On not dying youngish

March 5, 2019

Somewhere sometime in my twenties I wrote that my motto was, “Live fast die young, and leave a pretty corpse.” It seemed cool at the time. When your heroes are dropping off at 27, the romantic exit seems, well, romantic.  Now, not so much. Hitting 90 seems both horrific and preferable.

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This week’s deaths of Luke Perry (3 years younger than me, from a stroke) and Let’s Active drummer Sara Romweber (same age as me, from brain cancer) is a reminder that we continue to shed our peers at a rate that only accelerates. A large percentage of the Gen X elders that I inhabited the world with when I was twenty are gone. My aging icons will leave more rapidly. I’m ready of Bob Dylan and the rest of the lions of my youth to slip from this mortal coil. But so will those younger than me. Kids in tornadoes. Generation Z teens texting while driving, running over millennials talking on their iPhones. Then us.

George Harrison once said that death is like getting out of one car and getting into another. That’s sweet. I had a student who once asked the class what do people remember from before they were born. Silence. “That’s what death is like,” she said. Who knows? Nobody. That includes people who write hokey books about dying on the operating table and coming back to life. People buy that shit up hoping for proof that they well never cease to exist.

Sociologists will tell you that as people get old, they get more religious. I had a professor at Emory, Martin Levin, who called it the “nearer my God to thee” thesis. My father recently told me he’s just coasting into heaven. I hope so, Dad. It sounds so much nicer than just being unplugged by time. All those old friends waiting for you.

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Me, I know that I don’t know. In all likelihood, this is it. No pearly gates, no Casper the Ghost, no singing with Aretha or jamming with Hendrix. (Poor dead Hendrix.) And that’s OK. That means heaven is right here. In the excised Gospel of Thomas, one of the gnostic texts that was removed from the New Testament by the patriarchal church, hipster Jesus told his peeps that the kingdom of heaven is not in the sky somewhere. “Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you.” I can dig that. Heaven is in a living room in Portland. Awesome, because I’m already there.

The bottom line is to make the most of the time while you are here. Make the place you are in full of love and light, not anger and darkness. And do it for as long as you can, because there might not be a tunnel to a “better place.” Stay healthy, don’t smoke, get check ups, get off the couch, be kind, and keep the memory of those who have past alive in your minds.

One of my favorite poems is by Liverpool poet Roger McGough, enticed “Let Me Die a Young Man’s Death.”

Let me die a youngman’s death

not a clean and inbetween

the sheets holywater death

not a famous-last-words

peaceful out of breath death

When I’m 73

and in constant good tumour

may I be mown down at dawn

by a bright red sports car

on my way home

from an allnight party

Or when I’m 91

with silver hair

and sitting in a barber’s chair

may rival gangsters

with hamfisted tommyguns burst in

and give me a short back and insides

Or when I’m 104

and banned from the Cavern

may my mistress

catching me in bed with her daughter

and fearing for her son

cut me up into little pieces

and throw away every piece but one

Let me die a youngman’s death

not a free from sin tiptoe in

candle wax and waning death

not a curtains drawn by angels borne

‘what a nice way to go’ death 

Sounds like heaven to me.

 

 

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“Thanks, punk!” (For David Dickens)

January 10, 2019

I know the first time I saw David Dickens I was both frightened and liberated. I was a 16-year-old kid trying to figure out “punk rock” in 1980 Georgia. I knew what punk looked like long before I knew what it sounded like from reading Creem Magazine in the late 1970s. There were no internet streams of music or satellite radio. If you didn’t have a friend who had an older brother or sister who had somehow had gotten their hands on a Ramones album from some far-off big city record store, you were SOL. But I knew punk looked wild and David Dickens was a punk.

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In 1980 I was 16 with a drivers license. On the weekends I would tell my mom I was going to the midnight movie. Often I did. It was Rock n Roll High School on Fridays and The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Saturdays and I know David was often there, screaming “Where’s your fucking neck?” at the screen. Most of those weekends, I would head to the punk rock clubs with my fake ID. (Sorry, Mom.) The Metroplex on Luckie Street, The Bistro on West Peachtree, and 688 on Spring Street. They seemed like a million miles away from my subdivision in Stone Mountain. And Dave was there, all in black, blonde mohawk, and snarl. He looked just like the punks in Creem. I didn’t have to go to London. 688 was close enough.

David worked the door at a lot of those clubs and instantly identified me as a fellow misfit, part of the diaspora of suburban refugees looking for escape from Southern hypocrisy and fueled by the energy of the guitar and bass drum. In the suburbs, people married their high school sweethearts and raced into the doldrums of adulthood. Here there was space to be your true self. In your free space. It was a subterranean world of anarchist bohemian spirits, set free in a little corner of the Deep South. And David always let me in the door, no matter how fake my ID was. “Come on in, kid,” he’d say, his cigarette hanging out of his mouth, looking like he just walked out of a frame of Taxi Driver.

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By the time I was 19, his scene was my scene. I was practically living at 688, crashing on couches in Pershing Point, Atlanta’s short-lived East Village, and occupying space with punk artists at the Blue Rat Gallery. By then, David’s intimidating persona had given way to a kind of Catcher in the Rye character, benevolently keeping the scene in line and true to its ethos, occasionally corralling renegade punks like Billy Asshole and Malibu back into the fray. As a budding mod socialist and non-drinker, I had many after hours debates with him about the benefits of Marxism verses anarchism, with some four-piece band bashing in the background. Me in my Air Force parka, he with a ton of hardware clanging on his body. He was super-smart (not a dumb punk) so I was forced to raise my pee-wee game.

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David died a couple of days ago in his sleep. His heart just stopped. Apparently he’d had heart troubles and a recent gall bladder removal. As the word spread on Facebook, the heart of the scene stopped as well. Many of us had reconnected with the David through social media and he was still a warrior for freedom, ready to debate liberals and conservatives. I was glad to have him back in my world. The night before he went to bed for the last time, he posted a picture of a rich man trying to enter his grave with bags of cash, writing, “Like the man said … there’s a reason you never see a hearse pullin’ a U-Haul.” Maybe he knew.

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The news hit me harder than I expected. I found myself sobbing. Not because we were such close friends. It was because I never got to thank him. His persona was larger than life and as soon as I saw him, I knew I didn’t have to go to London or CBGB’s to find my tribe, it was right there. He could’ve looked at a little suburban punk wannabe like me and said, “Fuck off, you poser!” But instead, he said, “Come on in, kid.” I’m sure he died having no idea what an influence he had on so many of us misfits. He gave us permission to follow our unformed bliss and not be afraid to pay attention to our internal compasses.

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In 1977, George Harrison recorded a great song called “Pure Smokey” because he didn’t want to die without thanking Smokey Robinson for his wonderful music. George is gone and Smokey Robinson is still touring (and producing a Motown-based cartoon my kid loves) and knows how the George felt. I never got to say that to David. “David you gave me permission to be me. Thank you.”

As I get older, the rate of friends and comrades passing away will only increase. It’s time to start saying, “thank you.” David Dickens, thank you for letting me in.

In My Time of Dying

November 9, 2015

I’m just back from a trip to Georgia with Cozy and Andrea. I was invited to do a presentation to the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers on hate crime. The trip also doubled as an opportunity to introduce my wife and child to the places where I grew up. Anyone who knows Atlanta knows that you can leave it for five minutes and come back to a completely different city. To be from that area means you have to be willing to let go of the things you loved. Those great woods I rode bikes in in Stone Mountain have been five different shopping plazas since then. That historic bar in Poncey-Highland is being bulldozed for condos. Just let it go. At some point all of us are dust.

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I flew out a few days early with Cozy since Andrea was working at the law firm. Yes, I flew across the entire country with a toddler by myself. The reason for this insane act was the chance to spend some extra time with my father who recently had some pretty epic back surgery and is looking at six months of recovery. He had’t met his granddaughter yet (or Andrea) and who knew when I’d next be heading to Georgia.

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It was a great meeting, even if Cozy was a little unsure of who this guy was who looked a lot like me. (The irony was that the first seconds after Cozy’s birth I thought how much she looked like my father, but then all newborns sort of look like old men.) Cozy and Dad did high fives and stared at each other a lot and I thought about this genetic connection that links over 70 years before it blasts backwards into time.

But the whole thing transpired not at my dad’s home in Alpharetta but at the recovery center in Marietta, where he is doing rehab from the surgery. It doubles as an assisted living center for elderly medical patients which meant the place reflected the best in geriatric medical care and the worst in what we do to the senior members of our families. While not a hospice, my dad was sharing the space with folks who probably didn’t have that much time left to live.

It’s now common knowledge that 30% of our medical expenditures go to end of life care. We spend billions each year to keep our grandparents alive for just a few weeks more. Why? Is it for them? For us? For the pharmaceutical industry? We ship our seniors off to cold care facilities where they share rooms with other old-timers and we bill the insurance companies to pay for staff that treat them as humanely as possible until they drop dead (well you don’t drop in a bed hooked up to machines) and the next old-timer can be moved in to wait for the Grim Reaper.  It’s quite bizarre when you think about it.

Other cultures bring their elderly close in to garner as much wisdom from them while they are still on this earth. We warehouse our aged far out of sight in nursing homes so we don’t have to witness the reality of our own eventual fate. I don’t know what’s to blame for this: patriarchy (Goddess cultures generally revere the elderly), capitalism (“eldercare” is a booming industry), or just our own stubborn refusal to acknowledge the we are not here forever.

It’s a uniquely American problem. (USA! USA!) Andrea’s grandmother lives in a village in Mexico surrounded by five of her eleven children. Her wit and wisdom are a part of their lives. Grandchildren come to help fix things and keep her company and great-grandchildren run around her wheelchair (and she sneaks some of them beer). It’s so different from the great charade we play with our elders. Dying at home? How barbaric!

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So it was really hard to see my dad in this setting. He’s only 73, the same age as Mick Jagger and the eternally touring Paul McCartney. Folks in my family live well into their 90s, and that was before people discovered that you shouldn’t have lard as a primary component of your diet. So Dad has at least a few more decades to share with us. If this was 300 years ago, he would be Methusala, but the life expectancy in this country keeps expanding. There are plenty of centenarions down at the Zumba class these days.

My dad will get better and be back on the golf course in no time. I took him skydiving for his 70th birthday and I want to take him diving with sharks for his 80th. But being in the setting of good folks who are just watching the clock to death really shook me. What happens when I hit that age? Am I going to spend my last days drooling and watching Wheel of Fortune? I can do that now!

It reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Liverpudlian Roger McGough called, “Let Me Die a Young Man’s Death.” Here’s a stanza:

When I’m 73 & in constant good tumor

May I be mowed down at dawn

By a bright red sportscar

On my way home from an all night party

I’m ready to stick around as long as possible but there are only so many trips around the sun left. When Cozy graduates from high school, I’ll be 68! (I’m going to encourage her to skip a few grades.) When I’m my dad’s age she’ll only be 23 and facing the issue of an aging parent that so many of us are now dealing with. (C’mon fetal stem cell research!) Hopefully, I’ll be the old wise man of the village with lots of kids on my lap and not in some sad “managed care facility.” When I go, let me die in my footsteps.

My mother likes to say, “When I get that old, just shoot me.” While I’m not willing to go to prison for homicide, it does make you think it would be so much better to go out in a blaze of glory than peeing on yourself in a hospital bed. Let me die a youthful death. I’m going for moshpit mishap at 98.