It’s not even June. But already this calendar year we’ve lost a gut-wrenching list of people who’ve impacted the music world: impresarios Don Cornelius and Dick Clark, R&B legends Johnny Otis and Etta James, the incomparable Band singer and drummer Levon Helm, bluegrass banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, amp builder Jim Marshall, Memphis Horns saxophonist Andrew Love, pop icons Whitney Houston and Davy Jones, Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, Stax bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, disco queen Donna Summer, classical art-song master Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, on and on. And, earlier this week, Robin Gibb, who’d been battling cancer for some time.
What the hell is going on? Who wants to check Twitter anymore and be greeted with “RIP,” or log onto Facebook, that running obituary bulletin board?
Well, everyone, it seems. Within hours of Adam Yauch’s death on May 4, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Pitchfork, Slate, The A.V. Club and dozens of other blogs and online publications (even Forbes) had posted tributes. You could take your pick of critical career assessments from any number of angles before Yauch’s body had even been laid to rest. And, naturally, each of those tributes rose to the top of each site’s “most-read” widget.
When a musician dies, there’s a recognizable pattern to how the news is spread. Initially, unconfirmed reports appear on Twitter. Four out of every five tweets are about the passing. They get retweeted, with “Sad” pasted on the front end. Other celebrities post quick-hit comments (“Just heard the news. so crazy,” Justin Bieber tweeted when Houston died. “One of the GREATEST VOICES EVER just passed. RIP Whitney Houston. My prayers go out to her friends and family I am sadden to hear of the passing of Whitney Houston today...”) and get re-tweeted. (These celeb tweets subsequently get rounded up by mainstream pubs like the Los Angeles Times.)
Toggle over to Facebook after a celebrity death to find “RIP” in one or two of your friends’ timelines, along with YouTube videos, blog posts, articles and early obituary drafts from major publications. A day later, reflections, critical essays, remembrances, analyses and more extensive obits hit the web. Soon your friends, except for the most hard-hit by the news (or the ones most likely to wallow), move on. Two days later, there’s not that much more to say about folks who forever changed popular culture. On to the next one.
“This is all very tiresome,” one of my Facebook friends wrote, when I posted about Donna Summer’s passing four days ago. “MCA, Levon Helm, (not to mention [musicologists] Charles Hamm or Michel Huglo) rip. Is it because we are that age now? Are important icons of my life just going to die, weekly, from now on?”
“Facebook is a great way to keep track of who's dying,” wrote another, more jaded friend, after Etta James passed away. That comment, I’ll admit, temporarily made me want to stop posting news of celebrity deaths. But even that individual couldn’t resist posting about Houston (“not surprised, but still bummed”), Yauch (“12 minutes of 1987 Beasties on the Joan Rivers Show, before they got "enlightened." Plenty to love and hate,” after posting a YouTube clip) or, now, Gibb (“According to my iTunes I've got 15.6 hours of Bee Gees, and I've listened to everything at least once -- many of them easily a hundred times or more. So I've actually spent whole days of my life listening to the Bee Gees, and they were some of the best days I ever had. If you don't have their first album, get it now.”)
Obviously, advanced age caused many of these deaths. Self-destructive behaviors caused others. The Baby Boomer generation is hitting that stretch, I guess, where it’s not entirely unusual for a musician member to expire. Perhaps also the recession is to blame; four years out from absolute fiscal rock bottom, aging musicians, who probably made some suspect financial decisions before the bust, found themselves without health insurance, financial security, hope or reason to go on, and ended up enabling their own deaths. There have even been a few notable fake Twitter deaths (Al Jarreau, for example) that are quickly squashed, but no less jarring.
Nowadays, we tend to split celebrity deaths into two piles: major and minor. In most cases, the tendency is to go back and listen to all their music. Sales of Beastie Boys and Whitney Houston records went through the roof after their deaths, and those aren’t exceptions.
“Many complicated explanations have been given and will continue to be given for the depth of the grief that people all over the world have felt at the death of John Lennon,” wrote The New Yorker’s William Shawn, in a brief remembrance of the slain Beatle for the December 22, 1980 issue of that magazine, “but one explanation may be quite simple. Beyond Lennon’s great gifts as a composer, poet, and performer, beyond, and in spite of, his unparalleled and burdensome celebrity, he remained truly a man of the spirit -- this humorous and friendly man who held on to his humanity against awesome odds, and who did not lecture us but, rather, spoke to us quietly, and in ways that we all understood." Well said.
I was tempted to pore over lists of musicians who’ve died over the last five years to see if this year’s deaths are more, um, significant. Here’s a completely arbritrary sampling (via thedeadrockstarsclub.com), from which you can draw your own conclusions.
2011: Gerry Rafferty, Don Kirshner, Charlie Louvin, Scottish guitarist Gary Moore, George Shearing, Melvin Sparks, Nate Dogg, Pinetop Perkins, Phoebe Snow, Cornell Dupree, Gil-Scott Heron, Andrew “Lonely Boy” Gold, outsider musician Wild Man Fischer, Clarence Clemons, Milton Babbitt, Amy Winehouse, Owsley Stanley, Frank Foster, Warrant’s Jani Lane, Jerry Leiber, Nickolas Ashford, Bert Jansch, Heavy D, Doyle Bramhall, Paul Motian, Hubert Sumlin, Sam Rivers.
2010: Jay Reatard, Teddy Pendergrass, Bobby Charles, Kate McGarrigle, Tom “T-Bone” Wolk, Alex Chilton, rock photographer Jim Marshall, Malcolm McLaren, Lena Horne, Ronnie James Dio, Abbey Lincoln, Solomon Burke, Captain Beefheart.
2009: David “Fathead” Newman, Billy Powell (Lynryd Skynrd), John Martyn, Louie Bellson, Snooks Eaglin, Jay Bennett, Koko Taylor, Michael Jackson, Mike Seeger, Rashied Ali, Les Paul, Mary Travers, Vic Chestnutt.
2008: John Stewart (Kingston Trio), Big Joe Turner, producer Teo Macero, Joe Gibbs (reggae producer), Larry Norman (Christian rocker), Buddy Miles (Electric Flag, Band of Gypsys), Jeff Healey, Cachao (Cuban bassist and composer), Bo Diddley, saxophonist Johnny Griffin, Isaac Hayes, Jerry Wexler, Jerry Reed, Rick Wright (Pink Floyd), Norman Whitfield, Merl Saunders, Mitch Mitchell, Odetta, Eartha Kitt, Delaney Bramlett, Freddie Hubbard.
2007: Alice Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Denny Doherty (Mamas and the Papas), Jerry Reed, Eric von Schmidt, Frankie Laine, Don Ho, Johnny Hodges, Max Roach, Hilly Kristal, Luciano Pavarotti, Joe Zawinul, Bobby Byrd, Porter Wagoner, Robert Goulet, Kevin DuBrow (Quiet Riot), Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ike Turner, Dan Fogelberg, Oscar Peterson.
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