At the tail end of last year, Lemmy Kilmister died. You could see that one coming, between recurring reports of the man’s failing health and his infamously hard living throughout his career. But still: You don’t get characters the size of Lemmy everyday. It was a downer wedged between holidays, losing an idiosyncratic icon like that. A shitty thing 2015 gave us before bowing out, before then also taking Natalie Cole on New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, what we didn’t know back then was that Lemmy’s and Cole’s deaths were prologue to a year where we’d see titan after titan die. Taking those two in quick succession was the universe’s opening salvo for a 12-month stretch where the death toll felt inordinately high, particularly considering the magnitude of the names on its list.
David Bowie was bad enough. Again, there were times where you could’ve seen that coming; he had lived in semi-retirement, mostly out of the limelight, for years following heart problems in the early ’00s. There were rumblings — and, sometimes, lengthy discussions — surrounding the possibility of his imminent passing. But Bowie had also returned, first with 2013’s hiatus-ending The Next Day, which looked back on the full scope of his career and life. He followed that with Blackstar this past January, in the earliest days of 2016. Though both albums were steeped in mortality, they also felt like a renaissance, particularly Blackstar, a bizarrely dark and beautiful album that suggested previously-unimagined directions for a would-be latter-day chapter. It was easy to picture Bowie, always only seeming semi-human, denying mortal biology (and, again, years of hard living) to become some ancient space-age seer making music nobody else could think up, well into his elder years. If he came up with Blackstar in his late 60s, where would he be at 90?
Of course, that’s not the way it went. Within days, Bowie died and we learned of his private battle with cancer, and suddenly Blackstar took on layers of new meaning. Losing an icon as multi-faceted and genius as Bowie is a dark way to kick off any year, even if he exited on a high note, still on his terms as much as he could in the circumstances. From there, it felt as if the year would inevitably have to start looking up.
Instead, we got a succession of music deaths over 2016: Glenn Frey, Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, Vanity, Maurice White, Paul Kantner, George Martin, Alan Vega, Keith Emerson, Phife Dawg, Leon Russell, Sharon Jones. Leonard Cohen died the same week as November’s disastrous election. And even following some health scares and foreboding reports, Prince’s death still registered with the same dumbfounding magnitude as Bowie’s. It was easy to think, “This is some kind of sick joke. That guy can’t die.” This is before you even factor in all of the other deaths that dominated the year, names from film or TV or elsewhere, like Alan Rickman and the far-too-young Anton Yelchin and Garry Shandling and Gene Wilder. Muhammad Ali died. Arnold Palmer. Gwen Ifill. Many of these came clustered together. It felt like we couldn’t go more than a few days without hearing of some other notable cultural figure’s death. It hung over the whole year.
Within the long list of names, Bowie and Prince hit particularly hard. These were two men who bent the rules of the world to their liking. They were pop icons and art icons. They were weirdos. Each of their deaths prompted a deluge of memes and stories — both new, anecdotal tales and forgotten favorites — of their eccentricity, their wit, their thorough individuality. And each of their deaths underscored the vastness of their influence. Within music, it spanned genres (or created genres) and generations. It’s hard to quantify in legible terms, the scope of Bowie or Prince’s reach within their main realm of creativity. That’s before you get to their own interactions with film or art, before you consider how their influence trickled into so many places culturally without them even directly interacting with those places. They were those kinds of artists, where their loss sends shockwaves and ripple effects. The knowledge that they’re no longer breathing our same air seems to leave a great vacuum.
Several of the year’s best albums captured this air of death, or directly reflected it. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree is a harrowing document of Cave’s life after losing his teenage son last year. Though not about death explicitly, the surreal mourning of Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool also tapped into the atmosphere of fragility and anxiety that permeated 2016. Given the way this year’s latter half went, it now feels like more of a tonal companion to our actual experience than many of the more joyous albums released around the same time. Then, of course, there are the pillars: Bowie with Blackstar at the beginning of the year, Cohen with You Want It Darker as the year began to wane. Two visionaries releasing what turned out to be swan songs, with varying degrees of intentionality in their composition.
With the year beginning at Blackstar it’s almost as if the album set the stage and defined the parameters of 2016. Almost everything on Blackstar, especially when paired with the videos, plays like a goodbye. There’s the way the title track’s video takes lingering imagery and ideas from Bowie’s career to a final, stranger, cosmic resting place. There’s the way the “Lazarus” video now plays as an unsettling preview of what Bowie knew was coming, the droning horn swells like currents of time pushing him out and away. You can close-read many lyrics throughout the album, but perhaps what hits hardest is the closer “I Can’t Give Everything Away” — not just because it’s a beautiful coda to what can often be a gnarled and unnerving album, but also because it’s Bowie departing on what comes across as a peaceful note. This is what I’ve given, now it’s time for me to go.
Cohen, too, released something specific to himself that simultaneously supported the defining themes of the year. As a phrase, “you want it darker” now operates like a sardonic tag line for 2016, as if we’ve spent so much time swallowing bile and tragedy that it’s become part of our bloodstream and we can no longer live without it. Musically, the album’s title track is a broken, weathered hymn. And with its release in October and Cohen’s death in November, it now feels like an endpoint statement for 2016. “You Want It Darker” becomes an elegy for all the artists we lost, not just the legendary poet who penned those words.
Taken together, many of these deaths underscore something beyond 2016, too. Bowie, Cohen, Prince, Haggard, Clark. We’re talking about people from a different time. We’re talking about historic figures from the ’60s and ’70s and into the ’80s. On some level, this is obvious. Musicians from those decades are aging, and they’re going to get sick, and they’re going to die just from having been alive for a very long time. We’re hitting a point in pop culture history where we will begin losing icons every year, bit by bit, until the whole generation is gone.
Inevitably, there will be a lineage in the coming years. Dylan’s death will have an impact perhaps even greater than Bowie’s, rivaled only by a Lennon or an Elvis. How will we react when the last Beatle dies? What about Mick Jagger and Keith Richards? Joni Mitchell? Neil Young? Aretha Franklin? Move it up a few more years: Stevie Nicks? Bruce Springsteen? It’s more than being sad one of our heroes has passed. It’s more than being sad that one of our favorite musicians might have died just when they seemed to be on the cusp of a renaissance driven by renewed artistic inspiration. It’s the process of one formative era of pop culture and music receding from the present once and for all and definitively becoming the past.
As with landmark albums like Blonde On Blonde, Pet Sounds, and Revolver turning 50 this year, the deaths of old iconic figures collectively have an impact beyond the individual moments of grief. The ’60s is essentially where our notion of pop culture stems from, stylistically and functionally. Everything goes back to Dylan. Everything goes back to the Beatles. David Bowie — who to us right now could feel of a piece with that time despite him being one of their descendants — goes back to Dylan and the Beatles, too. Right now, we live with the still-present weight of the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s as seminal albums reach increasingly ancient anniversaries. What happens when the people who made that work disappear, when they are no longer around to perform the classics or to release new music?
Right now, we still have tangible connections back to our roots. There is a human there, a living, blood tie. Their music, of course, is still there when they die, but is it just a matter of time until that begins to feel like artifact? Just as it’s strange to see 50th anniversary celebrations for Revolver, this is something of an unprecedented moment — pop culture didn’t exist in the same way in the first half of the 20th century as it did in the second half. And it certainly didn’t exist the way it does now, when we have the historic overload of multiple generations having grown up on Bowie or Cohen or the Beatles at the same time as we have a digital landscape in our pockets, making all of this accessible at any minute. It is hard to say in what way this art will endure as we go deeper in this direction, whether Dylan will have the same totemic presence (or even a more amplified one) as more decades fall away. It’s stranger still to consider what it means when this whole generation has vanished, and the generation they begat begins to pass, at the same time as we accrue years and years worth of new icons.
Yet that might be why some of 2016’s deaths hit as hard as they did. “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” people say. “There’ll never be another artist who could do all of that,” people say. That isn’t because we lack our own contemporary icons or wildly creative artists to look up to. It’s just that the old giants who are dying will always feel a little bit more monumental because we can’t picture how everything else we know would’ve happened had it not been for them. Bowie did it first, and Cohen did it first, and Prince did it first, and Haggard did it first. Losing artists like that weighs heavier than the loss of one person. It’s a reminder that we will begin watching a generation fall away. It’s a reminder that we’ll soon see a period of time and art foundational to our own concept of pop culture and our society fade entirely into history.
Kanye West is an icon. Beyoncé is an icon. But even then: Are they as universal and far-reaching as Bowie and Prince were? The context might be too different; there might be too much historical backlog now, too many convolutions in our current moment. That was part of what was so stunning in watching the remembrances for Bowie and Cohen and Prince: the sheer variety of people in age and race and gender and occupation that these artists impacted so deeply. These are the heroes we grew up on. And now we’re looking down the barrel of a bleak near-future, with the knowledge that we’ve lost those childhood heroes. Maybe we’ll be able to look up to our own giants just as much, in time. But something about them feels as if they’ll never stand quite as tall.