Lou Reed was one of those stranger-artists whose life, health, and death interested and affected me greatly. As I spent several years listening to pretty much nothing else but the Velvet Underground and, even more, Reed’s solo work (a duration of which a friend said to me, “God, that must’ve been depressing”), I’ve felt closer to Reed than perhaps any other artist, musical or otherwise. He just seemed to speak a language I wanted hear, simply and effectively.
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There are probably countless ways to talk about what makes a particular artist compelling, and all of them are true. There are not that many ways to articulate how or why an artist is unique. By virtue of being original, there are few points of comparison and the inability to find a reference point is the whole idea.
American music has blessed us with a great many artists who are both unique and compelling, but it seems safe and not at all reactionary to note they are increasingly difficult to come by. And now, in increasing numbers, they are starting to die. There is nothing we can do about this. It still is at once refreshing and instructive (and, inevitably, depressing) to consider Levon Helm.
Levon Helm passed away April 19, at the age of 71. The outpouring of grief following his passing was massive, and deserved—Helm’s music touched many lives through his long career. But in a way, it felt incongruous with his life: Helm’s life in music was a purer thing—it never felt like he was chasing celebrity or fame, it was just something that needed doing.
The best parts of Helm’s biography read like the stuff of legend: he famously quit touring with his Band bandmates on Bob Dylan’s electric jaunt in 1966 to go work on an oil rig, the kind of move that’s practically a Bruce Springsteen album in and of itself. But the beautiful thing about Helm’s life is that he carried it out without conceit, without a sense of self. Unlike Robbie Robertson, who likely would have actually written an album about quitting a touring group to work on an oil rig, Helm just did it, and then went back to playing music.
Two questions: 1. Is that the most bad-ass picture ever taken of a pop icon? 2. Is there a more bad-ass pop icon who’s ever walked the planet?
(Those questions are rhetorical in case you didn’t already know.)
Sex, drugs and rock and roll? The late Johnny Cash (who would’ve turned 80 on February 26th) was a combination of Keith Richards, Elvis Presley, and Public Enemy, only he did it first and no one before, or since, ever did it quite like him.
Quite literally too big (or complicated, or cool) to be contained by labels, he dabbled in rock and roll, rockabilly, blues, gospel, and folk. And while he can—and should—be considered an obvious lock for the Mt. Rushmore of Country Music, Cash was an American who wrote and sang about the country that made him. Even though at various times Kris Kristofferson attributed multiple sources of inspiration for his song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33”, it is hardly a stretch to imagine who he had in mind for these lyrics (“He’s a poet, he’s a picker / He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher / He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned / He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction / Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home”). Is there a better description out there for the icon who came to be known as The Man in Black?
Sadly, only the most optimistic or naive observers did not see this coming. Indeed, it is fair, if harsh, to wonder how it took so long. I make it a habit to avoid any and all “reality TV” shows, but it did not demand sustained viewing of Houston and then-husband Bobby Brown’s public spectacle to see that all was far from well in her world.
On the other hand, who felt comfortable making a prediction? For every Amy Winehouse there is a Keith Richards. For every Jimi Hendrix there is an Eddie Van Halen. Some of our rock stars have the combination of good genes, dumb luck, and, perhaps, destiny keeping them from snuffing themselves out.
It’s a shame: so much talent, so much unrealized potential. Same old song and dance, really. Except for two things.
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