February 13th, 2017

Nick Soulsby’s Latest Blog Post: ‘It Was(n’t) 2016.’

2016 saw a long-building declaration for emotion over rationalism. Agree or disagree with what occurred - to be clear, I’m not an admirer of either of the two political shocks of the year - there was something heartening in seeing the complexity of human feelings refute the claims made by techtopian capitalists, professional overlords and spreadsheet analysts to possession of omnipotent knowledge and awareness of what humans want or will do.

That doesn’t, however, mean that one has to love every feeling that bubbles to the surface without judgment or reservation. A decade-and-a-half into the Internet era, we’re watching the impact play out as a flare up of superstitious, illusionary, magical thinking immune to any belief in consensus reality or intellectual authority. One of the minor ways it played out last year was the meaningless shrug of “2016” when faced with celebrity deaths.

It spoke to people’s need to find comfortingly empty words to wave away the presence of harsh reality. It’s the insidious soft end of the ‘if there are fewer immigrants my life will be better,’ or ‘if we elect a billionaire he’ll show the vested interests what for,’ level of thinking: a depthless, thoughtless generalisation resorting to simple answers and lazy pattern-making to excuse the need to think about darkness. Ultimately, if one wants proof that the universe operates without any attachment to our insignificant system for comprehending human passage through time, one only need look at the thousands of species we share the planet with: they care not a jot for ‘2016’ or even the idea of slicing time.

The celebrity deaths of 2016 were eminently predictable. The dawning of the media obsessed age from the fifties onward created an appetite for something that people appeared to love and would buy more of: celebrity. A status previous reserved for war heroes; royalty; the occasion politician; was bequeathed to an ever-expanding array of musicians; sportsmen; actors and actresses. It was a simple capitalist mechanism at work: a desire was identified and the supply was expanded by the simple expedience of changing the definition of what a celebrity was – a process that spiralled down to today’s ‘everyone’s a star’ YouTube, talent show, reality TV era. The same time period saw a further market expansion: the creation of the teenager and the beginning of ‘youth culture’: catching people when their enhanced buying power and lack of fixed expenditures collides with their lack of pre-established tastes, their openness to peer pressure and thus their appetite for novelty, the new, for buying into the next fad.

Demography made a difference: the baby boom created the largest audience ever assembled, just at the point when better healthcare, diets and living conditions ensured this audience – and its buying power – would endure for a significant period of time. Industries were remoulded in order to effectively serve this specific audience: the longevity of influence held by this generation is because they took the key positions of control within it too and have kept them until retirement age. The same dominance was granted to a select circle of ‘new celebrities’. Their endurance in the minds and lives of the mass public has come down to the mathematics of adding an existing, large, rich audience (including those controlling access to the means of communication and production) to younger audiences who are then introduced to the backlog of media product from previous eras: the reason why ‘all time’ lists are flooded with albums made forty-fifty years ago, why books about that era dominate store shelves, why the survivors of that era command the highest tour revenues. It’s only the internet era that has finally started to break the star-making system.

The math is clear: someone who was 18 in 1965 will be 70 this year. The universe couldn’t care less about celebrity and it wasn’t 2016 killing off celebrities: it was the expiration date stamped on each and every human being. It was also the fact that celebrity culture has been, ultimately, a vast experiment. A heavily restricted circle of human beings were provided with special status; declared to possess powers beyond those of mere mortals; had a vast media focus all eyes on their comings-and-goings until millions who had never met them felt an intrinsic attachment to their lives; were giving the opportunity to live without many of the restraints endured by people day-to-day; the time to indulge appetites to untold levels of excess…Now we’re merely recording the results of the test. Given near every human being will die between the age of 65 and 90, the truth is we’re about to witness the departure of the baby-boomer generation: the faces that have owned our screens and pages for decades. It wasn’t 2016: it’s an entire era just warming up with the penalty paid for past indulgences soon to be paid in full by many.

Looking at the list of deaths in 2016 we’re looking at nothing more mysterious than human aging: the ultimate taboo. Moreover, many of the deaths come replete with personal biographies involving cocaine abuse, heroin abuse, alcohol abuse, prescription medication abuse. There’s no moral message to be gleaned: but, equally, there’s no mystical forces behind the reality of hard-used bodies wearing out. Ultimately, if Lemmy Kidderminster could abuse his system the way he did and still make it to 70, it’s living proof that most people will live to pension age regardless of youthful indiscretions. Then again, perhaps some of the deaths testify to the reality that addiction to toxic chemicals takes something from the body whether that means the occasional candidate taken ever so slightly earlier than average (George Michael at 53 after a history of crack cocaine and heavy marijuana usage; Prince at 57 with his history of prescription medication issues) or those who had left behind their addictions but maybe not the damage done (David Bowie at 69, Carrie Fisher at 60.) So far, so ordinary…

…But no less sad. Death shouldn’t be a magical event ignored and excused because of a calendar. The most poignant death of 2016, for me, was that of Debbie Reynolds at 84 barely a day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher’s death. The stress and the harm committed to a human body by the death of a loved one is permanently underestimated. Ultimately, what anchors us to this world, to a desire to remain a part of it, are the things we do and the people we do them with. The loss of those people rips something from us physically: the chances of dying after a spouse’s demise increase significantly in the months afterward. That’s something I took from 2016, from its deaths, the need to cherish people and to remember that ultimately the most precious thing we have to give, the last respect we can give at their passing, is that it changes us and takes a little something from us. And I feel, if people matter to us, maybe it should.

Pierre Boulez (90)

David Bowie (69)

Alan Rickman (69)

Greg Lake (69)

George Michael (53)

Carrie Fisher (60)

Debbie Reynolds (84)

Glenn Frey (67)

Terry Wogan (77)

Maurice White (74)

Sir George Martin (90)

Keith Emerson (71)

Prince (57)

Prince Buster (78)

Leonard Cohen (82)

Leon Russell (74)

Sharon Jones (60)

Paul Daniels (77)

Howard Marks (70)

Muhammad Ali (74)

Gene Wilder (83)

About Nick

Nick Soulsby is a fairly everyday bloke who hopes to stay that way while never turning the things he loves doing — like writing — into things he must do to earn a daily crust. Nick’s is the author of four books. Three of his books are focused on the band Nirvana; the first, Dark Slivers, is a dissection of the 1992 Incesticide compilation, the second, I Found My Friends, (St Martin’s Press, 2015), is an oral history built entirely from the memories of 150+ of the bands who played alongside Nirvana 1987-1994, the third (and likely final), Cobain on Cobain (Omnibus Press, 2016) is a collection of interviews with Kurt Cobain and the band Nirvana across the years 1989-1994 following the band as they experience their wild ride and tell it in the moment, as it occurred. His latest book, We Sing a New Language: the Oral Discography of Thurston Moore, (Omnibus Press, 2017) paints a picture of the lives, scenes and sounds that have risen and fallen away over the course of Moore’s 3 ½ decades in music through the memories of 160 musicians, producers and record label owners who played a part in the works he has created. In 2014 Nick collaborated with Soul Jazz Records to curate No Seattle: Forgotten Sounds of the North West Grunge Era 1986-97, a release of little known and never before seen bands from the State of Washington’s heyday. He also wrote the liner notes to the reissue of The Fire Ants sole 1993 EP release Stripped.

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