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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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“The Times They Are a-Changin,'” But Not Fast Enough

Those middle-brows over at the Nobel Prize for Literature committee have once again failed to pay proper respect to our two brilliant novels and countless inches of compelling newspaper copy and all these insightful daily internet essays, an annual slight which we happened to notice while desperately searching for some news to read about about something other than that awful presidential race, but it was at least somewhat heartening to see that the award had instead gone to Bob Dylan.
The selection took everyone by surprise, including ourselves and probably Dylan himself. Dylan is best known not for his little-read and widely-panned prose, after all, but rather for his impenetrable songwriting and nasal singing and sparse guitar strumming and slightly atonal harmonica-playing, so even those Nobel Prize people felt obliged to offer a rather elaborate explanation for their unexpected and apparently inexplicable decision. They could have spared us the effort, as we were around in the ’60s and ’70s and can readily dig all the jive about Dylan being some sort of poet laureate, and after even his creative slump in those long-ago ’80s we’re still punk enough to rather like the idea of our ol’ pal “Freewheelin'” Dylan getting a Nobel Prize in any old category they might have. It gives us hope that our next novel might win a Grammy, or that this daily internet essay will earn that coveted Motor Trend “Car of the Year” award, or that some sort of poetic justice might yet prevail.
We’re at least literate enough to know that his otherwise perfect song “Lay, Lady, Lay” would be more correctly rendered in proper English as “Lie, Lady, Lie,” and to have noticed that a lot of those imponderable lyrics so many of his pot-addled fans have long pondered are pretty much impenetrable to even the most sober listener, and we can’t heartily endorse his Christmas albums or Sinatra covers or some of those ’80s-slump albums, but we have nonetheless been Dylan fans for pretty much as long as we can remember. He first turned up on the radio as a fresh-faced folk singer right around the same time we started listening to the radio, although we were more likely to hear to his songs played by such more polished singers as Peter, Paul & Mary or Joan Baez, and even at that young age we had a natural affinity for his simple melodies and hopeful lyrics about how the answers as are all “Blowin’ in the Wind.” By the time we were old enough to start getting a rudimentary understanding of the civil rights movement and anti-war protests and sexual revolution and other cataclysmic “The Times They Are a-Changin'” stuff that he was singing about he started playing electrified guitar and doing even more nasally-sung and lyrically impenetrable songs, and at that point we were hooked.
It’s hard to explain it to the young folks, but when the acoustic “folk era” Dylan “went electric” at the oh-so-pure Newport Folk Festival back in ’65 it was a big deal, with all the collegiate folk purists feeling betrayed that their hero had gone the wickedly commercialist way of rock ‘n’ roll. As much as we’d liked the folk stuff, we downright loved how he noted that country-and-western players had been electric since Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys had amped up back in the ’40s, and that those guys had been way more authentically proletarian than all those college-educated folkies he’d been playing to, and even after all these years that “rock era” Dylan still sounds far more quintessentially American to our wind-blown prairie ears. By the time our musical tastes were starting to harden Dylan was scoring top-10 hits with such rough stuff as “Like a Rollin’ Stone” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” with its memorable chorus that “everybody must get stoned,” and the older and hipper kids we got to hang around with considered him the “voice of their generation,” and serious if not-quite-Nobel-Prize-level critics were gushing about something they had gleaned from those indecipherable lyrics, and we congratulated our junior-high selves that we also found something meaningful if inexplicable in that very rough-hewn music. As happy-go-lucky high school sophomores we somehow found ourselves oddly attuned to his beautifully bleak middle-aged crazy and post-divorce “Blood on the Tracks” album, even as we were starting to turn the radio dial to the honky-tonk country and and the old folks’ pop and swing standards and the first-generation punk music to quell our adolescent angst.
During our junior year of high school we got to hear Dylan live in his legendarily all-star-studded “Rolling Thunder Review” tour in what was then called Henry Levitt Arena at Wichita State University, named after local haberdasher, which is now Charles Koch Arena, named after the notorious local free-market billionaire, and we attended it with all those brainy College Hill girls from East High we were so enamored of, and to this day it remains one of our favorite musical memories, which is saying something given all the great American music we’ve heard since then. We caught him again a few decades later at downtown’s Century II, where we were a accompanied by the delightful and sexy but somewhat crazy younger woman we were dating in our own middle-aged crazy post-divorce years, and even though we couldn’t make out any of those supposedly profound lyrics he was warbling we were once again delighted by the strangely musical noise he was making. Our third time live with Dylan was a few years back when he was touring with Willie Nelson and made a stop on a warm autumn evening at the old Lawrence-Dumont baseball stadium by the Arkansas River, and even though we weren’t dating anyone at the time it was also a damned good show. Through it all, even those awful Christmas albums and mediocre Sinatra covers, we’ve been unapologetic fans.
We’re not sure if his career is the stuff of a Nobel Prize for Literature, though, and would have preferred that the award had gone to such writers as Muriel Spark or Robertson Davies before their relatively recent deaths, or to Philip Roth or especially Tom Wolfe in their advanced ages, but then again we’re the old-fashioned sorts who would reserve literary prizes to more literary writers. Those middle-brow Nobel committee people tend to hand these things out according to the latest political fads, though, which explains why the black and female and vastly overrated Toni Morrison was the last American to get the Nobel Literature medal, and although we’re glad to see that a defiantly Christian and Jewish college drop-out from Hibbing, Minnesota, won this time around we can’t help thinking that his reputed but deliberately ambiguous liberalism had something to do with the decision. If you’re handing out Nobel Prizes for Literature to rough-hewn American musicians we’d recommend the ex-con honky-tonker Merle Haggard, who died earlier this year with a body of work that for pure down-and-dirty and right-at-the-heart-of-America-and-this-cruel-world greatness surpasses even Dylan’s, but we can’t expect those middle-brows at the Nobel Prize for Literature committee to grasp that.
Even so, the news of Dylan’s newly-awarded Nobel Prize prompted us to replay that profoundly glum “Blood on the Tracks” album, and that gloriously electrified “Highway 61 Revisited” and all its apocalyptic Old Testament allusions, and revisit a time when top-10 hits weren’t so damn slick and over-produced as they are these bleak days, and it happily hearkened us all the way back to the Depression-era days of Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson and the real down-and-dirty American music, and all in all it’s made for a pleasant diversion from that awful presidential race. So for that we give thanks to the Nobel Prize for Literature committee, and especially to the still “Freewheelin'” Bob Dylan, who we hope is still out there somewhere on the open road.

— Bud Norman