A Bad Month
January 2016 may have been a good month for the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos. They won all of their playoff games and are going to the Super Bowl.
It may have been a good month for the Alabama Crimson Tide college football team. They won THEIR playoff game to become the national champions.
It was probably also a good time for the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs, who continued to win a lot of games and to cement themselves as the teams to beat when the NBA playoffs roll around in a few months.
But it was not a good month for fans of the music industry. Particularly, for fans of the “Classic Rock Music Era.” For in a less than three week period, fans of music, fans of music with thoughts, ideas and real feelings behind them, lost three key people who made monumental contributions to the world of music and to the history of music also.
The world that enjoys great music is mourning the deaths during the last three weeks of David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Paul Kantner. All three of them made enough of a contribution to now reside in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, either as solo artists or from being in a group. And I will go out on a limb and say that all three have enough of a tie in to the sports world to warrant being on a sports blog (their songs were played at sporting events, they were all sports fans to a certain extent of their various home town teams). At least under their unfortunate circumstances, we talk about the impact of their losses.
David Bowie died on January 10th from some form of cancer. It shocked a lot of people, because he always had that thin, youthful look. He always had that energetic bounce to his step (so many of his songs being “dance” oriented). He never, ever seemed like he ever got old. How could a man that seemed so young die from cancer, a “getting old” type of disease?
Bowie’s influence in the history of music is significant. Being a star solo performer from the late 60’s (after the British invasion) and early 70’s (well before the English punk and new wave), he served as a bridge from one era to another. Being one of the first performers to dress and make themselves up to look androgenous, he helped pioneer the idea of glam rock, though his style has zigged and zagged across a lot of music genres over the years. He was every bit of an iconic superstar (especially with his hair and makeup) as Elton John or any solo act star in British music history.
Besides his style though, the thing that put David Bowie into the upper echelon of musical performers was the sheer, intellectual content of his songs. He was an intelligent guy, who put together intelligent songs with important themes. He created songs from another character like “Ziggy Stardust” and put people into another form of reality. He wrote songs like “Changes,” “Fame,” “Rebel, Rebel” and “Young Americans” that were very intelligent takes on the cultural things that were going on in the society at the time he was writing them.
Not everyone comes up with a masterpiece. But that is just what David Bowie did with “Space Oddity,” a song he wrote about an astronaut getting caught up in an ill-fated trip into outer space that just so happened to be written and recorded just a few weeks before the actual first moon landing. It’s a song that he wrote when he was 22. It’s the type of creative, original thinking that comes from the mind of a true artist. Some might say it had the thought behind it of a musical genius. We don’t see a lot of those types entering the music business all that often. And now we have lost one of the real game changers that we’ve ever seen.
Glenn Frey died on January 18th at the relatively young age of 67 from complications that developed from the drugs he was taking for rheumatoid arthritis. He died (it was almost as if it should have been a lyric from an Eagles song) because the cure for what was ailing him turned out to be worse than the disease. What he had shouldn’t have been enough to kill him. He had just been on a long Eagles tour the previous year and his singing sounded as great as ever.
Glenn Frey was considered to be the co-founder of the Eagles (along with Don Henley). But it was really his passion project more than Henley’s. When you look back at every great music group, you will almost always find that there was ONE of the members that had the vision and the passion to follow that belief that they would someday do great things. Glenn Frey was that man with the plan for the Eagles. HE was the leader of the Eagles. His voice seemed like it was THE VOICE of the Eagles (although Henley of course had his own voice on the Henley songs that was almost as synonymous).
The two great musicians made the Eagles into one of the top ten music acts of all time. They really were the American version of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Their great songs have stood the test of time and are continually played and liked by new audiences. Like Beatles’ songs, the Eagles’ songs have that amazing quality of not only always sounding good, but always having intelligent things to say during them that makes the listening to them a new experience each time you hear them.
Everyone knows all of the Eagles songs. Everyone knows how intelligent those songs were, as well as how accessible they were and how easy they were to listen to. Glenn Frey was in there as the architect of their sound when it all started. He was in there as a key contributor in every song when they were recorded. Glenn Frey was the John Lennon of the Eagles in that he had the leadership and the vision to take them to the top. He was the Paul McCartney of the Eagles in that it was HIS voice and musical sensibility that appealed to the masses.
With apologies to Don Henley, who is a brilliant musician and songwriter, Glenn Frey WAS the Eagles. They might continue as a group with a new musician or singer replacing him, but it will never be the same anymore. Glenn Frey dying pretty much meant the “death” of that great musical experience we have all known as the Eagles. That’s not easy to take.
And then Paul Kantner died on January 28th when his heart finally gave out and he died at age 74. Kantner, a San Francisco native, was a key “figure” of the music landscape of the 1960’s, more specifically of the psychedelic music scene so identified with the hippie movement of the “Summer of Love” in 1967. He was co-founder of the Hall of Fame group Jefferson Airplane (along with singer Marty Balin), who were the first and foremost group to be identified with the San Francisco scene of that era.
The Jefferson Airplane were as much of a historical presence in the music world of the 60’s as any group in the world at the time. THEY were at the first real pop/rock music festival, the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. THEY were key performers at the legendary Woodstock Pop Festival in 1969. They were, not only AT the infamous Altamont concert in 1969 (that was headlined by the Rolling Stones), they were ONSTAGE at the time that all hell broke out and a member of the Hell’s Angels stabbed and killed a man in the audience who was in the first few rows right next to the stage.
Kantner was the architect of the Jefferson Airplane sound, which was to become the psychedelic, acid rock, San Francisco sound. Their group was a unique collaboration of six unique musicians, but someone had to take the leadership role to keep the players moving in the right direction, and more times than not, it was Kantner who was the leader. While iconic singer Grace Slick became the star and most popular member of the group, it was Kantner who was the glue that held them together.
The Jefferson Airplane song lyrics were pretty much the most rebellious voices of the mid to late 1960’s. They sang about their mistrust of the government at the time (which from 1968 to 1974 was the time of Richard Nixon, so they were pretty darned accurate I would say). They sang out in protest of the Vietnam war. They sang of love and relationships. They sang about the importance of people using their own mind to figure out things and to NOT trust that the politicians or big business was going to do things to take care of the people.
Paul Kantner played a free concert at a park (just like ha had done so many times in his 1960’s San Francisco heyday) just a couple of years ago with his 21st century version of Jefferson Starship, and I stood in the front row and watched a man in his late 60’s playing the same hard driving Airplane and Starship songs he played in his youth and it was a remarkable sight. And now the driving force behind Jefferson Airplane, a man who was at the epicenter of the psychedelic musical scene, not to mention at most of the key moments of the rock and roll 60’s, is also no longer with us.
David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Paul Kantner were three people who contributed mightily to the greatest period in music history. We are lucky that the technology exists where we can still listen to their words. Where we can still see these guys playing their music (on YouTube and or on DVDs) when they were in the prime of their lives.
It is ironic that these three key people of the classic rock music era have all died just 18 days apart. These are three people that were almost as influential in their own ways as that period of time (months apart) between late 1970 -71 when three other music legends, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all died. Like those other greats, David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Paul Kantner were three people who wrote or co-wrote a lot of meaningful songs that were incredibly important to a lot of people’s lives. And now they are gone.
January of 2016 was a bad month.