Cormac McCarthy once said that all writers worth their salt should write about death. If literature doesn't take on that great mystery, then it just ain't literature in his book (joke intended). I'm not sure I agree with that sentiment, but death does make for a mighty powerful read.
I finished McCarthy's The Road last week, and I haven't been able to pick up another book since. The novel is about life and death, all right — and postapocalyptic cannibalism during a nuclear winter. It's a horror story, but a deeply moving one, and when I put it down I was sobbing. It colored everything I did for the next few days, raining down ash on my thoughts until my brain felt like the same wasted terrain as described in the book. The Road was also strangely hopeful, though, and life-affirming.
Then I got the news that Jay Bennett died. He was perhaps best known as the guy who got kicked out of Wilco, as documented in the film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. He was also an old friend of mine from back in Illinois, part of the Champaign-Urbana scene that I grew up in, and the part of my past that I miss the most.
McCarthy wants us to take on death, to deal with it. Last week, I couldn't escape it.
At night, I wanted to head in the opposite direction, to find a bar that was bustling with life, not some dingy watering hole. I chose Kezar, on Carl in Cole Valley. Half of the place is a bar, the other half a restaurant with hit-and-miss food (stick to the burgers and sandwiches). I dragged two friends along, who had no idea that I was juggling so much morbidity in my head. I liked it that way.
We sat at a table and our plucky waitress brought whiskeys for my companions, decaf for me. Yes, gentle reader, not only was I knee-deep in thanatopsis (thoughts of death), but I had also quit drinking a week before. God was testing me: "Okay, you gonna quit drinking? Here ... read this sad tale. Oh, yeah, and Jay is dead." But actually, once the urge to have a beer passed, I realized that being clear-headed during this difficult time was actually a gift.
I had blogged about Jay the night before, mentioning that he did the nicest thing a guy can do for a girl: He made me feel pretty. He used to call me "Drew" because he said I looked like Drew Barrymore. After I Am Trying to Break Your Heart came out, I wrote Jay a note. I felt sad that the movie had made him look like a chump. He was always so focused as a musician, so talented. He could play a million different instruments. I didn't want him to ever doubt himself. Usually I just think about writing that kind of letter. In his case, I actually sent it. I have the dubious honor of not regretting offering support to Jay while he was alive. So many people are echoing my sentiments now that he is dead. It makes me wish that we could all say nice things to people while they are still living.
I started talking about Jay at Kezar, and my friend Erick asked who he was. I answered that he was the guy that Jeff Tweedy kicked out of Wilco.
"Who's Jeff Tweedy?" Erick asked.
My friend Garrett and I gave each other a look. In our world, that's like asking, "Who is Paul McCartney?"
"Philistine," said Garrett, attempting to play the part of someone who thinks that Wilco is God. He is not, in fact, someone who thinks that Wilco is God. These are the many layers of music wonkery, folks.
Erick assured us that not knowing who Jeff Tweedy is ain't important in the big scheme of things. He's right. Nothing is very important in the big scheme of things after someone dies. McCarthy is probably right, too: After death, there really isn't much else that matters.
"Philistine," Erick repeated. "Why am I a Philistine? I don't think that is the proper word choice." He then went on to analyze its meaning.
I tuned him out. Kezar was full, as usual. Strangely, every table seemed to have a baby at it. Every time I see a toddler, I think, Wow, people actually expect the world to not destroy itself this century. They keep reproducing, with the idea that global warming, nuclear war, and AIDS won't eventually kill everything on the planet.
"Isn't a Philistine someone who goes against the grain?" Erick continued.
"Actually, you are more of a philatelist," I said, but he didn't hear me. It was a bad joke anyway.
The waitress brought our check, which Erick picked up and paid, all $100 of it. His generosity is just one of the qualities I admire in him.
For a second, I thought that I should tell him why I like him so much, since he isn't dead. I did tell him once that if I ever accidentally killed someone and had to remove the body, he'd be the first person I would call. I think that's just about the nicest thing you could say to someone. But really, I should let everyone I'm close to know that I care, and not wait until the obituary.
That night, I listened to Wilco and wrote letters to all my friends. I haven't sent them yet.