The Obsession with Death and the Dead

In the first chapter, of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s first book of a six-book My Struggle series, Knausgaard asks why we’re so obsessed with concealing our dead?  If a body dies in a public arena, he writes, the civil servants in charge of such things, do their best to have that body removed from sight; if it dies in a hospital, the employees of that hospital see it as their duty to cover that body with a blanket, and eventually move that body to a basement, far from view; and if a body dies on a playground, the civil servants do their best to remove that body from the view of the children on that playground.  Why do we do this, Knausgaard asks, why are we so obsessed with removing these very natural images from prying eyes that we put blankets on them, cordon them off with police tape, and eventually put them in a coffin that no one can see through?  What harm is caused?  Why don’t we just leave the body where it is, uncovered, and in plain view?  Why do we worry that a bird may peck at its eyeball?  It’s just a carcass.

Seeroon Yeretzian
Seeroon Yeretzian

Though there was some humor involved in Knausgaard’s presentation, I do believe there was a central, provocative question he was asking in regards to the denial of death we all seek.  We ask our civil servants to hide death from us, so that we don’t have to face it, and this only perpetuates a denial of the reality that we’re all going to die.  My reply to Knausgaard, if he posed this provocative question to my face, would be: what difference does it make?

What difference is it going to make if we choose to be in denial regarding death?  What difference is it going to make that we continue to require that our civil servants remove human carcasses from view?  We’re still going to die, and the mistress is not going to be any less harsh to those that embrace her.

The reason we hide our dead may have something to do with our desire to live our lives free of the constraints thinking about our end might have on our lives.  Knowing the end of a book, movie, or TV show, for example, might ruin our enjoyment of it.  It’s the reason that we require *spoiler alert* notations for those that review such productions.  Some people prefer spoiler alerts, because they feel it allows them to make an informed choice before purchasing the book in question.  I knew one of them, I was raised by him.  He knew the reality of his own spoiler alert, and he embraced it.  He called it reality, and he mocked me for my unrealistic expectations, but an objective view of his life would show any concerned enough to take a look, that his quality of life was diminished by it in some measure.

The reason that some of us require reviewers to alert us of forthcoming spoiler alerts is that we don’t want them to ruin our journey through the book.  Some of us hate even watching trailers of movies, because those trailers usually provide us the key scenes of a movie that we cannot enjoy until they are over.  Everything in between seems like fluff leading up to that key scene that attracted us.  If those of us that hate trailers, and spoiler alerts, manage to avoid them, we usually end up enjoying the journey to those scenes all the more.

Whenever my four-year-old nephew and I were hanging out, having a blast, he would inevitably hit me with a question regarding the future.  “Are you coming over to my house?” he would ask.  He wanted this fun moment to last longer, and when I told him that I wasn’t coming over, it made all the fun we were currently having less fun to him.  He turned it into a combative “Why?” complaint that informed me that I did not spend enough time with him.

“Why don’t you simply enjoy this moment for what it is?” I would ask him.

“How does this movie end?” a friend will ask me in the midst of watching a movie that I’ve already seen.  She grows so anxious during the fast-paced, action packed scenes that she can’t just sit there and enjoy them for what they are, she needs to know how it will all end.

“Won’t it ruin all of these moments for you, if I tell you?” I ask.  She says nothing.  She knows I’m right, but the anticipation eats her insides up, until she cannot stand it anymore.  She will then pepper me with more questions, when more events play out, until I ask, “Why are you worried about that now?  Why aren’t you just enjoying these moments for what they are?  The end will come soon enough.”

Another friend of mine told me that she was going to see a fortune teller this weekend.  As a non-believer, believing that she had a decent head on her shoulder, I asked her why she would seek the services of a fortune teller.  “Because I can’t stand not knowing the future,” she said.

Let’s say that there is a truly gifted member of the fortune teller community.  Let’s say that this person has a well-documented history of being able to predict the future with 100% accuracy regarding specific, future events.  Let’s say that this fortune teller is so accurate, and so gifted that she doesn’t need to engage in the vague generalities indigenous to her craft.  Let’s say she tells this friend of mine: “You will have a key moment in your life occur at a Smashing Pumpkins concert on May 5th, and that moment will change your life.”  Let’s say that she is very specific regarding what that key moment is.

If she is 100% accurate, and that event occurred in the exact manner that she predicted, how enjoyable would my friend’s life be between the date the fortune teller made that prediction and May 5th?  Would my friend regard any interim moments as exciting and fun, or would they be regarded as inconsequential fluff compared to the expectations she had for May 5th?  How many times would my friend interrupt what could be seminal moments in her life to go back to that fortune teller to ask her for more specifics regarding May 5th? And, most importantly, how enjoyable will that May 5th moment be for her when it finally occurs?  Could it possibly live up to the expectations she built up for it, or will she have set the bar too high by the time the date finally rolls around?

The reason that we hide our dead, I write to Knausgaard, is that seeing them lie on a playground, as nothing more than a carcass, will remind us that we’re nothing more than a carcass.  Witnessing a carcass will remind us of the fact that we’re nothing more than a big bag of bones, tendons, and muscles, that will eventually give out.  It’s a spoiler alert regarding the cycle of life.  It ruins all of the mystery, and excitement, and the process of living while we’re living.  It reminds us that there’s nothing special about us, and that we’re all going to eventually become an image in a photograph that one of our descendants point to and says, ‘Who is that’?  We’re all going to eventually become a carcass laying somewhere for someone to cover up, so that that someone else doesn’t have to see us and think about their own mortality, but how are those, more accepting of this reality, at a greater advantage than those of us in complete denial?

My dad was so obsessed with death that he viewed all of the events of his life from the perspective of his eventual death.  He had wishes and dreams like the rest of us, but he would list them all under a “I just want a happy death” umbrella.  He collected funeral cards in the manner some collect baseball cards, and he memorized the stats on those cards in much the same manner; most of his conversations revolved around how old a close friend was when they died, what kind of health they were in at that moment, and how healthy he was by comparison.

When a doctor informed him that he was close to death, at one point in his life, he could barely contain his excitement.  It wasn’t so much that he wanted to die, but that he thought it was exciting to be the center of attention among those that watching him on this tightrope.  He also recounted, for any concerned, the number of times he probably should’ve died, and he did so in a voice normally reserved for those exciting, and enjoyable, moments of a life.

“Once you’re dead your dead,” I reminded him one day, when he informed me that he wanted the events of his life to line up in such a fashion that would allow him to be happy in death.  “You won’t be happy, or unhappy, you’ll be dead.  There’s no such thing as an emotional aftermath when you’re dead.  The end will come soon enough, and all of these moments that you follow in the hopes of having a happy death, will eventually become meaningless to the living that are concerned about you now.  Your name will eventually whither on the vine, until it falls from everyone’s memory, and you are no longer being considered any more.  So, you should want a happy life.  Your death should be utterly meaningless to you.

“I know we’re all going to die,” I said when he called me out for being unrealistic, “but I would think that it’s simply better to allow that to happen, than to focus of your life on it.

“Even if there is a heaven, and that afterlife is as unimaginably blissful as advertised,” I said when he called me out on that.  “I can’t help but think that we’re all going to be looking down at one point, and say, ‘This is great and all, but I still wish I would’ve enjoyed my time on earth a little more.  I spent so much of it thinking about how it was all going to end that I accidentally forgot to enjoy all of the fluff in between.’”

The Uncompromising, and Unsuccessful, Band Called Death

“Sometimes, your convictions are just wrong,” is the theme, the moral, and the import of a movie called: A Band Called Death. This line is so integral to this movie that it would have been a pertinent, provocative subtitle for the movie.

This movie tells the story of how a man of strong, artistic convictions –and the rest of the loyal band mates, that backed his conviction in public– decided to tell one of the most powerful men in the music industry to go to hell … and how that decision ended up destroying what could’ve been a career in music.

A Band Called Death
A Band Called Death

I realize that I’m not in the business, and I don’t know what sells, but this theme seems so integral to the movie that the producers should’ve considered for the byline to distinguish it from the movies of the week, documentaries, and docudramas that focus on the theme of how a man of artistic integrity fought against the man, the industry, and the corporate execs “that don’t know music” and won. 

Such feel good stories are legion in our culture, because they appeal to the very American “underdog” mentality, and they allow us to dream of a day when we, too, stand up to the man, tell him to go to hell, and win out with our visions of uncompromising, artistic purity. These are very romantic stories that involve little guys proving that their instincts were right in the end and the man’s (Clive Davis in this case) were wrong.

A Band Called Death is not one of these stories.

These romanticized stories are told so often, most often in America it seems, that some of us make the mistake of believing that they are common in an artistic industry like the music business. They’re not, and some part of us knows this, but those same parts of us wish they were true more often, and that’s what makes them so compelling.

What is more common, as illustrated in the movie A Band Called Death, is that the music industry executive, and the man in general, knows more about the industry than the uncompromising, twenty-something artists.

“Nothing against (the corporate, industry honchos),” you often hear the good-natured, ‘no hard feelings’ little-guys-turned-stars suggest. “They know the music industry, but they just did’t understand our music, and our fans, and they couldn’t see what we were trying to do. They were more interested in the cookie cutter band that do things in a more normal, more popular manner to appeal to Middle America. We held true to our convictions, and the rest is history, our history, baby.”

This history, in this case the history of modern music, would be written without a band called Death in it, because they refused to compromise, a decision that left them in the large slush pile of the uncompromising.

Clive Davis heard the band called Death, and he enjoyed their music so much that he decided to sign them. Even though their music, punk music, was outside his particular area of expertise, he decided to give them a chance. He decided to pay for them to have the studio time necessary to record an album, he offered them a recording contract that amounted to them receiving $20,000 a piece, big money in 1971, and a man like Clive Davis doesn’t make such offerings without first knowing how tempestuous musicians can be. He didn’t want to change their act, and he believed in them and what they intended to do, but he did have one misgiving: the name of the band.

The other members of the band called Death were not married to the name. They appeared to like the name, but their convictions did not extend to the point that if a man like Clive Davis informed them that he did not like the name they would not change it. Guitarist, and founder of the band, David Hackney, was another matter. The name of the band, and his whole reason for forming the band. The name was based on the death of Hackney’s father, and David developed themes and created designs built around the name. He even went so far as to have T-shirts made. He made it clear that he wasn’t going to change the name of the band no matter what. At one point, Hackney even went so far in the presumed, yet not detailed negotiations, as to tell someone involved in the negotiations to tell one of the most powerful men in the music business, Clive Davis, “To go to Hell!”

Before any reader leaps to their feet in applause, they should consider the fact that Clive Davis had enough experience in the industry, and in the market, to know that some artistic convictions just will not work. Before anyone raises their fist in solidarity of Hackney’s provocative rebellion, they should consider that anyone who worked with talent for as long as Davis had, understood artistic temperament, and that artistic variation was his life’s blood. They should also consider the fact that the man worked with a wide array of artists including: Rod Stewart, Janis Joplin, Barry Manilow, Carlos Santana, and Aretha Franklin. A man who has worked with such a wide array of talent doesn’t do so with an uncompromising ego. We can guess that he was forced to indulge artistic temperaments throughout his career, and that he may even have encouraged obnoxious rebellion to his requests, but that he learned, somewhere along the way, that the road to success occurs at a crossroads between artistic idealism and the realities of the industry.

Davis, like any talent executive, knew talent when he spotted it. He knew that all talent can be tweaked, but that there are some vital ingredients to all artists that makes them unique. He knew that if one tweaked that natural talent too much, they could end up losing the unique quality that made them the exceptional talents that he had decided to sign. A man like Davis couldn’t have achieved half of what he did in the music business, if he wasn’t able to recognize when to tweak and when not to tweak.

As a man that existed in the industry decades before a band called Death, Davis encountered all sorts of artistic convictions in the music business too, and one has to imagine that his well-honed instincts told him that some of them don’t work. One has to imagine that he stood aside while some of these artists pursued their artistic, idealistic ideas, and he was even surprised when some of them worked. One has to believe he allowed his artists to pursue some loony ideas, as long as those ideas would be supported by investors, and the other segments of the industry. One has to imagine that he also learned that he shouldn’t nix or approve such ideas on his own, and that he made some mistakes along the way with regard to his own instincts prior to spotting a band called Death, until it dawned on him that he would need a team of advisers to provide a check on his decision making process. One has to imagine that Davis didn’t like the idea of the name Death for a band, but he was willing to put it to his investors and advisers, and that they nixed the idea too. It’s great for an outlandish artist to be different, and somewhat loony, in other words, but there are lines in the sand drawn by segments of industry, that know their customers’ lines in the sand, and that those lines were far different in 1971 than they are today.

Clive Davis was later proven correct when the members of Death attempted to release a single without him, and they were greeted with rejection every step of the way. The members of the band told the documentarians of A Band Called Death that the rejection they faced had little to do with the music, or their overall talent. The rejection, they said, had everything to do with that moment when they were forced to reveal the name of their band to the various outlets they pursued. One of the band members claimed that after a time, he would cringe when the name of band would arise. He stated that he had nothing against the name, and he knew Hackney’s drive to maintain the name, but the band member experienced negative reactions to the name so many times that he would cringe when it came up. 

After enduring years of such rejection, Hackney finally relented. He changed the name of the band to The 4th Movement, and the band changed their form of music from punk rock to gospel. After this proved unsuccessful, the other band members formed a reggae band called Lambsbread. The band called Death would eventually receive some of the notoriety they felt they deserved, thirty-five years later, and eight years after David Hackney’s death. 

As with every other musical act in existence, it’s possible that Death may have never achieved fame, but the prospect of having the Clive Davis name behind them, his pocketbook, and his promotions team must have caused some internal squabbles and sleepless nights among the Death members. When the final realization struck that their window had indeed closed, one can only cringe when we think about how close they were. That cringe becomes almost painful when we try to imagine what David Hackney must have went through when it finally became clear to him that his righteous, rebellious conviction was wrong, and it wasn’t just Clive Davis who disagreed with him. Everyone did, and it cost him what could’ve been. By the time he finally realized the errors of his way, it was too late. His window of opportunity closed.   

It’s easy for those of us watching the movie A Band Called Death to criticize David Hackney, in hindsight. It’s easy for us to cringe when we learn that the members of his band told him, in private, that his decision to stick with the name of the band was beyond foolish. Hackney believed in his band, however, and he believed that the name Death, and the theme that spawned from it, was the comprehensive idea behind the band gelling so well together. The idea of listening to Clive Davis, however, selecting a different name, and moving onto a career with a different name, may have felt “plastic” to the 1971 Hackney.

We can also assume that the impulse to tell Clive Davis to go to hell felt so right to Hackney, in the moment, based in part on the age he lived in. In the 50’s, music execs controlled the music world, and the stars did everything their handlers told them, because they felt fortunate to be in the position they were in. In the late 60’s and early 70’s the climate began to change, and more bands began carving out their own niches, telling those in authority positions to go to hell and succeeding after doing so. Hackney may have considered the idea that he would, one day, be rubbing elbows with Pete Townshend, Alice Cooper, and all the other top stars of the day, and he may have thought that the act of telling Clive Davis to go to hell would be a point of appreciation among them. We can assume, Hackney loved all the same stories we’ve all heard of rock and roll stars believing in what they did so much that they were willing to tell those who opened doors for them to go to hell, and that romanticized notion may have driven Hackney to do it. We can also assume, he didn’t consider how many of these stories were myths created by the band, or even the record executives, to bolster the renegade, rock and roll image that fans almost require of their rock and roll heroes.

The theme, and moral, of the story of The Band Called Death is that some of the times, some of your uncompromising convictions are wrong, ill-advised, and just plain dumb. Some of the times, the man knows more about the matter at hand than we do, and as much as it makes us feel like a tool to do so, some of the times it’s better to listen to him. Some of the times, the difference between landing in the slush pile and success involves making some compromises, even when it breaks our heart to do so.

In truth, we don’t know how many of our favorite rock stars made compromises to get to the top, as it does nothing for them, or their industry guys, to reveal such information to us. We just know the myth of their uncompromising rise to the top, and their uncompromising attitude, and we love those myths, and a part of us wishes that we were lucky enough to be in the position of a David Hackney, so that we could tell a Clive Davis to go hell, and join him in the slush pile of all of the uncompromising artists that were never appreciated in their lifetime.

It’s a BOY!!!

My longtime fans can now get some sleep.  The drama is over.  I have never been so excited to see another person’s penis.  He will be Quinn Bryan henceforth.  Katie Couric will not be running a gender revelation segment like she did with Tom Cruise’s baby, because she is no longer at CBS running such crucial segments on national and world affairs.  We will not be contacting the National Enquirer or People magazine to confirm the gender.  We have decided that we want our privacy on this matter.

1) Jerry Seinfeld says that “the reason we have kids is to have something to watch.” It breaks life up, once our lives have reached a point where we feel like we’ve done everything we wanted to do.  Having a kid is a way to break life up when we’ve examined life for all its worth, and the only thing we have left is the transfer of that fascination to the next generation.  “But,” says Jerry, “there will come a point, in everyone’s life where we are laying on our deathbed, and we say okay, that’s enough.”

2) “What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?” a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder asked Warren Buffet.  “Damn, he was old!” Buffet replied.  Is it everyone’s goal to live a long life, or do they decide to live the “Hope I die before I get old!” Pete Townshend, rock and roll lifestyle?  Some of us lived a semblence of that lifestyle, but we’re glad we still have the chance to hear “Damn, he is old!” before we pass on.

3) “Youth is wasted on the young,” –Winston Churchill.  A young person doesn’t appreciate their life, their energy, passion, and the vitality they have, until it’s gone.  Youth is wasted on trivial matters that aren’t revealed as trivial, until one gets old.  Then, once one grows old, they realize that they can’t waste the precious time they have left on trivial matters, and they wish they had only realized that earlier.

4) “80% of life is showing up,” –Woody Allen.  There does come a point, however, where showing up becomes futile.  There does come a point when all you’re doing is showing up.  There does come a point where you’re pursuing nothing and just fulfilling responsibility.  There does come a point where fear keeps a person stagnant.  There does come a point when it’s time to move on.  I don’t know what percentage of life this involves, but there does come a point when showing up is not enough in life.

5) “She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said of the old woman, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” –Flannery O’Connor’s short story A Good man is Hard to Find.  How many times have we lost a loved one, experienced an illness or an injury, or a near-death experience, and loved life a little more in its aftermath?  How many times have we set up agendas for life, premised in disciplines, and given them up when the harrowing experience drifts away from focus? Should we, or can we, live a life based on the fact that we’re going to die tomorrow, or is that so exhausting that we will probably live a happier life in routine?

6) “Those who are going to succeed in life do not have to be told,” an acting teacher told Charlton Heston when he complained that she didn’t compliment him as much as she did the other students in the acting class.  Life is about the inner drive to succeed.  If you do what you do to please others, you’re not living life right.  Compliments are great, and we all love them, but they should not be your sole driving force in life.  The same holds true with money.

7) The older I get, the less selfish I become, the more I recognize the selfishness around me.  I would love to call others out on that, but that can be self-serving.

8) You can hide your nature with a quick wit, a use of “the force”, and other mental Jiu Jitsus, but sooner or later you will be revealed as the character you are.  It’s far better to live an honest life, with honest evaluations and projections put to others, for that will stave off the eventual, crushing revelations that are made by those around you when all of your lies are revealed.

9) “One of the most foolish, and most dangerous, things one can do is to take love for granted, instead of nurturing it and safeguarding it as the prize jewel of one’s life.” –Thomas Sowell.  There are only so many people on the planet that truly care about what happens to you, and they should be appreciated as the priceless commodities that they are.  Most people pretend to care about you, but they’re really only seeking greater definition.  They’re taking joy in your misery—schadenfreude—in a manner that is usually not malicious.  They enjoy hearing about your problems, and they may “Aww!” you, but they’re actually glad it’s not them.  They’ll tell one of their inner circle people about your problem, and the two of them will bask in the glory of comparative analysis.  Loved ones, more often than not, don’t think this way.  They truly want to help you make your life better, and we all accidentally take this for granted.

10) There are good guys and bad guys.  In your youth, you will be obsessed with good guys and bad guys.  How can you tell the difference?  Your cousin Aiden says, “Look at the teeth.”  If a character, on one of your shows, has jagged teeth, chances are that’s a bad guy.  You’ll then learn some grey.  You’ll learn that political proselytizing can define bad guys for political purposes.  Then you’ll hear other people equivocate the differences, and you’ll believe that for a while, until you realize again that there are good guys and bad guys in the world, but they usually can’t be differentiated by teeth.