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