The tragic death of Charlie Watts on August 24th came when he was a respectable 80, nothing like the out of the blue shockwaves that marked the passing of some of his musical peers in the 27 club. Whilst 80 might be argued to be a respectable age (particularly for a member of one of the most infamously hard-living rock and roll bands of their era), Watts’s death has still deeply affected millions across the globe, to a much larger degree than one might expect. Rock Stars who came into their prime during the 1960s and 70s have been such a part of our cultural fabric that the sudden realisation that they’re reaching the end of their lifespans can come as something of an existential blow. The kind of questions raised by the death of the Rolling Stones dapper drummer are less about who’s going to drum for Keith Richards for the next forty years than they are to do with processing the ending of one of the most mythologised eras in modern history.
Whilst 2016 is mostly remembered as the year that Trump first waddled onto the political scene (an annus horribilis if you will), the beginning of the year was marked by the rapid-fire deaths of David Bowie, Prince and Lemmy (of Motorhead infamy). The emotional tailspin and genuine sorrow that these deaths engendered was extreme and confusing. As modern people we are supposed to be cynical and unflappable. Extreme degrees of emotion expended over the passing of public figures was supposed to have been a relic of the Diana era, but on the day of Bowie’s death I witnessed unashamed tears on the morning tube along with one or two serious looking and soberly dressed older men with the Ziggy Stardust lightning bolt painted on their faces. The famed British stoicism/emotional repression (delete according to your own beliefs) is clearly no match for the death of our musical heroes.
Yet we’re going to have to get used to it, even in the previous year or so there has been a steady stream of musical icons fading away: Bill Withers, Eddie Van Halen, Don Everly, Peter Green; but the numbers are only going to exponentially increase. The erasure of the titans of yesterday is a matter of years as much as it is decades and we’ve got to question why these deaths come as such a blow. By the time punk arrived in the late 1970s, the attitude to the musical heroes of even the recent past was that they were old hat compared to new artists. By the 80s this attitude had calcified with seeming justification: there was hardly an elder statesman alive who wasn’t churning out sub-par clunkers to diminishing crowds. But as the 20th century gave way to the 21st, increasingly all was forgiven. As the internet atomised culture into increasingly small pieces, titanic cultural figures such as Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones became one of the few points of worldwide agreement (barring the occasional contrarian Beatles hater). It’s not just that the songs are great, they’re the fundamental base we’ve built our culture on. Seeing Bob Dylan live these days is mostly an exercise in masochism, but he’s been touring uninterrupted for years, filling seats with young people desperate to have some kind of brush with our shared heritage. The worry is that when the last vestiges of this storied past vanish, we’ll have to reckon with an uncertain future.