Tuesday 20 August 2019

The year the music died

There seemed to be an unusually high number of celebrity deaths in the last 12 months, including three of the greatest songwriters we've ever known. John Meagher on why the passing of David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen broke the hearts of so many people in 2016

David Bowie on stage at Wembley during the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert
David Bowie on stage at Wembley during the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert
Prince performs in concert at the Stade de France
Leonard Cohen
Terry Wogan
Muhammad Ali died on June 3 at 74.
Gene Wilder died on August 29 at 83.
Gene Wilder (left) with Richard Pryor

John Brereton won't forget January 10, 2016 for as long as he lives. As organiser of Dublin's David Bowie Festival, he had spent the weekend making sure it all went seamlessly and after a late Sunday night, he allowed himself a lie-in on the Monday. At 9am, his four-year-old son, Jake, woke him with news he could scarcely believe: "Dad, David Bowie is dead."

Brereton, guitarist with the Dublin band Sack, spent most of the rest of the day fielding calls from fellow Bowie obsessives and requests for media interviews. He got home at 2am. "I plonked myself in front of the telly," he says, "turned on the news and saw all the tributes and I just burst out crying."

He realised that with the all the busyness of the day he had managed to keep his emotions in check. And, then it truly dawned on him that somebody terribly dear to him was gone.

Just a couple of days before, on the Friday, Bowie had released Blackstar, and the ecstatic reviews proclaimed it to be his best album in years. "I thought it might be the beginning of a really exciting new chapter," Brereton says. "But it wasn't to be. Only a handful of people seemed to know he was so ill - it was remarkable how it could be kept under wraps."

The outpouring of grief was quite astonishing in the days and weeks after Bowie's death. "He meant so much to so many people," Brereton says. "I got into his music when I was a teenager and it changed my life. Everyone else would be out on the road playing, I'd be in my bedroom listening to one album after the next. But, this year, I've met so many people who talk about other aspects of his life and career that excite him, like his acting, his fashion, his art."

Bowie's death at the beginning of the year was later regarded as a portentous marker for what seems near universally regarded to have been a very bleak 12 months. "Bowie was - and is - a reservoir of hope for his many fans," says Professor Eoin Devereux of University of Limerick, co-editor of the book David Bowie: Critical Perspectives.

"A recurring motif in the responses of older fans in the days and weeks following his death was the extent to which Bowie's emergence in the early 1970s was truly radical. The performance of 'Starman' on a July 1972 edition of Top of the Pops stands out in particular; his ability to destabilise societal norms and values, his fluidity in terms of gender and sexual identity, his capacity to reinvent himself and his engagement with questions concerning mortality and spirituality were repeatedly referred to."

As one of the most totemic figures in the popular culture of the past half century, his death has seemed especially hard to take. Devereux believes his legacy will endure. "My rule of thumb is to ask myself if I think that he will be listened to in 300 or 400 years time, and the answer is a resounding yes," he says. "Bowie's art captured the Zeitgeist of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Bowie was the lightning rod who foreshadowed many of the later social debates concerning sexuality and gender. He is very much up there in the pantheon of popular culture."

So too, insists Hot Press deputy editor Stuart Clark, are Prince and Leonard Cohen, whom we also lost this year. "They're hugely important figures, not just in music, but in culture generally. They left a mark on a great many people and while Prince's music didn't really resonate as much with me, it did with a huge number of fans and some of today's biggest artists.

"Talk to someone like [LA rapper] Kendrick Lamar and he'll mention the impact Prince had. The fact that he was so young [57] when he died was particularly upsetting for his fans, who might have thought there was still lots of music left in him."

At 82, Cohen, certainly enjoyed a far lengthier innings than either Bowie or Prince, and there was none of that shock about his passing as it had been revealed some months previously that he was terminally ill.

And, yet, there was a sense of profound sadness over the passing of a lyrically gifted troubadour who had helped shape the course of popular song.

Much of that sentiment was felt in this country, where Cohen had become something of a regular visitor since he played a much-mythologised show at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, in Dublin back in 2008 - his first Irish date in 20 years. "I interviewed Sharon Robinson [Cohen's frequent collaborator and muse] shortly after he died," Clark says, "and she mentioned that towards the end of his life he had spoken with great pleasure about having been able to play a show at Lissadell House [in Co Sligo]. WB Yeats meant so much to Cohen and to play a concert at a place that was so important to Yeats clearly meant a great deal to him."

For Brereton - also a Beatles fanatic, who was saddened by the death of their hugely influential producer George Martin this year - much of the outpouring of grief centres on how important songs are to people throughout their lives. "They soundtrack our lives," he says. "We can remember exactly where we were and who we were with when certain songs started to really mean something to us and when such iconic figures die, they take a bit of us with them - our youth."

Brereton also believes that each of the three came of age when music was a fundamental part of people's lives, and at eras when culture was not as fragmented as today; there weren't nearly as many ways to spend your downtime back then.

"Bowie, especially, showed that you could have chart success and keep on reinventing yourself."

Chart music today, he insists, just isn't as daring as it was when Bowie was unleashing Ziggy Stardust on the world or when Prince was introducing 'Purple Rain' to the masses a dozen years later.

Clark has been struck by the large swathe of people he meets who have been affected by the trio's death this year. "Obviously, you have those people who were young and of impressionable age when Bowie first came along - they might have seen that Top of the Pops performance in 1972, which was like nothing that had been seen on TV before - but these were great artists who connected with people of all ages. I was asking my girlfriend's 16-year-old daughter what her favourite album was this year and she said Blackstar."

Eoin Devereux, who will be among the speakers at the David Bowie Festival, which kicks off on January 5, says: "My main reaction to the deaths of Prince, Bowie and Cohen is focused on what their many fans said afterwards. Unlike many of the often trite things we read about in a social media setting following the death of somebody famous, the response to their deaths underlined for me the centrality of songs and music in people's lives, of the deep connections that many of us make with individual performers and their art."

And that connection, Devereux argues, was felt especially for Bowie, one of music history's great chameleons, who had tried on numerous guises and music styles over the course of his long career. "Apart from the sheer volume of traffic across social media - more than 4.3 million Tweets were posted about Bowie within 24 hours of his death - the days following Bowie's passing saw spontaneous gatherings of fans in places closely associated with him.

"Fans participated in communal, public gatherings - in New York, Berlin, Dublin and London, for example - to talk about David Bowie, to share their grief, to sing his songs, to dress up like him and, crucially, to express what he meant to them in their personal lives."

The demise of these three music giants helped reinforce the notion that the number of celebrity deaths was unusually high in 2016. But some have offered a more rational explanation rather than merely deducing that this year has been cursed.

The BBC's obituary editor, Nick Serpell, has suggested that the reason we're seeing so many well-known faces pass away is simply because, quite simply, there are more famous people around now than there ever has been before, and they've all reached that vulnerable age.

"People who started becoming famous in the 1960s are now entering their 70s and are starting to die," he says. "There are also more famous people than there used to be. In my father or grandfather's generation, the only famous people really were from cinema, there was no television".

Stars we said goodbye to this year

Terry Wogan

JANUARY: David Bowie, 67, musician, actor and cultural icon; Christy O'Connor Jr, 67, Ireland's leading golfer in the '70s and '80s; Glenn Frey, 67, Eagles guitarist; PJ Mara, 73, government spin-doctor in the Haughey era; Alan Rickman, 69, actor who once played 'Dev'; Terry Wogan, 77, above, Limerick broadcaster who ruled British radio and TV.

FEBRUARY: George Redmond, 92, corrupt public official, as revealed by the Mahon Tribunal; Frank Kelly, 77, veteran actor famed as Fr Jack in Father Ted.

MARCH: Paul Daniels, 77, most popular British magician of his generation; George Martin, 90, hugely influential producer, dubbed the 'Fifth Beatle'; Victoria Wood, 62, English comedian and writer; Garry Shandling, comedian and star of The Larry Sanders Show; Ronnie Corbett, 85, comedian who helped reinvent stand-up.

APRIL: Prince, 57, American funk-pop star who helped define the '80s; James Downey, 82, celebrated Irish Independent and Irish Times journalist; John Leslie, 99, Monaghan aristocrat and famed eccentric.

MAY: Christy O'Connor Sr, 91, Ireland's first celebrity golfer; Seán Ardagh, 68, former Fianna Fáil TD.

Muhammad Ali died on June 3 at 74.

JUNE: Muhammad Ali, 74, above, legendary boxer and 20th Century icon; Anton Yelchin, 27, Star Trek actor who died in freak road accident; Henry McCullough, 72, former Wings guitarist.

JULY: Caroline Aherne, 52, comedian and writer; Michael Cimino, 77, Oscar-winning director of The Deer Hunter.

Gene Wilder died on August 29 at 83.

AUGUST: Gene Wilder, 83, actor, left, most famous for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory; Edward Daly, priest and campaigner who came to prominence in the Troubles.

SEPTEMBER: Alexis Arquette, 47, transgender actress born Robert Arquette; Edward Albee, 88, American playwright; Curtis Hanson, 71, Oscar-winning director of LA Confidential.

OCTOBER: Anthony Foley, 42, Munster rugby coach and former Ireland international; Bobby Molloy, 80, ex-Fianna Fáil TD and Progressive Democrats co-founder; Jean Alexander, 90, veteran actor, celebrated for her long-running role in Coronation Street; Pete Burns, 57, 80s pop star, who had several hits with Dead or Alive.

NOVEMBER: William Trevor, 88, esteemed Irish novelist and short story writer; Fidel Castro, 90, Cuban revolutionary and dictator; Leonard Cohen, 82, much-loved Canadian songwriter and poet.

DECEMBER: Zsa Zsa Gábor, 99, actress and Hollywood socialite; John Montague, 90, one of Ireland's leading poets; Gillian Bowler, 64, Irish businesswoman; AA Gill, 62, Sunday Times journalist

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