The last few weeks have seen many important musicians head off to that great jam session in the sky. A few weeks ago, the death of David Bowie took us all by surprise. Then it was the death of Glenn Frey of the Eagles. And this week, the death of Maurice White, of Earth, Wind, and Fire.
I remember those first Earth, Wind, and Fire albums that I got, the amazing cover art that seemed to promise revelations from ancient cultures. Like the band Chicago, Earth, Wind, and Fire was a HUGE band, with all sorts of instruments, and somehow, it all came together. And it was the 1970's, when music didn't seem so compartmentalized, a time when white kids could dance to Earth, Wind, and Fire along with black kids.
Yes, I have romanticized the music of my youth quite a bit, but this essay makes it clear how groundbreaking Earth, Wind, and Fire was. I particularly treasure this quote: "In the 21st Century, the pop culture landscape has become increasingly defined by Tarantino-inspired brutalism as evidenced by the way cinematic vengeance fantasies like The Revenant take home major film prizes. In that context, EWF's inextinguishable positivity vibe might today seem passé. But even in its mid-'70s heyday, EWF's music served a powerful social purpose. White concocted music that meant to shield us from a world constantly threatening to harden us and turn our hearts cold — a post-civil rights America defined by the Nixon administration's terror tactics against anti-establishment activists, by the devastating influx of heroin in inner cities and by the ugliness of organized white resistance to busing."
I think about my younger self, listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire albums, and then songs on albums by the Eagles, and scribbling in my notebook, and some of those plotlines are taken directly from song lyrics. If I'd had a writing teacher to tell me to write what I know, I'd have pointed out that my life was boring. I wanted to write about people who stayed out all night dancing and dabbling with alternative life styles that I didn't remotely understand as a white girl in the suburbs. I listened to David Bowie on the radio (I wouldn't buy my first Bowie album until college) and wrote about strange characters on other planets and strange characters in a burned out inner city.
The 1970's was also a time, as I have written before, when radio wasn't as compartmentalized. I could listen to our local station and hear songs by all of these artists in the same hour, along with old Beatles songs and a country song here and there--on and on I could go, but you get the idea.
My writing in those middle school and high school years was also influenced by my reading: science fiction like Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury, and women who weren't then seen as canonical like Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers. I wrote about religious scenes I would never experience as a mainstream Lutheran. I have a vague memory of writing a story about a young person who returns to the scene of his full-immersion baptism, who lets the river sweep him away as the full moon beams down like a communion wafer.
I have to wonder if I actually wrote that or if I read it somewhere and then appropriated it. I'm also wondering if I'm remembering those notebooks correctly--I haven't seen that writing in almost 40 years. I also may be getting the stories I wrote in my college years confused with earlier writing.
But I digress. Back to the cluster of deaths of great musicians. I realize that I'm on the alert for these stories. I realize that these are artists who meant something crucial to me, at formative times, which is why I feel so pierced by their passings. I realize that I'm sad about the loss of creative output that only they could produce.
And let me be honest: with each death, I do the math. Once I read biographies to see when artists had published their first work, and I would either comfort myself or berate myself with that information--was I on track or had I lost the race already?
Now I make a different calculation: how old at death? How old am I? How many years do I have left?
It's time to do the important work.