Part of my normal weekday routine involves picking up my kids from school and daycare. We normally ride home listening to satellite radio, with me calling my six-year-old's attention to any novelty song that might play on the 80's channel. His current favorite is "Jungle Love" by The Time, especially the part where the band sings "Oh-we-oh-we-oh!" While driving home last Thursday, the deejay came on one of the pop music stations to announce that singer Donna Summer had passed away at the age of 63 from lung cancer. They then played Summer's disco classic "Hot Stuff." My eldest child, who I'd never really noticed monitoring the lyrics of any song that didn't sound funny to his ears, piped up about halfway through Summer's ditty about searching for no-strings-attached companionship ("Lookin' for some hot stuff, baby, this evenin'"). "Daddy," began my six year old, "is she saying she's looking for pasta?" I stifled a laugh, and then, given that I'm a responsible parent who wants my children to see the world for what it is, promptly lied my butt off. "Why yes...yes, Nigel," I said, barely missing a beat, "She's singing about pasta." Hey, what would you have done? I thought so.
The passing of Summer got me thinking though. Perhaps it is just me, but it seems as if 2012, which isn't even half-over yet, has been a particularly brutal year so far when it comes to musician deaths. Here's a list of some of the more notable artists that succumbed in the first five months of 2012: Davy Jones; Whitney Houston; Etta James; Andrew Love (Memphis Horns); Levon Helm; Charles Pitts (guitarist for Isaac Hayes); Adam Yauch; Chuck Brown (the "Godfather of Go-Go music"); Donald "Duck" Dunn; (bassist for Booker T and The MGs, The Blues Brothers Band); and Summer—not to mention the one-two punch of Don Cornelius and Dick Clark. Indeed, just in the time between Summer's death and me having a bit of free time we've lost two more: Robin Gibb of The Bee Gees and former Crowded House drummer Peter Jones.
The way things are going now, it will take about half of next year's Grammy Awards broadcast to honor all of the artists that passed in 2012. Of all the names mentioned above, it was probably the deaths of Helm and Yauch that affected me the most. Helm, who sang and played drums for The Band, was high on my list of the world's coolest musicians (still is, actually). Before The Band became "The Band," they were called Levon and The Hawks, and for a time served as Bob Dylan's backing band, including during his infamous show at the Royal Albert Hall when Bob actually dared to plug in an electric guitar and (gasp!) play rock music. After renaming themselves The Band, Levon and his bandmates released what I consider to be some of the best roots rock music of the 60's and 70's. Helm, Robbie Robertson, and the rest of The Band was alt-country before alt-country existed. The Band's farewell concert in 1976, filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as the film and album "The Last Waltz," is tied at #1 with Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense" as the best concert film of all time in my opinion. Although the band reunited later on without Robertson, it was Helm's Midnight Rambles, held in a barn on his property in Woodstock, New York, that reinvigorated the artist after a nasty bout with throat cancer. Anyone could buy a ticket to the weekly shows, and besides Helm and his band, one never knew who was going to show up. Never being able to attend a Midnight Ramble is one of my biggest regrets when it comes to live music. Helm was a fighter to the end, releasing new material, including the Grammy-winning 2007 release "Dirt Farmer."
As for Yauch, a.k.a. MCA of the Beastie Boys, well what can I say, except that I grew up with the music produced by those snotty white rappers from Brooklyn. Yauch was always my favorite Beastie Boys member, at first because he seemed more dangerous than his bandmates Ad Rock and Mike D., and later on because he seemed more enlightened after embracing Buddhism. I was a sophomore in high school when the group's debut album, Licensed To Ill, was released. I was already into rap, thanks to early exposure to groups such as RUN-DMC and Fat Boys, but the Beastie Boys struck a nerve with not only me, but every potentially rebellious teenager in the 80's. Where my parents had annoyed their parents with Elvis Presley's music in the 50's, so did I cause them to plug their ears when I blasted "Paul Revere" in my room over and over. The Beastie Boys' sophomore effort, Paul's Boutique, is easily one of the top ten rap albums ever. I finally got a chance to see my idols live in 2009 at the Bonnaroo Festival in what would turn out to be the trio's final live performance together. It was everything I expected and more. Less than a month later the band announced that Yauch was battling cancer of the salivary gland. By the time the Beasties were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, Yauch was too ill (no pun intended) to attend. A few weeks later he was gone.
But back to that car ride home, where I intentionally lied to my six-year-old son to avoid having to explain what was meant by "Hot Stuff." I'd never really been a huge Donna Summer fan, or so I thought up until the time of her death last week. After hearing the tribute that played that afternoon on my satellite radio, I realized that I knew a lot more of her music than I thought I did. Sure, "Last Dance" was a given, as was "Bad Girls," with it's catchy background vocals of "toot-toot, aw, beep-beep." But I had forgotten about hits such as "I Feel Love" and "She Works Hard for the Money." Summer was definitely a talent, and like most talented minds, she was taken from us far too soon. Inevitably the list of artists will grow as 2012 progresses (did anyone think Keith Richards would outlive Whitney Houston?), so for now all we can do is honor their memory and play their music. Loudly. Like, enough for your parents to hear, even though you don't live with them anymore.
All photos: Copyright 2009 Devin Grant Photography