Long before I heard the song American Pie – and way before a block of lyrics like helter skelter in a summer swelter would end up making any sort of real sense to me – my father told me the story of Buddy Holly’s death. Six foot four inches tall, towering over everyone with not just his height but with his fill-the-room essence, I had a hard time imagining my father ever crying, but I vividly recall sitting beside him when I was not yet six years old, the two of us on the black and white patterned sofa in our sunken den where the fires he built raged throughout the winter, and he described breaking down into racking sobs on the grey day when he was young and he heard that his hero was gone.
I was raised on Buddy Holly’s music and I love it still. Ours was a house where music was a constant. There was always a record playing, always a request for my sister or me to go flip it over to the other side, always an added “Do it carefully, Tuffy!” if I was the one asked to flip the thing because I was an often unfocused child who would brazenly lay my dirty paws all over a record’s surface and end up scratching it by mistake. (What can I say? I was just a messy kid and all those heightened memories of my mother hauling around a bottle of bleach in my formative years very much contribute to why I won’t even allow myself to purchase a white couch now.) Super Friends and The Smurfs ruled our boxy television on Saturday mornings back when I was a child, but the sounds coming out of the den on all the other days were sounds of Springsteen, of Adam Ant, of Blondie, and I would always smile when my father chose to play some Buddy Holly. What I think I liked about Buddy Holly from the start was the way his voice sounded gentle, like he was a wind chime turned human being, much the way that one Super Friend could turn himself into an eagle and then carry his made-of-ice sibling in his sharp talons so they could go fight crime. But Buddy Holly? He seemed like he’d never perpetrate a crime, not even jaywalking. He was physically unthreatening – so unlike the members of Kiss, whose makeup haunted me until I reached adolescence – and his music sounded like the stars twinkling and I loved his glasses and the curls of his hair. All of it was so clearly of another time and, even as a child, I suppose I was curious about any form of time travel.
Putting on a Buddy Holly album felt like climbing into a DeLorean.
Appreciative of melody mixed with a shot of genius, my father was a Buddy Holly fan from the start, a fan of rock n’ roll in general. Blessed with a photographic memory when it came to the things that truly mattered – music, movies, literature, and how to cut to the front of most of the lines in Disney World – he was able to name a song by just its opening note. Many of my favorite times with him were in the car, the two of us listening to a fifties station where there was a weekly show called The Doo Wop Shop With Don K Reed. Like the name of that student I had long ago who was so evil that simply a glance at him made me wonder if it was just best that I get my tubes tied so whatever future offspring I might shoot out wouldn’t have to coexist in a world with such a piece of undiluted shit, the name of that Sunday night radio show will probably always live in the forefront of my mind. I think many of us believe for a long time that our parents are brilliant, and I know I thought that of my father. His intelligence just always mattered to me. I loved that, as a Professor, he was sort of officially deemed an expert about certain things, and I loved even more that what he was an expert in was the stuff I was beginning to realize would loom as paramount in my life. I feel lucky to have grown up with a person who taught me that art matters, and I feel luckier still that rock music and movies were considered art in my home. I was never told to turn my music down, not even when I reached my middle school pseudo-metal days and that music was made by a band called Ratt. I never had a parent look at me strangely for watching the same movie seventeen times and then quoting it at the dinner table. When the TV Guide arrived with the Sunday paper, nobody rolled their eyes when I sat quietly with a highlighter and patiently paged through the booklet so I could set up my VCR for the week to tape every movie I dreamed of finally seeing or having for my very own. There’s just a value in that, in being seen, in being understood. Yes, there was divorce and eventually death weaved its ugly way into my history, but there was a lot of good also and those tinkly opening notes of Everyday always make me remember that.
As my father told me about the plane crash that killed his Rock Gods on a day long ago, I could feel his still-palpable sadness. What he communicated to me that day was not a fear of flying or that death was imminent and everywhere. Instead, I walked away from that conversation understanding more about how my father wasn’t only strong. No, he had layers, and one of those layers was made up of all the events involving loss he’d had to deal with during the years before he was a father. His stories about the life he had before he had me captivated me, and I’m almost certain that it was the way I’d always chosen to see him as a person and not just as a father that allowed me to mourn his eventual death in as healthy a manner as could be mustered by a grief-stricken fourteen year old. I just felt like I knew him – the whole him – and there was something about that distinction that brought me a bit of comfort in a time ruled by confusion and the feeling that the walls might very well actually be closing in on me. But as far as the loss he felt when Buddy Holly died, I think it was the knowledge that someone so young was gone forever, that so much potential had been so cruelly vanquished, that all of it could have been fully avoidable, and that his idol would forever be suspended in the cultural landscape as a somewhat tragic figure when he could and should have been so much more.
My own first real loss of a hero came when I lost my father and the pain was scorching, the shock of it all probably somewhat responsible for me continuing to move forward because I was running only on instinct then, along with all the chocolate chip cookies people brought over as they paid their condolences. I lost a dear friend the following year, someone I still think about all the time, and I’d hoped I would be spared from experiencing more of that gutting misery for a good long while – and I was, until River Phoenix died. Now, I’d loved River Phoenix. I’d met River Phoenix. At only thirteen years old, I snuck backstage at a club where his band was playing. I still had braces on when I engaged in what, until then, was the single most defiant moment of my young life and it was on that exact evening that I realized defiance could be a very good thing. I would not be stopped. I would come face to face with the guy whose face stared down at me from torn out pictures of magazines and were then scotch taped to my bedroom walls. So what that I was smack dab in the middle of the gawkiest stage of my life? So what that a huge bouncer had already told me I wasn’t getting backstage? So what that I was teetering in the first stilettos I’d ever slipped onto my feet? River Phoenix was in the building, you guys, and I was going to share the same oxygen with him if it killed me and I would fucking crawl towards him if I couldn’t walk in my shoes.
Meeting him didn’t kill me – but a few years later, heroin killed him. It was hard to admit it on that night when I was thirteen, but he hadn’t looked all that healthy, even then. His hair was long and kind of greasy. He was kind as could be to me as I stood there trembling before him, my sexual self all but birthed the moment he smiled at me, and we actually shared a conversation – the thing I always want to share with one of my heroes – but he certainly hadn’t looked well. Still, heroin? A vegan who shunned animal byproducts embraced the idea of snorting smack? I recall sitting on the floor of the place I was living at the time of his death and seeing the crawl of CNN along the bottom of the screen. I remember spotting his name and perking up until I realized why his name was there – and then I just sat there, stunned. Memories of who I had been during the years when his movies scored my life went zipping through my mind montage-style. He was so young. And he had been so gloriously talented. I know now about the questionable upbringing he had endured – the cult his parents joined, the way it was up to him to support his family when he was really just a child – but I hadn’t expected the guy to overdose outside a club in Hollywood.
Almost immediately, my grieving over River Phoenix struck me as rather selfish. Because it wasn’t just that he was gone and an isn’t-that-sad sort of thing. It was because I saw his death through a lens of my own creation. I filtered his death through the ways it impacted my life and my memories. There was something about all of it that I just found, I don’t know, really fucking egocentric of me, but I soon realized that while I could be existentially saddened by what his death meant in the grand scheme of things, my reaction would also be fueled by the role he’d once played in my life. We do that, human beings. We who feel empathy can also feel it for ourselves.
Though he was my first celebrity loss that hit hard, he hasn’t been the last. Years are sliding by – they go so quickly now – and, like everyone else, I’m shook because my heroes are dying. Some of those who have been lost were not physically or emotionally well and some died seemingly out of nowhere, but the ones that really threw me were those who made the largest impacts on me somewhere during my bumpy journey. Like Prince, who I remember seeing in concert and marveling at how a tiny man swathed in a cherry red velvet suit was somehow so stunningly sexy. Like Margot Kidder, a hero who always struck me as dynamic and fearless – first when she scaled the Eifel Tower in heels to get the story as Lois Lane and later when I learned about the starring role she’d played as herself in the heady climate of 1970s Hollywood. Like Clarence Clemons, who was always the band member introduced last by Springsteen in what I saw as a literal illustration of “saving the best for last” and whose plaintive saxophone solos spanned mood and tone and time. I was online one day when I stumbled upon the news that he had been hospitalized and I followed his lack of recovery with dread. I was somehow sure he’d somehow get better. I mean…it was The Big Man! He could survive anything! But I was at a bar when I got the news that he died. It was a particularly balmy evening and I was wearing a particularly uncomfortable pair of shoes and a guy who had just moved back into town had asked me to stop by to see him. I wasn’t sure about this guy’s long-run potential, but my body was absolutely certain that my mind should give him at least one more chance. It was the time of night when my crossed legs began to rest between his large calves and as we sat atop high twirling stools, a text came in from my friend Michael.
Before I even texted back, before I even asked for clarification, I just knew and I clicked on TMZ. Clarence Clemons had died, the East Street Band would never be the same, and the world itself suddenly seemed a little bit dimmer and a lot more quiet. I could already feel the hush inside of my spinning stomach.
The guy I was sitting with that night happened to be a Springsteen fan too, had actually been named after the song Jackson Cage.
Clarence Clemons died, I told him.
What’s Tenth Avenue Freeze Out going to sound like without that blare of his sax near the end? he asked.
We both just sort of shook our heads sadly.
On the way home, I called my sister.
It’s almost Father’s Day, she said as a way to console me. Maybe Clarence is with Daddy.
I didn’t fully believe that.
I wanted to.
The first show my sister and I went to after Clarence’s death was strangely beautiful. The stage was loaded with a horns section and there were three backup singers and Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew, was the new saxophone guy. I recall Bruce asking the audience to welcome the East Street Band and I also remember Steve Van Zandt adding the words “and then some!” as the front of the stage became crowded with musicians I did not recognize. The first song played that night was We Take Care of Our Own, a song without a sax solo. But the second song played was Badlands and when Jake Clemons walked forward and blared his sound into the stadium, I burst into a quick torrent of very unexpected tears. They came, it seemed, from nowhere – and they stunned something inside of me and whatever that something was melted and then came flowing out of my eyes. I hadn’t felt a lump in my throat prior – I didn’t even recognize that I felt particularly emotional – but someone else moved to the front of the stage instead of Clarence and something inside of me, something primal, recognized how profound that man’s presence must have been in my life.
Then Barbara Harris, the mother in the original Freaky Friday, died. When I was ten, I don’t think there was a movie I watched more often than that one.
Then Jonathan Demme, the director of The Silence of the Lambs, succumbed to a tough illness. I’ve read he was the kindest man in the universe who then somehow created what I still see as the most terrifying movie of them all.
Then came the loss of Carrie Fisher – and that was a tough one. Brilliant, brave, bold, and probably more than a little bit broken, losing her felt like losing a piece of childhood. For a long time she was a bun-clad Princess, but I’d read her books and my best friend and I quoted her lines from When Harry Met Sally… daily and I taught my classes what it meant to be a script doctor by using interviews where she talked about being hired to make female characters “feel real” – and she’d say such a thing with a sprinkle of snark because she so clearly found it pathetic that the notion of turning women into real creatures necessitated calling in the estrogen-fueled cavalry.
The loss of Robin Williams broke what was left of the childhood part of my heart. That someone so silly could be in so much pain was a lesson I never really wanted to learn. I was almost sure in the days following his suicide that I could actually hear the protective layer I tend to haul around inside of me crack, especially when my mother called to reminisce about how badly a three year old me wanted the same rainbow suspenders Mork from Ork had worn so proudly.
And then there was John Hughes, a man whose monologues I can still quote in full. I tell people still that the reason I don’t know Geography or Math is because so much of my brain space has been claimed by quotes from The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. Hughes was an adult who took teenagers seriously. He may have relied too frequently on class divisions in his work and he may have asked us to suspend disbelief too massively when he gave us James Spader in a Miami Vice suit and asked that we believe the guy could possibly pass for a teenager, but those were things I realized only later because I was too busy dancing around my house to songs by Simple Minds to concentrate on overused thematic tropes and questionable casting strategies. And when I look back on his work now, I’m not particularly conflicted by all that was wrong with it, including the messages his movies sent to girls who watched them while developmentally in a vulnerable stage. I’m certainly aware of the criticisms and I feel many of those criticisms are fair, but I can also say that Hughes’ films gave me the sort of unqualified joy that has made my existence richer.
I called my best friend from an unfamiliar street corner in Utah about twelve years ago to sob that I had just spoken to Philip Seymour Hoffman after a screening of Owning Mahoney, a film I’m not sure ever got a theatrical distribution. He showed up for the film and was involved in a Q & A and we had a brief conversation afterwards and I never asked him if he’d take a picture with me because, even in a brown fuzzy sweater and a baseball cap on, he just seemed too dignified for me to request that he pose. When he died a few years later – another one gone because of addiction, another one gone way too soon – I thought about how badly I’d wanted him to say that line “Be honest and unmerciful” from Almost Famous when I met him, how I’d almost asked him if he would say it, but even the screaming fan that lives inside of me and allows herself walking idols wouldn’t allow herself to make what was clearly a totally weird request.
Then there were those who died even before they became my heroes, and the subsequent discovery that they’d perished before I’d even heard of them in the first place would sometimes rip into me like a new wound. The first boy I ever loved had a thing for James Dean and I remember the look that flashed across his face when I told him that I’d finally seen Rebel Without a Cause.
What’d you think of James Dean? he asked.
He reminded me of you, I told him with a shrug – and it was one of those moments in life when you say exactly what the other person wants to hear even though you have zero motives to do so. Because he did remind me of James Dean. Sometimes he still does.
But then I watched Giant and I rented East of Eden and I had a hunger to watch more – but there was nothing left to really see. Though I always knew James Dean had died tragically, I had no real idea how tragically he had left the planet or how young he had been when it all faded away. I came to learn that many young brooding men were compared to James Dean. I put a poster of one of those guys – the one with the perfect scar on his eyebrow – on my bedroom wall where it looked down on my sleeping form for a few years. I did it not knowing that he would eventually die too young also.
I’ve had some terrible dreams where something forever and unchangeable befalls a couple of artists I truly admire and I’ve woken from those dreams feeling lost and legitimately out of sorts. Those are losses I’d rather not even contemplate. Those are losses I think will stay with many of us for a very long time. Those will be losses that will effectively wither what’s left of our collective innocence, that small part of us that still manages to believe that some things are eternal, that small part of us that – for a time –allowed itself to believe in the fairy tale of forever.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter