Bowie & Lemmy & Hundreds of Other People Who Weren’t Famous (Oh My)

lemmy-kilmister-tumor-cancerIt isn’t that I want to be the flea on a house cat, or just to be contrary, but there’s always such a mixed bag of emotions when someone well-known passes away.  I was absolutely broken the day Leonard Nimoy passed away, but found myself at peace when Lemmy’s death was announced.  (Probably because I had seen Motorhead live four times, and felt lucky to have done so.)  I remember spending hours watching Nirvana videos the day Cobain killed himself, crying and maudlin over someone I never met, but was almost filled with glee when I heard about Jerry Garcia passing, and actually celebrated when Ronald Regan finally died.  We all have our own group of myth-makers that we respond to, and my love of Captain Beefheart can’t measure up to that of Robin Williams, no matter what the Inter-Web-A-Tron thinks I should feel that particular day.

1976: David Bowie poses for an RCA publicity shot in 1976. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

It isn’t that I don’t like David Bowie.  I have a few albums, and there’s some songs of which I’m certainly a fan.  He was interesting, too, a character that was looking to create a certain kind of art, not necessarily art that was popular at the time, either.  He looked how he wanted to, acted how he wanted to, made music that reached and affected a lot of people, and made a huge impact.  I don’t want to deny any of that, or talk shit about him.  He was who he was.  He just wasn’t my favorite artist in the world.

And, even worse, not even the first well-known person to have died on January 10th of 2016.  A well known mathematician, two well known dutch sculptors (the other one is here), a well known writer, two additional musicians (American & Venezuelan), a LGBT activist, a footballer, a journalist, a politician, a businessman & an Australian yachtsman all died on the same day, and a few of them also went to cancer, too.  And that doesn’t even account for the scores of others that have already died in 2016.  Wikipedia’s Lists of deaths by year is quite eye-opening, and while that doesn’t mean that Bowie’s death isn’t a loss, or isn’t tragic, it is strange to consider all the other’s that are not being remembered as part of this event.

Humanity has never really done well when we try to cope with death.  The best we can do is invent an afterlife of some kind, speak to them as if they are still alive, and postpone the actual grieving until we are faced with the fact that this person really is lost, that they really are gone, that they are never coming back.  Sometimes we can process these kinds of events in real time.  But death is almost always sudden.  I didn’t go to bed on the 9th with any kind of preparation that I would wake up in a world without Bowie.  None of us did.  But it has happened, and we must learn to find a way to deal.

In a way, celebrity deaths are how we come to cope with the fact that humanity is dying.  The thought that there will never be any more Motorhead shows is a big thing to process, and it stands in for the fact that everything ends, eventually.  There was a time when there were never going to be any more Beatles, or Elvis, or Django Reinhardt, or Mozart.  But life continues.  Bowie has now been relegated to “old” culture status, and we will only now be able to live in a world that has lost that, and hundred and thousands of those who came before us.  Learning to live without new music is a bit like having to come to terms with Grandma dying, or the city we grew up in changing dramatically.

Yes, it is sad we lost him.  It is sad we lost everyone.  We should be mourning the loss of people, of those who were not famous but touched our lives anyway.  We should be learning to come to terms with everything that we might not ever see again, and not just new albums buy a guy who had done the bulk of his best work a few decades ago.  This should be an example of the amazing things that we have in front of us, and not a chance to dwell on the great things we used to have, that are completely gone now.

Nostalgia is great.  But it is too easy to feel steeped in it, to let it overwhelm us as we realize the thing we love is gone now, or different.  But celebrities will live on in our memory longer than our friends, or neighbors will, and rarely do we celebrate them with the same kind of grandiosity of a passed superstar.

No one will ever forget Bowie.  Who will remember everyone else that died that day?

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3 thoughts on “Bowie & Lemmy & Hundreds of Other People Who Weren’t Famous (Oh My)

  1. I understand that for you, the passing of David Bowie does not generate the same wrenching of your emotions that other deaths have done: Leonard Nimoy, and the others you mentioned. And I agree that death itself is what generates much of our angst and grief when a beloved celebrity dies. It is also reasonable that the death of any human should touch us and remind us of the fragile, transient nature of life. But it is also reasonable that the level of response to a celebrity’s death will be in direct proportion to the number of people who have known and felt a connection to the celebrity. Sometimes, the place in society the celebrity has occupied factors into the public response. Princess Diana’s death brought the world to a standstill for a few days not just because she was famous but because people perceived some level.of human goodness in her. John Lennon had some of that Uber-human fame when he was killed. The manner of celebrity death also plays a role in public display of emotion: violent death engenders a different response than a death in old age. I did not know who Lemmy was as many people my age (66) did not know who he was. But most people my age have lived forty years of our lives with David Bowie in the background music of our lives, and his changes have paralleled our own changes, his evolution as an artist and a human have reminded us of our own evolution. And for us, he has died too young of a disease universally dreaded. And to add to the poignence of it all, he used his art to chronicle his death, making it graphically clear and public to us, showing us our own anxiety about and dread of, and ultimately our necessary acceptance of, death in ways no other celebrity has done, so that we have no choice but to confront our fears, our sadness, our eventual non-existence. That is remarkable in itself. I understand that it’s likely you didn’t have as strong a connection to David Bowie as I did, and that explains why you are not as affected as so many of us are, but I hope you can reconsider the seeming overreaction of our outpouring of sadness and grief at his death.

    1. (I should mention that Penelope Bartsch is my aunt. Hi Penny!)

      I take your point, and I probably didn’t address this kind of thing because I don’t have that same personal connection, absolutely. I wouldn’t be so petty as to try and undervalue the connection an artist can have with their audience; quite the opposite. I’m so affected by quite a bit of art that it would be hypocritical and short-sited to make a claim like that. He made some great records, for sure, and it is a huge loss.

      I was mostly trying to (badly) make the observation that on that same day, a number of other families and friends were also having a very profound loss in their lives, too. They were trying to process death and find a way to come to terms with it, and the people I mentioned in this post were all famous among their own families and peer groups. And yet, as a public, the press largely focused on Bowie’s passing. Which is absolutely also a terrible thing, too. But I was trying to put myself in the shoes of those other families. How would they feel about another celebrity overshadowing a loss that was very important to them? I imagine they might have mixed feelings about their situation. And, lastly, to make the larger point that people who are not famous die every day, and their families experience as much pain and catharsis as everyone else, in spite of there being no fame at the center of the loss.

      Perhaps I said it all in a fairly ham-fisted way, and these thoughts probably needs some refinement. (That’s the benefit of a blog. A chance to work out an idea – in public – with input.)

      I’m glad you mentioned John Lennon. The day before he died another musician died, Darby Crash. Not nearly as well known, for sure, but he was the kind of kid who was too smart for his own good and flew a little too close to the sun in nearly everything he did. Darby’s fans always found the fact that John Lennon’s death overshadowed any other music news a little frustrating, as they felt like it was invalidating their own grieving and loss at the time. This doesn’t belittle or devalue the loss John Lennon’s fans are feeling. It was a terrible, terrible day for sure. But it offers another side to a story that is not cut and dry.

      We forget that these kinds of losses tend to stand-in for our cultural in-ability to process more intimate and personal loss in a constructive way. (I always use this example: I can rarely get other people to talk about Chet – my grandfather, your father – dying, but I can almost always get any group of people to talk about the day Kurt Cobain died.) I was hoping that I could make the observation that, while this is absolutely a loss, that maybe we could try to use this opportunity to re-think our own relationship to loss and death in our lives. I don’t want to be the person who spends his middle- & old-age floored by every passing and in fear of loosing the most important people in my life. I want to try and find another way to interact with the universe.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to write me a reply…I think we share a desire to make ourselves understood! What I perceived from re-reading our comment-reply-reply above is that perhaps we are not far apart on the subject of death, but that we differ in our perspectives of honoring death in the small and the large picture, the “small” picture being small only because the number of people affected by the deaths of those closest to us is by comparison to that of a well-known, beloved celebrity, known and loved by millions, a small number. But you are absolutely right that the death of a celebrity cannot compare to the personal losses of those we love. It seems to me that the lesson in life is that death is the ultimate thief. Today in the paper, there was an obituary and photograph of a five week old baby boy who died the other day. The other day, a woman in her late nineties passed away. There is no question that the baby’s family feels robbed of his life in a way that the family of the old lady doesn’t, but there is also no question that in both cases, the absence of that human being is a loss. I grieve the loss of that baby far more than the loss of David Bowie, and I didn’t really know either of them. But David had a life, a big, well-known, abundantly wealthy life. The baby never even got to learn to sit up. Unfair perhaps, but then what about life is fair. It makes sense for people to experience and express their grief when someone they love dies. And it takes time to move on from that loss. Five days later, I am still saddened by the loss of David Bowie, but I am not grieving. And in a week or two, the outpouring of emotion for him will have diminished rather quickly, in proportion to the level of importance he held in the lives of those who loved–his art, his persona, his part in our lives. Nothing at all like losing your father or a close relative, but your family with Kyle, and ours with Alex, have been on the verge of that loss, and we all know that the loss of David Bowie or any other celebrity would be nothing compared to the losses were lucky enough to avoid. But celebrate! Celebrate all lives, all experience, all emotions. We are lucky to be alive… on this scrap of mineral whirling in space. I am so happy to be here! Love you, Cody! Hope I get to meet Marla someday!

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