Great heroes inspire us in their lifetimes. The greatest continue to inspire us well after they’re gone.
We're only halfway through 2016, but it’s already proven to be an extraordinary year for losing such figures – people who overcame all odds of normalcy and transcended their brief existence to achieve greatness. The standard reaction when anyone famous dies is for social media feeds to flood with grief, sincere or otherwise. But there is another reaction when people who've reached a level of universal greatness pass: genuine awe.
Sadly, sometimes we need our heroes to die before we can truly take stock of their lives and appreciate them. Music fans, in particular, have suffered this year, more than any other year in recent history. In particular, we’ve had to look back on the lives of two of the 20th century’s greatest pop musicians, David Bowie and Prince; artists who continued to work and entertain to the very end.
In May, it was announced that Gord Downie, frontman for one of the most universally beloved Canadian bands, has incurable brain cancer, a diagnosis that experts say comes with a two-year survival rate of 30 per cent. Unlike Bowie and Prince, whose deaths appeared sudden, this announcement gave Tragically Hip and Downie fans the rare chance to look at what that means for them, personally, while the man is still here. Consequently, the Hip’s upcoming Canadian concerts has been described by fans as a living wake, a celebration of life.
"Enjoy those one-night moments,” Downie once said of performing to a crowd, a comment that’s given extra poignancy considering the ephemeral nature of his upcoming shows. “We'll only be here tonight, this bunch of us in this room. Let's try and find some point of transcendence and leap together."
But what makes these artists elicit such overwhelming response in both life and death? The obvious answer is that they achieved something in life that most of us will never know: fame, stature, accolades and so on. But even more than that, it's what they managed to accomplish when staring down death.
Considering all his celebrated extroversions, David Bowie was always a private person. Everything he wanted us to know about him, he did through his art. However, that made his seemingly sudden death in January, just three days after the release of his final album, Blackstar, no less shocking to his fans. Little did we know that while Bowie was battling cancer, he was also preparing his final album as a “parting gift” to his fans, according to his longtime producer Tony Visconti. "His death was no different from his life — a work of art," he wrote.
It’s impossible not to find inspiration in that; to imagine someone counting down their days, but to also feel so indebted to their fans, music and legacy that they would complete something as ambitious as Blackstar, an album full of lyrical and visual nods to not only Bowie’s own looming death, but also his future. His immortality.
"Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/everybody knows me now," he sings on “Lazarus,” one of the tracks from the album.
The video for “Lazarus” even features Bowie as a risen-from-the-dead-type character, frantically scribbling his parting words before backing into a coffin-like wardrobe just as an explosion of free jazz comes to an end.
Four months later, fans learned that if the Blackstar vinyl album cover, which featured a cutout of a star on a black background, was exposed to sunlight, a constellation of stars revealed itself.
“Leaving us surprises even now. So clever. So missed,” his son, filmmaker Duncan Jones, tweeted upon discovering his dad’s final secret gift to his fans.
Like Bowie, Prince made a career out of being as enigmatic as he was a prolific songwriter and gifted guitarist. And likewise, his work ethic and dedication to his art was awe-inspiring until the very end.
On April 14, Prince’s plane was forced to emergency land due to health scare. That was on a Friday. The next day, Prince was pictured riding his bike, and even showed up at a $10 dance party in Minnesota. According to TMZ, Prince wanted people to have physical proof that he was still alive. He didn’t sing, but he did tell the crowd, “Wait a few days before you waste any prayers." A week later he was dead due to a fentanyl overdose, found in his elevator at his studio/compound known as Paisley Park.
Just before Prince passed, he was on what was called the Piano and Microphone tour, a solo show that featured Prince, alone at centre stage, sitting behind a piano, playing music that spanned his impressive 30-plus year career. At his very last show in Atlanta, the crowd assisted him in a touching rendition of “Purple Rain.” He also performed covers of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” and David Bowie’s “Heroes.” If he was planning a farewell tour, he couldn’t have done it any better.
Prince also left his fans a parting gift, and while it’s far less intentional than Blackstar, the magnitude of it is just as impressive if not more so.
"If Prince was to leave the world today, he has enough un-released music to put out an album every year, for the next 100 years," claimed a BBC documentary titled Hunting for Prince’s Vault, back in 2015.
The documentary director, Mobeen Azhar, recounted his discovery of Prince’s vault of music to Rolling Stone, writing: “It's believed his last breath was taken not at his home, but at Paisley Park, his recording studio. Sonny T, who played bass with Prince over the last five decades told me, ‘If Prince releases everything he's recorded, I don't think anyone will be around long enough to hear it all. I'm telling you – there is just too much.’ Whether or not Prince's vault will ever open up, the music he has already given us will outlive us all.”
Upon his passing the vault was drilled open, revealing that all the boasts about Prince having more than a lifetime of music locked away were completely true. You can’t help but be inspired by a man who, at 19, played every one of the 27 instruments featured on his debut album, but who, over the course of 39 studio albums, never once became complacent, challenging himself to write a new song every single day.
Fittingly, Paisley Park will be turned into a Graceland-style museum, a plan that was put into place before his death, according to collaborator Sheila E.
When the Tragically Hip announced it would be going on the road one this summer, following the release of the band’s 14th album, Man Machine Poem, on June 17, the fan reaction was overwhelming. Tickets were scarce, scooped up by tech-savvy scalpers only to appear almost instantly on second-hand sites with astronomical price hikes, leaving many mourning fans empty handed. A petition was even started to have the CBC broadcast the final show from Kingston, Ont., on Aug. 20, and already it has more than 30,000 signatures. Another petition with 68,000 signatures asks for Downie to receive the Order of Canada. (Update: CBC will be broadcasting the concert across all platforms!)
The reaction to Downie’s diagnosis has been overwhelming, but by sharing the news, the band has presented a unique opportunity for its fans to celebrate one of their heroes while he’s here.
For Downie’s part, he’s found solace by retreating to the studio, surrounded by songs that have told Canada’s stories for so long. And while the type of cancer he has specifically attacks the parts of his brain that control speech and memory, the truly amazing thing is that he will still be able to sing those songs. According to his doctor, lyrical memories are stored differently, which will allow Downie to stand on that stage one last time and sing the lyrics that have taken on so much meaning since the news.
A performer to the very end, Downie and the Hip are leaving fans with something they will always remember. Not just a concert, but a chance to actually be part of his legacy, a “point of transcendence” where everyone there can “leap together."
As Downie famously sang, “No dress rehearsal, this is our life.” Life is temporary, but the music and the memories it stirs are immutable. For Downie, a poet as much as he is a performer, he’s found a way to say goodbye with dignity, bravery and an awe-inspiring display of strength in the face of his own mortality. And grace, too.
Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG