This week’s question comes courtesy of Chris in Atlanta, Georgia, and feels especially timely following the recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman: Is there any current artist or performer who you don’t know personally, but at whose death you would cry?
I’m absolutely positive that I’ll weep like a newborn baby when (or if, because she does seem magical) Dolly Parton dies. She’s one of my favorite singers, for sure, but more than that, she’s also one of my favorite people. I know all her pat witty responses verbatim, could tell you her life story in great detail, and I literally cried in advance of the one time I actually got to interview her. (She said my name! My name!) She’s my favorite celebrity, and I think the world will absolutely be worse off when we lose her. I know I will.
I know I’ve given Morrissey some shit on these pages for saying some bone-headed things, but I kid because I love. (And because I’m pretty sure he’s capable of so much better.) But the music that he’s made over the past 30 years has been some of the most important and influential in my life, as it has been for so many people. There’s nobody better at soul-baring than Smiths-era Moz, and his tales of childhood (and adult) angst, though they were often so specific to his own experience, were entirely relatable. It’s a bummer to think that when he does go, there will be a certain segment of the population that expresses joy. But he’ll deserve it, expressing as he has his own joy at other people’s misfortune and death. Look no further than his ode to Margaret Thatcher, which asks her pointedly, “When will you die?” and then later simply exhorts her: “Please die.” Still funny, all these years later.
It’s antithetical to the guy’s whole shtick, but my emotions will be loud and messy when Steve Martin dies. Not so much because he’s still doing work that I love—Martin long ago passed into the “fuck it, I’m doing what I want” phase of his career, a freedom I respect more than I enjoy. It’s more that Martin is the same type of apparently immortal pop-culture icon as Dolly Parton or Bill Murray. He’s always seemed a bit older and a bit savvier than his age lets on (his eternally gray hair the comedian’s equivalent of a wizard’s beard) and as far as I remember, there’s always been a Steve Martin. At every stage of my life, he’s been making balloon animals for the Muppets or struggling with a corked fork or cashing checks for 250 big ones or drilling bicuspids or miscounting the men, Liz. To accept the passing of the man responsible for those moments will mean accepting some hard truths about inevitably and the passage of time. The good news is, though we know he’ll one day be gone with the dawn, those moments belong to me and you and all the future generations chuckling like idiots while Navin Johnson seeks his “special purpose.”
I struggled with this one, because, as my wife says, “You just don’t care about things.” There are lots of celebrity deaths I’ve felt sad about, but to my knowledge, there have only been four that have pushed me to a place where I either shed real tears or recognized the place in me that should feel emotions would be crying if it were properly connected to my mainframe. Those four? Charles Schulz, Fred Rogers, Robert Altman, and Peter Jennings. (I have also felt really sad, retroactively, about the death of Jim Henson.) The closest thing to a common thread running among those four—outside of Altman—is a very close connection to my childhood, which was largely pop culture bereft, which might explain why I have a tendency to not form these attachments so heavily as to feel actual grief. (Or I’m just a robot.) So thinking about all of this has made me realize that the correct answer is Bill Watterson, even though he hasn’t produced new artwork for the public since 1995. Calvin & Hobbes was one of those things I legitimately grew up with, and right as I was about to reach adulthood, Watterson brought the strip to a close. I cried over the end of the strip, and I imagine I’ll cry over the death of its creator, too, so much did it mean to me.
It’s hard to anticipate grief. There are a lot of artists who have meant a great deal to me who are still around, and many more that are long dead. You don’t always know who matters until they’re gone. But if I had to pick one that I know will be pretty bad, I’d pick Joan Didion. These days I have a more complex relationship with her work, but when I was first introduced to it as a teenager, her prose was electrifying. What will make it all the more difficult is that she has written so eloquently about her husband’s death and her daughter’s fatal illness—it’s almost like she began to write her own obituary with The Year Of Magical Thinking. It will be very hard to say goodbye to the author of “On Keeping A Notebook” and Slouching Towards Bethlehem. But at least, there will be the comfort that she has produced an incredible oeuvre.
I spent the hours immediately after Lou Reed’s death moping about, listening to The Velvet Underground’s self-titled third album and Berlin, swallowing a sadness that never fully spilled over into tears. I think Reed’s often-vindictive attitude toward his audience had created enough emotional distance for me to mourn, but not weep for him, but all bets are off when it comes to my life’s other musical constant, David Bowie. I’ve already lived the past twentysomething years in deep regret that I never got to see Bowie in concert—and specifically, that I didn’t go when I had the chance, usually because I was dead broke and “he’ll be back.” Yet I’ve always taken comfort in knowing he’s still on this planet and occasionally producing new music, even as the more elegiac parts of The Next Day reminded me that he won’t be here forever, and that someday soon I’ll be slumped next to my stereo with a bottle of rye, listening to “Five Years” and “Time” on repeat (only with more poignancy than usual). But no. Shut up, me. David Bowie will outlive us all, because David Bowie’s an alien.
I have no idea how I’m going to cope with Martin Scorsese’s eventual death. Like plenty of cinephiles my age, I grew up on Scorsese: He was one of the first “serious” filmmakers I connected with, his work a gateway drug into movies as art. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas exploded my conception of what cinema could be, so much so that I wasted a few formative years on pretenders to his crime-movie throne. And unlike some of my other boyhood idols, he’s never really fallen in my estimation—in part because he remains an active and exciting filmmaker, but also because my youthful enthusiasm for his work has given way to a deeper appreciation of his craft. But if I’m being truthful, my sentimental attachment to Scorsese has as much to do with the man as the movies. Beyond his tireless, truly heroic commitment to preserving old films, the director has cultivated one of the warmest, most inviting personalities of any master filmmaker: He’s like every cinephile’s favorite uncle—a constant source of beaming pride, of amusing stories, of tireless enthusiasm for the medium he loves. (Maybe this is why everyone feels comfortable simply calling him “Marty.”) I have no doubt that when Scorsese dies, it will feel to me like the loss of a family member or a mentor figure. That week, you’ll find me curled up in front of the TV, wet eyes trained on a nonstop loop of Hugo. Don’t disturb the grieving process.
I wasn’t a huge Elliott Smith fan when he died, but I was profoundly saddened by his death. When Sean O’Neal called me one night to tell me his friend and one of my musical heroes, Lance Hahn, had died, I was literally shaking for a while after we hung up. No tears, though. It takes a lot to get my waterworks going, so I’m not sure who’d get me that worked up. Probably Bob Mould, though I do sort of know him personally, so he’s disqualified from the question. Considering how choked up I got writing about Marcia Wallace’s death, I’m guessing that when Matt Groening dies, I’ll be wrecked. Sure, you can argue that other people were much more responsible for The Simpsons during its golden age, but the single most influential piece of pop culture in my life wouldn’t exist without him. Beyond that, I obsessively read his comic, Life In Hell, as an adolescent, and that also greatly affected me. Even as I’ve come to accept that it’s probably time for The Simpsons to retire, Matt Groening’s influence on my life remains strong. When he goes, I’ll need some tissues.
I don’t believe in jinxes or find myself swayed by superstition, but even writing about the hypothetical death of Bruce Springsteen has me crossing my fingers and hoping I don’t disturb some cosmic forces. I’ll admit that this is a ridiculous way to behave, and that at 64 Springsteen appears to be in good health. The Boss’ music was introduced to me as a kid, as my mom’s makeshift routine of playing him every Saturday morning made it the sounds that kicked off my weekends, and it’s a routine I’ve kept alive in my own home. My memories of Springsteen go back so far they are occasionally foggy, suggesting he’d always been there, and to date he’s never left. It’s inevitable that there will come a time when he will leave, and, if I had to guess, I’ll probably cope with some spoonfuls of ice cream and a few tearful listens to “Atlantic City,” knowing that, while death is surely a fact, his music will keep him coming back, one record at a time.
Laura M. Browning
There are a lot of musicians and actors I’d be very sad to see go while they were young and still ascending in their careers. But to die old and beloved with an impressive body of work behind you—well, it’s not the worst way to go. But no matter how and when and where it happens, Judy Blume’s death will destroy me. There is no other living author whose writing informed my childhood so much; as an overly imaginative 8- or 9-year-old, I saw myself in Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself (which I still read as an adult), and Blume’s books about puberty and growing up were clear-headed and empathetic. I was able to interview and meet Blume last year, and though it can be dangerous to meet your idols, she was exactly the person I thought she would be. Are you there, God? Please keep Judy Blume safe.
The world had a scare last August when Internet rumors of the death of Lemmy, Motörhead’s barnacled frontman, made the rounds. Thankfully they turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Still, the metal demigod has suffered plenty of health issues over the past few years, and his recent brush with un-death only drove home the point that Lemmy is a crusty, avuncular treasure to rock ’n’ roll. Hell, even last year’s Aftershock—Motörhead’s 21st studio album—kicks ass, leaving me to reasonably believe that the 68-year-old juggernaut still has plenty of bile left in him. Fans love to joke about how unkillable Lemmy is. The fact remains, though, that he’s made of flesh and blood. Granted, that flesh is jerked and that blood is pickled. But I know the day Lemmy dies is inevitable, it will come suddenly, and it will hit me just like a Motörhead song: hard, fast, and remorseless.
As obvious a response as it may be, and despite how many millions of other people I may share it with, my instant answer to this question is Paul McCartney. I can say this with great confidence for two reasons. The first is that I cried when I heard George Harrison had died, so there’s really just no way Paul’s death isn’t going to inspire the same reaction. (I was too young and still too ill-informed about the Beatles to be similarly upset when John Lennon was murdered, although I do remember when it happened and still knew enough to be taken aback by it.) The other reason, if I’m to be completely honest, is that when I saw Paul in concert for the first time, the moment he stepped onto the stage, I burst into tears, just because… well, I mean, my God, I was getting to see and hear Beatles songs performed by an actual Beatle. If that’s how I react when he stepped onstage, you can only imagine what’s going to happen when I hear that he’ll never take it again.
Will makes a solid choice, and I catch a lot of flak for being a thirtysomething music lover who is still this into The Beatles. The cool kids grow out of Beatlemania at some point in adolescence, but I didn’t become well-versed in the Fab Four’s discography until I was 19 or 20 and using up all my college electives to take history of music classes. I was aware of several of the tunes that have become ubiquitous in the cultural lexicon—”Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” etc.—I just didn’t grow up on it. It wasn’t the music that was on constant rotation in my childhood home. (James Brown’s Star Time, on the other hand…) But two records that do seem as much a part of me as my very blood are The Jackson 5’s Greatest Hits album from 1971 (No, not Thriller. My parents were all about the Motown.) and Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life. I honestly couldn’t say what age I “discovered” those records; I was that young. To this day, Stevie Wonder’s 1976 double-LP masterpiece remains one of the albums I turn to when I’m going through some Serious Life Shit. And judging from the river of tears I shed during the Michael Jackson memorial, I expect that when Stevie Wonder is no longer among the living, I will be a wreck that day.
Seeing Saving Mr. Banks inspired me to re-watch Mary Poppins for the first time since childhood, which tapped me directly into a wellspring of atavistic childhood love for Julie Andrews that I’d all but forgotten. She’s one of the few living artists who really hooks into that Jim Henson place for me, that feeling of admiration and affection that goes beyond fandom and into “She feels like family.” Knowing she’ll probably never really sing again like she used to after her vocal-chord surgery was a huge blow, but at least she still turns up occasionally in random projects (like The Tooth Fairy, of all things) with that same old blend of wry, patrician sweetness. I can’t imagine a world without Julie Andrews. Hopefully, like Mary Poppins, she’s immortal.
I once wrote a series of brief essays on movie stars, and one of them was about Michael Caine. When I got to the end, I just wrote, “Someday, he will die. When that happens, everyone’s going to want to lose my phone number for a few weeks.” I still feel that way; I don’t know exactly what its effect will be on me, but it’ll be bad. Like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Caine is a great actor who never lets you catch him acting, who has just effortlessly inhabited a far greater number of roles than seems possible, ranging from the greatest, most approachable guy in the world, to the most despicable slimebag imaginable. When John Huston finally got to make his movie version of The Man Who Would Be King, which he’d long talked about wanting to do with Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, he paid Caine what a lot of us think of as the ultimate compliment any male movie actor could be paid: He cast him the role he’d wanted to see Bogart play. I’ve never been in the same room with Caine, but based on what I do know about him, the best compliment I can give him as a human being is that, if I ever embarrassed both of us by trying to explain to him what he’s meant to me, I think he’d be nice about it.
If you ever want to bring down the mood in any room, anywhere, no matter who’s in it, just say, “One day, Bill Murray will die.” Yes, every one of us manages to struggle through life with the certain knowledge of our own mortality hanging over us. But certain knowledge of Bill Murray’s mortality? Knowing that one day, he’ll no longer be crashing parties, drunk-driving golf carts, and ambushing fans by giving them noogies while declaring, “Your friends are never going to believe you!” Not to mention turning in wry, soulful work for Wes Anderson and whichever other directors manage to permeate his bubble of aloofness. One day Bill Murray will be gone. No amount of philosophy, religion, or compulsive re-watches of Groundhog Day will ever make that okay.
I feel horrible for even suggesting it’s possible, but I’m not sure how I’m going to cope if Patrick Stewart ever dies. Yes, he and Ian McKellen’s adorable Twitter photo campaign has been delightful and cute and happy (especially when you consider they’re at least partly promoting the pair’s production of Waiting For Godot), and Stewart’s cannily direct and abashedly goofy use of social media has made him into a sweet-old-man icon for millions; but it’s not just about silly pictures and one-armed push-ups. Having had the pleasure of watching and writing about every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I got a chance to experience just how much a great actor can encourage material and fellow performers to rise to his level; his turn as Captain Jean-Luc Picard is one of the all-time best TV performances ever, and it’s the sort of acting work that stays with you because it represents an ideal you’re almost ashamed to need. (Just watch the way he laughs near the end of “Tapestry” and tell me I’m wrong. I won’t believe you, but I’ll enjoy watching you try.) And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also his work as an advocate against domestic violence, speaking from personal experience about his own childhood exposure to abuse with a clarity and generosity that never fails to devastate me. He’s just a really good guy, and there are few enough of those on the ground lately. I hope he’s eating right.