In Memoriam

My Friend Jaren

I didn’t make many friends in college.

It wasn’t because I was antisocial or anything like that. The issue was that I was a commuter student. As soon as I was done with my classes for the day, I was in my little VW Rabbit with the sun roof open, blasting for home 25 miles away. That made it difficult to participate much in campus life or get to know anyone outside of class. Looking back, it’s a huge regret, one of about a hundred things I’d do differently if I had the chance.

Even with that self-imposed obstacle, though, there were a couple people I became close with during my five years at the University of Utah. A guy named Jaren Rencher, for one. He was probably the first friend I made beyond high school. We met our freshman year, way back in the fall of 1987, in a course titled “Intellectual Traditions of the West.” ITW, for short. It was kind of an introduction to philosophy, a survey of all the important thinking — the intellectual traditions, if you will — that have underpinned western civilization over the past 3000 years, everything from Plato to Henry David Thoreau to Sartre and Camus. I loved it, if for no other reason than it felt to me like what college was supposed to be like.

The class was held in a musty brick building on President’s Circle, the oldest part of the university campus, where the trees are all one hundred years old if they’re a day. It looks like Hollywood’s idealized vision of a college campus, a place where Indiana Jones would’ve taught in between expeditions. Our professor for ITW was an eccentric gentleman who favored a 1970s denim leisure suit and wraparound Terminator shades. He showed up on the first day of each academic quarter with his thick white hair closely cropped… and then as far as I could tell, he never cut or combed it again until after finals. Our fellow students were nearly as eccentric as the prof. There were a couple people I’d known in high school. There was the smarmy pale kid who’d already read all the texts and couldn’t wait to demonstrate how much smarter he was than everyone else. There was the brilliant but fragile girl from the small Idaho town who had gray eyes and wore moccasin boots year ’round. I liked her. I liked her a lot.

And there was Jaren.

I can’t remember how he and I became acquainted. The class was a nontraditional affair loosely modeled on the Socratic method; we all sat in a circle and discussed the reading for the week, rather than the prof lecturing and giving quizzes, and it’s possible one of those conversations just carried on outside the classroom. It’s equally likely I spotted him doodling the Starship Enterprise in his notebook margin and thought, “He’s like me!”

Jaren was my first true nerd friend, you see, and I say that with the utmost affection and an admission that I, too, am a colossal nerd. Oh, I’d had plenty of friends before who liked Star Wars and Star Trek and Monty Python and Buckaroo Banzai. But Jaren was different…. he was what we would now call a fanboy, in the best, nontoxic sense of that term, and he allowed me to express my own fanboy tendencies in a way that my earlier crew had not. With Jaren, I could talk about the minutiae of starship design or Klingon culture or whatnot and not worry that he wouldn’t know what I was talking about, or that he was going to think I wasn’t cool. Jaren had read Asimov and Heinlein and Burroughs; he laughed at Larry Niven’s “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” and he had seen — and liked! — Forbidden Planet. He was the sort who didn’t just play D&D but designed his own dungeons and painted his own miniatures. And yet… he wasn’t that kind of nerd, the unjustifiably arrogant, socially inept Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons type. Indeed, I remember the two of us rolling our eyes at another mutual acquaintance of the nerdish variety who just took it all too damn seriously. There’s a fine line, and unless you’ve ever encountered a CBG type, it’s difficult to explain just where that line is. But he and I were in the same place just this side of it, and the other kid was way the hell over on the other side.

Jaren went with me to my very first Star Trek convention, a one-day affair held at the airport Hilton back when these things were small and simple and most of all inexpensive. I have a photo from that day, the two of us looking impossibly young, both of us baby-faced, both of us clean-shaven — well, aside from the mustache I’d been hopefully encouraging since I was about 13 — and both of us also impossibly happy, giddy even, alongside Nichelle Nichols, the lovely actress who portrayed Uhura on the original series, my first celebrity encounter. I also remember, somewhat incongruously, that Jaren bought a small die-cast version of the Enterprise-D that day, the latest incarnation of the legendary starship as seen on the then-new Star Trek: The Next Generation. I wasn’t too sure about TNG in those days, and I remember mocking him a bit for his treason against the one, true Star Trek.

But you know how these things go. Jaren took a couple years off to go on a mission for the LDS Church, as young Mormon men do, and when he came back to school, we were in different places with our lives. Then I graduated and fell into a midlife crisis while he went on to law school. I lost touch with him. A couple decades slipped away.

Then came Facebook, which for all of its downsides and corrosive, disruptive effects is also in a very real way a small miracle. One idle afternoon as I scrolled through its endless vortex, I happened to think of Jaren and wonder what had become of him. I searched for his name. I found him and sent him a friend request, wondering if he even remembered me, and if so, how did he remember me, as a dick or a good guy or somewhere in between? The usual insecurities brought on by technological reunion. He did remember, and evidently the memory was a good one. We reconnected easily, picking up our old banter and nerdy stream-of-consciousness conversation as if it had never stopped.

We reunited in the flesh at the 2014 iteration of FanX, aka (in those pre-lawsuit days) Salt Lake Comic Con, and I have a photo from that day as well. We’re older and a lot more bedraggled than in the first photo, but no less giddy. I met his wife and family that day, and discovered that he’d managed to inculcate in his kids a love of all the cheesy old stuff that had brought the two of us together years before; I nearly cried when I heard his teenage daughter proclaim that she loved the ’78 Battlestar Galactica and the Peter Davison era of Doctor Who.

Sadly, though, the intervening years between ITW and FanX had also brought Jaren a lot of troubles: financial, career, and most ominously, with his health. I soon discovered that we had diabetes and high blood pressure in common as well as classic sci-fi shows, but in his case, the ‘betes had been a much crueler mistress than to myself. A little over a month ago, he lost his foot and part of a leg to the damn stuff.

I messaged him the night before the surgery, trying to bolster his spirits a little with bad jokes and companionable talk. I promised that, later in the summer, after he had healed and this damn coronavirus pandemic had settled, I’d come get him in my old Galaxie and take him for a ride, just the two of us like it’d been when we were 18 and immortal. I followed that with an animated GIF of the Millennium Falcon launching out of Mos Eisley. He replied with a snippet of dialog: “Chewie… we’re home.” My vision grew watery, and I imagine that somewhere, miles away in a hospital room, his did too.

His surgery went well, as did his rehab. He came home two weeks ago, just in time to welcome his Battlestar-loving daughter home from her LDS mission. All seemed well, and I was looking forward to taking him on that ride, maybe in another month or so.

And then last Saturday, my old college friend, my nerdish comrade-in-arms, a smart, funny, kind-hearted guy who had published a few short stories and never stopped encouraging me to pick up my own pen again… died. At home, surrounded by his family, completely unexpectedly. A phaser-blast out of the blue. He was just shy of 50 years old.

I can only speculate on the cause, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. I’ve spent the last week thinking about him. About the old days in ITW, how we both crushed on the girl in the moccasin boots and on Nichelle Nichols. About the long years we were out of touch, and how many times we talked about getting together since we reconnected, but somehow hadn’t gotten around to it. How I’d hoped to recreate that old photo with him and Nichelle when she appeared at FanX a couple years ago, but again, didn’t manage to make it happen. How I’d promised to take him for that ride. And also, rather incongruously, about that little die-cast Enterprise-D I used to give him hell about. I found myself wondering if he still had it. Is it sitting on his desk or in a bookcase right now? I’ve never been inside his home. And I wonder.

I am grateful that we were able to reconnect at all. But I will forever regret the twenty-five years we lost and my failure to make good on spending real face-to-face time with him once we were in touch again. You all know that story as well, because we all do it and we all regret it when something like this happens. I knew that story, learned that lesson, years ago. Life is short, time is precious, we shouldn’t let those opportunities get away from us. And yet…

And yet.

Just for the sake of posterity, here’s what I wrote on Facebook about an hour after I got the news… my first unfiltered, unedited thoughts:

Jaren K. Rencher, from Intellectual Traditions of the West our freshman year to meeting Nichelle together… from nerdy conversations about Trek and Red Dwarf and Monty Python to middle-aged grumbling about the cards we were dealt… lost for years until the wonder of Facebook and Salt Lake Comic Con put us back in touch… now lost again to the undiscovered country. Save me a place at the tavern, dungeonmaster.

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In Memoriam: Stan Kirsch

For most of my twenties, I was well-nigh obsessed with a television show called Highlander: The Series, which was a spin-off from the cult-favorite 1986 film about immortal warriors who live secretly among ordinary humans and can die only if their heads get cut off. If you think that sounds kind of ridiculous, well, I suppose I can’t blame you. I mean, the show is what it is: a relatively low-budget 1990s syndicated fantasy-action series that aired in the wee hours of the night, at least in the Salt Lake market. Looking back now, almost 22 years after the final episode, I have to acknowledge that it would probably be a tough sell to a modern viewer who’s not already a fan. Back in the day, though, I dearly loved it. Yes, I did.

As a young man trying to figure out who I was, I saw the kind of person I wanted to be in many of the show’s characters. Duncan MacLeod, the ancient Scottish Highlander of the title, and his immortal friends were confident, sophisticated, worldly. They traveled and read literature and knew about art and wine and whisky and food. They’d been everywhere and had friends and lovers — and enemies, as well, given the premise of the show — all over the place. They were equally at ease in an elegant chateau or a bare-brick industrial-style loft above a grimy martial-arts dojo. They hung out in a blues bar. They were cool.

And then there was Richie.

The character of Richie Ryan, played by a young actor named Stan Kirsch, was initially a sort of foster child for Duncan, a street kid that the immortal took under his wing and tried to teach how to become a better man. I think Richie was also intended to be a surrogate for the audience, an ordinary person who was naive to the existence of immortals until he chose the wrong home to try to rob, and then was drawn deeper and deeper into their world. Like a lot of young sidekick characters in TV of that era, Richie was occasionally hard to stomach. He was written as a smart aleck and could be something of a dork, and baby-faced Stan was never believably as tough as someone from Richie’s hardscrabble background would likely have been. (Maybe that was the point… a kid who acted like a tough guy and so visibly was not.) My own sense is that the showrunners weren’t quite sure what to do with him beyond a certain point. Richie was eventually revealed to be one of the immortals himself, whereupon he changed from Duncan’s child to an apprentice and then to a friend, if maybe not ever quite a peer. He gradually became less and less of a presence on the show, more a recurring character instead of a regular… and then, in a stunning development that was either audacious or boneheaded depending on your perspective, the character was killed off by Duncan MacLeod himself in the cliffhanger ending of the show’s fifth season.

The death of Richie Ryan divided Highlander fandom as thoroughly as anything that JJ Abrams or Rian Johnson ever did to Star Wars. I had just begun to explore the internet in those days, and I watched in amazement and dismay as the once-inviting Highlander message board I’d been hanging out on deteriorated into a vicious brawl between those who were fine with this latest plot twist and those who simply would not — could not! — accept it. The latter took to calling themselves Clan Denial, and somewhere in some distant corner of the World Wide Web, their cries of anguish and fury are probably still echoing. It was my first taste of the infighting that would eventually infect all fandoms in the internet age.

For my part, I thought killing Richie, at least in the manner in which it was done — i.e., at the hands of his friend, mentor, and father figure — was pretty shitty. I had never been a big partisan for the character so I wasn’t angry enough about it to go Clan Denial, but I didn’t like it, and I do think it was a factor in Highlander‘s rapid decline afterward. The show’s producers had made a mistake, and the abbreviated sixth season felt like it had a cloud hanging over it from the start. Richie — and Stan — returned for the final episode, which was a kind of riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, but, to use the modern parlance, the show had jumped the shark in a major way, and when I think back on the series now, I tend to think of it as ending before that tectonic fracture-point episode in which he was killed.

I realize I’m rambling a bit here… forgive me. I haven’t actually thought about a lot of this stuff in many years, and hearing the news last week that Stan Kirsch had died stirred up a lot of memories. Stan was only 51, just a year older than myself, and even though I was not particularly a fan of Richie — I was always drawn to Duncan, or to the mortal-but-very-cool Joe Dawson — I feel like I’ve lost a major piece of my past. I didn’t identify with Richie, but in some weird way, I find myself identifying with Stan. I just keep coming back to the closeness of our ages. He was the same age I am. And the show was such a huge part of my young adulthood, part of the whole mood and texture of that time in my life. In certain respects, it was more important to me at that time, more influential certainly, than my usual media obsessions, Star Trek and Star Wars. I was already a fan of it before I started dating Anne, but she liked the show as well and watching it together became one of our weekly rituals. I used to record the latest episode on VHS and then take the tape to her house. I remember one night when we ventured online together, possibly for the first time, looking to see if we could find anything related to the show in this new digital frontier we’d been hearing about, and the first thing we ran across was a trove of fanfiction… slash fiction, no less. We were equal parts shocked and amused by that stuff. And we even traveled to Los Angeles together to attend a farewell convention when the show wrapped production… our first convention together. We were pretty naive about the whole con scene at that time, and we utterly failed to meet most of the cast members who were there, including Stan, because we just weren’t sure how it was all supposed to work. We’ve since met Adrian Paul, who played Duncan, a number of times, often enough that I get the impression he actually recognizes our faces. But never Stan. And now we’ll never get that chance, and I feel a true, deep sense of regret about it. I just always assumed there would be time, you know? After all, we were both young enough…

I think what’s really bothering me is the fact that Stan died by suicide. I’ve seen speculation on social media that he may have been ill — some people who saw him at a convention last year say he was very thin — and of course there’s always talk about depression when someone takes their own life. But who really knows? Stan wasn’t in the public eye very much and I honestly don’t know much about him. I know that after Highlander, he guest-starred on several episodes of Friends, as well as NCIS and a couple other TV series. I know that he and his wife started an acting school a few years back and that it was evidently pretty successful. But that’s it, really. I’m sorry I don’t know more, and I’m sorry I never got around to meeting him in person. And when it comes down to it, I’m sorry that something had evidently gone wrong enough in his life or in his head that he ended up in that place.

When Highlander was first on the air, I was young enough that I really did feel immortal. There was plenty of time ahead to figure it all out and to do everything I wanted to do. I imagine Stan Kirsch felt the same way back then. So what the hell happened?

I’m feeling very mortal right now…

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Friday Evening Videos: “Think I’m in Love”

Eddie Money died this morning at the not-very-old age of 70. Variety has the most comprehensive obituary I’ve found, if you’d like to know more about him… and I confess, I really didn’t know much.

The truth is, I’ve always sort of taken Eddie for granted. I’ve never owned an album of his, and the one time I saw him live — back around 2000 or thereabouts, along with Styx and REO Speedwagon in one of the first “triple threat” shows I attended — I dismissed him as the worst act of the evening. Looking back, I feel bad about being so snotty.

See, the thing about Eddie Money that I didn’t credit him for 20 years ago is that he was a journeyman entertainer. Not a virtuoso, not a genius, not really at home in the pantheon of flashy, strutting rock-and-roll gods… he was just a hardworking guy from New York who was easy to picture in his former career as a police officer. Dedicated to the job, out there every damn day without fanfare, like somebody in one of those golden-lighted all-American Ford commercials, doing the work to keep the country moving. I appreciate that sort of thing a lot more now than I did when I was younger.

He started logging hit singles in the ’70s, and it’s been startling today while reading the various tributes to him to realize just how many hits he had, and how many of them I’ve liked over the years. I remember singing “Take Me Home Tonight,” his 1986 song with Ronnie Spector of The Ronnettes, during after-school rehearsals for the one and only play I appeared in, and feeling pretty damn superior because I knew who Ronnie Spector was while my fellow castmates thought she was only a backup singer. However, my favorite Money song is from a couple years earlier. “Think I’m in Love” was the first single from Eddie’s 1982 album No Control, and it slams my personal sweetspot hard: guitar heavy; a catchy, propulsive sound; a certain sense of drama but an overall upbeat tone… this is the kind of song that makes me want to put the car windows down and drive faster than I ought to. The song went to 16 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the video was a staple of MTV’s early playlists.

It is also kind of batshit insane. Which of course all the best early videos were.

Rest in peace, Eddie Money. I’m going to crank this up now and fill the crisp, early fall air with some good rock and roll…

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In Memoriam: Melvin Dummar

I’ve just learned of the passing of Melvin Dummar, the one-time Utah gas-station owner who claimed to have run across a hypothermic old man on a cold night in the Nevada desert and given him a lift to the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. You all know this story, or at least you ought to, as it truly is the stuff of urban legend: The old man supposedly was Howard Hughes, the reclusive billionaire, and not long after Hughes’ death in 1976, a handwritten will turned up that named Dummar as one of the inheritors of Hughes’ immense fortune, in gratitude for his act of kindness. Sadly, a probate court determined the “Mormon Will” — so-called because it also named the Mormon Church as a beneficiary — was a fake, and Dummar spent the rest of his life drifting from job to job, and place to place, trying to live down his reputation as either one of the most inept forgers in history or a complete crank. He eventually landed in Pahrump, a town on the Nevada/California border not far from Vegas, where he died last Saturday at the age of 74.

I’ve written about Dummar on this blog a number of times. He was something of a legend in these parts when I was a kid… if not exactly a hometown hero, at least a local character. One of ours, if that makes sense. But in addition to the local-interest angle, I’ve always been drawn to tales of the little guy standing up to the establishment, and Dummar’s tale fit perfectly into that category that includes pirates, eccentrics, and renegades of all stripes. The fact that the establishment crushed the little guy in this particular tale only made it all the more compelling for me. And it probably doesn’t hurt that Paul LeMat, the actor who played Dummar in the 1980 film Melvin and Howard, has always reminded me of my dad.

For what it’s worth, I believe Dummar’s story.

Not just that he gave Howard a lift, but I also believe that the Mormon Will was the real deal, likely one of many that Howard produced toward the end of his life as drugs, mental illness, and neglect took their toll on him. I further believe that Hughes’ inner circle of advisors, bodyguards, lawyers, and sycophants took advantage of their boss’ mental condition to fatten their own wallets, that they were responsible for the appalling conditions in which he evidently spent his final years, and that they weren’t about to allow any gas-station attendant from Willard, Utah, to have a slice of their pie. In my opinion, they pulled out all the stops to discredit Dummar and the will, and sadly, Dummar helped them through several naive blunders of his own. This is all far more into the realm of conspiracy theory than I usually like to venture… but it is what I am convinced of. The tale of Melvin Dummar is a tragedy, in my opinion, a rags-to-riches story that would’ve been the end-all, be-all of that genre if it hadn’t been strangled in the crib by a gang of craven villains.

Not that any of it matters now, forty years down the road. And not that we’ll ever really know, since everyone who was there is now dead. I only hope that Melvin Dummar had found some peace of mind in the end.

Howard Hughes and Melvin Dummar, both pictured in their younger days.

 

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In Memoriam: Stephen Hawking

In the summer of 1993, I was in England, playing the role of student at the University of Cambridge. I lived in one of the historic colleges, I punted the Cam, I rode a bicycle through the grassy parkland known as The Backs, and of course, I downed quite a few pints of Guinness in smoky waterside pubs. But there was one quintessential Cambridge experience I never managed to check off my list: meeting Professor Stephen Hawking. He evidently lived somewhere near Selwyn College, my home-away-from-home for the duration of the International Summer School program, because several of my housemates reported encountering him on the street. But I never did. Not once during the month I was there did I so much as catch a glimpse of the famous physicist.

I’ll be honest, my desire to cross paths with him was, in part, simply because he was a celebrity. Hawking had been a household name for several years at that point, ever since the publicity around his bestselling book A Brief History of Time had made his face and his Cylon-like electronic voice as familiar as any movie star’s. But that wasn’t the only reason why I felt drawn to him.

The bigger piece of the puzzle is a little difficult to explain, or perhaps it’s only difficult for me to talk about. You see, the illness that Hawking suffered from, the thing that put him in that wheelchair and took away his natural speech, was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It’s the same degenerative nerve disorder that took the life of my dad’s brother. (He died, coincidentally, around the same time that A Brief History was published.) But while my uncle Lou lasted only two years after his diagnosis — entirely typical for ALS patients — Hawking lived with it for 55 years. Somehow, his body tamed the demon that killed my uncle. And that’s always fascinated me. I saw Louie every time I looked at Hawking: the withered body, the slumped head, the spastic flicker of a smile, even the sheen of drool around his mouth… the exact same effects that ALS had had on my uncle. Except… while my uncle died, Hawking lived. Some people might have felt resentment toward Hawking because of that; I never did, at least not that I can recall now. But I did feel a weird sense of connection with him. This man from an entirely different background, who would have had nothing in common with my blue-collar family, nevertheless felt like some kind of kin. And I wanted to meet him. I have no idea what I would’ve said to him if I had, but that was beside the point. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

A few years after my Cambridge sojourn, Hawking came to Salt Lake City to deliver a lecture. I attended, of course; I think half the valley’s population was there. It was held not in a lecture hall or even an auditorium, but in a sports arena. The title was something along the lines of “Does God Play Dice with the Universe?,” and I won’t pretend that I understood much of it. But again, that wasn’t the point. The point was to be in the same space with him, and to watch him. He didn’t move much, and of course his synthetic voice was essentially prerecorded. And yet he was compelling, even charismatic, in his stillness. I learned this week that an old girlfriend of mine met him after the lecture; another near-miss for me, like something out of a farce where the characters keep going through opposite doorways and around the same pillar.

Hawking probably would’ve enjoyed that image. By all accounts, he had a mischievous sense of humor, which he displayed in numerous TV cameos, starting with the memorable poker game he played with Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein in a holodeck fantasy on Star Trek: The Next Generation; through appearances in cartoon form on The Simpsons and Futurama; and finally the no-less-than seven guest shots he’s done for The Big Bang Theory. I loved these latter appearances especially. It cracked me up whenever Hawking would zing a one-liner past the uptight Sheldon Cooper and then flash an enormous grin of satisfaction. And yet… even when Hawking was smiling, I could see something in his eyes, the same haunted look I remember in my uncle Louie’s eyes. Maybe it was just my imagination, a projection of old hurts brought to the surface by Hawking’s reminding me of an ordeal I’ve never really gotten past. Perhaps it was a trick of the disease, some kind of physiological change wrought by ALS that suggests a particular emotional state that may or may not have been true. Or maybe, just maybe… in spite of all the things he accomplished with his mind, all the worldly success and fame, maybe there was still a part of Stephen Hawking that was beating against the iron cage of his own wasted body.

You’ve no doubt heard by now that Hawking died early Wednesday morning at his home in Cambridge. He was 76. Against all the odds, he lived out a normal lifespan in spite of having a far-from-normal life. Professor Hawking did not believe in God or an afterlife, and I won’t disrespect him with any well-intentioned sentiments to the contrary. The truth is, I’m not so sure about those things myself. But I will say that even if his actual consciousness dissolved like dew in the morning sunlight, at least some bit of that enormous intellect endures in his books, and more importantly in his work that scientists to come will build upon.

I never met Stephen Hawking, as I once hoped to do. But I guess it’s about time I got around to reading A Brief History of Time

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Friday Evening Videos: “Dreams”

I’ve built quite a persona for myself over the years as a musical curmudgeon: defender all things ’80s, grunge heretic, “Mr. Classic Rock.” If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know the drill. But while I can’t deny that I found less and less of the new music coming out during the 1990s to my liking, it is untrue that I didn’t like any of it. There were songs in that era that managed to catch my fancy.

Two of those were early hits by an Irish band called The Cranberries, although I honestly couldn’t have told you who performed them prior to this week. I know the band’s name now, of course, because of the sad, untimely death on Monday of their lead singer Dolores O’Riordan. As of this writing, there still hasn’t been any official cause of death released to the public. All we really know is that she died in a London hotel room at the age of 46.

It’s funny… I haven’t thought about either “Linger” or “Dreams” in years, but I’ve had both of them on constant repeat all week. They both summon up a kind of sense memory of my young adulthood… no specific associations, but rather just the way it felt to be in my early twenties in the early ’90s. “Linger” was the bigger hit, but somehow it’s “Dreams” that resonates the most strongly for me. The song was the band’s first single, originally released to little attention in 1992, only to become a top-15 hit in 1994 after “Linger” cleared the way. Listening to it today, I can recall how my body felt before all the hinges started to squeak, and in O’Riordan’s clear, girlish voice I hear all the yearning and hope and certainty that used to live in my own heart. Maybe that’s why the death of a woman whose face and name I didn’t know has shaken me so hard… well, that and her age, just two years younger than myself. The same age as my lovely Anne. And the fact that, as far as the public knows she simply dropped dead. She was on the eve of recording new music, a mother of three, reportedly feeling good about her life and with a lot.of living yet to go… and then she’s gone.

I’ve reached the age where you just never know. And I am as haunted by that as I’ve ever been by hazy nostalgia. Coming from me, that’s saying something.

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Friday Evening Videos: “Learning to Fly” (RIP, Tom Petty)

Just between you and me, the sudden, shocking death of Tom Petty earlier this week sent me into a deep funk.

I’m sure it didn’t help that I was already upset about the bloodbath in Las Vegas the night before the news about Petty broke. But even so, seeing the initial report that he’d been found in full cardiac arrest a mere week after the triumphant finish of what he’d been saying would be his final tour… it hit me like a piledriver to the solar plexus and I’m still trying to find my breath.

What surprises me about my reaction is that I’ve only ever thought of myself as a casual, “greatest-hits” level fan. Hell, for a long time, I didn’t even have a clear idea of who Tom Petty was, other than the skinny blond dude in that really messed-up “Alice in Wonderland”-themed MTV video. But then came The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1, the collaborative project he did with Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne. I adored the Wilburys. Then came Full Moon Fever, his first solo album without his usual band, the Heartbreakers, and I adored that, too. And then I heard “American Girl” in the film The Silence of the Lambs, of all places, and decided I needed to check out this guy’s back catalog, whereupon I realized that I really did know quite a lot of Tom Petty’s work after all, and I liked what I’d heard. Like Springsteen and Mellencamp, he had a knack for capturing a particular flavor of everyday American life that I strongly related to. For whatever reason, though, I’ve just never explored his oeuvre beyond the radio hits. Hence, my feeling of being a casual fan at best.

Nevertheless, there are two Tom Petty songs that are very important to me, both of which just happened to come along right when I most needed to hear them, and I think it’s because of the personal meaning attached to those two songs that I’m feeling his death so keenly.

The first was “Free Fallin’,” the third single from Full Moon Fever and one of Tom’s biggest hits. It was released in the fall of 1989 and peaked on the charts in January of ’90. As fate would have it, I was experiencing my first big heartbreak during that period, and while there were many songs that spoke to me around that time, it’s “Free Fallin'” that I remember playing over and over. Its mood, if not its actual lyrics, reflected my emotional state almost perfectly: a melancholy stew of loss, regret, guilt, and most of all, the gnawing, inescapable truth that there wasn’t a damn thing I could have done to prevent any of it. You might think that listening to a song that reminded me of all that would be masochistic under the circumstances, and I suppose it was, to a degree. But weirdly, it also brought me some comfort to know that I wasn’t the only person who’d ever experienced these feelings. Without being too dramatic about it, I credit this song with keeping me sane during that time.

A year and a half later, I was still trying to pick up the emotional pieces — hey, what can I say, I’ve always been slow to get over stuff — when Tom Petty got back together with the Heartbreakers for the album Into the Great Wide Open. The first single from that one was “Learning to Fly.” And again, somehow, improbably if not impossibly, this tune by a guy 20 years my senior managed to capture exactly what I was going through. I hear in it the weary but hopeful voice of someone who’s been in a tailspin but is now beginning to pull out of it and face the world again, just like I was in the summer of 1991. I still like “Free Fallin’,” but it no longer resonates with me so much. “Learning to Fly” does, because that’s how I still feel at any given time. Like a battered survivor who’s still trying to sort things out. I think maybe I feel that way more now at the age of 48 than I ever have. And so of course that’s the one I must post this week, in honor of a fallen troubadour who meant a lot more to me than I ever realized while he was still here.

I was going to post the official video, but then I spotted this clip, recorded at a concert 12 years ago. It’s the perfect farewell, in so many ways. The slower, more meditative pacing, the audience calling back to him in one of those moments of transcendence you sometimes experience at concerts with your long-time heroes… and yes, that is my beloved rock goddess Stevie Nicks singing backup. She and Petty were friends and occasional collaborators for 40 years. She’s even said she almost joined the Heartbreakers when Fleetwood Mac started going south; instead, she forged a solo career with Tom frequently lending his talents on songs like “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” I can only imagine what she’s been going through this week… and thinking of it makes me all the more sad.

One final thought: Tom Petty was one of the last remaining names on my wishlist of artists I’d like to see in concert. I never got the chance, and I’m going to regret that for a long time. Even worse, though, Tom’s passing is a reminder that my rock-and-roll imaginary friends are getting old. Realistically they’re not going to be out there on the road for very much longer, and then some time after that, they’re not going to be out there at all. And once they’ve all gone… how old will I feel myself? What happens when you outlive the heroes of your youth?

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Friday Evening Videos: “Rhinestone Cowboy”

When Glen Campbell died earlier this week, I wrote on Facebook that there was a lot more to his career than just “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and indeed that’s true. He wore a lot of hats during the course of his 50-year career in the entertainment industry: He was a session musician on a mind-boggling number of recordings during the ’60s; he filled in for Brian Wilson on tour when the leader of the Beach Boys had a nervous breakdown; as a solo artist, he recorded and released some 67 albums; he hosted four seasons of a television variety show that bore his name; and he even tried his hand at acting, appearing alongside no less a star than John Wayne in the original True Grit. In spite of all those achievements, though, the vast majority of the obituaries and retrospectives I saw this week somehow managed to reference “Rhinestone” in their headlines. But you know what? As legacies go, that song is a pretty damn good one.

Released in 1975 as a standalone single (as opposed to a track from an album), Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” was a cover of a song written and recorded a year earlier by a guy named Larry Weiss. Weiss’ recording didn’t make much of an splash, but Campbell’s certainly did, rising to the number-one spot on both the country and pop charts, and ending the year as Billboard‘s number-two single of ’75. It also scored highly on a number of international charts and, with its laid-back-but-not-too-twangy sound, it helped usher in a new sub-genre of country/pop crossover music that would peak in the early ’80s with hitmakers like Alabama, Juice Newton, Eddie Rabbitt, and Kenny Rogers. “Rhinestone” is also one of a handful of songs — including Mac Davis’ “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown,” and Elvis Presley’s “Kentucky Rain” — that are capable of instantly catapulting me back to my early childhood… back to a time when my hometown was more hay fields than housing developments, and just about the best thing in the whole wide world was riding with my mom in her ’56 Ford pickup, watching the sundogs pivot off the curve of the truck’s enormous windshield as we carried a midday snack of Fanta red-cream soda and raspberry Zingers to my dad…

Although I tend to think of music videos not really existing prior to the advent of MTV in 1981, there is a ’70s-vintage video for “Rhinestone Cowboy.” It’s pretty simplistic compared to what the rock artists would be doing less than a decade later, but its visuals evoke the feeling of my childhood memories as strongly as the notes of the song itself do. That road that Glen is walking alongside could easily have been one of the ones my mom and I drove down in her ’56, and the way he’s dressed reminds me of my dad and my Uncle Louie when they were young and strong.

After all the crazy headlines of this past week, I really like the idea of going back to 1975, if only for three minutes and ten seconds. As for Glen Campbell’s passing, well… he’s free now to walk any street and sing his song forever. I’m glad he’s at peace after his long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

 

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Friday Evening Videos: “I’m No Angel”

When I was a young man, I went through a phase that I imagine a lot of young men experience, a time when I was desperately trying to be a bad boy. You know the type, the misunderstood outlaw with a sensitive side, just like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or, to reference something a bit more relevant to my generation, Bender in The Breakfast Club.

Of course, I wasn’t really bad at all (which, come to think of it, is probably true of most of the young men people believe to be bad boys). In fact, I was pretty goody-goody if I’m being honest about it. I never broke any laws, aside from occasionally speeding in my big old Ford Galaxie. I didn’t get into fights or vandalize things. I didn’t do drugs, and I never touched alcohol until my 21st birthday, if you can believe that. I went to my classes every day and I pulled mostly A grades, high school and college both. But growing up in strait-laced Utah, at least when I did it back in the ’80s, it wasn’t too hard to gain a reputation. Don’t go to church, listen to the wrong kinds of music, have a naughty sense of humor and an earthy vocabulary, wear your hair a little long in the back and cultivate some facial hair… oh, and of course, drive a big old Ford Galaxie. They had roomy back seats, you know. I was very well aware that fathers cringed when I arrived to pick up their daughters, and I loved that. In my mind’s eye, I was a heartbreaker, a dashing highwayman, a love-em-and-leave-em renegade with an irresistible smile and a mission to claim another sweet young thing before the night was over, a real scoundrel. I know at least one of the girls I dated saw right through all that nonsense — probably they all did — but their fathers didn’t, and more importantly… I didn’t. For a time, I really believed that’s who I was. And I liked that guy. I miss him sometimes, now that I’m old and settled.

Around that general time period, Gregg Allman, who was a notorious bad boy himself, released an album called I’m No Angel. Allman was legendary for his work with the Allman Brothers Band, a seminal Southern rock band of the 1970s, but his solo career had been far less successful, so it was a bit of a surprise when this new album’s title track — originally recorded by Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers five years earlier — hit number one on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart in the third week of March 1987. I was a senior in high school then, cruising the last couple months toward graduation day with all the credits I needed, and a lot more interest in immediate pleasures than trying to figure out my future. The bluesy-country sound of “I’m No Angel,” and lyrics that spoke of a man both dangerous and endearing, clicked perfectly with the image I was trying to cultivate, and I adopted the tune as my personal theme song for that long spring and the summer that followed. I remember singing it to that girl I mentioned, the one who saw through me, one hot and sunny afternoon in the roomy back seat of my Galaxie…

I don’t remember ever seeing the video for “I’m No Angel” back then. It’s pretty silly stuff, typical of late-80s MTV after the initial surge of excitement for the new medium had worn thin. I think Allman looks a bit embarrassed to be in it, and it’s telling that his official YouTube channel doesn’t include it (although there is a nifty live version of the song from 2015 that’s worth checking out). Nevertheless, I present it here as a memento of a time in my life that I still think about more often than I probably ought to at my age:

If you haven’t heard, Gregg Allman died a week ago at the age of 69. A friend of mine commented on Facebook that she’d once worked with him briefly. She didn’t get to know him well, but her impression was that he was “a really gentle soul interested in primarily two things: music and women.” Sounds a lot like that young highwayman I used to know. Rest in peace, Gregg.

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Carrie, Again

The official Star Wars Celebration convention is currently underway in Orlando. I’m sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when they played this:

Watching this, I fell in love with her all over again, from that first sweet “Hi.” Then I had my heart broken yet again with the montage of her reciting the “Help me, Obi Wan” speech through the years.

I often feel genuine sorrow when celebrities I admire or whose work is important to me pass on, but I can’t remember mourning any of them as intensely as I have mourned Carrie Fisher. Not even Leonard Nimoy, and his death hurt. But Carrie — and her alter-ego, of course — really did feel, well, real to me. As real as the girl I had a crush on in middle school, as real as that beloved aunt who had such an outsized spirit you couldn’t help but want to hang around her.

Rest in peace, my princess. I’m grateful we still have your movies, and your words.

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