2016’s Dearly Departed: Many, But Not Only, Musicians

Looking back at the parade of losses for any given year, it’s always a temptation to find a theme.

More than one person has talked about this year as the year the music died. It’s sad enough and easy enough to think so: David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Merle Haggard, Glenn Frey, just for starters. Five major stars, gone in a headline, and the more you look the more you find — singers, composers, performers, players, band members and band founders gone.

The remarkable thing about these five figures — and about all the rest — is the diversity and artistry of them all. They came from all genres of music, which speaks to a need not only in their souls, but in ours. They occupy a kind of crossroads where all kinds of people can gather together in appreciation and commemoration.

In retrospect, they seem almost like invented creations and characters.

There’s David Bowie, succumbing almost gracefully to cancer. He was reinventing himself yet again, dealing with death and producing at the end of his life a remarkably inventive, poetic, charismatic album called “Blackstar,” singing “Look up here, I’m in Heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/everybody knows me now.” He was a chameleon, going into his last transformation.

Look at Prince, that vivid, sexy, thin guy, snaky on stage, still touring and singing, succumbing to that recurring semi-scandalous, mystery-driven curse of the rock star, “Purple Rain” ringing in our ears some nights. The luxuriously beautiful Vanity, who once shared the stage with him, also passed this year.

Listen to Merle Haggard, ex-con, singing with Willie, the troubadour of hard-scrabble woes, watching somewhat bemusedly his “Okie from Muskogee” become an anthem and putting out late in life an album of American songbook standards. He was country when country was still country.

Look at Glenn Frey as a young lead singer for the Eagles, hair stylishly long, thin, the charisma guy of the group and, along with Don Henley, its heart. “Take it Easy,” indeed. Later in life, he looked like a cool dude who had an office and got out at lunchtime to sing what was still grown-up California rock, the eternal sunshine time. The Eagles got a Kennedy Center honor this year, minus Frey’s presence but not his spirit.

Look at Leonard Cohen, recently passed at 80-plus, still putting out an album, still singing, transformed too from his younger “Suzanne” days as a poet in bars, creating new songs, wry songs. And always there was “Hallelujah,” which in some ways became an anthem as enduring an antidote to grief and darkness as “Amazing Grace”: “There’s a blaze of light/in every word/It doesn’t matter which you heard/the holy or the broken Hallelujah.”

There were others: the sweet romantic tones of songs from Bobby Vinton, the banjo hill-and-mountain sounds of Ralph Stanley, cool jazzman Mose Allison, Dan Hicks, who had the Hot Licks rocking in small bars in Marin County, Billy Paul, who sang about “Me and Mrs. Jones,” Jefferson Airplane founder Paul Kantner, the rocker Leon Russell, the incomparable jazz-on-harmonica man Toots Thielemans, Marni Nixon, who sang for movie stars who couldn’t, Buckwheat Zydeco, Earth, Wind and Fire founder Maurice White, Southern gentleman Sonny James of “Young Love” fame, Phife Dawg, a founder of A Tribe Called Quest, New Orleans clarinetist Pete Fountain, bluesman Otis Clay — all in the loss column.

That’s a lot of music, and a lot of different kinds of music, but in truth the theme itself doesn’t hold up. The people, the artists and all their quirks and styles and looks and times in the sun may have gone on, but the music doesn’t and didn’t. Music is the salve for chaos, the clarity in times of confusion, the glue and sound that brings people together.

There were other losses: the recent death of photographer Howard Bingham reminded us of the time in October of 1995 when Chris Murray’s Govinda Gallery hosted an exhibition of Bingham’s photographs of Ali. It was a night when Ali himself came to Govinda, signed authographs and captured the room. It was also a reminder that the tenacious, gracious spirit of the former heavyweight champion and champion of civil rights passed this year.

We lost outstanding journalists like Morley Safer and Gwen Ifill. Israel lost the enduring leader Shimon Peres. We lost Nancy Reagan, the staunch love of Ronald Reagan and classy first lady; Edward Albee, the genius if not genial great American playwright of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” fame; the conscience of the world in the person of Holocaust survivor novelist Eli Wiesel. In Georgetown, we lost Frida Burling, who came to symbolize our village’s history and elegance in her role as originator of the Georgetown House Tour. Washington and the theater world lost Arena Stage founder and regional theater leader Zelda Fichandler.

Cuba lost its El Jefe Fidel Castro at a time when the world was starting to once again look at the country, if not Castro himself, with favor. During the national mourning period, it seemed that what leaked into the mind was not so much the Communist regime of Cuba with its rusted automobiles and infrastructure, but the memory of its music and culture, flavored with sweetness, pungent riffs and peppered sounds.

We should also remember the deaths, coursing like a curse through the year, of innocent victims at the hands of terrorists. Just this week in Berlin, 12 more died at a Christmas market. Flowers and memorials went up instantly, as they do, but the names will soon disappear from the memory of the world, if not those who lost loved ones, including the 49 dead at a nightclub in Orlando.

The same is true in Syria, where thousands have died in the city of Aleppo, a tragedy which has caused ever more tragedy, and for which many bear responsibility — not the least of whom are the terrorists who so blithely and proudly take responsibility for acts of murder and massacre.

So in 2016 we remember the innocent victims, and perhaps also the music of the music makers we lost, and in this way, commemorate both.



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