Lee is fascinated with space shows. He will watch National Geographic for hours on end when they’re talking about the Hubble Telescope or whether or not there could be life on other planets.
The other night, he was watching something on supernovas – the huge stars that make our sun look like a baseball and wind themselves up so big that they explode in a terrifying blaze of glory.
He was sitting there watching this, and it made me think of celebrities who live hard and burn out young.
I really didn’t react to the death of Amy Winehouse. I thought it was sad, and tragic, and a waste, but that all went through my head in about 10 seconds and then I was done with it. I knew she had raw and unique talent, but her music wasn’t my thing. I’d seen the pictures of her at her oddly beautiful best, and others of her stumbling around looking like a crackhead scarecrow.
Those images always made me feel sad and frustrated, but for the most part Amy Winehouse just wasn’t someone who was on my radar. So when her light burned out my world really didn’t get any dimmer. But I understand that for many of her fans, it did.
There’s something about hard-partying creative geniuses that makes the age of 27 some kind of hurdle many don’t get past. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison. Like those supernovas that lose control and blow up somewhere in the universe, they all lived lives so big and loud that the world just couldn’t contain them anymore. Or, more accurately, they could no longer find a way to fit in the world.
They were all before my time, but I still went through a phase of being obsessed with all things Morrison. I met one of my dearest friends in college. He was five years older than me, and looked so much like Morrison it was eerie. He became a big brother of sorts. He was my spirit guide for all things college party life.
We’d sit in our apartment and watch “The Doors” movie with our friends while drinking ourselves into a stupor. We’d comment on how stupid and sad it was that Morrison had worn his body down so young, but I’m not sure we really meant it. We admired him for that brief but brilliant burst of genius, for the poetry in his lyrics, for the lazy smile and the charisma that made fans adore him and women cling to him even when he treated them like shit. We admired him because he could act like a total jackass on stage, and people still loved him. We thought he represented us because he hated the hypocrisy of the world and the stupid lemming-like rules others followed, and rebeled against them even if that meant destroying his body.
So what if he’d kicked the bucket when most people are just getting started? He lived big. He devoured every moment he had. He was one of the lucky ones whose talent exploded rather than become dimmed and downtrodden by the monotony of daily life. His 27 years, to us, left a bigger imprint than the full lifespan of most.
One summer, we took a trip to the beach. Everyone in our group was over 21 except for me and one girlfriend. The cops were watching the bars closely, and we had no fake IDs, so when the others decided to go out for a few drinks we opted to hang out in the room instead. My Morrisonesque friend stocked us up on booze before they left. We got ourselves good and schtoopid, then wandered the beach and had some quality chick bonding time without the guys around. At closing time, we stumbled up to the bar where our friends were hanging out to meet them and all walk back to the hotel together.
We sat on a bench on the boardwalk and waited, the crisp salty air and the cool night sobering us up a little. People began spilling out of the bar, talking about what a great karaoke night it had been. After a while, a group of girls came out clutching each other and giggling.
“He was a dead ringer!” squealed one.
“It gave me goosebumps,” said another. “He even MOVED like him on that stage.”
“I’m a little spooked,” added a third.
We didn’t have to ask. We knew they were talking about our drunken friend. We’d seen it before. He already looked like Morrison. In the right frame of mind, he could do a pretty fine imitation of his voice, too. When he grabbed a microphone, shook his shaggy hair out of his eyes, pierced a crowd with “that look,” and started singing while weaving in Morrison’s snakelike way, he would become a ghost for the duration of a song.
He was on cloud nine when he stumbled – also quite Morrison-like – out of the bar. That “we’ve seen a ghost” reaction always thrilled him. We were thrilled vicariously. It was fun to hang out with the shade of such a poetic legend.
As we got older, I sometimes worried about my friend. He didn’t just look like Morrison. He lived like him, without the treating chicks like shit part. We both always “knew” we’d be writers someday – that’s partly what made us so close. Maybe we had delusions of grandeur fueled by booze, but the creative spirit we shared was real.
But luckily, 27 came and went for us all. There was no fame, but no premature dirt naps either. Instead, we got mortgages and day jobs and continued to party like rock stars, but only on the weekends.
With my late 20s so many years behind me, I look at Morrison a lot differently. I will always stand in awe of his poetic gift and the mystical outlook on life that he translated into his haunting music.
But these days, I also want to kick him in the balls. I know I can’t, since they’ve long gone back to dust. But I would if I could.
Success is a part talent, part work, and part luck. I know so many creative souls who have a talent and who work their asses off, but who never find their songs or their books or their paintings under the brightest spotlights. The luck part just refuses to kick in. Instead, they work monotonous day jobs, scrape by, and keep trying. They get older and more weary, but that little light inside them keeps burning, and they try until their bodies ache and their eyes are red with weariness. Then they snatch a few hours of sleep and try some more.
So far, I am one of these people. And as one, I am sorry that the Jim Morrisons and the Amy Winehouses of the world are gone. But at the same time, I want to flip them the bird. They took a rare and beautiful gift – talent, work and luck coming together – and sort of shit on it by abusing their bodies to the point that they went supernova. They got what many of us work so hard for and may not attain – the dream of earning our way in the world with our creativity – and they threw it all away. Does that feel like a stupid slap in the face to any other dreamers?
They are honored in the memories of their fans. So instead of honoring them, my shoutout today is to all of us.
– To the bleary-eyed writers who work mind-numbing day jobs and can barely pay their bills, but who come home each day and weave words and dream.
– To the mothers who wear the same underwear until they are tattered and threadbare because every dollar counts, and if they don’t there will be no money for their child’s school wardrobe.
– To creative geniuses like Stephen King, who lived as large and partied as hard as a Morrison or a Winehouse, but who eventually stepped back, looked around at their families and their love of their craft, and decided to turn their hard living down to a sustainable volume so they could soak those things in longer.
– To everyone who gets up and does what they have to do, day in and day out, for years and years and endless monotonous years, but who will keep on doing so in spite of the drudgery just so they can keep having those tender or beautiful experiences that make it all worth while now and then.
To me, we are all the real stars. Our lights (okay, with the exception of King’s) may not shine as bright as the supernovas. But they don’t burn with their own chaos and then blink out for good, either. They are the tiny twinkles one sees when laying in the grass and looking skyward on an autumn night.
Cheers to all of us. And may our supernovas rest in peace.