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

Two Obituaries for the ’60s

There were more than the usual number of famous names in Monday’s obituaries, including a comedian who used to crack us up and the lead singer for a band that some of our friends can’t believe we don’t remember, but the ones that grabbed our attention were for Bobby Vee and Tom Hayden. The juxtaposition of the clean-cut teen idol with the smooth pop sound and the unkempt activist with the radical agenda was jarring, as they represent the cultural extremes of the 1960’s, and their almost simultaneous passings are a reminder that the influence of that turbulent decade still hasn’t quite come to an end.
Born as Robert Thomas Velline in Fargo, North Dakota, Bobby Vee came right out of the rock ‘n’ roll craze of the ’50s, with his big break coming when he and his garage band The Shadows filled in for Buddy Holly and the Crickets at the nearby Moorhead, Minnesota, stop on the Winter Dance Party tour after Holly’s death in a plane crash. That crash not only ended Holly’s legendary career but also the promising 16-year-old Richie Valens’, in the same year when Elvis Presley was drafted and Chuck Berry was sent to prison on a Mann Act violation and Jerry Lee Lewis’s career was derailed by the outrage over him marrying an underage cousin while he was married to someone else, a sex scandal trifecta that even The Rolling Stones haven’t achieved, and after that the greasier and scarier sorts of rock ‘n’ roll stars were briefly supplanted by such wholesomely handsome and well-groomed and suit-and-tie wearing singers such as Bobby Vee.
Vee’s first big hit was a strikingly Holly-esque tune called “Suzie Baby,” with the first recording retaining some of the inspiration’s jangly guitar and rock ‘n’ roll authenticity, but by the time he re-recorded what proved to be a smash hit it had been ironed out to fit an early ’60s sense of decorum. He followed that up with a luscious “Take Good Care of My Baby,” written with old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley craftsmanship by Barry Geffen and Carol King, and such professionally rendered pop songs as “Devil or Angel,” “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” and “Run to Him,” which still stand out among the best of that brief interregnum in rock ‘n’ roll’s reign. Each had a bouncy enough beat and uptempo youth appeal to fit on American Bandstand’s roundup of the latest youth culture, but it was fare more redolent of those ’40s and ’50s crooners and their carefully polished-tunes and earnest politeness that were nearly wiped out by rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s how the ’60s began.
The decade ended with musicians smashing their guitars and setting them afire and playing psychedelic electric guitar versions of The National Anthem, and rock ‘n’ rollers were suddenly even hairier and scarier than those backwoods rednecks and urban ghetto-dwellers of the ’50s had been, and that was the era when Tom Hayden became a sort of celebrity. Born in 1939 to more or less middle class comfort in the placid town of Royal Oak, Mich., Hayden attended a Catholic school where the pastor was the infamously right-wing radio pundit Father Charles Coughlin, then wound up at the infamously left-wing University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he immediately began to acquire a left-wing infamy of his own. He was editor of the school’s suddenly radicalized student newspaper, jailed and beaten for his civil rights activism in the South, a founding member of the anti-Vietnam War and anti-capitalist Students for a Democratic Society, an author of the Port Huron Statement that became a manifesto for the New Left, and was one of the “Chicago Seven” brought to a widely publicized trial for allegedly fomenting riots at the 1968 Democratic Party’s national convention. This was lead-story-on-the-nightly-news and cover-of-The-Rolling-Stone stuff back then, so by the time the ’70s rolled around Hayden was a much bigger star than Bobby Vee.
Hayden wound up divorcing his first wife and a few years later getting married to Oscar-winning and impeccably left-wing actress Jane Fonda, with both soon heading off to Vietnam for a highly controversial photo-op with the North Vietnamese, and although they later divorced they were even more newsworthy than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie while it lasted. After the divorce he settled in the woman he would be married to until his death, and a rather routine career as a politician. He lost a California Democratic primary race to Sen. John Tunney in ’76, but won a State Assemblyman seat in 82, moved up to the state Senate in 93 and hung around Sacramento until 2000, and compiled a record that was undeniably left-wing but not conspicuously radical by California standards. He lost races for governor in ’94 and the Los Angeles mayoralty in ’97 and a seat on the L.A. City Council in 2001.
By the time the 21st Century rolled around Hayden was still reviled by the city’s growing Vietnamese refugee population and aging white Republicans, but newly regarded as something of a sell-out by the newer New Left. Hayden had written memoirs and articles confessing his regret that his anti-Vietnam war stance had spilled over into anti-Americanism, ruefully acknowledging that his Students for a Democratic Society had spawned the terrorist Weather Underground, and lamenting that the free speech and individual rights ideas of that crazy Port Huron statement had somehow led to a newer New Left that clamored for speech codes and group identity politics, and seemed to have forgotten the realism of the Old Left that Father Coughlin had railed against and Hayden’s generation had nearly wiped out, and even his impeccably left-wing voting record could not absolve his heresies or make him hip again. At one point in the early ’80s we caught Hayden’s act live, as we were on a hitchhiking trip up the East Coast and crashed at a friends dorm at Harvard University and went along to lecture Hayden was giving, and we still chuckle at how the crowd rolled its eyes at his saccharine shtick about his daughter’s fear of nuclear weapons and how a professorial looking fellow with a gray beard and patched elbows on his jacket shouted “Send in the Marines!”
Bobby Vee stayed married to the same woman for 50 years, despite the temptations that a good-looking pop star probably encountered, spent most of the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s making a good living on the oldies circuit, then settled into a quiet small town life in St. Joseph, Minnesota, then slowly succumbed to an early onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. The Beatles covered “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Run to Him,” so the hottest band of the ’60s vouched for his coolness, and the same Carol King who wrote the former song had the biggest selling album of the ’70s with that great Tin Pan Alley hippie manifesto of an album “Tapestry,” and another big fan is the newly proclaimed Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. Back when Dylan was a small town Minnesota boy named Robert Zimmerman he had a short stint as the keyboards player with Bobby Vee and the Shadows, and we highly recommend his affectionate cover of “Suzie Baby.”
It remains how to be seen how the ’60s will ultimately play out, but we’re glad to note that this crazy election will almost certainly be the last to feature any of those damned baby-boomers, and we hope that the very best of both Bobby Vee and Tom Hayden will somehow persist, and that the worst of it will somehow fade away.

— Bud Norman

Two Sad Farewells

Maybe it’s the years we spent on the dead beat at newspapers in our youth, or maybe it’s the heightened awareness of mortality that comes with age, but when perusing the latest news our eyes are always drawn to the obituaries. This past week’s obits brought notice of the passing of two men who were important figures in American conservatism but otherwise couldn’t have been more different, and the very different reactions to their deaths says a lot about their lives.

One of the men, of course, was Andrew Breitbart, the new media mogul and flamboyantly unconventional political activist who died of a heart attack on Thursday at the age of 43. The “of curse” is added because his death was widely reported and much discussed, even though Brietbart’s name probably wasn’t familiar to the vast majority of Americans who are happily apolitical. Those who have been paying more careful attention to the news will agree that Breitbart’s exploits were the stuff of legend, however, even if they’ll forever disagree on whether he played the role of hero or villain.

Breitbart was the man who brought down ACORN by publicizing some hilarious video footage of two youthful conservatives badly disguised as a pimp and prostitute receiving business advice and encouragement from the community-organizing rascals. He was the man who exposed the even more hilarious Anthony Weiner photo scandal, then hijacked the podium at the disgraced congressman’s press conference to celebrate the victory. He also broke the story of the Obama administration’s politicization of the National Endowment for the Arts, exposed video of an NAACP convention cheering a Department of Agriculture official’s story about her past disdain for white farmers, and uncovered countless other stories that would have otherwise gone unreported.

In every case Breitbart pursued and presented the stories in ways that not only broke with journalistic traditions, but exploited the predictable reactions of the old media still bound to the old rules. The ACORN videos were at first released in an abbreviated form that was certain to provoke charges of selective editing, then more footage was released, and finally the full and un-cut version was offered, dragging the story out over weeks of coverage to a vindicating finish that made fools of his critics. Worse yet for the television and print news media, Breitbart also re-shaped the journalism industry by playing a key role in the formation of the powerful Drudge Report site, a favorite of conservative web-browsers, helping create the Huffington Post, unaware that it would become popular with the liberal internet denizens, and being the principal player in the influential Big Government, Big Hollywood, and Big Journalism web sites.

Oxymoronic as it might sound, Breitbart was an iconoclastic conservative. He adapted Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” for use by radical conservatives, defied the stereotype of the right as stodgy, humorless, and square by being brash, witty, and undeniably hip, and charged through life at a heart attack-inducing pace powered as much by the force of his personality as his ideas.

His life inspired much gratitude and affection by like-minded Americans, as is apparent from the genuinely grief-stricken remembrances in the conservative media, from talk radio to the august right-wing publications to the humble blogs. On the left he inspired fear and loathing, with some coyly insinuating that some personality defect led to his early demise, others more frankly exulting in his death, often with the foul language and seething hatred common to today’s liberalism.

There was a noticeably different tone to the coverage of the death of James Q. Wilson, the eminent social scientist and political philosopher who died Friday from complications from leukemia at the age of 80. The obituaries were rarer, shorter, and likely attracted far fewer readers, but even in the most reliably liberal outlets they all showed the respect that Wilson’s remarkable career commanded.

The New York Times and The Washington Post both emphasized Wilson’s “broken windows theory” of crime, which resulted in the community policing strategies that dramatically lowered crime rates in such big cities as New York and Washington, D.C., which seems apt. While many of Wilson’s ideas were controversial when being implemented, with liberals objecting to crackdowns on squeegee hustlers, panhandlers, and graffiti as an assault on civil liberties, the results were satisfactory to all but the most hopeless ideologues. Wilson’s groundbreaking work in criminology is one of the few examples of an intellectual’s work having a significant and measurable effect on people’s well-being in his own lifetime, and even the editors at those city’s papers know that Wilson is one important reason they haven’t been mugged lately.

There was far more to Wilson’s work than that, however, and it’s easy to see why the more traditional papers would prefer to be brief about it. The son of a salesman and an old-fashioned homemaker, he was graduated from little-known University of Redlands in California and then acquired an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the fancier University of Chicago, then spent 26 years teaching at Harvard before moving on to UCLA and Pepperdine University, a Malibu school affiliated with the theologically conservative Church of Christ. Wilson was one of the first academics to frankly discuss the sometimes unfortunate role that race plays in public life with “Negro Politics,” published in 1960 when the title was considered polite. He analyzed the inherent inefficiency of public administration in 1989’s “Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It.” He questioned the moral relativism of the post-modern intelligentsia with 1993’s “The Moral Sense,” the book he considered his greatest intellectual achievement.

The man was an academic giant and an unabashed conservative, as much as that might sound oxymoronic to the old-line media, and in his own way he was every bit the iconoclast. It was a very different way than Breitbart’s, though. Wilson achieved his fame by the strength of his ideas rather than his bespectacled personality, which by all accounts was genial, easy-going, and pleasantly unexciting. When he defied the norms of his profession it was by reverting to the older, stricter rules, and even his most strident critics could never question the rigor of his scholarship. James Quinn Wilson earned the heartfelt affection of conservatives, at least those familiar with his work, and it’s nice to note that he managed to do so without inspiring a commensurate disdain among liberals.

History will judge which man made the greater contribution, but for now both will be equally missed.

— Bud Norman