I think we all can agree that the year 2016 has seen way too many of our heroes pass away. Actors, actresses, musicians, authors, time claims us all. But 2016 seems to have claimed more than its fair share, including the recent passing of George Michael and Carrie Fisher.
Today is Dec. 28, and so far I haven’t seen any notices of new deaths to add to the list … Something for us to be grateful for!
But over the years, this day has seen many notable (and sad) deaths. With this posting, I’d like to focus on the lingering losses of Dennis Wilson (singer, songwriter, drummer and more for The Beach Boys), Lemmy Kilmister (singer, songwriter, bass player and frontman for Motorhead) and Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan (singer, songwriter, drummer and inspiration for Avenged Sevenfold).
Three very different musicians from very different eras, but so key and moving in their own ways.
I’ve written about Wilson’s incredible “Pacific Ocean Blue” before, and it remains one of the most essential solo albums released by any Beach Boy. Beyond that, it’s an essential album to have if you just love MUSIC.
Do you like to feel things? Do you like music that conjures memories? Are you passionate about music that tugs at your heart and draws out your imagination? Then you must pick up this album (grab the 2008 deluxe reissue, as it features more unreleased goodies including materials from the shelved “Bambu” project).
Dennis has always had his fans and admirers. When he was “just” the drummer, he could get girls screaming with a toss of his hair and with his impish grin. As he developed as a musician and songwriter, people with ears took him more and more seriously.
I think it is safe to say that brother Brian Wilson was the key force of the group in the 1960s. But when you get to the 1970s, barring Brian’s key contributions to the “Surf’s Up,” “15 Big Ones” and “Love You” albums, Dennis was the songwriting powerhouse. (That isn’t to take away from Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, Blondie Chaplin or Ricky Fataar … but Dennis oozed music.)
The Beach Boys had been prolific with album releases in the 1960s into the early 1970s, and then releases slowed down. In fact, after the last studio album Dennis contributed to (1979’s “Keepin’ the Summer Alive”), The Beach Boys only released five more albums (and that’s if you generously count “Still Cruisin'” with its partial rehash of golden oldies and “Stars and Stripes Vol. 1,” an album of classics performed by country stars with The Beach Boys as backing vocalists).
Dennis may have had focus issues throughout his life (no doubt exacerbated by alcohol and drug abuse), but he had so much passion and could seem to channel impressionistic music whenever he touched his fingers to a keyboard. One can only imagine what more he would have contributed to the group (or as a solo artist) had he not drowned on Dec. 28, 1983, at the age of 39.
I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not terribly well versed in Lemmy’s works with Motorhead or Hawkwind. But he seemed to often pop up in the music magazine Mojo, and he always seemed funny, articulate and not afraid to speak his mind. I respect that a lot.
Motorhead is credited with helping develop the genre of heavy metal. But in interviews with Lemmy, he always gave credit to artists and groups he loved. He’d talk about his love for The Beatles, he’d talk about groups he’d seen in concert in the 1960s, he’d have such an encyclopedic knowledge (and enjoyment) beyond just being a riff monster.
I’ve got friends (notably a fine gentleman named Jeff Haag) who have talked to me at length about the sheer dynamism of Lemmy. And all you have to do is fire up YouTube to see the way the dude owned a stage. He would snarl one minute, laugh the next and throttle the heck out of the neck of his bass while strutting across the stage. The man’s zest for life is palpable. Sure, he might look like the kind of guy who’d chug a bottle of Jack Daniels, then break the bottle and use the shards to hold up someone for their wallet … but from the accounts I’ve read online, he was a generous rabble-rouser (though his collections of Nazi paraphernalia definitely set some folks off).
There have always been musicians who take themselves too seriously, and there have been performers who were brief sparks before falling into dark obscurity. But Lemmy had the work ethic, the heart, the mischief, the sense of humor and the appreciation for music that made him more than just “a name.” The dude is a legend, an example of commitment to rock-and-roll ideals where excess is reined in only a touch … But it was that touch that made the difference.
With his gravelly voice, he all but defines the “metal voice.” Despite his death in 2015 (at the age of 70), there will be people playing his riffs, sporting tattoos inspired by his lyrics, and singing these songs til they go hoarse. His legacy stands proud and tall, with swagger and insolence. Just the way he’d like it.
Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan
When a key member of any band dies, it can be difficult to move forward. Do you continue on with the band name? Do you bow out? Do you start a new group and push forward?
Avenged Sevenfold faced this situation when songwriter, drummer and vocalist Jimmy “The Rev” Sullivan died in 2009.
In some circles, there may be jokes made about drummers and rhythm sections. But The Rev wasn’t just a timekeeper. He composed songs on keyboards, he sang, he wrote songs (notable Avenged Sevenfold songs he wrote include “A Little Piece of Heaven,” “Fiction,” “Almost Easy” and “Afterlife.”
A band that features a guitarist as phenomenal as Synyster Gates could never be considered a spent force (indeed, lead vocalist M. Shadows, rhythm guitarist Zacky Vengeance and bassist Johnny Christ are formidable forces in themselves), but I’ve noticed that Avenged Sevenfold seems less … sparkly … since Sullivan’s passing.
The band released four albums before The Rev’s death in 2009 at age 28. Their 2007 self-titled release, sometimes called “The White Album” (though I tend to avoid that title, since The Beatles pretty much own it), was the first album I heard by the band. I absolutely love it. Every track has something special, something to point out.
Since The Rev’s death, the band has released three albums (2010’s “Nightmare” features songs by The Rev and features some drumming tracks he’d recorded before his death). I’ve found them to be decent efforts, with some songs that definitely stand out proudly along highlights from their past. But overall, they’ve seemed diminished affairs, not quite as exceptional or enthralling as their first four records. One can’t help but empathize with the band, though. Consider what these guys lost.
Take songs like “A Little Piece of Heaven” and how The Rev pieced it together and noodled around with it before the band embraced it and pushed for its release. It’s epic, it’s outrageous, it’s an obscene masterwork that could very well be heavy metal’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
(Be cautioned, the video is strong and isn’t suitable for all audiences.)
Beyond being a top musician himself, a great songwriter, The Rev must have been a source of inspiration. His ideas and his energy no doubt helped kick the band into gear. Without him on the drummer’s stool, without him plinking out notes on a keyboard, without him contributing to the vocal blend, without him contributing songs, the band has had to shoulder a load that would be daunting for any act.
I am certain Avenged Sevenfold has more incredible albums to come. Again, all the members are great talents and they make a hell of a sound. But there is no doubt that The Rev casts a large shadow, one the band probably has no interest in evading. The Rev was key to the group’s development, he was crucial to their sound, and there’s no reason to try to bury the past. The Rev’s legacy is deserved, and the band shows its love for him in every performance.
Every passing is a reminder
When a beloved musician, actor, author or celebrity / cultural figure passes, it’s always sad. There are family members, friends and fans who are left mourning these great losses.
Depending on the faith you have (religious, spiritual, etc.), there may be some comfort to the notion that these beloved people are not forever gone from us, but instead are on a different plane, in heaven, etc. That we are reunited after our own passing.
Whether you adhere to those beliefs or not, maybe we can agree that it is worthwhile to show people our appreciation while we’re still here. Whether it’s a family member, a friend, a drummer in a band, a bass player, a songwriter, an author, an actor, etc., it is good to remember that no day is guaranteed to us. It only takes a moment for life to change to death. A car accident, disease, a fire, who knows …
Every passing is a reminder to cherish people (and, in my particular examples, their music) while they are with us. Who knows if the album you hold may be an artist’s last, or if the song you hear on YouTube or in a record store may be the swansong for the songwriter.
Don’t live life morbidly, but live life with appreciation. These people, these artists, have opened their hearts and minds to share their art with us. We may not always appreciate it, we may even actively dislike some of it. But for some fans, friends and family members, these artists are someone’s Dennis Wilson or Lemmy Kilmister or Jimmy Sullivan. They are loved, admired and held close to hearts.
And after they’ve passed, we are blessed to have their recordings to enjoy for our remaining days. And for Dennis, Lemmy and The Rev, that’s the best way we can honor their legacies today. Let’s listen to their music.