It was one of the worst years in history, and not just because it ended with Kanye West, rap’s greatest antihero in intolerant New America, slobbering on the knob of Donald Trump.
About the only good thing that happened in 2016 was that Keith Richards didn’t die.
Then again, the more superstitious among us will note that even bringing this up is bad luck—kind of like talking about how a goalie is working on a shutout when there’s still three minutes left in a hockey game. And even though Richards has the genetic makeup of a New York City cockroach, they’ve got a point.
There’s still just under two weeks left in 2016, and this is one year when you don’t want to tempt God (the real one, not Kanye West). Don’t forget that the man upstairs took the seemingly indestructible Lemmy Kilmister just three days before the sand ran out on 2015, so it’s not like He’s above making last-minute decisions.
In hindsight, the sudden death of Kilmister—the hard-drinking, Marlboro smoking, wart-festooned face of Motörhead—was an early warning of what was coming for 2016.
The bad news this year started just 10 days in, when David Bowie joined Major Tom somewhere in the vast great blackness beyond Earth. What shocked us the most was that we had no heads-up that it was going to happen. The Thin White Duke had been diagnosed with liver cancer 18 months previously but chose to keep the news to himself and those closest to him.
One day he was here, getting ready to spring his final triumph, Blackstar, upon us. The next he was strutting around in heaven in glitter-spackled platforms, a lightning bolt proudly painted on his face.
If his death hurt more than most celebrity passings, it’s because Bowie was somehow something bigger than a rock star whose star burned brightly over an incredible six decades. The man born David Robert Jones was a revolutionary in the purest sense of the term, changing the world’s attitudes toward sexuality, art, fashion, and the right to wear clown suits while walking up the beach in front of a bulldozer.
Cue up the official video for “Ashes to Ashes” on YouTube for a potent reminder of why he’ll be epically missed.
Bowie’s death was just a taste of the horrors to come. Eight days later, the Eagles’ Glenn Frey discovered he wasn’t in it for the long run after all, dying from a combination of pneumonia, ulcerative colitis, and arthritis. While Mojo Nixon probably wasn’t shedding any tears, everyone who ever sat in front of a Himalayan pile of coke in the ’70s certainly was.
If you’ve ever found yourself singing “They stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast,” you have no right to deny his genius.
April took two outlaws—Prince and Merle Haggard—from radically different playing fields. The brilliance of iconic renegade Haggard was the way that he pissed off all factions of country music. Pinkos, commies, and war protesters couldn’t figure out if Hag was taking dead aim at them in “Okie From Muskogee”.
Intolerant rednecks, meanwhile, found themselves asking which team Haggard was really playing for every time he issued a statement like his Barack Obama–inspired “It’s really almost criminal what they do with our president. They call him all kinds of names all day long, saying he’s doing certain things that he’s not.” In the end Haggard spoke for all of us who are struggling to get by in a world where the rich continue to get richer, and the poor end up fleeing Vancouver.
If you’re among those wondering where the money is going to come from once the Christmas credit-card bills arrive, one spin of Hag’s “If We Make It Through December” will speak to you in ways Garth Brooks can only dream of.
At the risk of enraging @fuckclevernames on Twitter, I never got Prince and never will. That might have everything to do with an aversion to synchronized dancing in ’80s music videos, an inability to appreciate Jimi Hendrix, and a general dislike of anything to do with synth-laden funk.
Sometimes, though—even if you have a weak spot for “Raspberry Beret”—you find yourself alone on an island, and the April 21 death of Prince was traumatizing for many because of the way that it went down.
No one wanted one of the most charismatic sex machines in the history of pop music to die at home alone in his mansion’s elevator. As an unrepentant pervert, Prince, who was 57, deserved to go out in bed in the middle of a massive sex session, not as yet another fentanyl victim.
Speaking of sex machines, thumbs up to Leonard Cohen for making it to age 82 with more class than any of us will ever have. Actually, pervert is too harsh a word—it’s more that the guy was a Lothario who had game right up to the end. True story: a friend met Cohen at a MuchMusic party when she was in her 20s and the Canadian icon was in his 50s. She asked for an autograph, and got a piece of paper back asking her if she’d be interested in retiring to his room.
When the Earth finally implodes there’s only one song that’s truly fit to usher us all to a better place, and that’s “Hallelujah”. And hopefully, that place will look a lot like what Kurt Cobain was hoping for in his epically sad “Pennyroyal Tea”, when he sang “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally.”
There will be no shortage of 2016 arrivals there, some of them legends, many of them beloved, including R&B soul queen Sharon Jones, alternative pioneer Alan Vega, and ska giant Prince Buster. In the meantime, please spend the next 12 days or so praying that Keith Richards doesn’t become a late addition to this year’s saddest of parties.