“Thinking of the day, when you went away
What a life to take, what a bond to break
I’ll be missing you”
— Faith Evans
We lost another one of the great ones the other day. Guitarist Alvin Lee, ace guitarist, former front man for the seminal ‘60s blues-rock outfit Ten Years After, an incendiary star of Woodstock who dazzled the crowd with his sizzling fretwork and the song that became the band’s standard, “I’m Going Home.”
And now, Alvin’s gone home – or at least that’s what we’d like to believe as part of our idealized vision of the hereafter, a place where Lennon, Harrison, Hendrix, Joplin and Cobain spend eternity jamming to their hearts’ content while welcoming another ill-fated artist to their fold with a shot, a spliff and a lost chord.
With each icon’s death, another piece of my tenuous youth seems to break away, to be reclaimed by the cosmos, never reconciled or recovered, surviving only in fast fading memories. True, the material effort to keep our heroes alive is bolstered from time to time – a new Jim Hendrix disc of unreleased material, People, Hell & Angels, recently raced to the top of the charts, Skydog, a seven-CD box set that catalogues the career of Duane Allman, is about to hit the shelves, and a musical destined for Broadway, Love, Janis, recounts the tragic life of the greatest white blues singer the world has ever known. And yet, the thought of what those individuals could have achieved had they lived to a reasonable old age continues to haunt us. What new horizons might Hendrix have attained had he reached what would have been his 70th birthday last year? Would Jim Morrison have breached new boundaries and brilliance had he not self destructed in that Paris bathtub? Would Marvin Gaye continue to construct his musical masterpieces had his father not picked up that gun and shot his son in the grip of incomprehensible rage?
For his part, Alvin Lee had the chance to continue his trajectory. He was 68, a victim of what was called an unforeseen consequence of routine surgery. In truth, his solo career never came close to scaling the heights achieved at the helm of his former outfit. Yet, even so, our image of him is forever etched by that remarkable performance onstage in upstate New York, nearly 44 years ago, when his irreplaceable, shag-haired, snarly-spit image was embossed in the collective consciousness. That’s the shame of it really, the reality that time will always take its toll and that its inevitability that can never, ever be vanquished.
For those of us that grew up in a particular time and place, it’s still hard to comprehend that the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Bee Gees, the Four Tops and the Temptations will never be able to fully regroup, that a massive quotient of their membership have passed before they were due. For every icon that perseveres (consider Tom Jones and Aaron Neville with recent and remarkable career peaks, Spirit in the Room and My True Story, respectively), the iconic artists that mesmerized entire generations – transcendent talents like Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson –were taken from us way too soon.
Life is finite of course, and old age takes its toll, but there’s something tragic about the death of someone who has either never reached his or her prime or died way before their time. And it’s also sad to witness the passing of someone like Alvin Lee who created such an indelible impression, one so crucial to the trail of images that shaped our collective consciousness. Truth be told, I hadn’t listened to Lee in years, but the memories of that remarkable night more than four decades ago will forever linger and last.