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2003-09-12 - 1:37 p.m.

Vigil

After WESLEY WILLIS died at the end of August of heart failure, I thought I’d be safe from mourning any of my heroes for awhile. But they’re dropping like flies. Here, then, is a memorial page…

JOHNNY CASH died today of complications linked to diabetes. The legendary Man In Black is no more, and I couldn’t be more bummed by the news. Back in my junior year of college, when all I was listening to was punk rock and hardcore, a friend of mine, Tim, who played guitar in my sophomore year ska band SURD, approached me in the cafeteria. “You like country music?” he asked. “No, not really,” I said. “Why?” “I was wondering if you wanted to play bass for a country band I’m forming.” Tim was an amazing guitarist and a bright, funny guy, so I said, “shit, I’ll play anything.” SURD had broken up at the end of sophomore year, and I was tired of plucking the bass all by my lonesome.

Tim immediately hooked me up with Johnny Cash’s Live At Folsom Prison and I responded to it in much the same way I responded to the Ramones, the band that started me into the punk scene with their stripped-down, basic quirky beauty. Cash’s work was simple, straightforward and to-the-point, melodic but not pretentious or flowery, catchy, and there was an intrinsic “realness” to it that grabbed me. I learned “Folsom Prison Blues,” the song Tim wanted to cover in this new band (which eventually evolved into a rockabilly trio called Johnny Daddy-O and the Telefunken U47’s) and then bought Johnny Cash’s Greatest Hits, thrilling at such songs as “Get Rhythm,” “That Old Wheel,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and “I Walk The Line.” Another favorite was the melancholy “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

Well, I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt. And the beer I had for breakfast wasn't bad, so I had one more for dessert. Then I fumbled in my closet through my clothes and found my cleanest dirty shirt. Then I washed my face and combed my hair and stumbled down the stairs to meet the day. I'd smoked my mind the night before with cigarettes and songs I'd been picking. But I lit my first and watched a small kid playing with a can that he was kicking. Then I walked across the street and caught the Sunday smell of someone frying chicken. And Lord, it took me back to something that I'd lost somewhere, somehow along the way. On a Sunday morning sidewalk, I'm wishing, Lord, that I was stoned. 'Cause there's something in a Sunday that makes a body feel alone. And there's nothing short of dying that's half as lonesome as the sound of the sleeping city sidewalk and Sunday morning coming down.

Long after I moved to London, putting an end to the band, I remained a fan of Johnny Cash, all the way up to and including his most recent successful cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt.” He will be missed, and if there’s an afterlife, there ain’t no way a man like Cash, who infused the world with something lasting and beautiful, will fall into a burning ring of fire.

Oddly enough, that band I had with Tim, we also did a cover of “Excitable Boy” by WARREN ZEVON, who died of lung cancer on Sunday. Zevon is best known for the hilarious “Werewolves of London,” and was at best a kind of cult music star, but his songs—featuring often absurd, often poignant lyrics against a raw melodic base—have been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Stevie Nicks to Don Henley, and his song “He Quit On Me” is featured in the film Midnight Cowboy.

His last album, recorded while his health deteriorated, is classic Zevon. Not even knowledge of death could shake his satirical slant; he makes himself and his own mortality the target of his dark humor in such songs as “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” and “Life’ll Kill Ya.” Zevon, shortly before his death, said in an interview that he didn’t think his last album was dark. He wanted to be cheerful about death, since it was going to come no matter what sort of mood he was in. Music aside, that right there puts Warren Zevon high up on the list of people I miss most.

JOHN RITTER also died today. He wasn’t really a hero, but I can’t help feeling bad for ol’ Jack Tripper. He was only 54 and the tear in his aorta that killed him was an unrecognized heart defect.

Most of us think of him as “that guy from Three’s Company.” Some of us might think of him as “that guy from Three’s A Crowd.” But Ritter’s best work, in my opinion, include the 1992 movie Stay Tuned, and his guest role as Ted, the cheerful psychotic android on TV’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I actually always assumed Ritter was gay, but apparently he left behind a wife and kids. Huh.

Don’t worry, Jack, we won’t tell Mr. Roper.

For more on Johnny Cash, visit The Official Site.

For more on Warren Zevon, visit The Official Site.

For more on Wesley Willis, and a tribute written by Jello Biafra, visit the Alternative Tentacles site.

For more on John Ritter… uh… well, I suppose if Tony Danza has a website, Ritter might have had one, too…

 

 

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