What is it about Phil Everly’s death that has such a grip on me?
It is not just that I am getting old and all the people I grew up listening to are dying. It is more like a way of life is passing. I know this will be hard to capture in this post-modern age, but there was a time when Western culture wasn’t fractured. Could you imagine the tsunami that the Beatles caused happening today? It would be impossible. It was impossible even for the Beatles themselves towards the end of their career, because what I am referring to had already passed by the end of that decade.
But there was a time shortly after the war and lasting for perhaps twenty years at most, when Western culture was unified. We all listened to the same music, read the same books. When Catch 22 came out in ’61 we were all reading it. You’d ride on the subways with people reading the book, listening to them laugh out loud. It was like everyone was in on the joke. We all knew what they were laughing at. West Side Story came out the same year. Everyone was humming along. There were no country music stations or alternative rock stations. We all listened to the same music.
There was a good deal of schlock back then, for sure. Not everything was good. There was a veritable deluge of ‘Bobbys’ for a couple of years and most of them died deservedly quick musical deaths. But there was a brief spell, from maybe 1955 to 1965 where there were incredibly good songs by gifted musicians, and The Everly Brothers were among the best. Elvis was king, of course, and there were as many as two or three dozen solo, quartet and group artists that could compete on any one song. But no other group were anything like Phil and Don.
To my mind they had not only the best sound – pure, sweet, full of soulful longing – but they were the best ambassadors of that age; sweet boys who really seemed to care for the music they were making, with the most delicate harmonies that matched meaning, cadence, intonation, phrasing, tonality and musical colouration in a way that none of us had ever heard. It was like there were two people with one soul, breathing perfectly in harmony.
If you think I am just being nostalgic, have a listen and especially a look at this video of their 1983 reunion concert at Albert Hall. I am happy to admit that the first half of the concert is a little ragged (although you may not be as much of a perfectionist as I am and not notice), but the last half is a close to musical brilliance as you are ever likely to hear this side of glory. Watch how carefully Phil pays attention to every phrase that Don sings, matching and soaring above in absolute harmonic perfection. I read one comment on this YouTube page likening Phil to a human Stradivarius. That’s a pretty good metaphor for his technique. That sound didn’t just happen; they were singing harmony on their father’s radio show when Phil was six.
This sweet sound and thoughtful care for one another characterized the age in which I grew up. We wanted to have a little fun, to be sure, but we were good kids, and we seemed to share a culture of caring for one another. Something happened to fracture that. Perhaps the cracks were already evident and I didn’t notice. We had gangs, or there would have been no West Side Story that sought to portray them. There were even drugs back then, but so marginalized as to be almost insignificant. There was the threat of polio, but that was being beaten back. There was even the threat of nuclear war. But leaders of courage and integrity were facing the threat. I suppose that came to end in on Nov 22, 1963, although perhaps we didn’t know it at the time. Somehow with Kennedy’s death we were aware that dark forces were at work in our world to shatter our innocence and thrust us into the fractured and cynical age which we now struggle to make sense of.
With Phil’s death I am confronted by the sweetness of a world that is long lost and largely unknown by most of those reading this blog. My memories of its loss are bittersweet. I long for those days, as one might long for a glimpse of heaven. It was a kinder world: gentle, melodic and sweet. I will never see it again in this life. And neither will you. Here is a taste of what it sounded like: