Don McLean was wrong.
The music didn’t die in 1959 in the tragic plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. It didn’t die in 1970-71 with the drug deaths of rock gods Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison. Nor was it buried in 1977 with Elvis or Lynyrd Skynyrd or Bing Crosby.
The music didn’t die in 1980 when we lost John Lennon, Bonham Scott (ACDC) or John Bonham (Led Zeppelin). And it somehow lived through 1998 when Sonny Bono, Carl Perkins, Carl Wilson, Linda McCartney, Frank Sinatra and Gene Autry left this earth.
The music played on in 2003 when icons Maurice Gibb, Edwin Starr, Barry White, Warren Zevon, Johnny Cash and Robert Palmer passed away. Five years later, in 2008-09, the music survived the tragic deaths of Bo Diddley, Michael Jackson and Les Paul. Somehow the music even continued after 2012, when we lost legends like Dick Clark, Whitney Houston, Donna Summer, Robin Gibb, and Jon Lord.
But the music is dying now. Well, at least the original artists who carved a genre and created a mystique. The truth is every year from now on will possess a tragic sense of loss. When we were young we said goodbye to our musical gods who drank themselves to death, overdosed, committed suicide or died tragically in some crash. Occasionally we said goodbye to musicians who died younger than we expected, like George Michael did this past week. But the grim reality is we now have to say goodbye to the rock and roll generation more and more.
These musical icons are now salty and seasoned elders. And who knows how long they’ll remain with us.
For example, in 2016 alone, we watched some of our greatest songwriters, artists and musicians leave this life, including:
- David Bowie (January 10)
- Glenn Frey of the Eagles (January 18)
- Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane/Starship (January 28)
- Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire (February 4)
- George Martin, who produced the Beatles (March 8)
- Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (March 10)
- Merle Haggard (April 6)
- Prince (April 21)
- Leonard Cohen (November 7)
- Leon Russell (November 13)
- Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (December 7)
- George Michael (December 25)
But we’re losing more than just the rock ‘n roll generation, we’re also losing those who created the culture in which Boomers and Gen Xers, in particular, came of age.
The tumultuous 1960s launched the age of television while the 1970s anointed “superstars.” Boomers and early Xers watched men walk on the moon, Hank Aaron out-homer the Babe, and the emergence of a “pop” culture that made pet rocks, disco and streaking (naked people running around) suddenly hip. The 1960s and 1970s unleashed civil, women and gay rights. Living together was no longer a sin. Our Watergate government leaked with scandal and coverup. Spirituality was cool (from Hare Krishnas to Dianetics to Jesus People to the “Force”). Movies were bigger, better and bloodier. Star Wars. Jaws. Rocky. The Godfather. Saturday Night Fever. The Exorcist. James Bond, Monty Python and Superman sold millions of tickets.
The wide world of sports carved a national obsession. The Steel Curtain Steelers, Silver and Black Raiders and America’s team “The Cowboys” ruled the NFL The Minnesota Vikings went to four Super Bowls in the 1970s and lost them all. They’ve been losers ever since. In baseball, superstars by the name of Rose, Ryan and Reggie reigned supreme. Olympians like swimmer Mark Spitz and gymnasts Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci were golden. Meanwhile the sport of boxing was never bigger. Muhammad Ali. Joe Frazier. George Foreman. Sugar Ray Leonard. Leon Spinks. And don’t forget the most fearless of them all…Evel Knievel (who launched his motorcycles over everything imaginable and created bone-cracking crash highlights).
Maybe that’s why 2016 is growing old on those of us growing old.
For those 50 years or older, this year has been a sobering reminder that even “the greatest” cultural kings (like Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Gordie Howe and John Glenn) are not eternal. In the past twelve months we lost former first lady Nancy Reagan, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and famous surgeon Henry Heimlich. We saw several foreign leaders pass away, including: Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egyptian statesman and UN secretary), Shimon Peres (former Israeli prime minister) and Fidel Castro (a Cuban dictator and U.S. nemesis for half a century). We also lost television and movie celebrities like Alan Thicke (“Growing Pains”), Florence Henderson (“Brady Bunch”), Gene Wilder, Doris Roberts (“Everybody Loves Raymond”), Zsa Zsa Gabor, Patty Duke and Garry Marshall (the creator of “Happy Days”). We gave a galactic farewell to Princess Leia (Carrie Fischer) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker). We lost ESPN broadcaster John Saunders, CBS journalist Morley Safer and PBS anchor Gwen Ifill.
The rock ‘n roll generation is slowly passing away.
The heroes of 60s and 70s screen and film are saying goodbye.
The gods of sport are growing old, much too old.
I’m grateful to have been born in the early 1960s and experience adolescence in the “Me Decade” of the 1970s. I’m 53 years old, the same age as George Michael and Michael Jordan. Like these former superstars, my beard is now mostly gray and I also battle the midriff bulge. My eyes no longer are as sharp, my coordination as clean nor my hearing as good. Wrinkles now form more easily, my joints hurt more often and my brain seems foggier.
I get more mail from the AARP and wonder if it’s time to stock up on Geritol.
George Michael breathed his last on Christmas Day. And God only knows where Michael Jordan is.
But the good news for me is I’m still here. And I’m still standing.
Every day I’m vertical it’s a good day. There are plenty of people who would love to have one more breath, one more heartbeat, one more moment to enjoy this grand carousel we call life. I’m not afraid of growing old as much as growing old alone. And maybe that’s why the loss of Carrie Fischer, Glenn Frey and the others in 2016 have given me pause.
These people were the cultural names that framed my youth. I taped their photos to my bedroom walls. I wore out the grooves of his or her song that soothed my soul. I circled their shows in the TV Guide. Friday and Saturday nights were as sacred as Sunday morning.
So, yes, I say goodbye to these friends of my youth. Their music brought me peace. Their acting brought me joy. Their athletic ability inspired me. Their writings influenced me. Their heroism changed me.
Their passing has taught me to squeeze every drop I can out of this life because one day the last drop will come. Last drops always come. We will all have that day.
And on that day I pray I left this old world a bit better and, hopefully, with a smile, too.