Starting with David Bowie, on January 10, and ending with Keith Emerson last Thursday, it seems like the first quarter of 2016 will be remembered as a period of unprecedented deaths in the music business, with a strong concentration of figures from the “classic rock” era of the late 1960s-1970s.
My subjective list of “major” losses from the music world begins with Bowie, who died of liver cancer, and includes Glenn Frey (complications of rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis, and pneumonia), Paul Kantner (organ failure after a heart attack), Signe Anderson, the first vocalist in the Jefferson Airplane (COPD), Maurice White (Parkinson’s Disease), Dan Hicks (throat and liver cancer), Vanity (kidney failure caused by drug abuse), Nana Vasconcelos, Brazilian percussionist (lung cancer), George Martin (unspecified cause of death) and Keith Emerson (apparent suicide following degenerative nerve disease and depression). And if you want to throw in Lemmy, who died on December 28 of last year of prostate cancer, cardiac arrhythmia and congestive heart failure, go ahead. If you want a list of most of the people from the music world who have died in this, or prior, years, go here.
Those are some pretty serious names. And whether you were a particular fan of any of them, any lover of music has to be struck by the breadth and quality of the work that each of them created. I took a quick look back to see who died in the first quarters of 2014 and 2015, and while there were certainly a number of important and popular musicians who died, for the most part, there wasn’t the same concentration of star power as this year.
For those of us who came of age during the classic rock era, we are confronting middle age ourselves, and many of us are dealing with aging or sick parents, if we are lucky enough to have living parents at all. And the musicians that we looked up to in those days are aging themselves. Except for two outliers, each of the musicians on my list above were born in the 1940s. Kantner, Anderson, White and Hicks were born in 1941, Vasconcelos and Emerson in 1944, Lemmy in 1945, Bowie in 1947 and Frey in 1948. (Vanity, who had chronic liver problems, was born in 1959, and George Martin was born in 1926, meaning that he lived to the ripe old age of 90). So, that group, when they died, ranged in age from 68 to 74.
When you think about it, we really shouldn’t be surprised about the fact that a group of (mostly) men in, essentially, their 70s, died. If you take a look at the chart above, which I grabbed from here, shows that the likelihood of death spikes up around 70. And let’s also not forget the likely negative effects of the rock and roll lifestyle that, it is fair to assume, most, if not all, of the people on our list indulged in to some degree.
So, if it shouldn’t be a surprise, why does it upset us so much when our musical heroes leave us? For me, I guess there are a few reasons. It would be easy to say that to some degree we are upset that the musician won’t be making any more music, but really, and to be blunt–of the people on the list, most of them had stopped making music altogether, or had not really produced anything approaching the quality of their classic period. Even Bowie’s latest albums, including Blackstar, were only intermittently interesting, and certainly were not up to the level of his peak work. So, at best, by dying, they have prevented us from seeing a “greatest hits” show interrupted, maybe, by a few new tunes that we don’t recognize. That can’t really explain the outpouring of emotion.
No, I think that the main reason we grieve for these strangers is that they weren’t really strangers. Through their art, they revealed something of themselves to us and touched us in a way that was meaningful. They spoke to us, made us feel good, or sad, or happy, or angry or hopeful or powerful or sexy or excited, or something. And when you add to that the fact that their deaths remind us of our younger days, days when music was something that we listened to constantly, pored over, and talked about, the loss of these artists remind us that those days are gone. Also, in some cases, people like Bowie, or Kantner, taught us that it was possible to live a life outside what was considered conventional or proper, whether or not we chose to do so.
I’m sure that each of you has your own reasons why the death of some or all of these musicians have affected you. Feel free to leave me comments with your thoughts.
Clearly, over the last three or so months, the rock and roll band in heaven has gotten even more incredible. And, unfortunately, between now, and when I, and my colleagues at Star Maker Machine write our year end In Memoriam posts, the band will be getting even more members.