Of all the stories of celebrity deaths blown my way by media none slammed body and soul like John Lennon's passing. Not the Kennedys. Not Elvis. Not Ken Kesey, whom I knew, not Martin Luther King, not Cronkite.
Word of Lennon's passing struck me dumb Dec. 9, 1980, as I reported for work at Blount County Center for the Handicapped, and my boss, Annie—a 95-pound firecracker who would be dead from cancer five years later—met me at the door to ask if I'd heard the news?
I couldn't answer, as John Lennon's death entered my eyes and my ears, my heart, my belly. If I'd had a womb, I would've felt it there.
Cliche, yes, but a part of me died that day. The gig was up. All gigs were up, save for the Great Gig in the Sky. The universe morphed into a dark and implacable host. Whatever fibers remained from the Age of Aquarius twined into just one more colorful and necessary thread in the tapestry of our times. And though we lit candles and raised them high on the waterfront that night, my youth curled up and fed itself to Grief.
Doubtlessly millions took one or another of the many public deaths of spring and summer, 2009, in just such personal ways, and summer's not even over. In any case, the list is incomplete, status-based, broken on both ends. Still yet, here it is, in part…
Patrick Swayze, Steve McNair, Farah Fawcett, Ed McMahan, Koko Taylor, David Carradine, Wayman Tisdale, Dom Deluise, Bea Arthur, Jack Kemp, Marilyn Chambers, Natasha Richardson, Michael Jackson, Robert Novak, Socks the Cat, Eunice Shriver, Don Hewitt, Les Paul, Walter Cronkite, Robert McNamara, John Hughes, Corazan Aquino, J. G. Ballard, Jim Caroll, Teddy Kennedy, Karl Malden, Henry Gibson, Mary Travers...
It's a litany from our flown or fleeting youth.
There's a sweet and edgy piece of creative nonfiction in Ken Kesey's 1986 book, Demon Box, called "The Day After Superman Died." It's about how Kesey—OK, his fictive persona, Deboree--learns that his old friend Neal Cassidy—OK, his fictive persona, Houlihan, has died. Bear with me, I promise to bring this round again….
Cassidy had long been a cultural touchstone. A dozen writers based characters on him. Journalist Tom Wolfe spread his fame in that classic of new journalism, The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, but Kesey knew Cassidy personally. Had spent time on the road with him in the world's first magic bus, and at concerts, be-ins, vision quests and more. They were brothers-in-arms, so to speak. Voyagers who'd braved wine-dark roads.
So when a former flower child gone-to-seed drove up Deboree's Oregon driveway to deliver the news that Houlihan had been found dead along the railroad tracks linking Puerto Sancto to Manzanilla, the news sent Deboree mind-tripping through all the deaths, public and private he'd ever known.
One thing he couldn't get past was Houlihan's last words. They were: "Sixty-four-thousand-nine-hundred-and twenty-eight." Later, as he bathed his sorrow in cheap wine and weed he'd found on the farm, Deboree learned that Houlihan's words referred to a crazy bet he'd made. Houlihan (Cassidy) had bet some unknown soul he could count all the railroad ties between Puerto Sancto and Manzanilla.
Deboree finds a sort of solace in that number. "He was counting for us." His mind starts bringing back all the late great faces of his times, not so much counting as recognizing the wonder of their existence, a way of blessing.
"The dark space about him is suddenly filled with faces, winking off and on… LBJ with your Texas cheeks eroded by compromises come back. Khrushchev, fearless beyond peasant ignorance, healthy beside Eisenhower, come back both of you. James Dean all picked apart and Tab Hunter all put together. Michael Rennie in your silver suit the day the earth stood still for peace, come back all of you.
"Now go away and leave me.
"Now come back….
"Come back Vaughn Monroe, Ethel Waters, Krazy Kat, Lou Costello, Harpo Marx, Adlai Stevenson, Ernest Hemingway, Herbert Hoover…"
Soon Kesey's litany begins mingling faces of the dead and yet un-dead….
"Harry Belafonte, Timothy Leary, Ron Boise, Jerry Lee Lewis, Lee Harvey Oswald… John O'Hara and Liz Taylor, Estes Kefauver… Aldous Huxley, Edith Piaf, Joan Baez, Bob Kaufmann, Lawrence Ferlinghetti," still alive even yet!
It's a mournful yet hopeful dirge, this litany, bearing scant relation to 2009, save for the fact that it's all passing, and with it… all of us. The faces still wink on and off….
So come back Patrick Swayze, Steve McNair, Farah Fawcett, Ed McMahan. Come back feisty Koko Taylor, David Carradine, Wayman Tisdale, Dom Deluise, Bea Arthur, Jack Kemp. Come back Marilyn Chambers, Natasha Richardson, Michael Jackson, Robert Novak, Socks the Cat, Eunice Shriver, Don Hewitt, Les Paul, Walter Cronkite, Robert McNamara. Come back John Hughes, Corazan Aquino, J. G. Ballard, Jim Caroll. Come back Teddy Kennedy, Karl Malden, Henry Gibson, sweet Mary Travers. Come back, go away, now come back.
Raise candles high. Lift them to the face of time and darkness and whatever holiness pertains.
In the words of Kesey….
"Young Cassius Clay.
"Young Jack Kerouac…
"Young lovers wherever you are. Come back and remember and go away and come back…."