Death, grief and illness in music 2016

The loss of so many musical icons and local heroes saw Torontonians come together to do a lot of public grieving this year


In a year full of headline-making deaths and illnesses, the passing of soul singer Sharon Jones stood out. 

The 60-year-old was a late-in-life success story by the standards of the youth-obsessed music industry. An immense vocal talent full of raw power and with an energetic stage presence, she attained commercial success after age 40 with her band the Dap-Kings. When she died following strokes related to a battle with pancreatic cancer on November 18, she was surrounded by family and her 11-member band.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Daptone Records co-founder and Dap-Kings bass player Gabriel Roth described Jones’s final days in a Cooperstown, New York, hospital. 

“That part of her that’s singing, that part of her that made music and that loved music and that was musical just didn’t want to go. It was just so strong,” he said. “That was really beautiful, really beautiful, and I’m really glad that the band had a chance to spend that last musical moment with her and sing with her.”

So many big names in music died or announced illnesses this year that it’s become an understatement to call 2016 a rough one. Ever the trendsetter, David Bowie set the tone early on by releasing the elegaic album Blackstar in January and promptly dying of liver cancer two days later at 69.

When Prince overdosed on fentanyl at 59 in April, it felt surreal. By the time Leonard Cohen succumbed to cancer in November at 82, the mourning felt bleakly familiar. Earth, Wind And Fire’s Maurice White, A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg, Suicide’s Alan Vega, Toronto rapper King Reign and composer Pauline Oliveros had also passed by then, with groundbreaking DJ David Mancuso following on November 14.

News of the Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie’s terminal cancer diagnosis galvanized fans across Canada in May, and Downie used the attention to make a political call to action on Indigenous issues. Then there were the 49 people shot to death in an Orlando gay club Pulse in June and the 36 people who died in a warehouse dance party fire in Oakland earlier this month. 

Grim, grim, grim.

The instantaneous nature of social media gave these deaths and tragedies – and others to numerous to list – an urgency and immediacy that manifested offline. 

Thousands showed up for a Cohen memorial in Christie Pits led by Choir! Choir! Choir!, a community choir that, after Bowie’s death, went viral this year thanks to its 550-person performance of Space Oddity first at the AGO and then at Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall, alongside Debbie Harry, Wayne Coyne, Bettye Lavette and others. 

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Choir! Choir! Choir!

Then there were the coincidentally timed concerts by Bowie’s backing band, Holy Holy, in January, which suddenly became hot tickets and sold out, with fans lining up inside the Opera House for a chance to sign the condolences book that would be delivered to Bowie’s family. 

Many influential musicians from the past four decades will inevitably die in the years ahead, prompting more tributes and public wakes. It’s as if fans are mourning a time when artists who took risks could attain a certain scale and influence, when the music industry was flush with money and the musician’s craft was not devalued and turned into a marketing tool for merch, clothing lines and  other “ancillary” businesses. As Anohni put it in an interview with the Creative Independent, “You see artists hailed as a new generation of independents, only to be enlisted to leverage product.”

Prince and Bowie attained high levels of artistic freedom, and their deaths resonate so much because they challenged social norms, were hugely talented and somehow rose above the industry bullshit to create on their own terms. Bowie’s final work, the cosmic jazz-indebted Blackstar, is a testament to that.

Cohen was not as lucky. He endured a decade of legal woes with an ex-manager whom he accused of harassment and of swindling him out of $5 million. He sued her successfully for $9.5 million, but was forced to tour well into his 70s to recoup the lost earnings. The shows nonetheless won rave reviews, and so did his albums, including this year’s stellar You Want It Darker.

That’s why the story of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings is all the more poignant. A small independent label created a community and attained the kind of artistic freedom that has eluded so many others. She didn’t have the profile of Prince or Bowie, but she had tenacity, talent and community. It can be hard to keep a band of just four people together, so the fact that Jones died surrounded by all 11 of her bandmates is a powerful testament to the kind of life she lived.

As we consider the significance of fundraising campaigns in the wake of the Orlando shooting or the Oakland fire, or the umpteen public memorials, it’s worth remembering that this type of communal spirit doesn’t always have to be reactive and fleeting. 

At the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, the connection and camaraderie between Jones and her band were apparent at the premiere of Barbara Kopple’s documentary Miss Sharon Jones! After the screening, Jones participated in a Q&A surrounded by her band, management and caregivers, to huge applause from the crowd. She  announced that her cancer had returned, but refused to let the mood sour and ended the screening by singing a song.

“I sing because I’m happy,” she belted. “And I sing because I’m free.”  

kevinr@nowtoronto.com | @kevinritchie

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