We Are the Dead

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In my 2010 book Out Of Our Heads:  Rock ‘n’ Roll Before the Drugs Wore Off, I wrote about the inevitable but somehow inconceivable passing of the generation of musicians who created the genre now called classic rock:

There will one day be a world without Rolling Stones.  There will one day be no Doors left, no Eagles, no Stooges, and no Doobies.   Bob Dylan will go to rock ‘n’ roll heaven, and so will Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Sly Stone, and Neil Young.  Eric Clapton will one day be jamming with Mike Bloomfield,  Stevie Nicks with Janis Joplin, and David Bowie with Freddie Mercury.  There were once four Beatles; then there were three surviving Beatles and there are currently two remaining Beatles.  There will one day be no more Beatles.

The recent passing of David Bowie, aged 69, is a foreshadow of things to come. By the standards of pop music Bowie, whose career began in the mid-1960s and flourished in the 70s and 80s, was virtually an immortal.  So, observing the off- and online mourning for the singer – and for Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, who’s been making God’s eardrums bleed since last December – I’m struck by the emotional response to the loss of men who were big and influential but not quite galactic in their celebrity.  If this kind of public grief attends the deaths of David Bowie and Lemmy, how will we react to the deaths of Paul McCartney or Keith Richards?   What about Brian Wilson, Elton John, and Ozzy Osbourne, let alone Little Richard and Chuck Berry?   I can only dread the headlines:  “Jimmy Page Takes the Stairway to Heaven.”  “Stevie Wonder Reaches Higher Ground.”  “Willie Nelson Is On the Road Forever.”  There are dark days ahead.

Looking back, David Bowie’s achievement epitomizes the attributes as well as the accidents of his contemporaries.  He was a talented and certainly original artist, as well as a compelling showman, whose life and work coincided with historic booms in the post-World War II western economy and western demographics – right place, right time, and so on.  Like many in his cohort he made his name with an inspired but relatively brief run of records and concerts, which turned into the Greatest Hits on which his remaining successes rested; Bowie was more adventurous than a lot of performers from the same period, but that adventurousness derived from a core catalogue that casual fans (I’m one) made viable, while his more esoteric material was indulged by the residual goodwill of only the really committed followers.  Nothing against Bowie, but his professional trajectory followed the same pattern as that of a hundred other acts: exciting innovator at twenty-two, multimedia sensation at twenty-five, troubled genius at thirty, critical comeback at forty, and living legend from fifty on.  If pop icons are measured by how well they transcend their initial flurry of hype, then Bowie definitely excelled, but an initial flurry of hype nonetheless propelled him.

Perhaps the biggest impact of David Bowie’s death is not – or not only – a renewed appreciation for his music, but a fresh sense of everyone else’s mortality.  It turns out that even human beings who’ve been cult heroes for five decades still die.  This must have been how our parents and grandparents felt in the years when the fixtures of their youth, like James Cagney or Henry Fonda or John Wayne, were eulogized with depressing regularity. Now it’s our turn.   As we remember the art and legacy of a unique and irreplaceable classic rock ‘n’ roller, I can’t help thinking:  Get used to it.

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