2016 did not start off well. Heavy metal icon Lemmy Kilmister and soul singer Natalie Cole died within days of the new year beginning.
And then, on January 10, we got the most explosive news: David Bowie had died. It was one of those “soundtrack of my youth” moments, but the cliche held this time.
Obviously, everyone of a certain age grew up on “Space Oddity,” the trippy tale of doomed astronaut Major Tom that was Bowie’s breakthrough hit. But there was also “We Could Be Heroes,” “Ziggy Stardust,” and “Rebel, Rebel.” When I ran cross country, there was an old 8-track player that had been in the locker for almost a decade. Someone had left a copy of Young Americans which we played the hell out of. So my first running phase had been to the strains of the title track and John Lennon singing backup on “Fame.” But Bowie was “old junk” then, before the term “classic rock” came into vogue. Yet we loved it. He was the forerunner of the New Wave bands big at the time, but Bowie did it so much better.
What always struck me about David Bowie was his vocal range. Often, especially on his earlier work, it often sounded like there were two or three vocalists doing different sections of the song. This is especially true on “Space Oddity” and “Ziggy Stardust,” where Bowie not only told stories, but played all the parts.
Moreover, there was a different David Bowie every few years. From his gender-bending breakthrough in the late 60s to the even more androgynous Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke, Bowie was the master of reinvention. Not content with the music stage, he carried this into movies. Originally playing on his Ziggy Stardust persona, he starred as an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth and later menaced a young Jennifer Connelly as the Pumpkin King in Labrynth. Rather than overstaying his welcome, Bowie insured his longevity by becoming a master of reinvention.
As if the loss of Bowie weren’t enough, within two weeks, we lost actor Alan Rickman followed far too closely by the Eagles’ Glenn Frey.
If Bowie was over-the-top and threatrical, Frey was real-world and literary. Like the Beatles before them, the Eagles were seasoned musicians by the time they broke big, five (eventually seven in all) highly talented egos with tempers to match. If the Beatles comparison sounds a bit too apt, keep in mind Joe Walsh is Ringo Starr’s brother-in-law. But whereas Walsh and bass player Randy Meisner were skilled with the tunes, Frey and partner Don Henley were, like Bowie, storytellers. Much of the Eagles success hung on Frey’s ability to turn a phrase and spin a metaphor. “Lyin’ Eyes,” for instance, is a poetic short story about a gold digger who realizes she’s in over her head. “Take It Easy,” probably the first thing most of us knew about the Eagles, told the tale of a drifter running from the women in his life. Even solo, Frey could tell a story. “Smuggler’s Blues” would be spun into an episode of Miami Vice with Frey himself playing the narrator of the song.
Frey often said “Hotel California,” the haunting horror tale set to Joe Walsh’s guitar, destroyed the Eagles. That may or may not be true. Certainly, their tempers and excesses played a part. (Only Walsh, who has always been a bit of a silly guy, channeled his self-abuse into a wicked sense of humor that kept him relevant almost into the 90s.) But Frey’s assertion speaks to how well they played and wrote. They became victims of their own success, with “Hotel California” taking its place alongside such songs as “Stairway to Heaven,” groundbreaking and iconic to the point where they became overplayed. And maybe that was an injustice to Frey and his partners.
Losing Bowie and Frey within the span of two weeks was a major blow. Keith Richards wrote in his autobiography about the sense of loss he felt when the icons of the 1950s, men like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and so on began dying off. It seems now we’re starting to lose those from Richards’s generation and later.
The growing silence is hard to take.