The Music Remains After the Musicians Pass Away

Christine McVie has passed away. She was a member of the most popular version of the English band, Fleetwood Mac. McVie was one of the great songwriters, vocalists — and keyboardists —  in the post hippie-era, 1970s. McVie was the lead vocalist on Fleetwood Mac’s best albums: Fleetwood Mac(1975) and Rumours (1976). McVie also played on the previous five Fleetwood Mac albums, but none of them exploded onto the music scene like Fleetwood Mac and Rumours. We can name every hit song McVie sang lead or co-lead vocals on from those two landmark albums: “World Turning,” “Over My Head,” “Rhiannon” and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a couple (at least).

The album Rumours, had “Go Your Own Way,” “Don’t Stop,” (which became an unofficial/official theme song for Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign in 1996. It also included “The Chain,” “Songbird” and my favorite from that album, “You Make Loving Fun.” The backup vocals and Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar work are sublime.

We can find them all on YouTube.

The passing of the Songbird was heartbreaking of course, but it was the latest reminder that we are all, as Pink Floyd sang, “Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.”

Christine is a cultural icon and will remain so for as long as people listen to Fleetwood Mac — which will be a long, long time.

When I was in my early to mid-teens I would listen to the music from the 1930s and the Second World War. Big band jazz: Glenn Miller Orchestra, Benny Goodmen, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, The Andrews Sisters, and many others. Hearing Ellington and Fats Waller got me interested in the Harlem Renaissance, which was about more than great American music.

By the time Fleetwood Mac came out with their seminal album Kiln House (1970) many of the bands and performers from the pre-WWII and war era were older and beginning to pass away.

I remember feeling deprived when Duke Ellington passed away May 24, 1974. I had never seen him perform with his orchestra. We could often see him on television and the films he was in, but it would have been thrilling to see him live. I did, however, see his son Mercer lead the Duke Ellington Orchestra. We can say that wasn’t the same thing, but for real, it was the closest we were going to get.

My sister Mary Lou saw the Rolling Stones when Brian Jones was still in the band — my sister Cheryl saw the Beatles twice. Those are cultural moments we will never see again, accept in the record, videos and other modes of mass communication. If we’re lucky those that attended the events can relive the experiences for us.

One day back in the 1980s I was in Madison, WI for an anti-war rally that featured 1960s icon Country Joe McDonald, of Country Joe and the Fish. Joe is a Navy veteran and I am a Marine Corps vet so we had some veterans topics, but my questions were about Woodstock, the original one. Country Joe appeared and led the 300,000-plus audience in a rowdy version of the Fish Cheer, followed by “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag.” That was one of the greatest moments in the 1960s counter culture. Many of us had heard the first two albums out on Vanguard records, Electric Music For the Mind and Body and I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die, so a lot of us knew the words to that song.

While we were in Madison Joe performed the song, despite the war being over for more than 10 years at that time. It’s odd that most people have no idea that Country Joe, the guy singing the most popular anti-war song ever, is an honorably discharged veteran.

In a Los Angeles Times article from 1986 McDonald said, “… the understanding of war is the only path to peace.”

Well come on all you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again …”

Joe is still with us, at age 80. Like Christine McVie, Joe is a cultural icon. Baby Boomers know his name and his famous cheer, just as we know the sound of McVie’s voice.

So many of the iconic musicians of my life have passed on. We can start with Jimi Hendrix, who, by the way, was a Vietnam Era Army vet who served in the 101st Airborne. To wear that patch Jimi had to have at least five static line jumps, including one night time jump.

Hendrix was honorably discharged and his music career began to pick up steam.

Shortly after Jimi died on September 18, 1970,  Janis Joplin passed away on October 4, 1970. Then Jim Morrison on July 3, 1971 followed by Grateful Dead keyboardist and singer Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, on March 8, 1973. For a long time “Machine Gun,” from the album Band of Gypsies, was my favorite song by Hendrix. And “Truckin” by the Dead is often in my play list. From all the different shows the Dead played “Truckin’,” We don’t have to hear the same version over and over. The hyper-linked version is from Europe ’72.

For a while in the 1980s I was neighbors with Ruby Starr, one of the best female vocalists I had ever heard. Ruby lived with her band in a house on E. Kenilworth and I lived with some folks on the corner of E. Kenilworth and N. Lake Dr.

She and the band were party animals, but when it came time to take the stage, they were a tight group. They often took to the road and played in the region. Then they would be back at the house ready to unwind.

Ruby Starr and her band, which featured drummer Dave “Mud Slide” Gruenewaldt, played a weekly jam session at the Jabberwocky in West Allis, a very blue collar suburb of Milwaukee. If my memory is correct, Allis-Chalmers was either right across the street or just a few blocks east of the Jabberwocky. A lot has changed. The Reagan years were not kind to Milwaukee-area businesses.

My brother Rick, a very talented keyboardist, often sat in with them. One night, in their last set of the evening, none other than Don Dokken showed up. Yes, he can shred. There are, no doubt, several people that remember the jam.

Ruby once told me she didn’t “baby” her voice and drank as much whisky and smoked as many cigarettes as she wanted. Unsurprisingly, she passed away January 14, 1995. I liked Ruby.

When I was an adult two of the first musicians that shook me when they died were Keith Moon and John Bonham. The remaining members of The Who hired a new drummer, Kenney Jones. I’ve seen The Who with Keith Moon and with Jones and enjoyed both very much.

After John Bonham passed away the members of Led Zeppelin disbanded out of respect for their deceased drummer. Bonham received a lot of accolades after his death, all of which were richly deserved, but his passing left a hole in the collective heart of Led Zeppelin’s fans. Every once and a while they would regroup for a one-off concert featuring Bonham’s son, Jason sitting behind the kit.

I never saw Jason Bonham play at all, but I hear he is very good.

I had been going to two or three Grateful Dead concerts per year, starting in 1979. Around the time the Dead became extremely popular with as many people without tickets trashing the area around the venue, most often the Alpine Valley Music Theater in East Troy, Wisconsin. Many of these fans were rude and too self-absorbed. After travelling to Tinley Park to see the Dead in 1990 I decided I was done going to Dead shows. Dealing with the fans was too risky and annoying.

Then, shortly after seeing them in Illannoyus, keyboardist Brent Mydland passed on — July 26, 1990. I have so many memories of seeing the Grateful Dead with Brent, some of them with my sister Elaine who was a big Deadhead. She once took a day off from work so she could stand outside the band’s hotel in Denver, CO to meet them. That’s when the thrill of her life occurred — she shook hands with Bob Weir.  Other members of the band of course, but really, her infatuation was with the rhythm guitarist so shaking Bob’s hand was paramount.

For many years I was heartbroken over Brent’s death and vowed to never see another Grateful Dead show. I had no animosity towards Vince Welnick and Bruce Hornsby, but Brent was the keyboard player I grew to love.

Then one day when my brother Carl and I were walking past Slots-of-Fun on the north end Las Vegas Blvd — The Strip — we came across a young man who had gambled away just about all his money and needed to sell his tickets to the Grateful Dead show that evening at the Sam Boyd Stadium. The guy wanted double the face value of the tickets, $60 each. I had been very lucky at Slots-of-Fun so I was feeling very generous, so I told the young man $80 each We made the deal and voila! Carl and I went to see the Dead in Las Vegas. Vince Welnick was a great player and singer, it was June of 1994.

On December 4, 1993 my all-time favorite musician and composer, Frank Vincent Zappa died from prostate cancer. He was only 53 years old, just a few weeks shy of his 54th birthday (December 21, 1940). It just felt crushing.

Honestly, I’ve never been to a bad Frank Zappa concert and I’ve been to quite a few, starting in 1971. In 1984 I was able to go to an FZ concert with my brother Rick. Little Ricky …

Ask anyone who knew us back in the day and they will tell you Rick and I were fanatical Zappa fans. We actually had a friend, well Rick’s friend, Ron W. tell us he would only hang out with us if we played other music besides Frank Zappa. Wow. What’s wrong with Frank Zappa? “People, we is not wrapped tight.”

Frank Zappa and Steve Vai, 1982

Our friend Ron W passed away sometime in the 1980s. That was a shock. Ron was a stand up guy. He had a job at one of the big manufacturing companies in Milwaukee, I can’t remember which one. But he had been working there since high school and was making big money for those days.

People we knew were dying, There was the occasional person who died in a traffic accident and some died of terminal diseases like cancer. But Ron W. was the first person I knew from grade school who passed away.

My dad passed away in 1980, just about two months passed his 62nd birthday. For years I was broken up about it, seeing him in dreams, talking to me about the hereafter. My older sisters reminded me what kind of person he was behind closed doors, when friends and family weren’t watching or listening. I was reminded he was only human.

Mom passed away in November 1990, just over two months after Stevie Ray Vaughan and others died in a helicopter crash at Alpine Valley Music Theatre. I had the pleasure of speaking to Stevie on several occasions, from 1988 to his final hours. His last three shows at Alpine Valley were epic, with Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy. That Monday morning was terrible, listening to early reports that it was Clapton who had died. By the time everyone started walking into the offices of the Shepherd Express in Milwaukee, the correct information was being reported.

The death of Stevie Ray was shocking, reminding us that life is a fragile gift that could be ended so swiftly and without warning.

Unlike my mother, Harriet, whose health had been going downhill for some time, his passing was sad, but the message is: we expect our parents to die before us, that we will be the one making the arrangements for their final resting place. But Stevie Ray? Totally unexpected.

Miles Davis passed away September 28, 1991 in Santa Monica, then Frank Zappa and then on August 9, 1995 Jerry Garcia died in a drug rehab facility from a heart attack brought on by the withdrawal from drugs.

Four musical icons gone in a five-year period. Brent Mydland, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa and then Jerry Garcia.

I didn’t think I would ever attend another Dead related concert because all the guitarists the other members hired to play Jerry’s parts didn’t really turn me on. I paid the fees to YouTube to watch the “Fare The Well” shows from Soldier Field in Chicago. They had Trey Anastasio of Phish playing lead guitar and singing a bit, but I wasn’t satisfied with his performance.

Eventually Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart settled on three younger players to tour as Dead & Co. Phil Lesh declined to tour and Dead & Co added Oteil Burbridge on bass, Jeff Chimenti on keyboards and John Mayer on lead guitar and vocals.  Mayer had the folks at Paul Reed Smith Guitars create a signature guitar with all the electronics Jerry Garcia had in his final guitars, Rosebud and the Tiger, built by Sonoma County luthier Doug Irwin.

From all the videos I’ve watched/listened to by Dead & Co — plus the one time I saw the band in a suburb of San Diego (thanks to my pal Tony), PRS did a great job with Mayer’s guitars. Personally, I liked the growl of Jerry’s early guitars, especially the Gibson SG. Anyway, John Mayer makes Dead & Co a great band. He isn’t Jerry Garcia — and I don’t think he is trying to be, other than copy the occasional Jerry riff — but he sounds very good.

Neil Peart of Rush passed away, then Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones and now Christine McVie. And there were other cultural icons like Kurt Cobain of Nirvana and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave. Both of them suicides.

I grew up listening to the Rolling Stones with Charlie Watts, I tuned in and turned on to Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. Tuned into Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. I enjoyed shows by Yes, featuring Chris Squire and Alan White. Emerson, Lake and Palmer. We will never have the pleasure of seeing those three perform again.

Christine McVie was 79. She led a great life — at least from the outside it looked great — and will be remembered for a long time after her death, as will all the other musical icons that have passed away. How many people are still listening to Hendrix, Janis and the Dead, 50-plus years after they passed away? I still listen to all the bands and musicians named here and quite a few I can’t recall at the moment. People like Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint — we remember them all and hope — or pray — we live many more years so we can continue to listen to their music.

Zappa and the Dead — and Dead & Co — are still in my playlists, as are Soundgarden, Nirvana, Miles — and another trumpet player, Maynard Ferguson — Rush, Rolling Stones, T.Rex,, I.E. Marc Bolan, Tommy Bolin, Funkadelic with Eddie Hazel on guitar, James Brown — so many of our musical heroes and icons showed us how to live, how to go on living after they have gone. The instructions are in the musical notes and lyrics they made eternal when their music was recorded.

My very first favorite band, the Beach Boys. I still love their music and of course the Beatles. “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”

My day often — usually — starts with a morning routine that includes a meditative gratitude list that begins with me focusing on my breathing (“Breathe in, relax” and “Breathe out, relax.” Then I go through everything and everyone I’m thankful for in my life. I just have to think about the morning routine throughout the day and something or someone comes to mind, the two dogs here, Jackson and Chica, my closest friends, family  and the luck of being born at a time I could read Kurt Vonnegut, Jerzy Kosiński, Grace Paley, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the extraordinary William S. Burroughs. Them and so many more — Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Langston Hughes.

The music I can listen to now, on YouTube or my ancient iPod,  all those I’ve mentioned and so many more.

We will miss Christine McVie, as we miss Charlie Watts, Jimi Hendrix, Dolores O’Riordan and a long list of others, like members of the Ramones. We will miss our family members, from our parents to the siblings. I have seven and four have passed on: Carl, Elaine, Rick and Cheryl. So much of the music I listen to says something about them as well.

I remember when Jerry died in 1995 all the candle light vigils across the nation as Deadheads mourned the leader of the Grateful Dead. He represented so much, and we should include, the risks and results of excessive use of drugs, alcohol and a poor diet. But mainly, we remember Jerry for the music … and we will remember Christine McVie the same, whenever we put on a recording of Fleetwood Mac.

Sweet wonderful you
You make me happy with the things you do