Congress expert Norman Ornstein on what the debate over the debt limit says about dysfunction in Congress, and his ideas for how to fix it.
This year saw the loss of some major figures in American music, including David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and Sharon Jones. Every fan has his or her own reason for mourning the passing of these four: how David Bowie challenged the status quo, the way Prince moved on stage, the power of Sharon Jones’s voice, or Leonard Cohen’s poetry. But one thing is undeniable: Each was a beloved musical icon. We’ll talk about how they will be remembered, and what we continue to learn about them today. Join us as we celebrate David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and Sharon Jones.
- Amanda Petrusich Contributing writer, The New Yorker; author of “Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records"
- Chris Richards Pop music critic, The Washington Post
- Gayle Wald Professor of English and American studies, The George Washington University; teaches courses on U.S. popular music culture
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Music fans have good reason to mourn this year. In 2016, we lost David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and Sharon Jones. Each of these four musicians held a unique place in American music and culture. Today, we'll remember them together. Here to talk about the legacies of these four artists, Chris Richards of The Washington Post and Gayle Wald of George Washington University.
MS. DIANE REHMFrom the studios of NPR in New York, Amanda Petrusich of The New Yorker magazine. And throughout the hour, we'll welcome your comments, your questions. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.
MS. GAYLE WALDNice to be here.
MR. CHRIS RICHARDSThanks for having us.
MS. AMANDA PETRUSICHThanks so much, Diane.
REHMChris Richards, what a difficult year for music fans.
RICHARDSIncredibly. The losses felt really staggering. But I also feel, you know, just a dart in the other direction right away, is that this might be a glimpse into the new normal for us. When you think about the idea of a post war baby boom and the dawn of the mass media and the rise of the home stereo in concurrence with the bloom of the record industry, there are a lot of famous musicians in the world and they made a big noise when they were very young and now, they're reaching the ends of their lives.
RICHARDSSo I think with the losses that we saw this year, with David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and many, many others that we'll talk about this hour, we're getting a picture of kind of what's to come.
REHMBut you know, I mean, David Bowie died at just 57, Prince 69, Leonard Cohen was 82, but Sharon Jones only 60. So I mean, how is that the new normal?
RICHARDSWell, that's a good question. I guess, you know, maybe it's a warning sign, I should say, of things to come, but we are reaching a point where you start to think of the entire list of musicians who are getting up there in the years and also to a lot of rock and rollers, their power is in defying death, the idea that they seem sort of above it. We talk about the Rolling Stones all the time as guys who seem to have cheated death again and again and again. This year seemed to sort of make that less of a joke and a little something more to be considered, maybe to be worried about in a way.
REHMAmanda Petrusich, is this, in your view, a new normal, losing such major figures in music?
PETRUSICHYeah, I thought Chris put it really well, actually. There is that sense of, you know, every day, I think, critics and fans and listeners, you sort of wake up and, you know, glance at your phone in terror, you know, hoping that there won't be more bad news. I do think that the pop landscape now, you know, the kind of contemporary field, it's a big more diffuse in a way. I mean, these are huge iconic artists. And I don't know -- I mean, while there are extraordinarily famous pop singers right now, I don't know that we're all paying attention to the same person at the same time in the way that we did, you know, 20, 30, 40 years ago.
PETRUSICHSo the sense of these kind of iconic, you know, these giants of the field, you know, as we lose them, they do feel, in a way, like a non renewable resource.
REHMWell, why do you...
PETRUSICHAs sad as it is to frame it that way.
REHMWhat do you think sets these four performers apart?
PETRUSICHOh, gosh. I mean, there was a sense, and you've been alluding to this a little bit -- and I think this was something people said quite a bit after Bowie and Prince died in particular. There was the sense that, God, these folks do not walk the same Earth that we do. How could they possibly be subject to the same mortality that we are? I mean, they were such extraordinary performers, such generous and courageous performers. I think all four of them were genre-defying and groundbreaking and visionary in their way. And I don't know that we know yet who's kind of carrying that torch right now.
PETRUSICHI think it's sort of still to be determined. It is, of course, a gift that kind of comes with hindsight to realize how brave someone was in their work. But I think it's something, certainly, all four of these figures share is just extraordinary courageousness.
WALDI'll add a couple of things to this conversation. One is that Bowie and Sharon Jones and Leonard Cohen all died of cancer and there's a way that, you know, we kind of understand, like, the fragility of the body in the face of these diseases. Whereas Prince died from an accident and there's a way that I think Prince's death felt a little bit different because it wasn't of so-called natural causes. And he really, for me, felt like he was being ripped away from us before his time and in some kind of criminal way. So there's that. And I would say that also -- and this is kind of touching on what Amanda just said about looking at your phone every day.
WALDThere is something about the availability of social media now that makes our morning different, that makes it possible for us to connect with people immediately to talk about an artist's legacy to kind of -- and also to go to the Internet as soon as this news kind of comes out and that's maybe something that's fairly new, this kind of place -- the Internet becomes a place for public mourning.
REHMI misstated the age of both Prince and David Bowie earlier. You said Prince at 57 died of an accident. What do you mean?
WALDWell, he died from an overdose is, I think, what we know as an overdose of prescription drugs and he was being treated for pain. So we have no reason to believe that he was ill. Before he died, he had -- there had been kind of an emergency landing of a plane in Illinois, but his spokespeople had assured people that he was fine. So we didn't expect it. I think people on the inside -- certainly Sharon Jones made a very public display of her illness in a very kind of courageous way. I think Leonard Cohen also in a way. David Bowie was quieter and more private about his illness.
WALDBut the people on the inside knew that all three of those artists were battling quite serious illnesses.
REHMChris Richards, let's talk about David Bowie. What is most important in remembering him?
RICHARDSSure. Well, there was this outpouring of information and I thought it was just so interesting how we mourn publically in society and that we felt that first with Bowie. I feel like I've never known Bowie as well as I do this year and I thought I knew him pretty darn well coming into it. So immediately after his death, though, there was kind of this war on the word chameleonic to describe him as a chameleon because chameleons hide and David Bowie did this inverse thing. He kind of changed the room to match him. He changed the energy of the world to match his energy.
RICHARDSThe thing that he did that's so remarkable is that he was constantly changing his image and his sound record after record after record. And it's something that we kind of take for granted as truism in pop music. We expect now every pop artist to reinvent themselves with every new album cycle and it just seems like a self evident kind of way to approach music. This is a David Bowie thing. It's a thing that wouldn't be the case if it were not for him.
REHMHe really appealed to young people.
RICHARDSThat's a huge part of his appeal and he also stayed fluent in different music. I mean, we're just listening to "Let's Dance." It's David Bowie walking into the disco and not being a tourist, but learning how that culture works and learning how to be a participant. And that's really another just quintessential Bowie quality to not just change yourself in a superficial way, but to change yourself intrinsically and change yourself deeply. That's a powerful message to send to young people because young people are trying to figure out who they are and who they can be and also this idea that we can be multiple people.
RICHARDSThere are different iterations of self. That's a David Bowie lesson that we carry with us.
REHMAmanda, was he ahead of his time?
PETRUSICHOh, gosh. Yeah, yes. Sort of the simplest answer. I think time was irrelevant to Bowie. I mean, in some ways, he strikes me as an artist that, you know, maybe more than any other performer in recent memory, seemed to be, yeah, kind of skipping ahead of the beat, you know, in terms of the beat being the sort of zeitgeist or what everybody else was doing. He was, I think, just saw things that the rest of us couldn't see. And there was a sense that we're still now just kind of catching up to him.
PETRUSICHI mean, I will, again, sort of echo Chris' sentiment that I feel like, in some ways, I'm coming to know Bowie better now than I ever did before. And I think part of that is we're just -- you know, he's finally stopped so we now have a moment to kind of catch up to him and what he was doing.
REHMThat's so sad to, you know, to find out really more in depth about people only after they're gone. I know that happens with visual artists so often, but it's kind of sad that it happens with music as well.
PETRUSICHAnd these were artists who all of them we're talking about who left us a tremendous catalog of work and we had the privilege of watching them change as artists. So there are different phases of their careers. We see them experimenting. We see them succeeding and failing. So there's something also poignant about the amount of work that all of these -- the body of work that these artists left us, even Sharon Jones who didn't really begin a public career until she was 40 years old.
REHMAnd we're talking about four artists that we lost this year, David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones. We'll take a short break here and when we come back, talk about others, hear more music and take your calls.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about four really major performers that we lost this year -- David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and Sharon Jones. Here in the studio, Gayle Wald. She's professor of English and American studies at The George Washington University. She teaches courses on U.S. pop music culture. Christ Richards is pop music critic for The Washington Post. And Amanda Petrusich is contributing writer to The New Yorker. She's author of "Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records."
REHMWe talked the other day about the revenge of analog. And therefore, your book makes lots of sense. Here's a Facebook message from Joey. He says, for me, personally, it was Prince's death that was the most devastating. I grew up being bullied. And Prince's music created a world for me to retreat to and to get lost in hours and hours of Prince's bold and vulnerable perspective. Prince made it okay to be different and to follow your personal truth. Amanda, talk to us about Prince and why he meant so much to so many.
PETRUSICHSure. And, Joey, thank you for your post. It's a really lovely and moving thing. I think we've heard, you know, various iterations of that type of story -- of, you know, Prince saved my life in one way or another -- from many fans in the days since his passing. I mean, I think Prince was one of those artists who just seemed like he didn't know that there was, you know, a way that other people expected him to be. He seemed totally, sort of, impervious to these, you know, paths through life, these kind of well-trod paths through life that other people find themselves following.
PETRUSICHHe was such a singular and, again, kind of courageous artist that -- there was a sense, watching him, of, well, he doesn't know that what he's doing is unusual. Or he doesn't know that what he's doing is a sort of pattern for other people who seem, you know, to find themselves kind of stuck in lives that don't make sense to them. I just -- I found him inspiring, much the same way, in that almost everything he did felt, you know, subversive or singular or compelling in some way that, you know, was sort of hard to conceive of before he did it.
REHMGayle, tell me how you would approach teaching about Prince to your students.
WALDIt's a great question. I do -- I agree very much with the Facebook post, that Prince gave his audiences ways of imagining otherwise. And what the Facebook poster talked about retreat, I think those retreats were also immersions -- gave people the energy to go back into the world. So it was both a removal from the world, but also how to be in the world. I think I would probably approach Prince through, maybe, Little Richard, who was one of his forebears.
WALDAs a kind of gender-bending, kind of genre-bending artists who laid some of the groundwork, I think I'd want to give them a sense of, you know, the funk influences on punk -- on Prince -- the James Brown, the Sly Stone, or even the Joni Mitchell. He was a great admirer of Joni Mitchell's.
WALDSo I'd want to give them that. But I also would want to give them a sense of this experimentation, his fearless experimentation as an artist. But I think, for most people, you know, Prince is going to be remembered as someone who didn't ever see a convention that he didn't think was worth challenging. And so kind of gave us a picture of a racially and sonically missed world. So, so many things to say about him.
RICHARDSWhen we talk about the complete package, that's a cliché that gets overused. And it really applies to like a freakishly small amount of people. And Prince was absolutely one of them. His talent is just so impossible to try to describe in the hour that we even have here, as a guitar player, as a song writer, as a singer, as a live performer who deployed his body in such incredible ways. I mean, there's just no way to get our arms around what he was capable of.
RICHARDSSo we're listening to "Purple Rain" by Prince, the song that titled the film from 1984. I will argue that the most important scene of the movie happens during the performance of that song. You have the camera panning across the crowd. And you see in that crowd, you see people with kind of spiky, punk-rock haircuts. And you see, like, funk-music dudes with Jheri curls. And you see new-wavers with asymmetrical hairdos. And the message being sent there is that everyone is welcome here. It really echoes what, you know, the commenter who just -- Joey on Facebook who just sent that comment in. Everyone is welcome in Prince's universe. And if you believe in pop music as sort of like a utopian project, Prince's music is the sound of that happening.
REHMYou cannot help but move to that music. It's extraordinary.
RICHARDSMoving my tear ducts right now as we're listing to it.
RICHARDSI mean, Prince, again, to get back to this idea of identity, you know, in 1980, a few years before "Purple Rain" came out, he sang, "Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?" And the answer to that question was, "Both and none of the above at the same time." He really expressed this incredible plurality and, at the same time, this idea of universal personhood. So there's room for so many people in this music. And that's why we're moved by it, physically and emotionally.
PETRUSICHYeah. Absolutely. I agree. There is that sense of sort -- I mean, and even as you were saying, Diane, you feel that kind of weird, imperative, sort of deep in your bones to start...
REHMYou do. Yes.
PETRUSICH...you know, swaying a little bit. Things start to move.
PETRUSICHThere is something so immediate and undeniable, I think, about his work as a musician, but also about his sort of work as a man out in the world kind of forging these paths that previously were, you know, unseeable, as we're all saying.
WALDAnd I also want to remind us -- and this pertains to the other artists we're talking about -- but he was an extraordinary collaborator. He was -- he chose his collaborations kind of in interesting ways. And he also was a male artist who put women on the stage with him as equals and allowed them to kind of inhabit their sexuality in ways that were very powerful. And so he enabled the careers of many women. And I think that's important too.
REHMOn the other hand, he was not immediately embraced, was he?
WALDThat's right. Initially, you know, when he opened, I think it was for The Rolling Stones, he was thought of as kind of, you know, it weird. He was booed. He wasn't rock enough. He wasn't white enough. He wasn't masculine enough. So early -- and it's hard for us to remember that now -- but early in his career, it wasn't a kind of easy path to fame. And it was really, I guess, with "1999" that he kind of became globally famous, after many albums.
PETRUSICHAnd Prince has also been -- I mean, we were talking a little bit about the kind of wild comeback of analog sound -- Prince has also been really aggressive about keeping his music, as much as he could, sort of off of streaming services, of kind of not giving into the digital revolution in a way, remaining sort of staunchly anachronistic in that manner, which I think was compelling. Although I'm curious, maybe Gayle has some thoughts on this, or Chris, in their interactions with folks a little bit younger than the three of us, you know, how sort of subsequent generations are coming to Prince's music.
PETRUSICHBecause it's not easy to find it. It's not on YouTube. It's not on Spotify. So it can -- it's something, I think, at this moment time you do have to sort of willfully seek out.
WALDYeah. I was going to say, it was actually quite disconcerting, because when he died, everyone went to the internet to try to find the playlists. And his songs are not there. They're simply -- they weren't there. Now, some of the material is available.
REHMNow, some, yes.
WALDSo it was a kind of -- so if you wanted to say to someone, this is why this was special, listen to this -- it wasn't available at the touch of a finger the way that they expected music to be delivered to them. So that's an interesting point, Amanda, about kind of it wasn't there and people had to find other ways of accessing it.
RICHARDSAt the same time, I think you can hear his legacy just trickle down through so many artists. I mean, everyone who's singing falsetto on the radio today, which is just about everyone, that's a Prince thing. And, of course, it comes from a tradition that goes through everyone from Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and such. But Prince really proved how a high male voice can really do some work -- we're hearing it right now in the background -- do some serious work on the radio and cut through on the radio.
REHMOh, if our audience could only see you swaying here. That's just wonderful. So Prince really meant a lot to the musicians who followed.
PETRUSICHAbsolutely. And I think that, you know, he also, you can hear his mark on really young artists today. I was thinking about Janelle Monae, who Prince also collaborated with. She's a young, African-American artist who has been in recent years very kind of politically active. She kind of draws on old, like, funk sounds, R&B sounds, and kind of gives them this neo-futurist kind of flavor. So I do think his legacy is going to be important. You know, the other thing is one of the last things he did publicly before he died is he did that performance of "Baltimore."
PETRUSICHAnd he was very involved in kind of the contemporary, even as we knew a lot -- people who were following him knew a lot about his faith. He was a Jehovah's Witness when he died. So we knew about that. But we also learned -- this is going back to Chris' point -- we learn so much about these artists after they died.
RICHARDSI mean, we tend to live in a hyperbolic society, right? We like to over-praise things, to sort of cut through the conversation, to use our enthusiasm to make a point. Prince is the only artist, in my estimation, who's worthy of all of the hyperbole, worthy of all of the praise.
RICHARDSI think he's the ultimate pop star of our time. I think no one is better than him at various different things. And I think, you know, I don't mean to sound tiresome to your listeners today, as we sit here and heap praise on all of these greats of music, these legends of music, but for Prince, he deserves every single accolade that he gets.
REHMHere's an email from Matt, who says, it's so interesting to consider how these artists all confronted their own mortality before they died. Can you talk about that, Gayle?
WALDYeah, absolutely. And it's more complicated, I think, in the case of Prince. But talking about Bowie, Sharon Jones, and Leonard Cohen -- Leonard Cohen and David Bowie both put out late-career albums that were explicitly about illness, explicitly about thinking about the end of life. And I think they're incredible, to listen to them -- which is painful, especially in the case of Leonard Cohen, for me -- to listen to them and still be privileged to have access to artists way of talking about things that we're all afraid of. Sharon Jones performed with a bald head while she was going through chemotherapy and while she was in pain. She gave us this kind of public template for what it could mean to be a woman with cancer in public.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's turn now to Leonard Cohen. This really was also pretty emotional for baby boomers, Chris.
RICHARDSI think that's probably because the music that Leonard Cohen left us with was just intimate from "Jump Street." I mean he had such an incredible way of connecting with his listenership in this really quiet, somber way. But I think there's kind of a pandemic misinterpretation of Leonard Cohen and this idea that his music is fundamentally sad. And I would agree that, yes, it's always -- it's often somber. It's sometimes sad. But more so than that, it's frequently and almost intrinsically serious. And seriousness and sadness are two very different things. And I think Leonard Cohen's music also had a sense of humor to it. It was necessary comic relief to help underscore the seriousness of what he was going after.
RICHARDSAnd even before this last album he left us with, "You Want It Darker," he was writing about death his entire career. And knowing that, you know, the big sunset awaits us all.
REHMHmm. Let's hear a bit of "Suzanne."
REHMChris, you call these some of the most devastating love lyrics you've ever heard.
RICHARDSAbsolutely. You know, "You know that she will trust you, for you've touched her perfect body with your mind." Oh, it's -- I can't even -- words fail me, when words that powerful come across in a song. I'm ready to light up your phone lines here by putting the idea forward that Leonard Cohen is a better lyricist than Bob Dylan. I think that Cohen communed with the mystery, but he ultimately -- he wanted to be understood. He wanted us to get as close as we can to understanding the things that we'll never understand. I think Dylan is more playfully antagonistic about that sort of thing and he enjoys sort of perpetuating the riddle of life.
RICHARDSI think that Leonard Cohen wanted to crack the riddle of life. And he knew that was impossible, but at least he wanted to make that process public and share it with us. And that is the gift that he leaves behind us, as a lyricist and a songwriter.
WALDI think we can have both. I mean...
RICHARDSI think we can have Bobby Zimmerman, who ran away -- a Jewish boy from Minnesota, who ran away and kind of reinvented himself as a folk singer. And I think we can have the son of Talmudic scholars, who always maintained a relationship to his faith. And kind of, you see some of that poetry and some of that legacy of Talmudic scholar in the craft of his writing.
REHMAnd for you, Amanda, what makes his writing so special?
PETRUSICHWell, I agree with Gayle that, you know, why not have both? Although, I think Chris, and I -- I mean, I think what Chris said is a provocation in a way, but also seems to me like, yes. I mean Cohen -- I think there are artists who do, a kind of disenfranchised manner, they do injustice or they do rage really well. And I think we're seeing a lot of contemporary artists who are sort of embodying those ideas or voicing those ideas in remarkable ways. But nobody does that kind of wry, sort of, you know, camera all the way zoomed out sort of...
PETRUSICH...wide-angle melancholy like Leonard Cohen.
REHMOkay. All right. Short break here. We'll be right back.
REHMWelcome back as we talk about the deaths of four great musical artists this year, David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen and Sharon Jones. But here's an email from William, who says what about Merle Haggard. I feel this discussion is missing something by leaving him out. I'm sure there are others, Chris.
RICHARDSYeah, we're leaving a lot of people out, of course. This is not the only four musical titans who have left us this year, you know, Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest, Glenn Frey of The Eagles, I think Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, Vanity, a protégée of Prince. I mean, the list goes on for sure. I will say to our listener's comment about Merle Haggard, again that's a huge loss for country music, an incredible songwriter, and Merle Haggard, you know, the essence of his existence was really one that I think we kind of think of as a cliché now, but clichés start, you know, somewhere, and they mean something.
RICHARDSAnd Merle was incredible at transposing human pain into clear, clear-eyed songs. And he was something -- that was something he was doing his entire life, all the way to the end. I interviewed him on a broken-down tour bus outside of a casino in Louisiana about four or five years ago, and he was recovering from having half of his lung removed, from his surgery. Things were bad in the life of Merle Haggard at that time, toward the end of the life.
RICHARDSAnd you could hear that struggle in his songs, these incredibly clear, beautiful songs. But they were still girded by pain, and that's something that, you know, that Merle Haggard dealt with for his entire career.
REHMAnd let's talk about Shirley Jones, Sharon Jones, pardon me, and you'd almost not know by her performing that she was struggling with cancer.
PETRUSICHYeah, she was just such a firecracker on stage, for lack of a better word. I, you know, every time a person goes to see Sharon Jones or went to see Sharon Jones, and this was true for me for every time I saw her perform and for many people I've spoken with, in the audience of shows like that, she just grabbed you. I mean, she was just such an immediate and joyful performer, and I think it was that joy maybe more than anything else that was particularly intoxicating.
PETRUSICHAnd Sharon Jones of course had a sort of famously challenging life. She was born into a somewhat impoverished family in the South. Her mother flew an abusive -- fled an abusive partner and relocated them to Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York, in an era in which it was sort of tough to grow up in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. You know, she was a...
REHMOh dear, I'm afraid we've lost Amanda. Why don't you carry on, Chris.
RICHARDSSure, well part of, you know, what Amanda was speaking about, Sharon Jones is a live performer, and this kind of ties into what Leonard Cohen sang about famously in his song "Tower of Song," this idea that musicians very much get to live forever through the recordings that they leave behind. Sharon Jones, her career started late. She didn't leave a big discography behind. So when we're mourning her, we are truly mourning a lost opportunity to see her get up on stage and put her body in the service of her music.
WALDOne thing that we're also missing or mourning is we didn't really maybe have the opportunity to know Sharon Jones as she could have been. This is a woman who had incredible talent, but when she went to try to get a recording contract, she was told famously she was too short, too fat, too black, too old. And so there's ways that I think in thinking about her death we can also think about the possibilities that she -- you know, the opportunity she wasn't afforded.
REHMLet's hear a little of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings performing "Stranger to My Happiness." This is during the time she was sick.
REHMAmanda, Sharon was so alive.
PETRUSICHAbsolutely, yeah I think there is this sense of her as being totally invincible, and this is perhaps true in a way of all the artists we're discussing today, that you just thought, God, there's -- how does someone sort of that alive ever, ever kind of leave this world, which made it double devastating, I think, when we all learned the news.
RICHARDSI think, you know, the music of Sharon Jones also gives us an opportunity to reflect on race and the soul music, quote-unquote, revival that she was a part of. You know, when I saw her perform, and you guys can tell me if it was different for you, it was primarily for white audiences in venues that skewed towards rock-'n'-roll music more than soul music.
RICHARDSAnd, you know, we're all taught as Americans that soul music is American music, and it makes sense that white audience want to try to commune with it, but I just didn't get the sense that these crowds were the same crowds who go to see Chaka Khan on the regular. So I hope that the music that they experienced there, it doesn't stop with Sharon Jones. I hope that it leads back to her idol, James Brown, who I think should be spoken with the same reverent tones that we talk about The Beatles and The Rolling Stones when we're talking about great modern music. I really hope that Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, it wasn't like a box that people checked off. I hope that it brought them deeper into American soul music.
REHMWas she a feminist, Gayle?
WALDYou know, I think she was a feminist in the sense -- I don't know if she -- I don't know if there was a place where she ever kind of talked about that explicitly, but I think she was a feminist in the sense that she was determined not to let the impositions or the boundaries that she was contained by contain her.
WALDSo when she was told too black, too old, and of course too old is something only told to women, she persisted.
REHMBoy, she is powerful.
PETRUSICHOne of the most moving things in Barbara -- I think it's Barbara Kopple's documentary, "Miss Sharon Jones," is that when she gets sick, you see that she feels the pressure to keep this large band touring, that she was -- she fronted the band, but the band's success was intimately tied with her as a front woman. So her illness, you see her kind of -- you know, she's the leader of the thing, and her illness means that other people aren't getting paychecks, and she's struggling with that even as she's struggling with her health.
REHMAll right, let's open the phones, take a call from Jeff here in Washington, D.C., you're on the air.
JEFFGood morning, Diane.
JEFFNice to talk to you locally here.
REHMThank you, go right ahead, please.
JEFFSure, fascinated by this conversation you and your guests are having and wanted to ask them to take it back to David Bowie's departure from us. I was fascinated and still intrigued by how he kind of almost, I wonder if they would agree, sort of spoke to us from the afterlife, from after his departure. The first single, "Lazarus," which -- or named "Lazarus" on the album, "Black Star," "Black Star" with (unintelligible) they recorded, and none of the band knew that Bowie was terminally ill. I think it was actually on NPR where they were breaking down live the day of his death, when they heard the news, but in that first song "Lazarus," he actually sings, look up here, I'm in heaven, this where no way you know I'll be free.
JEFFAnd I'm still just so beguiled by all this and wonder what they would have to say about it.
WALDI also have noted that, and I do think that there is a kind of prescience. There -- you know, one thing I wanted to maybe bring into this conversation just in terms of history is that one of the reasons we have a particular relationship to these artists is because we have their recordings that we can listen to over and over and over again that give us a sense of intimacy with them. And I wanted to say that when the phonograph was invented, there was a connection between death and recorded sound.
WALDWhen Edison imagined the phonograph as a recording device, not as a playback device, he thought that it could be used for last wills and testaments, and he thought that families could record the last words of the dying. And the famous Victor Talking Machine advertisement of Nipper the Dog listening to his master's voice, a lot of people interpreted that image, a really famous corporate image that was based on a painting, as Nipper listening to the dog of his deceased master. Some people interpreted it as Nipper's on the coffin.
WALDSo I think there is this interesting relationship between the afterlife of the sonic and the voice and death, and there's a way that that might not be exactly answering the listener's question about whether he was speaking to us in the afterlife, and sure, why not, I'll go with that, I like that, I like the idea that he was thinking about those things, as well.
RICHARDSWe're all David Bowie's dog, I guess is what I've learned here today. Yeah, I don't know if I've ever encountered a recording quite like it. It's totally singular in the sense that he was leaving behind a note for us. He knew what was going to happen, and this was his farewell. It's an astonishing, astonishing record.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And let's see, to Scott in Indianapolis, you're on the air.
SCOTTGoing to miss you when you're gone.
REHMThanks, but I'm going to do a weekly podcast.
SCOTTThat's what I hear, and I'll be checking that out.
REHMGood, I'm glad.
SCOTTBack to David, back to David, I -- I'm old enough, as most of your panel and some of your listeners might not be, to have actually seen some of his early shows, and it was an incredible experience. I mean you talk about gender-bending, he was -- he was one of the first. I'm sure you can go back to Little Richard, but, you know, he was doing it, and the people that would show up in full regalia, and when he was doing his Ziggy Stardust and his space shows, I mean, it was an event. I mean, these people would show up in space costumes, and it was crazy.
REHMWhat do you think, Chris?
RICHARDSI think you can feel that legacy when you go see a Lady Gaga concert these days. I mean, her fans get dressed up in the same way, and this idea that there's something to be communicated through an image, it's a David Bowie idea, it's an idea that he strengthened and popularized and made common in pop music today.
PETRUSICHTo the caller's point about Bowie kind of giving permission to his audiences to experience their own kind of freedom and to do that collectively with him, I think there are forebears of that in popular music, and popular music has long been a site where people can create their own spaces to imagine freedom. I think what was maybe historically specific about Bowie was that he was emerging at a time of rock authenticity, when, you know, men were supposed to perform as men onstage and do it in a certain way that indicated that they didn't care about how they were viewed, this kind of persona of authenticity.
PETRUSICHAnd his theatricalization of the rock star/pop star was very different at that moment.
REHMAll right, the last piece of music we want to talk about, Debbie in Phoenix, Arizona, says during her husband's illness and passing, he listened to Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy" song. It -- she says it gave him such great comfort that he even wrote Cohen before passing to say thank you for the words in that song. We don't have that, but we do have his "Hallelujah."
RICHARDS(unintelligible) far too shy to go that far.
RICHARDSIf you want to keep your people on the air, they'll turn the tune off if they hear us singing.
REHMWhy is this so important, Gayle?
WALDGod, this song has been covered by so many people. Well, it's a brilliant song, and every -- now that I've been listening to it, I'm amused by the rhymes that he uses for hallelujah. In this one, he says what's it to 'ya and over through 'ya, and that he rhymes it with hallelujah. I know this song is, like about some kind of cosmic struggle for me, that -- and also it's so over-the-top dramatic in terms of the chord progressions. I mean, you're just like kind of swept into it.
WALDAnd then the orchestration here or the arrangement with the gospel choir, whew.
REHMFabulous, fabulous, Amanda?
PETRUSICHI always think -- so John Cale of the Velvet Underground sort of famously covered this song in 1992. He was one of the first artists to release, commercially release a cover of it. And he, you know, did a rearrangement of the song, sort of turned it into a slightly more spare and spectral piano ballad.
PETRUSICHBut there's this great story about him calling Cohen and asking Cohen if he had any spare verses to the song and Leonard Cohen sort of famously faxing over like 18 pages of lyrics, some of which Cale ultimately used. And you read those verses, and they are brilliant, and you just think, I can't believe Leonard Cohen just had stacks of sort of genius, you know, prose kind of hanging around his apartment. He was such a beautiful writer that it clearly was just so instinctive to him.
REHMWell what a privilege to talk to all of you today about these four artists and to hear their music. Thank you all.
WALDThank you, so much fun.
RICHARDSThanks for having us.
REHMChris Richards, Gayle Wald and Amanda Petrusich. Thanks for listening, all, I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
Trump impeachment witness Fiona Hill on what her own background says about this political moment, and why she thinks the greatest threat to American democracy now comes from within.
Cities and states across the country are exploring reparations programs for Black Americans, but not all reparations advocates think it's the right approach. Diane talks to Mayor Daniel Biss of Evanston, Ill., and William Darity, Jr., and Kirsten Mullen, the co-authors of the book, "From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century”
The New Yorker's Evan Osnos traces the roots of divisions in the U.S. from 9/11 to January 6. His new book is "Wildland: The Making of America's Fury."