Forever Young: Remembering Levon Helm, MCA, Pete Cosey, Bill Doss, Ravi Shankar and the Many Musicians Who Passed in 2012

There were patches of 2012 it seemed like every musician was dying.  The East’s most renown musician, Ravi Shankar, and jazz legend Dave Brubeck both died within a week of each other at the start of this month – the latter one day shy of his 92nd birthday.  More recently, James Brown’s “Soul Sister #1” Marva Whitney, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention co-founder Ray Collins and soul/ jazz singer Fontella Bass all passed within three days of Christmas.  Deep Purple organist Jon Lord, country icon Kitty Wells and bass great Bob Babbitt (who anchored huge hits by Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and others) all died on the same day: July 16th.

In the span of a single week this May soul bass legend Duck Dunn, “Godfather of go-go” Chuck Brown, disco queen Donna Summer and Bee Gees star Robin Gibb all died.  At the start of that month we lost Beastie Boy Adam “MCA” Yauch – a punk bassist, hip hop pioneer, film director, Tibet activist and all around cool dude.  His death – just weeks after his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – sent shock waves through the music industry, prompted a flood of social media reactions from peers across genre-lines, and inspired Coldplay to spontaneously re-imagine “Fight For Your Right” as piano pop in concert that night.  At the end of May we lost two pioneering guitarists whose playing serve as landmarks in the instrument’s history: country virtuoso Doc Watson on the 29th and fusion visionary Pete Cosey on the 30th.  The latter played on some of the most controversial records of all time, including the Chess label’s iconoclastic “electric” psych-blues LPs and Miles Davis’ mid ’70s freak outs.

Both “Jim Marshall”s – the photographer behind some of rock’s most iconic images and the “Lord of Loud” who revolutionized music with his amplifiers – died within two weeks of each other.  Other non-musicians gone in 2012 include Chris Stamp (The Who’s famed manager and a key figure in launching Jimi Hendrix’s career) and pop lyricist Hal David.

The Band’s Levon Helm died on April 19th, the day after Dick Clark passed.  Indie rockers, drummers and Americana artists remembered Helm through a series of tributes that spanned months – including members of Wilco, Ween, Further, Yellowbirds, Dr Dog, Low Anthem, Vetiver and others coming together on Thanksgiving weekend to play “The Complete Last Waltz” – all 41 songs!

Music fans in 2012 of all types lost a legend regardless of the styles they follow – be it diva pop (Whitney Houston), underground rock (MC5 co-founder and bassist Michael Davis, whom I recalled meeting upon his passing), bluegrass (Earl Scruggs), disco (Summer, Gibb), or post-category-mind-melting guitar noise (Cosey)…

Helm, Yach, Brubeck and Shankar may not have had a lot in common musically, but they all had major impacts in and beyond their respective fields.  What’s more, they were all beloved figures.  In each case the outpouring of grief was so strong not just because fans cherished their music (or some nostalgic effect triggered by the deaths), but because these were all overtly caring people.  All four shaped the climate of music that followed them in ways even they could not have imagined, but they also each created music that has resonated for decades as beacons of liberty balanced by spirituality.

The most shocking death of all however was Elephant 6 co-founder and Olivia Tremor Control main man Bill Doss.  Even MCA, though 47 years young, was not a surprise (he had been publicly struggling with a cancerous salivary gland tumor since 2009).  Doss however was just 43, and had performed in apparent perfect health for the whole world to see (via a webcast) at the Pitchfork Music Festival just two weeks before!  The Olivia Tremor Control were making a well-received comeback and recording their first album since the ’90s at the time of his death.  Members of The Flaming Lips, of Montreal, Apples in Strereo, Antlers, New Pornographers, The Whigs and other like-minded groups all mourned the loss (there’s a full post in remembrance of Doss here), and the Elephant 6 collective – including Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum – came together to perform in his honor (complete with a teary-eyed version of The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”).

Below is a twitter recap of musicians and others reacting to music’s major losses this year. After all, twitter – and web media in general – is the means many learned of public figures’ deaths in 2012….even if not always accurate…

Oh, and by the way: do you realize that everyone you know on social media someday will die, and there’s an app for that…

“America’s oldest teenager” Dick Clark died at age 82 on April 18th. A true icon of music on television, who else brought artists as diverse as Chuck Berry, Run DMC, Captain Beefheart, Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder and PiL into America’s family rooms?

Levon, without you our world would’ve been a smaller place. With you our lives were changed, for the better, forever. – Love, Jonathan and Grasshopper
Mercury Rev on Levon Helm’s passing

Levon was the glue, not just in The Band, but in all of what people think of when they think of North American music. He was a great unifier; a great glue. He unified blues and country, rural and city, and even North and South. Luckily he showed us all the way to keep it together and let it swing.”
Jeff Tweedy on Levon Helm’s passing

“Levon Helm was simply one of the greatest drummers ever. But he was also one of the most influential musicians and important artists of our time. Levon had a depth of feel that does not exist anymore. His brilliantly economic parts, lyrical phrasing and incredible touch and tone on the drums were as unique as his song writing and timeless voice. His impact on me cannot be overstated. Getting the privilege to double drum with him last year at our Solid Sound festival was one of the greatest thrills I could ever imagine. He was a passionate man with an extremely gracious, warm and giving personality. That he made some of his best music in the final years of his life, is a testament to his greatness and historical significance. He will be dearly missed.”
– Glenn Kotche

“He’s a real inspiration and a part of why we all do this.”
Wilco on Levon Helm

Levon Helm died of cancer on April 19th at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City at age 71.
There will be many who remember him for the great music he made with The Band, and some also for his recent albums, festival appearances and Midnight Rambles at “The Barn” – his Woodstock home studio that he opened to public performances.  And they should – just listen to how he sang on those classic: wonderful phrasing while playing drums with such an unmistakable groove.  Some of the tributes that flooded social media mentioned other odds and ends as well, like his days with rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins, or that Elton John’s “Levon” is named after him.  But here is a lesser known piece of his legacy – his guest slot on Mercury Rev’s classic Deserter’s Songs.

Jonathan Donahue: “We would see Levon around because we have the same barber…There were people who were very nonplussed when we said we were working with Levon Helm.  Well, I like people from that era. You go to the source, you don’t go to somebody who says they can play like Levon. It’s worth getting it from the horse’s mouth…We got along so well with Levon and Garth, probably because we share a lot of the same influences – we spent less time playing than we did talking, about old jazz standards, and the polkas which Garth loves. It made a lot more sense to us than certain people around us – they’d say ‘Why would you be working with Levon and Garth when you guys are an American avant-garde group?’ But we never thought of ourselves as experimental or avant-garde, we were just pursuing the timeless song, as they were; that’s why it all seemed to get along so well.”!/justincrockett/status/192416285248860161!/mercuryrevvd/status/192801209457971200!/mercuryrevvd/status/192774414398537728!/billybragg/status/193088819900325890!/akronfamily/status/193066647790174208!/MidlakeBand/status/192364119331061760!/WilcoNews/status/193056299200692224!/TheDoors/status/193078659131785216!/yimyames/status/192451214426910722!/yimyames/status/193061330272526336!/okkervilriver/status/192359259005124608!/The_National/status/193058602829885440!/NekoCase/status/192410747765129216!/questlove/status/193090970013806592!/davidbazan/status/193060228722470913!/colinmeloy/status/193082167516078080!/gracepotter/status/193067963404918784!/The_National/status/193098163966574592

Five-time Grammy Award winner Donna Summer is best known as the queen of disco but her impact reaches much farther.  She helped popularized long tracks (the album version of “Love to Love You Baby” is nearly 17 minutes for example; and she was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums top the Billboard 200).  Through this she also created landmarks in the history of pop music as means of expressing female sexuality.  Under the influence of Kraftwerk, she and Giorgio Moroder pioneered electronic dance tracks, and synthesized music in general.  Brian Eno and David Bowie – in the midst of their “Berlin Trilogy” – immediately recognized “I Feel Love” as “the future.”  Prior her futuristic disco however she was the frontwoman of psych rock band Crow, and toured in the cast of Hair.  Perhaps the diversity of her work and impact explains why everybody from Best Coast to Tom Morello grieved her death.

Bee Gees’ singer, songwriter, and co-founder Robin Gibb died on May 20th from liver and kidney failure.  His final performance was last February at a charity concert supporting injured British servicemen and women.   Many musicians – crossing generations and genres – were touched by Gibb’s music.  For example, The Bee Gees’ are one of the bands at the core of the Flaming Lips’ sensibilities and they’ve covered “I Started a Joke,” “Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You,” and “To Love Somebody” – all early BeeGees’ pop nuggets (subsequently shadowed by their disco hits in the mid/late-’70s). Wayne Coyne has repeatedly spoken highly of their ’60s work but on VH1′s recent series 100 Greatest Artists of All Time he expressed equal enthusiasm for their better known work, saying: “That Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, you hear it so much that you forget how phenomenal it is. I mean even today you hear it and it’s just amazing.”

Wayne Coyne on “Lonely Days,” strange arrangement…spooky harmonies…slightly out-of-time… bad handclaps instead of a drumkit…I don’t hear it often enough, and when I do it’s like a time machine. Suddenly, it’s 1970, I’m in fourth grade, in love with my childhood crush.”

There are many ways to appreciate Ravi Shankar.  To many he’s primarily known as George Harrison’s teacher and friend, and a man who impacted music that had little in common with his own (The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” Stevie Wonder‘s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” etc).  To others he’s the artist who brought overt spirituality to ’60s music festivals like Monterey and Woodstock.   To some he’s the guru to first offer ideas to rockers beyond their Chuck Berry, blues and Americana roots.  It’s hard to imagine what “psychedelic music” would be without his influence – though he shunned being associated with it.  Even more basic is his position as the first “world musician” star.  Forget about his “impact” though and just listen to the beauty of his playing…

Finally, though not musicians per se, let’s not forget the tragic deaths at Aurora, Newtown and other (less newsworthy but equally senseless) crimes.

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