Gratitude while they’re still alive…

The last couple of years have been really big on celebrity deaths. What’s been odd for me is that I realized I don’t really understand what emotional profile an artist has for me until he or she is gone. This is all the worse with rock stars, who project an image of eternal youth and vitality that is of course far from the truth.

The three recent deaths that affected me the most were the deaths of Robin Williams, Bowie, and Prince. Lemmy’s death was sad for me, but it was more like losing a weird uncle: your family just got a lot more boring and you wish you’d appreciated him more when you had him. The death of the last remaining original member of the Ramones hit a little harder.

I think that Prince, Robin Williams, and Bowie affected me so much because they’ve been a part of my life since my early teen years. I remember watching Williams on Happy Days and then Mork and Mindy:

I remember listening to Bowie on the radio since about the mid-70s and then seeing him on Saturday Night Live in 1979. I watched him up there in that purple skirt as the episode was being aired and thought… dude, you’re so weird:

And I hate to say it, but my earliest memories of Prince weren’t of Purple Rain. They were of the campy Batman stuff he did in the late 1980s:

This is a long time to have people form a part of your cultural background, and regardless of taste or preference, they possessed a rare level of genius and creativity. I think I took them for granted at the time, but after seeing many actors and musicians cycle through pop culture, these three stand out as genius.

What affected me the most after the fact of Prince’s death was the universal outpouring of love and grief afterwards. Could he have possibly known how people felt? I don’t know. Of his last twelve albums, one was platinum and two were gold (but six were top 10). I haven’t picked up a Prince album since Musicology, his last platinum album released in 2004. But still, I felt his death. I felt like something significant was lost — a certain level of genius that isn’t easily replaced, exactly what I felt about Bowie, who I had at least followed more consistently over the last twenty years. I was excited about Blackstar and loved that the video generated almost a million hits its first twenty-four hours on YouTube.

So I’m mostly wishing I’d appreciated Prince more. Paid more attention, watched what he was doing, listened to what he had to say, because he had (and still has, really) things to say. I hope he had people around him who let him feel that love and appreciation.

So now, in the most morbid possible tribute, I’m going to express appreciation for a few aging geniuses here.

Chrissie Hynde (b. 1951, turning 65 this year). Her latest album is Stockholm, and I’ve heard her next project will be a joint project with the lead guitarist for the Black Keys. That’s the best news I’ve heard in some time. She exemplifies paying your dues, taking risks, and saying exactly how you feel.

Patti Smith (b. 1946, turning 70 this year). She’s a poet, author, painter, photographer, songwriter, and rock star, and she released what is arguably the best album of her life in 2012, Banga:

Jeff Beck (b. 1944, turning 72 this year). He’s been amazing since the 60s. If you can catch his performances for the Rock Hall anniversary concert, do it. They’re on Apple Music:

Keith Richards (b. 1943, turning 73 this year). Just released a great blues/blues rock solo album (Crosseyed Heart) accompanied by a documentary. He knows he’s getting old, and he just wanted to tell everyone how grateful he was for the blues artists who inspired him:

Bob Dylan (b. 1941, turned 74 this year). His late career albums have been focused upon what his career has been always focused upon: Americana. He’s always paid tribute to great American music, either by performing it or reinventing it. He is our true poet laureate:

Buddy Guy (b. 1936, turning 80 this year): With the death of B.B. King — who if you’ve ever seen him live was the model of a gentleman — may be the last of our old great blues guitarists. I saw him at his club in Chicago in 2012. He mocked pyrotechnics in guitar playing, wiping his arse with his guitar while he was performing Hendrix licks (all the while praising Hendrix’s talent), this man can still play. Check out his latest album, Born to Play Guitar, which won a deserved grammy for Best Blues Guitar Album:

I could go on — Jagger and all of the rest of the Stones are getting old. So are the remaining members of Pink Floyd and the Doors. Springsteen will be turning 67 this year, Chuck Berry is 89, while Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are 70 and 72, respectively, while McCartney and Ringo Starr are 73 and 75. And I haven’t mentioned the Ramones, whose last original member recently passed away.

These musicians all came into their careers during a time when the music industry — though just as sold out as it always was — was looking for a new sound. Now it’s harder. Music companies are only looking to sell to a defined demographic and probably know just how many downloads (or streams) any given artist is expected to get. Remember: anyone in it for the money will always play it safe. Genius has less room to flourish now, and all members of the first three groundbreaking generations of rock and roll may well be completely gone in the next ten to fifteen years. Even the 80s stars are getting old: Debbie Harry is 70 while the Mothersbaugh brothers of Devo are in their 60s.

So what are we going to do with this vacuum? What will take its place? What will we do to nurture future genius? Rock and roll has encapsulated all human energies for decades now: our rages, fears, loves, hates, and passions. It screams about God and sex and politics. It’s been sold out and whored for every dime it could squeeze out of every kid who ever bought a record since the 1950s, but it has still maintained a purity and intensity of expression: no matter what happens, strictures could never contain it. Whenever it has become predictable it rebelled against itself, reinventing music over and over again. It’s been our vehicle for the uncontainable, the inexpressible, and that which can’t be bought. If it ever is finally tamed, we may well be lost.

My Fisher King (for Robin Williams)

(Originally posted August 11th, 2014.)

I wanted to write this tribute to Robin Williams as a poem, but I’m not quite up to it right now. What I’m going to present instead is my personal history with Robin Williams.

Of course I’ve never met him, and never knew him, but I still grew up with him. My parents and I watched Happy Days when it was first being aired. We saw the goofy Mork episode where he first made his appearance, and then when I was a bit older, he made us all laugh with his own show with the same character.

But he’s been seemingly ever present in my life from then to now. Dead Poets Society confirmed for me my choice to major in English in college. Yes, I thought that essay was BS too. And yes, I said to myself “rip it out” right before Williams voiced that line. When, a little bit later, life was going rough with me, and I was facing the prospect of loss — a real, significant loss — I watched The Fisher King. It told me it was okay to grieve. And it told me that it was okay to grieve so much that you’re a little bit unhinged, even. When my family needed to draw itself together we found ourselves watching Hook quite a bit. And not long before my wife and I divorced, she rented Mrs. Doubtfire, and we watched it with the kids over and over again. Again, it told us that we could still be alright, even still be a family. And some years after that I was able to watch What Dreams May Come and understand.

When I started teaching History of the English Language Robin Williams was there with his Scottish Airport routine.  And just last week my second wife borrowed season 1 of Mork and Mindy from the local library, giving my youngest children their first exposure to Robin Williams. When he sat on his head on the couch my kids all laughed. Uproariously. Just as two generations of my kids did when they watched Aladdin.

Actors, celebrities, musicians… as we experience them, they are all objects. They’re physical things. Controlled projections of an image. It’s easy to forget that they’re human beings, that they live and feel. But I’ve seen Robin Williams so often in so much for so long that I can’t help but feel that some of him has become perceptible behind all of the parts, the standup, the warp-speed silliness. Bitterness and kind sensitivity were like an alternating current projecting from his one big power source: pain.

I think that for whatever reason it finally caught up with him. Maybe it was residual from his open heart surgery in 2009, or the medication he took for awhile in order to be able to sleep after his surgery. I think he’s been in pain his whole life, though. I think his previous drug use may not have been an attempt to be cool, or to seek pleasure or new experiences, but a form of self-medication, a way to escape his pain. Either way, I do know that in so many ways his work was about pain and loss, and that more than anything else he seemed to want to laugh it away from us, or to comfort us with kindness and understanding, so that in all of his roles he was either a clown or Patch Adams. But in all of it, he was a wounded Fisher King, or maybe the fool who brought the Fisher King his grail: I don’t know about your quest. I just know that you were thirsty. And I don’t know what finally drove him to end his life. None of us can really know. I think, though, that I’m not alone in feeling that I wish I could have given back to him what he gave to me for so long, especially right at the moment he needed it most.

I will miss you, Robin Williams.

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