I finally realized I was getting old when all my heroes started dying. It didn’t happen to me when some obsessed asshole shot John Lennon outside his Dakota apartment building. In 1980 I was 19, and too wrapped up in myself to think of the bigger, bracing aspects of such an event. The Beatles were like Gods to me, but they were also elusive deities, long since given over the rest of the planet to worship and adore. I was thunderstruck, but Lennon was easily put in his place, a man who changed the face of modern music. Not even a crazed killer’s bullets could take that away from him.
I didn’t really react to Kurt Cobain’s death with all that much melancholy. By the time he took his own life, I was 33, and myself lost in a set of personal and professional circumstances that threatened to swallow me whole. Life was so horrible, so dissatisfying and disastrous that nothing some spoiled rock star could do to himself seemed all that tragic or telling. Besides, I had thoroughly enjoyed his music. I had bought his CDs and championed his angry young man ethic. But in all honestly, he didn’t speak to me. He wasn’t really trying to. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wasn’t my anthem; it was somebody else’s. As a matter of fact, I never felt I really had one.
No, I didn’t start to feel the cold hand of mortality patting me on the shoulder until Joey Ramone succumbed to lymphoma in 2001. He was one month from turning 50. I was one month away from turning 40. For everything his music meant to me, for the single concert I saw him play in the early ‘80s to all the albums of magnificent, and occasionally mediocre songs, the news of his death was devastating. Icons aren’t supposed to die. They’re meant to live on, staying locked inside the public consciousness until they achieve a kind of universal acceptance and admiration. But just like throughout his career, Joey only got his moment. They placed him and his band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They named a street after him. Friends eulogized. Fans wept. And then he was gone again. Vanished off the pop culture radar to be replaced by various pop punk bands who weren’t even weaned when Joey was forming the music they now massacre.
And now it’s happened again. As I sit typing these wounded words at age 43, Hunter S. Thompson has finally stopped raging against the world around him. Instead of continuing to take up the causes that continued to fuel his anger and his passion, he decided to commit one finally, ferocious act of self-destruction upon himself—or so the news reports say. Suicide may be painless, so the stupid song goes, but it definitely isn’t an act of bravery or courage. Whatever he was running from, we’ll probably not know for a while, if ever. Someone will come up with a few theories. Insights will be passed around and associates will argue over motive and meaning. But the horrible truth is, one of my literary idols is now gone, a man whose way with words was as important to me as the ideas he was forming with them.
For me, Thompson summed up the entire ‘60s experience—a time I myself was too young to fully understand—in a single evocative statement that has never been topped in its insight or imagery. Whenever I hear the words, I am instantly taken back to the scene in the film version of his brilliant book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Johnny Depp, not so much playing Hunter as being him, stares out the window of his Sin City hotel room while the plaintive sounds of the Youngbloods drifts and drones in the background. Just as “Get Together” reaches one of its many harmonious peaks, Depp utters a heartbreaking eulogy for a once magical generation:
“And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
For a long time, that image has haunted me. I remember from my far off youth seeing the horizons around my hometown. Late in the afternoon, clouds formed a fine line across the sky as the sun began to set, and I recall thinking that the impending dusk resembled the rapid rise and ripple of a far off, unseen ocean. Then there would always be the image of an all-consuming wall of water coming to wash over everything and everyone, Biblical in nature and cleansing in its devastation. Oddly enough, through all the hardships and happiness, the celebration and the sorrow, the flood has yet to reach my personal doorstep. I’ve smelled its saltiness and tasted its awful ozone, but it has yet to take me.
But tonight, when I look out my window, I can see the tide mounting again. Thompson obviously saw it too, or maybe it had already crashed over and devoured him. Whatever the reason or rationale, he dove in and drown, choosing to end the battle that we all understand is never really won. In three more months, I turn 44. And I wonder whose next on my hero hierarchy to take the final, fatal fall. I can contend with controversy or scandal. I will deal with disappointment and despair. But when they start leaving, as they already have, I suddenly see my time starting to tick away. And I am feeling so very, very old.
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