Throw Beck Thursday

Throw Beck Thursday: Why We Care About Celebrity Deaths

Robin Williams poses for Mork & Mindy.
beckOriginally posted in June 2011.

Andrew Gold passed away a couple of days ago.  Cancer, age fifty-nine.  Only fifteen years older than me.

I don’t really know much about the guy other than two of his songs are synonymous with bright, happy, sunshine Seventies pop,.  He  had good hair and a good beard and nicely pressed slacks.  He was that Seventies — the same decade as Orleans’ “Still the One” and Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In the Years.”

He may have a deep catalogue full of dark twists and turns, I don’t know.  Like most everyone who read his obituary I know him as the “Lonely Boy” and “Thank You for Being A Friend” guy, and that’s enough.  He worked his voodoo, and for two A-sides  and many years he made people a little happier three minutes at a time.  Neither song is on my playlist, but without question they evoke a  period of time and that’s what Why It Matters is really all about.  Besides, a loss is a loss.  I hope it was as painless and graceful as it could be.

The generation before me first encountered the collective shock of celebrity death with JFK.  “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” is the old saw.  They all remember.  For me it was Elvis.  My mother and I were on a Putt-Putt golf course in Fort Worth, Texas when the announcement was made.  I don’t remember being particularly moved, but I remember where I was.

I remember making the connection, too.  Some of my first albums were Elvis movie soundtracks passed down from my aunt.  I’d seen his movies, too.  Elvis was ubiquitous — he was simply a part of the Universe According to James, and now he was gone.  I remember the waxy, pallid photo of the Elvis body in its casket.  He obviously wasn’t there anymore.  The King had left the building.

Next up was Keith Moon, almost a year after Elvis though I wouldn’t be aware of it until I picked up Who Are You from Record Bar’s cutout bin.  Again, no real impact though I thought the “Not To Be Taken Away” stencilled on his chair in the cover photo was rather eerie.

Death is entirely too abstract for children.  My grandmother died when I was seven.  I awoke to the sound of my mother crying.  I walked to the kitchen and found her cross-legged on the floor, sobbing.    The wall phone dangled by its cord, the incessant “eh eh eh eh” of the busy signal the only other sound in the room.

“What’s wrong, Mama?”

“Grandma died.”

I didn’t go to her, I went to the couch.  I tried to understand what it would feel like to live in a dark box in the ground.  I was scared of the dark.  How long I stayed on the couch, I don’t know.  Minutes.    Hours.  Eventually my sisters woke up, ran to my mother and sobbed with her.  For the balance of our childhood this was their trump card for any argument:  “You don’t have any emotions.  You didn’t even cry when Grandma died.”  I believed them.

Years later a girlfriend would echo their sentiment.  “Do you feel anything?  Is there anyone in there?  Are you a robot?”  I believed her, too.  Anyway, I’m off topic.

1980 hit the trifecta for music deaths.  Chuck the Magnificent kicked off the festivities.  His locker was near mine.  I caught him looking mournful between classes.

“What’s up?”

“Bon Scott died, man.”  He was digging through his locker.  “And I can’t find my nickel bag.”

Heavy news!  AC/DC’s main man had gone down, literally.  I feared for his soul.  Everybody knew AC/DC was a Satanic band.  Highway to Hell?  The man played with fire and it burned him, I was sure of it.  It was a frightening proposition for an attendee of a Southern Baptist church.

A few weeks later I received my first Jimi Hendrix album for my birthday: Axis: Bold As Love. Instant adulation, perhaps the first perfect record that I can remember.  I was particularly taken with “If 6 was 9″ and its existential message.  “I’m the one who’s gotta die when it’s time for me to die,” Jimi said, and the tumblers fell into place.  My life to live the way I want to.  Somewhere along the line I grew up, became the white-collar conservative with the plastic finger, but that’s beside the point.  The power of Jimi speaking from the grave was immense.  Inevitably I still embrace this message, though the meaning has changed over time.  Rest in peace, Dr. Jack.  You were an angel, not a demon.

In the Fall of that year John Bonham died.  My pal Hal was crushed by the loss of Bonzo, as was the entire Guy In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam crowd.  We bemoaned our loss, walked with bowed heads.  No more Led Zeppelin for us.

In December 1980 the unthinkable happened.  John Lennon was gunned down and millions joined in mourning what had happened to us.  What we lost.  John Belushi and Randy Rhoads were next in ’82 and then we shut down the celebrity death machine for a few years, at least as it applied to The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam.  Sure, they still happened — Razzle from Hanoi Rocks,  Stiv Bators, Johnny Thunders, Cliff Burton, Hillel Slovak — but there wasn’t another collective gasp until Kurt Cobain in 1994.  He was twenty-seven years old, the same age as Janis, Jim, and Jimi.  And me, for that matter.

This was the fulcrum point.  The elder statesmen were no longer dying; instead, I was outliving the elder statesmen.  I was shocked to outlive the Jim/Jimi/Janis holy trinity.  I marked the moment I passed Bonzo and Mooney and Bon.  Forty was bittersweet, as I was going to enjoy longevity denied to John Lennon.  At forty-three I celebrated outliving Elvis.

And now the guy best known for the Golden Girls theme song is gone at 59.  Now when I read these things they are reminders of my own slow, encroaching death.  I suspect that is why we resent the Rolling Stones’ longevity.  We’re not embarrassed for them, we’re scared for us.  We believed The Who when they hoped they died before they got old, but damned if two of them don’t soldier on, reminding us that we are growing old, too. We care in the context of ourselves rather than them,  just as we always have.

In other news, Pinetop Perkins died on March 21 at age ninety-seven.  He was friends with Robert Johnson, arguably the spiritual grandfather of rock and roll who in 1938 died at age 27, just like Kurt, Jim, Janis, and Jimi.  I’m guessing Pinetop’s death didn’t make your local paper, Twitter feed, etc.  Maybe it did, but if not I’ll let you do your own math on why not.

Andrew Gold to Robert Johnson in 1,100 words.  That has to be some kind of record.

Categories: Throw Beck Thursday

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