Today, I learned legendary jazz guitarist Larry Coryell passed away at age 73. My dad was a big fan of his. While I’m not as knowledgeable about Coryell’s music as I would like to be, I was well aware of his influence in the music community. His passing is a huge loss.
I lost another one of my favorite musicians recently when bassist and vocalist John Wetton lost his battle with cancer. He was 67 years old.
In the mid ‘80s, I heard Wetton as the lead vocalist with King Crimson, a role he held between 1972 and ’74. He also fronted progressive rock “supergroups” U.K. and Asia, among many other bands and projects. The power of both Wetton’s bass and voice could stunt a team of oxen in its tracks.
And now – like David Bowie, Prince, and countless others – he’s gone.
Like many other fans, I prefer to think my favorite musicians are immortal, even if we know that’s not true. In our minds, they will always be in their prime. I suppose that’s because our image of musicians is frozen in time, usually in the form of a CD or concert video. The cover art and videos show us the musicians as they were, ageless and invincible. The truth is far more … well, depressing. It’s one thing to see your family members age. After all, you’re around them every day. Seeing the effect time has on your favorite musicians is something else entirely.
But that’s life, isn’t it? Time waits for no man. As journalist Mike Wilbon once said, “Father Time is undefeated.” Nobody gets out alive. My favorite musicians are no exception.
When I think of my musical heroes, I realize I have followed many of them for 30 years or more. Some of them started their careers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when they were in their 20s and 30s. Time hasn’t stopped for them either. And we’re almost two decades into the 21st century.
I think of the obituaries I’ve been reading, and I’m suddenly reminded of a line from Battlestar Galactica: “All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.”
Against my better judgment, I checked the ages of 25 of my favorite musicians. Their average age was just over 66. At first, I was stunned. But then I remembered how long I’ve been following their careers. Sadly, it all made perfect sense.
Adrian Belew, my idol, is 67. That makes him about average. He was a member of the ‘80s King Crimson, which is my favorite version of the band. Robert Fripp, the leader of that group, is 70. So is bassist Tony Levin. Drummer Bill Bruford is 67, and retired several years ago.
Miles Davis died in 1991 at age 65. He had a knack for surrounding himself with younger, hip musicians. His 1965-’68 band is among my all-time favorites. Drummer Tony Williams died in 1997 at 51. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter is 83, pianist Herbie Hancock is 76, and bassist Ron Carter is 79. Wow!
Foolishly, I dug deeper. I can still see video of pianists Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett during their time with Miles. They looked like they walked into the studio after attending Woodstock. Chick is 75 now, and Jarrett is 71. Sheesh! Stanley Clarke and Billy Cobham played some of the most earth-shattering jazz-fusion of the ‘70s. Clarke is now 65 and Cobham is 72. Even bassist Marcus Miller is now 57. It boggles the mind, even when it shouldn’t.
How cool is it that Jeff Beck is still breaking new ground at age 72? I still think of Al DiMeola as a 19-year-old wunderkind in Return to Forever. That was a long time ago, because Al is 62 now. It’s hard to get upset with Peter Gabriel for not producing more music. He is 65, after all. I remember how excited I was to see the Police reunion tour back in ’07. Their playing was better than ever. That’s saying something considering Sting was 55, Andy Summers was 64, and Stewart Copeland was 54. They’re still making music, albeit not together. And you can add a decade on to each age.
Only one of my current musical heroes, Steven Wilson, is under 50. And he’s 49. That figures.
It happens to us all. As much as I want to be the 13-year-old kid playing records in his bedroom, I turned 50 two months ago. Time stops for no man. And so I resign myself to the knowledge I will probably read a lot more of these obituaries as time goes on.
My biggest worry was trying to figure out how to go on without people like Bowie, Prince, Frank Zappa, and John Wetton in my life. I got the answer from guitarist John McLaughlin, who played with Miles in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. (By the way, McLaughlin is 74 now.) He wrote a poem not long after Miles died, expressing his sadness over the loss of his mentor. “I miss you Miles,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.” That’s when McLaughlin said he heard Miles’s raspy voice offering him a simple reminder: “Play the tape, John!”
We’ll always have the music. Lucky for all of us, that part is immortal.