Unchained: Eddie Van Halen (1955-2020)

Edward Lodewijk “Eddie” Van Halen died today at the age of 65, after battling throat cancer for several years. He was a stone cold genius who changed the way people looked at and listened to the electric guitar in popular rock music, with perhaps only Jimi Hendrix having had as deep a transformational impact on the instrument and how its players play it. Or at least want to play it, since virtually nobody can do what they did, as well as they did it.

Hearing “Eruption”/”You Really Got Me” on the radio for the first time circa 1978 at Mitchel Field (likely on WLIR 92.7 FM during its beautiful, educational heyday) was a classic “What the HELL was that?!? I MUST HAVE IT RIGHT NOW!!!” moment for me. Here’s a refresher, if you need it:

The self-titled debut album from which those tracks were culled did not disappoint when I acquired it soon thereafter. Big wows, then and now. And a lot of other big wows through the breakup of the original lineup around 1984. (Though their final album of the David Lee Roth era, 1984, didn’t thrill me as much as the five that came before it. Which meant, of course, that it ended up being their biggest commercial hit. Sigh). The debut LP went a long, long way in my Best of the Blockbusters music tournament some years back, and that’s probably where I’ve written the most about my appreciation for it, and them. Give it a skim, if interested.

But then be advised that the very best things I’ve ever read about Eddie, Alex, Mike and Dave (plus Sammy) were written by one of my all-time favorite wordsmiths, the persistently anonymous Mr Thoughts on the Dead. Click on the image below to read his utterly fantastic Van Halen reflections, in three links below the photo on the landing page. Then read this. TotD’s having a shitty 2020, even more than most of us, and this didn’t make it any better. I appreciate him deeply. Hope you will too.

The Time Will Come: Lee Kerslake (1947-2020)

English musician Lee Kerslake died today at the age of 73, after a years-long struggle with prostate cancer. He was a long-time favorite of mine, holding down the groove and delivering the beastly beats for decades with a variety of acts I appreciate. He was best known as the hard-hitting drummer (credited on occasion as “The Bear” for his physical stature, grizzly beard and thunderous paws) for Uriah Heep and a pair of seminal Ozzy Osbourne solo albums. But there’s a bit more breadth and depth to his catalog and creative contributions than that, including some mostly-forgotten gems that get a lot of spins about our household. Let me share a few of them with you in a spirit of tribute and respect.

I’ve written before about my love for what I call “heavy organ music,” which I described thusly in 2001:

You can generally describe it as mid-tempo, choogly rock (complete with appropriately widdly guitar and ram-a-lam drum solos), fortified with strong, typically baritone male vocals and cemented together with swirly, gurgly organ parts, usually played on classic Hammond B-3 or Vox Continental organs. Or other combo organs of the era, Farfisas and the like. You know the sound. Organy.

Lee Kerslake played on a lot of Heavy Organ Music classics over the years. He began his recording career with The Gods, whose various lineups between 1965 and 1969 included Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones), Greg Lake (King Crimson, ELP), Ken Hensley and Paul Newton (both Uriah Heep), Brian Glascock (The Motels) and John Glascock (Carmen, Jethro Tull). Kerslake joined the group in 1967 as drummer and vocalist, part of the briefly stable quartet lineup with Hensley, John Glascock, and guitarist Joe Konas who recorded the group’s two official album releases (Genesis in 1968 and To Samuel A Son in 1969), along with the notoriously raunchy 1970 Orgasm, which was pseudonymously credited to Head Machine. Here’s a classic cut from The Gods, co-written by Kerslake and Konas:

R&B singer Cliff Bennett (ex-Rebel Rousers) joined The Gods near the end of their run under that name. A re-tooled ensemble called Toe Fat emerged in 1970, featuring Bennett, Hensley (primarily on guitar, rather than his usual keyboards), John Glascock and Kerslake. Their eponymous first album is an utter stormer, with some truly bizarre early Hipgnosis art work on its cover. Here’s its opening cut:

Kerslake and Hensley left Toe Fat before the group’s less exciting second (and final) album, Hensley heading directly into Uriah Heep, and Kerslake joining the woefully under-appreciated National Head Band, whose sole album, Albert 1, is a lost near-prog classic, filled with unusual styles and structures, and ballsy playing and singing throughout. Kerslake contributed on keyboards, vocals, drums and composition. Their best cut, to these ears, was this one:

After Uriah Heep had chewed through four drummers over the course of making their first three albums, Hensley recruited his former bandmate for Heep duty, soon cementing what most would consider to be their “classic” lineup: Hensley, Kerslake, Mick Box (guitar), Gary Thain (bass) and David Byron (vocals). That quintet released four studio LPs and one live album over three years, during which time the group scored their highest sales and spins figures in the UK and USA. There are many classic cuts in that great creative period, but I’d cite this one as my perpetual favorite of the era:

That stable run ended after Thain’s onstage electrocution, followed by his untimely death of a drug overdose. He was replaced by my much-admired (and missed) John Wetton for a pair of albums, which most Heep fans don’t particularly dig, but I think are under-rated. I picked the fitting title of this post from a song of that era, co-composed by Kerslake and found on the B-side of the “Return To Fantasy” single. (I appreciate that the current most-recent comment on the Youtube page linked below praises the complexity of Kerslake’s drum work).

The late ’70s found Uriah Heep in a state of churn and devolution following the departures of Wetton, Byron, Hensley and Kerslake, leaving Mick Box as the sole founder and still standard-bearer for the group. Lest that sound negative over the long-haul, please note that I am most fond of much Heep work since that time, grateful that they never stopped growing, and thankful that they never ossified into a stale vintage rock tribute show to their earlier glories. I saw their current line-up a couple of years ago in a Chicago-area venue, and would cite that show as one of the best I saw during my four years of living there. I also consider their latest album, 2018’s Living The Dream, to be one of their all-time career highlights; see entry #15 at this link for more on that.

But back to 1979: following his Heep exit, Kerslake went on to join a super-group originally dubbed Blizzard of Ozz, featuring Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Bob Daisley and guitarist Randy Rhodes. By the time their debut album came out, however, things had morphed into Ozzy receiving top billing as a solo artist, with Blizzard of Ozz being repurposed as the title of the 1980 disc that ended up selling in quintuple-platinum quantities. How many times have you heard this choice Kerslake drum opening in sporting events and other “gotta pump up the crowd” moments, live and on television?

The original four members of Blizzard of Ozz co-wrote and recorded a second album, Diary of a Madman, for a 1981 release, but relationships had soured between Ozzy and his manager-wife Sharon on one side, and Daisley and Kerslake on the other, leading to Diary‘s original release crediting a replacement rhythm section for the work done by the original members. It got worse a few years later, after Daisley and Kerslake sued the Osbournes to receive their due creative credit on that pair of immensely successful commercial releases, only to see Ozzy and Sharon literally re-record and re-release the records with yet another rhythm section, completing erasing Kerslake and Daisley’s contributions from what they apparently hoped would become the permanent record. Kerslake later reported that the related legal proceedings bankrupted him. Eventually, saner heads prevailed and the original recordings have become commercially available again. During his final illness, Kerslake cited a dying wish to receive his due credit for his work on those famous discs, a request that Ozzy honored, finally providing him with the platinum disc awards that he’d certainly earned all those years before. A small gesture, sure, but meaningful, and better late than never, I suppose.

As it turned out, Kerslake’s departure from Ozzy World aligned timing-wise with a complete retrofit and relaunch on the Uriah Heep front. Kerslake re-joined his former band, bringing Daisley with him, for their first post-Hensley release, 1982’s Abominog, which opened with this cut:

That record was a surprising commercial and critical success, and after another few years of personnel churn, the band’s longest-stable lineup emerged in 1986, with Box and Kerslake joined by singer Bernie Shaw, keyboardist Phil Lanzon, and bassist Trevor Bolder, once of Bowie’s Spiders from Mars, and also a veteran of the late ’70s Heep era. Kerslake’s last songwriting credit with his long-time band appeared on this cut, from 1998’s Sonic Origami.

Lee Kerslake continued to play with Uriah Heep until early 2007, when his health had declined to the point that he was no longer able to serve as the engine that drove the high-powered outfit he’d anchored for so long. He was active in other capacities as he was able in the years that followed, with some live work, some studio work, some writing, and some nice tributes to and interviews with him peppering web and radio spaces in and around the Heep community.

I return to Kerslake’s early career with The Gods to end this post, offering a closing track below that my music-nerd statistics tell me was the seventh most-played song around our household over the period from May 2008 to December 2019. Lee Kerslake plays drums on “Lovely Anita,” as per usual, but he also wrote it and sings lead vocals on it, and it’s an extraordinary little pop-rock gem, ably displaying a sensitive facet of his creative work that’s not often celebrated. But I love it dearly, and I applaud its creator, for this and so many other works. Lee Kerslake may not be the most famous musician we’ve lost in recent years, but he was well-loved among Heepsters, and someone whose name always made me pay attention when I saw it and/or heard his work. I hope you’ll join me in lifting a glass (real or virtual) in his direction upon the time of his flying away. May Lee rest in well-deserved peace.

Setting That Solidest of Picks: Wes Unseld (1946-2020)

Basketball great Wes Unseld flew off to his great reward today at the age of 74, having endured several years of poor health before his passing. The NBA Hall of Famer was one of only two players (Wilt Chamberlain being the other) to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors in the same season. He spent his entire playing career (1968-1981) with the Baltimore-Capital-Washington Bullets (now the Wizards), playing more games for the team than any other player, and capping his career with the franchise’s only NBA title in 1978. Unseld then spent his entire post-playing career as an executive and coach with the Bullets, making him, more than anybody else, the life-long face and soul of the franchise.

I started following Unseld avidly in 1973. We lived in the D.C. suburbs at the time, chasing my father’s Marine Corps career up and down the East Coast. The Bullets had just moved from Baltimore to Landover, Maryland, playing their first season as the Capital Bullets before adopting Washington as their home city in name, if not geography. Unseld and Elvin “The Big E” Hayes were the heart of the Bullets’ great 1970s teams, with Hayes racking up the points and Unseld owning the paint and dishing out lightning-strike assists like nobody’s business. He was solid and strong, routinely holding taller players at bay and regularly featuring at or near the top of the league’s rebounding leader board. Formidable, for sure.

I count the experience of watching the Bullets win the 1978 title in a thrilling seven-game series against the Seattle SuperSonics as one of the most memorable moments of my personal sports fan history. It’s right up there with watching Navy beat Notre Dame for the first time in my lifetime (I was in my 40s when it happened), the Kansas City Royals winning the 1985 World Series through a nearly-laughable series of fluke calls and games, and the Washington Capitols finally getting past their nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins and winning their first (and also only) Stanley Cup a few seasons back. I can still rattle off most of the roster of the 1977-1978 Bullets without checking references, so invested was I in their activities and successes that season. We were living at Mitchel Field on Long Island at the time, so I was the only one celebrating much in my neighborhood when they won, but it still felt wonderful, and I still have great affection for the players who delivered that moment, Unseld (who won Finals MVP honors) first and foremost among them.

So I lift a virtual toast to the memory of Wes Unseld this morning and hope you’ll join me in remembering one of the greatest players of his game, an epic sporting presence who made everybody around him better than they were in his absence. It would be a much more fitting tribute if I could go out and set a hard pick on somebody in the paint today, but, you know, social distancing and suchlike as COVID-19 owns the lane right now, alas.

Don’t mess with Wes. It’s his key, and your job is just to watch for the outlet pass.

The Voice of Energy: Florian Schneider-Esleben (1947-2020)

Electronic music pioneer Florian Schneider-Esleben has died, after a short battle with cancer. He was the co-founder, with Ralf Hütter, of Germany’s legendary Kraftwerk, and he played on, penned and/or produced an extraordinary series of songs, albums and concerts between 1970 and 2008 that truly changed the ways in which we make, hear and understand music. Labeling Kraftwerk as influential is like labeling water as wet, or winter as cold. It’s a statement of the obvious, even if you don’t actively think about it very often. It just is.

Schneider (Florian dropped the “Esleben” in his public music credits) and Hütter met and began collaborating as university students in Düsseldorf in the late 1960s. Their early works featured an evolving cast of co-collaborators, and reliance on a mix of organic, taped and electronic instrumentation. For a brief period in 1971, Hütter (the group’s primary vocalist, though Florian also sang) left Kraftwerk, leaving Schneider as the keeper of the flame. Here’s what that period looked and sounded like, with Florian deploying the treated flute that was his hallmark through their early years. The other two members of the group at this point were Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger, who went on to form the similarly influential Neu!.

Following Dinger and Rother’s departure and Hütter’s return, the duo issued a pair of low-key albums (one simply called Ralf und Florian, with a pleasant picture of the pair on its sleeve belying its inner weirdness) before unleashing Autobahn on the world in 1974. Its 22-minute title track was designed to capture the experience of rocketing about Deutschland on its high-speed highways, and a single edit of that monumental piece became a global pop hit, even cracking the American Top 40 charts. Of course, the fact that many English-speakers heard its lyrics as “The fun, fun, fun of the Autobahn” probably had something to do with its multi-national appeal, even though the words are actually “Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn.” (“We drive, drive, drive on the Autobahn.”) No matter. It was brilliant whatever you thought it meant.

Following Autobahn‘s release, the “classic” lineup of Kraftwerk cohered, with Schneider and Hütter being joined by electronic percussionists Wolfgang Flür (who had already appeared on Autobahn and Ralf und Florian) and Karl Bartos. The quartet’s next five albums — Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man Machine (1978), Computer World (1981) and Electric Café/Techno-Pop (1986) — were all masterpieces, musically, visually, and conceptually. Florian Schneider continued to serve as a primary songwriter (with Hütter, Bartos and lyricist Emil Schult) and performer, but his particular area of expertise and interest shifted over the years into voice synthesis, and he played a key role in the development of the group’s design ethos as well.

The birth of Electric Café/Techno-Pop (the title has varied over the years and across national lines with various reissues) was a long and difficult one. As Schneider and Hütter grew more meticulous and focused on recording technology (transitioning from analog to digital) and cycling, Bartos and Flür drifted away, and were replaced by Henning Schmitz and Fritz Hilpert, longtime engineers and technicians at the group’s Düsseldorf headquarters, Kling Klang Studios. The group only produced one more studio album, Tour de France Soundtracks (2003), which built upon a 1983 single (“Tour de France”) to create an album-length audio guide to the experience of cycling, much in the spirit of Autobahn‘s ode to the magic of driving.

Schneider retired from Kraftwerk in 2008, leaving Hütter, Schmitz and Hilpert to soldier on, with the fourth spot on the stage now being occupied by a dedicated video technician, since visuals are such a key component of the Kraftwerk live experience. A couple of years before Florian left the group, they issued Minimum-Maximum, an utterly essential live album with brilliantly bright and bold interpretations of a career’s worth of exceptional songs. On a personal front, I actually listen to that album more than any of the studio ones at this point. Here’s a sample of one of its best tracks. Florian is at the right as you view the video; keep in mind the key role he played in developing the group’s vocal synthetics as you listen to it, and also compare/contrast with the 1970 clip above.

Kraftwerk were a great, original act, unlike any other at each stage in their development, but then immediately mimicked, sampled and/or invoked following each and every creative artifact that emerged from Kling Klang’s secretive confines. I discovered the group somewhere in the Trans-Europe Express to The Man Machine era, and they’ve never left my regular playlists for very long in all of the years that have passed since then. I would especially cite the first time I heard their 1982 song “Numbers” (from Computer World) as one of the greatest “my mind is now well and fully blown” listening moments of my entire music-loving life. Here’s that song too, also in its Minimum-Maximum version:

When my wife and I visited Düsseldorf in 2014, I actually made a pilgrimage to the original site of Kling Klang Studios, though it was no longer there at that point, having moved elsewhere after Schneider’s departure from the group. I was somewhat awed and amused in equal measure to consider how works so titanic had been unleashed upon the world from such a humble setting. Here’s what it looked like when I visited; the studio had been behind the metal roll-down door at center.

While few beyond the Kraftwerk inner circle knew or know exactly what the working dynamic and relationships within the group really entailed over the years, there was always a sense from the outside that Ralf was the serious one of the pair, and Florian the one who just maintained a serious facade, which cracked sometimes. When David Bowie and Iggy Pop were in Germany during their “Berlin Albums” period, the pairs met and actually wrote about each other: Bowie’s “Heroes” album features a cut called “V-2 Schneider,” and Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” contains the lyric “From station to station, back to Düsseldorf city /Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie.” There’s some hilarious documentary footage with Iggy describing his adventures with Florian. Here. Watch.

At bottom line, Florian Schneider did things, created images, and made music that moved me. I was most sorry to learn of his passing today. His death is one of so, so many in these tragic times, obviously, but I still feel compelled to write in his honor and memory, and with gratitude for the gift of his music. Perhaps some of you, my readers, may discover his work if you haven’t already by reading this memorial piece, or for those in the know, perhaps you will now be moved to slap some familiar robot tunes onto the stereo and dance mechanically to them, as one does.

In closing, I chose the title for this post from the opening track of Radio-Activity. Its lyrics felt apt to me, given Florian’s work in turning speech to signal, and vice versa.

This is the voice of energy.
I am a giant electric generator.
I deliver you light and power.
And I enable you language, music and art.
Through the ether to look and receive.
I am your servant and lord at the same time.
Therefore guard me well.
Me, the genius of energy.

Rest in peace, Herr Schneider-Esleben. You were a genius of energy indeed, and I adored your work.

A Certain Measure of Tolerance: Neil Peart (1952-2020)

I hate to be a ghoul, and to only use my website to eulogize dead people, but despite having just penned an ode to Neil Innes upon his passing last week, I also feel compelled to briefly remark upon the life of Rush drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, who flew away this week after a three-year battle with brain cancer.

I interviewed him in 1997, and it was one of the best conversations I ever had with a famous person who had deigned to politely speak to a music writer from a small regional newsweekly. I wish I still had the raw transcript of our taped conversation, as I was limited by word counts in the actual printed version of the interview, and had to leave some interesting bits on the proverbial cutting room floor. I guess those unpublished portions of our conversation just have to remain part of my fond private professional memories. They certainly made me like the man even more than I already did when I dialed his number for the phoner.

Soon after my conversation with Neil Peart, I saw him and his bandmates play the opening show of their “Evening With Rush” tour, where they offered two long sets without an opening act, for the first time in their then already-long career. I wrote a piece some years later about the ten most memorable concerts I’ve ever seen, and that was one of them, in part because I saw the famous 2112 suite played live for the very first time in its entirety that night. Here’s that list and report.

Sadly, in the months after that great concert, Peart dealt with a pair of devastating personal tragedies, losing his daughter in an auto accident, and then losing his wife to cancer. He managed his losses (in part) by taking to the road on his motorcycle, an anonymous ghost rider, going back to ground in ways that stripped away any rock star pomp or glitter, riding and thinking and writing and healing, until (after a few quiet years) he finally felt prepared to return to his drum kit and his band.

The first song on the first album after his return to music-making was called “One Little Victory,” and it’s one of my favorite Rush moments, even though it’s nowhere near as popular or famous as many of the group’s other songs. I think it was apt and intentional that the early moments of the song are all Peart, his drums laying out a complex and killer pattern that carries the song as much as its lyrical or melody lines do. It felt like a statement of strong intent the first time I heard it: I am back, I am here, I am alive, I play drums. A titanic, moving musical moment by a truly singular talent. I post a link to that song below, and I commend it to you most highly, if you have never heard it. It stands as strong a eulogy for a brilliant artist as any words I could possibly pen. I’m glad to have had the brief opportunity to speak with the genius who created it. He moved me, for sure.

He plays fast-forward for as long as he can. RIP, Maestro.

Simple Things: Johnny Clegg (1953-2019)

Johnny Clegg died of pancreatic cancer today at the age of 66. He was an accomplished and inspirational musician, social anthropologist, songwriter and activist. His multi-racial bands Juluka (founded with Zulu migrant worker Sipho Mchunu in the early 1970s) and Savuka (formed in the mid-1980s after Mchunu retired and returned to his family’s farm) provided a pointed, potent cultural spearhead through the final years of South Africa’s apartheid era and beyond.

The vast majority of his musical output touched on the sociopolitical and personal realities of life in South Africa, with two songs in particular capturing the world’s fancy: “Scatterlings of Africa” (Juluka, 1982) was a global pop hit, telling the story of the dispossessed and dislocated people of his home continent; and “Asimbonanga” (Savuka, 1987) was an open cry for the release of Nelson Mandela from his prison cell at Robben Island. A 1999 video of Clegg performing “Asimbonanga” with his band, joined by a very special guest dancer — no longer a prisoner, but instead the duly elected President of his people — is one of the most joyful things on the Internet to these ears and eyes:

I can’t write an obituary that would do Johnny Clegg the honor and justice he’s due. NPR has a nice one here and France 24’s obituary provides a more European perspective on his life. It’s also worth reading Clegg’s Wikipedia page, if you are unfamiliar with his life and career, and the numerous honors and awards that have been bestowed upon him over the years. I can, however, share some stories about how special he was to me in my own musical, cultural, and personal development, by way of explaining why his death touches me so.

While at the Naval Academy in the early ’80s, I made a decision to focus my political science major on African politics. My motivations were not entirely altruistic: I found that it was easier to wait until the last minute to work on papers and projects because so few books about Africa ever got checked out of the Academy’s library, while the Soviet or European or Chinese shelves would be picked clean most of the time. Score one for the lazy man with a keen eye for an angle.

Initial motivations notwithstanding, I actually really got into my African studies, and in parallel, I got deeply interested in African music, and spent much of my paper-writing, reading and studying time listening to it. In those pre-Internet (and pre-“World Music” CDs at the Starbucks check-out counter) days, records from Africa were still relatively hard to find, and information about all but the most high-profile artists (e.g. Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango, Miriam Makeba, King Sunny Ade, etc.) was scarce. I had an odd hodge-podge of tapes and albums from all over the continent that I played to death for a couple of years, but the popularity of “Scatterlings of Africa” (the album it came from was even reviewed by the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin) opened up new interest in African music, politics and culture that made it easier to access some true gems of the era and beyond, on and on for me up to this day. (Case in point: the brand new album from Kinshasa’s KOKOKO!, which you should hear!)

While UK artists like The Specials (“Free Nelson Mandela,” 1984), or Peter Gabriel (“Biko,” 1980) helped raise awareness of the cultural price of Apartheid, and Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986) brought Township music a wider global audience than it had ever had, Clegg’s work always seemed to me to be somehow less manipulative, and more honest, than its European and American counterparts. It was a whole lot easier for the Westerners to bring African musical concepts into their (safe) European homes than it was for Clegg to learn Zulu language and dance, gain the trust of KwaZulu’s musicians and activists, and then merge his own Celtic and folk musical influences with native South African styles and themes, in an environment that was decidedly not safe for such cultural cross-pollination.

There was nothing of the debutante about Johnny Clegg from where I sat as a fan and follower, whereas the appropriated cross-cultural works by the likes of Simon and David Byrne always left me feeling vaguely icky after I listened to them.  (Heck, when you get right down to it, Neil Diamond beat both of those guys to the punch by more than a decade with his “African Suite” from 1970, but he’s not considered cool enough to get due credit for that, now, is he? He deserves it, though, and I commend Tap Root Manuscript to you as well).

Anyway: Juluka and later Savuka were regular, nearly constant, spins on my stereo for years, and you’d likely be amazed at how much isiZulu I can sing phonetically, having those sounds and words deeply burned into my brain through repetition, repetition, repetition. Fast forward to 1987, when Marcia and I are both working at Naval Reactors, hanging out with the same group of friends, but not dating, not quite yet. We did a lot of stuff with various permutations of our social group, but things just did not work out so that it was only the two of us doing something together, no matter how hard I worked to make that happen. After some months and many missed opportunities, a Savuka concert at the legendary 930 Club (the original one, at the deeply scuzzy 930 F Street, not the shiny new, big, trendy, popular, safe one that came later) finally became the thing that got us out on the town together, just she and I, doing and seeing something really, really cool, together. Wow! Fireworks! Wow! That one night made it easier to do other things together, just the two of us, and a few months later, we were couple, inseparable for over three decades since.

So Johnny Clegg was a part of our own story that night, as was Dudu Zulu, Clegg’s dancing partner onstage with Savuka, their traditional jumps and thrusts and leaps and kicks taking the music up to a whole ‘nother level of mind-blowing and ass-kicking. After that tour, and after a few more tours and records beyond that, Dudu Zulu was gunned down near his home in KwaZuluNatal in 1992. That was the end of the line for Savuka, with yet another tragic loss added to the list that Clegg had written and sang about for so many years.

Clegg played on after that as a solo act, and on, and on, and on, and he kept the memories of Zulu and Biko and Aggett and Mxenge and Mandela and the causes they fought for in front of his audiences, lest we forget their importance and their lessons. I learned a lot about the real issues facing South Africa through Johnny Clegg’s music, beyond what the textbooks could tell me. And I learned a lot about how to speak truth to power, and how to use simple language to express complex sentiments, and how to build bigger, better, more innovative things by working with diverse communities, rather than sulking in a silo of social homogeneity.

Fast forward yet again, lots of years, to our first summer in Chicago, 2015. After four years in relatively sleepy Des Moines, it was huge for Marcia and I to have so many options to see so many cool things, right within walking distance of our new condo. As fate would have it, one of the first gigs we spotted and scored tickets for was Johnny Clegg playing at City Winery, with his son, Jesse, opening the show. It was an awe-inspiring evening, and an amazing way to mark the opening of a new phase of our life, just as that Savuka show in 1987 had been a milestone for us all those years before. We loved it! We sang along! We danced! We talked about it and marveled at how wonderful he remained, and how powerfully his songs still spoke to us! Yay, him! Yay, us!

And then soon after that, we learned that Johnny Clegg had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and then after 2017, there were no more tours and no more records to follow. Clegg fought that awful disease, but it got him in the end, as it almost always does. He was too young to leave us, but golly, what he life he lived, what a legacy he left behind, and how important he was to me, in so many ways, over so many years.

As we are subjected to racist hate-speak emerging from the maw-hole of our nation’s malefic President this week, it’s shocking, but important, to consider and focus on just how important Johnny Clegg’s messages remain, everywhere, all the time, whenever we are faced with institutional or individual racism and discrimination. No, the Republic of South Africa may not be ruled by a racist oligarchy anymore, more power to it and its people, but us? I’m not so sure . . . if we aren’t there already, we’re in danger of getting there soon, and we need to stand up and join hands and sing songs and tell stories and act in ways that cast light on and denigrate the shrill, shallow, petty evil of racism and its proponents and apologists. Johnny Clegg showed us how to do that. May others emulate him, right here, right now, and tomorrow, and in all the years that follow even after that.

As many people do, when they learn that a beloved artist has passed, we tend to fill up the listening spaces in our lives with the departed one’s music, a phenomenon that Marcia has dubbed “I Hear Dead People,” given how often I do it hereabouts, as the stars of our youth age out and pass on to some great reward. I will note, somewhat sadly, that because I knew Johnny Clegg has been deeply ill, I actually got a head-start on that process over the past year or so, and we’ve been spinning him regularly for a long time, loving his songs, loving his language, loving his stories.

I’m glad we were thinking about him while he was still fighting his final battle, and not just after he flew away from us. That listening will be continuing in the weeks and months ahead, likely with a larger playlist, since I’ve got plenty of his stuff. I close this post with the song I chose to title it, probably my personal favorite from Clegg’s canon. This one was co-written by Sipho Mchunu from the 1982 Scatterlings album. Its bottom line message — “Simple things are all we have left to trust” — resonates with me, in a tumultuous personal and political world, where the little, dear, personal things are really the ones that sustain me, the constant anchors in the noisy rushing flow of life around all of us.

Bless you, Johnny Clegg, for the gifts you gave to so many. You truly made a difference.