Friday, April 20, 2012


Dick Clark and Levon Helm died this week, sad occurrences both. It seems to be the nature of our modern society that due to reasons of sheer scale we all have far more experience grappling with the passing of people we “know” only in the sense that their celebrity penetrated our consciousness, than with the more private grief of losing someone who was an actual loved one. I choose to see that as a good thing, as surely it’s a positive thing to be able to contend with feelings of loss at some remove as a kind of practice for the inevitable real thing which hits us all sooner or later.

With all due respect to Mr. Helm, Dick Clark’s death had a little more impact on me. (To be honest, I’m not sure I would even be aware of who Levon Helm was if not for my wife’s deep and abiding love for The Band.) Dick Clark was such a huge presence in pop culture and will always be an essential signifier of Americana. He lived a good long while and had a remarkably broad and deep career for most of his years on Earth, and while his most visibly productive days were well behind him, it still feels like he leaves a void behind.

It’s funny, because I was thinking over the last couple of weeks about other people like that, people who are still alive despite having careers which actually began right around if not well before the time I was born, people whose work has just always been a part of the fabric of the world I know. I was going to do one of my “Five Things” inventories for those luminaries, but I couldn’t think of five of them. And when Dick Clark died one of my first thoughts was “oh, right, he should have been on the list.”

While I was spinning my wheels trying to think of five famous people who will make my world a markedly different place when they depart it forever, I found an overabundance of creative types who meant a lot to me but didn’t fit the particular criteria I had in mind. For whatever reason, probably because it was an overall morbid train of thought, my brain kept dredging up people who had already died. I’ve talked more than once before about my obsession with David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide back in 2008. But there’s other people whose absences really gnaw at me in weird ways. It’s hard for me to hear a routine by Mitch Hedberg, who might just be my favorite stand-up of all time, without wishing he were still around. Ditto any exposure to the Beatles and longing for a septuagenarian John Lennon. I was crushed when The Crow became Brandon Lee’s swan song (and I’m not the only one, as several of my friends agreed that in a perfect world Brandon would have played Neo in the Matrix) and I was bitterly disappointed when Christopher Reeves died before regaining the ability to walk, something he and I both fervently believed was not only possible but simply a matter of time.

But not only are all of those guys off the board already, but they were by and large all taken too soon, most of them with foreshortened careers. Sometimes, purely from the perspective of artistic legacy, that might be for the best. Even when I refocused my attention on living celebrities who had been practicing their craft for my entire life or longer, another stumbling block I hit with alarming frequency was folks who probably should have quit while they were ahead a while ago: George Lucas, Stan Lee, Eddie Van Halen. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still raise a glass and acknowledge the things these guys created which touched my life profoundly whenever the choirs of angels sing them to their rest. But I won’t lament the additional movies George will never write or direct, the further comic books Stan will never create, the bonus tracks Eddie will never lay down. They peaked, they went downhill, and they’ve given the world plenty of evidence that their creative output will not be remembered as cut short in its prime. Such is life in an entropic universe &c.

So my full list (which barely qualifies as a list because it is only two items long) is as follows: Yogi Berra and Stephen King. When baseball season got underway, ESPN profiled Yogi (and Ron Guidry, who has become Yogi’s official driver for Yankees functions) and how he still goes down to spring training and whatnot, and it occurred to me that Yogi had played his last game something like nine years before I was born and thus, to me, has always been a living legend from the earliest dynasty days in New York, and since I am getting kind of old he is seriously old. And he won’t be around forever, but it will be strange and sad when the day comes that proves that point, though hopefully not for a while yet.

And I thought about who else was so constant in my awareness, and no surprise I thought of Stephen King next. Of course, because I’m re-reading The Dark Tower now, which is the series he almost didn’t finish because we almost lost him in 1999, and which was about mortality and legacies even before his near-death car accident infused it with even more meaning. King’s been writing books my entire life and I look forward to reading a couple of new books by him every year, and when, sometime after he breathes his last, they run out of stockpiled manuscripts to publish that will be a total drag, man.

It’s hard to perform at the same stratospheric level in any artistic (or athletic/philosophical) medium for decade after decade, so I probably shouldn’t be too surprised that my can’t-imagine-a-world-without-their-work list runs so short. And the real shame is, it’s only going to get shorter from here.

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