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.


Make it last as long as you can

The suicide of guitarist Ronnie Montrose over the weekend is another sign that life does go on. It’s been almost forty years since the debut of his eponymous band on vinyl (maybe you could have owned it on 8-track or reel-to-reel, too), and the music still holds up well. Songs like Bad Motor Scooter and Rock Candy will always have a place in the canon of songs that a rock band can play onstage, or that teenagers can learn the riffs to when they’re picking up the electric guitar. Those songs are his legacy, and they will live on forever, even if he did not.

I have some vivid memories of listening to the first Montrose album, down in the basement of my parents’ house. I could put on the tape, play some air guitar, and imagine for a brief moment that I was anything other than the awkward teenager that I actually was. It was an escape into a different place, and I embraced it for everything it was worth.

And I also have a particular Montrose memory related to high school, so of course I have to share it here. If I don’t put this into a medium like this, the memory will die when I do, and I don’t want that to happen. By putting it onto the internet, though, I can make it last beyond my lifetime, so here goes:

One of my best friends in high school was my buddy Mark. His last name doesn’t matter to the story, and I debated whether or not to even include his first name here. But using his name helps me to picture him a little bit better. If he wants to track me down and tell me to stop, I’ll gladly honor that request.

Mark and I went to school together from the ages of five through eighteen. In high school we would throw a frisbee around on the street in front of his house by day, and go out carousing together by night. I also ate with him in the lunchroom for the four years we were in high school, and there was no higher form of friendship than that, in those days.

I wrote a profile of Mark and the car he used to drive for our high school paper, back when we were seventeen and life was out there waiting for us somewhere. I wish I had saved that story, or had a picture or two of him, because I haven’t seen or heard from Mark since the late 80s. He went one way after graduation, and I went another. He could be living the good life somewhere, surrounded by people who care about him, or he could be buried in the ground somewhere, and I’d never know the difference. My inconsistent memory is all I have to remember him by, and that’s unfortunate. If I were a computer, I would forever be in need of a serious memory upgrade, despite what some of my posts here make it sound like.

When I was a sophomore in high school, way back in 1984, my English teacher–I’ll call him Doc Brown here–gave us an assignment called the “Poetry of Rock.” The idea was to pick out a song that we liked, bring it in to the class, and look for instances of similes, metaphors, and the like in the song’s lyrics. I brought in Led Zeppelin’s No Quarter, because I was into their music as much as a non-burnout could be. But that song probably only makes sense when you’re stoned, and thus it made no sense at all in high school English class.

My buddy Mark, no doubt through the influence of his older brothers, brought in the first Montrose album, and the song he chose was “Make it Last,” the final song on the album. In my 15 or 16 year-old’s rush to learn about anything in the Led Zeppelin school of sound, I hadn’t yet been acquainted with Montrose. My lack of older siblings surely didn’t help. I was quite a fan of Sammy Hagar’s solo work, so I probably was aware that Montrose had existed, but I hadn’t ever heard their music before.

When the song was over, and the class was doing whatever form of explication of the lyrics that a room full of adolescent boys was capable of, I remember thinking that I had to check this record out more carefully. It probably was that I borrowed Mark’s copy of the album and taped it, if not that day then soon afterward. And this led to an appreciation of the album that’s stayed with me through all of the intervening decades. Wherever you are, Mark, thanks. And that goes for Doc Brown, too.

Even though I haven’t got a lick of musical ability, I can still appreciate the work of those who do. Whether it’s writing songs, or singing them, or producing music that can take you back to high school english class, music is a powerful thing. I have no doubt that Ronnie Montrose, and those in his band and a thousand others whose names you’ve never heard of, know all about this. So while we mourn his passing, we can appreciate the music he created and the lasting effect it can have on all of us. And I can recall passing time with a friend who I might not ever see again. That’s what the power of music really is.

(UPDATE: Mark Spiro Adams died in New York City on August 15, 2016, one day after his 48th birthday. I had not seen him in 30 years, but I will miss him for as long as I live.)