Is it possible to grieve a celebrity you’ve never met or known?
I hear it said sometimes that it is ridiculous to do so. “Why are people so upset that Michael Jackson died? It’s not like they knew him,” a coworker I’ll call “Mr. Babbles” said to me, a day or two after the iconic singer passed away. I tried to explain, but it fell on deaf ears.
When someone makes art that means something to someone, it doesn’t matter if that person ever meets the artist. The art speaks to you. You know the talent and therefore it matters little if you know the person, because you know what they meant to you. Selfish? Perhaps … but perhaps not.
There’ve been many celebrities whose deaths, untimely or not, saddened me simply because I knew and recognized their art. Michael Jackson is one; Frank Sinatra another; Heath Ledger a third, and on and on. But real grieving? I suppose there have only been two celebrities who really struck me with a genuine, sincere form of grieving. Not depression mind you, but a sadness that still feels a little sharp sometimes. Perhaps some will say this is irrational. But when Joey Ramone passed away from lymphoma when I was 19, I cried and cried. An adoring fan of the Ramones since my early high school years, I had read so many interviews and books and magazine articles, watched so much concert footage, played so many albums so many times, even chatted via email with the creator of the Ramones logo and “Ramones muse” – that in a way I did feel that I knew him. At times when I felt incredibly alone, Joey’s voice was the one that spoke to me for some reason and made me smile again. Crazy fan? No, but definitely an appreciative one.
When Eric called me from work last July and asked me if I had heard about Amy Winehouse, I knew instantly why he was asking. I didn’t cry, but I was stunned. As time went on, this feeling turned to genuine sadness and reflection. You see, I love soul music. And I loved Amy’s music especially because she was so honest and unabashed when she sang. Sometimes playful, sometimes heartbreaking, she wrote songs about her real life – put her way, not some radio-friendly way. Every word was brazen, bare, sometimes vulgar; the accompanying music inspired by Amy’s idols, people like Donny Hathaway and Ray Charles. I knew the words to every song on both of her mainstream CDs and I kept them spinning in my car constantly. How many times did I belt them out on the hours-long drive to Blacksburg from Arlington? And as the years went by and Amy went from a healthy-looking girl to a gaunt waif, it was unbearable for many people who wanted Amy in the news for her incredible Grammy-winning talent, not her strange and likely drug-induced behavior. We loved Amy and we wanted to hear more from the real Amy, not this strange Amy who was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. We didn’t know her at all, but perhaps we felt like we did because she sang about her life so honestly.
In the last few months it seemed Amy was getting back on her feet, not all the way there yet, but sober and putting out music again, and feeling peaceful. Her family, with whom she was extremely close, believe Amy may have passed away from an alcohol detox seizure rather than a drug overdose as had been assumed. In fact, posthumous tests showed that no illegal drugs were in her system when she died. It is with a great sadness that I said goodbye to Amy, one that still lingers and makes the sound of her songs in my car a little bit different.
(You can listen to Amy’s last recording, a duet called “Body & Soul” with Tony Bennett, below, or you can listen to another song of hers at my original post here.)
So, ultimately, is it silly to grieve for someone whose art we adored? Only if it is silly to adore the art in the first place. And can you truly appreciate the art without appreciating the one who made it?