My father passed away unexpectedly two years ago. He was too young to go and it took everyone by surprise. A myriad of tributes and emotions rolled through everyone he knew. From his buddies toasting him with cold beer, to the old ladies singing gospel hymns and dropping covered dish dinners off at the house, to me driving his truck through the backroads of each of our youthful adventures, old stories told by my buddies who viewed him as a second father. My dad’s sphere of influence was local, but impactful.
I was sent back to that place with the unexpected passing of one of my musical heroes, Chris Cornell, last week. We as humans cycle through everything so much faster these days. I was in a state of shock and sadness for well over 24 hours before I entered an angry space that could best be described as ornery and cranky. In the midst of that 24-48 hour span, many musicians from all genres began paying respect to Cornell via well wishes, thoughts, photos, posts and yes, even cover versions of his songs.
I haven’t been on this planet very long, but long enough to experience sorrow at different levels. As a kid, the first death that shook me was that of my grandfather on my mom’s side. I was a freshman in high school. It was the first time I’d been close to someone who passed on. An eye opening experience on many levels. Sophomore year, two juniors from my high school including one I grew up playing little league with and sat next to in Chemistry, perished in a violent car crash on Highway 84 on the way to go fishing. That was my first time going through grief on a large scale. An entire community mourned at once. I saw people doing things I felt were strange or odd or even attention seeking. Some smart grownups at the time helped me understand that everyone processes things differently and reacts in ways we can’t understand. I learned a lot about grief during that week that our entire school shut down twice for two different funerals. And, I haven’t picked up a fishing pole or driven east on 84 without thinking of that time since.
Around that same time period, Kurt Cobain took an exit from earth via shotgun blast. I’d heard my parents discuss JFK, Elvis and John Lennon…and now I knew what that felt like. I’ll never forget the crying, cherub faced pocked with acne teenaged girl that burst into my Algebra II class to interrupt the teacher and loudly pronounce to the entire class “He’s gone!” “Kurt is gone forever (loud sobbing)!” I’m an old, so this was pre cell phone and early internet. We fired up the old MacII’s in the corner of the room to read rudimentary Geocities type reports on the silencing of our generation’s de facto spokesperson. Some people in the room were silent. Some were crying. Some were talking in hushed tones. One even began banging out drum beats on his desk using the chrome book holder as a cymbal and humming Nirvana songs. Yet, the ones that stood out were the four in the corner laughing and making jokes about it. Literally minutes after it happened. Another lesson in how different things mean different things to different people. Some cared, some didn’t…but everyone reacted in their own personal way.
When I was just a young post-grad pup finding my way in the world of life and music, my closest running buddy for a time was a guy named Trinity. An ex-Marine with the best laugh I’ve ever heard and a devil may care attitude. I wrote about the entire relationship here, but this is the pertinent excerpt.
The last time I saw Trinity was Thursday June 26, 2003. We met at George’s and pumped the jukebox with quarters. While the rest of us were pounding Big O’s down like 22 year olds are wont to do. Trinity refrained. Said he was tired. He stuck it out with us until last call then said he better get home. Trinity never made it home. He fell asleep at the wheel on a curvy Farm to Market road by his house that he’d driven hundreds of times. I remember many vivid details about that night and the ensuing hours and they are too personal to share here. But, I do want to share that the last song we played on the jukebox that night at George’s was “Goodnight Moon”. One last time. I can’t hear that song to this day without thinking of my old friend and having some tears meet my eyes.
The aftermath of Trinity’s death was a mishmash of emotions and people and a blur of reactions. Another scar on my heart and a lesson learned.
I was standing in the studio of Shooter FM when I learned that Merle Haggard had passed away. I held it together while on air with Jennifer Allen, then went to my truck, cranked “Sing Me Back Home” and wept. I had just pulled into the fields of Melody Mountain Ranch when I got a text about Prince’s passing. I stumbled straight into John Dempsy by happen-chance. We grabbed beers, sat in his car and cranked “Purple Rain”. That night Reckless Kelly sang it onstage.
Last Thursday, I woke up to a flurry of text messages. The first one I was able to thumb to while rubbing my eyes was from a close friend and it just said “Cornell. Damn.”
I knew immediately. I had a fleeting thought that maybe he’d done some sort of cool performance that I’d missed or something. But, I knew. Then, I read through the other texts. They were all similar. Another hero gone. Another mourning process to begin. As Thursday wore on and the rumors swirled, tributes began pouring in from people of all types. Musicians, fans, writers, humans. Some were sweet. Some were angry. Some were funny.
Some were musical.
With posthaste, some of the musical tributes were called out as “opportunistic”. “They’re just trying to get their name out there off Cornell.” Two of the most popular tributes that have emerged featured Ryan Adams and Cody Jinks. Two artists who assuredly don’t need any help “getting their name out there”. I learned a long time ago not to judge the way people mourn. I sincerely understand where people making those accusations are coming from, I just happen to disagree. The great philosopher, Dalton from Road House once said “Opinions vary.” Indeed they do. And so do reactive emotions. If you’re a singer and one of your heroes dies and you want to pay tribute by covering one of their tunes do it. If you’re a singer and think it’s tacky to cover one of your heroes songs then don’t. But, how about we let each other do it the way we feel is best without any snide comments. These types of tributes have always happened…we just all now have tiny supercomputers in our pockets to document them all immediately. The internet is ugly enough as it is. Death is difficult.
Earlier, I mentioned the fact that we cycle grief so much faster these days. Everything is sudden and immediate and processed before the next day’s news cycle. We also have super computers in our pockets capable of sharing each thought, whim and moment we care to put out there. Nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong…but it’d be cool if we could all get along without being so hipster we judge the way people pay respect.
My dad’s birthday was on Friday. Yesterday, I took my kids out to his grave. We replaced the flowers in front of his headstone and they were full of questions. Once the task was finished they asked if they could take a picture with their hard work. Before I could instruct them not to climb on top of a headstone like it was a jungle gym, they’d mounted themselves on top of my dad’s marker..with the biggest smiles you can imagine. I snapped a few pics and they were so excited. When we got in the truck to leave…they waved and said “Bye Pawpaw!” What was a task I was dreading and down about, they’d made something memorable and fun. Something I’ll always cherish. They’ll cherish that photo of them perched on a headstone later on too. I posted it on my personal social media account because I thought it was cute and emblematic of the ways we all grieve. I’m sure some folks thought it was strange or not respectful…but I can say that nobody has commented or messaged as such.
This morning we lost George Reiff. (ed. note–and after this was published, we lost Jimmy LaFave too). I’m sure there will be a flood of tributes, memories and thoughts. However they materialize, I hope we give the grieving space to do so of their own accord.
The next time we all go through passing of an icon that means so much to so many…it is my hope that we all let them do what they want to do. If they post a cover song of that hero and you think it’s “too soon” or not sincere…please just ignore it. And, if you think it’s cool, please share it. The lesson here is let’s just all leave each other be. The judgmental nature of modern society is hard enough among the living without us judging the dead. And with that, I’m off to drive east on 84 with a fishing pole as “I Am the Highway” blares.