By Mike Finkelstein
In the beginning of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, Robbie Robertson explains that The Band will retire from the road perhaps due to superstition but certainly because it is a “God damned impossible way of life.” This was in 1976 and though they were all young men at the time, it was an act of self-preservation that early on.
Touring in general, and rock ‘n roll in particular, certainly do work against longevity. Beginning in July of this year, the old guys of rock ‘n roll have begun to drop with regularity, of more or less natural causes. There were 58 deaths of popular rock musicians in 2014, and many of them were names we immediately recognized. Most of their passing was rooted in a slow succumbing to cancer. A lifestyle of cigarettes, booze, processed food, little sleep and, often, way too many drugs, will take a toll, sooner or later.
For some reason, the age of 27 became a very serious milestone for rock ‘n rollers as Jimi, Janis, Jim, Brian, and Kurt stopped tragically dead in their tracks then. Having made it past that checkpoint, most of014’s list more than doubled up on 27. They died somewhere in their 60’s or 70’s, a longer run than many people once expected of a rock musician. And really, at that age, mortality becomes a growing presence. So, none of this is too unexpected.
As I watched so many recognizable musical names die in 2014, I couldn’t help but reflect about the way things were, when these people were peaking. It was sobering and it made me nostalgic. Most of us on the longer side of the timeline remember when popular music was king and the torch was passed from generation to generation.
There was a steady pipeline of good, and even great rock music and musicians. People listened to the radio, bought the records, sought out the underground goodness in imported vinyl/traded tapes and out of the way clubs, learned their instruments, formed garage bands, played in clubs, arranged tours, and all the while gathering inspiration, struck out on their own to write songs that would reach distant ears. There was a reverence for your influences and the history behind them as well as an awareness of who was doing the things that inspired you. People who played or followed rock music in, say, the late 60’s/early 70’s knew they were in on something very special.
And of course, there was also the glorious hedonism that goes with the lifestyle… then and now. It’s part of the game and everyone knows this going in. With the obvious exception of somebody like Keith Richards, one can only sustain the lifestyle in youth and of course it shaves the end years down a bit.
The deaths of Jack Bruce, Ian MacLagan, Bobby Keys, Tommy Ramone, Johnny Winter, Phil Everly, Paul Revere, Bobby Womack, Glenn Cornick, Joe Cocker and Pete Seeger, pound home the message that the good old days of rock ‘n roll are gone and they’re not coming back. These folks flourished when it took more musical talent than technology to reach people’s hearts and ears.
Today, computer chips make recording music easier, and the Internet makes tracking it down easier, locating gigs to play or attend easier, and connecting with other fans and musicians easier. Who doesn’t love that the music in 20 crates of vinyl records will fit onto a card-sized IPod with room to spare? The powerful allure of convenience! But CD’s and ITunes/MP3 offer tiny visuals and precious few of them to go with the music. Album art was once an art form on it’s own. As the ability to produce great images has grown, the actual marketing of these images shrank and vanished. No more gatefold album covers, or nifty promo items in the album jacket. And can you adjust the bass, treble, or graphic EQ on an Ipod yet? You certainly could on all of that groovy stereo equipment we all used to own.
Back in the day, a trip to the record store could be good for the soul. Record stores and record swap meets were hubs where people would make new friends while rifling purposefully through bin after bin of vinyl. You could routinely walk away from those bins with delightfully more than you’d hoped to find. It was great to come home with 15 albums of several genres at a time, knowing how much fun it would be to spend hours getting into the music, alone or with your friends, at home on your trusted stereo system.
Gone are the days of witnessing a song or a band blow up in the span of a few weeks of strong radio airplay. When’s the last time you went to the beach and heard 5 different people in the parking lot, at the snack bar, and by the water all listening to the same rock ‘n roll song on different radio stations with no earbuds? This used to happen all over the country, whenever the weather was good. It really lent a sense of immediacy to hear and see the tune becoming a hit literally before your very eyes and ears.
Now, the process is just not as physically out in the open as it used to be. Where radio was once free and vital, it really isn’t either of these anymore. There is so much hollow radio programming out there now. Many programs are now pre-recorded, and available for purchase. Corporate stations continue to play the same few pre-selected/pre- approved great old songs into the ground day after day. How many
times can you hear “Sunshine of Your Love,” or “A Day in the Life,” before it sadly becomes too familiar? Of course, you can pay to listen to satellite radio and get turned onto a plethora of music, old and new but do we really want to pay to listen to the radio? If you know differently, it’s much like watching a ship of good friends sail over the horizon.
But life goes on, sometimes for much longer than we might expect. I just hope that all the fragmentation and isolated coexistence we see today reverts to something more like it used to be. Still, I know better than to hold my breath for that. I think back to the times when these artists were in their heyday and I sure do miss the way things were.
Their deaths symbolize the end of an era.
All things must pass. C’est la vie.
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