An Open Letter to Those Who Died this Month, and Those Who Mourn Them

“Sex, death, and war.  And justice.  There’s no shortage of lyrics there.”
–Lemmy Kilmeister

“All art is unstable, its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author.  There is no authoritative voice.  There are only multiple readings.”
–David Bowie

“If only life could be a little bit more tender and art a little more robust.”
–Alan Rickman

“People don’t run out of dreams, they run out of time.”
–Glen Frey

To Whom it May Concern:

Today is January 28th – one month ago today this bad dream started with the death of Lemmy Kilmeister of Motorhead – a man truly of legendary proportions, that in all of my sane understanding of the circle of life, legitimately questioned whether death would ever actually conquer the hardest of them all.  Alas, it did.

Shortly thereafter, came my excitement with the release of David Bowie’s latest album, Blackstar – which was almost immediately met with profound grief, when two days later on January 10th it was announced that he lost his battle with cancer.  This loss hit much harder than I would have ever imagined.  I always liked and appreciated Bowie – his songs did touch me deeply at many different phases of my life.  However, my tastes generally tend toward the earthy, the bluesy, the gritty, the less polished of the creative sort; so generally in any arbitrary list shaped through late night bar talk bar talk or otherwise would generally make it in somewhere near the bottom of my Top 10.  And yet, I still loved him; and even when I didn’t want to listen to him, Bowie was in there somewhere Ziggying away.

Only four days later on January 14th – still punchdrunk from the loss of Bowie the world found out that one of the greatest actors of his generation, Alan Rickman passed away.  For nothing else the man gave flesh and breath to Hans Gruber and Severus Snape.  The snarl from which a generation cowered.

And only another four days later on January 18th we were all informed that Glen Frey, one of the legendary voices of the Eagles had also died.  This was too much, too many, too soon, in too short of an amount of time.  We can’t stop the inevitable roll of fate, and yet here we were emotionally battered from the loss of some of the greatest artists as well as icons, in such an abbreviated amount of time.

And too make it worse, iIf those three giants among men weren’t enough, between those four deaths and now, we’ve lost several others, whom their stars may not have shined quite as bright as the aforementioned, their loss is no less impactful.  Natalie Cole on December 31st, John Mackenroth of Rollins Band died on January 5th, Dale “Buffin” Griffin drummer for Mott the Hoople passed on January 17th, Dallas Taylor who was one of the most legendary sidemen in the business passed away on January 18th, Jimmy Bain of Rainbow died January 24th, and Abe Vigoda of The Godfather and Barney Miller left us on January 26th.

So yes…this has been a rough month for most of us – those with hearts in our chests, blood in our veins, and souls that reach skyward into the ether of high art.

I see it all the time upon the death of some iconic performer or artist, cynics will scoff when fans mourn the loss of someone they’ve likely never met.  And when I see that, it only makes me feel bad for the cynics, that they’ve never allowed themselves to step out of their own mind long enough to let art of any kind wash over them, move them, or even rattle them.

If you have not been touched by Humphrey Bogart’s tender, yet damaged portrayal of ex-pat Rick Blaine in Casablanca, or felt a tear well-up at that first single note from Coltrane’s horn on Blue Trane, neither remembered a lost love, or first love, or present love in the words of Emily Dickinson; then you have not explored nor experienced human emotion to its full potential or complexity.  Life is simply incomplete if you cannot surrender yourself, in some way, to art of any kind.

For the rest of us, who allow ourselves to be taken away with art, these artists that we’ve been mourning, lived in the moment; they wrote and sang and performed for a higher truth they knew existed but never fully experienced until this godforsaken month.  Their voices were silenced, their pens are dry – and we are left with what they left.  We have no hope of what might be for their body of work, we can only imagine setlists for concerts that won’t ever be played, or songs on albums that no longer be written, scenes in films that won’t be made, and monologues in plays that won’t be performed.

These are all sad things for us.  These are not who those people were, fathers, husbands, friends – we can’t mourn for that aspect of who they are.  But we can mourn for the art, the one part of them that we could know.  And some might argue the largest part of them; how many lives have been ruined, marriages ended, children raised in disregard due to a person’s pursuit of art?

Don’t say that mourning “a stranger” is a waste of emotion.

Because we mourn as a thank you for the sacrifices they offered to the proverbial gods of art.  Perhaps they were rewarded with wealth, or prestige, or even the empty promise of celebrity; but those things don’t last, their worth is fleeting, at best.  What is not fleeting are the connections and emotions that we share between one another as human beings.  Art exists solely to connect the creator and the observer by eliciting emotion.  Therefore, sadness at the passing of an artist you do not know and have never met, shows gratitude to those we have connected with over the years, and allowed inside our weird little brains to rile up the emotional apiary that we call life.

And that in itself is a perfect expenditure of emotion.

Good art is selfish, and thus our mourning for artists is selfish.  We mourn for the novels that will never be written, verses never sung, the stage lights that will no longer go up.  We mourn for the loss in our lives – Bowie will never write another “Space Oddity” for me to hear.  “Take It Easy” will never again be sung by the voice that sung it into creation (except when co-writer Jackson Brown performs it).  My bones will never be rattled at the same frequency at which Lemmy managed to rattle them.  Dallas Taylor will never collaborate with Van Morrison or Stephen Stills, ever again; which means I will never hear another “Manassas” or “Déjà vu.”  And for all intents and purposes both Severus Snape and Hans Gruber are for now and forever irreversibly, indisputably, and wholly dead.

I’m sad now.  In no different way than I have been for the past four weeks, watching helplessly as my icons and heroes have been falling all around me.  It’s just that, sitting here, typing this; I can’t fight back the image in my mind of Major Tom now floating quiet and alone off into the star speckled abyss.  Bowie is gone now and no one can pull Major Tom back to civilization or save him from the black vastness of space where he will forever drift, untethered from the voice that narrated his greatest adventures.

In parting, I suppose I mean to say that:  art is anything but useless.  It is the map by which we plot our lives.  Art is the very thing that allows our memories to be tactile.  I’ll never forget watching “The Shining” in high school with my freshman crush.  Just Jack Nicholson, her, and me.  Or driving around in the back of the first car my friends and I had access to,  hanging out the windows singing Pearl Jam’s “Alive” at the top of our lungs on a summer night.  Or in college when I fell in love with an actress in a Neil Simon play, and then was lucky enough that later she fell in love with me in real life.  Art doesn’t define us, but it does embellish us, it brightens all of our lives in one way or another; so why shouldn’t we mourn?  It’s just showing a little appreciation for those who colored in all the black and white lines that make up human experience.




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