This was a tough year, if you love music.
Good people die every year, of course, but I’m struggling to remember another when we lost this many.
Glenn Frey, Natalie Cole, Maurice White, Leon Russell, Paul Kantner, Gato Barbieri, Mose Allison, Merle Haggard, Phife Dawg. Sharon Jones, whose soul burst out of the car radio and smashed the windows the first time I heard her. Keith Emerson, whose synthesizers blew my mind as they ricocheted around Yale Bowl one long-ago hot summer night.
But as good as they all are, what makes 2016 so intensely poignant is the passing of three singular talents who defied labels and whose appeal trampled the usual boundaries — David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen.
None was like the other, and each was different from anyone I’d ever heard. They influenced their peers, and were indispensable to our culture. I’ll always regret that I never saw any of them perform in person.
Bowie was the chameleon, changing personalities and musical styles like most people change clothes. Prince was his own showman, and a virtuoso on any instrument he played. Cohen was a poet whose croaking baritone, which deepened year by year, ensured that one’s focus would stay on those magnificent lyrics.
Each was a constant reminder of the power music has always had for me. It communicates things I cannot say, it provides perspective I did not see, it perceives in ways I had not considered, it thrills with language I could not hope to write.
When I’m alone, I sometimes engage myself in internal debates (usually, I lose). But more often than not, I’m singing or humming while I’m sitting at my desk, mowing the grass, taking out the trash or just plain walking around.
I find myself humming Cohen’s “Hallelujah” a lot these days. And I wake up to him in the morning as the soundtrack of my bedside alarm.
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin.
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in.
If a good performer is supposed to always leave them wanting more, these three succeeded. Each had plenty left in the tank, which adds to the frustration.
Prince was only 57, gone far too soon to a fentanyl overdose. Cohen was 82, and his dark and haunting final album in October might have been his best.
Bowie, who was 69, released his last record two days before his death in January and it was true Bowie — terrific and surprising in its jazz orientation. One of its tracks was called “Lazarus,” the biblical figure who rose from the dead.
The album was a parting gift to his fans, and I’m going to hang on to that message.
The musicians we love move on. But the music never dies.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.