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The Year the Music Died

A presidential election offering a choice of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump isn’t the only thing that’s gone wrong this year. This annus horribilis has also taken a severe toll on the world’s dwindling supply of outstanding musicians.
The past week has added Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell to the long list of important music figures who have passed on to that great jam session in the sky in 2016. Cohen, who died last Monday at the age of 82, was a brilliantly brooding songwriter whose limited vocal range and homely voice somehow added an extra layer of earthy angst and spiritual yearning to his work. Russell, who died Sunday at the age of 74, came out of Oklahoma’s rich musical tradition and became a legendary studio guitarist and pianist in Los Angeles during the ’60s, working with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sam Cooke to The Monkees and helping to create Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” had a nice run of rock ‘n’ roll stardom as a headliner in the ’70s with a an idiosyncratic style that mixed country and jazz and soul and the sort of hard rock you’d expect from such a long-haired and bearded fellow, then happily settled into a career as the guy all the big names wanted on their recording sessions, and never did lose his Okie accent.
Some big name stars are among the year’s fatalities, including the artist known as Prince, whether he liked it or not, who was about as big as you can get back in the ’80s and ’90s with a flamboyant funk-based style, and retained a fervent fan base up to his death at age 57 last April. The similarly flamboyant David Bowie, whose theatrical style and gender-bending personas have proved all too influential, died in January at the age of 69. As a founding member of The Eagles, Glenn Frey sold about a gazillion or so records with a smooth country-rock sound before his death in January at age 67. Merle Haggard, who can simply be described as the greatest country singer there ever was and one of all-time greats of American music in general, died on his 79th birthday last April.
Other names on the death list that might be familiar to even casual music fans include John Berry, whose Beastie Boys combined hip-hop and heavy metal to become stars, and who died at age 52 in May. Maurice White, a founder of the hugely popular pop-funk group Earth, Wind and Fire, died at age 74 in February. Paul Kantner was a founder of Jefferson Airplane, the definitive San Francisco psychedelic rock band, but he also managed to reach 74 before his death in January. Bobby Vee, a more clean cut fellow who had some of the best of the teen idol hits in that brief interregnum between the greasy rockabilly of the ’50s and the long-haired psychedelia of the late ‘6l0s, died at age 73 in October. Frank Sinatra Jr., an underrated singer who could never escape his more famous father’s shadow, was 72 when he died in March.
The true music aficionados will also be missing some lesser-known but equally talented figures. Scotty Moore, the pioneering rockabilly musician who played the extremely cool guitar riffs you hear on the early Elvis Presley records, died at age 84 in June. The world’s greatest jazz harmonica player, Toots Theilemans, who would have been the best even if there had been others, was 94 when he died in August. The head-banging sorts of music lovers will fondly recall Lemmy Kilmister, bassist and frontman for the very hardcore heavy metal band Motorhead. If you’ve ever watched “West Side Story” and “The King and I” and “My Fair Lady” and marveled at how well Natalie Wood and Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn could sing, that’s because Marnie Nixon, who died in July at age 86, did all the singing for them and countless other musically-challenged actresses during the golden era of movie musicals. Last February also saw the passing of Dan Hicks, whose hippie hokum-revival band The Hot Licks was one of the overlooked delights of the ’70s.
We apologize if you’re a big fan of one of the many other notable musicians who have died this year, and we fear that the next month and a half will probably add some names worth mentioning to the year’s unhappy roster. At least the recordings live on, and the way things are going we’ll need them. There’s an ad that always pops at the National Review’s internet site that offers a sampling of the latest hits, which we’ll sometimes click on out of a curiosity about what the young folks are listening to these days, and so far as we can tell the same decline you see in our politics is also affecting the nation’s music

— Bud Norman

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L Is For Super Bowl

Although we’ve pretty much lost all interest in professional football, which lately seems an interminable series of obnoxious commercials for pickup trucks and pharmaceutical aphrodisiacs followed by a few brief seconds of tattooed behemoths beating their chest as they stand over some supine opponent and then an endless series of pointless play reviews, we still tune in for the annual Super Bowl extravaganza. By now it’s an almost obligatory secular rite, at least for any red-blooded American male who doesn’t want to be left out of the new few days of guy conservation, and it’s also our annual foray into contemporary popular culture.
The rest of the year we’re playing old jazz and hillbilly and garage rock tunes on the stereo, watching the occasional old sit-com over the rabbit ears on our analog television set or taking in Netflix’s offerings of the good old black-and-white days on this newfangled computer machine of ours, or reading books mostly by dead white males and a few dead white women, and our sports spectating is mostly limited to such old-fashioned fare as Missouri Valley Conference basketball and American Association baseball, so we’re annually curious to see what’s going on out there with the young folks and their modern world. It always comes as quite a shock, of course.
There’s always a slight surprise to find that they’re still playing the Super Bowl at all, for one thing. Football has always been a rough affair, and was arguably even rougher before President Theodore “Rough Rider” Roosevelt sissified the the rules to eliminate the frequently fatal “flying V” formation, but these days the players are so big and strong and fast that the kinetic energy exerted against the players on each down is so great, and the lifelong physical consequences are so severe and common, and the entire culture is suddenly so risk-averse, that we might have expected the lawyers and the oversight sub-committees to have put a halt to it all by now. The effort is well underway, naturally, but such a profitable organization as the National Football League can well afford to buy plenty of its own lawyers and oversight sub-committees, and vicarious risk will always be a big draw on television, so perhaps the fight might take a while.
In the meantime, sports in general and football in particular remain the last redoubt of unapologetic masculinity in America, for both better and worse. The Battle of Waterloo truly was won on the playing fields of Eton, as Lord Wellington famously observed, and the men who stormed the beaches on D-Day were already veterans of hard-fought wars in backyards and on vacant lots where not everybody got a trophy, and every successful culture since Sparta has honored the victors of rough games, and we’d like to think there’s still some role for unapologetic masculinity in American culture. So long as the players are fully apprised by the best medical experts of the risks, and have agents and hangers-on to advise them how to weigh that against the not inconsiderable benefits of a professional football career, we say let them play, and let the lawyers and the oversight sub-committees and the rest of the risk-averse and all-too-feminized culture be damned.
Still, for such history-minded sports fans as ourselves there’s also something unsettlingly bread-and-circuses-like about these roman-numeraled Super Bowls. After five decades they went with the more standard arabic “50” instead of the roman “L,” reportedly because “L” would confound a public that was never taught to count that far in roman numerals, and “Super Bowl L” looks kind of odd to even the most Latinate priest, but the same imminent-fall-of-Rome vibe was still there. The guys they’ve got playing in the Super Bowl these days are so big and fast and strong that they’d whip your childhood idols easily, even that Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs squad of of our long-ago wide-eyed youth, but there’s a tattooed and preening thuggishness about them that Lord Wellington would have disdained and an unabashed self-interestedness that would not have sat well with those boys who played for the team at Normandy, and there’s little of that helping-a-guy-up-after-you’ve-knocked-him-down sportsmanship that was always part of the western tradition on the playing fields and battlegrounds and business deals and interpersonal relationships.
The same tendency to unnecessary roughness that afflicts football is evident in popular entertainment, where Quentin Tarantino’s post-modern revenge fantasies and thuddingly aggressive hip-hop and heavy metal music and bondage-fantasy romance novels are now standard fare, but there’s also a slightly more respectable mainstream left over from the Ed Sullivan days that the Super Bowl annually books for its much-ballyhooed half-time shows. This year it was some band called Coldplay, or Cold Play, or however they might write it, and some woman named Beyonce, who has an accent mark over the last letter that we’re not willing to figure out how to put there, and some guy named Bruno Mars, whom we think we can vaguely remember from Super Bowl halftime show of a few years. The band was dressed up in nostalgic jeans-with-flower-patches and played electric guitars just like the garage bands used to do, although with a football-field-sized dance group jumping around, and the Beyonce woman with the accent mark over the last letter did some kinetic dancing with her noticeable legs and group of similarly leggy young women and did some song that supposedly has something to do with the edgy “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the Bruno Mars guy sang something about “funking you up.”
In past years the Super Bowl has featured what are politely called “veteran” acts of the late rock ‘n’ roll era, but lately there’s been a spate of those dying off. The past month has seen the passing of heavy-metal hero “Lemmy,” glam-rock innovator David Bowie, country-rock star Glenn Frey, popular funk-lite performer Maurice White, and our Super Bowl was especially saddened by Sunday’s news of the passing of Dan Hicks, who wasn’t so well known but played a delightful blend of jazz and hillbilly and garage rock and old-fashioned goofus music that we’ve dearly loved ever since we borrowed a friend’s VW Beetle to cut class one day in high school and found Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks’ “Last Train to Hicksville” in the eight-track player. Musical culture has since been in severe decline, judging by the recent Super Bowl halftime shows, and we’ll admit it probably began even before that.
We do try to keep up with politics and other unavoidable matters, and of course we notice the same decline there. On the Democratic side of the race they’re talking about trophies for everyone and trying to pretend there are no more battles of Waterloo or D-Day to be fought, and the putative front-runner is claiming that any biological masculinity should be disqualifying and her pesky challenger self-described socialist challenger isn’t do much to dispute the argument. On the Republican side that pick-’em-up-after-you’ve-knocked-’em’-down approach to the playing fields and battlegrounds and business deals and interpersonal relationships seems out of fashion with at least a plurality of the party. Neither side seems to have any good music, for that matter, and judging by the endless commercials during the most recent Super Bowl even the private sector seems wanting.
At least the game was pretty good. At the risk of violating that warning about “unauthorized accounts” of the game, and bringing down the wrath of the NFL’s lawyer’s and oversight committees upon us, the Denver Broncos’ defense beat the Carolina Panthers’ offense. This kept the Panthers from their infamous beating of chests over the supine bodies of their opponents, and allowed the seemingly good guy Peyton Manning a crowning glory to his scandal-free and sportsmanlike career, and maybe the youngsters will get something positive out of this rough game.

— Bud Norman