Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, Amy Winehouse, James Dean, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Heath Ledger, Notorious B.I.G., Tupak Shakur, Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious, Jim Morrison, River Phoenix, Buddy Holly, Aaliyah, John Lennon, Reggie Lewis, Ritchie Valens, Bob Marley, Jim Croce, Bruce Lee, Charlie Parker, John Belushi, Martin Luther King, Rudolph Valentino, Eva Peron, Alexander the Great, King Tut and Jesus Christ.
They all died too young. They died in the prime of their lives. They became icons and heros for the things they did during their short stay on planet Earth.
But if any of them had been allowed to live deep into old age, would they have retained that sheen of heroism? Would Sid Vicious be doing late night infomercials selling CD sets of classic rock, like Roger Daltry? Did Roger see that one coming? Makes me wonder about that lyric of his, “Hope I die before I get old…”
Remember how pissed off Jim Morrison got when his band members sold “Light My Fire” to Muzak for a car commercial? This was long before Eric Clapton did those fucking beer commercials. We called that “selling out,” back in the day. Now it’s called “a diversified portfolio.”
If Jim Morrison hadn’t died young, would he have lived long enough to embarrass his younger self? Even though he died drunk and fat, he still died a rock star. He didn’t go out selling used cars.
I bet David Lee Roth thought he’d be a rock star forever, and then he became DJ “Diamond” Dave doing Top Forty Faves.
Sometimes it’s best to die young, if you really care about leaving a legacy behind.
Of course, you have to have a huge impact doing something first or else dying young is just really pathetically sad. So, to become an icon, one must first capture the attention of the world, and then suddenly, tragically, die. Young.
If one continues to live, one must constantly reinvent oneself in order to recapture the attention of the world. Like Madonna. She’s fighting it all the way to the grave. If she dies suddenly her obit will still say that she died in her prime.
And there’s nothing worse than watching our great icons not-die, instead drifting into oblivion, or drug-addiction (sans overdose), or hoarding or, finally, reality TV.
I find it terribly difficult to watch Howard Stern and Steve Tyler clown-up for what is essentially a new wave of The Gong Show remakes. We know they’re only doing it for the almighty dollar, which makes it seem like our heros can be bought and sold. I think Jimi Hendrix thanks God every day for taking his life before American Idol came knocking. Would he have resisted? We’ll never know.
It all just makes me think about the things we do that we never thought we’d do when we were young. And they’re not bad things, necessarily, just different things. Sometimes they actually prove our growth as human beings.
Like, I never thought I’d be a fan of Mariachi music. I mean, really. I grew up on rock and then had a healthy education of classical and jazz. When my younger son, Noah, began violin lessons I was excited about someday hearing him play in a string quartet. But, no, his music teacher put him into a Mariachi band (really?) and he’s hooked. So, now I hang out at the local church or crash the Quinceanera in hopes of catching a blast of trumpets and strumming guitarrons.
I also never thought I’d fall out of shape. That’s another way of dying young, I suppose. Elvis didn’t die quite young enough, so he bloated up. Like Orson Welles. Their bodies were saying, “Give up already! You’ve gone on ten years longer than you should have. Don’t you want to be an icon?”
I think it’s interesting that we remember Elvis young and thin, while our image of Orson Welles is quite the opposite (“We will sell no wine before its time”).
Since I haven’t done anything iconic yet I can afford to fall out of shape and work my way back into shape again before I make an impact on American society. I still have the opportunity to die young (well, relatively) and/or bloat up for ten years before bursting a liver.
Or maybe I’ll age gracefully after having a solid career in the arts. Like Jimmy Stewart or Bob Hope or Elmore Leonard or Michael Connelly. That’s classy, but not quite as dramatic as hearing the sirens approach Chateau Marmont after John Belushi’s demise.
And don’t you think it’s kind of weird that Elton John and David Bowie are still around, all mellow and out-of-touch, after the fuss they made when they were young? They could have been truly iconic, but they missed their chance. I mean, geez, Elton’s got a high-end retail clothing store in Caesar’s Palace. And he’s been knighted, for godsakes. By the Queen of England. Did he see that coming? He could have been the Pinball Wizard forever, if only he’d died young.
I just hope I live long enough to get my own page on Wikipedia. Then I’ll know I’ve made a difference.
Or maybe I should just forget all this nonsense and finish my book.
Sounds like a good idea to me.
Steve, have you seen DOWNTON ABBEY? Maggie Smith is doing some of the best work of her life, or anyone else's for that matter, in that show. What a tragedy for the whole world if she'd checked out in her so-called prime. Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, the late Richard Harris… and this is in a profession that worships youth. Maybe the key to age is to age into our POWER, and it couldn't hurt to look to those incredible actors and what they've done to make their golden years truly shine.
And maybe the key to that is being brave enough to embracing age instead of holding on to youth… as if anyone could.
(But all that doesn't mean I'm not loving the pic of Elton. The man had some thighs….)
As always, I was glad to see it was your day up, and I enjoyed your thoughts this morning on that disquieting little enigma: death.
After I read your post, I went online to track down Yeats's poem, "Among School Children." I'm not sure why, but something in what you wrote triggered a dim recollection of the poem, which I'd largely forgotten. On re-reading it, I see my foggy memory is smarter than I am (which is no big trick).
The poem speaks about the illusive power of icons — whether they be saints or rock stars — and ends with the classic line everyone knows: How can we know the dancer from the dance?
But the relevant line in this instance is this one:
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise –
O self-born mockers of man's enterprise;
I don't get to live John Lennon's life, or Maggie Smith's. I'm not sure I know what "aging into POWER" means, but I doubt any of the older people we admire thought about aging into anything. They simply found a way to keep doing what they loved.
As I've said before, I hope each day to become a little wiser, braver, more loving. That keeps me plenty busy. And my inspiration for that remains the people who have loved me, believed in me. I want to reward that love and trust by being a person worthy of it.
I don't think my brother, who died at age 39, or my wife, who died at 46 — both in relative obscurity — died pathetically. Sadly, yes, even tragically. But they remain my inspiration. Every day, I try to live up to the love they showed me, remain worthy of it. I fail more often than I care to admit. But each day I get a new chance.
So do you. That book is waiting for you, waiting for your best. And your best is brilliant. Your best is grand. I've seen it. And it's worthy of the love in your life. Love I know you cherish deeply.
As for death: Be brave. It's a good day to die.
Alex – yeah, I knew I was walking into troubled waters when I dashed off this snarky little piece. I meant it to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek – more of a reflection of iconic expectation than what I truly feel in my heart. I do believe that most artists grow better as they grow older, and folks like Richard Harris, Merryl Streep, Maggie Smith and Helen Mirren are great examples.
David – first of all, see my above response to Alex. Next, your comments are even more anticipated than my blog postings. Always insightful, tender, educational. My post was more intended to amuse, albeit with a biting edge, than to present the world as I would choose to see it. The truth is that I cringe whenever I read that when of my icons has passed – it really tears me apart inside – and it scares the hell out of me because I wonder how much time I'll have to do any of the things I want to do in this life of mine. My blog is a gallows humor shot across the bow. The risk I took is that I would offend those who have had the terrible experience of losing those they love – as I have. I apologize for being insensitive – please, no disrespect to you or the memory of your brother and wife. Or my father, for that matter – I've just turned the age he was when he died. I think our lives would have been enriched if they'd had the opportunity to live longer lives. My post is really meant as satire – poking fun at the idea that American icons must die young and beautiful if they intend to have any kind of impact on our lives. I know this isn't true, but it's a perception that exists all around us.
Oh, Stephen — you need apologize for nothing. I loved the post, and I caught the satire and no worries, okay? I just responded to your words the way I did because it touched that wound we share, the premature death of someone we loved deeply, and I just felt a need to return to that touchstone — the love. I think fame and such is a way to guild our terror of death. The dancer is her dance. It's scary, how fleeting, how precarious, how fragile it is.
I wasn't aware of the anniversary issue with your dad. That's some serious shit, my friend. Our bodies remember these things in ways we don't always get right away. I was strangely volatile and weepy most of July — Terri's birthday is the 23rd. John died on the 1st. We are creatures of the moon, and its cycles know us better than we know ourselves.
Stay tuned to your body, I'm sure you're in for some serious turbulence. Let your family ground you. I hate to sound so dire, but it is a big thing, reaching the age your dad died. Especially how he died. You're a good man, a solid soul, with a generous heart. I'm glad you're here. I'm not alone in that.
David – thanks for the words – they touch me more than you know.
Oddly, I was working in New Mexico last week and I kind-of stumbled upon the cemetery where my father is buried. I was working with a rep and we drove past the place and I said, "Hey, this looks like the place…I think it's called Sunset or something," and then we drove by the sign that said "Sunset Memorial." I went back later in the day by myself and began wandering, looking for his grave. I've mentally blocked out where it is and I've only visited it a few times in the past. After a half hour I realized how ridiculous it is to be wandering around with no idea where to go, when I walked right into it. I stared down at his grave and realized at that moment that I'm the same age he was when he killed himself. I became quite emotional – more than I have since the day he was buried, some 28 years ago. So, yeah, I think that's having some effect on my life right now. Fortunately, I've got a pretty damn good support system in my wife and kids. A very different life than what my father had.
Stephen: I got chills just now, reading your account of wandering into your father's grave. Yes, you have a better life, a more grounded life, but whatever demons haunted your dad, he had you, and you deserved a better fate than to be left alone that way. I don't mean to judge. I'm not one of those to want to lynch anyone who takes his own life. (Kinda redundant, anyway.) But when there are kids in the picture, the dynamic changes.
Anyhoo, I don't mean to squat on your comment thread. But I feel for you, I'm concerned for you. I'm glad your wife and kids are the rock they are. You deserve it, you've earned it.
As for the rest, that's the deep end of the pool, brother. Don't forget to come up for air.
Stephen we don't need you to be an icon. We need you to write books. XXXXX
Geez, Stephen. That was a bit of an emotional roller coaster. The post title followed by that pic had me cracking up, waiting for a similarly attired pic of you. Then the appalling news about Daltry doing infomercials — I haven't seen those, thank god. And then all this talk of growing old in pathetic bloated obscurity. Okay, maybe more of a water slide than a roller coaster. With no happy splash at the bottom.
So in a way I'm relieved to read what you said in the comments and hear about the connection to your dad's death. Now your black humour makes sense. Memories of my dad's death are very different from yours, but they still catch me unaware from time to time. It leaves a long mark, loss.
Have you seen the XKCD comic today? Maybe it will cheer you up. There's not one damn book on this timetable of "forgettable" things:
Get back to work. Some legacies are quiet and subtle, and lasting in their power.
Reine – yeah, I don't need me to be an icon, either. Them days are over.
KD – that comic was much more bleak than my blog! Getting back to work now…