Name a great female singer, any great female singer, and each and every one of them will pale in comparison to Aretha Franklin. They all have their moments of greatness, to be sure. They are all talented within their own rights, possessing style and personality that lets their individuality shine. But none were ever as consistently great as ‘Retha. The proper definition of the word awesome is inspiring awe, that feeling of vast wonderment in the universe and whatever spirit moves you. Aretha Franklin was awesome.
I’m not going to try to explain why. Yes, she had natural talent that was honed by training in gospel choirs and production studios. Yes, she had charisma and grace and the intelligence to change her style with the times. Yes, she was physically beautiful. But there was something else there, something ineffable and intangible. Something in her eyes that told you whatever she felt when she was singing was profound and deep and metaphysical. Supernatural, if you will. It’s the same thing that makes Eric Clapton such an unbelievable guitar player, despite being less technically skilled than many others. There is something that she touches with her voice that almost no other singer of any gender will ever be able to get close to touching.
Many tributes to Aretha will choose “Respect” or “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” or even “Natural Woman.” I’ll just leave with this, possibly my favorite of hers. It was just as much about respect for yourself and your fellow human beings as “Respect,” but with a focus not just on the relationship between men and women, but that between blacks and whites. I only wish it weren’t still relevant. After all, Aretha isn’t here to knock some sense into our sorry asses anymore.
I need to start this with the statement that I do not believe anyone younger than I am should be dead. I do not say this to deny the reality that every single day, a multitude of people who have spent less time on this planet than I have–many of them considerably less–die. Dolores O’Riordan, lead singer of the Cranberries, was just 46 when she left this plane on January 15th; I’ll be 49 this coming Saturday. My belief that people younger than me should not be dead is rooted not only in my own fears about mortality, but also my general belief in fairness. And it is simply not fair that people die young.
Once again, my desire for fairness is not rooted in some sort of denial about the reality of the world. There is no philosophy or religion that guarantees fairness in the universe; if there were, I would’ve signed up for it by now. But the arbitrariness of it all makes me feel, well, kind of helpless. Sure, O’Riordan had some health challenges in the last few years, but she was doing okay at the moment and her death was a shock. It must always be a shock to find a seemingly vital and happy person dead on the floor of their hotel bathroom. Add to this the news that Tom Petty’s death was due to an accidental Fentanyl overdose and a young person’s death in the family of someone I know. (My mom has Fentanyl patches for pain relief; obviously I’ll be monitoring her use of them very carefully from now on.) It’s just kind of disheartening.
Which makes the Cranberries’ “Zombie” the perfect song for this mini-memorial. It’s a great tune, but it also expresses the shadows that violence and anger and death cast over everyone in their orbits. It’s about The Troubles in Ireland, about the way politics and religion can be twisted into oppression, about the way we all turn anger into prejudice and prejudice into violence. It’s about how those with power use that power against everyone without it, everyone who is different in some way that they don’t like. In terms of the current presidential administration, it’s a nice little reminder. In terms of a history lesson, it’s a little vague but can be used as a starting off point. In terms of music and mood, it is a black hole. It sucks all the light and the hope out of the room. It is not a denial of reality but an acceptance of it. Sometimes, you just have to sit with the grief and anger, let it flow over you and simply feel it.
Then you get up and get on with life. No, it is not fair and people will always leave this plane too soon. But flowers will still bloom and there will still be joy. You just learn to carry them with you.
No one should be allowed to die this time of year. It’s just too sad. Of course, lots of people do die during the holiday season. Joe Cocker did. John Lennon was robbed of his life in December. My grandmother passed early in December some 20-odd years ago, and it will still go down as the most somber Christmas ever, even more so than last year’s muted celebration after Mom’s cancer diagnosis (but she’s doing okay right now). And let’s not forget all those people who’ve lost everything they had in the SoCal fires this month, with at least one death being directly related to the blazes. But I really hate just adding to the list of sadness this time of year. I want people to celebrate and be happy. To find joy in everything.
So my heart goes out to the friends and family of Smithereens lead singer Pat DiNizio, who passed yesterday at just 62. It’s gonna be a difficult holiday for them (whatever holiday they celebrate. . . I make no presumptions). I hope they can still take joy in knowing that he made a lot of people very happy with his special brand of Rock & Roll.
I like the Smithereens. They were one of the band’s I discovered watching MTV. Or maybe listening to the radio. It’s been long enough that I’m not sure either way. But either way, they were good. Solid. I’m not a big enough fan to need more than their greatest hits, but those songs make me pretty darn happy whenever I hear them. “Behind the Wall of Sleep” has long been my favorite of theirs, an ode to a beautiful bass-playing girl. The sound is chunky and fuzzy and utterly irresistable. As a teenager, this kind of music was all I needed to brighten my mood. Still is. Thanks, Pat.
I really don’t have a lot to say about David Cassidy, except that he made a lot of people really happy. That seems like a pretty awesome thing to leave behind in this world.
This clip, however, reinforces some rather nasty sexist notions. So ignore the scene in front of the song and just enjoy the bubblegum goodness.
You always saw Angus. With his schoolboy uniform and flashy solos, it was kind of impossible to miss him. Or you saw the singer–first Bon, then Brian–all raspy voices, tight jeans, and leering smiles. It didn’t matter which one it was; they were eerily interchangeable. If you were a certain type of fan, you’d watch the drummer at the back. But you almost never saw Malcolm on stage. He was always there, usually just to the singer’s left, bobbing away to the beat and strumming his guitar. Your attention would always be on the flashy exterior, never really realizing that the heart of AC/DC was pounding away unnoticed.
Malcolm Young might not have been responsible for the image AC/DC projected to its fans, but he was largely responsible for their sound. He co-wrote most of the songs you sing along with as they blare from your radio. When it was announced in 2014 that he was permanently retiring from the band because of dementia, family and fans knew it was just a matter of time. That time came a couple days ago when Malcolm left this plane at just 64. He left behind some truly kick ass music. It won’t change the fact that he was too young to go, but at least it gives everyone something to hold on to.
Antoine “Fats” Domino has left this world at the age of 89. We were lucky we had him so long. We almost lost him in New Orleans in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but he survived and kept making music. We got twelve more years of that wonderful voice and unbelievable smile. (I need to add him to that mental list I have of musicians who love their work so much they can’t contain themselves.) Domino was always smiling at the piano, and even when he wasn’t, you could still see the echo of that smile in his eyes. He was irrepressible.
Domino was also one of the original architects of Rock & Roll. Without his trademark piano style, drawn from the jazz and blues that filled the air in his native New Orleans, the music I and so many others love so much would not have sounded the same. The old guard is dwindling now–just a few of the originals are still out there. But the music is still as vital and alive as it was decades ago.
If you’ve got some time to kill and want to be truly entertained, watch the episode of American Masters devoted to Domino. You will not be sorry to have spent an hour in the presence of this lovely, talented human.
When I was thirteen, I walked up to the counter at Big Ben’s music store and asked “Who is this?” The bored clerk pointed to the red and black album displayed on the counter and said “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.” I was stone cold in love from that moment on.
No, he wasn’t especially good-looking. But there was a gleam in his eye and a sly grin on his face that told you all you needed to know. He was funny and sexy and he never took anything, especially himself, all that seriously. Except the music. He always took the music seriously.
I remember an interview with Petty back in the 90s. He told his parents he was leaving school to become a musician. His father said he might want to get an education anyway, just in case he needed something to fall back on. But Petty replied, “I won’t fall back.” There were a lot of rough times at the beginning, but he was right. Tom Petty never fell back, he never backed down, and we have all his wonderful music because of it.
The song that was playing in the store when I was thirteen was “You Got Lucky.” I was lucky my parents wanted to rent a movie that night so I could hear that song on the store’s PA system. It’s still my favorite.