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Timothy Finn: Iconic musicians leave behind a potent legacy in a music world in transition

The music world has lost many legends in recent months, including David Bowie, Natalie Cole, Lemmy Kilmister, B.B. King and Ornette Coleman.
The music world has lost many legends in recent months, including David Bowie, Natalie Cole, Lemmy Kilmister, B.B. King and Ornette Coleman.

The recent death of David Bowie prompted a tide of mourning from generations of music fans in virtually every medium, from Facebook and Twitter to mainstream journalism and network news. Even sports-talk radio shows paid tribute to Bowie’s life and career by bumping his music between content and commercials.

Bowie’s death shook a music world still reeling from the losses of Lemmy Kilmister, founder of the heavy metal band Motörhead, who died on Dec. 28, four days after his 70th birthday, and singer Natalie Cole, who died Dec. 31 at the age of 65.

They were but two of dozens of famed musicians who died in 2015, a list that includes B.B. King, Allen Toussaint, Ornette Coleman, Little Jimmy Dickens, Ben E. King, Percy Sledge, Scott Weiland, Lesley Gore, Chris Squire, Lynn Anderson and Gary Richrath.

Rock ’n’ roll music is in its seventh decade, and its roster of stars and legends is aging. Some of its most revered stars are now in their 70s and approaching the gloaming of their careers, people like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, three of the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.

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Some of the greatest rock bands are still touring, but many aren’t what they used to be. AC/DC will perform at the Sprint Center on Feb. 29 but will be without founding guitarist Malcolm Young, 63, who is suffering dementia, and its longtime drummer Phil Rudd, who is mired in legal issues.

The Who is coming to the Sprint Center in April to celebrate its 50th anniversary, but it is down to two original members, Roger Daltrey, 71, and Pete Townshend, 70, and the band has twice postponed shows on this tour because Daltrey was suffering health issues.

Several bands have announced or finished (supposed) farewell tours, including the Grateful Dead, Motley Crue and Black Sabbath, who will perform at the Sprint Center on Feb. 17. Van Halen made the rounds in 2014, including a stop in Kansas City, but given the state of David Lee Roth’s voice these days, there can’t be much mileage left on those tires.

Bowie’s death and the illustrious career it brought back into the limelight make it tempting to lament the passing of a bygone era and grouse about the state of music today. Our rock stars used to be larger than life and veiled in mystique. They lived glamorously and lavishly. They rebelled. They were idolized.

And they made music that endured. Our culture wasn’t as niched then as it is now, so radio and other media could attract a more monolithic audience and help produce and promote megastars who sold out arenas and stadiums. Album releases and concerts were events, like births, anticipated weeks and months before delivery.

More music is being produced than ever. A lot of it is good, some of it is great. But the landscape seems lacking in music and stars that will be revered 30 or 40 years from now. Radio is fragmented into dozens of formats, diluting its power. Few stations give time to new, experimental acts, requiring instead conformity or predictability.

And fans today have nearly unlimited access to the stars, who can blurt out every random thought or document every trivial moment via social media. Mystique is dead. The goal now is to accumulate friends and followers and be liked and re-tweeted by all. The more information exposed, no matter how inane, the better. But it only brings the stars closer to their fans, makes them seem more like us.

“Don’t mistake today’s touring behemoths with the stars of yesterday,” wrote critic/commentator Bob Lefsetz in a tribute to Lemmy. “There were no cameras, your life was as wild as you could imagine, you made it up as you went along, and you had millions hanging on every word.”

There are exceptions among the new generation, blockbuster stars with enormous followings, Taylor Swift and Adele among them. But the rule is less optimistic.

Album sales continue to fall, and recorded music is no longer a primary or stable source of income. So bands must tour more often to remain solvent. Some play the same city twice within the same year. Take, for example, Father John Misty, who headlined a show at the Granada in Lawrence in April 2015, opened for Alabama Shakes at Starlight a month later and will headline a show at the Uptown Theater on April 12. Too much familiarity can breed indifference.

There are still some bigger-than-life music stars with time on their side and music that will endure: U2, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Kanye West, Jay Z, Beyoncé. Foo Fighters seem to be in it for the long haul. So do Jack White and Justin Timberlake, who continue to recharge and reinvent themselves.

Swift has deftly navigated one transition, from teen star to adulthood, attracting two or more generations of fans along the way. Longevity seems likely. Likewise for Adele. Her latest album, “25,” broke a first-week sales record set in 2000 and has aroused the kind of reverence reserved for all-time classics like Carole King’s “Tapestry.” Katy Perry? Lady Gaga? Justin Bieber? Miley Cyrus? Maybe.

But the system seems stacked against those pursuing stardom from the ground floor, as someone like Bowie did. In response to the death of actor Alan Rickman, British folk singer Billy Bragg posted this observation:

“It’s not only the timing of his death and the fact that he, too, was 69 that links him to David Bowie. Both were working-class kids … who went to art school where they gained enough confidence in their own creativity that they were able to go on to find fame and fortune. Is it still possible for working-class kids to realize their potential in such a way? The arts schools are almost gone; those that survive now charge a fortune. The social mobility that Rickman and Bowie experienced is increasingly stifled.”

Also gone is the machinery that helped artists like Bowie and Lemmy rise through the system and into stardom, including the labels that nurtured and supported them. Yes, YouTube can detonate a career like it did Bieber’s, but for the most part, the prospects of success are dim. In an essay for the Houston Press titled “Why I’ll Probably Never Release Another Album,” Jef Rouner explained why he broke up his band and left the music industry for music journalism.

“I no longer have any idea what to do with an album once it’s out,” he wrote. “What comes after in an age when all the old paradigms have fallen, save for the chosen few that iTunes deems worthy? I can make something, but I no longer know where to sell it or who is buying. … There is no ‘making it’ any more. There’s no record deal to be had. There’s no talent scout out there looking for the plucky next thing to guide. There’s no trusted DJ guiding listeners on new discoveries.”

That’s a sobering assessment from someone who felt forced to give up something he loved. But how can you find the light at the end of the tunnel if there is no tunnel?

The music world has received more bad news recently. Bernie Worrell, keyboardist and founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic, revealed he has stage 4 lung and liver cancer. And R&B singer Clarence Reid, who also performs as the salacious masked rapper Blowfly, revealed he is in hospice, suffering from liver cancer and organ failure. Both are in their 70s.

When their times come, we will mourn their passings. And like the deaths of Bowie, Lemmy and Cole, it will remind us of an era and heyday that has slipped away.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

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