of ‘The Beggar’s Opera,” that I glommed onto in my 20’s. It’s the one that comes to me often in these same days of this our life, as the Anglo-Saxons were wont to say:

      ‘Life is a jest, and all things show it/I thought so once, but now I know it….’

  2. The Airplane threw me a drumstick in 1970. Only problem was I was stage right where the speakers were and the ringing didn’t stop for quite a while.

    • I have a buddy to whom Chuck Berry tossed a popcorn box in 1970. He has it in a shadow box in his home. Hope you’ve treated that drumstick equally reverently, Otherwise. 🙂

  3. On Facebook someone posted on the latest death (I think it was the Earth Wind and Fire guy) and said, “When will it stop?” I thought, but didn’t post, “In a few years when they’re all dead.”

    About the Glenn Fry response, I wonder if the death of an individual causes more grief than the death of a member when other members are still alive. If you understand my meaning.

    • That’s an interesting point, Retro. I think it depends on the group – my son was at Columbia when George Harrison died. He called me from Strawberry Fields in Central Park where tens of thousands had gathered to sing Beatles’ songs. He called me for two reasons – to express how moved he was by the vastness of the outpouring for George – and to thank me because he knew all the lyrics to those songs. 🙂

      So what I’m trying to say is that maybe it depends on the importance of the group. Although The Eagles are as big as it gets by any measure. So maybe the persona of the group? The Eagles, for all their fame, were never close to the audience as The Fabs were, of course.

      I think we’ll get a better test of this when Mick or Keith goes.

      • I think The Beatles are a case unto themselves. I personally rarely thought of The Eagles as individuals, even though several released solo albums, and I’ve owned several of those albums. Mick and Keith are well known as individual personalities, more so than even, say, Charlie Watts. I expect different responses when the former die (esp Keith, as I think more people identify with him) than the latter.