Uncut magazine has called it “a year with a hex on it, a year gone rogue”.
As 2016 draws to a close there is no escaping the portents of mortality, especially for those of us who grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s:
Fidel of course, although he may not have graced as many bedroom walls in those days as his compañero Che; the irreplaceable Muhammad Ali;
Carlos Alberto, captain of Brasil 1970, the greatest ever football team, and Johann Cruijff, one of the four or five greatest players ever;
The music world has been the big loser: BB King, Ben E. King, Ornette Coleman, Allen Toussaint, Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Mose Allison, Merle Haggard, and far too many others. Not all of them were really old either: Prince, Glen Frey (of The Eagles), Chris Squires (of Yes) for example. Closer to home the artist called Black, AKA Colin Vearncombe, died from injuries he had suffered in a car crash near Cork Airport.
Back in the mid ‘60s, The Who famously sang
“Hope I die before I get old”.
50 years on they still play that song, with two of the original line-up.
In those days they also regularly covered Mose Allison’s ‘Young Man Blues’:
“well the young man ain’t got nothing in the world these days
You know in the old days, the young man had all the money”.
Times have changed, that’s for sure. Sad and all as these deaths are, the longevity of those music icons who died in 2016 – and those still making music – makes one wonder whatever happened to the notion that rock’n’roll is a young man’s game. Most of those who died this year lived a half century longer than say Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and yet their loss is being deeply felt.
Leonard Cohen’s You want it darker came out to rave reviews in the autumn. For example
‘this exquisite 14th album from the Montreal poet’ (The Observer)
‘like a magician Cohen makes images reappear in different songs and guises’ (Sylvie Simmons in Mojo)
‘this wonderful new album . . . wise and honest and full of life’ (Alexis Petradis in The Guardian).
When he sang ‘I’m leaving the table / I’m outta the game’ most critics either misread what he was saying or preferred not to grasp it.
Mind you, reading between the lines there was an element of ‘imagine he’s still alive and still bringing out records, at 82!!!’
‘eighty-two years old and still at the top of his game while mining the depths’ (Mojo again).
Not for the first time he knew more than the music critics. We now know that his album was a farewell; it was a struggle for him to record the songs as he was dying of cancer.
Some of the old masters are thankfully still around.
Van Morrison, still hale and hearty at 71, has received a lot less press for his Keep me singing, released at the same time, although this is a fine piece of music-making. It features some gorgeous melodies ― ‘Memory lane’, ‘Every time I see a river’, and ‘In Tiburon’ ― and a blues ― ‘Going down to Bangor’ ― that links County Down with the south side of Chicago. There is great singing by Van, and beautiful playing by Fiachra Trench on keys and Paul Moran on Hammond, and Van himself on blues harp on a couple of numbers.
And of course, to cap it all, Bob Dylan (75 last May) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan is the first artist since George Bernard Shaw to win both an Oscar and the Nobel Prize. If anyone from the popular music world was to win a Nobel it was going to be either him or Cohen. While he is still touring and his latest album of new songs (Tempest) was issued only in 2012 ― the 5th set of new songs since 1997 ― the citation for the Nobel stressed his work from the 60s and 70s.
Plenty critics were unimpressed that he was given that award, hardly surprisingly. Maybe we should give the last word to Leonard Cohen on this. Giving Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize, he said, was like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.
Chuck Berry is 90, Little Richard 84, Jerry Lee Lewis 81; let’s hope 2017 will be kinder . . .