Phife Dawg


His mother named him Malik.  He named himself Phife Dawg.  I was remiss in not noting his passing here this week, and for that I am sorry.  I was just so stunned that this still-young man, this man who was a year younger than me, had died.

I had also forgotten how truly great A Tribe Called Quest was.  They were a genre-bending Hip-Hop group who refused to buy into the stereotypes that the music industry insisted on imposing on black artists.  But listening to this music for the first time in many, many years, it sounds like it was made today.  Like Wiz Khalifa just stepped up to the mic.  Like some wicked Jazz combo decided to have Mos Def and Talib Kweli front their band.  Like no time has passed.  A Tribe Called Quest not only made some of the best Hip-Hop out there, they made the rest of the really good stuff possible.  They were pioneers in every sense of the word, and Phife Dawg’s influence will be felt for years to come.  Timeless.



“Unbreakable Heart”


One of the sweetest, saddest songs I’ve ever heard.  It doesn’t hurt that the great Benmont Tench wrote it: heartbreak, indeed.  Everyone has felt this way at one time or another.  Have a tissue handy if you’re prone to crying.

It also doesn’t hurt this song that it’s performed by Country music royalty.  Carlene Carter is the daughter of June Carter Cash and the stepdaughter of Johnny Cash, so it’s safe to say she knows how to deliver a great performance.  When she recorded “Unbreakable Heart” in the early 90s, she was happily dating Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein, and that’s probably how she connected with the other members of the band.  This was post-Nick Lowe and pre-heroin, and arguably her best period artistically and commercially.  (She descended into addiction with Epstein, and it eventually led to both his ouster from the Heartbreakers and his death.)  I’ve kind of lost track of Carter’s career, so I don’t know exactly what she’s up to these days, but I know she still records and tours.

Maurice White


To say that this is all beginning to sound like a broken record is much too apt a comparison.  The music industry has once again been robbed of one of its visionary talents.  Earth, Wind, & Fire co-founder Maurice White has died at 74 as a result of his long fight with Parkinson’s.  It’s like the whole world has just become one long broken record.

If I feel like dancing, Earth, Wind, & Fire is always on the playlist.  They were one of the best and most successful R & B groups ever, and Maurice White was a large part of that success.  He was their leader in every sense of the word, from songwriting to performing to producing.  When his illness prevented him from performing with the group any longer, he continued to guide EWF from the sidelines, making sure that his group never strayed from his vision.  He also produced a number of other artists and had some solo performing success.

What really gets me, besides the loss of another artist I enjoyed and admired, besides the grief of another family that I understand only too well, is the fact that this won’t nearly be the end of our losses as fans and listeners.  All these great and influential artists from the 60s and 70s are getting older, and as Michael Wilbon of ESPN notes, Father Time is undefeated.  We’ll always have the music these people have made.  My beliefs tell me that no one is ever really gone; their existence is simply moved to another plane.  But that doesn’t make any of this feel any better on this plane of existence.  It still hurts.  In this case, the only way to deal with the pain is to keep on dancing.

I think Maurice would like that.


Natalie Cole


Well this is a really crappy way to start the new year.

It was announced today that Natalie Cole died last night at 65.  She’d been ill for several years, although she continued to work; she even released a Spanish language album in 2013.  While she wasn’t quite the singer either of her parents were, she was an effervescent performer and had a number of Pop hits in her own right.  She’d previously struggled with drug addiction–which was behind the illnesses she suffered later in life–but she’d come out of that darkness clean many years ago.

Many people in the last couple of decades think of her “duet” with her late father on “Unforgettable” when they think of Natalie Cole, but I prefer the woman I see in this early hit from the 70s.  “This Will Be” shows what she could do and the brightness she had in her style.

Like I said, this is a crappy way to start the new year.  Last night, I also heard about the death of Wayne Rogers from M*A*S*H, so it’s a double pop culture whammy.  They might not have had the star power they had at the peaks of their careers, but their work and lives will be remembered.

Happy Birthday, Patti!


Today is the birthday of the brilliant, inimitable, utterly wonderful Patti Smith.  After all the deaths this week, and today’s surprising pop culture news, I thought it would be nice to celebrate something happy.

Aside from her incredible talent and skill as a writer and performer, I love Patti Smith because she is herself.  She doesn’t hide or lie or pretend to be anything else.  Her refusal to be what anyone else thinks she should be, to fit into any easy stereotypes, has probably cost her fame and money.  But those are such fleeting things, and there’s so much more value in living the life you want to live.  Smith has lived her life–all the joy and pain and anger and sorrow of it.  And the art that has come out of that life has made the world a much better place.

Now it might seem odd that I chose a song from Gone Again, the mourning album she recorded after the death of her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith.  But “Farewell Reel” is one of my favorites, and I think it represents the kind of artist and person Patti Smith is beautifully.  It’s open and honest, sad and joyful, both a eulogy for what she lost and a promise to keep living.  That’s what I love about it.

Scott Weiland


Scott Weiland, the intensely troubled former lead singer of Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver, has died.  TMZ is reporting that Weiland’s death was caused by cardiac arrest, but there is no word on what caused his heart to stop.

Weiland had a long history of drug abuse, which I’m sure at least contributed to his untimely death (he was only 48).  He came to prominence in the 90s with Stone Temple Pilots as part of the grunge movement.  STP were never a favorite of mine, so I never paid him much mind.  I did hear about his arrests and rehab attempts, and felt so badly that he couldn’t kick the habits that plagued him.  I’m not an addict myself, so I don’t fully understand the labyrinth of addiction.  But I do understand the difficulty of moving out of a rut, of changing engrained habits.  I don’t know what drove Scott Weiland so relentlessly that he had to find some kind of solace in drugs.  I only hope that there’s some peace for him now.

“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”


Today is the anniversary of the day Jimi Hendrix was transported to this planet to do that voodoo he did so exceedingly well.

I won’t go on about his talent; I’ve done it before, and not half as well as anyone else.  But I do like the idea that he was an alien.  It helps give people something to hang his unexplainable singularity on.  The same applies to Albert Einstein.  Why else would his thinking and vision be so revolutionary?  You could even hang the alien label onto William Shakespeare, or Vincent Van Gogh. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson?  Aliens.  How else would they have basically created the blueprint of modern poetry so separately (and so drastically differently)?  Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt?  Yep, them too.

There’s so much about individuals like this that defies explanation.  How did such extraordinary talent and charisma and intelligence come to be?  Calling them beings not of this planet, extraterrestrials that were somehow delivered to humanity for some unknown reason, gives the more ordinary among us an excuse to continue being ordinary.  It’s okay to be an average person when you were born amongst other average persons, while these creatures drifted to us on some ethereal spacecraft.

They aren’t really aliens, of course.  While I do believe life exists on other planets, I’m not so sure about any of it ever showing up here.  Hendrix, like all the others I listed, were just extraordinarily gifted people who managed to discover and use their gifts.  Not all people are so lucky.  Some people never find what they’re best at, or they’re never given the tools to access their gifts.  Or, worse, they’re not determined or disciplined enough to do the hard work of nurturing their gifts.  So while we celebrate the music that Hendrix gave us in his short time on this planet, mourn a little for all the Jimi’s that didn’t get that chance.