Bob Dylan (71): When this man dies, an entire ideal with die with him. It hasn’t been cool to “grab a guitar and sing about it” for a very long time. As long as Robert Zimmerman is alive, it will be, even if he wears shiny pants on stage. Some credit should go to the great folk singer Phil Ochs, when praising Bob Dylan. Ochs’ depth of emotion and songwriting ability far surpassed Dylan’s; Dylan mentioned Ochs as an influence, years ago.
When Bob Dylan dies, there will be a collective “huh?” His ability to speak truth untainted by flare is something the world will never forget.
William Shatner (81): Shatner comes as close to a god a mortal can get. It is because of him it’s okay to be a flamboyant technician or a gaudy recording artist. He reminds us there is something valuable in being unafraid. Forget about all of his recent “albums.” Although, when he says “Ground control to Major Tom, commencing countdown,” it makes more sense than it did when Bowie said it. Shatner, in many ways, is the face of science-fiction. Even non-Star Trek-fans are aware of this. He is known across generations, subcultures, countries, etc.
Shatner has struck out a lot in the past decade, but he is responsible for setting a science-fiction standard. He is, in many ways, the captain of a new sort of human — one capable of imagining things that have never been imagined. In effect, he is the face of a generation’s imagination.
Willie Nelson (79): He wrote some of the best songs (not just country) of our time. He saved country music, or valiantly tried to, from the throes of pop. This is an important thing, as country music is (or should be) one of America’s great cultural achievements.
He led the fight against federal and state governments in the legalization/decriminalization of medical marijuana. He seems to be timeless. He has been effortless in his delivery.
Jack Gilbert (87): Poetry used to be a big deal not only in the US, but around the world. There was a time when simple tropes and metaphors were as meaningful to a populus as music, visual art, dance, etc. Jack Gilbert has tirelessly maintained a form of “simple” poetry since the 1960s — poetry accessible to everyone, not just English professors and poetry snobs. He reminded us that poetry should be also be accessible. Over the last twenty years, he has gone mostly unnoticed, save for the last few years in which he has won significant awards and published a collected volume.
There are many more you may feel I’ve left out. Indeed there are. But as art goes, we pick and choose.