Rockers are mortal, after all

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It wasn’t always this way for me, but within the past couple of years the deaths of people I don’t know have taken on a whole new dimension. Whether I knew the person or not–and particularly if they were somebody famous for one reason or another– the first thing I want to know is how old the person was when they passed on.

Age is only a number, in death as in life, but it can serve as a measuring stick against our own mortality.  The wide majority of deaths in the news are still thankfully older than my age, as was the case with Glenn Frey’s passing today at 67. I’m still literally decades away from that number, so I can’t feel too bad for somebody who lived that long. And, to put a different spin on it, living one day as Glenn Frey must have been better than anything I could imagine, so spending a few decades in his shoes must have been out of this world.

But Frey’s death comes on the heels of David Bowie’s passing just a few days after his 69th birthday. Having been inspired by an article written by Neil McCormick about the inevitable passing of rock’s gods in the days and years to come, I looked at three groups of rock musicians:

  • Those who were born in the 1940s and were older than Bowie was when he passed away,
  • Those who were younger than Bowie but older than Frey when he passed away, and
  • Those who were younger than Frey but were still born in the 1940s, and are thus at least 65 years of age.

The findings were quite interesting. I’ve never inserted an excel spreadsheet into a post before, and I hope it works out. I’m going to insert the link to my findings after every paragraph, to make it easy for anyone who wants to see the full listing of musicians and their birthdays. The source of all birthdays is The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock, Third Edition, published in 2005. The list is not intended to be exhaustive, and in the event that I left out someone who belongs on the list, well, that’s what google is for. Birthdays before 1940 and after 1949 were not considered for this piece, so Tina Turner (born in 1939) and Peter Gabriel (born in 1950) are excluded.

First, the group that was older than Bowie has to be hearing the footsteps of Father Time, if they weren’t already. Living the life of a rock star probably has some multiplying effect that is impossible to quantify, but I can’t imagine that a year in the life of music legend is anywhere near the equivalent of 12 months for anyone else. It might seem to have a shortening effect on a someone’s life span, but Keith Richards is still going strong, so who knows what the story really is? And Mick Jagger’s onstage dancing have probably added years onto his life in exercise value, alone.

Rock Birthdays

But everyone who was 69 years or older when David Bowie passed away last week had to wonder how much longer they have left. For instance, Jimmy Buffet just turned 69 last Christmas, making him a couple of weeks older than David Bowie. The same can be said for Robby Krieger of the Doors, Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, all of whom reached age 69 in December of last year. David Bowie’s death has no direct bearing on any of their mortality, but I’m certain that each of these soon-to-be septuagenarians sat up and took notice, anyway.

Rock Birthdays

Others in the rock world who have reached 70 already include Bob Dylan (who will turn 75 in May), Paul McCartney (who will be 64 plus another ten years in June), Jagger and Richards (who are both 72), and Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, Pete Townshend, and John Fogerty. The rock pantheon is aging at the same pace as the rest of us, but their numbers will inevitably thin out over the coming few years.

Rock Birthdays

But those who are approaching age 69 later this year must have been thinking of their own mortality when Bowie’s death was announced. And now, the realization that Glenn Frey was even younger than they were must feel like a 1-2 punch. Many of them knew Bowie and/or Frey already, but they’ve now entered into what I call the Bowie-Frey Zone, which as of ten days ago didn’t even exist. They’re approaching their 69th birthdays–which is all the time that David Bowie got on this earth–with the realization that they’ve already outlived Glenn Frey by as much as a year and ten months.

Rock Birthdays

The names on the list of these rock stars is quite impressive:  Elton John, Queen’s Brian May, no less than three members of the Eagles (Don Henley, Don Felder, and Joe Walsh), Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, Brian Johnson of AC/DC, Sammy Hagar, Meatloaf, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Robert Plant, and Jackson Browne. If David Bowie’s death didn’t rattle them–from a sheer numerical standpoint–it’s likely that Glenn Frey’s did.

Rock Birthdays

And the final group of musicians I looked at can take some comfort from the fact that Glenn Frey was older than them: Ozzy Osbourne, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Gene Simmons, Paul Rodgers, and both Hall and Oates. A majority of ZZ Top is on this list, as well.

Rock Birthdays

So what does all this mean? I’m not sure, exactly, but I can give one short story that seems a bit relevant here. Last summer, I was having some work done on my teeth, and as I was laying there with my mouth wide open, and nothing else to do, my mind started wandering to death and rock stars. I began with the Rolling Stones, and the death of Bobby Keys at the age of 70. He wasn’t officially in the band, but he played on some of their most well-known songs, and that’s a pretty significant thing.

I then started to mentally go through different bands, as bits of my tooth were flying through the air, thinking of who had passed on from each of them. I came to the realization that most bands have experienced death in one way or another, and that rock and roll does appear to extract a toll from those who live the life, whether onstage or out in the audience.

Neil Young once sang that it’s better to burn out than fade away, and after seeing him tear up the stage at Farm Aid 30 last summer, I can confidently state that he’s not fading away anytime soon. So maybe age is just a number, in some sense. It’s true that rock and roll can never die, but its principal practitioners aren’t getting any younger, either. I’m afraid that none of us are.

 

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All we can do is enjoy it

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It embarrasses me to admit this, but the first time I ever flew in an airplane happened when I was 21 years old. I was a senior in college, and my girlfriend wanted me to come visit her in New Mexico over the holidays.

The first time I flew was out of the Capital airport in Springfield, Illinois. As the plane took off and climbed into the sky, I was struck by all of the cornfields that ringed the airport. My decision to leave Springfield and begin my life somewhere else–anywhere else, really–had already been made by then, but the cornfield with an airport in the middle of it served to confirm the choice. I doubt that I’ll ever fly into or out of that airport again.

When that plane landed at O’Hare in Chicago, I made my connecting flight and buckled in at my window seat. As the plane took off, I focused my attention on the engine that was attached to the wing. For a split second, I wondered what I would do if the engine somehow fell off of the wing. The plane continued its ascent, as I looked around for an exit that would allow me to break free if I needed to. But the feeling didn’t last more than a few seconds.

My fatalistic streak immediately took over, and reminded my worried inner self that if that happened, there wouldn’t be a thing I could do about it. It would be my time to die–or maybe to live if I got real lucky–but it was out of my hands, entirely. I sat back, ashamed that I had allowed myself to worry about something so outlandish, and enjoyed the rest of the flight. I’ve flown many, many times since then, and never once have I worried about a plane crash.

I say all this because everybody on this earth has an end date, a final act, a last go-round. I have one, you have one, and the next person that you will speak to does, too. We’re all mortal, and the end can come forty years from now, or it can come before the sun rises tomorrow morning. The sudden death of Richard Durrett, a sportswriter in Dallas, makes this point better than I ever could. Durrett’s death yesterday of a brain aneurysm–his cause of death is missing from many of the announcements I’ve read–is shocking because it happened when he was just 38 years old.

A guy in his late 30s expects to live a few more decades, at least. If anything, the dreaded 40 is looming off in the distance, and makes its presence known with a great big thud on the 39th birthday. Nobody looks forward to turning 40 because everyone–on either side of that age–gets to razz you about the fact that you’re getting old.

Jimmy Buffett’s song “A Pirate looks at Forty” is well-named because, even though the number 40 does not appear in the song’s lyrics, it’s a number just big enough to get us thinking about where we’ve been in life, and to wonder about what the future still holds. Richard Durrett was denied even this little bit of introspection, because 40 is not promised to any of us. Many of us live to see it, but that doesn’t mean everyone will.

It seems, from all of the tweets I’ve been reading, that Richard Durrett was a great guy. I’m sure that his passing leaves family, friends, colleagues, and people who never knew of him before wondering what the hell happened. And there really isn’t a good explanation to be offered, other than that life is a fleeting and unknowable gift. We take the good, and we ride out the bad, for as long as we’re able to do so. And then–in a time and place that we never get to know about in advance–it’s all over. Just like that. It’s harsh and terrible, but it’s the one real certainty that life offers.

I think about the Father’s day that just happened over the past weekend. I’m quite certain that Richard Durrett and his family had no expectation that it would be his last one. But that engine can fall off the airplane at any time, and when it does (because there is no if about it) it’s best if we remembered to enjoy as much as we could along the way.

And the lady she hails from Trinidad

tortugas

Flying back home from a week in the Florida Keys was not something that I wanted to do, but the bills that will come in the mail someday must be paid. And while my two children could spend all their days on Duval Street, their teachers here in Chicago might eventually hold it against them.

On the first flight of the day, from Miami to Nashville, I had the pleasure of sitting next to an elegant lady from Trinidad. She was meeting up with a family member in the airport in Nashville, for a drive back to Alabama. I found her Caribbean accent to be fascinating, as well as her stories of traveling throughout the region with her recently-deceased husband.

I learned that she had been married for more than fifty years, and I complimented her on such a long partnership with another person. I’ve been married a little bit more than 20 years myself, and I realize that I’m far head of most marriages, statistically. But meeting someone who had fifty-plus years–and took that “until death” part to its intended conclusion–was very humbling for me.

I told my new traveling friend that I had first heard of Trinidad when one of the Miss Universe winners came from there many years ago. She informed me that there have been others from her native land that have also done well in this competition, and I understood that this speaks very well of the nation and its people.

We talked of the recent spate of bad news for travelers on the Malaysian plane, and the South Korean ferry, and even the unexpected deaths of climbers on Mount Everest. We discussed how traveling is usually very safe, but there will always be risks involved with traveling from one place to another. It may not have been an uplifting topic to discuss at 30,000 feet, but still I enjoyed our conversation a great deal.

Near the end of our flight, I pointed out that I had heard of Trinidad–without Tobago–in a Jimmy Buffett song called “Son of a Son of a Sailor.” I had listened to heavy doses of his music as I was in the Florida Keys, between the Margaritaville channel on the rental car’s satellite radio and the CDs that I had brought along on the trip. The Florida keys were clearly an inspiration to him through the years, and his music had formed a perfect backdrop for my trip. I reminded myself that I was actually speaking with a lady who hailed from Trinidad, and it seemed like a perfect way to end my trip.

The lady who hailed from Trinidad–and I already regret not learning her name, even though I would not use it here if I knew it–informed me that her island was not, as Jimmy Buffett had claimed in his song, the “island of the spices.” She told me that Grenada, a neighboring island, is actually known at the Spice island. I chuckled at the creative license that had been taken with the song, and knew right away it was too good of a story to keep inside of my head forever. I write a blog, after all, in the hope that my stories and thoughts can manifest themselves in a format that will survive longer than I do.

We said our goodbyes as the plane landed, and the lady who hailed from Trinidad told me that I should come and see her country one day. She said I would love it there, for all of its beauty and warmth and history. And I’m sure that I would, too. I wished her the best in her travels throughout my home country, and I hope that she experiences nothing but good things during her time here.

NOTE: If I’m going to mention creative license here, I had better be prepared to acknowledge taking some myself. The picture above was not taken in Trinidad (as I’ve never been there), nor does it depict any place in the Caribbean. I took it on the island of Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico, which is more than 1,500 miles from Trinidad. But if Jimmy Buffett can take some creative license, I suppose that I can, too. And it’s a pretty picture, so why not?

I wish I had a pencil-thin mustache

keys

Actually I don’t, but I’ve always thought of this song as a distillation of the ethos that fuels much of this blog. It’s about nostalgia for the past, in a world that no longer remembers–or cares much about–the subjects in the remembrances. Just the way that it used to be.

I’m heading down to the Florida keys in the coming days, and either the atmosphere will make me want to put things on this blog all the time–as has happened on some trips I’ve taken–or it will make putting any thoughts together the furthest thing from my mind, which sometimes happens too. But I’ll be sure to enjoy it with some of the Jimmy Buffett music that the place has inspired through the years.

Peace.

Everybody understands the impromptu

The title for this post comes from a Jimmy Buffett song called “Everybody’s Got a Cousin in Miami” from his Fruitcakes album, from some time in the 1990s before he started opening restaurants and selling beer. If a person can become a brand, Jimmy Buffett’s is about as interesting as it gets.

So this song was stuck in my head today, and the line about “the impromptu” tugged at my imagination a little bit. I supposedly understand it, according to the song’s lyrics, so I may as well figure out what it is. My guess is that sometimes you don’t know what’s coming your way, and when you do you just have to make something up and hope for the best. Like when a quarterback changes the play at the line of scrimmage in football. Sorry about the football analogy, but it seems to work.

Intuition takes over sometimes. The best-laid plans get tossed aside when something unfamiliar comes along. You hope for the best, but it’s really just some improvised crap that might work, and it might not. We all do that everyday of our lives, so if that’s what it is, then yes, I guess I understand it, after all. And now for a lyrical outro:

We got a look, we got a style, we got that old panache

Everybody’s got a cousin in Miami….

A sort-of homecoming on Chicago’s North side

The upcoming Bruce Springsteen concerts in Wrigley Field in September promise to be a good time. But it’s not widely-known that Springsteen’s first show that wasn’t on the East coast came way, way back in early 1973, at a Chicago club known as the Quiet Knight. I wasn’t in Chicago back then, but if I had been, the Quiet Knight seems like it would have been the place to be.

Bob Marley once played there, as did an unknown Jimmy Buffett. Muddy Waters played there in 1978 (with some group called the Rolling Stones). While the club shut down in 1979, the building still stands today, housing a clothing store named NeverMind. It’s located just steps away from the Belmont el stop, and a few hundred steps away from the venue where Springsteen and his band will be playing two shows in one of the best-known concert venues in the city, if not all of America.

I’m sure Wrigleyville will enjoy the party when these shows take place next month. The music will fill the air for blocks and blocks around the intersection of Clark and Addison Streets.  And it might even be heard on the same spot where, nearly forty years ago, an unknown kid from New Jersey arrived, with only his music and his dreams to offer to the world. And, fortunately, the world has now heard and appreciated them.

Watching fireballs in the sky

Tuesday evening, July 3, Wilmette, IL

The stage was set for a memorable evening. The weather was warm, but tolerable after an uncomfortably muggy day. A full moon hung low in the sky, as if to add extra illumination for the proceedings to come. And the majestic Baha’i Temple–the closest thing the North Shore has to a tall building–reached upward into the sky, just as it always does.

The Fourth of July holiday was to follow in a few hours, but the fireworks were scheduled for Independence Eve. I once spent the Fourth of July in transit from Atlanta to Chicago, listening to a biography of John Adams on tape. In the process, I learned that the Declaration of Independence was actually approved on July 2, 1776, and Adams thought that would be the day to be celebrated in the years to come. But July 4th became that day instead, so tonight’s festivities were either a day late, or a day early, depending on what view you take.

My daughters and I found a place on the grass to view the fireworks display. A large crowd had come out, and with it was an air of anticipation. Everyone loves a good fireworks show.

The drought that has been going on this summer has caused many places to cancel their fireworks shows this year, since the risk of a burning ember falling on dry grass is just too great. And the huge fire in Colorado Springs, along with a fire burning in South Dakota, remind us of what the stakes actually are. But still, a Fourth of July without fireworks must feel very strange.

And another huge swath of the country is still without power, days after a recent storm. I suppose you can still have fireworks in a situation like that, but people in the crowd at those displays would surely have other things on their mind, like when is the power coming back on? Those kind of distractions are fortunately missing from this part of the world.

As the show began, and my daughters and I were enjoying the sights and the sounds, I began to hear, strictly inside my own head, a Jimmy Buffett song called The Night I Painted the Sky. One of my daughters was sitting on my lap, while the other tried in vain to capture the bursts with her camera. As I watched them–both the fireworks and my daughters– I counted myself as a very lucky man.

The show was most impressive, and a hearty round of applause went up after the grand finale had come to a halt. We then walked back to our car, telling each other the unfunniest jokes we could think of. And as were driving home, I realized that the 4th of July has already been a success, a few hours before it even officially began. I can’t ask for anything more than that.

Here’s wishing everyone a safe and happy 4th of July holiday, for 2012 and every year after that.

Appreciating American music

As I was returning home from a long and most enjoyable vacation today, I commenced the battle of finding something on the radio. I wrote about this once before, and it makes me appreciate the concept of satellite radio. You pick a station you like, and never have to worry about whether it comes in or not. I would never pay for this service, but I can at least understand it now.

I was thinking about the upcoming 4th of July holiday, and how it will chop up my first week back in the office into two smaller chunks. Or, as I heard someone put it, two Mondays and two Fridays, with a holiday wedged in between. I suppose that can be called a soft landing.

I was turning the radio dial when I heard the opening strains of “Stray Cat Strut.” I sang along a little bit, and thought about how the Stray Cats were an American band, from Long Island. I thus decided to try an experiment: I would listen to the next few songs and see which were from American artists. The songs that followed were: “Babe” by Styx (from Chicago), “The Long Run” by the Eagles (from California), “Hold on Loosely” by 38 Special (from Florida), and  “Do Ya Know What I Mean” by Lee Michaels (from Los Angeles). That was five songs in a row, all by American artists.

The radio station, 93.5 FM in Toledo, apparently wasn’t doing anything intentional with American Artists, though, because the next song they played was U2’s “With or Without You.” U2’s an Irish band, from Dublin city (that’s how they introduced themselves at Live Aid, anyway). As I continued listening, I heard songs by Cyndi Lauper (from Queens, New York), Chicago, and War (from California). I started to think of  other American artists that I didn’t hear played, from Bruce Springsteen to Van Halen to Aerosmith to Jimmy Buffett (who admittedly doesn’t get very much airplay, other than “Margaritaville” but has had a very long and distinguished career, just the same). The experiment ended when the station’s signal began breaking up, during Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care Of Business” (and they’re a Canadian band, so it could have ended in a more American fashion, but the point had already been made.)

It’s no big shock that an American radio station plays more songs by American artists than anyone else. But it’s a reminder that America always has, at least since the invention of recorded music (which was done by an American, I might point out), been the driving force in the music industry.  It’s easy to take this type of cultural heritage for granted sometimes, since I’m immersed in it, all day long. But a long drive through Ohio can sometimes be more significant than it may otherwise appear.

Paris, not horrible at all

When I was young, maybe in the first or second grade, there was a schoolyard chant that was directed at me. Kids being kids, the chant wasn’t very kind. It went like this:

Horrible Harris

Went to Paris

To go see Roger Maris

To a seven year-old kid, who didn’t know anything about Paris, or even who Roger Maris was (he played before my time, and I wasn’t a baseball fan yet), this was traumatic stuff. Most of all, I knew that “horrible” meant really bad, and I didn’t want to be that. I didn’t want to hear it so, of course, I heard it a lot, for a week or so until the novelty was gone and everyone moved on to something else.

Time went by, as it always does, and one day a couple of decades later I found myself in Paris, of all places. I wrote of my appreciation for the city here. It was a trip that I had wanted to take my whole life: the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysees, the cathedral at Notre Dame, Jim Morrison’s grave, and all of the museums. Museums were everywhere, including the palace at Versailles, which has to be the largest museum on earth.

I really like this shot of me in front of I.M. Pei’s Pyramid. It’s such a contrast with the setting around it. I know that feeling, to be out of place and unappreciated. But love it or hate it, it’s just going to be there, regardless. I am the pyramid, in some ways. And I don’t look too bad in the picture, either.

I flew home from Paris with my wife on her birthday. As a result of flying west across the Atlantic, we gained an extra seven hours to the day, making it the longest day of my life, literally. It was a departure I didn’t want to make, because I really did love the experience that Paris is. But in the years since then, children have come into our lives, and life has moved along pretty well. It’s a life that I could have scarcely imagined back in second grade.

I’ve often said I’ll never leave Chicago, at least not until my kids are grown and the Cubs win the World Series. One of these things I’m desperately waiting for, and the other one I’m not. But if both should happen, and I’m old and not terribly poor, I’d love to just go off to Paris like Jimmy Buffett once sang about. And Roger Maris isn’t with us anymore, or else I would look him up when I got there.

Some of the concerts I’ve seen

 

Photo ©1995 robbi cohn/dead images

I wrote this for my sister a few years back, as we were getting ourselves psyched up for our first Springsteen concert. With the new Springsteen tour going on, and a concert at Wrigley Field in the near future, I wanted to dust this off. A few edits have been made for brevity and other issues. Enjoy!

KISS/the Plasmatics, 1983

The coat I wore to that concert, wherever it is, still reeks of pot.

Quiet Riot, Early 1984

Quiet Riot had to know that it would never get any better for them.

Sammy Hagar, Fall 1984

My ears rang for three days afterward. I loved it.

U2, Spring 1987

Right after the Joshua Tree came out, and right before they became megastars. It was a great show.

Monsters of Rock, Spring, 1988

A day-long procession of heavy metal bands on a warm sunny day. Who thought that was a good idea? It was cool seeing Eddie Van Halen onstage, though.

Grateful Dead, Spring 1988

My first Dead show, and  I wasn’t prepared for the parking lot scene at all. I wonder where all those people are now?

Van Halen, Fall 1988

Having just seen Van Halen a few months before, the thrill wasn’t quite so great.

Grateful Dead, Spring 1989

It seemed like the band played “Terrapin Station” for a verrrrry long time.

Fine Young Cannibals, Spring 1990

Roland Gift had maybe the best singing voice I’ve ever heard.

Grateful Dead, Spring 1993

Jerry Garcia really played some incredible guitar at this show. The Steve Miller Band opened, but the parking lot at Soldier Field won out instead.

 Jimmy Buffett, 1990s, exact years uncertain

We camped out somewhere in Wisconsin after two of the shows, and one of them was played in the pouring rain. Camping in the rain isn’t any fun, but Jimmy’s show made it seem worthwhile.

Grateful Dead, Spring 1994

My fourth and final Dead show. Sting was the opening act, but it was pouring rain and I think he only played 3 songs. The Dead’s music was very good, as usual.

Pink Floyd, Summer, 1994

I remember that the rain started to fall during “One of These Days,” and it felt like a special effect to go with the song. And “Comfortably Numb” went on for a very long time.

The Who, Halloween 1996

The band played “Quadrophenia” straight through. Pete Townsend had some hearing issues, so he played acoustic guitar for most of the show.

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Fall 2007

Springsteen concerts are unlike anything else. And I’m glad I got to see Clarence Clemons play live.

KISS, Fall 2009

Not as many pyrotechnics (or as much pot) as in the 80s, but I love how some of their fans wear the makeup and costumes to the show.

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Wrigley Field, Fall 2012

Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew, is playing with the band, and fitting in very well, from what I’m reading. I’m sure this will be a summer of anticipation.

There’s a Cowboy in the Jungle

Today was the first day of school for my two kids. We had a great summer, from the first weekend in New York City to the last week in South Dakota. It didn’t matter where we were or what we did, it was all good in the summertime.

Having summers off–while they no longer serve the purpose of letting kids help out with the farm chores–sure are a good thing for kids, teachers, and parents. But they don’t make much sense academically, and year-round schools may happen one day in the future. But for now, we enjoyed last summer for all it was worth.

But like all good things, it couldn’t last for very long. And so now school is back in session, and the daily routine that we’re all so used to by now has returned. And there is a comfort in that, knowing that until next summer comes around, the structure of the school day will be there to fill up the intervening weeks and months.

Today was the first of these “back to school” days that didn’t involve my older daughter’s school of the past seven years. She wanted to go to a junior high school, and she worked hard enough to make it happen. I’m always proud of my children, but today was extra special, since it was the start of a new chapter in her academic career.

A year ago, when she started sixth grade at her old school, I honestly though we had three more years there, until 8th grade graduation rolled around. But, as with many other things in life, fate intervened. The particulars of how this came to pass don’t really matter anymore. The bottom line is that nothing lasts forever, and things rarely work out the way you expect them to.

This post is titled after an old Jimmy Buffett song about the importance of rolling with the punches, and making the best of whatever comes along in life. And I haven’t come across any of his songs that don’t contain at least some kernel of truth in them. He’s our modern-day oracle, as near as I can tell.

So my hat is off to my daughters, and to all kids and parents, as they either chart a new course or return to their old haunts for another year. They won’t be the same kids in May or June that they are today, and the key is to accept that and enjoy the ride for as long as we can.