You Want it Darker: 2016 Gives and 2016 Takes Away

Kevin Schoenfeldt (2L) and Nick Papageorge (2L)


My pop culture highlight of 2016 was finding out that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He has long been one of my favourite artists precisely for his masterly compositions of confounding verses and unexpected allusions.

Through his use of language, Dylan creates his own little enchantingly absurd worlds and then draws you into them. Worlds filled with politicians and thieves, lovers and acid heads, scoundrels and debutantes, and men in Napoleon Bonaparte masks. Worlds where Einstein plays the electric violin and, inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial. Then there are his protest songs, which are some of the most powerful and poignant indictments of war, hatred, and injustice that I know of.

And for every moment in life, there seems to be a Dylan lyric to go along with it. For better or worse, law school keeps me coming back to this one in particular: “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.”

But there is another moment—or, perhaps, series of events—that stands out for me even more. Like many Canadians, I was shocked and saddened this past May to wake up to a press release from The Tragically Hip: their inimitable frontman, Gord Downie, had been diagnosed with cancer and the band would embark on its final tour over the summer. I was benumbed by the idea that this was really it for him and for them, and I resolved to get tickets.

Of course, getting tickets was not a simple—or even realistic—inevitability. Ticket scalpers, armed with software of dubious legitimacy, scooped up nearly every single ticket and promptly listed them on the secondary market for five times the face value. I was dismayed, and took solace in having gotten to see The Hip perform live many times before. I told myself I would be a man of probity and would refuse to let criminals profit off of another man’s terminal illness.

It turns out I am not that person.

I was with a friend in a Toronto bar on August 10 when I noticed that all the music playing was Hip songs; having long since abandoned hope of seeing the show, I had forgotten they were even in town that night. After a few drinks, I decided I would regret not going to this show for the rest of my life. So I went to a bank machine, withdrew a wad of cash, and shoved it into the hands of the first reprobate willing to sell me a ticket at that price.

And I regret nothing. The show was phenomenal, as electric and high-energy as any the band had put on in years. It was also profoundly emotional: the most touching moment was when Downie stepped out onstage and started the first song, his bandmates forming a close semicircle around him. The minutes-long send off the crowd gave Gord—on stage by himself, making an apparent effort to wave at and thank every single audience member—was surreal. It is an evening I won’t soon forget.


2016 was a good year for aging musicians. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize. Paul Simon, Nick Cave, Bob Weir, Charles Bradley, and A Tribe Called Quest, musicians ranging in age from forty-six to seventy-five, all released new albums proving that they were still going strong creatively. But 2016 was also a tragic year for aging musicians. I’m here to talk about three musical legends we lost this year who all gave the world one last gift before making their exit.

David Bowie, ever the showman, released his album Blackstar two days before the liver cancer he had kept secret for eighteen months took his life. It’s impossible to hear the album now and hear it as anything other than a man singing about his own death. One of the standout tracks, “Lazarus,” opens with this line: “Look up here, I’m in Heaven.” Then the album closes with “I Can’t Give Everything Away” where Bowie sings, “I know something is very wrong.” Still, in spite of the context around its release, this is a beautiful, at times even uplifting, album from one of the world’s greatest artists.

On March 24 this year I saw an ad for a concert I really wanted to go to. But the ticket was going to be expensive and I had seen the artist before. For maybe an hour I flip-flopped, fighting myself internally. It’s too expensive! But who knows when you’ll have the chance to see him again! But you’ve already seen him! But it was amazing! Finally I decided to go. Fortunately tickets hadn’t sold out while I was wavering. The next night I saw Prince play a show alone, just him and a piano. This was probably the best show I’ve ever seen. The amount of energy he had, the giant personality coming from his tiny frame, the sheer musical talent, kept me in awe for two hours. Less than a month later, Prince died from an overdose of painkillers. I literally didn’t believe it when I first found out. There was no sign of anything wrong that night, no sign of the chronic pain he was suffering that led to his death. He gave everything he had to the audience. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it here, in print: Prince was pop’s greatest genius.

I was driving to Montreal with my girlfriend when I found out Leonard Cohen died. We had already listened to his newest album, You Want it Darker, earlier in the drive. “Oh shit,” my girlfriend half yelled. I thought she had spilled something. We drove silently for awhile. She had memories of listening to Leonard Cohen with her mom and brother growing up. She was sad. I had only ever really dabbled in Cohen’s music before, but I had memories of him too. I remembered the first of his albums I bought when I was in high school and only knew him because of Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah.” I remembered a friend forcing  me to listen to “I’m Your Man” on repeat because she was obsessed with it after it appeared on a show she liked. So we both sat in the car and felt sad about losing someone we had never met, but who had been a presence in each of our lives for a long time. As 2016 comes to an unhappy and uncertain close, the words that keep coming to mind are from the title track of Cohen’s final album: “You want it darker. We kill the light.”