2016 will go down in history as the year in which all of our heroes died. Most everything that happened felt like a cold darkness, and the world feels like a worse place. Here are a few thoughts from our writers about a few of our favorites who passed away this last year…
by Michelle Viray
I first met Sharon Jones at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco a few years ago, but the first time I ever saw her perform was at Bimbo’s 365 Club about 10 years ago. She was unlike any performer I had seen before. She was cool, fun, sassy, and full of explosive talent. She asked a few young men to come on stage so she could sing to them; it was her performance of the yet-to-be-released “Genuine Pt. 1”. As she sang the verse, “You gotta be genuine, if you’re gonna be mine,” the guys attempted to impress her with their charming, but terrible, dance moves. Sharon would grab them by the hand, singing sweetly, “I’m gonna turn around and say I’ll say so long, bye-bye,” leading them directly to the stage. The crowd went crazy! She said so much in those verses and her simple actions; she made you think about how we treat one another as people, and how music should really be.
After countless shows, as well as shooting her headlining performance at the Daptone Show Revue in Austin, her time at Davies Symphony Hall is what I remember the most. She filled that entire room with her energy, bringing a few ladies on stage to dance, asking them to do “The Pony! The Jerk! The Watusi!” that night, and, like all the other times I’d seen her, she was a show-stopper. She sweetly put each gal to shame with her moves, leaving every single person in that room in an awed frenzy. Once she kicked off her heels to dance, you knew Sharon Jones meant business. She was the real deal.
We headed to the show signing afterwards, only a few people from the front of the line. I will forever remember how sweet and genuine she was to my friend Caroline and me. It was like she knew us, like we were old friends. She talked to us, thanked us for coming, and signed our “Soul Time” albums. Sharon took a picture with us and paused for what I was sure to mean to move us along so she could get to the rest of the never-ending line. Kindly, smiling, she turned to me and said, “Did you want a picture with her phone, too?” I stood there shocked, to which she said, “How did that other one turn out?” She huddled with us around the phone to take a look. And, turning to the security guy turned photographer, she said to him gently but quite serious, “Take another one, and with her phone, too.” We thanked, thanked, and thanked her for not just the amazing show, but the pictures. We turned to leave, and were utterly star struck. How could someone so famous, so cool, be *this* nice? This real?
“Oh wait, sweetie!” she called back to us. “Come here.”
We stepped back, wondering what we’d forgotten. She wrapped us up into big hugs and gave us kisses on the cheek.
There will never be another voice like Sharon Jones. It was one of love, hope, power, and unparalleled sincerity. It saddens me to think I won’t get to see her again. No meet and greet will ever match that time we met her. Until next time, Miss Sharon Jones. For now, you will live on as my inspiration. In the meantime, be genuine for me.
by Becka Robbins
This same song that put Haggard on the map, though, is what kept him pigeonholed as a country star. No single musician had a greater influence on country music than Merle Haggard, but while his other early country contemporaries, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton, successfully crossed over to the mainstream, Haggard was never able to make the jump to broader commercial appeal. More’s the pity. Cash himself championed Haggard, and used to say that had the two crossed paths, Sam Phillips would have signed him to the legendary Sun Records.
Haggard’s catalogue is tremendous in its quantity and breadth. The aching slow ballad Silver Wings sears with its wanting loneliness, as if yearning were elegant and sorrow beautiful. Several of the gems in his catalogue are drinking songs; “Swinging Doors” and “Little Old Wine Drinking Me” both extol the virtues of drowning grief in dark bars, while “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” laments the limits of alcohol-fueled escapism. Some of his songs are about his time in prison, like “Sing Me Back Home,” which tells the story of an inmate’s walk to his execution, or “Mama Tried,” about his failure to meet expectations (an inaccurate self assessment, I think).
It’s true that his influence on country was incalculable — he was considered a living legend by modern stars like Toby Keith and Carrie Underwood — but of greater interest to indie snobs like me is how greatly he influenced alternative country stars like Neko Case, KD Lang, Lucinda Williams, and Margo Price, not to mention The Grateful Dead — who covered several of his songs — and many, many others.
Haggard had, for years, talked in interviews about how he regretted “Okie From Muskogee,” and felt burdened by it. No doubt he wished for much deserved greater commercial success. When I saw Haggard in 2002 (or so), he hadn’t sold out a mid-sized venue in Los Angeles, but at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2015, the masses crowded body to body to see him. No doubt he knew at the end of his life how far his musical reach extended, but if there is musical justice, Haggard’s finest songs will become part of the American canon.
by Dakin Hardwick
I utterly detest electronic music. It actually hurts my soul. However, there are some very few exceptions to this rule, and Suicide were definitely one of them. As a young punk, I collected any cheap compilation I could find. One comp was put out by Rhino, and was full of a bunch of CBGB bands. This CD was one that I listened to so much that I actually managed to wear it out. It was mostly great guitar driven bands like the Ramones, Television, Richard Hell, Blondie, etc. It closed, however, with a beautiful ballad by Suicide called “Cherie.” It was noisy, but not a guitar-based noise; it was also tender and lovely.
Many years later, I was given a tape dub of the first two Suicide records. These were wonderful, weird, dissonant, and sparse. Alan Vega’s vocals were sometimes strained, sometimes flat, but always a perfect balance to Martin Rev’s synth experiments. Even more impressive was their live show, which I finally got to see at Great American Music Hall in 2001. It was a wonderful cacophony, and Vega was the perfect belligerent punk rock showman, who cared only enough to make sure you knew he didn’t care. Here’s a short video from that amazing show, as found on Vimeo.
by Stacy Scales
I’m not sure I can really remember a time in my life before I loved David Bowie. When Labyrinth came out in 1986, I was mesmerized with the spiky-haired Goblin King from the start. Cult classic fantasy films aside, I can’t say I remember ever consciously choosing to explore Bowie’s music; it’s just as though it was always a part of my life without beginning or end. His music became the soundtrack of my life, as so very many of his songs have specific memories of moments in my life attached to them. He was, in my opinion, the greatest musician of all time, to say nothing of his talent in other aspects of his career. (If you’re not familiar with some of his films, I recommend The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and The Prestige.)
2016 was a dark year for music, beginning with the loss of the gender-bending man with the blown-out pupil, and arguably the most recognizable voice you’ll ever hear. Just two days before Bowie’s death, I had sent a birthday wish out to the universe for him while I listened to Rhett Miller cover “Life On Mars?” at a Sketchfest event; to think that Bowie was now simply gone was surreal, if not downright unimaginable. Though we lost a staggering number of incredible talents in 2016, few come close to the level of loss I felt (and perhaps always will) at Bowie’s passing.
I don’t believe anyone can ever truly fill his shoes, but there certainly is some comfort in having such a massive catalogue of music by which to remember him. In that sense, and because he could never be forgotten, it’s as though Bowie will live on forever in those of us who loved him. As the first anniversary of his death is upon us, I bid adieu to Ziggy Stardust one last time in the best way I know how: I’ll put on my red shoes and dance the blues.
by Becka Robbins
The opening sequence of 1964’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown shows the title character, played by Debbie Reynolds, wearing brown pants and a men’s shirt, covered in grime, hair unkempt, diving on top of a pile of men in a wagon and shrieking, wrestling, and play fighting with them, declaring, “I hate that word down! But I love the word up! Because up means hope, and I that’s just what I got!”
And she did, in spades. Born to poor parents in El Paso, Texas, Reynolds broke into Hollywood after winning a beauty pageant in Burbank at the age of sixteen, “wearing a swimsuit with a hole in the rear” that she’d gotten at the Salvation Army. Just a few years later, she was a legitimate movie star, learning how to dance on the job for her most famous role in Singin’ in the Rain, and Oscar nominated for Molly Brown. Like that title character, Debbie Reynolds was a wired stick of dynamite. Her on screen persona was a perky bundle of energy; she lindy hopped and tap danced through her onscreen dramas, even while pregnant.
Most celebrities from Hollywood’s Golden Era saw their fame fade away in their older years, but the American appetite for tribulations of the rich and famous kept Reynolds alive in the public imagination all her life. She famously married Eddie Fisher, and they reigned as America’s sweethearts for their two years together. Then he left her after he went to “comfort” her best friend Elizabeth Taylor after her husband was killed in a plane crash; Eddie and Debbie’s daughter Carrie Fisher would later say that Eddie had comforted Taylor “with his penis.” Reynolds, knowing where he was, called Taylor, and when Eddie answered, Debbie (famously) asked him to roll over and hand the phone to Elizabeth, who wouldn’t take the call. Not only did her husband leave her for her best friend, but, once the affair had ended, Reynolds patched up her friendship with Taylor to the chagrin of her fans. Her second marriage fared no better; Harry Karl was a wealthy man with a gambling addiction, and Reynolds found herself broke and divorced after Karl gambled her fortune away after his own ran out. Her third marriage was to a real estate developer who also squandered her money and tried to take her properties; after his death, Reynolds would go on to say, many times, that she had “horrible taste in men” and had “married idiots.”
Naturally, all of this provided great fodder for the public’s appetite, but of all the personal trials she endured, surely the challenges faced by her daughter were the greatest and most enduring, and likely is what she’ll be remembered for fifty years hence. Carrie Fisher struggled with drug addiction and bipolar disorder, and spent a week in a psych ward. She wrote extensively about her experience with mental illness and about growing up in the shadow of her mother’s celebrity. The stories, plastered all over gossip magazines, took firmer hold of the public’s imagination in Postcards from the Edge, the movie starring Meryl Streep and Shirley Maclaine, based on Carrie’s fictionalized account of her experiences. Carrie and Debbie both spoke openly about their mutual struggles as mother and daughter in the context of Carrie’s difficulties. They didn’t speak for a few years, but, after patching things up, were willing to divulge deeply personal stories in interviews. These two celebrities, beloved across generations, did a great deal to destigmatize both divorce and mental illness for the American public.
Debbie took to the stage in the latter part of her life, bringing her larger than life personality to solo as well as Broadway shows — dancing, singing, some comedy, and a ton of sequins. When I saw Reynolds live in the early 2000s, her opening number was the Sondheim classic “I’m Still Here,” with lyrics customized to her own experiences: “I lived through meetings with Louis B. Mayer /Gee that was fun and a half! / If you live through meetings with Louis B. Mayer / Everything else is a laugh!” She was as much of a nutty firecracker as ever, a dynamite performer, playing up her perky mania for effect, talking a mile a minute, and flying through her history; from my halfway decent seats, I could see Carrie in the front row. Of course Carrie was there, at her mother’s show in her hometown of Los Angeles. Our rebel princess and her Holly Queen mother shared what may have been Hollywood’s most enduring and believable love story, and their frank openness taught us to have more hope for ourselves.
And, in light of both Reynolds and Fisher’s deaths, HBO moved up its premiere of its documentary about the pair, which, from the trailer below, looks like a must-see for fans of either. It’s available now on HBO.
by Carrie Kahn
I saw Rogue One on the evening of December 26th; I went to bed happy, musing on the power of a story created over 40 years ago that still today can thrill and delight fans and newcomers alike. Carrie Fisher died the very next day. If you’ve seen Rogue One (and I won’t give any spoilers), you’ll know why seeing that movie and then learning the news of Fisher’s death so close together was especially sad and jarring. To say I was shaken is an understatement.
For Gen X gals like me, Fisher’s brave and bold Princess Leia was our first opportunity to see a kick-ass heroine on screen. Before Rey, before Jyn Erso, there was Leia, the ultimate fearless rebel princess. And Fisher, only 19 when she played Leia in the original Star Wars film, imbued her with a courageousness and an assertiveness not typically found in movie princesses. Consider the scene in which Luke Skywalker bursts into Leia’s cell and tells her, “I’m Luke Skywalker. I’m here to rescue you.” Leia, no helpless damsel-in-distress, replies only, “You’re who?” before taking charge of the situation and the rebel mission; by the time The Force Awakens comes around 40+ years later, Leia is now General Organa.
Like her most iconic character, Fisher, too, lived her life not as a passive victim waiting to be rescued, but as a brassy, confident woman who plowed through difficult times with pluck and grace. Despite failed romantic relationships, an estrangement with her mother Debbie Reynolds, and, perhaps most significantly, struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder, Fisher succeeded well past her ingénue days, with other memorable acting roles (When Harry Met Sally; Hannah and Her Sisters, and, most recently, TV’s Catastrophe), and a terrific writing career that saw her autobiographical novel Postcards From the Edge turned into a well-received Meryl Streep picture.
Her one-woman show Wishful Drinking was a no-holds-barred, hilarious yet poignant rumination on her life and career; I was lucky enough to catch it at Berkeley Rep in 2008, and it remains one of my all-time favorite theater experiences. Even Fisher’s Twitter feed was warm, funny, and smart; millions rejoiced when she famously tweeted about Hollywood sexism and ageism after being told to lose weight for her Force Awakens role.
Just as Ben Kenobi felt a disturbance in the Force when Leia’s home planet of Alderaan was destroyed, I think we here on Earth, upon learning of Fisher’s passing, all felt a collective anguish. But I think Fisher would be gratified to know that we’ve now reworked one of her most infamous lines: “We love you,” we’ve all said in one way or another since her death. I’d like to think she’s heard, and, smiling, can be the one this time to respond, “I know.”
On that note, here’s Fisher’s ex-husband, Paul Simon, singing the lovely “Hearts and Bones,” which he wrote about their often tumultuous relationship.
by Chad Liffmann
Always The Frisco Kid to me.
The first time I saw Gene Wilder on screen did not involve the movie you’d expect. I was seven years old and my dad wanted to share one of his all-time favorite comedies with me and my two brothers — The Frisco Kid (1979). Unlike many of my friends, I don’t remember holding any noticeable affection for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) growing up, nor do I even recall seeing it at a young age. The first Gene Wilder character I fell in love with wasn’t Wonka, the eccentric candy magnate. Rather, it was Avram, the Polish rabbi traveling through the Old West in The Frisco Kid, chasing chickens and riding alongside Harrison Ford. Of course, in time, I’d appreciate the late actor for his charm, passion, and the incredible comedic timing he brought to so many of his iconic roles. But, at first, my connection to the actor was simple — he was funny, he was Jewish, and he was lovable. What more could a young, Jewish, aspiring actor want from a silver screen role model? Oh, and as my dad pointed out, Gene Wilder and I shared the same birthday, June 11th. The deal was sealed. I was going to love this actor forever.
For those who don’t know, Wilder’s birth name was Jerome Silberman, and his father was a Russian Jewish immigrant. I’m not going to run through his whole biography because that can (and should) be read in his memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, or in the many articles written about him upon his passing at the age of 83 in August of this last year. What I do want to talk about is the way Gene Wilder made me, and I imagine many of you, feel and laugh.
Surely you must recall watching Blazing Saddles (1974) or Young Frankenstein (1974) for the first time. They’re considered two of the greatest comedies of all time, and they wouldn’t be considered such without Wilder’s memorable performances. You probably spat out your drink laughing as Wilder’s Dr. Frederick Frankenstein explained the central nervous system to a classroom of silent students, then stabbed himself in the leg. You probably keeled over as Wilder and the late Peter Boyle’s Frankenstein monster performed a tap dance to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (as the story goes, it was Wilder’s idea, and director Mel Brooks initially objected). You probably smiled wide every time you saw one of Wilder’s characters emit a subtle glimmer of a smirk amidst a silent exchange with a co-star, or maybe when his soft blue wide-eyed gaze instilled in you a surprising sense of familial comfort. You probably let out a belly laugh when the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles was completely un-emotive as he displayed his lightning fast shooting skills, or you cheered on his infectious lackadaisical heroism. We may best remember Gene Wilder for the nearly voice-cracking yell he so brilliantly perfected, whether for his beloved blue blanket in The Producers (1967), his rant to Charlie and Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka, or, appropriately, about showing excitement in Start The Revolution Without Me (1970).
Needless to say, no matter what scene he was in, Gene Wilder owned the audience through his charisma and comic instincts. He knew how to balance explosive gesticulations with well-timed pauses. Even in his smaller roles, he gave his all. Just watch Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) and marvel at the subtle mastery of comic timing and intuition Wilder employed in his portrayal of a doctor falling in love with a sheep.
It’s easy to say, though it’s true, that Wilder’s legacy will live on in his movies and within the countless actors who were inspired and influenced by him. But each one of us has a special place in our heart for a particular Gene Wilder film. That’s just the way his movies seemed to have functioned within the upbringing of late Baby Boomers, Generation X, and many Millennials. For many it’s Willy Wonka, for others Blazing Saddles, and for others The Producers. As for me, it’ll always be The Frisco Kid. I’ll continue to look up to Gene Wilder every time I pass by the Frisco Kid original Spanish film poster hanging in my hallway, with a wide-eyed Wilder atop a despondent horse in the shadow of Harrison Ford on a rearing steed. What was once a neglected artifact gathering dust in a collector’s shop in Berkeley is now one of my most-treasured possessions, and full of memories. RIP Gene Wilder.