Well, another rock star done gone last week, Prince, shocking the hell out of everyone, as was his wont. One of my more enjoyable wastes of time is MSN’s “Health and Fitness” web page as it touches on so many exercise and dietary issues that register with me after the big weight loss. This week they got into “why celebrity deaths feel so personal.” Prince’s passing has been like Bowie’s: a monumental outpouring of print, TV and online grief.
Of course, Merle Haggard goes, and most people sort of shrug … or worse, pretend they were fans. (“Okie from Muskogee” is one of the best protest songs of the 60’s going in the other direction, for which I’ll always worship Haggard. But if I’m being honest, most of what I got can fit onto a succinct one-disc greatest hits collection. I didn’t live with Haggard’s music the same way I did Williams Sr. and Cash at various points.)
The “Comments” section of that MSN article is pretty much the “adult” reaction: my reaction when I roll my eyes and think, “Christ, get over it, you didn’t know the dude, and if you did, he’d probably freak you out.” Much as with Elvis, Howard Hughes and Michael Jackson, it seems like a real bad idea to build your own Xanadu and rule as king of this private domain where strange shit is never questioned. But that’s a reaction, not any gauge of how I handle someone like Prince passing.
(I’m a fan. Not huge. Really tailed off after the 80’s, but kept track. More interested in the mysterious “vault” material we’ve read so much about, but haven’t heard. Always seemed odd to me how he continually put out average material but was supposedly sitting on a vault stocked with hundreds of superior quality tracks. I downloaded just such a collection a few years back, must have been about 5-6 discs’ worth of material, arranged chronologically. Surely pulled about two dozen gems mostly from the mid-80’s heyday, albeit with shitty/bootleg sound, but a majority of the material wasn’t anything special. I was assured by a fan at the time that what I downloaded was only the tip of the ice berg. Come on, now.)
Let me tell you what I understand about death, after going through the passing of both parents, various friends and acquaintances and elderly immediate relatives over the past decade or so. I don’t understand shit about death. That’s what being so close to it tells me about it.
But I do know about living through and with the deaths of loved ones. It’s not like grieving Prince or Bowie. Genuine grieving takes time and evolves like a dark flower, in the shadows, when you don’t sense or expect it, sometimes the shadow not leaving for days. When it first happens, weeks or months. It doesn’t express itself in heartfelt posts on social media. Or a good playlist. It’s mind numbing. It’s shocking in a brutal, silent way. It’s a reality shift, a slow-turning, your hard evolution from one type of person to another. One who doesn’t have to imagine “what’s it like” when people close to you start dying, thus making you sense death inching closer to you. It’s a shit sandwich.
The simple act of people making big displays about Prince’s passing delineates the difference between that kind of death, a celebrity death, and the kind all of us have or will experience of loved ones on that much deeper level. A celebrity death feels like a ceremonial passing: a tribal gathering. Sending the chief off in his flaming raft down the river of no return. You don’t do that with your parents. You bury them. Or get them cremated. And then you dwell on them in good and bad ways for the rest of your days. You feel their presence in ways that are so much more powerful than any song, because you need a song to inspire that memory of a musician. Parents? You don’t need anything; they’re always with you in some sense. Very often in the mirror, small details you pick up on as you age that weren’t so obvious before.
I don’t dwell on Prince. Or Bowie. Or Lou Reed. I’ve listened to their music for decades. Will go on listening. Truth be told, their passings, while shocking, are relatively easy as their work I most strongly identify with occurred mostly decades ago. Believe me, if Bowie had died in’77 after putting out “Heroes” that would have been a different story! I like his last album, quite a bit. But there’s that, and then there’s the stuff from the 70’s that part of my core being. I recently got into Lou Reed’s “Junior Dad” in a nice way, from his shat-upon last album with Metallica. Good song. But it aint no “Street Hassle”!
There might be big displays around a loved one’s death: falling apart at the funeral, nervous breakdown at work, prolonged depression, tributes of varying sorts. But I’ve found death to be the hardest, most private wall. It messes with your head forever, in subtle ways that no one else is going to grasp. Sure, it lets up, you go on living, in many respects with a much deeper understanding of life now that you’ve sensed what permanent loss really means. But it shades everything thereafter with that knowledge. It’s the hardest wisdom I’ve ever grasped. Not a sage, kindly wisdom. The kind that scares the shit out of you sometimes.
Nobody got online after Dad passed on and went, “Bill’s Dad ruled!” Or gave him a thousand “likes” on Facebook or whatever. (Of course, that was an older generation who, like me, has nothing to do with Facebook … mainly over the lack of sincerity which would really not work for me in a situation like this. It’s not a “how does this VCR thingy work.” I know how it works and want no part of it.) Frankly, I would have been offended by such a public display for someone who put even less stock in that than I do.
But I have to realize, celebrity is a whole different animal that reaches into our own little worlds and adds some meaning to it. I guess the question is, how much value do you put on that meaning? The whole issue with social media is that it encourages people to see themselves as celebrities in their own lives. People want to see themselves as being important to dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people. Strangers, welcome! In fact, strangers even better. I realized early on with my writing that part of that driving force was this burning desire to be loved and respected by total strangers, after I died, to be remembered forever as this sentient being who touched so many lives outside his own small circle.
Yeah, well, I don’t know what happened to that desire! I surely saw what was required to push to a higher level in terms of writing: the hustling, the connections, the tireless self promotion. But it came at a time when I started falling out of love with the whole shebang, that mental shrine I built for myself as a writer over the course of years, that it had to be a certain way. And even in a best-case scenario, there’d be a load of shit to deal with that had nothing to do with writing. Sure, I could see doing it, even to this day, but I don’t kid myself about all the extraneous bullshit that would need to occur for this to happen.
And maybe it’s because I have a slight grasp of that machinery, all that it takes to construct a legend, that I find myself emotionally distanced from celebrity death, even for those celebrities whose work I genuinely love. I can only imagine the magnitude of self obsession that goes with succeeding on that level, which I mean as both compliment and insult. You need to believe in your own legend, to push it, to make other people believe in it, and hopefully get a large corporation to market what you do to a mass audience over the course of years. That’s how celebrity works, so it only makes sense that when a celebrity passes on, this ceremonial hand-wringing and out-pouring of emotion are perfectly acceptable responses. Death wasn’t part of the marketing plan … but it is what it isn’t.
There’s no marketing plan when someone in your family dies. No legend, save whatever ones you create, and everyone does. When I was younger, I used to imagine my own passing, after a heroically-lived life in some unspecified sense, hundreds of people turning up, city and country folk alike, all colors, people who knew me in grade school, high school, college, New York, bagpipes playing, everyone I knew thinking deep, positive thoughts about my legacy.
Christ, what a load of self-aggrandizing bullshit all that was. Don’t know what I was thinking. Now that I’ve stood uncomfortably through a few genuinely painful funerals, that sort of grandiose gesture seems so false to me now. Funerals present a temporary finality to the last few days of horrible mind and soul numbing inertia everyone has just struggled through. Close the casket, lower it into the ground. That part is done. And then the act of real grieving begins, the kind we carry the rest of our days. Whatever I feel for Prince and his music, I’d rather put it in that sort of context. And honestly feel pretty good about some of the things he created in his life and has left behind.