Somewhere a Band is Playing; Life, Music, Death, and Immortality
Somewhere a Band is Playing; Life, Music, Death, and Immortality
by Damon Smith
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life
Electric word ‘life’
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
But I’m here to tell you, there’s something else
-Prince, Let’s Go Crazy
Forever young, as Bob Dylan would say.
It’s an odd thing watching old wrestling matches with those in the know. Just the realization of the sheer amount of dead wandering the squared circle, who by all accounts should be alive today. Andre the Giant, dead. Kurt Henning, overdose. Owen Hart, fatal accident. Bruiser Brody, murdered.
Music is very much the same way. Yes, the silver screen has been around a very long time too; it has had so many faces come and go. But music, like wrestling, seems so much more insular, its biggest Icons so much brighter and larger then life. When they burn out, fade away, we feel that darkness they leave behind.
2016 has been a rough year, to say the least. We’ve lost Lemmy and Bowie, now we’ve lost Prince, both so much sooner then expected. Same with Michael Jackson a few years back or the scars left on Generation X and Y by the suicide of Kurt Cobain, or even farther back with the assassination of John Lennon. A movie franchise can arguably go on without its lead, but an artist’s vision can never be replaced.
Of course, we still have their voices. We still have their faces. Songs etched into LPs, interviews and concerts lining archives, the idea of grappling with death is not a new one, but the presence of mediums on which to record a life makes death in the modern day a very unique beast. A 21st century ghost, their voices haunting us long after their bones are interred.
There have been rumors, unsubstantiated of course, of such ghosts existing prior to the invention of modern recording. Music has existed much longer than vinyl and the deaths of authors such as Oscar Wilde are still repeated to this day. However, music is a much more intimate medium. We can read an author’s work long after they’re dead, but to hear Hendrix’ voice nearly 60 years after his death? A hundred years ago, people wouldn’t have even fathomed such an idea. Who needs an séance when you have the radio to pump the voices of the dead right through your car’s speakers?
“All life is a mystery,
All things come to he who waits
All things just a twist of fate
It’s just a state of mind
All your time is not your own
It’s real hard to find out why
It’s real hard to say good-bye
To move on down the line…”
-Motörhead, One More Fucking Time
I’ve been grappling with the concept of death a lot over the course of these past two semesters. The sudden passing of my dog hammering home the point that nothing lasts forever far more than any starlet ever could.
One day we’ll all draw the last card, that ace of spades that signals our passing. But it is only with the death of a musician, of an Icon, that we see the impact that music brings.
One day Gene Simmons will die and leave my father heartbroken.
One day Bruce Springsteen will die and leave my friend heartbroken.
One day Bruce Dickinson will die and I will be heartbroken. Not in the same sense as I would be after losing a close family member of course, but in a unique, wholly indescribable way. Here was a creative voice that touched generations. Here was a singer who could never be replicated. Here lies a man that will never be again.
“Until one day he smiled
It seemed as though with pride
The wind kissed him
Goodbye- and then he died”
-Judas Priest, Beyond the Realms of Death
The thing with being an Icon, note the capital “I”, is that it takes a long time. The old generation isn’t getting any younger, and the finger marks it has left in the clay of the young is obvious. When I was in high school I had this weird kick of trying to find the “next generation” of bands. The new Judas Priest, the new AC/DC, a silly idea to be sure, but I was full of silly ideas back then. Now the idea of a “new” version of a band is odd, I understand more and more that inspiration does not mean full on copying of an artist. I as a writer was very much molded by Bradbury in my freshman year of high school, but it wasn’t until I was broken in that same indescribable way by his death in my senior year that I realized the line between inspiration and imitation.
“Go slowly now, sands of time
Still have some verses to pour”
-Tuomas Holopainen, Go Slowly Now, Sands of Time
One last anecdote. My all time favorite Twilight Zone episode is “Changing of the Guard,” a particularly poignant piece that relies not so much on the usual oddities that the series is known for, but on human emotion. As the title implies, it is the changing of the guard, as a long-standing professor is ending his tenure. The ending, in which he realizes how much impact his life has had on his students throughout the years, brings me to tears even now. It’s an ending that has become even more poignant now that a teacher that I very much saw in that character, is retiring from my old high school after many long years of seeing students come, grow, and go.
Many of you reading are no doubt attending college or know someone who is. Chances are there has to be someone who has inspired you whose time has since come. However, without sounding too clichéd, this is very much our time. Our time to seize the day. Our time to become the Icons of tomorrow.
There is a quote I want to add here that comes straight from my old teacher’s high school mythology class. In the words of the late great Joseph Campbell:
“We have not even to risk the adventure alone
for the heroes of all time have gone before us.
The labyrinth is thoroughly known …
we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.
And where we had thought to find an abomination
we shall find a God.
And where we had thought to slay another
we shall slay ourselves.
Where we had thought to travel outwards
we shall come to the center of our own existence.
And where we had thought to be alone
we shall be with all the world.”
Yes, the ghosts of Bowie and Prince and Lemmy are forever haunting us. Trapped in airwaves and whispering from record grooves like the halls of dusty crypts. Their sudden loss hurts us as fans of their work, for both what they meant to us and for what they had yet to do. New material from them will still come forth no doubt unreleased B-sides and demo tapes, but it will be the new in the sense that a previously unknown fossil is new. Melodies from the past, entwining with our present, leading us to our future. It says more to the nature of music than the nature of death that these passings have left such an impact on us.
Death where is thy victory? Death where is thy sting? These passed Icons, their music bound us together and defined generations. By their passing and by seeing how many lives the touched, it proves that, paradoxically enough, their music made them as human to us as a friend or a lover, but it also made them something wholly human in a more metaphorical sense. It made them universal. By their death showing how many people a single life had touched, these deaths proved that music has made these men and women, in essence, immortal.
The day-trippers fade to night, Ziggy Stardust returns to Mars, Bonham rambles on, Mercury leaves to take his throne as a prince of the universe, doves shed their tears, and we continue to live our lives upon the shoulders of giants. We live haunted by the ghosts of those who touched us, until one day we too return to dust to join them. But the great battles need not be over and the great miracles can still be performed.
The Icons, the gods of old, are dying, long live the Icons. Now it is our turn to take their place. Take what we learned from them and join them in immortality. There up amongst the strawberry fields and the purple haze and the purple rain, the artists who have left their mark will never see the stage lights fade.
They are dead, but not gone, nor will they ever be, not as long as the music still plays.
“Move on, be brave
Don’t weep at my grave
Because I am no longer here
But please never let
Your memory of me disappear”
-Dream Theater, The Spirit Carries On