Sunday, November 27, 2016

She Gave the People What They Wanted

Of the deaths from the music world that have shocked us all this year, the one that has affected Susan and I the most, genuinely reducing us to tears, was the passing of 'soul revival' powerhouse Sharon Jones.  I may have grown up with and possess twenty-odd CDs by David Bowie, or have been such a huge Prince fan that I once flew from my workplace in Belfast to London to see him perform, then caught the next redeye flight back to Belfast, so was naturally shaken when both died this year, but it is the death of Sharon Jones at just 60 years-old that has upset me the most.
On April 4th, 2014, we travelled down to Victoria to see Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings perform at Alix Goolden Hall.  It was the first of two back-to-back shows for us that weekend - with the mighty, reconvened Neutral Milk Hotel in Vancouver the following evening - and what proved to be the most powerful live music double whammy either of us had ever experienced.  Sharon and her kickass funk-soul outfit were simply world class, and considering I have been fortunate to see the ilk of James Brown, George Clinton, Etta James and Marvin Gaye, it was hands down pretty much the best soul show I've ever seen.  The band were absolutely smokin' on all cylinders and Sharon danced like a thing demented, singing her ass off all night.  It was fantastic, and everyone in the venue that night would agree.
One significant factor making Sharon's hi-octane performance so extraordinary was that she was just four months removed from debilitating chemotherapy treatment, as she had been battling the usually fatal pancreatic cancer.  I've had chemotherapy and can tell anyone that has not that it utterly kicks your ass.  For months after my treatment I had zero energy, some days barely able to put one foot in front of another, so full recovery from what is effectively being poisoned is slow and difficult.
Not for Sharon, it seems!  She danced so hard all night that all I could do, understanding what she had been through, was marvel at her superhuman stamina and shake my head in disbelief at her commitment to putting on the best show she possibly could.  Most admirable of all that she was not in the slightest a vain woman, so even though having lost all her hair during chemo she refused to wear a wig or disguise it in any way, so her head was covered in a light fuzz as her hair began to reappear.  To my mind, this made her all the more beautiful and impressive a human being, but it is important to note what a tough, tough lady this was.  It is not just anyone that can conquer pancreatic cancer, but then not everyone has the grit to work as a corrections officer at the notorious Riker's Island facility in New York, or as a guard on armoured Wells Fargo cash trucks.  Sharon did. 
After the show, compelled to soak in some of her inspirational energy, we decided to go hang out in the merchandise area of the Alix Goolden Hall where it is common in our experience for visiting musicians to meet fans to sign stuff and pose for photos.  It was, as you would expect, busy with excited fans wanting to meet this remarkable woman, and we were as anticipatory as anyone present.  Out came Sharon from a side door, only to be mobbed, respectfully I might add, by a gaggle of adoring fans.  We just stood back and watched in awe as she worked and controlled the room, aware that a lot of folks wanted a piece of her after an exhausting night's work.  She visibly made note of everyone, including us, that were patiently waiting to say hello, gesturing that she'd be with them 'in a minute.'  As she made her way towards us, she signed something for a couple, then span round to greet us.
Sharon was (I will find it difficult for a time to refer to her in the past tense) a tiny woman, but muscularly built like a pitbull terrier.  She also had the most beautiful imaginable smile, and exuded warmth and compassion.  She also commanded the room with such authority that when she was talking to someone, everyone waiting stood back to await their turn, giving space to show her and the recipients of her attention the respect they and the situation demanded.  I don't think I've ever seen that before.
So, it was our turn.  We both reached out to hug her, and overcome with emotion I clumsily called her 'sister' when telling her I was a three-time cancer survivor, and that I found her an inspiration considering the hell she had recently been through.  Sharon answered by saying that she hoped to God she wouldn't have to go through such a nightmare as I had endured, hugging me again and tenderly touching my face with her left hand.  It was truly one of the most profound moments of my life, a huge deal for me that is scorched into my memory and will remain there vividly until my own time is up.
Susan's turn then came, with more hugs and beaming smiles from both, then with trembling hands I took a couple of photos of these two women I love, but then we had to withdraw to let others bask in Sharon's humanity.  Dazed, we made our way back to the car, barely able to articulate to each other our feelings about the show and meeting its incredible star.
When the November 13th death of Leon Russell was announced, I said out loud to my boss Steve that I hoped against hope that I was wrong, but bet that Sharon Jones would be next.  I just felt it.  Five days later, she was dead, and like so many millions of fans of one of the greatest soul singers of all time - who broke through so late in life to give hope to those who might feel their chance has gone - I was heartbroken.
When it was reported back in September last year that Sharon's cancer had returned, I thought it would only be a matter of time.  And so it was, but she fought to the bitter end with all she had, and exited this world with grace, singing gospel songs with her band around her hospital bed, before a second stroke in the space of days silenced her amazing voice forever.
There's not much else I can say, but there will always be Sharon's great albums, legendary live performances, and personally speaking the precious few minutes we spent in her beautiful company.  If anyone reading is unfamiliar with her brilliance, just watch this mindblowing, fan-shot video (hence the shakiness), filmed at Stade de France in Paris on June 30th, 2011.  Sharon and the Dap-Kings were opening for Prince at his request, and holy moly what a show that must have been.  There they are, sharing the stage, two musical giants that have both left us in this strange, stressful year.  It is one of the most exciting live music videos I have ever seen, and you will know I've seen quite a few.
Thank you Sharon, thank you Prince, for everything you gave me during your lifetimes, and will continue to give me during mine.