I’m probably not the only one amused by Facebook posts characterizing 2016 as “Death Personified,” with memes of the grim reaper harvesting celebrities at an alarming rate, beginning with David Bowie in January of the so-called apocalyptic year. Most of these posts are by millennials, although I’ve seen a few by those who should know better. Let’s not forget that Glenn Frey of the Eagles and Natalie Cole died in 2015.
If we’re rating years by the celebrity lives they ended, I offer 1977 as a study in celebrity loss. The year Star Wars Episode IV debuted, we lost Elvis, Bing Crosby, actress Joan Crawford, Freddie Prinze, and Groucho Marx. Three members of Lynnyrd Skynnyrd, Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and vocalist Cassie Gaines, died when the band’s plane went down. The class of ’81 entered its freshman year of high school with the pall of seemingly endless death announcements and, just before the start of school, images of white limousines in procession down Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis.
Maybe it’s because I’m old, or maybe it’s because I see things differently as a musician and a writer, but I would like to offer an observation. As we grow up, if we’re lucky, we have heroes. Some of our heroes are celebrities. For the most part, these mentors are older than we are. In 1977, when I saw Episode IV in the theater, I was twelve. Harrison Ford was over 30; Carrie Fisher was 21. They were the iconic leaders of the youngest members of the baby boomer generation — the children of the Seventies — who ate pop rocks and listened to Michael Jackson (Evil Death-Year 2009) on something called a Sony Walkman. These pre-teens buying multiple tickets to the debut of the Rocky franchise were the first video gamers. Our mentors fought the Vietnam War, played California rock like the Eagles or heavy metal like Metallica or a fusion of jazz and blues like Earth, Wind, and Fire.
As a year of Celebrity Death, 2012 was no slouch either. Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, Ray Bradbury, Nora Ephron, Whitney Houston, Davy Jones, Donna Summer, Etta James, Robin Gibb, Kitty Wells, Ernest Borgnine, Larry Hagman, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jack Klugman, Sherman Hemsley, Andy Griffith, Phyllis Diller, Dick Clark, and Don Cornelius all died that year.
Two-thousand fourteen took Robin Williams.
Before that, Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin both died in 1970, and before that, John F. Kennedy died in 1963, followed by his brother, Bobby, and Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. Sometimes, these iconic deaths seem to come in waves, but those are only the deaths of people in the spotlight. A life should never be measured by how publicly a person passes out of this world but by the role he or she plays in the lives of those who really knew the icon as a person. It is the deaths we ignore that define us: the soldiers with PTSD, who return from battle with psychological scars that won’t heal, who put an end to the pain by taking their own lives; the deaths of multiple thousands of homeless people each night; the deaths of young, Black children on the streets of large cities, men killed each year in traffic stops, police officers killed in cold blood, the deaths of toddlers in cancer clinics.
Despite the constant stream of proclamations calling out 2016 as the Apocalyptic Grim Reaper of a year, these losses are nothing new, but they do remind us of the inevitable passing of the torch to the younger generation. This is the cycle of life. We grow up, and we become the mentors, and perhaps this is the real reason millennials feel ill-at-ease: they are not ready to grow up.
I can’t say I blame them. Being a mentor is a cross to bear. For many, like Elvis, Michael, Whitney, Jimmy, Janis, and Prince, it was too much.