2016 has been a grotty year by any reckoning. But somehow, amidst the watersheds and chaos, in the course of the annual obit list, there were two rays of light. Though they were both rays tinged with grief and loss. For this year, two of the most important creative names in popular music were snuffed out.
- David Bowie, aged 69 (né David Jones, 8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016)
- Leonard Cohen, aged 82 (September 21, 1934 – November 7, 2016)
Both had a creative genius that was uncontainable by a single artform. Both wrote and performed their own songs, many of which have become iconic, enduring items on the soundtrack of popular culture. Both painted. What’s more, Cohen was an honoured poet and novelist. Bowie was a recognised actor who could fill a screen far more creditably than the normal celeb fare having a bash after 2 acting lessons.
But what struck me between the eyeballs last month was the fact that both men seemed to be preparing themselves AND US for their impending deaths – in the ultimate act of creative generosity: laying themselves bare in song. Neither seems like an artist’s ego trip – to me at any rate. They felt like something far greater: they feel like a consoling gift.
A few general thoughts here, then I’ll do a post on each album, and try to wrap things up in a third.
Bowie’s (Blackstar) came out on January 8th this year. Significant because it was both Bowie’s birthday AND Elvis Presley’s (something which apparently meant a great deal to Bowie). As he said to Q in 1997 about the date:
I was absolutely mesmerised by it. I couldn’t believe it. He was a major hero of mine. And I was probably stupid enough to believe that having the same birthday as him actually meant something.
Presley actually wrote a song called Black Star (which we’ll consider in the next post). So there’s something in that.
But more important than any of that is the fact that Bowie then died only TWO days after its release. The whole thing was conceived and recorded while he was dying of liver cancer.
Bowie knew precisely what he was doing.
Cohen’s You Want It Darker is a less angular album, perhaps, but no less poignant, heartfelt and generous. It was released on 21st October – and weirdly enough, its creator was dead within 3 weeks. Cohen had to record it at his home because of major spinal problems. He too had cancer, but it seems the immediate cause of his death was a fall. But these restrictions gave him a creative energy
In a certain sense, this particular predicament is filled with many fewer distractions than other times in my life and actually enables me to work with a little more concentration and continuity than when I had duties of making a living, being a husband, being a father. (from this wonderful NewYorker article
There was exuberance too – here is his son Adam:
Occasionally, in bouts of joy, he would even, through his pain, stand up in front of the speakers, and we’d repeat a song over and over like teenagers. (Rolling Stone
But as with Bowie, death and God and all that are clearly front and centre. As one would expect for men who know they are in the final moments of life.
Cohen knew precisely what he was doing.
Both geniuses were sharing their gifts. Quite what these gifts might mean is for another post…