“You remember Mr. Conway?”
“Mr. Conway. Lived up on Sunset?”
“Used to usher at the Methodist church on the Falls Road?”
“Lloyd’s scoutmaster? That Mr. Conway?”
“Yep, that’s him.”
“Oh, sure. Mr. Conway. Nice man. What about him?”
My wife’s grandfather had a memorable way of keeping his family apprised of the local necrology. Countless conversations of this sort took place over the years, I’m told, leading to goodly chunks of time spent reminiscing about some barely remembered neighbor, or a distant relative who used to build ham radios, or operated a whisky still, or once took tap-dancing lessons, only for the rug to be pulled out with that final “Daid.”
In a certain sense Grandpa Albert was making conversation. When the family would convene during holidays or special occasions, he would, in a blunt, matter-of-fact way befitting his general mien, relate all that he’d picked up at church or at the Civitan Club, or what Grand-Mom had heard at her gardening club breakfast meeting. These were the notable events of the past few months, in his mind, and death always ranked high, even though he showed not a trace of sentimentality about it.
His way of imparting these matters is now part of family lore; versions of Grandpa Albert tend to get longer and more baroque in each new telling. But beyond the fun of a tall tale, really what this routine provides is a way of keeping Grandpa in the conversation. It gives the family a chance to remember him, and themselves, in distant times.
It wasn’t so long ago that unless you had someone like Grandpa Albert, you’d miss out on a lot of people who had died. Either that or you had to keep up with the obituaries. That’s really the only way to learn of the death of, say, a character actor known for his granite-like visage and a string of tough-guy roles in ’50s B movies, or the rhythm guitar player of an art rock band you kind of got into in middle school. It’s a habit I picked up from my father, an obit man from way back, who inadvertently sowed the seeds of my own eventual habit by telling me about various colorful celebrity deaths, like Jayne Mansfield, who at that point was still believed to have been decapitated, or Ernie Kovacs, who ran his car into a telephone pole while reaching for a dropped cigar.
In the ensuing years, turning to the obits, celebrating life while acknowledging its fragility, has been an oddly comforting morning ritual. But now, on the chance day that I miss the a.m. obits, social media serves to thwart my preferred daily encounter with death.
For this is the custom these days: Someone well known dies, and we post it as our status, usually beginning with “R.I.P.” Had I learned of the death of Captain Beefheart in the traditional way, my emotions would have split between sadness at the passing of a true maverick musician, along with shades of self-doubt for never really getting into his music. But once I spotted that first “R.I.P. Captain Beefheart” message, my experience was wholly changed. Instead of being forced to contemplate my highly uncool tendency to back away from certain types of confrontational music, I could only feel a sense of utter consternation, because I knew for a fact that the status updater has never owned a single Beefheart record in his life. I lived with this person and knew his minimal record collection inside out. This is a guy who would run from the room screaming if forced to listen to even half of Side 1 of Lick My Decals Off, Baby.
So would I, though, and that’s the problem. Admitting that I’ve never gotten into Captain Beefheart beyond a few (the most approachable) songs, in spite of his influence on several bands that I do enjoy immensely, is deeply damning, like admitting you have no depth, no capacity to be challenged, like your mother chooses your outfits and you prefer DeBarge over Prince. It’s not like I don’t know this. Years ago I even obtained a substantial two-CD retrospective, The Dust Blows Forward, but I could not make it sink in, could not groove with it, no matter how hard I tried.
Mostly the whole experience makes me churlish and cranky. People seem to absolutely clamor to get that status update up there, to in effect be the first person to alert the populace that another cult rocker or utility infielder has died. Why leverage a man’s death to propagate the false notion that you’re a devotee of his music and, quite possibly, by extension, “challenging” music in general? Aw hell, we’ve all done it. But something is lost when announcing someone’s death is reduced to just another quickie headline, lodged between “It’s jambalaya time!” and “Totally pooped from paddle tennis.” (Note: The foregoing are actual status updates I have witnessed.)
I guess the lesson is, you have to forgive your friends, even your so-called friends, just as you must forgive yourself and those that trespass against us. Along with those who misspell “pogrom” as “program” in an anti-Sarah Palin “blood libel” posting. You have to forgive them too.
I’ve done a pretty good job of sticking with my decision to opt out of the online mass mourning ritual. I do have the occasional lapse though. When Andreas Voutsinas, the actor who played the egregiously light-in-the-loafers valet Carmen Ghia in The Producers, died last June, this struck me as unsung and memorable enough to warrant a shout-out. But in retrospect it’s clear I was just playing the game to suit my own needs.
So, no more. From now on, when someone like Alex Chilton dies, or Trish Keenan of Broadcast, who died in January at just 42, or even Captain Beefheart, I’m gonna tribute the old-fashioned way: by playing a song (or a side or whatever) loudly and emphatically. Of course, if I had my druthers, I might just do something like this:
“Remember Captain Beefheart? Gruff voice? Odd meters? Eccentric as all hell? Turned his back on the world, became a painter, cantankerous to the end, had a record called Ice Cream For Crow that’ll curl your hair, was described as a cross between Howlin’ Wolf’s evil twin and Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry’s older brother?”