What is it about the death of a celebrity that makes us comment on Facebook… or, before that, send an email chain out to our friends… or, long before that, make a bunch of phone calls to friends and family?
In most cases, we did not know the person other than their work and public persona. And yet, we somehow feel connected… as if we DID know them… or at least a part of them. Working in the entertainment business, even from the fringes, usually has this hitting a little closer to home… and the degrees of connection are very often less than six.
But mourning a stranger… is or can be an odd thing.
There is nothing more overwhelming than getting “that call” or “that text”, telling you that a loved one has passed. At least for me, the floodgates open wide and the emotional impact is swift and strong and immediate.
I still have vivid memories of the call telling me my grandmother Mildred had passed… still cry when I see her picture… still physically and viscerally miss her. Granted this was less than a year ago and it is still a bit fresh and raw, but I may never forget that moment.
As far as celebrities go… people in the spot light… there will be an obvious scale of reaction, depending on how closely connected we felt to them… on how much we loved their work… how much they affected us… inspired us… moved us…
A friend of mine said that with a musician, the reaction was more powerful because a song is something we can hum and sing on our own… but a film or TV clip needed something else to play it and to truly, fully recall it.
I agree, mostly, but certain film scenes and lines and captured images are locked into the theatre of my mind… and can be called up whenever the clip needs to roll. That is the power of movies… of flickering images… on a screen, large or small.
To me, nothing has the punch of a great song… of music…
And while lyrics affect me more than most, partly because of being a writer, music… notes… a melody… are truly universal… and can be shared with almost anyone.
A musical passage… a string of notes… a chord… a theme… can move us to tears… or to dance… or to get up and run a flight of stairs at the Philadelphia Museum Of Art.
“If music be the food of love, play on.”
Age and cause of death has a lot to do with our reaction. If someone dies of old age, we are sad, but hopefully comforted in the notion that they lived a full life. Though, as I say this, I go back to the brilliant line in Billy Crystal’s movie Mr. Saturday Night… a film I was an extra in…
He is at the funeral of his beloved grandmother and says, and I am paraphrasing because I cannot find the exact line anywhere… “She lived to be a 100… but it wasn’t enough…”
Disease and tragedy has a lot to do with our reaction… A LOT!
Up until the recent death of David Bowie, I can think of four famous deaths that had a huge impact on me.
The first was Thurman Munson, the catcher and captain of the New York Yankees. He died in a plane crash on August 2, 1979 while I was away at Camp Weequahic. I will never forget my reaction to hearing the news…
I was already having a horrible summer… being teased incessantly… and when it was announced that he died, I immediately broke down crying… and in order to make sure no one saw me, I ran off into the woods to be alone, hysterical.
I was a huge Yankees fan, and remember my parents sending me each and every article about the crash. The reason it hit me so hard was that it was tragic… shocking… unexpected. Even though it was long after the fact, my brain now goes back to the line from La Bamba… “Stars don’t fall from the skies.”
But they do… they do.
The other reason it hit me so very hard is this… Back in those days, players started and finished their careers with the same team. So it wasn’t that I was just a Yankees fan… but that I was a fan of each and every player on the team. You felt a kinship… a connection… that is all too and sadly rare these days.
RIP #15… Oh Captain, my Captain.
The second was John Belushi. His death was a tragedy… yes, it was partly self-inflicted, but a tragedy nonetheless.
My reaction to Belushi’s death was sadness, followed by an almost immediate anger… Real, deep and frustrated anger. I was pissed, really pissed. How dare he waste his talent? How dare he piss on all that he was given and worked for?
As they carried his body out of the Chateau Marmont on March 5, 1982 I was beside myself. This man had everything I wanted… He was funny, brilliantly funny… was on Saturday Night Live… a dream I had for years and let go way too easily…
Yes, regret is filling up inside me as I write this… how easily I let too many of my dreams go, without the proper fight and battle… But that is a discussion for me and my therapist… a deep, ongoing discussion.
Then he was a movie star… Animal House was the first R-rated film I saw… I was underage and so my Dad took me to see it. It is still, to this day, one my favorite and most beloved films…
And then he was a rock star. The Blues Brothers got to play with some of the greatest musicians in the world. He had it all…. and then… he didn’t.
The third celebrity death that most messed with me was Clarence Clemons… The Big Man. He died on June 18, 2011… at age 69. What is with that number??? Bowie… Alan Rickman today… and Clarence… all 69. Damn!
I am sorry, but that is way too young… and with Clarence, that is PART of the sadness.
I remember I was out to dinner at Itzik Hagadol in Encino, CA. My folks were visiting and we were in the middle of a meal when my brother texted me.
Now Clarence had, had a stroke but it seemed like he was recovering… so the news came a bit of nowhere. I broke down immediately… hysterically. I excused myself from the table on the patio and walked out onto the sidewalk… hiding from my family and anyone dining near us.
My parents freaked out… assumed it was some horrible news about one of our family members.
When I sat down and told them what had happened, they looked at me incredulously. They could not even remotely fathom how a grown man could react to the death of someone he did not know with such emotion and chaos. They were irked… truly irritated that I did what I did.
But I did know Clarence. And I knew Danny… and every other member of the E Street Band.
Out of all the live shows I have ever seen, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band elate me like no other. They give me energy and a life force that lasts for hours and days. I walk out of those shows feeling alive and invincible.
And yes, real life quickly sets back in… but until recently, these concerts… these shows… were as close to a true religious experience as I have ever had.
I had never met Clarence… though I have met Little Steven and Max and Roy and Nils… and no, I have never met the Boss… some day… some day… but their music is such an important part of my life, that the personal connection seems real.
The fourth is Robin Williams. I am still in shock over this one, for so many reasons.
It was most definitely self-inflicted, and brings into focus… or at least demands our attention… to the damaging and destructive power of mental illness and depression.
I idolized Robin Williams… as a comedian, improviser and actor. His energy was astounding… and while some of it may have been fueled by drugs, at least at the beginning… the break neck speed of his brilliant mind was a pleasure to watch…
And I did… from his standup… to Happy Days and Mork and Mindy… to his incredible body of film work.
I was in awe.
It was sadly ironic that he visited Belushi on the day of his death… a point that sits uncomfortably with me.
And yet, with Robin Williams, there was a deeper sadness… a more personal connection.
No, I did not know him. Nor did I ever meet him. But, in recent years I had come to know his companion… his nemesis… the cause of so much of his pain… depression.
Whereas I once could not even contemplate or fathom how someone seemingly having it all could take his own life, I now got it… I now understood on a cellular level… in a very specific and detailed way… the gripping, relentless power of depression.
And it scared the shit out of me. I do not have money or fame… and yet, in the face of sadness and depression and mental illness, neither of those things means anything. Fame and fortune cannot save you.
This, of course, is a huge lesson… and one realizes that the basic needs of connection and love are paramount…
Happiness and bliss can be achieved in any economic state. But it is up to us and our chemical make up, to fight to be happy… to talk to someone… and if need be, to have those chemicals in our body altered… Ideally, naturally, with food and meditation and exercise and counseling… and therapy… but also recognizing that medicines can and do help.
We must not be silent… we must speak out, cry out and ask for help. We must know that we are not alone and seek out professional help and guidance when we need to. And above all, society must not judge us… bullies must not tease us… people must realize that mental illness is a very real thing.
Yes, naïve… living in La La Land… but when people take mental illness seriously… when we stop ignoring cries for help… and stop teasing and tormenting… the world will be a much better place.
While we will always have Robin Williams captured on film and video, I miss the man… deeply. I still cannot believe he is gone, let alone by his own hand. His death haunts me more than most.
The most recent, of course is David Bowie… and while I will not expound on his death here… because I am working on a separate piece about it… let me say that it came as a surprise because it was so unexpected. The fact that such a public figure could stay so private is remarkable… He lived… and died… the way he wanted to.
Not that he wanted to die, of course… but he controlled it… managed it… as best he could… and gave us Blackstar, a haunting new album before he shuffled off this mortal coil.
His death puts regret into perspective, because I had never seen him live and now never will. I hate that as a huge music guy, I let a live Bowie show go.
But at age 69, it also makes me realize I better get off my ass and start creating and putting my light out into the world. His video for “Lazarus” is now even more haunting and specific… and should have us all living each and every day, as if it was our last.
My friend Jason’s point is proven as “Space Oddity” and “Where Are We Now” keep popping into my head… at random times and places…
Suddenly I’ll be walking the dog and out of nowhere start singing “the stars look very different today… “ or looking to the heavens and pleading… asking “where are we now?”
All I want to do is play Bowie… and songs that move me right now.
Such is the result of death… and the reason the passing of a famous stranger can mean so much… because even they though we did not know them… in our own way… we did… we all did.