Why the exhaustion? From New Year’s Eve when Natalie Cole died to last night when we found out Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner passed, there has been a high-profile death from the world of entertainment nearly every day, with the weight shifted more toward the musical foot. A sardonic wave has washed over us as we click into our Facebook feeds in the morning, wondering aloud who died this time. Ultimate Classic Rock overlord Matthew Wilkening posted this upon learning of Kantner’s demise: “I’m going to need a new job in about six weeks if this keeps up…” That just about covers it.
There are a few things to consider here. The first is that we’re all getting old. Hate to break it to you. The reason why you’ve started gravitating to Dad Rock lately is because you’re probably a dad (or mom) now, and your kids are complaining about the positively sloth-like BPMs of your favorite tunes. The corollary to this is that, just as we age, so do our heroes and our cultural touchstones. If you really drill down to the individuals who passed in January 2016, most of them lived pretty long lives, and a generous portion of those lives were spent hard-partying. Lemmy from Motorhead may have the Jack Daniels and Coca-cola combo he favored renamed “the Lemmy” in his memory. From a cynic’s eye, it’s amazing some of them lived nearly as long as they did. It still doesn’t explain why the morbid “rule of threes” has been supplanted by the “rule of three hundred thirty threes” in the span of one month, but we have reached a personal era where this particular life passage is more likely than ever before.
We are left to observe it, as all of us on the topside of the topsoil are. The difference is that those who are leaving became the most famous in a time we’ll never equal. The 1950s through the 1980s represent a time when you can still be ever-present in the entertainment and arts realms and still be a little mysterious. You could rule over pop culture and not hit a saturation point that engendered your being despised by those who once were your fans. And you had the tools to produce work that could outlive you. David Bowie’s not going away. If there is a film about the 1960s, Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” will be there, and in a sense so will Paul Kantner.
Slight tangent: In the 1980s Disney film Flight of the Navigator, a boy is abducted in the early-’70s by a benevolent, sentient spaceship. He is deposited in the late-1980s. One of the signposts of the Seventies was Jefferson Starship’s song “Count On Me” playing on the soundtrack. There are few, but very powerful, benefits to “being dated.”
We joked about the death of actor Abe Vigoda because, for the past two decades, he had a career of disproving he had died. Whereas his role as Sgt. Phil Fish on the sitcom Barney Miller made fade away as so many old sitcoms invariably do, he will keep reviving again and again when people rediscover The Godfather and his role as Salvatore Tessio. When realizing the reprisal for his disloyalty was impending, Tessio turns to Tom Hagen (played by Robert Duvall) and asks him to get him off the hook, to save his skin. Hagen refuses. It is that stark moment that informs only the best crime movies, when a character sees his future barreling toward him and nobody is going to lift a finger to make it better. (They might lift a finger to make it worse though.)
My point? These scenes, these songs, are going to live on. In an average year when millions of tunes are launched into the world, thousands of television shows will debut and finale, and movies will open and close in a mayfly’s lifetime, these will endure…not because of the nostalgia and stubbornness of their fans, but because there was value in the work itself.
I am not wishing ill-will toward anyone, but let us be candid about this. If one or more of the members of One Direction died today, the world would mourn. The band’s fans would be devastated, but I cannot imagine a duplicate cultural crater that seemed to happen when Bowie died. His fourth album, Hunky Dory, debuted in 1971. In January 2016, one of the most prominent songs played in his honor was that album’s standout “Changes”. Do we have any songs right now that have marked themselves as possessing that same longevity? Only time can say, but there are more jokes about the “song of the summer” from two-three-five years ago than real affinity for those songs. The same for movies and television. The reign of Kardashians will end as surely as the reign of Paris Hilton did. Will their efforts be regarded as milestones or millstones? Totems or punchlines?
I’ll be glad to see January go only so far as to disprove the month had any bad mojo on it. The deaths will continue. We’re all driving up to that same rest stop. Seeing those who aren’t going back out on the road ever again is inevitable. The lesson that should be received from all this is a simple one. So what if we are a “maker economy.” Does what we make have lasting value?