Music

Unsung, unplayed, undone

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Mourning this year in music

As I grow older, having yet another year slope towards its extinguishment has shifted from occasion to recall enthralling new albums that crowned during the previous dozen months into a solemn compulsion to mark those whose music-making ceased—here, now, forever; arrested in whatever state it was in when they left the realm of the living, along with the rest of their personal affairs. I'm not sure whether (or how much of) this is an actual by-product of aging rather than an occupational hazard, as any serious music-lover sooner or later takes an interest in history and creative lineages, which only deepens with experience, and you become keenly aware of what the loss of one artist can actually mean, in terms of irreplaceable knowledge and creative singularity, to a field, an art, a genre, an industry, a scene, a world. What strikes me these past few years is the sadness of the messy unfinishedness of it all.

 

Adam Yauch, Beastie Boys at Brixton Academy – 05/09/07
// Creative Commons flickr.com/photos/fabiovenni/

When you're in your twenties and someone your age dies, it seems a freak thing; an improbable calling in of the odds. Moving into middle age and beyond, it's more and more often biological failure: runaway cells evading apoptosis, immune system misfirings, dumb arrhythmic or pulmonary or neurological wavering at a critical juncture. My early intimations of how vulnerable the musicians who resonated powerfully with me could be came with Victoria Williams' diagnosis of MS in 1993 (thankfully, she's still here), then Left Eye Lopes' fatal accident in 2002, followed by Elliott Smith's awful 2003 suicide. Then came Vic Chesnutt's death on Christmas Day 2009, and Mark Linkous in 2010, and Trish Keenan in 2011—of fucking pneumonia, of all things!—and, well, how could I not think of what we've lost at the close of every year since? (Chesnutt's death has been felt particularly acutely by his peers, with Lambchop's Mr. M, released this past February, dedicated to him, while the Cowboy Junkies created an album of covers of his songs.)

Cynthia Dall,  Chris Reimer (left) with Women // Nick Heiderman

This seemed a tough year for music. So many gone, so much gone with them. (And they keep dying; as of this writing, there went Fontella Bass). What loss, for those who created alongside them or were touched by their creations, as well as for those who knew them beyond their art. I am not, and never will be, at peace with death—the idea of accumulating personhood (and creative force) through the hard choices and acts of living, only to forfeit all of it through some lousy entropic principle.
Who knows what Chris Reimer (Women) would have continued to contribute to his Calgary community, and beyond, had he not died at 26 (christopherjohnjosephreimer.com/chris-reimer-legacy-fund)? Or how much history, technique, and genius perished with Dave Brubeck (at 91), Kitty Wells (92), Earl Scruggs, (88), Doc Watson (89), or Ravi Shankar (92)? How weird is it that Don Cornelius, creator of Soul Train, died within months American Bandstand's Dick Clark, as if their competing visions of teenhood were spookily codependent? And how unlucky were Jamaicans, losing artists and music entrepreneurs—the roles are often symbiotic, if not simultaneous, on the island—across generations, from dancehall practitioners like Ranking Trevor and Sluggy Ranks to ska and reggae masters such as Lloyd Brevett, Lloyd Charmers, and Bertram McLean, to soundsystem pioneer Duke Vin? Shouldn't all his namesake amps across the planet go silent for a minute to mourn Jim Marshall? And clubgoers the world over move in thankful rapture to Donna Summer's “I Feel Love”? Will gloriously genre-churning careers like those of Etta James and Levon Helm ever be possible again?

Levon Helm at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival in 2010  // Eden Munro

See? It's been a hell of a year. And we haven't even mentioned Robin Gibb, Davy Jones, Jenni Rivera, or Terry Callier (soundcloud.com/massive-attack-2/terry-callier-the-windmill).

The deaths that personally resonated the most, though, were of people within a decade of me, artists on the vanguard of the culture I was enthralled with as I grew up. Like Cynthia Dall, who is, unfairly, best known for her work with Bill Callahan in the '90s, despite being a visual artist and on Drag City under her own steam, as thorny and potent and transgressive and exploratory in her representation of womanhood at the turn of the millennium as Callahan was with his masculinity. Bill Doss was a founder of the legendary Elephant 6 Recording Company and part of Olivia Tremor Control, whose Dusk At Cubist Castle is still one of my favourite records. She was 41, he was 43, and no cause of death was given in either case. Their passing leaves me with a pervasive sense of foreboding that compounds the already wearying struggle of pursuing an altogether marginal life of creation.

As an adolescent, I was fascinated by rap, but found it alienating as nihilistic and sexist tropes came to dominate the genre. Female rappers sometimes provided safe listening space, and Ms Melodie's death provoked vague memories of her only release, 1989's Diva. Listening again, it's an odd gem—sassy, flamboyant and breezily sonically pick'n'mix. The loss of Adam “MCA” Yauch rivaled that of Levon Helm in the sheer universal despondence it triggered, but pop culture-loving feminists mourned him as a fellow traveler as well as an artist. After a shaky start, Yauch and his fellow Beastie Boys broke with their early sexism and supported women often and loudly. Blogger Jessica Valenti wrote movingly about what this meant to her, and I concur (thenation.com/blog/167768/mcas-feminist-legacy#).

My reaction to Whitney Houston's death took me entirely by surprise. When she was wildly popular, I loathed her. I hated her showy octave-spanning trills, canned sentimentalism, tedious crowd-pleasing, content-free omnipresence. I went out of my way to not hear her. Later, I also managed to completely miss her life as a reality show star. But I thought about her a lot after she died, about what it cost her to be perennially available to feed our collective delusions of romance and glamour. She never really grew as an artist, and became misshapen in her gilded cage. And a great many people seemed to delight in laying the blame for that at her grave, without a second thought as to whether they were complicit. I couldn't shake the only lyrics I remembered of hers—”I want to dance with somebody / I want to feel the heat with somebody”—recalling the melody but not being able to summon the plasticky production. Sung slowly, depending on how you weighted it, the lines seemed by turns shy, melancholy and plangently self-affirming.

The truth is, you'll always leave something unfinished, no matter what, if you're creating. But I can't help but wonder if these artists had just one more thing they wanted to leave in the world, before they left it.

(And: what of our own precarious, messy, unfinished lives?)
 

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