Well hasn’t it been an awful year for classic rock stars? Bowie, Glen Frey, Lemmy from Motorhead and on the same day, two of the original Jefferson Airplane – Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson.
In the media overload following Bowie’s demise, I read some cynics disparaging the fuss. That seems a bleak and callow view to me. We mourn and remember because they were such a big part of our lives. And one day the scorners will lament about the passing of one of their cultural icons. It’s the human condition.
I was surprised, and rather pleasantly under the circumstances, that David Bowie’s death attracted such attention. For anyone who liked any popular music over the past 40+ years, Bowie probably had a couple of songs appealing to your tastes. What most impressed me were the many comments of how his music and stage personae made it easier to accept ones sexuality or way of looking at the world. Plenty of people felt that he delivered personal liberation. That sentiment is easy to mock if you’re firmly grounded in who you are and have forgotten the uncertain and, for some, precarious phases of adolescence.
There were many wonderful obituaries and I’d single out that of, surprise, The Economist.
I can’t let this go without a couple of musical clips. It’s very hard choosing a favourite Bowie song or performance. Changes is probably his most iconic number and it’s a song I like a lot. But opting first for his playful stage presence, check out this one – Cracked Actor. Musically it’s unambitious but it’s bouncy and plenty of fun.
Heroes is another of his great works. My favourite live performance is from Live Aid in 1985. Towards the end it starts to feel a little self-congratulatory but it’s a knockout musically.
Lemmy from Motorhead was someone I’d never heard of as I didn’t take to their music. Lots of people did though and I’ll leave it with the quote usually but falsely attributed to Lincoln - “for people who like that kind of thing, I think that is just about the kind of thing they’d like.”
The Eagles, along with Fleetwood Mac and Elton John, were one of the most popular bands of the 70s. I found their music boring. It was pleasant and tuneful and as background sounds I could take it. But a whole album side would get me screaming for Alice Cooper or the Sex Pistols. Nonetheless they were talented, skilled craftsmen and a big part of the cultural lives of millions. And Glen Frey as a songwriter, singer and guitarist was a integral to that popularity.
Like Bowie, choosing a favourite Eagles song isn’t easy. With Bowie it was the difficulty in comparing very different styles from a commendable body of work. With the Eagles, it’s like trying to decide which is your favourite pair of socks. One must emerge if compelled but it’s a crowded field for runner-up. And if compelled, I guess I’d pick The Last Resort.
The Jefferson Airplane quickly turned everyone’s attention to San Francisco. They got famous while the British Invasion lead by the Beatles, Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits and several others were still in their heyday. They had a unique, exciting sound and some great songs. Paul Kantner is described in Wiki as the band’s leader and wrote or co-wrote many of their earlier songs. He was the only member of all of the Jefferson incarnations.
Signe Anderson was their original lead singer. She had a baby around after the release of their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off and left the group. Grave Slick was her replacement.
Here’s a clip of Anderson singing It’s No Secret.
And from Woodstock, here’s Jefferson Airplane performing Volunteers, co-written by Kantner and Marty Balin.
As I said, it’s been a rough year for rock stars. Given the age of the classic artists, we can expect a lot more before long. If you think the coverage of Bowie was vast, imagine what it will be for McCartney, Jagger and Dylan. A small distance behind them might be Clapton, Elton John, Brian Wilson, Ringo, Keith Richards, Jimmie Page, Paul Simon, Cohen, Stevie Wonder and maybe Pete Townsend, Neil Young and Roger Waters.
To some it might seem that we Boomers go overboard in mourning the loss of our musical idols. But it’s decent to honour those whom you’ve treasured and whose work formed such a large part of one’s life. There’s also an understandably selfish element to it.
As each one passes, you lose a cultural touchstone. In their prime they dominated the cultural world and you, along with others in your generation, often felt the world was ours. That becomes less true with each passing year and passing artist. Others are taking theirs and your place.
I was reminded of this quite recently. Toronto, where I live, is hosting the NBA All Star game in a week or two. For some reason the powers that be decided that Sting should play at halftime. There was a funny clip going round of players being asked for their reaction. About half hadn’t heard of him and those that had couldn’t name one of his songs.
Someday it may happen that someone like John Sebastian or Steven Stills dies and you’re left explaining to bemused young’uns why it’s so worthy of attention. And maybe you sense an unarticulated anxiety that when it’s your turn, who will do the explaining for you.
And on that cheery note…
Oh, look out you rock ‘n rollers
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older