One morning I woke up, and I knew you were really gone – Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Carry On
Willie Nelson is going to die. So will Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Dolly Parton. If the last few winter weeks have taught us anything, it is that a generation of music icons are not for long.
The cranky, counterculture troubadour David Crosby died Jan. 18, at age 81. Guitarist Jeff Beck died eight days earlier; Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie, in late November. The latest rock ‘n’ roll passing is Tom Verlaine, the photogenic, poetic frontman and co-founder of the inspiring art-punk pioneers Television. Mourning for all these musicians was widespread on social media and the losses were covered wall to wall by mainstream press as well.
There was a time when we as a society more or less listened to the same music (and watched the same television programs and knew the same films). Mass media was monolithic. That monoculture died some time ago, and now the bodies are really starting to fall. Television’s 10-minute guitar-rock masterpiece Marquee Moon was released in 1977, from the album of the same name.
Well, the Cadillac,
It pulled out of the graveyard
Pulled up to me,
All they said, “Get in, get in …”
More than 45 years later, the hearse is filling up faster than ever, with plenty of room for more. The most conspicuous vanishing breed is the guitar hero, and Verlaine and Beck were every inch of that. Miles apart geographically and stylistically, what united the underground New Yorker and the aboveground Londoner were their vanguard abilities.
“You introduced me to a world that flipped my life upside down,” R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe tweeted after Verlaine’s death was announced. “There was no one like Tom,” Patti Smith wrote in her appreciation of the musician in the New Yorker. “He possessed the child’s gift of transforming a drop of water into a poem that somehow begat music.”
Of Beck, fellow Yardbird (and former Led Zeppelin) guitarist Jimmy Page said on social media that his technique was “unique” and that his imagination was “apparently limitless.”
Both Verlaine and Beck seemed to arrive without precedence. While the former brought meticulousness and refinement to punk, the latter was a frenetic, fuzzily amplified revelation among blues-rockers before splitting that scene for all-instrumental jazz-rock fusion, which on 1975′s Blow By Blow was eloquent and imaginative.
Their ideas on notes and tones were the unique, innovative calculations of perfectionists, with styles that would never go out of fashion, because they were never in fashion. In particular, Verlaine, a Baryshnikov who danced in the grime of New York’s CBGB stood out in the crowd. Guitar-based rock today has fewer noticeable innovators of that kind, in a world where virtuosity is seen as vulgar. And what talent is out there often isn’t attracting the attention of major labels, nor being as widely heard.
Who is flipping lives upside down anymore? Well, the alt-rock goddess Annie Clark (who works under the name St. Vincent) is that kind of rare artist – a unicorn among racehorses and ploughers. Outside of guitar-based rock, Kendrick Lamar is the genius of his time.
Those two and others operate in a wider, disparate universe than the one that existed in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Where pop culture used to be pushed onto us, we now make our own choices. It is not worse today. In most ways, it is better – less corporate, more democratic.
Today’s younger generations, however, won’t have as much in the way of uniform reference points the fogies enjoy among themselves. Fifty years from now the funerals for contemporary pop icons will be just as important. They just won’t be as well-attended.
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