Heres a rewarding exercise: Assemble a playlist of songs by recently dead musicians. This list will almost certainly be random, and in the case of those who died in 2013, it could hardly be more so.
Reg Presley, of the 60s garage band The Troggs, famous for their version of Wild Thing, died in February. Slim Whitman, whose career evolved from cowboy crooner to punch line, died having sold more than 70 million records. Richie Havens, whose great claim and burden was to have been first onstage at Woodstock, died in April.
The list would also include Eydie Gorme; jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd; Risë Stevens, the opera singer who owned Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera in the 40s and 50s; Alan Myers, Devos drummer; J.J. Cale; George Jones; Bobby Blue Bland.
Its not what you would call a coherent mix. But when these artists are removed from their usual context classic rock radio, say, or the Met surprising sounds emerge from music you thought you knew back to front. For instance: The relationship between Whitmans high-lonesome yodel and Stevens vaulting mezzo is not obvious. But in the ear buds, played back to back, they make an inspired pair. Within this artificial framework, you have a chance to hear their songs as if for the first time.
Consider Patty Andrews, the youngest of the Andrews Sisters and the trios lead singer, who died this year at 94. Reflexively, some might assume Patty and her sisters were square.
But Rum and Coca-Cola, despite its pokey island rhythms, swings with real joy. You get the sense that the cultural baggage that came later they were, after all, three white ladies slumming in calypso misses the point (even if its accurate). Its just a great record, and the Andrews Sisters clearly loved making it, even if they later acknowledged the lyrics went over their heads.
Light My Fire happened to come up on my iPod the day after Ray Manzarek died this spring. Manzareks baroque Vox organ line in that song is an instant signifier for recreational drug use, free love, impending decay. Maybe I was being sentimental, but all that 60s stuff evaporated. Instead, you could hear ambition and vitality. You could hear the vanity of a young guy who had no idea he had written a riff that would endure for decades and you could tell that he had no idea that he wouldnt be writing many more like it.
In the days after Lou Reeds death in October, it was revelatory to listen to Velvet Underground and Lou Reed solo records. I once assumed that the tenderness in a song such as Perfect Day was surely ironic; youd have to be a monster to think that now. How could I have missed the pathos in Beginning to See the Light? I met myself in a dream, and I just wanna tell you: Everything was all right.
We all know that Lou Reed was the quintessential difficult artist. What seems to have been obscured over the years is that he was also kind of a softy.