Every once in a while, the news demands we go off-topic around here. The passing of Soundgarden’s front man Chris Cornell a few days ago and the death yesterday of the Allman Brothers’ lead singer Gregg Allman are just too significant and emotionally-jarring to let pass silently. On top of which I just re-watched on Saturday the Star Trek: Voyager episode entitled “Real Life,” in which the ship’s holographic doctor gives himself a holographic family as an experiment in personal growth and gets more than he bargained for–a moving episode, and a great performance by Robert Picardo; so, I’m already in a melancholy mood before approaching this post.
My condolences to any of you who may be feeling bereft of life or solace upon hearing the news. I am feeling the same way. The plain truth is that many of those musicians whose groups gave color to our inner worlds through their music are simply passing away. A large number of them–perhaps most, if we are honest–are doing so because the drugs and alcohol they put into their bodies over the last forty years have finally done the damage such chemicals do.
To get up and sing or play in front of hundreds or thousands of people, even with a group of one’s friends, even in a studio, is enough to scare most of us shitless. It did me; and it has done so to far better singers than I have ever dreamed of being. That’s part of what fuels the drinking of the rock-era bands. Another, greater part, however, is the fear many rockers have had that the gods will simply take away the enormous gift they’ve bestowed upon certain people to be forgetful of oneself and to play, to entertain thousands of others.
Stevie Ray Vaughan had this fear. That’s why he drank. It took years for his band mates to convince him that he truly didn’t need the alcohol to play his soaring, driving guitar, but they did. His death in a plane crash in Wisconsin in 1990 (the only death in the rock era that has made me weep) was a tragedy not simply because a life was taken or that the accident could have been avoided, but because Vaughan had conquered the problems that beset him and was playing the best guitar of his career. Texans often put a unique spin on musical trends, but Vaughan, too, was a Southern rocker.
The Allman Brothers were never my favorite Southern band, but “Ramblin’ Man” stands second only to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Call Me The Breeze” as the most joyful Southern rock song ever done. When I need to have my spirits lifted by a modern song, when I need to be happy, these are two of the songs I turn to.
When C.S. Lewis died on November 22, 1963, his friend J.R.R. Tolkien said he felt like a tree which had taken an axe blow at the roots. In truth, the simile was reality. Tolkien had taken such a blow. The friends who mean the most to us–even the ones we don’t see that often–shape us; they help make us what we are. The people who bring music into our lives–the people who sing to us, and the people who sing to us–also help shape us in fundamental ways. They give voice to our feelings and, if we are lucky and wise, they help us find our own voice in the world. We grieve when those who have helped us pass away, and their deaths are a hard, bitter thing, indeed. We know enough to honor their lives by helping others ourselves; and, in the case of musicians, by playing their music to keep song itself alive and be reminded of what greatness and beauty may be; but the loss will remain a bitter thing, at least for a time, until we can hear some melody again without much pain in our minds, and the sweetness of living returns to us.