Sunday, June 19, 2011

Checking out early

For the return from absence of What Would David Bowie Do? (no note from matron, just been busy with other things), I'd like to draw your attention to death. Not an uplifting topic, nor particularly entertaining. In fact, death is quite serious.

If there is, though, one certainty in life, it is that some day we will all pop our clogs. Sorry if you had another expectation, but it clearly says in the instruction manual that we turn up, we schlep around for however many years the Great Life Lottery allocates us, and then that's it. Ta-ta.

When someone we know, or know of, dies, our response ranges from mortification and deep gloom, to mild acknowledgement and a token, and somewhat disposable, comment of condolence. For the family of the deceased, it's an understandable tragedy, even it provides welcome respite from the condition that preceded the terminal breath.  For everyone else, grief will only ever be an assumed state, the acquisition of a character, no matter how genuinely-intentioned it might be.

This morning I woke up to the sad news that Clarence Clemons, the iconic saxophonist in Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band had passed away at the age of 69 following a stroke. By spooky coincidence (and unaware that the big man had even been ill) I'd been playing the Born To Run 30th Anniversary box set only the night before, luxuriating in Clemons' sax solo on Jungleland and considering that after lead guitarist, there is only one other solo star in any band.

Clemons was more than just the cool horn player with his moment in the spotlight each time the middle eight came around; his sax, tied to the blatant Spector soundscapes, shaped the Springsteen sound, and made it and Springsteen himself, a musical representation of the size, scale and enormity of America.

It is sad: life is finite, we all know, but seeing anyone who has contributed - even a little - to the cultural enjoyment of my own life pass away while still active and still able to contribute more, saddens me. Is it a vacant emotion? Should I just get a grip?

Last October it was Solomon Burke, a performer who I'd come to appreciate late in my life and even later in his, but whom I realised - only through accessing his back catalogue - what a true musical pioneer he was.  Just last month I was confronted with the demise of another legend, Gil Scott-Heron, whose early albums like Pieces Of A Man exposed me - relatively young - to another side of jazz, funk and whatever it was you could call Heron's music. I felt compelled to express my sadness about his death, for the simple and self-indlugent reason that like so many others who have gone before they should - John Lennon, George Harrison, Nick Drake and my ├╝ber-hero, John Martyn, to name just four - their music has had a profound influence on my listening enjoyment.

Keith Richards once famously remarked that some musicians aren't meant to live beyond 30 (or thereabouts): the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Marc Bolan, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison all had some degree of misadventure to their expiration (though to be fair, Bolan's had more to do with his Mini losing an argument with a tree on Barnes Common). Were they just destined to go young? Should we feel any less grief for John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters reaching their dotages and then pegging out, much like anyone else who isn't in the spotlight?

Not wishing to get over psychoanalytical about it, it boils down to association and impact. John Martyn's death affected me for days, and still does. I should get over it. One musician out of millions. Likewise the comedian and writer Spike Milligan. He was 83 when he went. "He'd had a good innings" trilled the frequently issued and thoroughly vacuous platitude. To me, it was tragic, because it removed someone who had played a part in my own development, the gradual genetic shape-shifting that is each of our lives. Milligan's sense of humour, channelled through tapes of The Goon Show my father blessed my family life with, influenced my sense of fun, appreciation of English wordplay and the absurd, and to this day, still brings amusement to the moribund downward escalator we call existence.

To see great people taken away from the world at any age is, sadly inevitable and inevitably sad. We should move on, celebrate all the other good things that are out there, of course. But those who make some impact on the lives of many and the lives of only a few - who might have only been responsible for something of just fleeting enjoyment - deserve whatever appreciation comes their way.