Prince, Bowie, and Others: Why Does it Matter to Us?

In these early months of 2016, we’ve seen a tremendous outpouring of grief, all over the world, at the news of the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and other important musicians. On the surface, this might seem odd; after all, the vast majority of us were not personally or even distantly acquainted with any of these musical artists. This vast grief goes way beyond mere empathy for the death of a fellow human being—this is really personal. But why do we, total strangers to these musicians and their families, feel this loss so deeply?

You are shaped by your music as surely as by your genes. A song imprints itself on you during the most traumatic, mundane, or blissful events of your life, and whatever happens afterward, that music will be a part of your personality forever. No matter how profound—or silly—that song might be.

Music and roses

Think about it. You hear the opening chord of a song from ten or fifteen years ago, and instantly you are Back There. You remember that first crush, or that graduation ceremony, or driving to the vet with your sick cat for the very last time (oh, “Bright Eyes”)—and you remember every sound, you feel the rain or see the glaring sunshine, and you feel again every intense emotion you felt at that exact moment. You are once again wearing those platform shoes and that big hair and those blazers with the huge shoulders—oh wait. Am I projecting again?

But it’s true that, in my case, the music of the eighties is indelibly linked to who I was then. My “Here Comes the Rain Again” depression in the spring of 1984 blossomed into a brilliant and wonderful summer (“Might as well jump. Jump!”). Early Queensryche and late Pink Floyd were my soundtrack for visits to southern California in the nineties. And The Prayer Cycle album by Jonathan Elias led me through two pre-2001 visits to Manhattan and soared through my mourning on 9/11.

There are probably many reasons why music accompanies and shapes our lives. Surely our attraction stems first from the rhythms of our mothers’ bodies when we were in the womb and then the rhythms of our own bodies. But I think we’ve got a symbiotic two-way relationship to music where it both affects how we feel and lets us express how we feel.

Music and fireI remember when the evangelical church began railing against Jesus Rock music; anti-rock prophets assured everyone that rock rhythms altered people’s brains so much that they became literally incapable of choosing good over evil. The idea that music can remove free will is, of course, ridiculous—yet there’s no question it can influence our moods. In the past, sometimes the best cure for my gloomy mood was to play the anthemic “Never Give Up” by Boulevard, followed by “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin.

On the other side of things, music lets us express ourselves. David Miller, a professor of mine at Syracuse University, once said that when you’re feeling sad, it can be good to play sad music. Happy music can force the sad feelings down, where they fester without being dealt with. But sad music helps you get those feelings out into the open so they can dissipate. (It’s true. During that tough Syracuse year, the sad “Cruising for Bruising” by Basia, together with “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips, almost singlehandedly kept me alive.)

Everywhere on this planet, human beings make music. We can’t help ourselves. Music is our constant companion, our first impulse, and for most of us, our psychological necessity.

In 2004, after all my stuff had been in storage several hundred miles away for four and a half lonely years, at last I managed to get everything shipped to my new home. On a glorious, sunny Saturday, I finally got to open my hundred boxes—books and CDs first. Box after box, I found treasures I hadn’t heard in all that time. I hugged my Police CDs to my chest and cried. I played Peter Gabriel and Pink Floyd. I played Loreena McKennitt and Tchaikovsky. I played The Prayer Cycle, and Officium by the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek.

What I felt and actually think was true was that long lost pieces of my soul were whirling back into me and making me a whole person again. That music was me—and I was back! That’s what music does. That’s what music is.

And when we lose those musicians who had also become parts of our personality over the years, we have indeed lost a genuine part of ourselves.

(A version of this article previously appeared in the June 2013 issue of the now-defunct Zen Dixie magazine.)


k.d. lang Makes Luminato Fans Yell “Hallelujah!”

kd lang

Hallelujah, what a voice!

I think k.d. lang could coax music out of a rock. Watching and hearing her coax and tease each note from a quiet, tender song, and then belt out a ballad with such pure voice and power, you start to wonder if there’s anything, musically, that she can’t do. I admit, though, that my own favourite moment in last night’s free concert for Toronto’s Luminato arts festival was when Ms. lang sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

I confess that I’ve always disliked that song, feeling like it was melodically kind of boring. But when lang did it on her “Hymns of the 49th Parallel” album, all of that changed. For me, it typifies how she puts her whole soul into a song, pulling every nuance of meaning and emotion from it and sharing it with the audience. I stood in David Pecuat Square, downtown, under the stars with several thousand others, and listened literally in tears.

Once a year, for ten days, Luminato fills Toronto with art, music, and literature. Some of the events in other venues can get pricey, but the festival makes sure that there are plenty of free events too, so no arts lover is left out. And clearly, they  don’t skimp at all, even for events that are free. From Halifax alternative band, The Joel Plaskett Emergency, to Arabic fusion with Yemen Blues and the Sultans of String, to k.d. lang last night, the concerts at David Pecaut Square have been of the best quality — and the greatest fun.

The American band, the Belle Brigade,  who are currently supporting lang on her tour, got us all warmed up with some great folk rock music. But of course the square was primarily  packed with fans of lang’s music, and every one of us responded to her the same way. We swayed to “Hallelujah,” and we clapped and danced to the more lively songs, pulled by lang’s personality and artistry into what felt like an intimate circle of friends. (As she remarked at one point, “Many of you, especially of the female persuasion, may feel yourself drawn toward the stage. I want you to know…this is normal.”)

And when lang and her band, the Siss Boom Bang, burst into a hard rock version of “Constant Craving” (which had been released in a more country style originally), that was the crown of the evening for me. To combine one of my favourite k.d. lang songs with my love of hard rock, well, it made the night perfect. And again — musically speaking, there’s apparently nothing she can’t do.

Even the weather cooperated, being warm but not oppressive. And after the concert, everyone seemed relaxed and fulfilled, strolling and chatting along the streets on the way to their cars or public transit. This great festival is almost over for another year, with just this weekend remaining. But Ms. lang and the Siss Boom Bang made sure that it’s going out with a bang indeed.

Can I get a “Hallelujah?”

Trifecta – Guitar-lovers get a Triple Treat

Pavlo, Rik Emmett, and Oscar Lopez after "Trifecta" concert

Pavlo, Rik Emmett, Oscar Lopez

Those of us who love the guitar experienced a triple treat recently at Koerner Hall, at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. Three guitarists who are known for their music in different styles – the Latin musician, Oscar Lopez, Rik Emmett of hard rock fame, and Pavlo the Mediterranean guitarist – came together in a concert in support of their marvelous album, Trifecta. And to say it was a magical evening is an understatement.

The album itself had been an experiment in combining styles that have their own distinct flavours to see how well they could mesh. While Latin and Mediterranean music may sound similar and work more organically together, could they then be successfully combined with a rock ‘n’ roll sound? These three musicians gave us a living demonstration that they can.

There is something about watching master craftsmen at work that is just riveting. It didn’t matter what type of music these men were playing: their hands and fingers moved with such ease and control along those strings that you could almost believe the guitars were mere extensions of their own bodies. And they could coax divine sounds from them with the mere flick of a couple of fingers and the fine movements of a guitar pick.

Koerner Hall interior, Royal Conservatory, Toronto

Koerner Hall

The rock element was somewhat toned down, with the Latin and Mediterranean sound often predominating, as Emmett provided background rhythm and power chords during Pavlo’s or Lopez’s complex finger work. But the guitar leads of a hard rock band are swift and intricate, so Emmett was perfectly equipped whenever he soared into the same heady realms as his counterparts.

The atmosphere of the concert was warm and almost cozy, partly due to the genius of Koerner Hall itself. It’s arranged so that nobody is that far from the main stage. And the warm colours and soft woods around the stage and beamed across the high ceiling guarantees an intimate sound. Pavlo remarked that he’d been to Koerner hall soon after it opened last year, and immediately thought, “This is where we have to play!” He turned to us in the audience and said, “Isn’t this the perfect place for this concert?”

The musicians have been touring, off and on, since January, so they obviously know each other very well by now. Lopez often got the others laughing, and there was a lot of entertaining banter back and forth. At one point, Pavlo and Lopez goaded Emmett into getting up and demonstrating the patented “pelvic thrust” which, he explained, “every rocker has to learn at rock school.” Some of their giddiness might have stemmed from the fact that this was the final concert of their long tour. But the three musicians seemed genuinely relaxed and enjoying each other’s company.

At these moments, we in the audience felt as though we were part of a big family just hanging out and amusing ourselves. But each time these three guitarists got back down to business and began to play again, we were lifted to another realm entirely. A realm of brilliant skill and exquisite music that left us breathless.