Sunday, January 7th, 2018

To Those We Left In 2017


Happy New Year!

Our coverage for 2018 begins tomorrow. Before that happens, we thought we’d take a look back at those we lost in 2017. It was another tough year; amidst the unease swirling in the world, we had to part ways with musicians and artists from across generations. What they left behind ran the gamut: decades-long legacies, careers still riding their peak and careers only beginning. They also left us to open up painful but necessary conversations: of addiction, of mental health, of an industry that can wring every last breath out of its contributors while failing to recognize their own complicity. These were artists who dealt with these issues daily, who infused them into their work, with the successful hope that they could help others. These were artists we may have known since youth, or only in passing, or deeply personally. These were artists who spoke to us.

We’ve collected some of our thoughts on these artists below the jump.

Nortey Dowuona on Al Jarreau

To many of us, we only knew Al Jarreau through a hit song, a random CD our parents had or just another voice on the radio we couldn’t pick out of a lineup unless we found it and came back to it again and again. That’s the way we usually found out about songs. We heard them somewhere and searched to the end of the earth for them, to possess them, to make sure others knew about them, to hold them close to our hearts, to be one with the feeling that came from that song, those songs, that album, that compilation, that lifeline in the miasma of life.

My dad discovered Al Jarreau before he met my mother and before I was born. I discovered Al Jarreau at least 19 years later, when I opened his 1992 album Heaven and Earth, copying it to my laptop, copying out the liner notes and song titles, adding session musicians, background singers, songwriters and producers. I saw familiar names like Narada Michael Walden, who did production and arrangement throughout the record and worked on Lisa Fischer’s album, which my dad had as well. But most of it just meant another old world of notes, melodies, beats and rhymes for me to absorb and trap under amber for either a sample, a burst of inspiration or a bragging right.

But as soon as I pressed play I forgot all of that.

My memories are often like a thick fog, in which places and names and sometimes faces get mixed and matched in places they’re not in the right place. When I first heard “Heaven and Earth,” I might have been six or nine or twelve. But I know when I heard it, I felt myself floating. The piano keys rose and sunk, the bass purred with a sweet, gooey squelch, the synths wavered in the sky, pale and grim. And the drums thundered and threatened as they fell through the clouds into the ground, surrounding and trapping me.

Then Jarreau sang.

I felt myself lift as I heard his calm, disciplined baritone lead me out of the storm towards the dark, black sunlight. I knew all I had to do was follow. He would let me criticize, find new ways and listen to other heralds because he knew I would find my way. He had the presence of mind to be gone when I needed to find the way and there when I needed him most. I knew the love of my mom. I knew the love of my sister. I knew the love of my dad. I even knew the love of my brothers. But this love, the love Jarreau spoke of, was one I had never felt.

When he died, I felt empty. I’d felt a yawning emptiness since 2015, the year I burnt Jarreau to my laptop’s hard drive and to my deteriorating iPhone. But it was a new emptiness, one that left me once again feeling the unyielding pressure of mortality and a feeling of shame that I had somehow lost my way once again.

I wasn’t the only one who had felt left behind when he had gone back to heaven. There were hundreds, probably thousands of people who had heard his voice and followed, enchanted and full of a joy they had felt too. But all I really knew honestly of him were the 10 songs from Heaven and Earth, the ones that got me singing along and even dancing. They still get at my emptiness the most. The day I heard he died, I pulled up YouTube and let him lead me one more time.


John Seroff on Chuck Berry

I don’t remember ever not knowing Chuck Berry.  His music was as much of the framework of my being young as Christmas carols, the Pledge of Allegiance, the One Day at a Time theme song. Only of course he was better by far than all those, sharper and funnier and more tuneful on my father’s stereo or on dubbed cassette tapes of the Chess Greatest Hits or the fabled Great Twenty-Eight. Berry was a master of song as short story; he had little use for or aspiration to LPs. Instead there were dirty jokes about ding-a-lings, letters home to Henry Ford begging cash for cars, gloriously frustrated railing against the monkey business status quo, a calypso of star-crossed lovers separated by the Havana Moon, celebratory folk tales about a mystical country boy who could play a guitar like he was ringing a bell. In addition to setting the gold standard for generations of guitar players that followed him, Chuck was likely the most memorable lyricist since Woody Guthrie. Mikal Gilmore’s memorable and well-written Rolling Stone piece holds a key quote: “If ever there was an American who deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature, it was Chuck Berry. If ever there was an American who did not, it was Chuck Berry. If ever there was an American, it was Chuck Berry.” I can’t do better than that.


Will Adams on Robert Miles

Trance is one of the few electronic dance genres that still hasn’t quite crossed over the way others have, especially in the States. The reason may just be fundamental: the accelerated tempos, the highly synthetic instruments, the gauzy timbres and the oft-targeted emotions – yearning, wistful, delicate – don’t make for impactful radio pop. But moreover, trance often feels like a relic, whether a brief radio presence from the early ‘00s (your Alice Deejays, your DJ Sammys), something you only experienced in Dance Dance Revolution (your 4 Strings, your Ian Van Dahls), or just a meme (“Sandstorm”). “Children” was one of those anomalies, even more so being an instrumental track with a simple construction: a three-note bass, synth guitar, and that enduring, lonely piano. But each of these anomalies pushed at that barrier to mainstream, and the combined force is what introduced trance to me. I’ve never really figured out how I discovered trance. All I knew that it was a genre that spoke to me, that at its best made me feel like I was soaring, and I have Robert Miles to thank for that.


Alex Clifton on Chester Bennington

It’s easy to mock who you were when you were twelve. You were young and dumb, and you loved random things with an unmatched, un-self-conscious intensity, while simultaneously becoming aware of how you were perceived by the world. It’s an awkward age for us all. At twelve, my favourite artists included Evanescence, Avril Lavigne, Hilary Duff, Simon & Garfunkel and Linkin Park. It was, admittedly, a weird-ass list of artists at any age, but especially for a twelve-year-old. I didn’t quite know who I was overall, so I used the music I listened to as social currency. But even if I didn’t know who I was, I knew exactly what I felt: fear of disappointing those around me, faintly disconnected from my peers, aware that the world around me was shifting too quickly for me to get a grip on anything. As an album, Meteora found me at the right time, and I played my copy to death, revelling in Chester Bennington’s vocal nuances, how a single scream of his contained so much raw energy and power. It was one of the first albums I ever made a home in. As I got older, though, I grew quick to mock Linkin Park and the scared, anxious girl I was when I was twelve. Linkin Park were emo; Linkin Park were wimps; Chester Bennington wasn’t as talented as I thought he had been. I tried listening to Minutes to Midnight and a few assorted singles in college before giving up on the band entirely. Dumping on Linkin Park became cool. We were older now. We could discard them as a relic of the past.

But my breath still caught when I heard the news of Chester’s passing. It felt like glancing at the obituary of an old friend I used to see every day but had lost touch with over the years. I was heartbroken in a way I never expected to be–not just because he lost the war with depression, which hits me hard as an adult who’s had her own mental health struggles, but because I had forgotten how much I loved his music. Chester was real, honest, and brave. He sung about all his emotions, the dark ones that people struggle to speak about, so candidly in a way that made them accessible. He gave a damn when nobody else did. Chester’s music was a light in a long, dark year saying, it’s okay, kiddo, I believe you. He not only fought for his own life but made it sound like he’d fight for mine, too. And no matter what idiotic things I did when I was twelve, loving Linkin Park – and Chester Bennington – was not one of them.


Ian Mathers on Gord Downie

One of the mildly weird things about being a Canadian married to an American is finally getting confirmation about which of the Canadian cultural products of your youth actually translated down south (in our case, as far as Florida, even); Sarah McLachlan obviously yes; the Weakerthans yes because she was into indie rock; Our Lady Peace yes, as a one-hit wonder (really?); everyone from I Mother Earth to Duotang, no. But I never wondered about the Tragically Hip, the band that Gord Downie undeniably led until he passed away on October 17, 2017 at the age of 53, of glioblastoma. Since I was a kid, I knew the mythology; the Hip were Ours, and only a wise few in our southern neighbour (plus expats, of course) recognized their glory. (And since naturally, as a eulogy, I’m going to focus pretty totally on Downie, spare a thought for Paul Langlois, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, and Johnny Fay: an excellent band sometimes overlooked due to their sui generis frontman. The received wisdom is that they were “just” a bar band, but that stopped being true years and years ago, and from their height through to 2016’s genuinely excellent Man Machine Poem they were as able to make the rock idiom as interesting as anyone.)

A moment, in this eulogy, for some caveats that Downie and his bandmates often made and would appreciate being made again: yes, they were a group of white guys from Kingston; yes, they somehow got adopted as a facet of Canadian Identity (whatever that means, and which already means we’re pretending the Canadian identity is white). But they all insisted that while they did love what Downie called “my idea of this country,” that idea was of a place that faced down and made amends to what we did as colonizers to the First Nations that still live here, that are still being mistreated and ignored, a place that gives a shit about the environment, a place where Downie couldn’t bitterly sing of David Milgaard, “no one’s interested in something you didn’t do.” I don’t want to make Downie and the Hip more politically radical than they were, but I don’t want to make them less either; they’d been overtly rejecting patriotism because of the problems root-deep in modern Canada from when I was a kid through to Downie noting he “never thought of Canada as a country” because of our history with the First Nations when he put out 2016’s Secret Path. And you can find strains of this throughout their work and their interviews, as in this excellent analysis by Erin McLeod. These are good and important things, but I mention them mostly because Downie and the band would want to insist that any account, especially one by another white, Canadian-born man (hi) that blindly insists that they were somehow the ne plus ultra of Canadian culture is ignoring on the one hand how illegitimate that notion is and on the other what a restricted view that is. Yeah, they were pretty much godlike in the almost-entirely-white rural southern Ontario town I grew up in, but that was never the whole story, and Downie was insistent that people not take it as such.

Maybe fittingly, then, the Hip are the first band (especially the first Canadian) in my own personal history that managed to go from huge-MuchMusic/radio hitmakers, real mainstream culture stuff where both my generation of kids and our parents loved each new song, to a kind of classic rock status. Plenty of people who’ve never bought a Hip album can sing along to “Fireworks” or “Ahead by a Century” or “Fifty Mission Cap” or a half-dozen more songs. As a 13-year-old geeking out about every last turn of phrase (“if there’s a glory in miracles/it’s that they’re reversible”, god), bass thrum, drum fill, and guitar fillip on Day for Night and who was noticing how deceptively weird a lot of this music was compared to the other radio bands the Hip were directly competing with, this was thrilling. It’s a sentiment I’ve seen come up more than once in the wake of Downie’s diagnosis, the band’s impossible, beautiful final tour and its televised finale (where, again, Downie used pretty much all of his between-song words to try and compel our Prime Minister to do right on First Nations issues and the environment). Canada’s population passed 35 million people in 2016; at least 11.7 million people watched that show, around the world.

But those things Downie and co. went out of their way to emphasize in order to un-lionize themselves and the very real impact they had on an enormous number of people don’t really sum up why each one of us that loves the Hip does, or why his passing hurts so much. There’s any number of songs I could direct you to, ones I find heart-wrenching or thought-provoking or just catchy, but maybe because there was always something life-affirmingly impish about Downie, I keep coming back to the video for 2000’s “My Music at Work”. It’s a great song, and the video is a great example of Downie’s knack for physical comedy (“the dim possibility of showing some restraint,” indeed), maybe the best back-and-forth example of how amazingly magnetic and goofy (or both) he could be. And you get a good idea of casually devastating he could be; even this mostly light song begins with “everything is bleak, It’s the middle of the night/you’re all alone and the dummies might be right.” It’s not as if Downie wasn’t capable of full seriousness or full flippancy, it’s that he was committed to the rich contradictions and absurdities of all of our interior lives; as he said in an old interview, “What I’m trying to come up with in our songs is that sort of intangible paradox that exists in everyone all the time.” And of course, years after he said that, he would sing “we live to survive our paradoxes”. He did, until he didn’t. We all do, until we don’t. But that fierce process that lasts until we don’t, that was what Downie tried and often succeeded to tap into, and it made for a life’s work that’s been important to so many people. A few years before Downie’s own diagnosis, his wife Laura had to undergo (successful) treatment for breast cancer, a subject Downie wrote about movingly about on 2012’s Now for Plan A. When Downie died, I couldn’t help but think about some of the lyrics from “At Transformation”, one of those songs:

I want to help you lift enormous things!

A pinch, a sting, I don’t feel a thing…


but as the earth revolves around the sun

I can see it all at once

and, oh, what a glittering chance

in my head the game goes quiet

I can see it all at once

them yelling, “yer not the goods!

a kid before the rapids!”

but in my head the game is quiet

oh, what a glittering chance

oh, what a glittering chance

oh, what a glittering chance

at transformation


Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa on Fats Domino

Who really invented Rock & Roll? Is a question that has haunted historians, record collectors and musicians for decades now. The Hall of Fame-backed, official ideology wants to condense this complex subject to a single event, that day at the Sun Records studios where Elvis Presley played a comically fast-paced take on the Big Boy Crudup standard “That’s All Right, Mama” and kickstarted a career. That’s the White Man taking credit, once again (Elvis never really did, though) for a Black movement, but the real answer is way more complicated. There’s a solid consensus that at least it comes down to three regional scenes: Chicago, Memphis, and New Orleans. The latter’s strongest case is “The Fat Man,” a 1949 cataclysm of a single by a young, energetic piano player by the name of Antoine Dominique Domino. The song contains pretty much all the ingredients that make Rock & Roll so great, and especially, so distinct from the rest of R&B of the time — a hard-hitting back-beat, a 12-bar blues structure, and a radically wild vocal delivery — and launched the trajectory of the titular big singer. Fats was a true pioneer from the way he played the keys; his style of stride piano, emphasizing the low end with the left hand while dropping frantic triplets with the right hand, became the way to go for generations of keyboardists, and his thick voice and magnetic personality made him perhaps the first actual rockstar. The man had the second most number one hits in the 50’s (after Elvis), not to mention his appearance in the Jayne Mansfield-starring film The Girl Can’t Help It, a film that inspired the very formation of The Beatles. Many may say that, unlike mavericks like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, Fats Domino’s gentle giant-like presence made him accessible or “safe” to white audiences, but neither Richard nor Berry had race-related riots in his live shows. Fats was a true innovator, one of the very few musicians that can boast to have inspired a sonic revolution that defined an entire century. Elvis himself said it in his 1969 comeback tour: “Fats is the real King of Rock.”


Will Rivitz on Lil Peep

Lil Peep’s music already sounds posthumous. Creating the sound of wind kicking up fallen leaves in a graveyard, he made the kinds of dirges typically pinned in the domain of those with nothing left to lose, artists at the bottom of a long spiral. Except, quite frankly, that never seemed to be applicable to him: the footage we have left of Peep portrays a man who never stopped grinning, someone who took the greatest joy in bellowing the words of his songs alongside his doting fans. I think the two seemingly contradictory personae – Peep the person and Peep the artist – are reconcilable, though. Lil Peep’s music is less drowning yourself in the misery of Taking Back Sunday and more screaming along to their choruses, finding catharsis in knowing you’re screaming those lyrics with somebody else. The beauty of his work – a beauty that will shine through long after his death, as those affected by it grow up and integrate his lessons into their lives – is its connective power, the implicit understanding that Peep had begun to blow up because people related to him and his art. And, just as any sort of disaster brings those most affected by it together, those who were united through him are now united directly. And in an existence where being alone can sometimes be worse than death, the community Lil Peep continues to provide as more and more people find his oeuvre and thereby allow him into their conversations is worth more than anyone can know.

Anthony Easton on Lil Peep

A few weeks after Lil Peep died, one of his fellow emo-rap stars, Lil Xan, talked about him in a concert. Wearing a pink hoodie with the image of Peep emblazoned on it, he told the audience, “Fuck Xanax 2018” and then played Peep’s song “BeamerBoy,” an ennui laden list of the failures of capital. A man named after Xanax talks about the failures of benzos, and then plays a song about how benzos fail to bring pleasure as a kind of ad hoc memorial to a talented man who died of the pills.

I keep returning back to this Ryan Adams line when thinking about this anecdote: “I was born in an abundance of inherited sadness.” I never felt like Peep produced a masterpiece from that inheritance, never created a singular work, but instead created a piling up of disappointment, of personal failures, of the failures of capital, of the irony of pills that are supposed to make people well making people very sick, of how the drugs, the pills, the cars, the audience and the sex all collapse into this kind of anhedonic pile. About how this youthful vulnerability rests on a kind of voyeurism: this is how sick the world is, this is how sick I am.

But the internet makes it possible for all sadness to be public, such that the performative quality of sadness is made not as a singular quality, but through a scene. All this fear about attention, about being called out for the tension between private angst and public confession, is made explicit in a culture that is working through what it means to be a public figure. But all these public figures are a coterie – they follow each other, guest with each other and shoot each others’ shows, with the hope that, if we work through this collectively, maybe we can be famous.

Maybe being famous will become a way to feel. It must mean something that the best (and best selling) anthem to coke in this generation was about The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel My Face.” Coke is an analgesic to the body, an analgesic to feelings, analgesic to a kind of failed ambition. Benzos effectively blank feelings, they flatten public feelings, so the sadness is less likely to speak. It’s less about fun and more the spike of failure (and this is from someone who has a script for Ativan).

Lil Peep’s death didn’t seem to be the death of a scene, it seemed to connect his aesthetic to his drug of choice in ways that were too clean, too precise, and too elegant. The “Awful Things” video features the school, Peep, and some dude in a hot dog costume being burnt to death. The flames are obviously fake, the hot dog costume is a joke, and the face he makes at the end is deadly serious — the joke take, the public performance of pain, the wink and the po face, the heartbreak told in tones of drugged out flatness. His death, as tragic as it was, seemed to be a slightly too ignored generational marker.

There’s this small, pathetic story by Dennis Cooper about Kurt Cobain and everyone who hung out at the park for a year or two after his death. It’s like Peep dying is one of those kids dying, in the park, and not Cobain dying in the house. Fucked up as it is, we can’t tell the kids in the park from the guys in the mansion anymore.


Jer Fairall on Tommy Keene

In the kind of just world that it only becomes more apparent each day that we are definitely not living in, Tommy Keene’s 1986 sophomore album Songs from the Film would have made him a star.  Or, if not exactly a star, then certainly an artist on the level of a Michael Penn, Matthew Sweet or Fountains of Wayne — acts who rode the post-R.E.M. public’s occasional taste for jangly, melodic guitar-pop towards long, commercially respectable careers. To Keene’s immense credit, the time that he spent in the major label record mill never appeared to discourage either the pace or the quality of his output: following a second shot at the mainstream via Geffen with 1989’s Based on Happy Times, Keene went on to record a series of solid and occasionally excellent albums on a variety of indie labels at a steady and wholly professional rate of a new album every couple of years until his final release, 2015’s Laugh in the Dark.  For those who had followed him from his initial would-be breakthrough, as well as those of us who discovered him along the way (precisely my case, as spurred by the essential CD 1998 reissue of Songs from the Film), the steady trickle of new Tommy Keene albums every other year or so had the comfortable yet wistful feeling of, as I wrote when reviewing 2011’s Behind the Parade, “visits from an old friend that you lament never keeping as much in touch with anymore as you would like.” Just as I would greet every chance to get acquainted with a new batch of Tommy Keene songs — characterized by his warm, nasal rasp, simple but evocative lyricism, and frequent flashes of bright guitar heroics that left him always on the verge of being revealed as a secret virtuoso — the news of his death, on November 22 at age 59, felt more personal, to me, than such reports tend to. “We are lucky to have him,” I wrote at the conclusion of that review cited above, and his loss provides listeners with a more bittersweet opportunity to explore a catalogue that quietly dazzles with its richness the further you delve into it.

Songs from the Film would be the obvious place to start, especially if you can get your hands on that CD reissue, which not only adds 1986’s worthy Run Now EP, but also collects a selection of choice outtakes, including the rueful “Take Back Your Letters” and the deceptively buoyant “We’re Two.” The hardcore fan in me would rather urge you towards some late-career highlights like the delirious, exuberant “All Your Love Will Stay” (The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down, 2002) or the dense, intoxicated “Black and White New York” (Crashing the Ether, 2006), either of which could, and should, have been the occasion for a career revival in an era when the expansiveness of online music media had the ability to make that a reality even more easily than a major label stint in the 1980s might have.

The songs that I gravitate most towards these days, however, are the ones that I forged a more personal connection with: in a 2006 interview with The Advocate, Keene came out as gay, explaining his decades in the closet (at least publicly) as having its roots in his major label days, when he actively discouraged from disclosing such things (remember that even Elton John was never publicly “gay” until 1988).  While Keene’s sexuality never became an explicit subject of his songs even after his coming out — his lyrics tended towards the use of the gender-neutral “you,” rather than anything specific — the revelation that a gay man held such an exalted status in the resolutely white-guys-singing-about-girls world of what is often dubbed “power pop” could not help but lend his otherwise wholly uncontroversial career a subversive little kick. Still, I am drawn to the moments, scattered amongst his vast songbook, where I catch a queer little wink and a nod, and I am heartened that most these are found on Songs from the Film, the very moment where Keene was under the most pressure to leave such things unexpressed: the tension between personal prisons and yearning for escape at the heart of “Places That Are Gone,” the complex tangle of unrequited loves threaded through “Listen to Me” (scan “she wants him and he wants her and maybe I want you” and wonder at the identity of that you), the attempt at merging one’s own history with Hollywood iconography in “My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe.” Most strikingly, though, I find it at the core of “Underworld,” always my favorite Tommy Keene song as well as one of my favorite songs by anyone ever.  Depending on how you squint at it, “Underworld” is either another oblique love song in a catalogue full of them, or another plea for escape and transcendence, but either way it is an anthem for longing, and if Anthems for Longing constitute yet another niche musical genre (a notably, if hardly exclusively, queer one) then Tommy Keene was undoubtedly its master.


Alex Clifton on Jonghyun

I’m still fairly new to SHINee and K-Pop overall; I began listening in earnest as 2016 ended, first inhaling BTS’s discography before launching into related bands. 2016 and much of 2017 were grim years overall, but as I listened through SHINee’s music, I was able to rediscover a dormant feeling: joy. SHINee were talented, relentlessly upbeat, and terrific live performers, none moreso than Kim Jonghyun. I would listen to his solo songs – “White T-Shirt” and “She Is”, specifically – any time I felt sad, as there was something in his delivery that just lifted me out of my brain and into a world filled with brightness and hope. There was so much that I liked about Jonghyun–his powerful voice, his gift for melody, the fact that he stood up for LGBT youth – and I thought I still had so much more time to learn about him, the way you do with any new friend. I looked forward to what he’d do with his career in the upcoming years.

The week before he died, I daydreamed about seeing SHINee live the next time they came to the US, and wondered how good his voice would sound in an arena. It crushes me that we’ll never hear his voice again, that beautiful tenor that shattered through all my brain fog. It also hurts desperately to know that someone who helped ease my own depression struggled with the same sorts of issues himself. It’ll be a while before I can listen to “White T-Shirt” as the upbeat, fun pop song it is without feeling achingly sad for all we have lost. When I do, though, I’ll remember all the good he gave us all.


Jessica Doyle on Johnny Hallyday

It’s going to be hard for me to add to Robb Johnson’s two-part tribute, but I’ll try, from an American perspective. (That British opinions of Johnny are more complicated, and more tangled with opinions of his home country, should be evident from the Economist‘s oddly hostile obit.) According to the prevailing attitude of American popular music, Johnny Hallyday was never “cool.” It wasn’t just the sheer number of covers he did, or the wholehearted way he embraced the staging trends of every decade he got to perform in, but the way he deviated from the dominant American-cool ethos, the idea that emotion only counted if you could show yourself to be fully in control of it. Listen to “Elle m’oublie” and you’ll see what I mean. By midway through the first verse his voice is already starting to quiver with all the emotion it holds, to burst into a high note at the end of the first verse; rare is the American (white) male rock singer willing to push so much forward so fast. Consider, also, that the “Tennessee” of “Quelque chose de Tennessee” is not the state — a fair assumption, if you’re familiar with Johnny/Elvis comparisons — but Tennessee Williams; in other words, in 1985 a grizzled veteran rocker released a single about the universality of a gay playwright. Johnny was neither beholden to American cool nor contemptuous of it (which would have at least placed him into a recognizable stereotype); he simply ignored it. He was never cool; he was himself.

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