Something we cannot know

Happy 2013!

I read about the death of Spencer Cox with great interest today. It’s not because I knew him, or was even remotely familiar with what he had done with his time here on this earth. It turns out that he did some amazing things, helping to get some of the first effective medicines to fight against AIDS to the market in the mid-1990s.

I remember the hysteria about AIDS in the early and mid-1990s very well, and if he had anything to do with helping to allay that hysteria, then good for him. He clearly had an impact on the lives of thousands, if not millions. I’m honored to devote a few lines of my blog to recognizing the things he accomplished.

But what really got my attention was his age. Spencer Cox was just a few months older than I am when he recently passed away. With New Year’s eve coming up in a few hours, it reminded me that some of us who will celebrate the arrival of 2013 won’t have another new year’s to celebrate after that. Certainly, if someone were to ask Spencer Cox on the last New Year’s day what 2012 would hold for him, his own death probably wouldn’t have been on the list.

I hope, with all that I have and hold dear, that 2013 is a great and full year for me and everyone that I know (and for you too, gentle reader, whoever you might be). I’d like to have another 12-25 new years to celebrate before my time on this earth is up. But I don’t get to decide when my supply of New Years will run out, either. And the truth is none of us can know this, with any degree of certainty.

I’ve said many times in this space that I celebrate life by commemorating death. Why else would I have written about Larry Hagman and Adam Yauch, about Don Cornelius and Champ Summers, and about Whitney Houston and Ronnie Montrose? They were all with us when 2012 began, but they couldn’t know that 2013 would arrive without them. Nobody wants to think about that, really, but let’s remember what Benjamin Franklin said are the only two certainties in life: death and taxes.

So as the ball drops in Times Square this year, and the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” are played for the only time all year, I plan to remember that the New Year might be a great one, and it might be an awful one, and it might even be a partial one (although, again, I certainly hope that it isn’t).

Here’s wishing everyone who reads this a happy and full new year in 2013, or whenever it is that you find this.

RIP, Don Cornelius

For my two young daughters, rap is one of those things that has probably always existed, like water and color television and the internet. But I wanted to take a few moments here to describe my personal experiences with rap, and to tie them in with today’s shocking news about Don Cornelius.

The first time I ever heard “rap” in any form was on Blondie’s song “Rapture.” I remember Debbie Harry doing something that wasn’t quite singing, and was more uptempo than anything I had heard ever before. It seemed to take a lot of vocal dexterity to tell about the Man from Mars who shot you dead and then ate your head. The play on words in the title was also lost on me, since I was just a dopey kid at the time. But it left an impression on me, that was for sure.

What really got me into rap music was watching Run-DMC perform “Rock Box” on Soul Train back in 1984. It was literally the Saturday after my 16th birthday, in the very short window before I started working and driving and thinking about life beyond my parents’ house. I was far from the person I would become in just a few years, and light years away from what I am today.

I was changing the channels, probably looking for a ball game to watch, when I saw these guys dressed in black and wearing hats. They had a loud, rock-driven beat behind them, and their verbal interplay was beyond all description. I sat transfixed for a minute or two, and when they had finished, I thought to myself that it was totally unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was a moment that, almost thirty years later, I still can’t think of any  parallel to.

When Dan Cornelius came over to interview them after the song, I realized that I had been watching Soul Train. I knew what the show was, but didn’t really make it a point to watch it, either. But at that moment, something I had seen on Soul Train blew me away like nothing else has, before or since.

I wish I could find an online video of the performance itself. The song was called “Rock Box,” and had they picked another song on the album to perform on the air, I may not have watched it so intently. I even think that “Hard Times” and “It’s Like That”  from their first album may be better songs than “Rock Box.” But for a kid who was listening to Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne and Def Leppard (and, I hasten to add, wasn’t smoking pot), the rock beat was necessary to get my attention and reel me in. And that’s just what happened.

Two years later, I was in college and playing their debut album and the King of Rock  for my dormmates, who were getting into them because of Aerosmith’s “Walk this Way” remake. It was one of those rare times in life that I felt like I was ahead of the musical curve.

The news that Don Cornelius died, and apparently by his own hand, was very shocking to me. Even if I never watched Soul Train again–and I honestly can’t remember if I did so or not–the fact that he helped to break Run-DMC to a larger audience means a lot to me.

How many other acts did he give exposure to, and how many lives were impacted as a result? We’ll never know the full answer to that, but it had to be very significant, as the show ran for more than thirty seasons on the air. Whatever caused Don Cornelius to take his own life isn’t my business, but I hope that he knew all the good that he and his show did over the years.

From one Chicagoan to another, thanks.