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From Prince to Bowie to Carrie Fisher, death came for dozens of pop culture icons in 2016

December 27th, 2016

Jane Wiedlin couldn’t handle it. Couldn’t swallow the pain of losing her idol, David Bowie, last January.

“I had no idea how bad it would be for me,” said the Go-Go’s guitarist. “It was literally the worst death ever. And that’s weird, because I don’t know him. He was just so important in my life, and still is important in my life, that I just freaked out. I was a mess for a week.”

A week became two. Two became a month. And a month became all of 2016.

“I’ve never done this before, but I’m doing a year of mourning,” she said. “Instead of wearing black, because I don’t wear black, I’m only listening to David Bowie for a year.”

Yeah, it it’s been that kind of a year.

2016 was the year death came for our heroes, the year we all lost at least one gleaming star in our orbit. Dozens of artists and icons, inventors and statesmen, writers and revolutionaries, lives lived to the fullest and some cut painfully short. Muhammad Ali. Elie Wiesel. Merle Haggard. Carrie Fisher. Harper Lee. Gene Wilder. Arnold Palmer. Pat Summitt. Garry Shandling. John Glenn. Even Christmas couldn’t pass without taking George Michael. It was a march of global mourning that never let up, an unrelenting bummer of a loop around the sun.

Twelve months after David Bowie left us, the dumpster fire we all called 2016 is coming to a close. Sweeping away the ashes and embers, however, won’t be easy.

Only one other celebrity death resonated like Bowie’s in 2016, and that was the even more shocking death of Prince three months later.

Both artists hit creative highs in 2016 — Bowie’s magnificent album Blackstar arrived just days before his death, and Prince’s first-ever solo tour had received rave reviews around the world. In the months since they died, the public’s fascination with both has not subsided, from star-studded tribute concerts to public memorials and art exhibitions to legal battles over memorabilia and unreleased music. The outpouring hasn’t stopped because Bowie and Prince weren’t done shaping lives. They were present. They were vital. Their deaths still feel fresh.

“To have lost the two people who seemed the most ageless and the most immortal, it’s just shocking,” pop culture writer and TV personality Dave Holmes said. The year 2016 “is a bummer of a year for a ton of reasons, but that’s a big one.”

Artists dealt with the deaths of Bowie and Prince as best they could. When Melissa Etheridge heard the news about Prince, she broke down in tears on the freeway. Chris Cornell immediately recorded and released a cover of Nothing Compares 2 U. Duran Duran’s John Taylor, a friend of Bowie’s, suddenly turned introspective.

“It was a very powerful experience,” he said. “When we lose somebody (like Bowie), you end up looking at your life in ways that, frankly, I’d rather not do most of the time.”

Duran Duran covered Space Oddity on their spring tour, one of many live Bowie and Prince tributes throughout the year — Billy Joel covering Rebel Rebel, Coldplay tackling Heroes, Darius Rucker singing Purple Rain, the Dixie Chicks performing Nothing Compares 2 U. Even Beyoncé left the stage of her Formation Tour so the audience could sing Purple Rain, all 8 ½ minutes, in its entirety. Each concert tribute became a moment of mass catharsis, a chance for fans to hug and sway and sing along with songs that still pack a punch.

Bowie and Prince. Prince and Bowie. For months, the music world wouldn’t let go, couldn’t shake its collective state of grief. And so each time another beloved artist died — Glenn Frey, Juan Gabriel, Ralph Stanley, Pauline Oliveros, Sharon Jones, Phife Dawg, Buckwheat Zydeco, Leon Russell, the list could stretch for pages — those feelings of grief built up instead of ebbing, with the twinge of each new death compounding the effects of the last. Another one? And another one? And now another one, too?

Mourning celebrities became the meme of the year, “Can 2016 be over yet?” its dominant cultural mantra. As if flipping a page on a calendar would solve anything.

One reason why it felt like so many famous people died in 2016: There are more famous people, period.

Celebrity has changed a lot in the past five decades. Superstars today are beamed into our living rooms in full color and high definition. They tour our theaters and hockey arenas, fill our social media feeds with snapshots from their daily lives. They are everywhere, always, online and on cable, their accomplishments embedded in the code of modern culture.

We’ve crossed a mark on the great cosmic timeline, the point where more and more luminaries from the creative boom of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s will die off with greater and greater frequency. Musicians like Leonard Cohen and Maurice White, sitcom stars like Alan Thicke and Florence Henderson, thespians like Alan Rickman and George Kennedy, journalists like Gwen Ifill and Morley Safer, scene-stealers like Bill “Radio Raheem” Nunn or Kenny “R2-D2” Baker — this wave isn’t going to stop. Remember all the tributes and hosannas that tumbled out when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in October? Imagine the outpouring on the day he eventually knocks on heaven’s door.

The challenge in 2017 and beyond will be adapting to this sped-up grief cycle, remembering to take inspiration from the lives of our heroes instead of moaning that they’re gone. That’s the lesson Bowie’s and Prince’s biggest fans took to heart.

“Grief is weird; you can’t bathe in it for too long,” said Duran Duran’s Taylor. “I kept a candle burning for (Bowie) for a few days. But then I found myself one day sitting at the piano, working on a song, and I thought, Oh, s—, I didn’t light a candle today. And I thought, Well, that’s okay because you’re at the piano and you’re being creative, so maybe the energy’s moved on. And I think that’s David’s message: He never stopped being creative.”

During her months of mourning, Jane Wiedlin channeled her grief through her pen, too. She wrote a song about David Bowie, “about me responding to his death and how it made me feel.” But she kept putting off listening to Bowie’s final album, the one that came out days before he died.

“At first, I was just listening to old stuff that comforted me,” she said. “I was really afraid to listen to Blackstar because it’s obviously about the process of dying, the entire album. I was like, I can’t handle it, I can’t, I can’t.

“Finally, three months after his death, I started listening to Blackstar, and I just could not stop. It’s so dense with ideas, both musically and lyrically. I found that album to be a huge comfort because he knew he was dying and yet he still chose to be an artist and keep creating.”

As Bowie sang on Blackstar: Something happened on the day he died / Spirit rose a meter then stepped aside. His spirit lingered 12 long months, casting a shadow of funereal black across pop culture, but it’s time to look ahead to 2017. The year of death has itself finally passed. A new one is only beginning.

Courtesy Tampa Bay Times