They say that if you live long enough you will see things you wish you hadn’t. Whereas this may be true in many cases, nothing could have prepared me for this past year’s worth of profound sense of loss due to the deaths of so many of my music idols. Perhaps it is a testament to my father that my range of musical tastes are so wide-ranging. He loved the fact that my musician friends in the Washington, D.C. area loved and played the songs of Louis Jordan and his Calypso Boys in their own bands. He also loved the fact that I knew the words to “Saturday Night Fish Fry”.
Everyone I know is influenced by the music they listen to, but it is not only their music that influences people. Musicians struggle for recognition. They play in dumps and dives while trying to be heard by wider audiences and they make very little money in their endeavors which is discouragement enough. While remembering these musical icons for their sheer artistry and soaring lyrics, it would not be out of place to honor them for their fights to set all musicians free.
Leonard Cohen took five years to write “Hallelujah”. I consider how hard my own friends tried to get their songs put down on records for posterity over the years. I think of their fights with recording studios and music moguls and the industry itself and I marvel at their tenacity. It is truly not an accident that both Prince and George Michael had open fights with Sony Records and Warner Records over control of their artistic output. Prince wrote the word “slave” into his face for all to see. George Michael hid his own sexuality from his admirers for years before addressing his sexual orientation after a police bust while simultaneously fighting with his studio for artistic freedom. And yet, no one in music today has George Michael’s range. Even Cohen once stormed off stage at a concert in Jerusalem because he felt the audience was being disrespectful. He still managed to write one of the most important songs of the 20th century.
Whereas these musicians could not predict the Internet and how easy it would become to download the music of others while paying nothing in royalties—which is the bread and butter of all musicians—they did manage to release themselves from onerous contracts and regain control over their own music, but at a heavy price. While it is true that studios spend a large amount of money promoting new artists, at some point the artists need to be able to see the fruit of their labors in a more exalted fashion.
I can’t remember hanging out with any of my friends at parties in the 1970s without the ubiquitous Eagles playing in the background. Glenn Frye could probably only guess how many misadventures of teenagers and adults occurred while his music was playing in the background.
While not a fan of David Bowie’s music, per se, it was the first time I did hear Stevie Ray Vaughn who toured with Bowie on the “Let’s Dance” Tour. A friend once told me that David Bowie only paid Vaughn $500 a month to play in his band. I never liked him after hearing that.
If there are “musician’s musicians” who had more of an influence on rollicking rock-and-roll than Leon Russell, I do not know who it would be. Russell was in as much demand as a studio musician as he was a solo artist and he could do it all. If you never heard his haunting and complex “This Masquerade” then your knowledge of 1970s rock is sorely lacking. Similarly, Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire left us this year. Few groups were funkier or as energy-charged.
Musicians with the sheer amount of created material of a George Michael or Prince are rare. Rarer still are their voices, now silenced, which had so much more to give the world. Only now are people coming forward to describe the charitable efforts of George Michael because he preferred to give his gifts anonymously and he was a prolific donor to causes ranging from AIDs treatment and research to famine relief. I do not recall any British concert given in the 1980s or 1990s to raise funds for various causes which did not also included George Michael in the row of singers. One could argue that he gave us enough with just his music, but he was obviously a heartfelt believer in “tikkun olam” although he may not have ever used the expression.