Earlier this year when David Bowie died I was caught off-guard by the response. Sure, I knew Bowie was a big star. I also knew he was one of those rare celebrities who earned his adoration in a way I respect – by being a truly innovative and accomplished artist. But here’s my confession. When I heard the news of his passing I felt nothing. People die. Famous people die. There’s no connection to me.
Within moments, though, I saw an outpouring of grief and personal testimony from friends about how their lives were touched – changed even. Bowie didn’t change my life. But I was touched by the love and gratitude expressed through social media. Many of my friends – especially the “weird” ones I love most – wrote how Ziggy Stardust was a savior to them during their troubled adolescence. My musician friends taught me how Bowie’s music was unique and important.
Everyone appeared to be sincere, their expressions to be heartfelt. No one seemed like a bandwagon jumper as some cynics accused. Shared grief over a public figure is nothing we need to be cynical about. I think it’s lovely.
It got me thinking: What famous person had I felt the pain of losing? There were only a few:
I was only ten years old when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot. I don’t know about other kids in 1968, but I was very aware of the historic unrest of the time, the struggle for civil rights and of the war (my brother was in the Tonkin Gulf). RFK and Dr. King were both heroes to me and I took their deaths hard. They influenced a generation and I am grateful I was among those affected.
A few years later, I was moved by the passing of Groucho Marx. As a stage and film artist he was groundbreaking and timeless and I loved him. I had seen all of his movies and read several books about his life and work. By all accounts he was kind of an asshole off screen, but on screen his barbs and insults were well-aimed at pompous, deserving targets and further nurtured my populist leanings.
Many, many years later (I’m no kid anymore) I am scrolling down my newsfeed and learn that Pete Seeger has died. My stomach churns, my chest tightens, my throat swells, my face flushes, my shoulders shudder, my mouth turns crooked – the way it does when you cry – and I cry. Fat, rolling tears. I was astonished at this unexpected and immediate reaction.
Pete was a great musician and musicologist who either wrote, co-wrote, or resurrected songs that burned themselves into history. He didn’t write it, but we have Pete to thank for the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” As an activist for peace and civil rights he ranks among the elite. His concerts were massive sing-alongs and his advocacy for children and the environment lives on. Pete was my hero. I loved the guy like a grandpa.
Off the top of my head, those are the famous folks I have publicly mourned. Now I’d like to show some love and gratitude to some while they’re still with us. There are two opposing camps on this: 1) giving testimonials to the living is a jinx or 2) better to sing praises now than regret your silence after they’ve gone. I’ll opt for the latter. Here is a short list I got to compiling after the Bowie phenomenon. I’ll provide details in later installments of the blog. These living, famous folks have touched my life and I am grateful:
Kareem Abdul Jabbar
Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn (for “My Dinner With Andre”)
Monty Python (The surviving members. Graham Chapman died in 1989)
Robert Pirsig (for “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”)
Charles Bursell is a writer, performer, host and commentator heard nationally on SiriusXM, National Public Radio, and The Pacifica Radio Network. He currently hosts the podcasts Stream of Consciousness Talk Radio Theatre and Conversations With Charles Bursell. Both shows, and more, can be found on several platforms, including Apple Podcasts (iTunes) and Libsyn.com.