Gratitude while they’re still alive…

The last couple of years have been really big on celebrity deaths. What’s been odd for me is that I realized I don’t really understand what emotional profile an artist has for me until he or she is gone. This is all the worse with rock stars, who project an image of eternal youth and vitality that is of course far from the truth.

The three recent deaths that affected me the most were the deaths of Robin Williams, Bowie, and Prince. Lemmy’s death was sad for me, but it was more like losing a weird uncle: your family just got a lot more boring and you wish you’d appreciated him more when you had him. The death of the last remaining original member of the Ramones hit a little harder.

I think that Prince, Robin Williams, and Bowie affected me so much because they’ve been a part of my life since my early teen years. I remember watching Williams on Happy Days and then Mork and Mindy:

I remember listening to Bowie on the radio since about the mid-70s and then seeing him on Saturday Night Live in 1979. I watched him up there in that purple skirt as the episode was being aired and thought… dude, you’re so weird:

And I hate to say it, but my earliest memories of Prince weren’t of Purple Rain. They were of the campy Batman stuff he did in the late 1980s:

This is a long time to have people form a part of your cultural background, and regardless of taste or preference, they possessed a rare level of genius and creativity. I think I took them for granted at the time, but after seeing many actors and musicians cycle through pop culture, these three stand out as genius.

What affected me the most after the fact of Prince’s death was the universal outpouring of love and grief afterwards. Could he have possibly known how people felt? I don’t know. Of his last twelve albums, one was platinum and two were gold (but six were top 10). I haven’t picked up a Prince album since Musicology, his last platinum album released in 2004. But still, I felt his death. I felt like something significant was lost — a certain level of genius that isn’t easily replaced, exactly what I felt about Bowie, who I had at least followed more consistently over the last twenty years. I was excited about Blackstar and loved that the video generated almost a million hits its first twenty-four hours on YouTube.

So I’m mostly wishing I’d appreciated Prince more. Paid more attention, watched what he was doing, listened to what he had to say, because he had (and still has, really) things to say. I hope he had people around him who let him feel that love and appreciation.

So now, in the most morbid possible tribute, I’m going to express appreciation for a few aging geniuses here.

Chrissie Hynde (b. 1951, turning 65 this year). Her latest album is Stockholm, and I’ve heard her next project will be a joint project with the lead guitarist for the Black Keys. That’s the best news I’ve heard in some time. She exemplifies paying your dues, taking risks, and saying exactly how you feel.

Patti Smith (b. 1946, turning 70 this year). She’s a poet, author, painter, photographer, songwriter, and rock star, and she released what is arguably the best album of her life in 2012, Banga:

Jeff Beck (b. 1944, turning 72 this year). He’s been amazing since the 60s. If you can catch his performances for the Rock Hall anniversary concert, do it. They’re on Apple Music:

Keith Richards (b. 1943, turning 73 this year). Just released a great blues/blues rock solo album (Crosseyed Heart) accompanied by a documentary. He knows he’s getting old, and he just wanted to tell everyone how grateful he was for the blues artists who inspired him:

Bob Dylan (b. 1941, turned 74 this year). His late career albums have been focused upon what his career has been always focused upon: Americana. He’s always paid tribute to great American music, either by performing it or reinventing it. He is our true poet laureate:

Buddy Guy (b. 1936, turning 80 this year): With the death of B.B. King — who if you’ve ever seen him live was the model of a gentleman — may be the last of our old great blues guitarists. I saw him at his club in Chicago in 2012. He mocked pyrotechnics in guitar playing, wiping his arse with his guitar while he was performing Hendrix licks (all the while praising Hendrix’s talent), this man can still play. Check out his latest album, Born to Play Guitar, which won a deserved grammy for Best Blues Guitar Album:

I could go on — Jagger and all of the rest of the Stones are getting old. So are the remaining members of Pink Floyd and the Doors. Springsteen will be turning 67 this year, Chuck Berry is 89, while Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are 70 and 72, respectively, while McCartney and Ringo Starr are 73 and 75. And I haven’t mentioned the Ramones, whose last original member recently passed away.

These musicians all came into their careers during a time when the music industry — though just as sold out as it always was — was looking for a new sound. Now it’s harder. Music companies are only looking to sell to a defined demographic and probably know just how many downloads (or streams) any given artist is expected to get. Remember: anyone in it for the money will always play it safe. Genius has less room to flourish now, and all members of the first three groundbreaking generations of rock and roll may well be completely gone in the next ten to fifteen years. Even the 80s stars are getting old: Debbie Harry is 70 while the Mothersbaugh brothers of Devo are in their 60s.

So what are we going to do with this vacuum? What will take its place? What will we do to nurture future genius? Rock and roll has encapsulated all human energies for decades now: our rages, fears, loves, hates, and passions. It screams about God and sex and politics. It’s been sold out and whored for every dime it could squeeze out of every kid who ever bought a record since the 1950s, but it has still maintained a purity and intensity of expression: no matter what happens, strictures could never contain it. Whenever it has become predictable it rebelled against itself, reinventing music over and over again. It’s been our vehicle for the uncontainable, the inexpressible, and that which can’t be bought. If it ever is finally tamed, we may well be lost.

It’s Off…

Star_Wars_Logo.svgToday I let my kids watch Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. My son Penn (8) has lately become a Star Wars freak, largely and most lately due to Angry Birds Star Wars. If you don’t know what that is, don’t ask. He was talking about it so much I thought I’d just let him watch a movie. Not long afterwards, my six year old daughter Grace and Penn started arguing about the Force.

Yes, they are well on their way to Geekdom.

But in the course of the argument my daughter Grace comes up to me, looks me in the eye — demanding a real answer — and asks me if Star Wars is real. I say of course. She, of course, is Highly Doubtful, so asks Mom, who denies the whole thing, thus making Grace determined to extort the truth out of me. So she asks again, this time with raised eyebrows and a cocked head, as if to say, “You better get it right this time.” I let her down (i.e., stick to my guns), so she asked me to check on my computer.

I faithfully did, typing “IS STAR WARS REAL?” into my computer, finding wonderful sites about building lightsabers and about a planet with two suns — surely proof positive — but best of all I found a wonderful site titled “Star Wars — Fact NOT Fiction,” in which the author asserts that Star Wars is in fact true, and that the Force itself inspired Lucas to write the films.

Quite naturally, I think I’ve saved the day: “See?”

“I don’t believe your computer.”

At this moment by six year old is trying to type “IS STAR WARS REAL?” into Google on my desktop computer.

My son, bless him, is fully on my side.

On another note, I’ve been working on an essay for a forthcoming anthology on Kierkegaard and the Arts and have finally sent out of the first draft. The essay is a complicated machine: it has a lot of parts so can break easily. I’m genuinely looking forward to comments from the editor and the readers.

I paid a bit more conscious attention to the writing process this time around. When I write anything of any length I find that I often pick an album, artist, etc., and listen to nothing but that until I’ve finished writing. About fifteen years ago I listened to Abbey Road over and over again while writing a short story, and found out I wanted to write the characters on the album into the story. I had a lot of fun writing Polythene Pam, let me tell you, who, you guessed it, at one point came in through the bathroom window.

This time, I listened to Bob Dylan. Almost the entire discography. I have all of his studio albums except 1973’s Dylan, which was released by Columbia to fulfill contractual obligations with no involvement on Dylan’s part at all. It’s mostly outtakes, cover tunes. I still want it. But it was never rereleased on CD, so it’s hard to get.

So I listened to all of the studio albums from 1962’s Bob Dylan to this year’s Tempest, started them over again and then remembered The Bootleg Series, so listened to the nine volumes of those I had, then listened to the live albums, then Biograph, then started over again. Then I picked up the 30th anniversary concert album, and now I want the Amnesty International album that just came out.

Weirdly, I think Biograph is my favorite Dylan album, but after that, it gets harder. Probably Shot of Love, not just for the songs, but for what it’s meant to me. It was there when I needed it. I remember hating Dylan and the Dead when it came out (what a waste), but now I like it. I just wish it were longer. I’d never noticed the complex interplay of bass lines with acoustic guitar on Blood on the Tracks. Never could stand the countrified albums, but I’ve reconciled myself to them now and like his voice on them. He’d been in a bad motorcycle accident before the recording of Nashville Skyline and wasn’t able to smoke for six months or so and his voice came back. It’s a bit operatic — a bit like Roy Orbison’s — just not as strong.

It’s been interesting. It is indeed tempting to divide Dylan’s music up into “periods,” but I recall hearing him speak dismissively of critics who divided his work into periods. I think I can see why — he had elements of gospel and blues in those early folk albums, and once he picked something up he seemed to carry it with him. Anything can be brought back and nothing completely disappears. I can also see why people would divide his work up like that, though. There’s the first four folk albums, then folk-rock albums, one of them heavy on blues, then the country/folk albums leading up to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and then the 70s folk rock albums, which were more rock than his forays into that back in the 60s. That’s followed by the gospel albums — an influence that extends at least all the way through Down in the Groove, maybe even into the 90s with Under the Red Sky, and then the return to folk. His music since Time Out of Mind seemed to change again. But that’s very artificial — none of these “periods” are that cut and dry. Everything he’s ever done stays around and waits to be reinvented again.

Then I found myself thinking about his desire to plug in after those first four folk albums, and I think I see why. Really — it’s just all about the music. Record companies kept him early on just because he was a great songwriter, you know. His first album sold so badly they almost dropped him, but they kept recording him to keep rights to his songs. Turns out they did see that much clearly, but no one could have seen just how much he would come to mean to American music. I think he plugged in because he wanted his music to expand. The purists — the “voice of our generation” people — hated it. They just wanted him to be a voice. But he’s always been about the music too, and his music had to open up and breathe.

Anyway, I think I see what music does for my writing process. I think forward as I write, and my ideas wind up mapped across the music too, so that when the songs or album comes back around so do my ideas. The organization of the writing becomes embedded in the organization of the music, so that I have to keep listening in the same order. If I tried to associate specific ideas with specific songs, of course I’d be missing the point. It’s more like data storage. The medium doesn’t matter, just that the data is kept in order.

I’m not done with Dylan yet. I’ve finished the first draft of the essay, but I think I’m going to give his albums another go-round.

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