“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”


A recent post describes my relatively reasonable fear of death (“reasonable” being the key word here; I have lots of other far less reasonable fears).  What I didn’t really get into was my obsession with it.  For the last year and half, from the second I saw news of David Bowie’s death to hearing of Gregg Allman’s passing just a few days ago, I have been compulsively worried that musicians I like are going to suddenly drop dead.  (I really should’ve known 2016 was going to suck in terms of pop culture passings when New Year’s Day that year brought the news that Natalie Cole had died the night before.  That’s never a good way to start off a year.)  I check the news multiple times a day, just in case.  I imagine how I might feel if [insert name of iconic musician here] passed.  I wonder idly about which songs I should use for my obituary post, and how many posts commemorating that person there ought to be; depending on their fame, influence, and place in my heart it could be a lot.  Right now, I’m just a tiny bit worried that my even musing about this topic will bring some kind of karmic retribution down on whichever poor bastard happens to be next on the Universe’s hit list.

I am aware that this is not entirely healthy.

I wish I could be as sanguine about death as this song.  I wish I could be accepting of it as the Buddha says.  It’s natural and inevitable; we are transitory beings, blah, blah, blah.  “Seasons don’t fear the reaper, nor do the wind, the sun, or the rain.  We can be like they are.”  Blah, blah, blah.  It might be a natural transition, but it’s still a pretty fucking scary one.  The final great unknown.  I hate not knowing things.  I also hate not having control over things, and death is one of the many, many things entirely outside my control.

Of course, I have a lot of recent personal experience with death.  It’s been four years since Daddy shuffled off the mortal coil.  Mom’s illness has once again raised the specter in my house.  My cousin the roadie recently got just a little bit too close to death when the Manchester Arena was bombed right after the Ariana Grande concert (he was on the crew, who were all safe).  Other family members have passed recently.  Cats have passed recently.  I know I’m getting older and so is everyone I love; I just wish I wasn’t so anxious about it all.  My worried little hamster wheel of a brain has been working overtime on this one.

One death that hit me unexpectedly hard was the recent passing of Robert M. Pirsig.  Who the hell was that, you ask?  Just the man who wrote the Book That Changed My Life, aka Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Sure, I hadn’t known he was even still alive, which is one of the things that made his death so unexpected.  But as I read the obituary in the paper, I felt gutted.  For a few minutes, I felt like I did when my dad passed.  It was that painful.  I celebrated his life by rereading Zen again, which made me feel a little better.

I think maybe I’d feel even a little bit better if I knew that there was some sort of personification of death who came to collect you when it was time.  Not Robert Redford in that episode of The Twilight Zone (“Nothing in the Dark”; you can find it on YouTube).  I’d much prefer the Death from Terry Pratchett’s books.  He’s very matter of fact, but still quite compassionate.  Plus, he has a sense of humor and rides a horse named Binky.  What’s not to love?

There’s really nothing I can do but live with it, no pun intended.  When Pirsig passed, I told myself I had to sit with that grief for a few minutes and I did. I know when the next person or pet I love moves on, I’ll cry and sit with that grief, too.  I have to.  As John Donne said, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Nobody said the bell couldn’t be a cowbell.

“In Thee”


This is pretty much the last song you’d expect from Blue Oyster “More Cowbell!” Cult.  At least if you judge them by their biggest hit, “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”  They always seemed to tend toward a fantasy filled, albeit morbid, hard rock.  Although on the other hand, they look like the least rockin’ rockers of all time.  I look at lead singer Eric Bloom, and I half expect him to try to sell me insurance.  Or explain the life cycle of the earthworm (he could easily pass for the high school science teacher all the girls had crushes on).  He’s just a guy.  The whole band are just guys.  Guys who happen to make their living as musicians–which generally means spending most of your working time on the road.

Looking at it that way, it makes perfect sense that they made one of the most wistful, down to earth, road songs ever.  The road song is a staple of rock music.  Journey, Motley Crue, Kiss.  They all have excellent road songs.  Bon Jovi created one of the most famous road songs ever, turning being a touring rock band into an analogy of the Wild West.  Jackson Browne’s classic road song manages to convey all the joy and boredom and exhaustion a tour must bring.It has to be hard for these guys to be away from their homes and families so much.  Weird hours, worse food.  Drugs and groupies everywhere (indulgence in either is a choice, but the hardest thing to resist is temptation).  “In Thee” isn’t as famous as those other road songs, but it’s also not as loaded with overwrought imagery or cliché.  “Maybe I’ll see you again, baby, and maybe I won’t.  Maybe you bought your ticket, goin’ back to Detroit.”  Life on the road is treated matter-of-factly.  It’s their job.  They might not always like it, but they keep on moving from town to town.

It’s a weary, lonely life.  “So I’ll wrap myself in cities I travel.  I’ll wrap myself in dreams.  I’ll wrap myself in solitude, but I wish I could wrap myself in thee.” The use of the old word “thee” lends an air of romance and fantasy to the otherwise realistic song, a nod to Blue Oyster Cult’s other image.  But when they put away the electric guitars, the tales of doom and destruction, they’ll go back to their hotel rooms, or the tour bus.  They’ll clean up and change into a comfortable pair of sweatpants.  And they’ll call whoever is waiting for them.  They’re just guys, missing home.