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The year the music died

There seemed to be an unusually high number of celebrity deaths in the last 12 months, including three of the greatest songwriters we've known. John Meagher on why the passing of David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen broke the hearts of so many people in 2016

John Brereton won't forget January 10, 2016 for as long as he lives. As organiser of Dublin's David Bowie Festival, he had spent the weekend making sure it all went seamlessly and after a late Sunday night, he allowed himself a lie-in on the Monday. At 9am, his four-year-old son, Jake, woke him with news he could scarcely believe: "Dad, David Bowie is dead."

Brereton, guitarist with the band Sack, spent most of the rest of the day fielding calls from fellow Bowie obsessives and requests for media interviews. He got home at 2am. "I plonked myself in front of the telly," he says, "turned on the news and saw all the tributes and I just burst out crying."

He realised that with the all the busyness of the day he had managed to keep his emotions in check. And then it truly dawned on him that somebody terribly dear to him was gone.

Just a couple of days before, on the Friday, Bowie had released Blackstar, and the ecstatic reviews proclaimed it to be his best album in years. "I thought it might be the beginning of a really exciting new chapter," Brereton says. "But it wasn't to be. Only a handful of people seemed to know he was so ill - it was remarkable how it could be kept under wraps."

The outpouring of grief was quite astonishing in the days and weeks after Bowie's death. "He meant so much to so many people," Brereton says. "I got into his music when I was a teenager and it changed my life. Everyone else would be out on the road playing, I'd be in my bedroom listening to one album after the next."

Bowie's death at the beginning of the year was later regarded as a portentous marker for what seems near universally regarded to have been a very bleak 12 months. "Bowie was - and is - a reservoir of hope for his many fans," says Professor Eoin Devereux, co-editor of the book David Bowie: Critical Perspectives.

"A recurring motif in the responses of older fans in the days and weeks following his death was the extent to which Bowie's emergence in the early 1970s was truly radical.

"The performance of Starman on a July 1972 edition of Top of the Pops stands out in particular; his ability to destabilise societal norms and values, his fluidity in terms of gender and sexual identity, his capacity to reinvent himself and his engagement with questions concerning mortality and spirituality were repeatedly referred to."

As one of the most totemic figures in the popular culture of the past half century, his death has seemed especially hard to take.

Devereux believes his legacy will endure. "My rule of thumb is to ask myself if I think that he will be listened to in 300 or 400 years' time, and the answer is a resounding yes," he says.

"Bowie's art captured the Zeitgeist of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Bowie was the lightning rod who foreshadowed many of the later social debates concerning sexuality and gender. He is very much up there in the pantheon of popular culture."

So too, insists Hot Press deputy editor Stuart Clark, are Prince and Leonard Cohen, whom we also lost this year. "They're hugely important figures, not just in music, but in culture generally. They left a mark on a great many people and while Prince's music didn't really resonate as much with me, it did with a huge number of fans and some of today's biggest artists.

At 82, Cohen, certainly enjoyed a far lengthier innings than either Bowie or Prince, and there was none of that shock about his passing, as it had been revealed some months previously that he was terminally ill.

And, yet, there was a sense of profound sadness over the passing of a lyrically gifted troubadour who had helped shape the course of popular song.

For Brereton - also a Beatles fanatic, who was saddened by the death of their hugely influential producer George Martin this year - much of the outpouring of grief centres on how important songs are to people throughout their lives.

"They soundtrack our lives," he says. "We can remember exactly where we were and who we were with when certain songs started to really mean something to us and when such iconic figures die, they take a bit of us with them."

Chart music today, he insists, just isn't as daring as it was when Bowie was unleashing Ziggy Stardust on the world, or when Prince was introducing Purple Rain to the masses a dozen years later.

Devereux, who will be among the speakers at the David Bowie Festival, which kicks off on January 5, says: "My main reaction to the deaths of Prince, Bowie and Cohen is focused on what their many fans said afterwards. Unlike many of the often trite things we read about in a social media setting following the death of somebody famous, the response to their deaths underlined for me the centrality of songs and music in people's lives, of the deep connections that many of us make with individual performers and their art."

And that connection, Devereux argues, was felt especially for Bowie, one of music history's great chameleons, who had tried on numerous guises and music styles over the course of his long career.

"Apart from the sheer volume of traffic across social media - more than 4.3 million tweets were posted about Bowie within 24 hours of his death - the days following Bowie's passing saw spontaneous gatherings of fans in places closely associated with him.

"Fans participated in communal, public gatherings - in New York, Berlin, Dublin and London, for example - to talk about David Bowie, to share their grief, to sing his songs, to dress up like him and, crucially, to express what he meant to them in their personal lives."

The demise of these three music giants helped reinforce the notion that the number of celebrity deaths was unusually high in 2016.

But some have offered a more rational explanation, rather than merely deducing that this year has been cursed.

The BBC's obituary editor, Nick Serpell, has suggested that the reason we're seeing so many well-known faces pass away is because, quite simply, there are more famous people around now than there ever have been before and they've all reached that vulnerable age.

"People who started becoming famous in the 1960s are now entering their 70s and are starting to die," he says. "There are also more famous people than there used to be.

"In my father, or grandfather's, generation, the only famous people really were from cinema - there was no television."

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