Crawling through a snowstruck commute this morning, I was at least happy to see that my favorite Christmas light display has returned. (Which means, soon it'll be time for the hap- hap- happiest Christmas since – well, in a long time.)
I’m not of the Heath Ledger generation. And the only bit of his work I’m familiar with is what I’ve seen in The Dark Knight movie trailers – but that was enough, I’ll admit, to get me really psyched about the movie, which is saying something because I haven’t even seen Batman Begins.
That said, his death last week got me and my wife and my friends talking a little bit about celebrities dying young. Ledger’s passing didn’t really hit any of us beyond the "wow, that’s sad" factor , but my friend Adam mentioned that an early-twenties person in his office was absolutely devastated.
So Jenn and I were talking that night about artist/musician/actor deaths that really gave us that gut-punch feeling. She mentioned George Harrison, and I do remember how sad she was when he died. Her parents were big Beatles fans and she’s always had a soft spot for the quiet one.
Next day, Adam and I had a similar conversation – to him, Ledger brought back the memories of River Phoenix, someone our generation sort of grew up with on film.
It’s weird, but I keep coming back to the week in April, 1994 when Kurt Cobain died. Not in a "Wow, his art really impacted my life" kind of way, but because that week came during a period of so many personal upheavals in terms of where my life was and where it was going.
For starters, Cobain died the same week a college friend of mine was killed. Their deaths are always linked in my mind, and I can’t untangle the surrounding days. I lived in Florida, and I got the news about my friend on a Saturday – I know because I just went back and checked my journals – the same Saturday that the news was breaking about Cobain, whose body had been discovered the day before. I made a nineteen-hour drive back to Ohio for a Monday funeral and was back in Florida again by Tuesday. Now, for years, I have sworn that I heard the news about Cobain after I got back. And that may be true. But for that to be right, it means the news – and it was BIG news – had to have eluded me for three solid days, which seems practically impossible these days, but now that I think about it, if you figure I was in a car listening to my Star Wars Radio Dramas and still kind of in shock about my friend, I guess it’s not that far-fetched.
At any rate – that’s the first reason Cobain’s death seems to have left an impact. Beyond that are issues that are tougher to describe: I was coming off a horrible long-term relationship, yet I’d also started dating Jenn. I was getting back in touch with people who had been extremely important in my life yet whom I had alienated while in that horrible relationship. (They will never know how much it means to me that they welcomed me back into their lives.) I had just started the new job which finally put me in my chosen career field and brought me permanently out of my post-college fast-food and line-cook world. (Though sometimes I wish I could still make a stromboli from scratch.)
Thing is, I associate Cobain and Nirvana with that entire span, from the best of my final years at Bowling Green State University through the worst and darkest times of my life when I lost my dad and turned my back on my friends and family, and on to the reconciliations and good times that came (not soon enough) after. I still have a promotional CD single of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that came to my roommate, the metal director at our college radio station, during a fantastic summer – the first time I lived in an apartment away from home. Over the next couple years, when I was miserable (which was often), "Nevermind" was there. And when I met Jenn working in a McDonald’s in Orlando, we used to sing "Heart Shaped Box" from "In Utero" while slinging Egg McMuffins. (Okay, so we’d sing it while impersonating Fred Schneider. It’s still a Nirvana memory.)
I honestly don’t know if there’s a celebrity out there who’s passing will stick with me like that again. Don’t get me wrong: When George Lucas goes, it’ll hit me; Ray Bradbury, too. But while those are guys who’ve shaped who I am, they’re also of a different generation. People my age? If Kevin Smith died unexpectedly, yeah, I think that’d hurt. Wil Wheaton, too, because of the writing he’s done over the past few years and because "Stand By Me" is one of the best movies ever. I guess those are guys I kind of feel like I "know," even though I don’t, really. (Still – Kevin, Wil, look both ways when you cross the street, OK? It’s cool having you around.)
And maybe that’s another part of it: Maybe I’ve reached an age where it’s harder to be impacted by the death of someone I don’t know, simply because as we get older, odds are death’s going to hit closer to home sooner rather than later.