This year began with the impossible-to-accept and still sometimes breathtakingly sad news that David Bowie had passed at age 69. I can only refer to him as “David Bowie” because no single word or descriptor (artist, musician, entertainer…) can encompass what and who he was or the legacy and influence he left in his wake.
Throughout the year, we’ve been hit with big – and horribly early – celebrity deaths. “Early” in the sense that people are passing away at younger ages, before their time. Of course there are the notable deaths of older people, such as the actress Doris Roberts, who just passed away at 90, or Abe Vigoda, long the subject of internet death rumors, at 94. But in the first four months of 2016, we’ve seen death come for much younger people. Some are shocking, like actor Alan Rickman (who was 69) or The Eagles’ Glenn Frey (67), but others are devastating in a rare and almost profound way. I don’t think any celebrity death can surpass the transcendent and lasting loss of Bowie, but if there’s a rival passing, it’s that of Prince, who is dead at 57. (Strange that Prince’s one-time protege, Vanity, also died this year, also at age 57.)
To describe what these artists meant would be a fool’s errand. They meant so many different things to so many different people. It’s enough to write that luminaries like Bowie and Prince were beyond description – and formed the backdrop of and soundtrack for the lives of millions. Most people have some – or many – connection(s) to the music, bound tightly to their individual memories. My entire childhood is peppered with aural and visual memories of both Bowie and Prince. The visuals of Ziggy-era Bowie or the entirely different aesthetic of “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” that flashed onscreen in late-night music video shows; exuberant pairings of Prince’s “1999” and “Let’s Go Crazy” and the altogether different seductive power of “When Doves Cry” (which pretty much always has been and always will be my go-to Prince anthem).
It’s not that Bowie or Prince, either one, had been the bedrock of my musical life or tastes. But they had been there, as foundations and influences for everything else, pulling the past (their influences) into the present, and dispersing their own influence across the depth and breadth of the musical spectrum. Losing them is losing forces to be reckoned with in the way that losing most artists just isn’t.