David Bowie, Glenn Frey and the End of the Classic Rock Era
As our heroes reach their golden years, pop music is changing forever
Early this week, I interviewed J.D. Souther, who first met the Eagles' Glenn Frey in 1968 and, in addition to having his own career, co-wrote some of the band's most ubiquitous hits ("Best of My Love," "New Kid in Town") with Frey and Don Henley. Souther had just gotten off the phone with their mutual friend Linda Ronstadt, who said to Souther, "It's a different world, isn't it?" To which Souther replied, "Yes, it is."
They were speaking from personal experience, each having known Frey for more than 40 years. But that comment could apply to many who've grown up with classic rock in light of the sobering news of the last few years: One by one, it seems like we're starting to lose many of the people who made some of rock's founding music – and, even more jarring, the news has often come with a numbingly mundane twist.
As Scott Weiland's accidental overdose last month reminded us, death by misadventure is as much a part of rock & roll as the drum solo. You could easily write a book – and some have – about the musicians who've died from suicide, drowning, onstage electrocution, plane and car accidents, asphyxiation, and other freakish-or-not circumstances. But as Frey's passing – by a combination of rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis, and pneumonia – also reminds, we're also starting to lose musicians due to the natural impacts of age.
In the last three years, we've said goodbye to David Bowie, the Doors' Ray Manzarek, Joe Cocker, Jack Bruce, Tommy Erdelyi (Ramone), Lemmy Kilmister, Natalie Cole, Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan and Three Dog Night's Cory Wells. The causes have included cancer, heart disease and strokes. No doubt some of those ailments were exacerbated by whatever wild-and-crazy lifestyles these musicians may have indulged in during their past, thanks to the rigors of touring and the excesses that come along with it. But in the end, they all passed away due to the maladies that come with getting older.
The recent spate of losses is especially poignant given the late-period creative revivals of some of their peers. At one point, it was almost impossible to imagine rockers of that generation making music past retirement age. Given the rough patches many of them went through in the Eighties, as they struggled to remain relevant during the early MTV era, it was, for a while, impossible to imagine some of them still having careers.
But in the past decade or so, the rebounds have been as rewarding as the recent deaths have been depressing. Now sounding like older bluesmen (or -women), Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt (who's 66) and Keith Richards (on his latest solo album) have shown they're still capable of making must-hear records and putting on vital shows. Leonard Cohen, a staggering 81, has had a remarkable second (or third) wind. Out of the blue, Bowie's last two albums, the alive-and-proud The Next Day and the unnervingly spooky ★, were unexpectedly urgent late-period revivals. In each case, the musicians incorporated their age, wear and tear and earned wisdom into their presentation. They're taking rock & roll into places it never thought it could go.
Those creative spurts are in keeping with a 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics report that claims Americans are living longer lives than ever – average life expectancy is now 78 (81 for women, 76 for men). But add in the time that musicians of a certain generation spent slogging it out on the road and perhaps dabbling in whatever it was at whatever times, and it's beginning to feel as if one era of music – and the people who made it – is coming to an end. With these musicians approaching or well into their Seventies, we're going to be saying farewell to an increasing number of them in what promises to be a solemn next few years.
One tries to avoid all sorts of "they don't make 'em like that anymore" clichés, but they really aren't. The classic rockers grew up with Fifties rock & roll, country, blues, rockabilly and early R&B. (Some of those influences, like B.B. King and Pete Seeger, are departing too.) Contemporary pop musicians are aware of those building blocks, but they also have their own entirely different bedrock influences – as they should. Whether it's hip-hop, punk, Eighties indie rock, Mariah Carey or something else, most of pop in 2016 now comes come from a different, and equally valid, place. From albums by Kendrick Lamar, Adele and Alabama Shakes to Savages to any of Rihanna's string of killer and varied singles, the results can be extraordinary. But they don't generally come from the same place as the classic rockers did, which means we are slowly losing not just the people who made the music, but a particular approach to it.
The good news, of course, is that we'll always have the music if not the musicians. The astounding fact that back catalog sales have overtaken new releases is one testament to how enduring this music can be. (The sight of Bowie's relatively obscure 1973 gem Aladdin Sane back on the pop charts made up, in a small way, for his loss.) The recent Dead & Company tour, with John Mayer as the latest guitarist to fill in for Jerry Garcia, signaled the way this music can live on with new players. It's small compensation for what's destined to be an increasingly grave time, but that's always been the powerful allure of music – letting its joy, energy and soul overtake us and allow us to cope with any and all problems. In that way, classic rock has never felt more vital right now.
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