Musicians, artists, writers and historical/political figures have always been important to me. That makes sense-I am a musician myself, I am moved and inspired by all types of art and writing, and I have been both a teacher of history and politics and somewhat involved in them throughout my life. Those things have always mattered to me, and they are a part of my deepest memories. I can tell you about seeing Howlin' Wolf ride a golf cart onstage at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Fest or seeing Ornette Coleman playing in his loft on Prince Street in New York City or how and why E.D. Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson are the unsung heroes of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and a lot more. So when one of the artists, musicians, writers or historical figures I admire dies, it saddens me. But it also makes me freshly aware of them all over again, and I am able to relive some of what they did and what they meat to me. It happens every now and then; I have come to look at it is one of the benefits of being older. I get a chance to reflect one earlier times and revisit and relive things that were important to me. Most often these people are not widely known; a select niche of fans or admirers are aware of them, but the general population is not. Every now and then, though, we go through a rare time period where a number of widely known important and somewhat connected folks die in a short period of time. And the whole world takes notice. In 2013, for example we lost writer Chinua Achebe, activist and politician Nelson Mandela, and writer Oscar Hijuelos. We also lost great musicians such as George Jones, Richie Havens and Lou Reed. And that same thing has happened in this first quarter of 2016. Three unique and distinct musical greats have perished, and the world took note.
David Bowie, Merle Haggard and Prince were all iconic and unique musicians and performers. They each had long and varied careers; careers which took several different turns, crossed over into film, and had ups and downs. They were each talented songwriters whose repertoire mixed an array of genres and feels together with their own quirky takes on lyric writing, and they each touched me in myriad ways. Bowie, born David Jones, grew up captured by the sounds and styles of Elvis and Chuck Berry. Blues was his first love, but later he got into dancing, folk, mime, psychedelia, science fiction and the idea of music as presentation. And he drew all of those together into his musical personas. He went from androgyny to glam to studied cool and more as each album told stories about space travel, paranoia, fantastic characters and more. He then went on to revolutionize the rock stage show with his Ziggy Stardust presentations and then dove into hard rock, soul and even disco. And in each genre he found something new and unique to emphasize whether it was unique double guitar lines, strong and unusual rhythms, or clever uses of studio effects. Ziggy Stardust was the first of his albums that captured me, and I was taken by the way he combined so many musical styles into a given song. I was also taken by the cleverness and creativity of his storytelling lyrics. The work he did in the late 70's and 80's has influenced rock and will for years to come. From musical style to stage presence to style to artwork to persona, his influence is everywhere.
Merle Haggard first came into my consciousness with his "Okie from Muskogee" which criticized Vietnam War protestors. As I was one of the protestors, that song did not go over so well with me. I was just getting into old time country at that time, though, and as I explored that genre I kept coming across these hard edged story songs and ballads featuring "make you cry" pedal steel guitar, stinging guitar fills and direct heartfelt vocals that were so different from what was coming out of Nashville at the time. A lot of those songs were by that Okie from Muskogie guy-Merle Haggard. I loved the Bakersfield sound that he and Lefty Frizzell helped develop and the earlier Texas swing style of Bob Willis that he also played. I loved the way he was singing straight direct songs with simple but clever lyrics, great arrangements and strong simple harmonies. He became a favorite, and I am glad that my ears got wide enough to take in more styes of music.
Like Bowie and Haggard, Prince was unique and totally himself. He played 20 some instruments and had a solid grasp of a multitude of styles and genres: rock, soul funk, pop, and more. I first heard his 1980 album Dirty Mind, and I was impressed with the way he meshed soul, new wave, hard core funk and straight out pop. His music captured me from the start. I was not totally comfortable with the lyrics, and not because the were sexual.; I tend to like the more subtle double entendre of blues a bit more. But the music had me dancing, and that was something Prince never failed to do. He could make silly songs danceable, and when he combined his amazing layering of tones and rhythms with great lyrics as on "Kiss, the result was unbelievable. He produced an astounding number of great singles and albums: Little Red Corvette, Raspberry Beret, 1999, When Doves Cry, Let's Go Crazy, and of course, Purple Rain. He also appeared with numerous artists in collaborations and even gave songs to Sinead O'Connor, Kenny Rogers (!!!), Sheena Easton, Paula Abdul and more. An iconic artist who changed his name, recorded hundreds of songs that have yet to be released, formed and re-formed bands, appeared in several guises and was one of the most private public people, his influence was widespread and his death touched everyone. And while Niagara Falls being lit purple was really for Queen Elizabeth's 90th birthday, it was fitting that it happened when Prince died. It's as if the universe had a sly wink, and Prince would have loved that. And so would Merle and David.
To hear some of my favorites by each artist: