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The Best We Have: Saying Goodbye to Rock's Greatest Generation

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WikiMedia: Stuarthampton

Songwriter Kevin Ayers died last week at the unripe old age of 68. He was in my favourite band, Soft Machine. Ayers brought a graunchy bass-playing style and a mellifluous baritone voice to counter drummer Robert Wyatt's skittish rhythms and athletic tenor and Mike Ratledge's howling organ. Ayers also recorded a large body of solo work, including 17 albums, which featured many of the finest musicians of his age - some of whom are also recently dead.

Hugh Hopper, Ayers' bandmate in the seminal group The Wilde Flowers, his successor in Soft Machine and a collaborator on Ayers' first solo outing, died in 2009 at the age of 64. Leading British saxophonist Lol Coxhill, who played on two of Ayers' solo albums, died last year aged 74. And Ayers' collaborators Elton Dean and David Bedford died in 2006 and 2011, respectively.

Ayers played with Soft Machine, jazz-rock pioneers who helped craft the Canterbury sound, on their first U.S. tour supporting The Jimi Hendrix Experience - the original members of which are now all deceased. The last to go were bassist Noel Redding (died 2003) and drummer Mitch Mitchell (died 2008).

The point isn't that Ayers was some kind of albatross, but rather that he was a central, if unassuming, figure in a epoch-defining scene whose cast members are singing their last chorus.

Musicians who made it through the 1960s are now dying in their 60s. Within the next 20 years, the generation that sang My Generation will be gone. (John Entwhistle died in 2002 aged 57.) These players belong to my parents' generation, and this is what makes their passing so bitter: You know Mum and Dad are next.

Every week, I present a programme on Istanbul's community radio station, Acik Radyo, and like to use the slot to commemorate musicians who've gone on to play The Great Gig in the Sky (written by Pink Floyd's Rick Wright, who died in 2008 at 60). Since the start of this decade, I've noticed a big uptick in these memorials.

Soon, Ayers' entire generation will be gone. They are starting to pay the price that Sandy Denny (died 1978), Gram Parsons (died 1973) and another Ayers' collaborator, Nico (1988) paid up front and in full. The only exception is likely to be the Rolling Stones, who seem to plan to perform forever, embalmed as they are.

The next wave of musicians a mere decade away from drawing a pension, believe it or not, is the punks, whose ranks are already half-depleted. Since their salad days were not exactly spent eating salad, I fear longevity may not be in their stars either.

We've all heard the hyperbolic mourning for the San Francisco Summer of Love (not least in San Francisco by one-hit wonder Scott McKenzie, who died in 2012 aged 73) and in Mojo's endless eulogising of the Beatles (George Harrison, died 2001, aged 58). But there was a quieter group of influential players that included Ayers, who wrote some of the most riveting yet unpopular pop music of the past century, and they are vanishing fast.

Ayers occupied a place in music history that is as essential, though less revered, than his friend in Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett (died 2006, aged 60). Ayers' music was warmer than Barrett's: just as whimsical, but less tinged with madness. While Barrett was trembling in a cupboard on LSD, Ayers invited you to share a bottle of red wine in the back of a van on the way to a gig.

We may never again see this degree of creativity or personality, not least because the industry can't or won't support musicians financially any more. And that's our fault: We want our music fast and free.

While the digital age has killed the pirate radio star, the Internet is a vast visual archive of concert footage, interviews and appearances on obscure European TV programmes. It's the one saving grace. The work of Ayers and his peers live on in vivid detail even if they don't.

Around the Web

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