Crying for the dead? | Column | The Press and Standard

by | November 4, 2017 5:00 pm

Last Updated: November 1, 2017 at 12:03 pm

This is a telephone convol between me and my brother, T-Bob, last week.
Me: “What’s up?”
T: “How’d you know it was me?”
Me: “Are you drunk? It’s 2017.”
T: “Oh. <sighs>”
Me: “What’s wrong?”
T: “I’m still depressed over Tom Petty.”
Me: “Me, too. <sighs>”
T: “Dude could sing. He was a scrawny, buck-toothed Florida cracker, but he could rock.”
Me: “Yep.”
T-Bob: “What was your…”
Me: “‘Here Comes my Girl.’”
T: “That’s right. Mine was –
Me: “‘Refugee.’”
T: “That or ‘Last Dance With Mary Jane.’ <sighs>”
Me: “Everybody forgets ‘I Need to Know.’ He did punk better than the Ramones.”
T: “Yeah. There’s a YouTube video of the last song he performed live–”
Me: “At the Hollywood Bowl. ‘American Girl’.”
T: “That’s it. <sighs>”
Isn’t it odd, how we react to the deaths of public figures? One man’s grief is another man’s shrug.
T-Bob and I had a similar conversation when Robin Williams died. How tragic that such a funny man couldn’t overcome his own darkness.
In 2001, the day after Dale Earnhardt died, I ran into an acquaintance, a banker who played golf on the weekends, not a guy you’d immediately peg as a NASCAR fan.
His eyes were red and filled with tears.
“What’s wrong?” I blurted, too shocked for tact.
“I feel like my brother died,” he said.
All I heard was “brother died,” and I grabbed his hand.
“I’m so sorry, I said. “How is your mother?”
He looked at me as if I were spitting snakes.
“She’s not really a race fan,” he said.
By this time, the moment was surreal; I had no idea what universe we were in.
He saw my confusion and sighed. “Maybe you didn’t hear, Dale Earnhardt died,” he said.
“No, he — what? Okay,” I mumbled and hurried off. It was not my finest moment.
I was working (and by “working” I mean showing up for free) at a college radio station the day John Lennon was killed. I cried for 12 hours, on and off the air. Thirty-five years later, I still can’t listen to “Imagine.”
Karen Carpenter’s death — so young, so needless — made me sad. Elvis didn’t really register; he was a bit before my time.
I know people who cried when Prince and Gregg Allman died. Tom Landry, Muhammed Ali, Alan Rickman, Phillip Seymour Hoffman — they all left some of us with a sense of loss.
When Elton John dies, T-Bob will probably require a sedative and two days off work.
Why we grieve people we’ve never met is a question I can’t answer. My dad loved Hank Williams Sr., and played his albums all the time. My mother was more into Broadway show tunes, so Saturday nights in front of the stereo could get pretty heated. “I won’t listen to ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ one more time!” Dad would say. “And I can’t stand ‘Your Cheating Heart’ one more time!” Mother would shriek. “That’s not singing, it’s moaning!”
“Respect the dead!” Dad would yell. “He’s the greatest honky tonk singer of all time!”
“Who’s dead?” I asked. (At eight years old, I missed a lot.)
I was amazed to learn that Hank Williams, the singer they were arguing about, had been dead for 15 years. His songs made Dad: 1) cry in his beer and 2) sing along, both to Mother’s great annoyance. Dad never met Hank, but he felt like he knew him. We all grieve in our own way.
Excuse me, but now I have to go play “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” Again.

(Julie R. Smith, who still cries over Secretariat, can be reached at



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