We were so turned on / You thought we were fakers*
Seeing as my Facebook and Twitter activity has consisted of nothing but Lemmy, David Bowie, and Alan Rickman tributes for the last 3 weeks, I’ve been thinking of the discussion always brought to the fore when a celebrity dies, that of whether it’s silly/shameful/offensive/etc. to mourn someone you never knew, and why the reactions to celebrity deaths seem to imply that they are more deserving of attention than the deaths of family and friends.
Well. As some of you may know, I had four losses between May 2014 and February 2015, being both of my grandfathers, one of my aunts, and one of the most influential teachers I ever had. Two to diseases/health issues that come with age, two to aggressive cancers at far too young an age. Each of those deaths individually and collectively have fundamentally changed me, and the pain has only recently started to become dull.
Do I then feel it silly or offensive or whatever that thousands/millions of people are currently mourning some famous people whose personal lives they never actually shared in? Quite honestly, no.
I’ve never gone out of my way to listen to a Motorhead song (before or after Lemmy’s death, actually), but I’m well aware of Lemmy’s influence on rock ‘n’ roll and metal (my favorite type of music), always love when Henry Rollins throws a Hawkwind or Motorhead song into his KCRW show, and since seeing him in Sam Dunn’s metal documentaries and in Lemmy, I have had a lot of respect for his philosophy of living however he damn pleased. And so, when we heard Lemmy had died, I was quite sad and went out to get a Hawkwind album. I don’t want to live forever either, but I couldn’t bring myself to watch the streaming memorial.
When KEXP celebrated the release of ★ with ‘Intergalactic Bowie Day’ last Friday, I instantly fell in love with the album, the first entire Bowie album I had listened to from beginning to end. And though I already knew I have him to thank for some of my favorite things on this planet, I was pleasantly surprised to find out how many Bowie songs have seeped into my subconscious over the last few years, thanks to my NYC hosts, Henry Rollins, and The Life Aquatic. I listened to the entire 12-hour tribute and planned on working my way through his discography, starting with picking up ★ on vinyl as soon as I could get down to my local record store, seeing as it felt wrong listening to the full album on YouTube, which someone had already posted. When I saw the news on Monday morning, I was stunned and disoriented, decided not to go into work that day, stood in front of the record store until it opened, and since have listened to literally nothing but Bowie for the last week (the soundtrack to this post is David Bowie/Space Oddity, The Man Who Sold the World, and Hunky Dory). My credit card company may have also put a hold on my card for potential fraudulent activity, due to numerous iTunes purchases in two days…
And then yesterday morning. Fuck. Anyone that knows me well knows that I have loved Alan Rickman since seeing Sense and Sensibility as a teenager, and I will argue until my dying day that his Snape is one of the greatest characters to have graced the screen. I even had the chance to plan one of my many NYC excursions around his play Seminar, and seeing him live on the stage, hearing that fantastic voice in person, was an absolute highlight of my life thus far. I’m not ashamed to admit that I immediately burst into tears when reading the news, and I was late to work. And I will proudly wear my BlackMilk Snape shirt for as long as it holds together. Always.
The thing about artists is that you don’t need to know them in person to have them be important to you. Their sharing of their art invites you to have a relationship with them in some respects, and your consumption of their art makes them a part of your life, consciously or not. For me, music and movies allow me to both escape and to deal with life and death, and some songs/albums and movies in particular are intrinsically attached to both parts of the cycle. When my Auntie Esther died, the very same night I went to an album release for a local band. I’m not sure I’d want to tell her daughters that, but it helped me, and every time I put that record on now, I think of her. A couple days after my Opa K. died, we watched Wish You Were Here, and the scene in which (spoiler alert) Zach Braff’s character’s father dies, I cried harder than I ever have in a movie (though very close to the amount of tears shed when Alan Rickman’s Snape died…). I have a hard time getting through the entire soundtrack to the movie to this day. The last time I saw my Opa E., he was playing harmonica. Anyone playing harmonica now gets my full attention. As for Mr. G., well, if I ever watch a Warren Miller film again, I’ll probably burst out crying. And, quite frankly, the Harry Potter movies and traveling to NYC to see plays such as Seminar came at a time in my life when I needed to escape most. Because of those movies, plays, and other pieces of art I had the chance to escape through, I’m still here.
And so, when artists die who either have directly been in the soundtrack/metaphorical green screen of my life or have had a huge influence on those who are, I mourn. Their albums/songs/movies/performances take on another layer of meaning, and not only will there never be further work from them, but fewer and fewer future generations of artists will be influenced by them. That’s tragic, and I feel it personally.
And, to be honest, it’s easier, for lack of a better word, to grieve for someone you never met. There’s some degree of guilt that comes with the death of a family member or someone else who at one time or another was close to you. With the sadness always comes some form of ‘I wish I had [fill in blank] when they were still alive…’ or ‘I wonder what they would think of me now’, and, at least for me, it’s not until a lot of time passes that you can just plain be sad. With someone you’ve never met, on the other hand, apart from maybe kicking yourself for not jumping on a plane to see a concert or play or something, it’s just pure unadulterated sadness. And that pure feeling can be very cathartic, as it allows you to collectively and freely grieve for everything you’ve lost without bothering with all the other self-deprecating things our fragile brains like to do to us.
And aside from all of that, mourning celebrities makes the world a little smaller and kinder for a brief moment. With social media and physical memorials, communities of people who would never have met in person come together, and you find out that you’re not as alone or isolated as you think. And that’s beautiful.
To conclude, fuck cancer. It keeps taking our best.
*As per Amanda Palmer’s Twitter feed, it seems many are unfamiliar with Bowie’s “The Bewlay Brothers”. I have Henry Rollins to thank for my familiarity with the tune, and think you all should know it was well.