Death Forms a Band
2016 seems to be God’s idea of a clearinghouse for musicians. David Bowie, Prince, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, Paul Kanter, Maurice White, and Phife Dawg have all exited the stage, and we’re not even half way through the year. And who was going to tell me that Frank Sinatra, Jr. died? Who have I missed? As someone said to us, “Just wait, we aren’t over yet.” Indeed. It is enough to make a bass player a bit nervous.
Now in the case of about half of these guys, they lived to a ripe old age for the type of lifestyle that musicians have typically led. Aside from the Stones, with whatever Faustian bargain they have made with the guy they have sympathy for, and Willie, who shows proof in the efficacy of the medicinal qualities of a certain organic substance, all these guys did have their moments in the sun and we are all the better for it. But one can imagine that they all had one heck of a rodeo ride in the process. The life of a musician, especially an independent musician, is filled with a lot of temptation, pitfalls, and setbacks. Then there is the bad stuff that can happen as well.
In the case of several of these musicians, I can, like most people, take a song and remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard it. “1999” was being blasted on WLS AM through a radio (boom boxes had not been invented yet) as we detasseled corn out in the back fields of Hughes Hybrids. We would dance to it as best as we could in our metal baskets, our faces wet with sweat and flecked with corn pollen. The beat of the song pulsed with the grinding noise of the power steering as the behemoth of a detasseling rig lumbered its way over the swells of corn. A long way from what Prince had in mind, I guess. And 1999 seemed so far away at the time. Like I had all the time in the world to reach it, too.
With “Take it Easy,” well, I was being chased around the Woodstock City Pool by Suzy Draffkorn. I was just nine years old and Suzy had a crush on me, I think. She would run after me and try to pull my swim trunks down. Since the trunks were hand-me-downs, I am sure they had a head start already, and Suzy was determined. I was afraid of the deep end, and so I would seek refuge in the three foot deep section of the pool and dog paddle like crazy to escape. I never had any other woman chase me like that since, even when I became a musician. (One would think all these famous guys would have lived a lot longer if they were being chased all the time. Good for the heart!) Suzy’s affection always comes back to me as soon as I hear those first three chords of the song. Yes, I only got as far as Pollywog in my swim class, but I did go downstate in Cross Country. So thanks, Suzy.
“Let’s Dance” was one of two big Bowie moments in my life. That song came along as I was in college. I was totally taken by the guitar solo, and it was little wonder that the player was some young guy named Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was spring and the smelt fishermen were lined up along the breakwater of Lake Michigan. I was dating a girl named Maria at the time, and we walked along the water at night and the fishermen would have their lamps out, pulling in the fish and grilling them right there on the concrete. School was coming to an end, and life seemed wide open and frightening at the same time. “Space Oddity” was a 45 we would listen to over and over again when we were out in Wyoming. My brothers and sister would do interpretive dance to the song, play-acting Major Tom “floating on my tin can.” It was a song that a five year old could easily memorize. The funny part would be that the cut would fade out on side one. One of us would flip it to side two and back into the song. Those were the late 60’s and early 70’s and not one of us ever stopped and said, “Hey, that’s lame!” You just accepted the limitations of the technology. I miss those limits, too. The sharing of a song was so important. Today, we can plug in our earbuds and tune out everyone around us.
“September” was one of those songs that even the melody was happy. To this day, I can’t repeat all the words. It was one of those songs I would think I knew all the words to, but didn’t. I would start in singing it with the radio and end up mumbling happily along to the chorus. I knew the inflections, the chorus, the joy that was Earth, Wind and Fire.
And Merle? “Okie from Muskogee” was in the bar in Pell Lake when Dave Heuvelman and I were treated to our first beer by his grandpa. Um, we were 14 at the time, but that day Grandpa decided Dave and I were men. We had been out on the farm, working hard to help him put up his shortwave radio antennae. Part of the wire had to cross a two acre pond. I had capsized a boat filled with the wire spool in the process, resulting in an aquatic salvage operation, but finally got the wire across, strung up on telephone poles and the shortwave working. Grandpa saw something: he saw us work like young men and felt we deserved a beer. So we got in his big Cadillac and drove to Pell Lake, over the border in Wisconsin. The bar was a tiny building, with several good deer heads on the knotty pine walls. Smoke from cigarettes filled the air and tinged it a hazy grey color. It was magical, sitting at the bar on the cracked deep red vinyl stools, with the music playing, lights dim, a burger on the plate and a beer sitting in a tall frosted mug in my hand. My life had changed.
Yes, we all die. And really, it is not about a famous musician dying. With musicians, especially songwriters, the song is what matters. And for all of us music becomes something very personal. Prince, Bowie, Lennon, Rodgers and Hart, Carmichael — it doesn’t matter. They were just the vehicles to deliver the goods. The songs make our lives, who we are. The song for the first kiss, the birth, the death. It is an honor when the Good Lord allows us to write a good one.
And yes, big successful musicians who are lucky enough to get the airwaves and their songs pounded into our heads have a good chance of having their songs remembered. The music business is not a level playing field. It is more like a minefield. It is a rarity when a songwriter is lauded before his or her death. Carole King comes to mind as an exception. She has a musical out about her life and she deserves it. But there are lot of Caroles out there, juggling a kid and a part time job while pursuing a full-time dream.
There are a lot of songs to take and make your own. A lot of beautiful songwriters out there. We should remember, appreciate, and honor those songwriters who have died, but do us living songwriters a favor too. Get out there and enjoy us while we are around. Allow us the honor of you taking one of our songs and making it your own. And let us know about it. I have a feeling Prince would have appreciated feeling all that love while he could still smile and savor it. No amount of fame or money can take the place of love.
Martin McCormack, Switchback