There have been two rock ‘n’ roll deaths lately. Levon Helm of the Band succumbed to cancer of the throat last month – rumours say he had been a three-pack-a-day man – and, more recently, Duck Dunn of Booker T & the M.G.s fell fighting, on tour in Japan. Both deaths are poignant in their own right: Helm’s marks the silencing of the last surviving voice in the Band’s tattered, but beautiful harmonies. Duck Dunn, whose bass graces some of the finest Stax soul records, went down whilst on duty, in the club circuit which, like many other working musicians, was the only life he’d known.
The death of an ageing musician is sad news, of course, but the real tragedy of these stories lies in their long epilogues, where the hero slowly turns into a relic, known for ten years of greatness which ended forty years ago, getting uglier and weaker, irrelevant as anything except a historical curiosity.
Fame and talent are fickle mistresses. They favour their few for the briefest of whiles, and then move on to shine their light on others, with their victims stranded and wondering where they could possibly go next. When Dunn and Helm collaborated briefly in the late seventies as the RCO All-Stars, their best achievements were already behind them, and both the M.G.s and the Band were gone, leaving them blinking in the harsh glare of mundane reality, to cope as best as they could. Both continued to make records and do tours after a fashion, as musicians who know no other skill will, but fewer and fewer people listened, and still fewer cared.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter that Duck Dunn and Levon Helm are no more. They have been no more now for a long, long time. The lesson in this is simple: don’t waste your sorrows on the dead and the dying. If you are looking for a marvellously groovy bass track, or a loose back-beat with an Arkansas growl, look at those who have heard the M.G.s or the Band and felt compelled to make their own music because of it. Look at where the musical seeds scattered by the artists you hold most dear have taken root: they will be all around you, and very much alive, and they will grow and change and propagate long after the gentlemen who birthed them have turned to dust under the ground.