Well kiddos, it’s been a beautiful nightmare. So much (fill in the blank with your favorite expletive noun) has happened this year that it only makes sense to count it down, say goodbye, write retrospectives, and come up with an all-time winner for worst fucking moment of 2016. I’ve got quite a bit of reflecting to do, so go make your tea or grab a snack and sit on down to read one more piece on why so many of us have had pretty much the roughest year psychologically and emotionally in a long time. If you read all the way to the end, maybe I’ll throw in a good moment or two. Mmmm. On second though, fuck that. This is about setting fire to this piece of trash.
I give you the 10 worst moments of everyone’s 2016. These are NOT in order of importance in impact to the universe or myself, because sometimes you just can’t rate losses of this magnitude (Although #1 really is #1, and the winner.) Don’t think that if I leave your personal worst moment out, I am doing so on purpose. I just think that this is a fairly comprehensive list of our collective groan into the void.
10. David Bowie
While I wrote a short piece on how Bowie’s death affected me here, so many great writers and musicians wrote volumes around me about how his music spoke to them. I was fortunate enough to see Henry Rollins when he came to Dallas for his spoken word show, and he also told an amazing story of an encounter he had with David Bowie while he was on tour. Even though Starman was ill and knew his time had come, none of the rest of us were ready. Leave it to David Bowie to be ahead of the rest of the world on everything, even his own mortality. If you’ve never really listened to his music, I urge you to really put it in heavy rotation. Decades of greatness await you. He was and will remain an icon, and while it seemed TOO SOON! for the rest of us, there is a part of me that will always know that his star-dust is somewhere in the ether, just beyond my periphery, waiting to shower the world with a life that will last beyond the ages. My gratitude overflows for all that his life brought to mine.
I haven’t been able to write about the death of Prince yet due to the outpouring of emotion about it every time I fitfully start and stop again. I am 46. To say I grew up with Prince is an understatement. Before I even knew it was Prince, I undulated in a Utah basement to “Do Me, Baby” in whatever way a 12-almost-13 year-old girl can undulate. Barely understanding what all the innuendo meant at that age, I learned soon enough that it was bad, bad, bad when my mom found the lyrics sheet inside the 1999 album. Mortified, she freaked out, and it cemented my absolute infatuation with him forever. An accomplished EVERYTHING player, writer, musician, style maven, I can’t say enough about what his music did for me – nay, to me, as a weirdo teen that didn’t really fit in anywhere. There is a sense of freedom through pain in many of his songs, even if that pain is not evident. Whenever I listen to “Last Night I Spent Another Lonely Christmas”, I am filled with a sense of heartbreak as if it were my own. Parade was another full album filled with nonstop hits, meaningful snippets, gorgeous writing and overall mastery of the exact moment in time in which we were all living. From the super fun even if overplayed “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Little Red Corvette”, to the gospel vibes of “Seven” and “The Ladder”, to the sultry funk of “Erotic City”, “DMSR” and “Sign o’ the Times”, dude had a catalog of unending magic and rawness and ability. The unrelenting wizardry of a generation’s anthem in “Purple Rain” will be covered, coveted, revered, and praised for years to come. I could list songs for days. Suffice it to say, people who tell me “I have never been into Prince”, for them I feel kind of sad. You are missing out on an a musician that only happens once in a great while.
I think about what pain the Artist himself must have been in toward the end of his life, and I will for eternity be gobsmacked by his death. I never wanted him to stop making music, producing, having other people tell crazy stories about meeting him – I never wanted it to end. Like Bowie, he was an influence beyond time – and goddamn if I can figure out how to evoke all that his music meant to me. His lyrics, and more even still his feeling – his use of dynamics and his vocal histrionics have a way of reaching through the space between me and the airwaves, and his voice pulls me through to whatever place he inhabits.
Give “Lady Cab Driver” a listen sometime – because the last line in that song will always speak to me:
“Not knowing where I’m going is galaxies better than not having a place to go.”
8. Alan Rickman
Goddammit, Alan Rickman. I was not and still am not ready for him to be gone from this earth. A superb, versatile acting talent with a voice that was at once distinctive, at once arresting, how can we count the ways and roles in which we have loved you? Hated you? While his portrayal of Severus Snape was the role of a lifetime, stuff of legends, I first fell in love with Alan Rickman in a small movie that I’m surprised even came my way in Closet Land. It is a powerful, raw film of startling lasting power – I watched it some 20 years ago and will never forget it. With only two characters in the entire movie – Rickman as a cruel, deft police interrogator and Madeline Stowe as a children’s author and Victim of the State, it is definitely an actor’s and screenwriter’s film – one based solely on acting talent alone, no scenery, no graphics, just two people giving forthright and intuitive performances. Panned by critics at the time for its stark settings and overall in-the-face-ism regarding subject matter, independent films were not nearly as widely accepted or acclaimed then. Had this film been released today, I would imagine a better reception. Give it a watch if you can find it. But beyond this little-known performance of Rickman’s, he enjoyed success at so many levels of his long career – accomplished stage actor and Tony award winner, hated villain Hans Gruber in the action classic Die Hard whom we are all too happy to see fall off a building, director, Snape. Whether you read the books first or not, he at once assumed the picture in your head of Snape, a character we find out so late of his goodness, his purity, his devout love, and his frailty. I have no doubt in my mind that Alan Rickman, were he to have lived longer, would still add to the massive list of career accolades. His performances in so many films will continue to be among my favorites. I have a friend who often says she would listen to Alan Rickman reading the phone book. I concur. That voice will stay with us even as he goes to whatever realm classically trained actors aspire toward. I can only imagine a land filled with vast expanses of scenery for him to describe, other great legends who have left us to act with, and one unifying director that is the Universe to call him up.
7. Carrie Fisher
We have been hit hard in the last week or so. Luckily, I will never ever forget standing in line in 1977 with my reluctant mother to see Star Wars – A New Hope at the age of 7. The first images of the Princess as a hologram were figured into my childhood psyche and when The Empire Strikes Back barreled into my life with full force (heh), I was changed forever into the deep-seated nerdling I am down inside. Her on-screen relationship with the debonair Han Solo, the back-and-forth quips, her outright femaleness in her portrayal of a strong, smart, gender-defiant rebel caught in love and in war, is a performance that will last a lifetime for me. To learn later of her struggles with mental illness and to discover her prolific writing is a gem that I will just keep taking out and polishing. And because When Harry Met Sally was a movie which spoke to me personally, her easy yet embattled depiction of Marie will always be one of my favorites. “You’re right, you’re right, I know you’re right.” I don’t know how many times I have uttered that phrase, trying to have the exact same intonations as her character. But to digress to her more famous role, what young brunette girl didn’t dream of looking like Carrie Fisher in a golden bikini? I know she hated it, and I was much more jealous of her General Organa outfit, but there’s a reason why men my age swoon at the thought of Leia and the idyllic embodiment of poise, strength, and flat-out sexiness. She truly is gone too soon. I feel like she would have had further roles in upcoming episodes of the Star Wars legend, and I hate not getting to see this come to fruition.
6. Debbie Reynolds a DAY LATER
At this I just say, what the fuck. I mean, I guess it stands to reason that the death of her daughter was an event that she could not withstand, and while I am of a generation a little too late for the genius of Debbie Reynolds to have truly grasped me, I appreciated her long-standing performances in Singin’ in the Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown from a young age. She has an extensive filmography, one that I will relish looking back on, and more than anything, I am saddened by her loss for people of my mother’s generation who grew up and older with all of these performances. I suck because I can’t write paragraphs about Debbie Reynolds, but I know enough to write that her life was filled with talent, stardom, and constant work – a presence among female actors and a role model for many aspiring young women of her day.
5. George Michael
I had a poster – this poster – on my closet door (ha!) at age 15:
Look, I have vivid memories of loving Wham! even if all of their songs weren’t giant hits in the US. I was listening to “Young Guns” a couple of days ago and heard the line “this young gun says caution pays” BUT I REALLY THOUGHT HE WAS SAYING “ABORTION PAYS” and who knows, MAYBE HE IS, although that would be weird and you know, not pertinent to George Michael. When I was in junior high, I was a cheerleader (gross) and had the everlasting pleasure of doing a choreographed dance routine at least one million times to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and will remember parts of that dance until I am old and grey (much to my chagrin). But as I got older, George Michael’s solo work had great prophetic meaning for me – his amazing cover of Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go” haunts to this day. His popular, mournful “Waiting For That Day” and “One More Try” are beautiful tributes with a voice that is like pop-soul honey. Listening again to his who-knows-how-platinum hit “Father Figure”, it is a) beautiful, b) possibly creepy and mostly c) delivered with pure feeling. Again, a master of dynamics, Michael soars and ebbs just when we need him to do so. I didn’t know where he was for the last 10 years or so, but I sure as fuck didn’t think he’d just vanish. A man whose voice was praised by Elton John and Freddie Mercury, don’t take George Michael for a pop star lightweight. He has plenty of soul-wrenching material that only he could have delivered to us. I don’t think it’s easy for many Americans to really understand the significance he had on British popular music, but his is a voice I will miss and revisit repeatedly for the rest of my life.
4. Leonard Cohen
Let’s face it, Cohen was also a little bit before my time, but I always have been in awe of his incomprehensibly vast amount of writing he has left with the world. There is shit that is Cohen that you don’t even know is Cohen. I can’t write a retrospective of 2016 and NOT include him, as there is a generation directly in front of mine who saw decades of the volume of work Cohen published. Writer, poet, lyricist, singer, producer – Cohen was enigmatic and all-encompassing. Delving into the heart of his subjects with a deft hand and an unflinching eye, his words span years of heartbreak, longing, joy and sorrow for all who dare to go with him on his journey. Worldly, religious, introspective, prominent – his influence is one too great to ignore. At 82 when he died, Leonard Cohen accomplished enough for 5 lifetimes. Like Rickman, his voice is one that you cannot but peg, so distinctive and deep that it sounds as if it is coming out of the bottom of the ocean up through decades of gravel, mud, water and waves, until it breaks over us with the realization that life is finite and infinite all at once, and we are pulled back down into his undertow.
I am not sure where I read or heard this first, but it is beautiful, tragic, and exactly Cohen:
I heard of a man
who says words so beautifully
that if he only speaks their name
women give themselves to him.
If I am dumb beside your body
while silence blossoms like tumors on our lips.
it is because I hear a man climb stairs and clear his throat outside the door.
From Let Us Compare Mythologies, 1956
3. Gene Wilder
I am quite sure that my first memory of Gene Wilder, even though his career was already in full swing, was the enigmatic and eccentric character that only Wilder could have pulled off in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Could I write paragraph upon paragraph about that performance alone? Absolutely. The somersault, the boat ride, the off-hand snide remarks to children (CHILDREN!), his effortless demeanor and his flawless physical presence in that role is incomparable. Only later in my life did I come to appreciate his genius in Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Silver Streak. He turned to writing in his later years, and kept his condition of Alzheimer’s a secret from the public – but at 83, Wilder died with an outstanding career to his credit and fans of every age due to his roles.
2. Muhammad Ali
I can’t write more than has already been written about Ali. I came to enjoy watching boxing in the last 20 years or so, long after he had fought, but the reverence with which people speak of this man is so deep, so prevalent, that I was drawn to listen to his memorial service which aired in full on NPR after he died. Not one but almost every recounted tale from Very Famous People of how Ali was a presence in their lives brought me to tears. Fighter in so many more ways than one, we can’t imagine the significance of the role he played not only in sports but socially, culturally – a poetic server of justice, a fearless yet real and rough man of morality and complexity, a Bearer of Truth for all who dare to look at it in the face. I am not the one to write this. He is eloquently eulogized by the one and only President Barack Obama:
“But I actually think the world flocked to him in wonder precisely because, as he once put it, Muhammad Ali was America. Brash, defiant, pioneering, joyful, never tired, always game to test the odds. He was our most basic freedoms – religion, speech, spirit. He embodied our ability to invent ourselves. His life spoke to our original sin of slavery and discrimination, and the journey he traveled helped to shock our conscience and lead us on a roundabout path toward salvation. And, like America, he was always very much a work in progress.”
1.5 Sharon Jones
It was like I just found this voice, and then she was gone. From the opening moments of “Stranger to my Happiness” I was very much SIT UP IN THIS CHAIR AND WTF FUCK THAT LET’S DANCE HOLY SHIT. A female James Brown. Everything I had been waiting to hear. And fuck me, she’d been around for a long time and I was JUST hearing it. Where had I been, where did this voice come from, who is she and how can I get more? Just wow, if you have not listened to Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, you are missing some amazing music that will grow to be a permanent mainstay in your listening habits. She is the embodiment of soul, funk, power, and unabashed joy for her art. And stage presence? Jesus. It is a crime that I did not get to see her perform. Even in her advanced illness, she did not give up or in. What a fucking voice. Unparalleled. Standing – no, dancing amid the upper realms of what the Great Aretha created, the world gave us, for a brief, shining moment, this powerful, strong, gorgeous woman who sang her heart out Every. Single. Time.
1. Worst Moment Winner: Trump for President
If we all don’t agree on that, get off my blog.
One more day, everyone. Let’s get through it together, in one piece, and always remembering those who went before.