Wednesday, January 20, 2016
The past month has been a rough one for us music fans, with the deaths of some major musical figures. R & B singer Natalie Cole, hard rocker Lemmy Kilmeister, singer David Bowie and, most recently, Glenn Frey, founder of the legendary rock group the Eagles are the biggest names among those who have recently passed away, but there have also been a number of deaths among lesser known members of popular bands, studio musicians, producers and other industry notables. Music has been an integral part of my life since I was very young, so when artists who have been on my radar screen for a long time suddenly pass away, it is la kind of loss, like that of an old friend or acquaintance, depending on who it is.
I can’t honestly account for myself as a true fan of either Natalie Cole or Lemmy Kilmeister’s band Motorhead. While I respect their work, Cole’s soulful crooning and Kilmeister’s aggressive, grinding hard rock fell just beyond the furthest ends of my musical taste spectrum. Nevertheless, when I heard of their deaths, it felt like someone had snipped away pieces from a beautiful but increasingly tattered tapestry, one that has always been a part of my life and that I too often take for granted. I didn’t listen to Natalie Cole or Motorhead very often, but I liked the idea that they were out there making music that people enjoyed and was sadden to hear that they were now silenced. With the deaths of David Bowie and Glenn Frey however, it wasn’t just pieces of the tapestry snipped away. Some new large holes were added, alongside those created for me by the deaths of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddy Mercury, Kurt Cobain, George Harrison, and Michael Jackson, among others. They had put forth great music that had been a tangible part of my life, and they were still active in their careers when they died. They weren’t done yet. There was still more to come from them that we will now never get to hear. I felt real loss.
There was a lot of coverage of the deaths of both David Bowie and Glenn Frey in the media, and an outpouring of reactions in social media. The men were alike in some ways and very different in others. Both of them came onto the music scene in the early 70s, both did some acting work in addition to music, and both gradually faded from regular public attention by the coming of the 21st century. And at the end of their careers, both men were still actively making music. Yet Bowie was mostly considered an eclectic musical artist who had experienced occasional mainstream acceptance. His focus had always been on the art of music. Frey, on the other hand, was very much a straightforward rock musician and businessman, who only stepped out of the mainstream to explore new ground on rare occasions. The artistic side of music was not unimportant to Frey, but he was always very candid in admitting that it had to pay the bills too. Regardless of the driving forces behind each of them, the end products that each gave us, their music, was truly great. It was fascinating and touching following the reactions to both of their deaths, and it taught me some things about the part music plays in our lives.
Before the release of 1983’s Let’s Dance album, I wasn’t very familiar with David Bowie’s work at all. I’d seen some of his albums at the store, but out of context they didn’t make much of an impact on me. MTV hadn’t come to rural Maine yet at that point, and the only radio stations that played pop and/or rock in my conservative corner of the world kept their playlists firmly grounded in the most widely-acceptable hits. Other than the rare “Young Americans” or “Heroes”, David Bowie wasn’t on the radio much in northern Maine in the early 80s. That was about to change in 1983. Let’s Dance was Bowie’s headlong dive into the new wave pop that was dominating the international airwaves at that time, and the album was a gigantic commercial success, due in large part to new fans like me who now had access to Bowie on mainstream radio.
I remember hearing the title track to Let’s Dance for the first time late on a hot July night in 1983. It was the night before my family was to go away on our annual two-week summer vacation to the Maine coast, and I was as excited as I would have been the night before Christmas. Add to that the fact that it was a swelteringly hot night and it was a recipe for insomnia. Sometime after midnight, I gave up tossing and turning, and sat on my bedroom windowsill in hopes of getting some cool air. I plugged my earpiece into my little FM radio (so as not to disturb my blissfully sleeping brother with whom I shared a room) and tuned in the local rock station. The soundtrack of a small town Friday night’s squealing tires and chirping crickets played in one ear and the tinny sounds of rock and roll from a transistor radio in the other while I stared out at the moon over the houses of my neighborhood. Before long, the DJ came on and introduced a new song by British singer David Bowie. British acts were flooding the American music scene in 1983, and I was getting into a lot of it, so my interest was piqued. The song was “Let’s Dance”, and it really hooked me on the first play. Bowie’s vocals were mesmerizing, and the heavy drums and bluesy guitar solo captured my heart. “Let’s Dance” became one of my favorite songs of that summer, and I ended up buying the album not long after that. Over time, I came to appreciate the full scope of David Bowie’s career, but to this day, Let’s Dance is my favorite Bowie album, though it is also the one at which many of the biggest Bowie fans turn their noses up. Among many Bowie ‘purists’, Let’s Dance was just tolerable at best, and a sell-out at the very worst. To me, it was, and is, terrific. I was into his next two mid-80s albums too, Tonight and Never Let Me Down before Bowie’s new releases stopped gaining my attention.
Glenn Frey and the Eagles go back even further with me, literally to my earliest music memories. My parents always had the radio on around my house when I was young, so I was exposed to a lot of music, albeit mostly just the biggest hits that made it onto the local radio scene. The Eagles were very popular on the stations they listened to, likely because the band had a country-edge to them that gave them some crossover appeal, especially in my part of the state where country music was king. I knew all the words to “Hotel California” before I was ten years old, and songs like “Take It Easy”, “One of These Nights” and “Already Gone” feel like they are encoded in my DNA. The Eagles have always been there in the background of my life for as long as I could remember. Not only was the band popular in my home, but my closest peers liked them too. One of my favorite teenage memories is of riding around town with my buddies in my friend Jared’s battered red Volkswagen Beetle, all the windows down and the Eagles’ “Already Gone” blasting from the stereo. Over time, I literally wore out my vinyl copies of both Eagles greatest hits albums, as well as my cassettes of Hotel California and Eagles Live. I’ve never done that with any other records or cassettes, and I have owned a lot of them.
I was an avid follower of the solo careers of the Eagles members through the 80s after the band broke up, especially Glenn Frey and Don Henley, and have carried my love of all things Eagles well into adulthood. Needless to say, I was overjoyed when “Hell froze over” (as the band members had said it would have to) and the band reunited in the mid-1990s, and one of my regrets is that I never got to see them perform live. My tastes have shifted over time, and my favorite Eagles songs don’t tend to be the biggest hits anymore. I am more intrigued by the relatively-obscure album cuts that didn’t often get my attention in the past. My current favorites are “After The Thrill Is Gone”, a Frey/Henley duet from the One Of These Nights album and “Waiting in the Weeds” from 2007’s Long Road Out Of Eden. All those great songs, including those amazing and unmistakable Eagles harmonies that have been running through my head since I was a preschooler, would not have come to be without Glenn Frey.
My favorite part of the David Bowie catalogue, the Let’s Dance/Tonight/Never Let Me Down period of the mid-80s is one about which few others I’ve interacted with on the subject wax nostalgic. I got a lot of “Oh yeah, but what about the Ziggy Stardust era?” I don’t dislike his earlier or later work, it’s just that the mid-80s were an especially memorable time in my life: first girlfriend, first real job, getting my driver’s license. Music, then as now, was a major part of my life, and I am particularly fond of the songs that formed my own soundtrack to those times, which in turn gives a huge boost in my heart to that particular stretch of David Bowie’s career. I first go to know David Bowie in the mid-80s. That’s the David Bowie that means the most to me.
The Eagles, on the other hand, seem to be a band that people either love or hate. They gotten massive amounts of airplay over the years, and their songs may have worn thin with some people. They also developed a reputation for being arrogant, for being somewhat derivative at times, and for being too focused on profit, all of which has worked against them with some listeners. Jeff Bridges’ character “The Dude” famously gave voice to this in the 1998 film The Big Lebowski when he is stuck in a taxi while “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” is playing on the radio. “I hate the f—in' Eagles man,” he said to the cab driver, just before he was thrown out of the car. Personally, I would have thrown him out of the car too. I love the Eagles. Their music has always been there, either in the background or foreground of my life, ever since I can remember. The fact that people important to me like my parents and my high school buddies were also Eagles fans cemented their place for me. Of course they weren’t a perfect band, but for me they are almost like family, and how many of us have a full set of perfect relatives? The positive associations I have made with their music for over forty years far outweighs the negatives. When Glenn Frey’s voice comes out of my speakers singing “Heartache Tonight”, I’m back to being 11 years old, waiting for that song to come on the radio so I can catch it on my tape recorder. You can’t put a price on something like that.
The passings of David Bowie and Glenn Frey have underscored for me the idea that, like most art forms, there really isn’t much about music that is absolutely “right” or “wrong”. You might say that there are no bad songs, just missed connections. I’ve come to believe that a lot has to do with the associations we have with music and the people who perform it. If there is a connection between some music and something positive for you, then there is a greater likelihood you are going to have positive feelings about that music, regardless if it is something widely considered “a classic”. If the first dance you had with the love of your life was to “Purple People Eater”, then I think there’s a good chance that even that song could one of your favorites. And as far as today’s music being “crap”, as many in my generation and older like to say, well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Around the time I turned 30, most new music just wasn’t reaching my heart anymore. But if kids today are making their own lifelong memories to a soundtrack of today’s popular songs the way I did to the music of David Bowie and the Eagles, among many others, then who am I to say their music isn’t just as good?