It was on my 23rd (or 25th, depending on how you count it) day of lockdown when I once again had to do something we’re all sick of doing these last few weeks: go on social media and see another wave of tributes to a favorite artist who’s succumbed to the COVID-19 pandemic. This time, it was John Prine, an artist I freely admit is one of my many musical blind spots; but reading the tributes – some from friends, some from great writers, some from both – really underscores the profound sadness.
News of Prine’s death broke only hours after another musical legend succumbed to this awful new disease: Hal Willner, the Saturday Night Live music producer and esteemed musicologist who assembled weird and wonderful tribute albums based on many musical whims. Listening to Stay Awake: Various Interpretations Of Music From Vintage Disney Films that afternoon was beautiful and bittersweet. It’s awful how hard all of these hit you, no matter how close or how far you are to someone’s art. Last week, I unexpectedly wept for Adam Schlesinger, popsmith extraordinaire. I felt similarly profound sadness at the passing (unrelated to the coronavirus) of Bill Withers, a man I once almost met but, in a moment of weakness against my own body, insisted on taking myself to the gym instead. I lost 15 pounds that summer, and I cannot tell you if I kept them off.
With the passing of both Schlesinger and Prine, I found myself doing something I often do after this news breaks: checking in on friends whom I know were profoundly affected by each person’s art. This happened to me en masse on April 21, 2016, when Prince left us.
For Schlesinger, I sent notes of condolences to my friend Dylan Roth, bassist for one of my favorite local bands (and four of my best friends) The Hell Yeah Babies. Dylan’s own songcraft is inspired in many ways by Adam’s: the effortless hooks, the suburban longing that doesn’t leave some of us even when you move into the big city like we did. For Prine, I texted my pal Nick Miller, a deeply funny singer-songwriter in Brooklyn who loves Prine and Elvis Costello and Squeeze and Nick Lowe – real pure pop/rock/folk for now people, our people. Nick recently recorded a Prine-ish song, “Checkin’ In,” based on an insane Internet meme, and donated all the proceeds to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline because of how much the silly meme actually meant to him. (I am humbly proud to count my voice on the song’s backing chorus.)
The recurring mantra and understatement of a lifetime is how much this pandemic is taking from us. Millions of people are out of work, we’re stuck inside our homes, moving only sparingly and decisively (unless you’re an essential worker, to which I say you deserve more than 100 of me could give you for your work). And we’re losing friends, loved ones, heroes, everyday people, at a rate more astronomical than any tragedy in my lifetime.
It’s no different here in the music business: albums and reissues keep getting delayed, live performances are nonexistent. We huddle close with what we have or what we’re lucky enough to enjoy, like livestreams from favorite artists. (My personal moments of zen come courtesy of Neil Finn’s daily missives from his Fangradio, further underlining his reputation in my head as one of the most brilliant songwriters to share the Earth with us.) We tense with the news of anyone, famous or ordinary, contracting this disease. (Reading Duran Duran bassist John Taylor’s description of his thankfully successful fight with COVID-19 convinced me that the “turbo-charged flu” that laid me out for a week from March 19-26 was likely a bout with the virus.)
It is my serious hope that we can all emerge from this stronger, safer and more cognizant of our duties to protect this planet and its people. Many days it seems foolish to think so. There is no joy in offering optimism to friends and loved ones when you’re not sure you’re qualified to send it. But for all it feels like we’ve lost as a citizen of this big blue ball, I am thankful to be safe and secure for now, with my fiancée by my side, knowing that Joe and Sam and their loved ones are presently safe. And it’s very obviously what we all wish for you as well.
Optimism is a strange thing to have in these times. I’m not truly sure what value it has. But that’s just what humans keep doing, for whatever reason. It’s either our dumbest or most brilliant trait. I suspect it may be the latter.